When the best present is presence

The last of the 2017 Christmas gifts to be given has been delivered and the last of those received has been unwrapped.  In dealing with both, I’ve been reflecting on one of the sweetest Christmas offerings my father-in-law, who has dementia, received during this season of giving. It came from Dan, one of the “boys” from the old neighborhood – a kid who lived on the next block over, but hung out with Pops’ sons and was something of a fixture at their house.

Dan is one of the few people outside the family who has continued to visit Pops since he moved to a memory-care residence two years ago. Just before Christmas, he simply did what he does from time to time. He stopped by to say hello. Whenever Dan visits, Pops lights up and bellows a cheery, “What the heck are you doing here?” IMG_3700This is partly because Dan conjures up happy memories for a 92-year-old guy who doesn’t always remember what he did five minutes ago, but recalls the name or face of someone who has been kind to him, who remembers to thank him on Veterans Day for his Navy service, or who once fixed his leaky faucet.

But Dan’s visits also bring joy because he has the right idea about giving to people like Pops. When he shows up, he does so with empty hands and a full heart. He seems to know intuitively that his presence and his time are the best things he has to offer, and the reception he gets says it’s so.

During the Christmas season, various veterans and church groups left several one-size-fits-all gifts in Pops’ room – a basket of toiletries with a small crocheted afghan, a Poinsettia, and a box with treats and a small religious statue. These were thoughtful gestures and welcome, comforting signs that Pops has not been forgotten. But when I see him respond to someone like Dan, I know that often the best gifts we can give a person in Pops’ circumstances are not necessarily material things, but time and quiet care.

Just as Pops has been giving us lessons through this dementia journey on how to be, he has been teaching us to let go of our ideas about gifts and learn a new form of generosity. Sadly, we can no longer give him the restaurant gift certificates and other material things that delighted him in years past, but we can reach inside ourselves and pull out our patient attentiveness and reassurance.

Sometimes, that doesn’t seem sufficient, and frankly, it can be a little unsettling. We wonder, “Can it really be enough?” Dan would say yes. When he visits Pops, he says, he leaves with as much as – or more than – he gave, knowing he gladdened a heart with the best present of all – his presence.



Peace at an early age

Our journey into silence has begun. Last week as a school, we began to cultivate silence in our Morning Prayer service.

When I read this message from the principal of a local church school, I was admittedly intrigued. That someone would be seeking to foster silence in fidgety young charges seemed a noble undertaking, if not a challenge.

After all, don’t we as a culture deal with the high energy levels of the young by trying to channel them into activity, preferably the sound-inducing kind? Isn’t that why we have roving mascots, big screens, and music and cheers blasting from speakers at family-friendly sporting events? In homes, schools, restaurants, and even libraries, aren’t we supposed to keep kids busy and engaged with sound, animated images, or anything that will occupy them?

P1060534In the classrooms of St. Boniface School in the small rural community of Oak Harbor, Ohio, there is plenty going on to absorb young minds, but principal Millie Greggila also knows that her students require periods of peace. So, while they are learning to tally sums, read and spell words, and master the fundamentals of music or science, they are acquiring the ability to calm themselves and remain quiet.

As part of their religious education, the students at St. Boniface meet in the parish church adjoining their school for prayer each morning. But during the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, both of which are times of reflection, Greggila incorporates brief periods of silence. Advent, she says, is an especially good time for this because, with Christmas in the air, the children’s thoughts are everywhere. “It’s Christmas and they’re excited.” Yet, Advent is seen as a time of waiting and during it, Greggila tries to create an atmosphere in which the students can learn to be quiet and find some peace.

A need for peace might strike us as unnecessary in little ones whose angelic faces seem to betray no anxiety, but Greggila knows they have concerns that are as important to them as those shouldered by their parents and teachers. When she asks them to pray out loud for specific needs, for example, she hears their worries about what matters most to them – often their angst about a dog or cat, friends who are absent from school, tests, or parents and grandparents. “I can always tell which ones listen to the news, because they pray for whatever calamity has befallen the world, especially those things that frighten them the most.”

Greggila’s hope is that she can show her students how to still themselves and place their worries in the hands of God.


“We talk about how we have the power to slow ourselves down,” she said, adding that it’s easy to forget children don’t necessarily come by this naturally and need to be taught. She tells the students, for instance, that sometimes it is not necessary to talk so that they know to enter and leave the church in silence, and once inside, to remain quiet.

When it is time to pray, Greggila begins by leading the students in several spoken prayers, followed by a reading from the Bible. She then asks them to close their eyes, slow down, and breathe, reflecting in silence on what they’ve heard and thinking about those who might be helped by their prayers. Or, she might suggest that they think about ways they should love or a way in which they have not shown love. She also urges them to mentally place anything that is bothering them on the altar to be given to God. And then she allows the silence to seep in, the quiet to take over.

Because St. Boniface is a grammar school and the children are young, Greggila keeps the periods of silence short, but she sees them as a beginning. “Especially now, kids just don’t get ‘quiet time’ – unless they’re in trouble. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could find some peace on their own? It’s really a matter of showing them how.”

Cloisters amid the clamor

When I started this blog in 2014, I was inspired by a friend’s thought to make her life a cloister in a noisy world.

At the time, the image struck me as a purely lovely one, but in the intervening months and years, it has become more than a nice idea. It seems a necessary one.

Our world, I think most would agree, has us all increasingly on edge, in part because of events, but also because of the growing presence of noise both audible and visual. As I have written here before (Rest for the Word Weary, Engaging SilenceThe Habit of Being Quiet), more and more we live surrounded by sounds and images, whether it’s ringing, beeping, buzzing phones, blaring music, vehicular and industrial noise, or glowing screens with mesmerizing messages. Every technological improvement seems to introduce a new sound, picture, or distraction, and still another level of stimulation. This has us all on high alert so that when something truly big happens, we feel frazzled and overwhelmed. Although we sense an underlying commotion and turmoil, the beat goes on and we march to it, unaware of the effect all the “prompts” of contemporary life are having on us.

Even my public radio station, once a haven of rest that provided large blocks of soothing classical music, recently added news breaks to the top of each hour of music in the early hours of the day. I discovered this when, after years of waking to gentle melodies, I started to hear droning voices reading the news. When I inquired about the change, I learned that other listeners liked it. I have since turned the radio alarm off and now awaken to a soft beep.

As former allies like my public radio station succumb to the demand for still more stimulation, it is good to know that others recognize the need to carve out quiet spaces amid the clatter of these times. One of these is Cardinal Robert Sarah, whose book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, is a call to step outside the din and encounter that which is waiting for us if we will only be still.

In writing the book, Sarah and his co-author, journalist Nicolas Diat, visited what Sarah called “the most silent place in the Catholic Church” – La Grande Chartreuse, a Carthusian monastery in the French alps and the subject of the 2006 film Into Great Silence. The monks of Chartreuse keep silence on several levels. They do not converse without permission from a superior, spending their days apart from each other and joining their fellow monks only for certain common prayers and worship. They do not watch television or listen to the radio, nor do they read newspapers or the Internet. And of course, they do not carry cell phones. Their silence is intended to help them listen to God, who, as their prior general says, “does not speak loudly,” and to enable them to pray for the world, something they do even in the middle of the night.

Theirs is a demanding way of life and one to which few are called. But they offer us insight into our engagement with the world and perhaps a model for survival amid its raging clamor.

In The Power of Silence, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, the Carthusian prior general, is asked what problems arise from an excess of noise. “If there is an illness that comes from noise,” he responds, “we would have to call it the suffocation syndrome.” He has noticed this in those who come to the monastery for retreats, and in the silence become aware of submerged memories, desires, hurts, and fears. “In their everyday routine, the constant influx of news, meetings, and various activities have ceaselessly covered up these voices in the depths of their being and allowed them no opportunity to re-emerge into consciousness. Silence and solitude reveal them.”

Because such discoveries can be unpleasant, he says, we try to keep them outside our consciousness by maintaining noise, which is easily done in a world filled with information, sounds, and images. In fact, this noise is so pervasive that de Lassus says, shielding ourselves from it requires a kind of spiritual fortitude.

The monks at Chartreuse are protected by their seclusion and their rule of life. For example, the rule provides that only one of them – the prior general – reads the newspaper and in turn informs the rest of important news in their church, country, and the world.

But de Lassus thinks everyone needs some silence and solitude to stay in contact with the heart. Those of us who live in the world, he says, need to find our own “cloister” and our own “rule.”

Years ago, when I first struggled with trying to live a spiritual life in a material world, my late father would tell me, “Jude, you’ve got to live in this world,” emphasizing “live.” He was gently suggesting that because mine was not a call to the cloister, I had to find a balance between the work I did in the highly stimulating – and secular – environment of a newsroom and that which draws monks to a monastery. Today, I hear my father’s words being spoken into an even noisier, more secularized world, challenging me to extract peace from the chaos, make space for silence, and use technology without being used by it.

A woman who lives in a nearby small community recently told me she has no TV in her home and that if she could get rid of her phone she would do so. Although she works and goes to school, she manages to live a quiet and simple life, one that does not require a steady diet of social media or news, most of which she has found to be lacking in substance and significance. Between books and a computer, she maintains her connection to the world, but more importantly, she says, she is renewing her connection to God by learning to sense the divine presence in the stillness she is fostering in her home.

Her example is an inspiring one for those of us who must “live in this world,” but hunger for the peace it cannot give. We cannot all keep the silence and solitude of the Carthusians, but we can expand the presence of both in our lives by facing the unpleasantness of thoughts and fears that emerge in quietude and resisting the urge to cover them with noise. We can choose silence over a radio or Podcast, mute our phones or change their sounds to calming ones. We can read books instead of turning on the TV just to see what’s on.

We cannot escape all news, but we can temper our exposure to it by minimizing the number of sources we consult, choosing ones we can simply read without the interference of sound and moving images. And when we read, we can filter out the useless to focus on the essential.

In so doing, perhaps we can create our own monasteries amid the madness, fostering silence and solitude in a world that desperately needs the peace that comes from both.

When open spaces become dumping places

The “Welcome Birders” signs are up and our little community is ready for an influx of people with binoculars and cameras slung around their necks.

Soon, all eyes will be on the stars of the spring migration – the tiny warblers who stop along Lake Erie’s shores on their way north.

This year, however, birders here for the Biggest Week in American Birding will be seeing a plethora of signs other than those welcoming them. These bright-yellow placards are promoting our community’s effort to stop the dumping of spent lime sludge in a local limestone quarry. Those of us engaged in this David-versus-Goliath fight are hoping to build awareness and elicit additional support from the birding community.

The threat that the quarry dumping poses is something no one in Ottawa County’s Benton Township ever expected to face. Most residents here are occupied with farming, other work, and maintaining their property, even as they enjoy their bucolic location near one of the prime birding spots in the country. Still, because people here are responsible for their own water and sewage via private wells and septic systems, they know what it takes to maintain them. Hence, local conversations of late have been peppered with talk of “the aquifer” that feeds our wells and what effect the dumping of spent lime might have on it, given the sludge contains copper, lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other metals and substances. Lacking a municipal  department that manages our water supply, we have banded together, driven by concern for our wells and a love of the area once known as the Great Black Swamp.

Interestingly, the problem we face involves drinking water in another community – an urban one. The city of Toledo in neighboring Lucas County made national headlines nearly three years ago when toxins from the algae bloom on Lake Erie compromised the city’s water, leading to the temporary shutdown of the municipal water-treatment plant.

To prevent a recurrence, Toledo began making changes that included removing from lined lagoons the spent lime used to clean its drinking water and relocating it elsewhere.  Enter an enterprising company, which bought a quarry in Ottawa County and arranged for one of its affiliates to haul and dump the sludge under terms of a multi-million-dollar contract.

Rural Benton Township must have seemed the ideal setting for this operation. Unlike in the city, the proceedings of the governing trustees are not reported in detail by local news outlets. Also, unlike more densely populated suburban neighborhoods, where people take note of everything from the grass-cutting habits of their neighbors to a for-sale sign going up, rural dwellers are more likely to look out their windows and notice an eagle or Northern Harrier soaring over a fallow field.

So it happened that few of us even realized what was going on at the quarry until last year when the persistent efforts of a neighbor who had observed the activity  and tried to raise the alarm finally captured everyone’s attention.  Since then, residents have organized and educated themselves about what exactly the dumping of spent lime sludge in and around the quarry could mean to these environs and most especially the drinking water.

They’ve learned what the state Environmental Protection Agency can and cannot do, what local zoning laws mean, about other communities that have faced and successfully fought similar threats, and how to get the message out to news organizations. They’ve had signs made and set up a Facebook group and a website that includes a link for donations to help pay the hefty legal bills the township has had to absorb to counter the dumping.

Along the way, people have gotten to know each other a little better, setting aside what differences they might have for a unified effort to protect their water. They’ve discovered that many of their neighbors share an interest in the birds that draw visitors to this area each spring and that they want to do what they can to ensure Benton Township continues to provide a friendly habitat for wildlife as well as people.

In listening to the commentary at township meetings over the last months and interacting with our neighbors, it often has struck me how those of us who live in rural areas value the peace, spaciousness, and proximity to the natural world we find outside the city. Yet, these very qualities make our environs vulnerable to outside forces that would exploit what we treasure. It is a good reminder to all of us to keep watch and stay vigilant, even — and perhaps especially —  in the quiet.

To learn more about the Benton Township quarry dumping, visit http://www.stopquarrydumping.com




On the way of the nothing

“It’s often necessary in life to do nothing, but so few people do it nicely.” – From City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge

The barrenness of winter has always held a certain appeal for me. Perhaps that’s why, as a northerner, I have little desire to flee to a warmer climate as so many of my peers do at this time of year.

Why that is, I’m not certain, but it may have something to do with relishing the opportunity to do nothing for a season. Not literally doing nothing, of course, but I do love that sense of repose that comes each January after the Christmas rush when we settle in for a long winter of reading, evenings by the fire, and a break from the frenzied activity that foists itself upon us with the onset of milder weather.

These days, as I look out on the stark, gray landscape, I can smile at the cheery messages I receive from friends and family waxing on about the sunny, warm weather and what they are doing in Florida or other snowbird destinations. Deep within, I take a kind of secret delight in being able to stay put and enter into the fallowness of this season and its hidden gifts.

A northern winter forces us into a kind of nothingness that can be maddening. But if we are willing to endure long enough to pass through its portal, we can encounter a place of stillness where we know that under or just ahead of the seeming nothingness lies something precious.

I saw that clearly on a recent weekend when I made my way to Magee Marsh, where I go to watch warblers and other migratory birds each spring. I expected nothing in the way of bird sightings, but merely wanted to walk and experience the landscape in its unadorned winter raiment.

Even so, I was happily surprised by the presence of two Northern Saw-whet Owls that other birders had spied in a stand of pine trees at the marsh’s bird center. Farther in, I was treated to splendid views of a Bald Eagle perched near its nest.


Blogger Kim Clair Smith captured this view of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2013 and her sighting was just as happily unexpected as mine. Read about it here.

But what has stayed with me most prominently since that day was the incredibly austere setting of the birders’ boardwalk, bereft of any sign of life. As I walked by the places where I have seen Prothonotary Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parulas, and Red-eyed Vireos, I was mostly struck by the utter nothingness of my surroundings. Aside from two birders I encountered on the way out, I saw no one and nothing but barren and felled trees. The contrast to what I see in the spring was almost breathtaking. In May, I am elbow-to-elbow with birders and nature photographers walking under leafy branches and straining to see Wilson’s or Orange-crowned warblers.  There is a hum of excitement and activity as birders from around the world converge in groups to train their binoculars, scopes, or cameras on a particularly sought-after bird or share the news of a good sighting “at the loop” or “by the east entrance.” Could this be the same place? Indeed, it was.


The Magee Marsh boardwalk in its winter raiment.

That day, I loved the marsh and the boardwalk for their essence, revealed by the absence of foliage, people, and birds. There seemed to be nothing, but there was something. It was much as I had come to love the frail frame of my aging mother before she died because it reflected the graceful serenity that remained as she was taken down to her bare branches.

By detaching from my desire for and memories of spring and facing the nothingness of the landscape, I received something new, as we do in the spiritual life when we abstain or fast from our pleasures so as to hear and see more deeply things eternal.

In the spring, I will love the marsh even more for having seen it in its barren state. But for now, I will treasure the memory of its frame, consoled by its beauty and anticipating the joy of seeing it transformed from its state of seeming nothingness into one teeming with life.



Learning to be

“There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength than to act.”              

— Margaret Bottome

As students head back to classes on campuses around the country, I have been thinking about the school our family has been enrolled in for the last few years. It’s one we didn’t choose to attend and the curriculum is a bit erratic.

I call it the School of Being, because it describes what we are learning about one of our family members who has dementia.

Although like most people in our culture, we want to “do” something in the face of any suffering or loss, in this instance we are finding that often our greatest act of kindness is to “be” with Pops.

Sometimes, he requires action: a shave, help in the bathroom, his glasses cleaned, or hearing aid located. But the focus when we visit him in the memory-care unit where he now lives cannot be on these acts. It has to be on him and where he happens to be at the moment.P1000218

Early in this journey with dementia, someone told us, “You have to enter their world.” And so we do.

That usually means a simple and cheerful greeting and then waiting for a signal. Often, we simply pass through the looking glass with him and see what he is seeing, hear what he is hearing, ponder with him what he is thinking. This can involve answering the same question multiple times as if we are responding for the first time. Or, it can mean summoning our imaginations and indulging in flights of fancy and even a bit of nonsensical speech, the kind we use with little children.

Frequently, Pops reveals a kind of idee fixe that sets the tone for our time with him. It could be “Where’s Mom?” meaning his deceased mother or his very-much-alive wife, or maybe both because he’s mixed them up in his head. Or, if we find him just waking up, we might be treated to some spirited, repetitive commentary on how well he had been sleeping.

One day, while seated at a table in the dining room, he lasered in on several chairs in the next room, saying he was going to sit in one. He remained where he was, however, continuing to talk about his plan to get up and relocate. We encouraged him, reviewed the choices of chairs, and which seats were available, all without any action on his part. Finally, the locus moved to a woman who was sitting – and sleeping – in one of the chairs, so we talked about her and the various aspects of her state of slumber. “She’s really snoozing.” “I think she’s catching some flies.” “Yep, she’s out like a light.”

Another day, Pops told me he had been on an airplane the night before. I learned that he and his wife had been separated so that each was on a different plane. “I bet you didn’t like that,” I said, to which he replied, “No, I didn’t!” And so we were off, chatting about this as if it had really happened, because for him, it had. Whatever the source or reason, it didn’t matter. He was where he was and I was right there with him.

At still other times, Pops becomes agitated if there is too much activity around him or if he sees that we are conversing with an aide, another resident, or visitor, and we are reminded once again of the importance of being with him and being present to him.

P1030986So it is that we are all learning new lessons in this school that has no vacation or seasonal breaks. “Being” is not easy to master in our action-oriented, instant-response world, one in which all our minds are racing toward doing something. It requires slowing down, stilling our thoughts, and, in our encounters, trying to sense where the other person is before we speak or act.

For my part, I’m discovering that I’m still too absorbed in a jumble of thoughts when alone and too quick to jump in and share my own opinions, stories, or ideas when with another. Typically, my own experience or state of mind springs to the fore when someone is talking and, instead of listening, I plunge in with advice or a “that’s just like when” comparison. Or worse, I don’t listen at all.

Being with someone whose cognitive functions are compromised is forcing me to stop, look, and listen because I’m clearly on unfamiliar ground and need to find my way.

As a creature of our active and materialistic society, I am learning from someone whose life has been reduced to the essentials that the most important gift I can give is a quiet and receptive presence, one that waits to see where the other person is and then remains there for a while. Sometimes that means saying nothing and just being there, and accepting that it is enough. The late Fulton J. Sheen once said, “The world’s greatest need is . . . someone who will realize that the real worth is achieved not so much by activity, as by silence.” I think Pops would agree.

Growing contentment in the garden

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth. 

 — Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858 – 1932)

From the time I was a small child growing up in a religion rich with liturgical smells and bells, church had been a place where I experienced a sense of God. There, the scent of incense lingering in the air consoled and the candle that flickered day and night in a red glass lamp served as a soothing sign of the divine presence.

All that was altered, however, with the death of my parents. Church suddenly became a place of sad memories: of pushing my mother’s wheelchair in and then struggling to get her to the basement bathroom mid-service. Or of beginning to notice how gray my father’s skin was looking against that of others beside him as his condition worsened.


Brunera, top, and Woodland Phlox in bloom.

After my parents died within a year and a half of each other, I wasn’t angry at God, but church was simply not the place of peace it had been for me in other seasons. I continued going there in this extended state of grief and spiritual numbness, knowing that it was important to maintain a connection to my faith at such a time, but I was surprised to find more tangible comfort in a new place: my garden.

I had been something of a gardener since marriage eight years earlier had brought with it an acre of unwieldy property peppered with huge pine trees and assorted nooks and crannies that seemed to be begging for attention. But now, I started to attack the dirt with new energy. One day, I noticed that a gentle peace I had not felt for months would settle upon me as I weeded, dug, and watered.

I began to go back for more. Over time, I would not only sense a comforting presence in the garden, but through the growing cycle, I would glean practical spiritual lessons from tending a troublesome plant or discovering the dangers of admitting invasive varieties into my space.


A male Indigo Bunting, known to sing all day.

I eventually recovered a sense of peace while being in church as memories from that difficult period of loss healed. But I have continued to find solace in the garden, as I know many gardeners do. Perhaps it is because the act of working with our hands frees our minds to listen to a voice that speaks in whispers, in “the kiss of the sun” and “song of the birds,” as Dorothy Frances Gurney says so nicely in the above excerpt from her longer poem, “God’s Garden.” I discovered Gurney’s lines on a decorative plaque as I was venturing into gardening and warmed to them immediately. The words come home to me again and again as I take in bird song and bask in the sun, pausing to consider the richness of my surroundings.

I sometimes think of deceased family members who were gardeners – my husband’s Uncle Bill, to whom my patch of Bee Balm stands in silent tribute; my paternal grandmother, who planted snap dragons with her vegetables, and my father, who left me two precious garden tools from his years of growing a small patch of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, likely as a holdover from the Great Depression. I understand better now what drew all of them to the dirt and why they seemed so contented when they were communing with the growing cycle.


Bee Balm, introduced to me by my husband’s Uncle Bill and a favorite of hummingbirds.

Although the words Gurney wrote about gardening were inspired by a very proper English garden at Penshurst Place in Kent, and my own garden is decidedly on the wild side, their sentiments speak to me whether I am reflecting on the beauty of things in bloom or cultivating their home.

Recently, a friend who was surveying my garden when it was much in need of a spring cleaning asked, “Do you ever just get to sit and enjoy this, or are you always working on it?” I do have time to rest on the front porch or stroll through and gaze at the fruits of my labors, but I also am much at peace while planting and pulling weeds. There are exceptions, of course, like when I’m being buzzed by a deer fly or mosquito, dig into a colony of ants, or pick the most humid day of the year for mulching. But on most of the grand days of the growing season, those are mere distractions in what to me is still a refuge, a place where I listen and God speaks.