Consider the wildflowers

When I was asked on a recent survey to name some “best practices” for coping with the coronavirus restrictions, I was tempted to respond: “looking for wildflowers.”

Thanks to the initiative of “Mrs. D,” a teacher friend who would take her second-grade students on wildflower outings, I was introduced years ago to a pastime that has both delighted and occupied me for many springs. Mrs. D’s gift of an Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, now well-thumbed and filled with markers, taught me how to identify the flowers that have become the focus of one of my cherished spring rituals.

Spring Beauty

True to its name, Spring Beauty heralds the arrival of the season we long for all winter.

Trillium blooms come in a variety of different colors. This deep-hued one caught my eye.

Making these discoveries on my own, by studying the Audubon guide’s pictures and descriptions of leaves, petals, height, flowering time, habitat, and range, connected me to the flora of the woods in a way that deepened my observations.

This year, I have appreciated this annual diversion even more because it has redirected my thoughts from the fear and anxiety that swirl around us. Amazingly, it seemed, the wildflowers still came up this year, oblivious to any sense of danger or foreboding, and I happily joined them as they made their 2020 debut.

By the time our governor issued his first stay-at-home order March 23, I was noticing the emergence of the foliage of Spring Beauty, one of the earliest wildflowers to appear in the woods where I look for these end-of-winter harbingers. About two weeks later, I saw my first Spring Beauty bloom along with flowers on another early bloomer – Purple Cress.

After that, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would be seeing Dutchman’s Breeches, Common Blue and Yellow Violets, Swamp Buttercup, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Wild Oats, Trillium, Phlox, Mayapple, Wild Geranium, and Wild Ginger.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit has been abundant this year.

Swamp Buttercup is known for its glossy flowers.

Although the first sighting of one of these flowers is always exciting, there’s nothing like seeing a drift of them at their peak when they carpet the floor of the woods. The vision of this seasonal show in full flower is all the better when I have seen it emerge from the dreary brown leaves of March and unfold into something quietly spectacular in April and May.

Whether I glance or gaze at the display, I’m often reminded of that familiar verse from the Bible about the lilies of the field. “They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.” Those words from the gospel of Luke are part of a passage telling us not to worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink, about our bodies, and what we will wear. It seems incredibly relevant for these days when so many of us have been and are worried about all those things and more because of the coronavirus. Spring’s wildflowers remind me each year that something incredibly beautiful in this world happens without my planning, my effort, my toil, or my worrying. This year, they are fulfilling that purpose to an even greater extent by prompting me to recall how the passage about the lilies ends: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re all QuietKeepers now

When I started this blog, living a more serene life was largely a choice involving a move to a more rural area and other intentional lifestyle changes. But thanks to the coronavirus and the imposition of stay-at-home orders, it looks like we’re all QuietKeepers now.

Although I’ve heard many positive reactions from people who are finding some enjoyment in more scaled-down lives, there have been plenty of negative ones related to boredom, isolation, and depression setting in. In offering my thoughts here, I should be clear that my own immersion into quietude has not been free of struggle and at times a longing for more activity and interaction with others. This was especially true at first when I missed my former proximity to an interstate highway along with the stimulation of the newsroom where I had spent most of my career. But even after I had mostly adjusted and began to write this blog, another change presented new challenges.

December sunset

For the last five years, my husband and I have had to limit our travel to attend to his elderly parents, both of whom have since died – the last in December. During that season of caregiving, as we were experiencing a mode of “sheltering in,” most of our friends and other family members were vacationing and “enjoying life,” often sharing with us their photos, experiences, plans, and delights.

As this pattern continued, my husband often said, “If we don’t learn anything from this and we don’t make changes in our lives as a result, then we will have lost an opportunity.” Those words helped me eventually to stop yearning for the way things used to be and get on with what needed to be done, staying alert to what I could draw from the experience. Although it still could be difficult watching friends and family breeze through lives that seemed ruled by fun, I found that by cooperating with my circumstances and duties, I began to change.

Now that restricted movement and enforced isolation are upon all of us, I can say that, although I haven’t welcomed these new circumstances, I was at least somewhat prepared for them by what I had gleaned from the last few years.

As I pondered my own situation during that period, I recalled something a woman who had known many a lean season once told me about how she sought to “live large,” even in reduced circumstances. Because she had an eye for beauty and was determined to make room in her life for it, she had a way of making a simple meal seem elegant in the way she prepared and served it. In her hands, a modest home or wardrobe could appear stylish because of a few well-chosen accents. Her way was inspiring, not because she filled her life with stuff and activity, but because she created space for what was truly valuable to her and so lived with an attitude of abundance.

I began to think about ways to follow her lead interiorly in the midst of boundaries that had been pulled in, plans that had been postponed, and dreams that were starting to fade. And so I no longer lived for the day when I would be free to do this or that, but chose to look for and enjoy what was already around me. Sometimes, it would be something as simple as allowing a constellation in the night sky to illuminate the inner darkness that awakened me in the wee hours. Or, letting the song and sight of a Dickcissel cheer me on a spring walk. In winter, while traversing a desolate landscape, I could feel heartened by a Northern Harrier coursing over a field in its hunt for food. And, at the close of a day filled with missteps and mishaps, I could sense that all was well for the moment in a sunset of brilliant color infused by light.

Dickcissel singing

Then, I read this in Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe: “ . . . even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away . . . without this discovery we will always be restricted in some way, and will never taste true happiness.”

Philippe offers as “a witness for our times” Etty Hillesum, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. In the diary she began keeping when the Nazis were systematically stripping Jews in the Netherlands of their exterior freedoms, Hillesum could write of “enjoying the broad sweep of the sky at the edge of the city, breathing in the fresh, unrationed air.” While acknowledging the reality of persecution and its effects, she insisted, “They can’t do anything to us, they really can’t. They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated, oppressed. By our own hatred.” Because Hillesum believed she had the power to determine her reactions to her circumstances, she could say, “I find life beautiful, and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head.”

For Philippe – as for Hillesum – God is the source and guarantee of the inner freedom we all can possess if we learn to let it unfold. “. . . Then, even though many things may well cause us to suffer,” Philippe writes, “nothing will really be able to oppress or crush us.”

This is clearly a difficult time in our nation and our world and many are suffering from even more than limitations on our freedom. But during these days, I’d like to think that we will not just get through them, as one state official suggested, by “snuggling up to Netflix,” but that we will seize the opportunity to “live large” amid the restrictions and find true freedom within them. If we do that, perhaps when and if this period of sheltering-in ends, we will have discovered a new way to live – one that reflects what truly matters.

Keeping calm in the storm we call news

Keeping calm in the storm we call news

 

“Speculation is the enemy of calm.”

Those words spoken by Miss Deborah Jenkyns, a stalwart character in the British television series Cranford, seem incredibly relevant today.

Indeed, our media culture is fraught with “what ifs” as it unleashes a torrent of speculation at the smallest sneeze in the world of politics, national and world affairs, sports, and entertainment. News is no longer purely news, but analysis and conjecture repeated in a never-ending cycle that leaves us exhausted and frazzled, even as we continue to consume and even gorge ourselves on the content.

The realization that much of what we were seeing and hearing is little more than repetition and speculation, has led our household to reduce its consumption of what passes for news. Like people who change their diets to improve nutrition, we are limiting and altering our intake of information to include what we need to live.

First, we stopped our satellite TV service, and most recently, ended the satellite radio service in the car. We turn the TV on early in the morning long enough to catch a weather forecast and a smattering of local news, ignoring the plea from the network to stay tuned because “in times like these,” we need their morning news show more than ever. At other times, the TV is on only if there is something we have decided in advance to view. In the car, we still use the radio, but less often as we are beginning to enjoy silence as a pleasing alternative. Meanwhile, our Internet usage also has become more purpose-driven and less of an opportunity for recreational browsing. We still consume news, but more often from the radio and magazines, newspapers, and newsletters delivered by mail.

Although my husband instigated cutting ties with our satellite radio and TV providers — and I acquiesced somewhat reluctantly —  I am reaping the benefits of having closed these two portals as I experience increased quiet and reduced cerebral clutter. For me, a second influence in moving in this direction has been my exposure to the Carthusian monks and their austere lives of silence and solitude (See Cloisters amid the Clamor). When I had the opportunity several months ago to interview an author who wrote Report from Calabria about his stay at a Carthusian monastery in Italy, I was struck anew by how these monks manage to maintain a connection to the world without being overwhelmed by it. Though removed

from the kind of life most of us live, they know something of its events through the news imparted to them by their superior and through notes placed on message boards asking them to pray for certain needs. “So they’re not completely out of touch,” the author told me, “but they don’t get the bombardment of information or misinformation that we get.”

His choice of words certainly describes how many of us have come to feel about the onslaught of news that strafes our contemporary lives. There is so much information – and indeed, misinformation – coming from so many sources that we often feel battered by it because we simply cannot absorb or digest all that is available to us. Some of us have reacted by shutting out the news of the day and consuming only what entertains. Others get hooked on what seems to be news, checking myriad sources constantly and driving those around us – or on our email lists and Facebook and Twitter feeds – to distraction with our forwards, posts, and Tweets.

The Carthusians, it seems, have found a happy middle. That they manage to distill what is essential from the churning waters of “breaking news,” “live reports,” and social media gives me hope that we, too, can retain some sense of what is happening in our world without suffering shell shock. Just as they consume what is necessary for their life of prayer, so we can sift through the news and find what we most need to know for our lives.

More and more, that is what I am doing: sorting and sifting in a fashion that has become almost automatic, gleaning what I need to know and skimming over the interminable analysis and speculation, knowing it to be mostly unproductive. Before I listen, click, or watch, I am asking, “Do I really need to know this for my work and my obligations this day? Do I need to be alarmed or informed? Stimulated or prepared? Entertained and distracted or edified?”

Increasingly, the answers are taking me into a place of peace. My exposure to and consumption of news and media still far exceeds that of the monks at Calabria, but by eliminating some points of access and limiting entry into others, I am better able to digest what I do read, watch, or hear.

 

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.

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“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.

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.

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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.

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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.