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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Rest for the word-weary

“Thanks for giving me your email address. I will keep it on file for use in case of an urgent need for correspondence with you, as I consider it best if we stay away from the continuous contact so overwhelming in our digital era.”

Those lines from a letter I received via post last month were balm to a spirit wearied by words. The weeks since I wrote my last blog entry have been filled with myriad duties requiring much oral and written communication, some of which has produced seemingly little fruit for the energy expended. So it was that the message cited above was a welcome one, not only because it recognized the exhausting nature of communication in this age, but also because it was a rare voice of restraint in a milieu where “can” means “do.”

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Letting the words speak for themselves: Destiny and Decision, Sermon Nuggets, and More Sermon Nuggets, by Fred Zimmerman.

The writer of my letter is Fred Zimmerman, a retired minister and author who has been around long enough to remember a different sort of life than the one to which we all have become sadly accustomed. He uses electronic communication sparingly, as indicated above, and still takes the time to write and send letters on paper. In publishing his books – a memoir and collections of excerpts from his sermons – he employed a similar strategy, deciding to let the words speak for themselves instead of seeking to advance them through interviews and social media posts.

Although some might consider his style anachronistic in our media age, I love its bold, yet gentle, countercultural stance. And I think it explains why he is able to pierce the clutter of words and images inundating us today with his incisive insights.

From his writings, I know that he values solitude as a time to commune with God. Without it, he writes in his second volume of sermon excerpts, “we cannot hope to live a meaningful life and perform meaningful work.” He goes on to quote William Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us . . . getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In our day, the world that is “too much with us” is one peppered with words, images, and opportunities to interact with each another, all vying for attention day and night on our computers and smart phones. Unlike the characters in Jane Austen’s novels who take time to write and read their letters, carefully discerning and reflecting on the meaning of the words, we have no leisure to process our missives. The instant – and insistent – nature of text-messaging and email urges us to read and respond immediately so that sometimes we miss or misinterpret our correspondent’s meaning. Or we get so many messages that some are lost or forgotten as we deal with what seems most urgent.

This has affected us in ways I suspect we do not even realize. Our thoughts and conversations are scattered, and our preoccupations often trivial. Our minds are noisy and crowded, with scarcely any room for or recognition of a profound thought should one float by, and our speech frequently is a sad reflection of this disorder. It is no wonder that many of us seek solace in nature, where we can quietly gaze on birds and sunsets, P1010498for only there can we escape the barrage of words and digital images that constantly bombard us – provided a cell phone doesn’t beep or buzz.

Quite simply, we are talking too much and taking in too much. Although it’s tempting to simply withdraw from the digital world for a time, as some do as a means of fasting during this season of Lent, I prefer my minister friend’s approach of moderation, making use of technology’s gifts without letting them rule our lives.

Other friends have done similarly. Some only answer emails at certain times, rather than whenever they happen to get a message. Another friend removed the Facebook app from her phone so that she does not check it as frequently. One method I use is to mute my phone so that I’m not prompted to look at it every time it announces a text, email, or call.

Although all these are helpful in setting boundaries for interfacing with the electronic world, they are mere steps to something greater and worth pursuing — what the spiritual classic Divine Intimacy calls exterior and interior silence. These do not mean we never speak or think, but that we avoid idle chatter, prolonged conversations, and talkativeness and keep watch over the imagination, feelings, and thoughts in the interest of preserving a state of receptivity to what is most important. The author of Divine Intimacy, Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, lived from 1893 to 1953, well before the Internet’s entry into our communal space, but his words – and those of my minister friend – are timeless. They speak to every person’s sense of restlessness and yearning for peace, one that is universal, regardless of the times and circumstances in which we live.

Otherwise engaged


“I’m so sorry, but I am engaged tonight.”

With that simple expression of regret, Mary Lindsay, the lead character in Elizabeth Goudge’s novel, The Scent of Water, gracefully – and successfully – declines a dinner invitation from Mrs. Hepplewhite, the neighborhood social maven.

Goudge’s story, which takes place in England in an earlier, more genteel time, leaves me wishing that we in our day had such a lovely and acceptable way of responding to similar overtures. But in our “so busy” culture, it seems we are expected to either recite a litany of activity to justify our regrets or, better still, find a way to wedge one more gathering into an already full schedule.

On the night of Mrs. Hepplewhite’s invitation, Mary Lindsay had planned to pore over the old diaries she had found in the house inherited from Cousin Mary. To her credit, she kept to her plan, held her hostess at bay, and went home to have aP1040537n early supper, light a fire “for the sake of company and loveliness,” and sit beside it with the diaries piled nearby.

Had Mary lived in our time and place, I wonder if she wouldn’t have thought to herself, “Darn, I was going to page through Cousin Mary’s diaries tonight, but, oh well, I guess I can do that another time – or maybe look at a few when I get home.” Thankfully, though, in Goudge’s imagination, Mary stands her ground and lives on to inspire me – and other kindred spirits.

Like most people of our day, I have become deft at tweaking schedules and rearranging the time to meet a myriad of obligations – even if I arrive at them late or breathless. But as part of my quest to incorporate more quiet – and sanity – into my life, I’ve been trying to shed the practice of “wedging” in favor of weaving some breathing room into each day, whether it’s to stay home and garden or catch up with the laundry and mail. This means saying “no” to more invitations and “yes” to a few, remembering, as one friend has pointed out, that other people can’t see our calendars.

I’ve also learned, though, that the world in which we live is largely made up of Mrs. Hepplewhites who cannot imagine why someone would prefer staying home to any organized activity or social gathering. As a result, few of us have the wherewithal to say we are “engaged” when we have planned – and perhaps need – an evening at home with a good book.

Yet that is precisely what Goudge’s Mary Lindsay did. Would Mrs. Hepplewhite have understood if Mary had been more forthcoming about her plans? Unlikely. Which is why I sometimes wish for a world that permits and accepts “otherwise engaged” and does not pry into what that might mean.

Thankfully, I have among my friends a few Mary Lindsays who would understand if I said I needed some unscheduled time to recover from a packed calendar, or who are trying themselves to infuse their lives with a little more serenity and sanity.

Recently, one such friend and I made plans to see an art show and scheduled it around an afternoon party she already had agreed to attend. When we discovered that the art show was starting later than we had thought, I suggested we abandon the plan so that my friend could go to her party without having to rush. Kind and accommodating soul that she is, she wanted to “make it work” by having us get to the art show a little earlier, perhaps catching the artists as they were opening their booths.

I reminded her of a conversation we had had a few weeks earlier about building enough time into our schedules to get to where we are going, instead of rushing. That particular day, she had multiple commitments in wide-ranging locations and she later told me that the afternoon of seemingly nonstop driving had been exhausting.

After she finally agreed to skip the art show and let me go alone, she wrote: “You’re right. I’ve been trying to make my life more peaceful, which means not doing everything I’d like to.”

It took fortitude – for both of us – to come to that decision and to resist social messages that urge us to keep moving and to collect as many pleasures and diversions as we can – even if they’re not very enjoyable in the long run because they’ve left us tired, ill, or just plain irritable.

Doing one thing on a Sunday afternoon is not easy when everyone else is doing – and talking about – three or more. It can feel, at first, like you’re missing out or, perhaps worse, not as important as all those people with crowded calendars. Our world, after all, values activity – and the more of it the better. It loves the biblical Martha who was busy in the kitchen while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet, seemingly oblivious to the work that had to be done.

We are told, however, that Mary has chosen “the better part.” And when I follow her example and that of Mary Lindsay, so have I.

Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.