Tangents and Timing

I waited until I was 45 to meet William Stafford. Sure, I’d heard of him. Maybe run into him at a couple parties (figuratively). But there is no reckoning, or quickening if you are a “Highlander” fan, until it is time.

Tangents seem to be the most direct route to my soul. Stafford is a writer who I have known I wanted to, and needed to read for probably 20 years. I have read bits and pieces and read articles about him, but haven’t made a point to dig in. And then he appears in a birthday compilation of thoughts, memories, and musings, writing about Great Blue Herons.

So I take the hint and find a greatest hits book that has that same poem in it. And reading Stafford it is instantly clear that he has his own unique place in my tribe of soul writers.

Timing is everything. I’ve seen it and felt it countless times: I read something or hear a song that seems cool, but doesn’t resonate. Until I have had the experience that makes the lid blow off it, and it drives directly to the heart and makes a home there. Until it is time, it doesn’t make sense.

Stafford is like that. I needed a birthday reminder to get in touch with him. Scripture is like that. For more than 40-some years, I have read spiritual tomes and everything I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until last year that I knew it was time to immerse myself in the Bible. And now, finding the connections between the Old Testament, Gospels, epistles, and seeing how God’s Word becomes living words in our lives; I know I wasn’t ready for that search, that journey, those connections, until I was.

At Christ Church Easton, we’ve finished up our Lent Bible studies, which came on the heels of an Ephesians group. We’ve still got an Old Testament study underway, and Alpha groups, but I look forward to what’s next, what direction groups will take this fall.

But first it’s Holy Week and Easter. And spring and summer. And spring break for the girls. It’s finding the soul tangents and being led to follow them. Those tangents can be adventures, people, paddling, reading, traveling, sunrises, birds. They are the threads God puts in our lives, puts in front of us for us to follow.

He Speaks in Silence

Much of this spring has been scheduled, busy, on the move. All to the good, but jam packed with it. And so it has been the unscripted moments that stand out.

Tucked into our readings for an Old Testament class at Christ Church Easton, was this wisdom from 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

When Elijah hears the sheer silence, he knows God is about to speak to him. It strikes me as absolutely and beautifully profound that he lets the pyrotechnics of the wind, earthquake, and fire go by, but knows God in the silence. He speaks in silence.

It was this time last year that Jim Harrison died. He has been a literary and life hero/model of mine for 20 years or so, and I have been thoughtfully and randomly reading in his books, “The Shape of the Journey” and “Songs of Unreason” since. I came across this last week in the latter:

Don’t bother taking your watch to the river,
the moving water is a glorious second hand.
Properly understood the memory loses nothing
and we humans are never allowed to let our minds
sit on the still bank and have a simple picnic.

Sitting on the still river bank for a simple picnic. Again it’s the stillness and the silence that houses the profound moments. Where we let ourselves catch up.

Running has always been a listening time for me. Even with music playing into headphones, there is a stillness and silence in the motion and the head space that I crave. I have been on the shelf from running this winter, but managed to sneak in a couple five mile runs of late, unscripted, unscheduled, when time and weather have cooperated.

Tuesday was one of those days. After picking Anna up from lacrosse practice, I ran around Oxford, watching as the sun wound down, then grabbed the girls and Harper and hit the Oxford Park to catch the sunset. The clouds got the better of the horizon, but it didn’t matter. It was getting off script, taking advantage of an evening, making a few moments.

Life has its landmarks–those big, defining moments that we measure and remember. God is in the majestic, the heroic, the can’t miss pyrotechnics that leave us in awe.

But I’m trying to cultivate and make the most of the in-between times, unscripted, still. Those times when He speaks to us in silence.

Space for Grace

Tohu wa-bohu. It’s fun to say. Like an incantation you would chant while waving a magic wand over a hat. Tohu wa-bohu. It’s a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Genesis, describing the state of the Universe before God created order. “Formless void,” and “primordial chaos” are two of the translations I enjoy the most.

It’s a phrase Fr. Bill Ortt has unpacked in a couple different small groups at Christ Church Easton of late. He used it to point out that the first things that God created, in addition to light, were time and space. These were the ordering principles of the Universe. To get rid of the chaos, it was light, time, and space.

The image above is William Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” in which God creates order out of chaos. Blake is depicting God putting his orderly stamp on the Tohu wa-bohu. It’s an image I am familiar with: it’s on my left shoulder, the first tattoo I ever got, when I was 25, after my first encounter with Blake in Dr. Gillin’s British Romanticism class at Washington College. Funny to come back to it in a new way, almost 20 years later.

There is something to that need for order. When we want to calm the chaos in our own lives, we need to shine a light on things and create time and space. When things get hectic, there is a blueprint that goes back to the beginning.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” I like Lamott for her honesty, humor, compassion; for her irreverent reverence; for her willingness and ability to shine the light on herself and laugh and make us laugh at what she finds; for her willingness to wrestle God and surrender; and for her unique and personal path and walk of faith.

Both in reading her and for some time before, I have had the notion of “grace” on my mind. Here is how Lamott looks at it:

It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

There is so much there that I like. Grace is what is left when we have nothing else. It’s what is there when we are on empty. It’s foundational. It’s also not something we have alone, or by ourselves. Grace connects us to God and to each other. Sometimes that is a tough lesson to learn for those of us who are hermits by nature.

Here is another way she puts it, “Man is broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Let’s play that out to bricks and mortar. A single brick only gets you so far. With a bunch of bricks, you can have a sidewalk, patio, house, etc. But the key to putting bricks together is mortar. And you have to make space for the mortar to join them together and make them stronger.

You have to make space for grace. If we get so busy with our lives, or so self-absorbed that we can’t see or feel grace, we are the bricks without mortar. We are the ones deluding ourselves that we can do it on our own.

We are broken. We live by mending. The grace of God is glue. We need to make space for grace.

Uncovering the Path

* This was first posted at The 4-1-Run. I wanted to re-post it here, as it is an ongoing exploration/discovery, and I want to have all the various thoughts along the way collected in one place.

I pack a small backpack: water, fruit and nut trail mix, binoculars, a birding book, a notebook and pen, rain coat, pocket knife, a slim book–maybe John Muir, or Wordsworth, or Thomas Merton, or Gary Snyder’s “Turtle Island.”

I think about the movie “Empire Strikes Back,” where Luke Skywalker looks into the cave that is his test and asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda’s response, “Only what you take with you.” Be light and free. Be open. I start up the mountain with Muir in my head:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. – John Muir

Hold on, who said that, Muir or Yoda? Maybe Muir is the Yoda of the mountains.

For 20 years or more, I have used, lived, and contemplated the metaphor of life, and the life of the spirit/soul, being a journey up the mountain. I think that too many of us–speaking for myself–wear a path back and forth or around the base of the mountain and think (or tell ourselves) we are making progress upwards; that we are getting somewhere.

And that’s where Yoda comes in, we find only what we take with us. And what we take with us are our habits, our worries, our fears, our doubt, and in some cases our stuff–our material things. And those things either weigh us down so heavily that we can’t climb, or we have to wrestle with them before we get anywhere.

This past Sunday, at church our pastor put Henri Nouwen’s “The Spiritual Life,” in my hands, a tome of eight of his books brought into one. We were talking favorite spiritual writers while on a mulching expedition during the week and he couldn’t recall Nouwen’s name as we threw around Merton, Bonhoeffer, and Buechner.

“This is for you,” he said, with his best Yoda smile. What he had first mentioned about Nouwen was that he walked away from prestigious academic positions to focus on helping men and women with intellectual disabilities. I’ve been spending my morning coffee with Nouwen this week. Books and writers have a tendency to find me at the right time.

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Nouwen talks about how our time and schedules are filled, how we are always busy, because being busy is a status symbol–look at how busy and productive I am–nd yet our spirit is unfulfilled because we are not filling our lives or schedules with the right things.

Only having the girls half the time, I spend a lot of time alone. That can be both good and bad for an overthinker. The only times I can really turn my brain off, or allow my thoughts to slough off are when I am running or in prayer/meditation, which can be sitting with coffee, watching the sunrise or sunset, staring at the stars, but it has to be intentional time.

For all my alone time over the past couple years, when I looked closely, I found myself circling the bottom of the mountain; pacing back and forth in a rut of my own footprints. My habits, my lack of clarity, my inertia, nothing was helping me push up. And yet, climbing the spiritual mountain, carpe’ing the diem, asking the big questions and looking for answers, and being on the move rather than one place–these are all things that make me, me.

My time alone somehow wasn’t solitude, or at least not enough of it.

Once the solitude of time and space have become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude. We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and at any time. Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while remaining always in the presence of the living God. – Henri Nouwen

There are times when it feels like you’ve just unloaded rocks out of your pockets or backpack and feel lighter and ready to climb.

I have much more to say about the mountain–maps, compasses, the virtue of discerning your true path vs. switching paths at every pass, the people you meet along the way, whose paths overlap with yours and who you walk with for a time–but let’s call this part one. Beginning again. Or uncovering a path I had let get overgrown.

As I swill some water, smile at the sunrise, and keep on up the mountain, I look into Wordsworth’s lines that are among the favorite I have ever read:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things. I heretofore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains, and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and in the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the muse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my mortal being.
– William Wordsworth, from Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

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