The Clean Edge of Change

Things do change, maybe even me.

It is the idea of a gradual instant again. The moment, a shift, that comes by living into imperceptible insight.

In one of my wanderings down a rabbit hole of my own recent history, I happened to gaze upon pictures of my old house, the one I left as the perfect and blessed welcome—that physical structure that was both the pinnacle and holder of my vision for a life. Oddly, even with some of the furniture I still sit on every day, the rooms looked like someone else’s, someone older and out of touch. The layout and furnishings seemed so perfect when we lived there for making many people who came to visit feel comfortable. I felt comfortable having them there. However, this time when I looked, I didn’t recognize the welcome or the vision that that place once held for me. Maybe, I have made a slight shift; maybe, I am, even for a moment, living in the present.

I always say I wish people would just drop by so I don’t have to think about getting everything “right” when we have visitors. Just a few days after seeing those pictures, I welcomed another kind of group where I wasn’t at the center. My husband had decided to have an evening work meeting at our home in the hope of easing some tensions in a more hospitable space. I didn’t have to do anything, he said.

The afternoon sun heated up our small living room where I’d taken out tables and pillows and unnecessary ware to make room for chairs from the bedroom, the kitchen, and even the yard to accommodate our guests. That morning, I decided that I would make something for the group to eat after the meeting. I made cookies, a quick bread, and cut up some fruit—all things that I already had on hand. I put the food on the kitchen table.  I put some pitchers of cold water and small glasses right inside the front door.

The dog and I spent the evening in the backyard. It didn’t matter that the food was hastily prepared and served in a menagerie of dishes. It didn’t matter that I had forgotten to buy paper napkins or make coffee or tea. It didn’t matter that we had only a small fan to circulate air or that the windows in our living room didn’t open on this unusually warm day. The cold water was enough.

What happens next is nearly weightless,
The opening where we stand breathless,
On the clean edge of change.      
Carrie Newcomer

And yet…

I happened upon one of Wendell Berry’s poems from Sabbaths 1998 when I was actually looking for something else. And just like Krista Tippett says, there was “the same wild gratitude I know inside myself when poetry intrudes and demands I let it take up space.” Space to muscle out my clenched jaw and heavy chest, one more time.

Wendell Berry has a way with words. His poetry demands to be read more than once and lived with for a time. His words amplify both an overwhelming sadness and unearth a well of joy at the same time in me. Living is not true in only one telling.

I copied the first and the almost last stanza of the poem in my commonplace notebook, thinking that those were the words that made sense for me. I wanted to skip the middle, even though I don’t believe that is an honest practice. The last stanza had a bit more resolution than I was ready to bear, just yet.  And so Wendell Berry begins,

By expenditure of hope,

Intelligence, and work,

You think you have it fixed.

 And I thought I knew what I was doing, being brave, taking a risk. leaving my career, as I knew it. It seemed right, even freeing to go—to pursue the pinnacle of degrees and experience an academic life that I thought more fitting my gifts. It was a wild and crazy idea that seemed to work.

Things fell into place. I was offered a teaching assistantship that paid my way. A house in an ideal spot landed in our lap. Mitch had a challenging interim for a few years and then another one followed literally blocks away from our house. We fell into the rhythm of that place. I finished the degree and opportunities eventually unfolded.

I found a job, or maybe a job found me, in a series of events serendipitously linked. A Frederick Buechner Writing Workshop, the integration of faith and learning, the lull of picturesque academia, the call of the mountains, the move to a perfect house, the friendly neighbours…

It is unfixed by rule.

Within the darkness, all

Is being changed, and you

Also will be changed.

 What I thought I had fixed, wasn’t, even me.  I’m not actually sure what the rules are. I am sure it might not matter. The truth is that nothing stays the same.  All is being changed. In the land of words, I believe this is aptly called a continuous tense that is both in progress and ongoing.

Then another miraculous turn, this place where we are now finding us—that’s how it happened. We didn’t look; we did take a leap, Mitch more easily than me. I agonized over each step that I made steeper by looking too far ahead, trying to micro-manage each part that required I let go of that security. I tried again to fix things, to meld them into something I didn’t know.

That’s the beginning of the middle of the poem for me, the part I wanted to skip over.

Now I recall to mind

A costly year: Jane Kenyon,

Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,

All in the same spring dead,

So much companionship

Gone as the river goes.

 And my good workhourse Nick

Dead, who called out to me

In his conclusive pain

To ask my help. I had

No help to give. And flood

Covered the cropland twice.

By summer’s end there are

No more perfect leaves.


Notice that asterisk.  Wendell Berry penned the asterisk between stanzas. I think that is where the author, the wise man, suspected I might continue to fill in my own recalling of a costly year. This is where the unspeakable pain, the deaths of illusion and relationship had promised a fix. This is where the unspeakable joy of sharing deep sorrow and the promise of new life illuminates sadness in the midst of possibility. I’m learning to name those names, as Wendell Berry is able to do, but I’m not quite ready for the last stanzas, yet.  Yet, they continue:

But won’t you be ashamed

to count the passing year

At its mere cost, your debt

Inevitably paid?


For every year is costly,

As you know well. Nothing

Is given that is not

Taken, and nothing taken

That was not first a gift.

 I, too, am recalling a costly year, from the end of October through the next October—so much change. So this middle, the gifts that are given and taken, darkness and light all mixed together is my life.   Scott Russell Sanders reminds that these gifts cannot be summoned; pain and suffering are measured against the sheer exuberant flow of things. 

 The gift is balanced by

Its total loss, and yet,

And yet the light breaks in,

Heaven seizing its moments

That are at once its own

And yours. The day ends

And is unending where

The summer tanager,

Warbler, and vireo

Sing as they move among illuminated leaves.

And yet. And yet…

risky and holy business.

Read again poem VI from Sabbath 1998 and skip my own story in between. Read the words more than once and live with them for a time. Maybe you are ready to hear the song.

Holy Holes

Out of 463 pages, one sentence, on page 181, captures my little corner.

In a room with a ceiling height of 66 inches, just enough to clear my height of 5’3”, there is a built-in L-shaped desk that is quite handy for spreading out—papers, books, or fabric projects. A large bulletin board, lined with colourful fabric supporting black and white peace signs, brightens the pale yellow wainscoted walls. A rod iron bookshelf, a 70’s era small cabinet, and the inner workings of our central vacuum system line the other walls. But the part that is captured in that one sentence is in the corner.

My sister and I found the retro rocking chair in a second-hand store. We sat in it and tried it out, both she and I recalling one of an almost identical style but with soft grey leather that sat in our living room for the years we were growing up. We used the ottoman, turned on its end, for the pulpit when we played church, arranging kitchen chairs in rows for the congregation of my sisters and me and an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. We took turns giving announcements, caring for our ‘children,’ and my sister sang with spit on her eyes to evoke the emotion of a singer we’d observed. So, we brought the retro chair and the memories home to my little room.

Every morning and most afternoons, I sit in my chair.

IMG_0128.JPGIn other houses where I’ve lived, it’s been other seats and other corners. The oversized red chair and ottoman that sat near the fireplace and looked out toward our big oak tree; the tiny basement room with no windows, lots of bookshelves, and a black chair with wheels and a shifting seat; and the twin bed DIY’ed as a daybed in the “prayer room” as my husband called it, where every morning I met the day before the sun was up. I have steadily shown up and at the time it may not have always seemed like much was happening. But something did and does happen here.

Michelle Obama, in her memoir on page 181, recalls how her husband carved out a similar space for himself in every place they’d lived or even vacationed that she called “the Hole.” Whether a corner or a whole room, the Hole seems to hold the same respite and promise as my corner chair in a room that is mostly my own lair. Michelle writes,

For him, the Hole is a kind of sacred high place, where insights are birthed and clarity comes to visit.

I’ve been working with a trusted friend whose expertise is leading me to do significant soul work. She asked me in our last conversation if I had a place where I can be; I imagined my own “hole” to notice and surrender, to see circumstances anew and rest. In my corner chair, I lay down the pretense, the worries, the “outside,” and internal physical senses that cloud my vision. I open to the presence and work of a loving spirit. For those moments, that old chair is a sacred place, where insights are birthed through the stillness. Clarity comes to visit, wonder unfolds, and gratitude abides.

God’s Wisdom spun by the Desert Fathers, Yoda, and Michelle Obama.

I’d just missed the bus, watching it go by as I walked briskly toward the stop. So, I had a few minutes to wait. I’ve taken a more leisurely view of my surroundings, riding public transportation here—whether the bus, the ferry, or even a water taxi. You see the city (and the people in it) differently when you take transportation that slows down your time and attention.

A couple of days ago I came across these words from Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart, and since then, the ideas have turned up in other forms all around me.

In my morning Lectio Divina, I contemplated the story from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus asks a tax collector, Levi, to be his follower.  Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner that evening where there are other tax collector kinds of people in attendance. And the neighbor’s say Jesus shouldn’t do that.

I suppose you might conclude that the neighbors are just considering the facts—that tax collectors are not nice people (in the time that Jesus lived) and Jesus is supposed to be, so he shouldn’t be having a casual dinner with them. The neighbors are coming to a logical conclusion, forming an opinion, and that is what the dictionary says it means to make a judgment.

Henri Nouwen seems to also see how this might be how our “modern” minds think differently than the earliest Christian monastics, our Desert Fathers. (My emphasis added.)

If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.” At first, this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction that prevents us from really being with the other.   

The Way of the Heart

And then, words about judging others came up as I waited for the bus.

You see I’d been impacted by Nouwen’s insight as I struggle with my own continual “evaluation” of others, especially those closest to me, my family. Taking time to wait and watch, as I did, letting Nouwen’s troubling words sink in over a few days and just standing open to the moment at that bus stop yielded new insights.

Several people walked by me and one lady’s t-shirt startled me.

Judge me by my size. Do you?

For days, I’d been trying out how to write about my own melee, not only of judging others, I’ve been working really hard on being aware of that, but of evaluating others. And here was this lady’s t-shirt shouting at me.

She was maybe five feet tall, probably just past middle age, and weighed slightly more than her ideal body weight. Where I live, people of all ages walk and bike often. It is a bit unusual to see someone markedly overweight and this lady wasn’t exactly what her t-shirt hinted at either.

Not until I got home did I find out that the quote, Judge me by my size. Do you, is one of the 10 most popular quotes of Yoda from Star Wars. When I noticed the lady plodding past me, head down and determined, I thought she was making a statement—and on my ride home I considered the breadth and longevity of judging and the pervasive culture of evaluating…everything.

I covertly judge family members, when they don’t do things the way I might do them. I disguise the “judging” as helping, you know, I am older, have more experience, and see that their choices might not work out. And I similarly judge my enemies. I didn’t really think I had any real enemies, however, I am painfully aware of how much I am at odds with some public figures that I actually do not even know personally, yet this distance creates a safer and less informed judgment that seems harmless, right?

This is what this pretense sounds like. Is it true? Is it clear? Is it possible? Is it the best course? And then, Nouwen says STOP—give up measuring meaning and value of others with the yardstick that I’ve created to make sense of my own fears.

I’m almost finished reading Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir. On page 313 are these words.

As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong.

 And sometimes, it takes lots of practice to learn.

Sharing Home

I’ve decided to read the gospel of Mark, a few verses each day, using the practice of Lectio Divina. That means I read a few verses out loud, slowly, two times and notice what words or phrases catch my attention or stand out in some way. I read the passage one more time to contemplate the words or phrase that stood out to me. Often what I “notice” is an idea that in some way links to something I’ve already been reading in another place or a circumstance I’ve been mulling over. Sometimes the words are ones that are very familiar but take on new significance.

One of my readings last week was Mark 1: 12 – 20. After Jesus’ public baptism by John the Baptiser, the story goes on to say that “the spirit immediately drove [Jesus} out into the wilderness…” That wasn’t necessarily something I hadn’t noticed before, however, the connection between being in the “public eye,” so to speak, and then retreating fit with my own experience right now.

I’ve had family staying for a time and I’ve depended on even a brief respite that reading and pondering provide. I struggle with the effort it takes for me to have people visit; yet, I want it to not be so. When visitors are sound asleep in the guest room, I am awake in my bed, as even daily tasks get co-opted into dilemmas. On the morning that I read these verses from Mark’s gospel, I knew that I, too, need time “inside” myself to be able to go outside—to get a different perspective than what the distorted night time brings when my small self looms large.

Almost every day, I do some kind of reading as meditation. I use scripture and/or other writings by regular people whose names you might know too. Almost every day, I write to become aware of my life with God and in my everyday world. For many years, my notebooks have also and continue to function as a “commonplace book” where I record quotes from scripture, all kinds of books or articles, and even quotes from movies or songs. I weave other peoples’ words with my own words and experience. When I don’t do that, it shows, inside and outside.

So, I guess I’m wondering why I was surprised that what caught my attention reading the first chapter of Mark was that Jesus needed that time, too. It sure makes me feel more understood.

Then I read a passage from Richard Wagamese’s book of meditations, Embers.

Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest of rightness, balance and harmony of the mind, body and spirit. Home is where the channel to Creator and the Grandmothers gets opened every day and where life gains its focal point. …in that is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.

That is what my time alone, spent in the knowledge that God is my dwelling place, brings. Especially after a restless night or anxious response to whatever is going on outside, the time inside brings rightness, balance, and harmony of mind, body, and spirit. It is where I open a channel to my Creator and friend, in the presence of other people who have and continue to surround me. That is my home.

58138624867__5CC0708B-3DD0-4C13-A26D-1E34792E8D99 It was a picture of my new grandson smiling, sitting in a hotel room on his first vacation. He is six months old. Without much thought,I said that he doesn’t know he’s in a quaint coastal city or that he’s even on vacation, a meaningless idea at his age. He doesn’t even know what the next minute or the next hour holds. He doesn’t think about enjoying himself because the trip will be over in just a few days. He does know that he is with his parents and being taken care of right now.

After a few minutes of looking at that sweet face, I did think out loud, “We should be more like this little one.” I guess Jesus said that already. However, I never have been exactly clear about what that means for my life. Maybe the reason is that I want too much control or I don’t have that kind of courage.

Reading Embers, a book of meditations, I wondered if what Richard Wagamese says he has observed is related to that child-likeness.

It has been proven in my life that when your prayers are about gratitude for what is already here, creator and the universe ALWAYS send more. When you pray for what you WANT, creator and the universe only hear the wanting, and that’s what you create—more wanting.

 Sounds so straightforward, right? Yet, even when I try to disguise my desires, longing and belonging are mostly wrapped up in some form of material packaging.

Right now, I am not on vacation. In this past week, right where I live, on clear days (all but one or two this week) I’ve gazed regularly at snow-capped mountains in the distance. I’ve seen and touched the massive sinewy trunks of ancient Douglas firs that tower toward the sky. I’ve marveled at the gnarled red and green trunks of Arbutus trees and witnessed close up the wonder of the monkey-puzzle tree’s branches, so shapely and painful to touch. I’ve encountered more kinds of flowers and colors of green than one can imagine—stark black lilies and variegated begonias. I’ve viewed the ocean from craggy rocks and from sandy shores and traveled the harbour channel past yachts, rowers’ shells, mammoth barges, and abandoned sailboats currently occupied by shelter seekers.wa4KxpjySoyMDeRhqsflUw

And yet, in the Sunday newspaper’s Homes section, I thought about how I would like to live in a “house with a view” that I noticed in the seductive image that filled one page.

Wagamese goes on to advise,

Deciding is not doing and wanting is not choosing…move in the direction that brings you closer to creator in all things.

 “Know what is in front of your face,” Jesus said in The Book of Thomas.

It is early morning, and I have this day before me. Instead of wanting, how might I live in gratitude for what is in front of my face?

Like my grandson, be in the vacation without even knowing you are there…

Welcome Home Again


Steps to my own back door.

Almost instinctively I did it again. While waiting in the dentist’s office, I picked up the shiny Capital Magazine, featuring “innovative houses and people” in the capital of British Columbia where I live. I skipped the people and looked directly at the charming character home, as they call houses from another era here in Victoria. It was steps from the ocean and one of this city’s most beautiful public parks. The owner was an artist who had filled the house with treasures that made it his own and held my coveting gaze.

I have already lived most of my life. I even live in a rented character home. Yet, I keep looking for a sense of home that seems elusive. Maybe I’m a little afraid that like Moses, I will only greet it from afar. However, I’m thinking that isn’t exactly the truth.

In The Return of the Prodigal, Henri Nouwen opens up a new way of thinking about homecoming. In his deep reflection, Nouwen moves between Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), his own close study of Rembrandt’s painting of the story, and his own lived experience with the understanding that we are all longing for home—of some sort. I joined a study group that spent several weeks using all three perspectives to engage more intentionally in this story for our own lives.

I know that I experience a bit of envy when I encounter people who have established themselves in a place. When I hear, “we’ve lived in this house for 25 years” and hear the stories connected with that life of seeming stability, I long for that sense of belonging. In my own reflecting, I wrote that Jesus’ parable of the return of a prodigal son offers me another opportunity to hope that those words from Deuteronomy 33:27 that “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” is Jesus’ true idea of homecoming. Those words from the Old Testament framed my impending and unexpected relocation not quite a year ago.

At the time that Nouwen became invested in Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal, he was giving up (my words) a prestigious and productive life as a teacher at Harvard Divinity School and moving toward a communal life of ministry with mentally challenged people in an L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier. Nouwen intimates his own risk to make this leap that upended the familiarity and the control that teaching and writing afforded him. He surmises:

I had never before given much attention to people with a mental handicap. Much to the contrary, I had focused increasingly on university students and their problems. I learned how to give lectures and write books, how to explain things systematically… I had little idea as to how to communicate with men and women who hardly speak and are not interested in logical arguments or well-reasoned opinions. I knew even less about announcing the Gospel of Jesus to people who listened more with their hearts than with their minds and who were far more sensitive to what I lived than to what I said.

For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life… But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?

 Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities is a spiritual giant in Canada where I now live. Vanier’s father was Canada’s most beloved 19th Governor General and his family revered even to this day. Jean Vanier died recently and I found myself drawn even more into his life story and with my own understanding of Henri Nouwen’s transition to the L’Arche Daybreak community. I could learn from both men’s experience of homecoming at a pivotal time in their adult lives. I wondered how their leap of faith intersects with my own longing.

In a news article in The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown, whom I know personally as a Christian contemplative, wrote about Vanier’s life in quite a different light than the traditional obituary of accomplishment. Confronted with his recognition of the “cry for friendship” of men he met when he visited a psychiatric hospital in France, Vanier’s leap of faith transformed his initial fear of the disabled into the future mission of L’Arche that established the unique value of every person through communities of communal living.

Similar to Nouwen’s life trajectory influenced by his encounter with this mentor, Jean Vanier left his work as a popular professor at St. Michaels College at the University of Toronto to live in a small house with two men who were patients at the psychiatric hospital he had once visited. Vanier recalled that the men didn’t care about his knowledge or ability to do things, but simply desired his heart and presence as they shared everyday living. Brown states that unlike his parents, Jean Vanier was “shedding status.” L’Arche history records that Vanier “has been very intentional about going down the ladder of success. He believed that is what Christ asked of him.”

Maybe I’m fortunate to have my idea of “settled-ness” upended. Maybe my life is blessed because I have been forced to “give up” ways that were known but increasingly filled with unrest. In that life, I thought I had some control. I was familiar with what I thought was possible; I had decided the kind of life that I wanted but didn’t actually live that life of abundance. I had… but…

I’ve written before about using the right tools of life for the wrong reasons. Maybe that is what is compelling about both Henri Nouwen’s and Jean Vanier’s stories. Their trajectories speak of moving beyond accomplishments like education and profession and even family expectations. They both were welcomed home in the heart of God.   Have I really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?

 In the last place we lived, I spent a great deal of energy getting my physical house in order to welcome other people and even Mitch and I home. Even though our recent move has been miraculous, I haven’t “felt” that settled-ness or security. Even though I may not have overtly recognized God’s presence, deep inside me, I know that Jesus recognizes me. Jesus has looked for me and walked a little way along this road to welcome me. Just like the welcoming prayer I’ve been attempting to mean, The Welcome Practice invites me to notice and let go of that sense of security that I attach to home. I simply need to be open—open to the divine presence and action in my life.

I have been wishing and maybe am still for a physical place to belong. Yet, over and over, I keep running into another possibility for home, a place I can’t actually sit down in—or can I?

Have I missed God’s welcome? I’ve been very reluctant to settle in here, imagining I have to be the one to find my place. Maybe, instead, Jesus is searching for me.