Instructions for Living

Today I discovered Mary Oliver’s instructions in her book Devotion.

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

So I will tell you.

My grandson, Malachi, and I were together this weekend at his house. He has developed some wisdom in his three years and I need some after 69 of them.

As the sun moved overhead, we put two lawn chairs under the tree in the front yard. When we (okay, me) needed a break from digging around the trees or playing soccer in this humid weather, I suggested, “Let’s take a break and relax.”

Later in the afternoon when he suggested we sit awhile in those chairs, I asked him, “What has been the best part of this day?”

His answer; “Relaxing.”

Watch for me

Give ear to my words, O Lord,

give heed to my sighing,

listen to the sound of my cry,

My King and my God,

for to you I pray.

O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice,

in the morning I plead my case to you and watch.

Psalms 5:1-3 NRSV

My friend baked a cake for me; a chocolate one with cream she whipped and piled with red raspberries.  I was waiting for her to drop it off—no, I was watching for her.  And that is what I did, I watched. I actively looked for her. I knew I would see her when she turned off McNeil onto Linkleas.  I stood in front of the window ready to greet her when she drove up.

We live on a very narrow street that really doesn’t go anywhere.  The street is just a few blocks long, between two other streets that are more efficient for travel- if you’re trying to get someplace else in the city.  We have two large windows on the front of our house and no door—the “front” door is actually on the side out to the driveway. It is easy to miss someone coming, or for someone to miss our house hidden behind a large evergreen, but it is here, the first house on the street. 

A day or two later, I read this Psalm and noticed how the Psalmist asks for God’s attention: give ear, give heed, listen to the sound of me.  In turn, the psalmist will plead and WATCH.  I think this choice of verb is significant. I’m not a Walter Brueggemann but I take care with words.   So often we tell ourselves to wait; wait for something to happen, wait for God’s action or some kind of answer.  Several other translations of Ps. 5:3 say to “wait” but I’m holding on to “watch.”

There is a sense that after we “plead our case” in the morning, we spend the rest of the day actively watching.  Watching – not trying to figure things out or simply waiting while we’re distracted by something else, but staying present to see and enter into what is already here. 

See the goodness that is part of watching for where and how God is already present and be there.  That presence is in the reassuring words of a friend, the startling wisdom of a three-year-old, and the kindness of my own 40-year-old child.  That presence is in the sadness that I cannot explain and in circumstances that turn out okay.  And in every changing color and shape of the sea and sky, through the delicacy of the white fawn lilies in the woods, and reflected in the camas that came up through the gravel outside my back door. 

On the nights we say compline, we repeat this Antiphon:

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Watch with Christ.  This isn’t a solitary adventure.

If you see me…

I suppose the word “zoom” has always been a verb (and imitates a sound). I remember the word trailing a racing car when I read to my young son.  Before I remembered, I was going to begin this piece with this question: do you remember when “zoom” became a verb?   A verb as in the sentence, “Do you want to zoom or meet in person?”  Just to be clear.

Early in the pandemic, we met together, worshiped together, and I even joined my yoga class via Zoom from the comfort of my own bedroom.  A pet or child might make a brief appearance and shift the conversation or at least my attention.  I noticed couches and wall art and bookshelves.  Books seemed to be a popular backdrop; some people even turned certain books forward so I could read the title. I occasionally admired peoples’ kitchens and rested in their messy corners.

Now, I’m taking a continuing education course at the local University, “Writing your sacred story.”   We are in our fourth week and the group is small; fifteen of us zoom into class every Saturday.  While several of us live here in Victoria, our teacher is leading from Pender Island and some are attending from the other side of the country, from Toronto and Ottawa.  One participant joined from Costa Rica when we met together for the first time.  Yes, online expands our access and I wonder how this reach shapes how we welcome one another.

Before that first class, I checked my camera and sound to make sure they worked.  I also determined if the light was right in the corner I chose to sit and tilted my computer at just the right angle so that my whole face was visible, not just the top of my head.  I must admit I took note that my ‘background’ was a bare corner; no one would see my own messy bookshelves but I decided that was okay.

A few people in the class layered a beautiful background scene behind them. I figured out one participant must live near me since she introduced herself by referencing her background photograph of the very bay I’d walked by earlier that morning.  Another person took care to blur the room and only their face was in focus. During class writing time, we were invited to turn off our cameras for 20 minutes or so, I suppose as a way to focus on our task.

So, here is the real story.  

For 30 seconds, each person is “seen” up close as they introduce themselves or share an insight.  During the class discussion some, of course, talk more than others. I might take note of my impression of them or look at the room where they were sitting, or some detail about their bookshelf or wall decor or messy corner. However, a few days later when I was sharing my own experience in the first class with a friend, I had no recollection of several of the class members, even though I’d written down all of their names.  I knew there was a man named Jim or another woman who had her childhood journals but I couldn’t recall their faces. 

During the second class, we each shared how our in-class writing exercise went.  Lucy, one whom I hadn’t quite remembered, shared that “zoom life,” as she called it, allowed her to really look at people.  She said she stared at each of our faces and really looked at us.  She laughed that she really couldn’t do that if we were all sitting together in the same room. During the freewriting exercise, Lucy had unexpectedly created a character out of one of those faces she had been intently watching.

I was amazed at her sincerity—no, that’s not quite the word.  She wasn’t looking at what kind of room I was in, what picture I chose to hang on my wall, or wondering about those things I’d chosen not to show or replace with a beautiful landscape.  She wasn’t wondering if that office I seemed to be in was my work or my home.  She was looking at me.

Lucy captured a way to focus on the face of the person she wanted to hear, the face of the person she wanted to know without the surround we planned, to look unashamedly at me with my self-consciousness in full view.

In the introduction to Listening to your life, Frederick Buechner wonders about the felicitously chosen compilation of excerpts.  This kind of book that we keep by our favourite chair and dip in and out of is a good one when the words sound like a friend talking.  I wonder if that is what Lucy wants to see something that familiar on each face. 

As Buechner explains,

…not so much that tell me something new that will keep me awake, puzzling over it, as the ones that will help me see something as familiar as my own face in a new way, with a new sense of its depth and preciousness and mystery.

I believe Lucy is one who sees something in my own not-so-familiar face in a new way.  To see, even me, as someone familiar and see me with a new sense of my depth and preciousness and mystery.

Fishing

Humankind is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea.  He drew it out of the sea full of small fish.  The wise fisherman found among them a large, good fish.  He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without hesitation.  Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 8

The gospel of Thomas contains the sayings of Jesus in the wisdom tradition.  I find the simple rendering of Jesus’s sayings leaves more room for me to walk around, to connect Jesus’s words to my own lived experience. 

I believe that one thing, the large, good fish, is to love and be loved by God.  I believe that relationship of love comes into our lives in tangible ways—maybe, reading and writing to witness that presence is one of those ways for me.  It is a way of observing the world that doesn’t have to be figured out. 

Instead of an act of judgment in the sorting of the catch that is explained in a similar story in Matthew’s gospel (13:47-49), the simple saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas expands the possibilities for fishing in my own life. I am distracted by many things. Many of those things are good, but nonetheless distractions. Perhaps I will recognize the “big fish” when I give my attention to those things that make God’s abundance easier to see rather than focusing on the mass of little fish that take up too much space.

In this morning’s sunshine, I decided to sit in my swing amid the “gardening” I’ve been doing.  I looked over the newly transplanted rhubarb freely offered by a friend I haven’t seen since last fall. I felt the promise of the jasmine I’d planted behind me.  I saw the places that are almost cleared of weeds for now and the places I still need to attend.  I noticed the new green that has been resting all winter.

The bigger of our two apple trees in our yard is getting ready to blossom, the tiny leaves unfurling, and some almost buds are visible.  The smaller apple tree is a little farther behind, still bare to my eye.  However, a hummingbird has discovered something of new life in what look to me as just nubs. The tiny bird hovers just a foot from me, probably wondering when the sweet jasmine flowers will be available.

Sitting for these precious moments in the morning brightness, it is easier to experience what it means to hold on to that big and good thing and let go of the little fish that pretend to be bigger. 

And then, I find some words to share that unsayable thing with you.

Another Step

Just put one foot in front of the other and eventually you get somewhere, even if you don’t exactly know where you are going.

The Electricity of Every Living Thing is a book about that kind of activity.  Katherine May sets out to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, UK’s longest National Trail, a few days at a time.  She doesn’t train for the challenge or even really plan for it in the traditional sense.  And, the surprising thing to me was that she negotiated her regular life around the days she spent on the trail.

About halfway through her memoir, Katherine May recalls coming to a literal fork in the road where she has to choose whether to go left or right.  She muses,

Fareham is far away from where I live, and sounds impossible to walk to.  But then, isn’t impossibility the point, sometimes?  Shouldn’t we all ask ourselves to do impossible things, just once in a while?  I touch the sign with my gloved hand, and take the right turn towards Fareham.

The great idea I had about restoring our backyard by Easter seems improbable today.  I’m not ready to say impossible, yet, but that could also be true.

During the last 10 days, professionals have displaced me.  The carport and attached shed have some new walls, porch posts, and a torched roof.  Strong arms dug up the yard again for perimeter drains around the shed to stop the rot.  The apple trees have been pruned.  The pruning folk weren’t actually professionals, just our experienced friend with her how-to-book and Mitch on the ladder. 

What I’ve been “doing” is not seen with the eye.  I can see that I cleaned up around new rose growth, uncovered ground cover, and unearthed lots of worms, that made their way back under. But what I’ve done most diligently is hidden: observing all kinds of landscaping as I walk the neighbourhood, paying attention to old pictures of this home in its glory days, and pondering care tags, price tags, and considering all the plants at the Demitasse Café and Garden Centre.  

After feeling overwhelmed by all I don’t know about plants, I was captured by a Star jasmine. I imagined how it might flourish in the corner of our yard behind my swing. Maybe, it could vine over the swing’s wooden frame or trellis up the aging fence. The trouble is I have no idea if that is possible; I don’t know how to get that kind of breathtaking result.

I do know something about Jasmine.  I know that in 2013, I sat every morning for a week in a swing enveloped in its fragrant abundance.  I know how I couldn’t wait to sit peacefully in that surround and smell the sweet blossoms and enjoy my cup of coffee as the day began. I can see that spot in my mind’s eye even now. I am sure that recreating that sense of retreat would be a good way to resurrect that unsightly corner.

Katherine May turned right and simply walked on. Maybe, I can take that risk. Impossible will take a little more time. I just have to turn right into the garden centre and bravely bring the Star Jasmine home with me.

Just Sweep

I learned early in my life that there are inside brooms and outside brooms.

When we moved into the last house we owned, there was a broom and dustpan in the kitchen that I’m supposing belonged to Mrs. Rogers.  She lived over 50 years of marriage and her last days in that house on the Avenue. On my last day as the owner, I used that very broom to say goodbye.  I lovingly swept each room in gratitude for the abundance of our life there.

We know the history of this house in Victoria on another Avenue.  This one, too, was home to a family for over 50 years.  Health challenges, for both the house and owners, prevailed in later years and then the house sat in solitude for a few more. Now we rent the home where Kay grew up and she is honouring the house in tangible ways, painting and repairing and putting in new parts.  After caring for her parents, she is now caring for the memories, and Mitch and I listen with care to her stories that still live within these walls.

The yard isn’t large but it is overwhelming. K left the yard tools for us inexperienced gardeners. Work will begin next week to repair the shed and carport in the back. When I knew we needed to follow Rachel Held Evans’ inspiration to turn something ugly into something beautiful as a Lenten practice, the backyard became that new vision.

The daffodils and crocuses helped.  They appeared—a shock of bright life even when clouds filled cool days.  I noticed waiting hanging baskets, earthworms languishing in the soil, and a hint of new growth at the base of an old stick that once held a rose.  A nurse tree stump is home to unknown beauty—the trailing cotoneaster bush, lush mosses, and unknown greenery rest in and around the sturdy base.  A weathered garden gnome keeps watch. 

We can learn to care for these treasures and nurture the life that is already here. We raked the sticks and leftover leaves.  Mitch cleaned out and turned over the dirt bed near the fence and I planted Asters freely offered by a stranger cleaning out her flowerbeds. Together, Mitch and I participated with those shoots of new life and the earth’s worm labourers in practicing resurrection, to renew this yard and our selves.

And then, the next day came and the next.  All I could see was the weeds, the overgrown grass in the cracks, the care I didn’t know how to manage in my quest for newness.  I thought of buying some flowers for the hanging baskets of dirt I filled.  I wondered about hanging the baskets or something else on the fence outside the kitchen window, but I wasn’t sure.  I asked my friend Jean about pruning the rose bushes but she said it wasn’t time yet.

But, this house came with a broom, too, a stiff one with worn-off bristles that Mitch thought useless.  That’s something I know how to do: sweep.  So, I did. 

Whether the bottom of that broom was purposefully cut off or simply worn down with use, it works.  That dense pack of straw makes a hearty sweeping sound and loosens grime on the time-worn cement porch of the shed and carport.  I scooped up everything in the corners, disrupting a few of my fellow workers who scurried off to find another shelter under the thin rotting wall. 

Sweeping was an act of restoration for this moment.  All those leaves and sticks and dirt will return with the wind. The little creatures will come back to re-inhabit those corners.  The grass will grow back in that crevice between the cement and the asphalt of the driveway. 

Sweeping is what I knew to do.  Then, I watched the sun illuminate the lush lacy growth surrounding the daffodils.  I was certain the earthworms were nourishing this growth. I am included in the earth’s revival.

Hands-on Lent

Dryer lint.    

Dryer lint was the inspiration for “Sawatsky’s Sign-off,” the last story on our local newscast. Something about this particular story made me take notice—the creativity, found beauty, care for the environment, and use of art to speak volumes.  The artist Margie has a keen eye for the impossible.

Margie’s dryer lint creations, as Adam Sawatsky reported, explore the biggest issues of the human condition: a figurative work about being more loving, abstracts about our impact on the environment, pieces that migrated into each other over time to make a new result and shared as trading cards.  All inviting us to tangibly see our world through another lens.

Fast-forward just a day or two. In the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, I continued reading Rachel Held Evan’s book, Wholehearted Faith. Rachel explained her inspiration to turn something ugly into something beautiful as a Lenten practice.  Over 40 days, she “let her fingers pray out” origami swans and sailboats and foxes from pages of hateful mail and she learned some things.

And it struck me, that is what Margie did with the dryer lint that she couldn’t just throw away.  And, what Mike Martin and his dad Fred began doing after the Sandy Hook tragedy.  Mike and Fred literally turn guns into garden tools in their garage blacksmith shop in Colorado.  And I’m certain you might have your own story to tell about practicing resurrection.

Rachel Held Evans wrote, “whether it’s turning an AK-47 into a rake, an old tire into a flower bed, or trash into a work of art, there is something profoundly fitting about struggling through the creative process with the goal of finishing something new by Easter to provide a tangible, hands-on experience in discipline, resurrection, and restoration.”  I knew this was something Mitch and I needed to figure out how to do together, especially this spring of 2022. 

We have been sheltered here on this Island where we live compared to most of the world.  I watch images of violence and hate that fill pages of our newspaper. We witness crowds of protestors of Old Growth logging and the outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people and linger near the hundreds of children’s’ shoes and stuffed animals that line the steps of the BC legislature building in our city.  Each pair represent a child who never returned home from the church-run residential schools in our province.  These are sorrows we carry together. 

So what will it change if I use my hands to heal something I can see?  Something that I will have to struggle to learn how to affect for good?

Rachel said she learned that “we are meant to remake this world together.  We hurt together and we are called to heal together, forgive together, and create together.’

Today, Mitch and I are going to begin our almost 40 days of hands-on care for what has been neglected for a very long time in our own backyard.

Simply Listen

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  Traditionally, I understand these 40 days before Easter as a time of self-examination, letting go of the old, readying for something new.  And to be honest, we seem to have done a lot of that during the pandemic and I am not exactly sure what to do with some of my discoveries.

So, I was struck with something Marilyn McEntyre wrote in Adverbs for Advent another reflective time in the Christian calendar.

Simply… expect that we will be given what we need for our own

growth—that we will be invited again and again to awaken, pay

attention, learn, stretch into love in new ways, practice discernment,

exercise generosity or rest, and be held in a rich and joyous way of life

The sun peeked through the clouds; so, I decided to ride my bike to get an onion and a cucumber that I needed for supper.  I started out a different way than I usually go and realized the road was a little more “uphill” than I wanted to climb.  I abruptly took the next turn.  I happened to be a few blocks from Willow Beach. 

I decided to stop. I parked my bike in the rack on the least traveled end of the beach. There weren’t many beach walkers.  A few dogs fetched driftwood and a lone young man braved entering the chilly water. I walked close to the ripple of approaching water.  I am ever in awe of the changing tide and the spaciousness of the sea and sky. 

When I turned from the water toward my bike, I noticed a lady who appeared to be putting something into my helmet that was tied to the handlebars.  She turned and walked on with her friend.

As I approached, I could see the thick green leaves of the surprise she left—a branch of bay leaves.  On a paper heart, the lady had spelled out the benefits of adding the bay leaf’s freshness to the lentils and rice I’d planned for dinner.  I stuffed the bouquet in my backpack, smiling now as I started out for the market.  Everyone seemed friendlier as I made my way into the store.  The ride home seemed easier too.

Maybe, Lent 2022 is a journey from old visions of our lives that have been upended, and instead of figuring out whatever “it” is for us; we will risk being surprised by new im-possibilities. I can trust that each day will offer its own invitation and when my mind is quiet, I will hear the Voice I most need to hear.

The Promise of February

I’ve been waiting since August for February.  That fact is surprising considering that I live in the Pacific Northwest where winter is dark until after breakfast and dusk comes well before dinnertime. And now it’s more than ten days into February and the days are getting longer and yet, the darkness still hovers over an early supper.

February, where I live, is rainy and grey, but I’ve seen evidence that something is coming that I can’t quite see, yet…

February 29, 2020, in Victoria, walking home from my yoga class.

On August 10 in 2021, I was reading the novel, Olive, Again, the sequel to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.  I have read most of Strout’s novels because she creates people that we might not be friends with in real life, but we know them.  And Elizabeth Strout makes us love them in a Jesus kind of way—if I can say that.  Seeing the inside of them, with all their, and our own, inconsistencies.

I wrote down a few paragraphs in my notebook that I wanted to remember.  It was about February.

A few years ago, folk singer Carrie Newcomer wrote a song, The Beautiful, Not Yet, in which she described this time of year as a “quickening.”   Carrie said we live our lives “between then and soon, right here and now, in the beautiful not yet.”  I used to listen to the song over and over at that disappointing time in my life to give hope for a resolution to changes and chances that were beyond my control.  That was February, too.

Olive, Again is 13 short stories that are about Olive and people in her small town in Maine that she affects in some way.  One of those stories is about Cindy, who was a student in teacher Olive’s high school math class many years before. Olive visits Cindy, whose cancer in midlife has advanced, and they quietly watch the sun go down together on the February day. 

Cindy, thinking over her life that is coming to an end, is remembering her longing to be a writer when she was younger.  Strout writes Cindy’s surprising hope, relived at this moment.

What she would have written about was the light in February.  How it changed the way the world looked.  People complained about February; it was cold and snowy and often times wet and damp and people were ready for spring.  But for Cindy the light of the month had always been like a secret, and it remained as a secret even now. 

Because in February, the days were really getting longer and you could see it, if you really looked.  You could see how at the end of each day the world seemed cracked open and the extra light made its way across the stark trees and promised.  It promised, that light, and what a thing it was.  As Cindy lay on her bed she could see this even now, the gold of the last light opening the world.

Olive, Again

My everyday life has changed quite a bit since February 2018, when I first heard Carrie’s song about the “beautiful, not yet.”  And yet this February 2022, I need to expectantly pay attention to the quickening that precedes new light.  In the last two years, my life has moved on and at the same time seems to have stalled. 

To see the light in all the seemingly challenging circumstances of our lives, of my life right now; the dilemmas I face are not ones that hinder living abundantly.  If I wasn’t concerned with these things, I’m certain there would be others that scurry in and take their place. 

Really look, Cindy says, at the light—the goodness and the gloriousness that surround me.  For me, I often discover something I didn’t know to look for up close.

Walking the dog last week, I saw two oystercatchers on the rocks that frame the sea. I’d never seen an oystercatcher close up.  Actually, until a few months ago, I didn’t know there was such a bird.  Even on this misty February day, the birds’ bright red beaks and sharp black bodies and pink legs filled the moment with delight. 

That’s what I do; I miss the wonder that is right in front of me in my searching for an elusive something that I’m on the right track. 

Black Oystercatcher, Victoria, British Columbia, Creative Commons

Cindy said you really have to look to see the world crack open.  That extra light that seeps in in February is a promise, an opening to see my world with awe, wonder, and newness. 

Look with your arms wide open.

It has been at least a week of days, probably more like two. The day ends in wonder… literally. What did I do all day? I might rally the next day and do something that counts in productiveness’ eye as worthwhile. 

Lately, I sit in my old red chair in the living room where I can see out the window.  I read and take note of well-crafted sentences.  I thoughtfully copy whole paragraphs in my notebook that mean something to me.  I read texts and savour pictures of my family that live too far away. I walk my dog, always to the sea, and wonder at the vicissitudes: whether the day is grey or bright, how the winds and tide shift the décor, how the gulls catch air and glide and a big heron rests on the rock where I linger. 

And then, when I felt like I needed to do something, I picked up Mary Oliver’s book, Devotions, and just opened to a page.  It was page 186, not quite in the middle.  I like that about a book of poetry; order is not required, you can begin anywhere and only read one page to get filled up.  This one began,

There are things you can’t reach. But

you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away.  The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

Yes, I know the joy of that kind of busy, but I’m glad Mary went on to explain,

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.

Open to receiving.  That is worth doing. 

WHERE DOES THE TEMPLE BEGIN, WHERE DOES IT END?

There are things you can’t reach. But

you can reach out to them, and all day long. 

The wind, the bird flying away.  The idea of God.

 And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,

out of water and back in; the goldfinches sing

            from the unreachable top of the tree.

 I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

 Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around

as though with you arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some

            shining coil of wind,

            or a few leaves from any old tree—

              they are all in this too.

 And now I will tell you the truth.

Everything in the world

comes. 

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

 Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.

Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold

fluttering around the corner of the sky

 of God, the blue air.

Mary Oliver, Devotions