Linger to Listen

If I really keep my eyes peeled and my ears open, if I really pay attention to it, even such a seemingly limited life as the one I live will speak to me.  That’s what he showed me, in ways that I couldn’t have envisioned.  Frederick Buechner is an extraordinary gift to my life.

The man, Buechner, died this last week. His life will continue to share the vividness of his message that is fleshed out in stories from his own life and the lives he created in his novels. Listen to your life, he explained, is the essence of everything he was trying to say as both a novelist and a preacher. So, I’m listening to my life because he showed me how.

For the past four years, I’ve lived with the beauty of the natural world front and center. The ways this physical place communicates with me are startlingly sensory and have their own pattern of revelation.  

I have said many times that living in Victoria is a gift we’ve been given.  The abundance of life, masses of rock teeming with substance, shoreline, water, and sky never appear the same. I’ve come to depend upon the unfolding of my generative relationship with this place.

Eudora Welty writes that the events of our lives happen in a sequence of time and find their own order of significance that “is a continuous thread of revelation.” For me, that revelation comes through a pattern of wondering, sensing, experiencing, and noticing that there is something to listen to. Reading and writing weave together the threads.

Usually, well always, I wonder about things.  There are a few questions that are perennial:  What do I do?  What does God do?  What just happens?  I don’t expect to hear an answer.  I suppose a lifetime of measuring keeps me asking.  I am sure these are distracting questions. Listening is not an answer but a way of making a place for ourselves to belong.

This summer, we have experienced some of the lowest tides in years and so much of the rock usually below the water is exposed. I’ve walked out a bit farther and observed the life that clings to those rocks. I look closely into the slippery verdant patches where I can’t safely walk. The birds can, though. That blue heron rests on one edge for a time, and then I spot the four oystercatchers. 

The birds’ black bodies show off those long red beaks and fleshy legs and feet. I hadn’t seen them for a couple of months. I suppose they were taking advantage of the bounty the exposure provided so they lingered.  I took time, too, to watch them. 

At first, I wasn’t certain the sound I heard was coming from those shorebirds. The sharp loud cry hung in the air.  I looked up, expecting to see a crow flying overhead.  The oystercatcher’s beak was indeed opening into the air.  I sat down to listen and take in the spectacle. 

Oh do you have time to linger…

Little did I know how it would take me a few more days to remember; to remember again the gift of persisting in that moment.  How could I not sit down on that rock and listen?  That’s also the day I read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Invitation.” 

Savouring Mary’s insight, I heard that my own flamboyant birds, those oystercatchers, did not strut and call for my sake or the man near me who also stopped to wonder about the birds. They did it for the sheer delight and gratitude for the snacks the sea left them when the water changed course. 

There is a pattern, dare I say, to how God speaks through my questions, experiences of each place, and, yes, other people’s words that open me beyond my limited way of seeing the world.

The birds and rocks and water teach me how to live in this world—to soak up this place in delight and gratitude.

Believe us, they say,
   it is a serious thing
just to be alive
 on this fresh morning
  in this broken world.

(from ‘The Invitation” by Mary Oliver) 

So you must not judge what I know by what I have words for. 

 From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The Moss Lady in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

This is the Moss Lady. My favourite place to sit in the park is on the bench hewn from a massive log that is across from her. I’m sure it was placed to respectfully take in the majesty of this spot. I started to add another image that seemed full of hidden mystery and then I remembered the Moss Lady. I imagined her ear and her palm listening to the earth. Listening for what we don’t have words to say.

I want to believe that.  I want to believe that what seems to be true and I cannot explain is real. I want to believe that God is present in my lost-ness and my longing to belong or whatever sense that is.  I want to believe that I can rest in that unknown—that I can dig all manner of weeds, read books, walk around, and gratefully lack control.

And yet, I look for tangible evidence of what does matter. How can I not know that? Because I cannot square what I choose with what happens? “What am I to do” or more accurately “what should I do” seems to be a question I ask too often. 

Every day there are moments when I connect with the Creator and when I’m really brave—with other people.  I long for those assurances, for belonging even when I cannot name what that is or how it happens.  When I’ve caught a glimpse of that mystery, it doesn’t depend on me.

Those moments are both expected and surprising and sometimes, I miss them.  I cherish a particular span of time with my Aunt Edna when my mom and I cared for her in the last months of her life. Less than a year later, I was doing the same caregiving for my Mom that made dying seem familiar and shared.  Then, I spent his last days with my Dad when weeks became moments and words were only mine–a rare thing to happen between us since he was “a talker.” My sister Lisa came to stay with me for a week when I knew the end of her life was inevitable and the end of her life still showed up unexpectedly, half a month later.

Those moments our family shared gradually accumulated to reflect our whole lives. During those days, I knew an irrational peace while time stood still. I didn’t really consider things I “needed to do;” I simply entered into what came in the next few minutes as I did the everyday things with extraordinary attention.

That collected experience might be why I spent a single night with Carolyn and her husband Harold. I’d only exchanged a few words with Harold over the years I saw them at church.  Mitch and I stopped by the hospice room on our way home that evening.  Neither of us remembers how we both decided to visit.  As their pastor, Mitch had checked in on them before but my involvement now seems happenstance.

When we arrived, we learned Carolyn and Harold’s only daughter Susan unexpectedly had to drive back home, three hours away, and would return the next morning.  Carolyn would be alone in the room with Harold that night, where she and Susan had held death’s vigil for weeks. 

I simply offered, “I can stay.”  I didn’t consider that I had not even made it home from work on that day. I don’t remember anything Carolyn and I talked about or if we shared a meal before the daylight waned. I can still see her, a petite brunette with kind eyes, sitting in the big chair at the end of Harold’s bed.

I slept in the other lounge chair and listened to Harold’s noisy breathing.  I knew about death rattles, as they are called, from Edna and then my Mom’s last days when their lungs were filling up with fluid that would eventually silence the rattling.  And that was Harold’s quiet end just before dawn. 

Carolyn thanked me for staying as we waited for Susan and Mitch to return. I was grateful, too, although I can’t explain why.  Grateful for the happenstance and unquestioning response, I suppose. Grateful for the enormity of blessing in the presence of death

Maybe I can trust this kind of unexpected turn to an ordinary Friday. I say that our lives cannot be reasoned when that is precisely what I continue to try to accomplish when I second-guess and fret over what I do and what I could do, and what just happens. Maybe I will do that a little less if I keep my ear and my palm resting on the earth like the Moss Lady.

How would I live if I attended to an experience of time that I cannot reason or control or even fill up of my own volition?  Would I relax my mind, refrain from worry and fret, and listen?

I don’t know how to explain how death made life unencumbered in my experiences.  There isn’t an absence of pain, reflection, or blessing; there is an alteration of focus.  And it is not my wondering that has a word to add.  Yet, there is the spirit of hope and healing and connection and Love that is real; LIVE THERE.

Look

Yesterday was a good morning. 

However, I didn’t wake up in that goodness.  Instead of warming up to the new light and a wide-open expanse of time on the horizon, I complained.  I worried about things that are not my business.

The day changed when I did proper work instead of looking for some elusive solution or another problem to ponder.  On a good morning, my work is to read, usually three things that are nourishing.  This morning I read an article in Canadian Geographic about Prince Edward Island’s answer to the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. I would like to experience that kind of sustained walk. I read the fourth chapter of Acts from The Message; I came a little late to appreciate Eugene Peterson’s life work. I read a poem from Mary Oliver’s book, Devotion, just because she heals me.

I am always looking.

The Island Walk is a 700-kilometer journey around Prince Edward Island, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces.  The walk was created without particular religious significance unless you appreciate like I do, the legacy of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne upended her fictional faith community that is preserved on the Island.  The trail promises to “discover a humbling place and to come back different.”  I copied down the article author’s sentiment that his portion of the walk left him “with a sense that if I just let things be, I will eventually get where I am going.”

In Acts 4, Peter and John talk back to those authorities that sought to silence them.  In the Message translation they answer the religious leaders,  “Whether it’s right in God’s eyes to listen to you rather than to God, you decide.  As for us, there’s no question –we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.”

What I noticed was that Peter and John didn’t debate the authorities, telling them that they were wrong to condemn Peter and John’s response to God’s spirit.  They opened a window.  Peter and John did not manipulate or convince or threaten.  They simply told the accusers to make up their own minds.  But for Peter and John “there’s no question –we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.”

I spend precious moments wondering why—why other people think and respond the ways they do—even when I don’t know what I’m doing.  Well, I situate my wondering as something other than what it is: I think I want to help but I really want to control; I want clarification when I’m silently judging.  What if I was about minding my own work to do?

Maybe the verb should not be that I am looking at what is clearly someone else’s concern. Maybe the verb that describes my best work is to “look” in the present tense, at that moment, just in that moment. My best work is to pay attention, to honour, to see the goodness and grace of God in the sliver of this day that I am in, the part I can touch and that touches me.

So after reading the third nourishing thing, I took a walk to the sea, to a new spot I found hidden behind the marina on the Turkey Head Walkway.  I sat on a big rock closest to the tide coming in.  I looked at the life that attaches itself to those rocks and adapts to the challenging conditions when the tide is low. The clear water lapped the shore.  I sat and watched and listened; I can count on Mary Oliver.

I go down to the shore in the morning and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall –

what should I do?  And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

I prayed that I would recognize my work to do this day. The waiting anemones left me with the sense that I can let other people’s responses be their own. 

Gate at Abby of Gethsemani

God rest in my heart

and fortify me,

take away my hunger for answers…

                        Mary Oliver

What a perfect prayer for me today. 

REST in my heart, God—

Don’t just be here but rest here, get comfortable, take your own kind of time, relax, take refuge, lean in, don’t worry, find comfort, forget, enjoy, just be—all of those things are rest for me—are they the same for you?

FORTIFY me—

I’ve been troubled, heavy in my heart, sad, loving, and occasionally surprised, but mostly I look to the wrong things to fill my heart and mind.  Fortify seems to mean what will build me up, strengthen what I already am, and encourage what will help me face whatever comes, all the hard things.  And maybe, I will know God’s presence alongside the woe.

TAKE AWAY my hunger for answers—

My will to solve each mystery, to figure out why and when it will be fixed, healed, made new—for the better of me—and what I perceive to be true.  Show me how to let go and let God, to not make “it” my business.

But there is greater comfort

in the substance of Silence,

than in the answer to a question.

                        Thomas Merton

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.