Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tatting with Life and Language

I have written before about why I like carrying a book in my daily bag even if I know I might not get to read it. There is something about the company of a known written work that pleases me.  When read in different contexts or at different moments in time, the ideas, the language, create new lacework for me to explore; and yet, the thread remains familiar. There is a relationship between mind, heart, Word, and environment that is creative.  Doors open, veils drop, stone walls tumble, the boat is launched.  And with the crack of a spine or the ‘shoof’ of a page, I have entered a space that would not otherwise be available.  So, even when I don’t read the book in my bag, the possibility that it holds to lead me into these spaces, is a potential I find pleasing.

That said, there are other texts…those texts that are with me always, no matter the book in my bag.  The lines that are summoned during a wonder; the memory of a book or reference that informs a conversation; or a casual mention that has me recall—Oh yes, I remember meeting those lines, that poet, that rhythm or sound…—and I find myself mentally unfolding a piece of paper that had been saved but perhaps shuffled into a pile, or wad, of other memories/references.

That happened to me recently with a three-line Mary Oliver poem within a poem.  The lines are widely known, and in fact, known by heart by me; however, I hadn’t thought of them in a while.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

—from the poem “Sometimes” in Redbird; Beacon Press: Boston, 2009; p. 37—

At times, these lines have helped me frame my curiosity, wonder, and passion for written expression.  Given the context of their unfolding this time around—a gathering of 42 RSCJ ranging from their 30s-70s who spent the weekend together in prayer, laughter, and sometimes challenging invitation, in listening, and in meaningful conversation—I find in them a simple statement of that to which I have given my life. 

Pay attention…to God; to the world; to the neighbor; to the mirror; to that which cries out, aches, is in need.

Be astonished… be filled with awe, be angry, weep, gnash, act, learn, love, be open, be open, be open…to what is encountered.

Tell about it… Be affected, let the world affect me, who I am and how I am; Act out of that; write out of that; proclaim out of that in word and in deed and in the life lived and the things loved and the ideals believed in (Janet Erskine Stuart, RSCJ).

(And the tatting begins anew…)

Which all together calls to mind paragraph 4 of our Constitutions: 

By our charism, we are consecrated/ to GLORIFYING THE HEART OF JESUS: /we answer His call/to discover and reveal His love/ letting ourselves be transformed by His Spirit/ so as to live united and conformed to Him,/ and through our love and service/ to radiate the very love of His Heart.

As well as the poem, Famous by poet Naomi Shihab Nye:


    The river is famous to the fish.

    The loud voice is famous to silence,   
    which knew it would inherit the earth   
    before anybody said so.   

    The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
    watching him from the birdhouse.   

    The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

    The idea you carry close to your bosom   
    is famous to your bosom.   

    The boot is famous to the earth,   
    more famous than the dress shoe,   
    which is famous only to floors.

    The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
    and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

    I want to be famous to shuffling men   
    who smile while crossing streets,   
    sticky children in grocery lines,   
    famous as the one who smiled back.

    I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
    or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
    but because it never forgot what it could do.

And sometimes, to remember what that is, I find it helpful to write something down…to add a few knots of life and language to the lacework that somehow draws together what is lived, how it is lived and to what end, and the call to still more…

a free-form act of Love in the world.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Grace and Unreliable Narrators

I come from a family of unreliable narrators.  —Luis Alberto Urrea

I read that in part of a news article caption the other day and was immediately taken by the honest truth of the statement.  In some respects, we are all unreliable narrators when laying down or letting out our versions of life lived.  How much that matters all depends on what we are hoping for as readers or listeners or would-be believers of tales spun, told, or set forth in a variety of different sensory mediums.

If I am the teller, can I accept the fact that my version of something is nothing more or less than precisely that…my version, my experience?  I don’t think that diminishes truth in anyway…it simply respects and acknowledges that there is a larger one.

And, as a consumer of media, I might find a voice or a collection of voices (a particular news source, for example) entirely reliable; however, do I consider that I might believe in the inherent truth of what is being reported because what I am reading or hearing agrees with what I already think?  In which case, as it is clear that not everyone thinks as I do, it is reasonable to assume others have found different news sources that are also reliable because the narration that issues forth from them agrees with what They already think or believe.  Or, is reliability related to a broad perspective? Reliability=reliable sources? Reliable sources=???  It could also be that in a given moment, a particular, if limited, perspective is precisely what is necessary.  Life saving medical advice comes to mind.

Then there is fiction.  An unreliable fiction narrator could be a convention of the author for some purpose that gets revealed over paragraphs and chapters.  It could also be shoddy writing.  Fiction, though, presumes a certain suspension of the need for synching with a belief system or way of thinking.  After a certain age, no matter how much we sometimes might wish it could be otherwise, we know that fiction books are products of an author’s imagination and exist in that mystical plane we can access, pass though, revisit, but not live in on a permanent basis if we are to participate in the here and now of our daily reality with a measure of presence, honesty, productivity, relationship, etc.

I was thinking about all of this while reading this morning’s readings—particularly Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  …because of of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, he brought us to life with Christ—by grace you have been saved…by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.

Whatever it is that we do, what works we offer, it is not that alone that will save us…and when I think save us I think about bringing us home at the end of the journey.  This will not happen in isolation, with only our limited and unreliable narration to tell the tale and make our case.

The case, thankfully, is made by the ultimate—if wondrously mysterious—narrator, God.  And so are we.

And it begins with, ends with, and is composed of, love. Love in the land of Here there be Monsters, Love when we splash about in rivers or nearly drown in the ocean.  Love when we are deep in the grit of the desert and love when we rest in the easy company of friends.

We are brought home again, led by the word of Love that has been the grace of each footfall, the grace of each breath and restart, and reevaluation of perspective.  Not because we merit such company by virtue of the things we’ve done along the way…but because God is God.

Utterly reliable, with eternal perspective, and broad welcome for the diverse patterns and personalities of creation.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Stained with Light

~I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light…~ 

—Mary Oliver from her book Upstream 

I have wrestled...

It speaks of a vulnerable opening up and engaging rather than a protective crouching; honesty; courage and the acknowledgment of fear; a staying-put and a willingness to ache. And it calls for a “why.”  Otherwise, what’s the point of staying when one could easily turn, run, and hide? There are plenty of options for that and plenty who choose them.

With the angel... 

To wrestle with the presence of God…to hear the whisper and want for a windstorm, perhaps; to fear the honesty of that encounter; to waver in the strength of conviction that we are assured, “Nothing can separate you from my love…” or to grow hard of hearing…

And yet, to choose to engage with the angel.  To choose to wrestle…because in spite of whatever trepidation, there is an attraction that won’t go away…an attraction that will not leave behind a sense of peace if avoided or ignored.  

Stained with light…

To be marked by struggle and have that mark be a stain of light…I find that entirely beautiful:  To become more transparent through struggle…to become more whole, more human, in that revelation…and to have that look like light…feel like light…Be light.

This is all certainly something to consider in a unique way as the liturgical season of Lent deepens…

Though, it is something I consider each time I find myself engaging the angel in a match and over the course of our time together answering her question— What is my ‘why?’  

And I come back over and again to Love. 

Love in its fullness and complexity.  Love in its freedom and welcome and beckon and home and sending… Love in its relationship, its forgiveness and mercy…

Love in its light, in its light, in its light…

And then, for now, the tussle is eased and the stain spreads just that much more.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Between Ink and the Internet

I enjoy learning new things.  Sometimes they are new things with a purpose and sometimes, it is simply because they are interesting.  No matter the why, in the ideal, whatever it is that I learn helps me understand something larger than the skill or task at hand, helps me see or think differently, or at least notice a glinting light reflecting somewhere I had not thought to look in the past.

I am the director of Barat Spirituality Centre, located on the first floor of our community house in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It has been open for about two years now and is steadily becoming better known in the archdiocese.  We advertise our programs in different places, have an email list of those interested in knowing what is happening, post on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  What we did not have was a website.  Until about a week ago.

We Now Have a Website!

I’ll not go into the joy of knowing that I accomplished a significant goal I had set last spring when meeting with a member of the provincial team or even the benefit that I hope the site will be for generating new interest and participation in events at the Centre.

What has been reason for deeper contemplation for me is the depth of pleasure I have received while learning new skills that have to do directly and differently with writing, design, and how those things interact with humanity.

I find it absolutely fascinating.  Besides learning how to set up a simple, clean, functional site and what Search Engine Optimization even means before learning how to cultivate it, I have experienced a coming together of heretofore seemingly disparate concepts.

A librarian by graduate degree, I am well familiar with the e-book vs. print debates that extend beyond questions of personal preference and reach into the future of “print and ink culture” and the debate of its sure demise. For the record, I am unabashedly in the print book category—unless traveling for such a time as to make it impractical to carry enough material to last.  And, I will vehemently argue that the demise of print and ink culture would spell the demise of something essential to the flourishing of civilization.


I think the world of the internet and the world of print culture might not be so far removed as they are sometimes made out to be—or at least, as they are sometimes imagined to be.

When I was staring at a blank template for the website I was creating and looking at the menu—Add: Text; Image; Table; etc… and noticing that choosing the Text option brought up a text box that could then be expanded, contracted, generally manipulated, to accommodate both the language and the space on the particular page, I was imagining typesetters of days gone by.  Typesetters and their sticks, arranging the letters and inserting the lines in their arrangements, adding “furniture” to get the spacing they needed for the confines of the paper and in consideration of the other items that would be inserted before locking the whole thing with quoins in a chase, giving you the forme that is the whole which will run through the press.

The process is really not so far removed.  It’s just being done on a computer.  So, yes, it’s “easier” but what you are considering as you work is not all together different.

How many times have you gone to a website and thought no-no-no-no…too much flash, too many things for my eyes to attend to…  With printers, it was about the quoins and the furniture…how to space it all so that an eye could both see a unit and move to the next, or to an advertisement.  Font and size of font… Think about famous headlines from history—BIG CLEAR FONT across the front of the page.  It’s where you want the eye to go because there is something the public needs to know.  How do I want to have the eye move on a website I might be designing?  How does the shape of the font relate to the content it is relating and what is the take-away feel I’d like to promote in the person who is visiting my site?  Calm? Excited? Is the subject more matter-of-fact/clinical or is it something else?

The links are many and fascinating to me… because as I consider all of this I realize that no matter what the medium…iron gall and dip pen on vellum, metal type and printing press on cotton paper, a keyboard and a screen on no paper at all… the act of creation, the putting forth of information, the desire to reach out and communicate something necessary, whimsical, provoking, despairing, loving…must consider the human being who will connect with it.

And while the formats might have changed over time and I know there is science that says brain wiring has changed in this digital age, I can’t help but think that the essence of our humanity hasn’t.
Communication matters to us.  Relationships of all kinds matter to us.  In part, it is how we make sense of the world around us.  And as that world becomes more and more complex, it seems like those relationships have taken on all together new import.

Maybe we get more emails with emojis than letters with illuminations…but if it’s from someone you love, can’t you still tell and aren’t we still grateful? The pop-up message from a friend too far away that simply says “CLUNK” and has a picture of a coffee mug…  I love knowing she’s having a coffee and thinking of me.  The fact that I can re-visit exhibitions at the Metropolitan Art Museum online!  How cool is that…

And, print, pen and ink haven’t gone away…

New books still smell good and I love a good set of Smythe sewn pages…
Also, I got a letter and a postcard just this morning.  And it made my heart happy.  So does working on our website.

“Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large and I contain multitudes.”
—Walt Whitman—

(And if you'd care to visit the site for Barat Spirituality Centre, you can click HERE )

Monday, February 19, 2018

Beyond the Immediate

Beyond the Immediate

I took a walk this morning in the holiday-quiet streets.  It was a bright-eyed quiet…crisp and inviting. So I walked…and stopped periodically, rather hoping no one was watching and wondering what I was doing.  I was listening. And looking. And steeping my senses in something detectable though just beyond the immediate. 

I returned home and installed myself in the corner table of the downstairs dining room to do some work while soup did its thing on the stove in the kitchen.  Dividing my attention between the keys in front of me and what was happening in the other room, it occurred to me that much of what happens inside that simple, humble, pot, is also something just beyond the immediate.  It’s chemistry, it’s science, it’s a bit of knowledge, a handful of creative luck; it’s time, hope, patience, and if needed, adaptation. It is layers of flavor, welcome, home, hearth, and nourishment.

There is so much just past the immediate.

And maybe that is where the desert-journey of Lent leads…Maybe that is the draw onward that calls to the students who will be walking out in protest of gun violence...the burning in the hearts of those headed toward Emmaus…That place just beyond the immediate….detectable, desirable, and worth the cost.

The fullness of Mystery, fullness of Love, fullness of grace, justice, welcome…drawing us through an immediate that brings out the absolute fullness of humanity—the potential for devastating hatred and violence as well as the capacity for extraordinary strength, generosity, and tenderness. 

What a gift we have been given to consciously choose to open up our senses, our mind, spirit, being, to something beyond the immediate; to be oriented by a Love known in the here and now and also so much bigger and to let that be what draws us onward, let that be what shapes and informs us--and through us, those around us, on this journey.

Winter Blue Light Lentil Soup 
(Born out of opening drawers and seeing what was there that needed using)

Heat up a good glug of olive oil in a heavy bottom soup pot that has a lid

Sautee the following until the onions are soft and you can smell the spices

1 bok choy, chopped
1 small zucchini, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small bag of baby carrots
about a teaspoon of cumin
a shake or two or three of dried chipotle pepper flakes


a mostly drained can of diced tomatoes (the ones with red pepper if you want kick)
A good handful or two of red lentils (I just reached in the bag and grabbed)
Chicken broth to cover everything
Let burble for a half-hour or so.  Blend with an immersion blender. 

Polish up finished soup with a short glug of rice wine vinegar.