I’m always interested in words and was delighted to learn something entirely new about a word I’ve used often. I’m assuming that if you are reading my blog, you are a word-lover too.
On a recent eight-day retreat I attended (on Zoom), the first teaching focused on the word “sincere”. If asked prior to this, I suppose my meaning of the word was something like “I really mean it” or “what I’m saying is true” or even “from the heart.” But I learned on retreat that the older meaning is “unbroken”. And that meaning has a story.
In Roman times, potters were so good at fixing broken pots with wax that from the outside one couldn’t tell there had been cracks in them. But if one looked inside the pot, the wax was apparent and one knew it had been broken before. In those times, sincere meant literally, “unwaxed” and thus literally “unbroken.” Such an unexpected etymology of this word!
When I apply that meaning to the spiritual journey, being sincere means that the way I present myself on the outside is no different from what is true on the inside. Sincerity then is being authentic. No brokenness of saying one thing but meaning another. No false flattery. No trying to be other than that which you really are. Some would add “Warts and all.” But I could also say that it’s harder sometimes to tell the truth about yourself “no matter how beautiful it is.” (A quote from spiritual writer, Macrina Wiedeker.) It is another way of saying that when I’m sincere I’m truthful. Yet that is only half the meaning— it is truth with kindness. As one teacher said, “It’s soft honesty.”
I am taking this meaning of the word, “sincere” now as almost a divining rod that guides my words and actions when I am aware. Am I really being sincere when I say that? When I choose that? When I think that?
That inquiry brings me home to myself. A long journey for the soul, but one I’m sincerely willing to take.
In the last post I knew I was going to “shoot some darlings” from my first draft of my memoir. It turns out a huge chunk of what I consider my first pilgrimage will have to go. The excerpt below is a memory I love so much but just doesn’t fit into the next draft. But I always promise my “darlings” I won’t thrown them away, but use them in another way. So this is that venue. As a little backstory, I traveled with my college friend, Julie after we both finished our graduate school programs but just before we took our first jobs. We depended on the famous book in 1974, Europe on $10 a Day (and we did it). The last month of our three month trip was spent in Italy; our favorite city of the whole trip was Florence or Firenze as it is called in Italy. (Why is it different? Paris is Paris?) We were having lunch with some new Italian friends who were excited to tell us about their city.
“Have you seen the David,” one asked.
“No, but we will tomorrow,” we replied.
There was a pause and incredulous look. “Not seen the David yet,” he said. “Oh then you have not been to Firenze. The David, he is alive! You can look at him from one side and believe you see him. But then, you look again and he sees you. You look from another side, and he is different again. And yet his eyes will follow you, will draw you in, will ask you why, will hold all sorrow, all joy. He wants to speak to you and you will want to answer. It is magnifico.”
I remember thinking that not only he, but everyone at the table spoke of this marble statue as a living person, not a sculpture that was 500 years old. It only heightened our anticipation of seeing one of the most famous sculptures of Michelangelo Burranoti.
We went the very next day to the Accademia Gallery. But before we even reached the door, I had a profound moment. A small slit in the shade into the museum radiated a white light. Stopping, I saw the white light was emanating from my first glimpse of The David. It captured me from the corner of my eye, just a moment’s glance—and yet it stopped me in my tracks and held my breath. I was no longer aware of my body; I was completely taken by this striking white figure in marble that exuded light. They were right. He was alive. I hurried to see him more fully once inside the museum. As instructed by our new Italian friends, I spent a long time gazing at him from all sides. It was as if he knew all the stories of all time, and all the ways one could fail, falter and yet rise again, could love and trust God and then fall back, depending only on one’s own reason and strength. The David could look at each of us and commiserate with our human condition—and yet in all of it, so much beauty.
There were four other statues by Michelangelo in the Accademia; four figures writhing as if trying to free themselves from blocks of rough cut stone, yet still bound. They were called by some, “the Slaves “or by some “the Prisoners.” The brochure from the Accademia says, “It is claimed that the artist deliberately left them incomplete to represent their eternal struggle of human beings to free themselves from their material trappings.”
These rough and incomplete sculptures came from large cubes of marble maybe 4’ by 4’. Unlike the mesmerizing influence of the perfect and polished David, they were still compelling. I could almost feel their pain, their struggle, their desperate need to break free. The accademia guidebook writes of them being the “non-finito” or uncompleted statues of Michelangelo.
I felt a little unsteady after leaving the Accademia. No art work had ever affected me so deeply. Art was not something that was of value in a hard-working farming community. And I hadn’t pursued an interest in it while taking classes that would lead to a job that would make me money. Without knowing it, I held a belief that art was for the dreamy and uncommitted. And perhaps for anyone who chose to live without financial resources. Certainly Michelangelo was not well paid. Yet I began to open to what it meant to be an artist—the passion, the commitment. A commitment to create beauty. To see beyond the familiar self to what potential lies beneath.
I’ve been a writer long enough to know that although it feels even violent at times, a piece of writing is usually helped by letting go of some parts of it that you love the best. Even if it’s just a word or phrase that seems perfect, there comes the humble moment when you know you have to let it go. There’s a term for it in the writers’ circles I’ve been part of over the years–“shooting the darlings.” It actually hurts to do it. That’s why the word “shooting” feels authentic.
I received the summary letter and line-by-line notations of my draft memoir back from the developmental editor last week. She was very affirming, insightful and at times even gushy about the writing. She seemed to understand the arc of the story and what I was hoping to convey about the art of pilgrimage and also the questions I took along on the journey. She feels like a good fit for this project. I was buoyed by her comments and questions.
And then she finished by recommending two options, both of which made me gulp a little. They both involve lopping off the last 20,% of the writing and perhaps working on that portion as another book on women’s friendships. Then filling in parts of the story with other writing to clarify and expand what is there. But option two was a bigger gulp; it felt I would be taking a shotgun to my manuscript. It would mean a big restructuring of the story by centering on the Camino pilgrimage and weaving in the other pilgrimages rather than keeping them in chronological order. As she summarized in her letter about this latter option,”Or, conversely, you might be open to a much bigger revision that makes this more fully realized, in terms of its literary and storytelling value, and probably more sellable/shareable as well. I am going to lean strongly toward the second option—the one that will stretch you.”
As I read her words, I immediately felt the weight of the second option; it would mean so much more time, work and decision-making. How would I ever be able to transition back and forth? How could I take a 5000 word section and make it flow into the story? It seemed I would need to rewrite the other pilgrimage stories as well. I could almost feel the bullets hitting the pages. But I also heard her advice that it would make this a better book, “more fully realized.”
I took option 3 of going “bravely to bed” to see how I would feel about it the next day. Then, as help from the universe usually comes to me, a friend called and he mentioned using The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz to help him sort out a dilemma in his current life. It’s a book I have sitting on my shelf. Would it help me make this choice? I pulled it off the shelf as I could only remember the first three agreements: 1) Be Impeccable With Your Word: 2) Don’t Take Anything Personally; 3) Don’t Make Assumptions. All not only good, but true statements of wisdom and guidance. But I had to open the book to remember the last one;
4) Always Do Your Best.
And there it was. that was it. I knew I wanted to always do my best; option 2 seemed an obvious choice in doing my best for this story. There really was no other choice.
I also knew I wanted to be impeccable with my word(s). And I saw I was making assumptions that it would be a lot of hard work and trouble to make the revision. Perhaps it would be enjoyable to take the challenge. The other agreement to not take things personally I felt I did know. I knew that needing to seriously revise this draft didn’t mean I wasn’t a good writer. I don’t think I took it personally. Yet even that agreement is one for me “to have and to hold” as I take the vulnerable step of thinking of publishing and marketing this book– not my original plan.
If you hear small gunshots in the night, it could be me, shooting my darlings.
A friend who knows my heart for poetry and that I was first a woman of the Plains, sent me this poem by Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize Winner in 2005 who lives in Nebraska and graduated from Iowa State, my alma mater. This poem is from the book Delights and Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, 2004. I’m glad this poem arrived for me now, as I turn 70 in a few days. I like its particularity of place and appreciation of how far we can travel in a very small distance. And I too can notice “the rows of sunken horseshoe pits” yet see the grapevine that “I can hold onto.”
Using this poem as a prompt for my own, and here is my take on “That Was I”.
That Was I
I was that woman you saw walking down Lowland Street,
in Eagle River, Alaska
slightly hunched in the cold,
a blue mask
on her face, it slightly wet with forced breath,
looking at her feet as even the low sun seemed cold
through the pines
and the shadows on the road more blue.
I had noticed I was shuffling a little,
weighed down with listless thoughts,
the sound of snow creaking ominously, old and stiff.
And that was I, who turned a corner
and, now out of the trees, hit with the full force of winter sun,
a warmth, weak but steady.
That was I who now saw how clearly the frosted branch
of the mountain ash
was exquisite against the blue sky and
stopped to be curious if three dimensions can take on four dimensions—
noticing that the tree in front of me was moving with brown wings,
not leaves, but Bohemian waxwings, in a mad competition
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. Franz Kafka
These are arresting words for me just now, the one who is writing a book. After two long, determined and failed efforts to write my memoir, this version decided to be written. At least that’s what it feels like this time–easy, even though putting in the time on it is the same. It seems this will be my long life lesson: when you stop trying, when you surrender control, when you give up, there is space for what is authentic to arise and to start this slow and intricate dance of creation.
The hardest thing for me was finding the structure of the book; I didn’t want it to be a linear “first I did this and then I did that.” What suddenly came together was: A LongWalk Home: One Woman’s Life as Pilgrimage. Or at least that is the working title. I wrote about 70,000 words and then sent it off to a developmental editor, much like leaving your toddler at preschool for the first time. It’s been with her for a few weeks now, while I take a rest from re-reading it and having second doubts.
While I wait and wonder what her editorial comments will be, I know at the same time the guts of this book is my truth. I am content with this book, even knowing there is much to edit in the coming months. But while I wait, this quote makes me reconsider my writing in light of Kafka’s assertion. Is it an axe for the frozen sea inside me? Would it be that for others? Have I identified the frozen sea in its totality yet?
It’s a vulnerable book already. I look at the many ways I have defended my heart and used my strong will to bulldoze my way through life–with mostly good intentions, but not always with a slowing to hear what guidance might come from a deeper place. That’s what pilgrimage has done for me–worn down the defenses. After the long walk with all its challenges, pain, anxiety, not-knowing, and sheer fatigue–yes, like an axe at times, I have been left with a compassionate and slightly amusing view of all my efforts at getting life right. A sweet humility come smiling at me and a tender love that understands.
I feel connected to the vast frozen sea in all my human community today; some of us yearning for melting, some of us considering it and some of us who will never trust that thawing will be safe or survivable. We all have that unique memoir that is difficult to write, to offer. I don’t feel like taking an axe to it today.. just letting the rays of lengthening sun do what they do.
I hesitate to write this as it seems this whole past year has been me writing about loss, death and grief. Yet that was a significant undeniable truth of the past 12 months. Not only the physical death of my friend, but also the deaths of so many to COVID 19, many who died alone, many unable to be buried. And the real grief I feel for the steady loss of trust in this country–with the government, with the police, with the justice system, with the media, and most significantly with each other as human beings. All this.
I hesitate to write because I don’t want to write about another death, another significant death, another loss. This one happened on January 8th and one that I knew was coming. This one came as the new year began and only two days after the violent attack on the Capitol. This one happened on the day of my father’s birthday, now gone 36 years past. It as a death that I received with grief and great relief. It marks a great shift in my life, it names a new void, it opens me to gratitude and challenges me to know myself in a new way.
My mother has died.
I have written an homage to her on Facebook and written an obituary for her local paper. But I want to record her life here as well on this blog called a Listening Life, for my mother was a great listener. And she passed on that value to me.
Listening was her way of making peace. And this is how.
She taught me to listen to my elders, even the elders that held opinions not her own. Still, she felt respect for the individual, especially an elder, came first, not her opinions. She held her views, even her convictions lightly, placing more value on relationship than being right.
She taught me to listen to what Jesus called, “the least of these.” She was careful to stop and hear the words of the mentally handicapped, the sick, the misunderstood, the judged. I can look back now and see that I didn’t even know what she was doing, just that it was her way–from her Down’s syndrome nephew to her friend in adultery to a small crying child. “Try to see it from their side,” she would say.
At age 8, she listened to her dying father tell her to be a good girl and go to church and “then you will be all right.” She listened to a Mayo Clinic doctor tell her that her 2 year old son had no chance of surviving the cancer in his arm. She held that burden as the arm was amputated and she waited. But he never died. She listened to another Mayo Clinic doctor tell her that her 15 year old daughter had a 12% chance of surviving the osteogenic sarcoma in her leg. She waited for her death as the leg was amputated. The cancer returned 16 years later and she listened to the last breath of her daughter as she slept beside her the final night. She listened as the doctors gave her husband a year to live and this time they were right. She listened as another daughter told her she had breast cancer. When I collapsed in grief each time, she would only say, “These things happen. We have to learn how to accept what life brings.”
She had to listen to both sides of ongoing conflict between a demanding father who required relentless hard work of his children and the children who felt abused and punished by his workaholism. She would tell us the story of why he was the way he was, and then in turn she would bring our plight to him. Always the anxious frustrated mediator, that rarely could bring peace between a father and his 7 teenagers but she never stopped trying to get us to listen to each other.
It is ironic that her primary physical loss in her life was her hearing. She had hearing aids by the age of 50 and by the age of 96 when she died, it was a supreme effort to understand what was said to her.
I hope that she listened to herself inside. That she recognized her goodness, her kindness, her unfailing love for everyone no matter what. I hope she realized her deep connection to all that is Holy and that she was part of that shining holiness.
I fully trust she is in that Light now. I know she must feel so free, to hear again and walk again and have her memory back in some new form of consciousness. I wonder if her return to the Source means she has reunited with her husband, daughter, sisters, friends. It seems her love would do that.
Each Christmas time there comes a card or a letter or a gift that deepens the meaning of this set-apart time (one definition of “Holy”). This year it is a book by Charlie Mackery called The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse.(Harper One, 2019) You can read it front to back or back to front or just open it in the middle. It is a book of the wisdom of these four creatures who become friends.
The book comes as a balm to my soul. The grief of the last year had settled down to sleep for a while but two days ago, I saw a video of my friend who passed , and it rose up on one elbow and howled again. And just as all the grief books predict, it brought with it the losses of my father and sister who both died in the 80’s, the grief that my 96 year-old mother has COVID now and the collective grief of so many in the time of uncertainty and loss. My heart aches for our human community.
So the book comes telling what I hold as the great Truths of living, especially in these times. I wish I could send it to everyone. I know I will be ordering some soon.
“Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength, not weakness,” says the Horse.
“When the big things feel out of control….focus on what you love right under your nose.”
So I wrapped my heart in friendship on the night of Winter Solstice, singing and drumming and throwing what I need to release written on a piece of paper into the fire. In this way, I keep walking toward light, even if it feels hidden, like the “stars” of Jupiter and Saturn in the Great Conjunction were hidden beneath a cloud that night. But the light is there. Blessings to all who read this and are suffering. May we hold on together.
I have this desire to write on my blog this morning, but I’ve just sat here watching the cursor blink, as if I am watching its heart beat. It is waiting for me while I wait for something to arise beside just this desire. When there is nothing to write there is always a feeling of a hole in my soul. If there is nothing, am I nothing? And if I am nothing, is that okay? Such an existential morning.
Yet when I wished my friend happy birthday just now, something did arise. I couldn’t help remembering one of those unexpected pilgrimages with her to Verona in 2006. The first night, the cobblestones were still wet and glistening from rain as we walked to clear our heads of the long flight. Spring had come late to Verona that year, and yet while the trees were still black and bare, the grass was green and flowering bushes were shouting out colors of pink and yellow. I was letting my soul catch up with me after 30 hours in the air, taking in the ochre colored buildings, the ornate wooden doors that opened to intriguing courtyards, the shop windows gorged with pastries and cakes, the other pedestrians dressed mostly in black, with scarves and red hair and shoes not seen in Alaska.
We were near to Fiume Adige, the river that horseshoes through the town, when I heard the sound of a clarinet playing an alluring song. I struggled to remember its name. An old song. And then yes, La Vie en rose. Like a siren, the notes wrapped around me and lured me toward the source. Turning a corner, I saw him in moonlight. He was alone, on the bridge over the Adige, looking down at the water– a dark, curly-haired younger man in a black leather coat, hunched over his clarinet, moving slightly up and down with the music. There was no one else on the ponte but he and the music and his desire to play it into the night. It was my official welcome to the city of Love.
La Vie en rose literally means “life in the pink” but can also be translated as “life in rosy hues”, “life in happy hues,” or “life seen through happy lenses.” Written in 1945, the lyrics express the joy of finding true love, probably a song that worked also as an antidote to all those healing from the horrors and hatred of World War II. The lyrics don’t appeal to me as much as the music itself–especially with violin, cello or clarinet. (and maybe Louis Armstrong on trumpet). It feels like a sweep of the deepest desire of all humanity, to be carried away with the beauty of this life. To play to the river and have it blush, to let the notes wind around golden and shining in dark streets looking for a lover, to entice the heartbroken back to dancing, to give the hopeless the reason to keep on. Or for me to recognize that I am that music.
As the days grow shorter and shorter and darkness comes early and stays late, as the pandemic shutters me away from life outside my home, and the stories of such suffering come sifting through the news, I am listening to La Vie en rose as I write. The music doesn’t erase the realities around me, but gently reminds that life is this as well, “life in happy hues.”
Even when it seems there is nothing, the words are just waiting.
I haven’t been writing on my blog this past 6 weeks; and I’ve been writing on my book–a memoir that at this point is entitled A Long WalkHome: One Woman’s Life as Pilgrimage. I started writing on it a little casually but then heard that my niece was going to take part in the annual NaNoWriMo challenge–writing a draft of 50,000 words during the month of November. Two other members of my writing group joined in and we are now midway in the challenge. In fact, I already have over 50,000 words because I had drafts of prior pilgrimages already started. I even just found an editor. My goal now is to write two hours a day in editing out words and writing in the transitions from one piece to another.
It has been a perfect way to spend this month as it seems we need to hunker down again with COVID cases surging. My husband and I had dinner with someone who got positive test results 5 days later, so we have been seeing a lot of mostly each other now for 12 days–with no symptoms. Yesterday we received our negative test results. But it’s starting to feel like we can’t dodge this bullet forever as now I know several people closer to me that have tested positive. It seems the circle is tightening. Part of me just wants to get the virus (but not get sick). Another part is staying vigilant for myself and for others.
We are negotiating Thanksgiving; my grandson was in a classroom with two first graders who tested positive so that part of our family won’t be able to join us. We will just have a friend and our son for dinner, both of whom have been isolating. Strange times; maybe the only other time I have had such a small Thanksgiving gathering was when my friend Julie and I were in Florence, Italy at age 23. Of course there was no turkey and dressing. We had something with pasta I’m sure. This pandemic has re-organized us externally and internally. We are in the doldrums of it now; it’s more serious now in Alaska than ever and yet it’s apparent that is because many are just tired of being isolated and careful and strategizing and planning and fearful. I get it. I want to see my mother at her nursing home in Iowa. I want to have Christmas parties and gatherings. I want to just go to the store without apprehension.
And I find myself grateful–grateful for scientists who can discover a vaccine; I marvel at their intelligence and diligence in pursuing a solution to this pandemic. I try to imagine how their brains work so differently from mine! I’m grateful for those nurses and technicians that stand out in the cold, going from car to car in 1 degree weather, swabbing noses and being cheerful. I’m grateful I have a warm home and just celebrating 41 years of marriage with Steve. Thankful I can still ski and hike and FaceTime with the grandkids. I live in a time when the news predicts soon there may be commercial flights to the space station and we know there could be water on Mars. I live with the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” And that if I just look out the window, I have the choice to be amazed.
Happy Thanksgiving in whatever way you celebrate this unusual year. May it be unusually perfect.
(I see this piece needs some editing, but sorry, back to the book!)
The DeHaviland Beaver droned over the foothills of the Brooks Range as I craned my neck to see the tundra below. My husband and I had yearned for wilderness again, especially this wilderness so far north and remote.
We circled and landed on our destination, a small lake, hearing that comforting sound of a small splash, our anticipation swelling with the thought of the ten days of walking and wandering that lay ahead. Shouldering our heavy packs, tightening the straps and our boot laces, we headed west across a relatively flat plain of low brush, moving slowly and letting our bodies adjust to the new rhythm of this land. There was only the sound of our packs creaking and the shush of the brush as the deep silence settled in on us; my body began to relax and the mind to empty. I only had to walk and notice.
After a few hours into this reverie, I was brought to a stop by an unusual mound on my feet. What was it? As I knelt and peered more closely, I could see it was a pile of dwarf birch leaves, about the size of a thumbprint. But it wasn’t a natural falling of leaves. It was too early in the season and never would these leaves have dropped into this very precise mound. That is what struck me first–that it seemed it had been built with much care and intention, as if each leaf have been lain down individually. But why? I smoothed away some of the leaves to see if there was something under it–and there was. A white ptarmigan lay on its side, pristine and unharmed, yet obviously dead. There were no marks on it, no sign of a struggle or attack. It was if mourners had come and covered this bird with a pall of tiny birch leaves, no other kind, although there was plenty of willow and grasses around. Again, there was such intention with this seeming burial, that I was touched. In this raw wilderness that surrounded me, lay this act that appeared to be an honoring, a reverence, a laying to rest. I so wish I had seen this ritual.
Today, I will lay my friend to rest, down at the river near her home with just a few friends. I’m preparing a small ceremony, the ritual that mysteriously heals. I want it to be as intentional, as honoring, as much a laying to rest in that same sense as that white bird I once glimpsed. I want it to be memorable and full of wild mystery, a true repose–done with such infinite and precise care as that which I touched me to the core.
Yet as I think of the past 8 months and her long journey of illness, I realize I have been part of something that has been preparing this ceremony for a long time. I have watched so many friends and members of her family honor her each day, in the worst of times. Some have brought food, some sent flowers, some ran errands, some sat by her bed and read poetry or sang hymns. A few of us helped her bathe and gathered all the hair that fell into the drain after chemo started. Some sat in meditation with her. Some created prayer flags. Some brought lotion. Some redecorated the small downstairs room she was moved to. Some talked to her of memories. Some talked to her of what was to come. Some cried with her and some laughed, some commiserated, some listened. Some bought her socks or a new soft blanket or mattress. And particularly a few changed her dressings and got medical supplies and were endless advocates for her to receive the best health care possible. Some made an engagement part and the wedding of her daughter possible just three weeks before she died. Some called on the phone, some texted, some wrote. Some sewed her presents or brought her gifts. I was some of those who did these things. But also it wasn’t really me.
What I sense now is that Love does these things. It was so powerful that I never considered not being there, not responding. It was what I wanted to do even though it was so very hard. It wasn’t sentimental or unselfish, because, how can I say it, it just WAS something moving through all of us which we can only say was Love. It was so abundant and ever-present. It never failed or faltered. It sustained and held us as we held her. She was Love, we were Love, it was all Love.
It’s been a long walk with her in a different kind of wilderness than the Brooks Range, and not one I looked forward to. It was wild and full of Mystery and not knowing like that journey. It was uncomfortable and tiring and literally gut-wrenching. Yet mostly I will remember the delicate tenderness that surrounded her and the uninhibited kindness and the unending steadiness of so many. So many small leaves were laid down around with deep regard and intention.