Friday, September 30, 2011

...standing on promises, a memorial service for one who died too this moment, a juxtaposition of thoughts about death and the nature of life. 

Populated first by people, then animals, finally used for storage, these tiny huts hug the North Atlantic 
coast of the Dingle Peninsula. Life in these remote headlands was harsh during prehistoric times.
My journal entry for this day trip in 2008: A succession of brief lives filled these huts, an illusion of longevity born of hardship, with glimpses of grace in a sunrise or a bright blue sky. An unnamed, unknown people faced storms and heartbreak here, sought small sustenance: only the testament of standing stones and beehive huts hint of their existence.

Unable to stand erect in these tiny dwelling places, I thought of bitter North Atlantic gales and the isolation of this place even now.  On the Skellig Islands, just across the water, monks lived in similar huts in the 7th century A.D. while they transcribed the Gospels, bringing a message of hope to distant shores. The monastic order begun in the 7th century A.D. remained active for over six hundred years.

On the Dingle peninsula, looking toward the Skelligs

A drop of water 
Then three 
A trickle
A stream 
A river 
An ocean
Relentless tides 
Shores yield 
Sands shift 
Rocks crumble 
Edges morph

Eternal questions 
A compromise 
Perception shifts
Control crumbles 
Boundaries succumb
Brought by choice to the edge 
The distant shore a rock 
The immutable rock of ages 

One tear
Then two 
A trickle 
A choice 
Then three 
A trend
A direction 
A journey 
A life

So, yes, today, a memorial service for one who died too young for all who loved this moment, a juxtaposition of thoughts about death and the nature of life and choices.

Strength for the journey: a daily, sometimes hourly, gift.  A chronicle of darkness stirs inside but on this day, I am sustained by gratitude: for beauty, for those who have gone before, for tender mercies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"And God said..." Oh, really?

tears from heaven
“Clean around your own back door, Celeste,” she said to me softly.  

I was hurting, filled with righteous anger, when I told my grandmother about the afternoon’s encounter. In my monolog, I had ascribed motives to the other person and recited a litany of wrongs committed against me.  When I had finished, she waited a moment and invoked The Gospel According to Henrietta Kirkley.

My grandmother distilled scripture and parceled out essential truths in her southern vernacular, in this case, Matthew 7:3-5. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Granny’s version: “Clean around your own backdoor, Celeste.” 

My grandparents lived on a farm. In front of the house, a small grass lawn was enclosed by a fence.  Beyond the fence, dirt.  Every morning my grandmother swept the dusty side yard with a homemade broom, straw bundled into a shaft and held together with wire. Even weeds had utility in her world.  As she swept, she sang, usually an old hymn.  Her repertoire was varied but the favorites dominated: “Abide With Me”. “In the Garden”, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”  By my twelfth year, I towered over this tiny woman.  She stood 4’11”, weighed 88 pounds soaking wet, and wore a size 3-1/2 shoe. But her love was huge. 

LIfe had challenged her. She buried a child - a toddler, my mother’s identical twin - and raised three more. Worked - without conveniences - to make a home. Picked cotton in the fields. The chicken she fried for Sunday lunch didn’t arrive wrapped in plastic. She chased the bird down and wrung its neck. Farm life and comfortable illusions rarely coincide. Especially the illusion of control. Her power lay only in her choices, her responses.

The religion of the rural south in which she was raised was often harsh, a theology of retribution, not grace. This mirrored a culture shaped by the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Depression. During a conversation with a psychologist a few years ago, he said that he felt the singularly most significant event in our country’s history was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As he talked, I thought of that great but complex man. A man of sorrows indeed. Had he lived, the speaker continued, he would have been a healing force for this nation. “Before the Marshall Plan that followed WWII, Lincoln, I think, would have sought repatriation by reaching out.” None can know what Lincoln would have been able to achieve in the aftermath of the war. But the policies that followed were in contradiction to what he had espoused, both in words and action.

Last week, I wrote a food blog (of sorts). Now I’m tackling - not as an apologist - politics and religion. Another “never” bites the dust. But when I heard a politician ascribe the recent earthquake and floods to God’s displeasure with America, one thought immediately surfaced: more likely the tears and sobs of a loving father who watches his children make a mockery of truth. And I felt very sad. Sad that toxic religion can drive people away from grace. Frustrated with pious phrases that mask a desire to control, to gain and preserve power. And that’s just within the congregation. Apply this to the nation, to the world…how complex and maddening. 

I am a failed - and failing - human in need of mercy and forgiveness. These are my credentials. Jesus looms large in my life. He loves me and I love Him. Remember the rubber bracelets imprinted WWJD (the acronym for What Would Jesus Do)? Perhaps the first question might be “What DID Jesus do? He was certainly no stranger to trouble. Peaceful but resolute. He didn’t force himself on others nor did he waiver in his message. Even at death’s door. At the heart of his ministry: a passion for the poor, for children, widows, lepers, the downtrodden,  for “the least of these”, for the most vulnerable in society. He overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple because of where they sat. In front of the Court of the Gentiles. Unable to enter the Temple, the Gentiles were allotted a place near the entrance to worship their gods. The sound of animals being sold as sacrificial offerings in the Temple, the shouts of the moneychangers and the noise of the crowds would have disrupted the Temple. Better to bother the Gentiles. Did Jesus demur? No, he overturned the tables and loosed his wrath, all in defense of the least of these.

In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the meek.” But meek isn’t synonymous with weak and wishy-washy. The word from which this was translated referred to domesticated animals such as horses and oxen, powerful creatures who submitted their will to a master. When two are equally yoked - respecting each other, each willing to pull a share of the load - much can be accomplished for the greater good.

I know that it is not enough to recognize rhetoric and call others out. Feels good for a little while. But I seem always to have some sweeping up of my own to do. Daily. My up-front, ready-for-prime-time visible stuff isn’t nearly as important as what lurks out back. Hidden from public viewing, the detritus of life accumulates. My prejudices and opinions. My scars and fears. Lists of labels. These fence-builders and shadow-casters grow larger with neglect.    

Yet even a personal inventory can be a thing of pride. Here’s an old Hasidic story.  The rabbi enters the synagogue, lies prostrate on the steps in front of the altar.  “I am nothing, Lord!” he cries out. “I am nothing.”  Upon hearing this, the cantor joins him, repeating the rabbi’s words. Touched by these leaders, the cleaner lays down his broom and lies down where he is. “I am the least of these, Lord. I am nothing.” At which point, the rabbi glances at the poor man and says to the cantor, “Look who thinks he’s nobody.” 

“Clean around your own back door, Celeste.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”  

Time spent DE-planking: a good thing.

Monday, September 12, 2011 last, a food blog or why my left leg was on top of the cart at Safeway

NOT my photo. Thank you, for this image. What with all the stirring, slicing, knife-sharpening, and stretching, I forgot to take a picture.

I love cooking. Before I cook, I like shopping for food. Before that, I enjoy making a menu and grocery list. And before all of the afore-mentioned activities, I like to read cookbooks. Hello, my name is Celeste and I am a foodie. One piece of my favorite home-made fudge is too many. One thousand, not enough.

Now I’ve married another pro-dining, shopping, cooking, recipe-reading type. We watch the Food Network and drool. Listen to “Check, Please, Bay Area” for restaurant reviews. Chop, dice, mince, and fret over our knives. We would hold a garage sale to rid ourselves of our sorry cutlery along with the wonky dutch oven but these are the only items we currently have in our condo with which we could part. The cost of posting sale flyers would exceed the profit. It would be cheaper to fly back to Birmingham and retrieve my things from storage. I could open the storeroom and have a proper good-riddance to those things that even my children politely refuse...BEFORE lugging the whole lot westward. 

I digress. Again. Back to the present. So many directions that this blog could take....hmmmm.  Selective living. (Wait. Anne Morrow Lindbergh already wrote the seminal book about this topic.) Moving on. Clutter. Possessions that possess us. Eventually I will get around to all of these.  But today another post is percolating.
Actually not percolating. Because we now use a French press to make coffee. At least, one of us does. I think he finds it challenging, like getting that first serve over the net or sinking a 47 foot putt. From the rough. My take, admittedly, is pure conjecture and subject to dispute. Speaking factually, a drip coffeemaker (stainless/black, preferably one cup at a time brew) is superior. Well, superior crosses that line to personal preference. Okay. I will give you that. Let’s say “simpler and more consistent.” (In my mind that equates with superior but who am I to say.) 
So I here I sit at my Mac, sipping hot tea, because the coffeemaker is still asleep. We’ll have a mug of his excellent brew when he awakens. In the meantime, I have decided to expand my subject matter and write my first food blog. A la Bill and Celeste. 
The U.S. Open did get in the way of our Saturday food television. My ongoing effort to compile an electronic cookbook paid off in spades, however. I was able to scan family favorites, watch Federer’s backhand, and comment on a couple of questionable attire choices simultaneously.  Does it get better than this? Food, fashion and sport all in one fell swoop.
Before I continue, I must add another element to this heady mix. Hang in there if you want to understand the title. I have back problems. Oy vey. Just ask me. Dr. Bill, my physical therapy guru/husband, thinks that watching television is something one does while stretching. Never sitting. Oh, no. Sitting is b-a-d. I would tell you about load and torque and a bunch of other terrible things that happen to the human body while lounging semi-upright on a chaise-longue if I could. I do know that these stretches coupled with walking and exercise work. Know that I do not mock Bill’s approach. Indeed, I urge him to write, to share his experience and expertise. This is where my background as a web designer comes into the picture. Hopefully, a little input from me will expedite moving knowledge from his head to the ether. 
Having shared this, you can see how heady our dinner conversations are. 
“More chicken cacciatore, dear?”
“No, but this is an excellent recipe.”
“Yes, indeed. Giada’s. I can’t take credit.”
“Amazing we finished cooking before midnight. Those sorry knives. I spent more time sharpening than chopping.”
“How’s your rotator cuff, Bill?”
“Fine, sweetheart. But remember, when you use your arm excessively, you can connect a lower back problem with a neck issue.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“I noticed, though, that you had your weight on one leg while you stirred, Celeste. And there was considerable side-bending, too. When you catch yourself doing this, remember to interrupt the position. Frequently. The body responds well to un-loading.”
“I will. You know, I’ve had cacciatore that was more tomato-ey but this is quite good.”
“I agree. And I like both versions. These spices from Berkeley Bowl are a great buy, aren't they? By the way, did you notice Tsonga hyper-extending his knee in that match? Federer was, too, but not as much.”
“Yes, I did.” (Consider not walking in front of me these days. I notice side-bending, uneven shoulders, and foot drop instantly. I do thank the poor suffering souls ahead of me because they remind me to keep my chin in, my head back, and my shoulders straight.) “Dessert, dear?”
“Of course. Let’s have it on the patio.”
And so we sat, in the semi-darkness, a candle flickering, discussing pastry in the blackberry cobbler, finishing off a glass of Clos du Bois, northcoast, homegrown, produced in Mendocino County. By George. Professional winemaker. Part-time Santa Claus. Full-time friend to many. A veritable Godsend for one who has often purchased wine on the basis of “best graphic label design”. Granted, my choices might have tasted atrocious but I always had the best looking bottle at the party. 
As I recounted a new recipe, Bill reached over and lovingly touched my chin. To straighten my head and neck. And I smiled. Because I had envisioned such a scenario occurring...during our wedding vows.
This brings me to the title. While shopping at Safeway, a sweet lady bumped my cart. The woman, by the way, was so kind. She must have noticed my sudden intake of breath or the clenched jaw. Asked if I was okay. I said that I was fine and added that the pained expression reflected a different sort of ache. I was deciding if I should pay off the Parents Plus student loan or buy a box of cereal. She laughed and said she was having similar thoughts. Nice moment. Now, back to the little accident. One tiny move and something in my knee gave way.  Or so I thought. Dr. Bill turned the corner and immediately noticed my limp. Actually, a rank amateur would have noticed my exaggerated gait. (I get a tad testy when I experience acute pain.)

“What happened, dear?”
I described the events and informed him that I had wrenched my knee and now my toes were cramping. Horribly.
“Ok, let’s stop here. Now, your back....”
“Sweetheart, I must not have explained properly. It’s my knee. Not my back.”
“Well, actually, dear, the L-5 nerve root frequently refers pain to the knee. What you describe more clearly connotes back involvement than knee injury.”
“Okay. I can make it to the car.”
“No, I want to you stop here and get your leg up.” 
Which is why a lady walked up and said to me, as my husband lugged my left lower extremity on top of the loaded grocery cart in the middle of the ethnic food aisle, “Do you need help?”
Actually, I do.  What wine does one serve with grilled salmon, dill sauce...and a rousing discussion of the iliopsoas and vasovagal syncope? George? 
And so for my first food blog I give you Giada’s Chicken Cacciatore.  Not even my own recipe. But hey, my head is straight. Bon apetit! (You’ll have to wait for Bill’s book to get pain relief.) 

Chicken Cacciatore
Recipe courtesy Giada De Laurentiis and The Food Network
Prep Time:
15 min
Inactive Prep Time:
Cook Time:
40 min
4 servings

4 chicken thighs (note: we used boneless thighs and breasts because we already had these      on hand and just shortened the cooking time)
2 chicken breasts with skin and backbone, halved crosswise
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 cup all purpose flour, for dredging
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped (the side of the chef’s knife smushed these fine...chopping was another issue)
3/4 cup dry white wine 
1 ( 28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
3/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with 1 teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour to coat lightly.
In a large heavy saute pan, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the chicken pieces to the pan and saute just until brown, about 5 minutes per side. If all the chicken does not fit in the pan, saute it in 2 batches. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside. Add the bell pepper, onion and garlic to the same pan and saute over medium heat until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, broth, capers and oregano. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and turn them to coat in the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Continue simmering over medium-low heat until the chicken is just cooked through, about 30 minutes for the breast pieces, and 20 minutes for the thighs.
Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a platter. If necessary, boil the sauce until it thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Spoon off any excess fat from atop the sauce. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, then sprinkle with the basil and serve.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

...two anniversaries and the twin towers

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. 

But again and again we avoid the long thoughts…We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find.

 But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. 

The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.  

Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

A sweet friend is aching. Samille’s a mama whose son lives and works in New York City. She worries for his safety in the wake of the recent terrorist chatter. I am reminded that on September 11, 2001, six degrees of separation was a luxury experienced by few. 
We all have personal stories of that day. Where we were, what we were doing. Those days live within each of us with a clarity that defies the passing years. Here is my story.
My husband was flying that morning. At least he was supposed to be. I received a text message at 6:26 a.m. that his plane had engine trouble on take-off and he would call in twenty minutes. I recall giving thanks that the pilot had been able to stop the plane on the runway, that all were safe. The call came and John told me that he was booked on a later flight. My work day had started early, with emails to be read and answered before meeting with hospice workers later that morning. My mother’s health was failing rapidly. John suggested that I meet him at the airport to talk before the meeting. I drove there and we discussed care options. Then we walked down the jetway, the last morning I would make that trek as a non-passenger.
I was aware that my husband had stopped. He motioned for me to come to the wall-mounted television we had just passed. As we stood there, we watched the second plane hit the towers. The small crowd gave a collective gasp and within seconds - or so it seemed - an announcement blared over the loudspeaker.  We were asked to leave the airport. Then the awful words. “The U.S. is under terrorist attack.” 
During the drive home, we talked with both of our children. Our son, married and living in Tuscaloosa, filled us in on television reports. The Pentagon had been hit. We arrived home to hear that another plane was missing. Our daughter, an Auburn architectural student, called us from Newbern where she was building a house as part of the Rural Studio program. She knew her dad was scheduled to fly to Washington and was worried. John and I thought immediately of our brother-in-law, an American Airlines pilot. We contacted John’s sister who was unable to reach her husband. He was flying that morning. His route, the LA/Boston/LA run. Hours would pass before he was able to call home. Their son, a Navy pilot, was attached to a ship in Norfolk. When we heard that the military had been given the go-ahead to shoot down civilian aircraft that didn’t respond, our hearts fell. Father and son, both in the air possibly. We didn’t know. 
I met with hospice that morning.The nurse said that the examination did not reveal signs of active death. I was told ‘three-month life expectancy’ with the caveat that anything could happen. After returning home, I continued answering emails and working, one eye on the television. The planes hit over and over and over again in countless replays. Disbelief. That night, and the following, emergency calls came from the nursing home. On Friday morning, Mother died. 
We planned a small graveside service in Georgia. Only those within driving distance would be able to attend. I have little memory of the service, almost complete recall of the 9/11 events. That the macro (global) outweighed the micro (personal) was troublesome. A mother’s death is about as personal as it can get. But conversations with friends gave a bigger view of those days. Everyone was impacted, knew people affected by the attacks. Macro and micro didn’t exist. We were a collective family. We all had a desire to connect with loved ones. To discover the fate of those in harms’s way. To commiserate with strangers.
During that week, I learned that a co-worker’s brother, who worked on the top floors of one of the the towers, was miraculously alive. Upon arrival that fateful morning, he was asked to meet a client downstairs for breakfast. But he would not be able to reach his family, already mourning, for an unbearably long time. Another friend and co-worker received word that her brother at the Pentagon had survived. But we also learned that the brother of a News reporter died in that same attack. Lynn Angell, Alabama native and Auburn graduate, also the wife of Frasier producer David Angell, was returning to Los Angeles with her husband following a family wedding on the Cape. A metal plaque in her honor now hangs on the wall of the church where her mother and I were both members. I cried as I watched families post photos of missing loved ones on utility poles in New York City. I cried for the families in the Middle East. I cried about everything.
When we finally spoke with my brother-in-law days later (stranded in New Jersey, unable to rent a car to drive home to Texas), he described what he had heard in the cockpit. Loud screams over the radio. On the radar, the erratic flight pattern of a lone plane. Later he would discover that, as he flew a holding pattern that morning, he had witnessed the last minutes of Flight 93, the missing plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 
Nine months after the attack my husband died. Three months after that, I lost my home in a storm. As I looked down at the mud, sewage and wreckage, I saw a metaphor of my family of four. The main load-bearing wall lay shattered. The other three struggled to bear the load. I had memorized "No Man is An Island" by John Donne in high school.  Now I lived it:

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a continent were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thy own were...

All of these events have merged. Every September, the memorials transport me to those dark days. Just as they do for you. Now we have reports of a credible terrorist threat wrapped around this anniversary. And life goes on. I have re-married, the unexpected gift of Bill and his family. My son and his sweet wife gave me a grand-daughter. My daughter and her husband delight and enrich every day.
And, today, September 10, is another anniversary. One that, this year more than ever, re-frames my story. My father would have been 92 today. He was a sweet and gentle man. A veteran, quiet about his service in WWII. If he ever met a soul he didn’t like, he kept it to himself. He is with me in every moment. How special to celebrate this day each year in the face of other memories. To give thanks for his love and guidance, to remember his hugs, his precious smile. 
Ten years later, our personal stories - with greater context - are emerging. We both celebrate and struggle that we are not separated by six degrees, or even one. We are brothers and sisters, all of us. We may be separated by distance. We may pledge allegiance to different flags. We may kneel and pray to different gods. Or not at all. As my friend, Mary, who has been visiting the Middle East, wrote this week: 
I go to Masada tomorrow. Zealots, noble, who can say? The conflicts here are deep and religion is who you were born, no matter what you believe. We have a history with this land that most have not seen. It is a burden for all who live here. Peace is a distant dream and we are not deeply civilized. Shalom.
The doctrines and dogmas that we collectively embrace sometimes divide and create fear, a fear of those who do not espouse the same beliefs....just as the desire for power automatically creates a win/lose scenario. All families struggle with shadows and pain.  The truly dysfunctional dig deeper holes. Oh, to be more deeply civilized, Mary. To choose win/win, each giving a little for the greater good. The dream is distant...but worthy. Today, I invite you to recall your own stories and, with this, to find healing. There is room at the table for everyone. 
Daddy, you would have invited everybody to the homecoming and dinner on the grounds. Today, in the pre-dawn hours, you came to me and reminded me that weeping may endure for a day but joy comes in the morning. Bless your sweet heart, not stilled by death. The song continues. And it's lovelier than ever. Because, frankly, neither you nor I could carry a tune in a bucket. But we had great fun not harmonizing together.

The rest of Donne's poem has taken root as well:
Every man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Thank you. And blessings, y'all. Peace. Shalom. As-Salamu Alaykum.
Love and light to us all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

...thoughts on words and silence

fellow sojourners

Aloha, my friends, I am back. The last few weeks marked a new chapter of my life. I married Bill after eighteen months of emails, Skype, and phone calls, a slow time of reacquaintance after a forty year absence. This inadvertent reunion followed an attempt to reconnect with his sister, Bonnie, my contemporary. 
As adults we have lived on opposite coasts. As children, blocks apart. He was three years older, thus, in the eyes of my father, jailbait. My dad really didn’t have to worry, though. I don’t recall the proper label of my generation but, in today’s vernacular, I was a geek. A card-carrying, math-tutoring, certified dork. As such, I knew my place in the scheme of things.  When a cute boy passed, I stuck my head in my locker if possible. Otherwise I looked down at my loafers and walked into the nearest wall. 
My daughter, bless her heart, remarked upon hearing this, “Mom, it’s time you embraced your inner geek. I have.” Oh, my darling child. When I see you, I do not see a geek. Yes, you are smart. But my blue-eyed, blonde-haired, long-legged, beautiful creature, you can remember song lyrics. Dance. Ride a mountain bike. Race. Bake mouth-watering, original recipes...iconic Mimosa cupcakes with champagne batter and icing. Design a hospital. Or a house. And you are wise. So I have taken your advice.
I have also moved across the country.  My children, my granddaughter, my friends, my winter coats, sweaters, and boots have not. Priorities prevail. I can layer clothes until my outerwear joins me. As for my far-away dears, I am exceedingly thankful for the ether-world. How wonderful to chat online. A lifetime of championing delayed gratification has given way to the utter joy of an instantaneous picture of my granddaughter, a text from Patrick or Scott, an email from Leslie, a phone call from Adrienne. 
Now, on to today’s blog. I am, indeed, tired of words. I am weary of labels lobbed with self-righteous fervor. Verbal ammunition so loud as to drown out reason and discourse. Clamor and harangues on one hundred channels and spewed across Facebook. Silence, please! 
“Celeste, I hear you. Tell me, just exactly what do you do?”
“I write.”
“Without words?”
“No. I am considering a change.”
“What sort of change?”
“Not writing.”
“Hmmmm.” Annoying silence follows. I asked for it.
This conversation between myself and the cosmos won’t go away. Yesterday Thomas Merton joined the discussion. My favorite monk added this to the mix:
What is meant by identity? ...For practical purposes here we are talking about one's own authentic and personal beliefs and convictions, based on experience of oneself as a person, experience of one's ability to choose and reject even good things which are not relevant to one's own life. Identity in this deep sense is something that one must create for oneself by choices that are significant and that require a courageous commitment in the face of anguish and risk. [Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1998) 61]
This was followed by a question.  "Throughout this week, pause, take a breath, and listen with your heart.  How do you identify yourself?"*
I have paused. I have taken a breath. I have listened with my heart. I am a writer. At sixty, I have made peace with myself. Perhaps I am your particular cup of tea. Perhaps not. I know that writing is how I process life, how I engage in relationship that goes beyond the familiar to the faceless. Writing is keeping a promise to you, Mrs. Powell. One made while picking pears with you, then repeated in our last long afternoon together before you slipped into the silence of Alzheimer’s. You placed your hands on my shoulders as if to anoint. Your head was tilted slightly up, your spine as erect as ever. Your face so close to mine that I could smell your sweet chocolate/peanut butter pie breath. And you extracted a promise with the precision of a skilled surgeon. 
As an adult, I took a safe path, hiding behind the impersonal words of copywriting and web design. Private journaling fueled my spirit but the commitment given that Sunday afternoon in south Georgia wouldn’t go away.  So I began this blog. Admittedly, in part, due to a couple of other nudges: one named Mary; the other, Bill. The cosmos channels through a variety of voices. 
My brief sabbatical of semi-silence and vacation from writing has been both delightful and uncomfortable. A conversation with a young musician last week triggered some thoughts about words and silence. Thank you, Vicente.
A piece of music has more silence than notes. Without these pauses, a melody would be cacophony. 
Wordswithoutspacemakenosense. Words without space make no sense. 
Lifewithoutspacemakesnosense. Life without space makes no sense.
Truth may live in quiet solitude but it does disquiet. Yet the myths we create to justify our lives are far less satisfying. Others see clearly what we refuse to acknowledge. 
My fatigue, it seems, is not with language and its limits but with the way we humans use our vocabularies. Careless words, gossip and malicious slander kill the spirit of the speaker even as they decimate the target. Labels wound, divide, numb us to the possibility of peace, civility, and love. But words that build bridges bring us all to the table. Such words aren’t feel-good moments. Feelings are vastly over-rated. They change with passing moods. Authentic communication involves frankness and honesty as well as love and respect. Passionate discourse does not burst forth as scattered emotion but evolves from studied, rational thought. And humility.

Ah, humility. When I consider authors whose works I revere, what could I say that has not been said before? And better. This internal argument has prevented any progress for decades. How arrogant I have been. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” Adding, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” I am writing to discover my own truths. And to grow. To become better. Should you encounter these thoughts, I'm pleased to meet you in the ether. Perhaps something will trigger a discussion. Or not. I will never know. And this is good. I have come to understand that, when any of us moves forward honestly and with due diligence, the results are out of our hands. The reward is in the doing, in the discipline and love of the work before us. 

Perhaps this is a good time to re-visit the words of Rainer Marie Rilke:
I beg you . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. 
To live the questions unafraid, patiently, to the place beyond need

To keep within myself a holy space

To experience soul in every encounter

To know that I and you and all creation - that WE - are beloved

Full of compassion 

Empty of self


This is a life’s journey 

Love and light to all...

* from The Weekly Reflection, September 5, 2011;  The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living