Pines sway overhead; an array of brown leaves with more pinholes than a piano roll scatter the trail below; and, all this is tucked in by a clouded sky. Frays from a surreal year seem less awkward as my sons and I walk along a stream trail in George Washington National Forest. Here, life's shards seem less sharp. Here, isolation draws you closer to what feels more real and less sensationalized. Here, nature's tangible touches soothe heartstrings that feel as swollen as lymph nodes fighting infection.
We didn't have a destination, just a desire to amble where mountain laurels live and boulders mottled with lichen settle contently. The lack of expectation, of contention, of busyness - the presence of just being and breathing and moving forward are what draw me again and again to this place. To this quiescence.
Pausing near the river's edge, my sons found sticks and began to draw their tips through the mirroring water. Immediately etched lines rove into undulating circles and swaths of mini-waves that overlapped like collage art. I imagine felt hatters would have been as satisfied with the sheen of mercury, once, as I was with watching the creation and transformation of such line art across the silver stream's skin.
It reminds me of my mistakes. So poignant and glaring when they happen, over time mistakes soften into transforming textures that define the nature of who I am, of who we are as human beings: resilient and malleable, too. These aren't limitations or boundaries; they are creative opportunities for accepting ourselves and discovering ourselves at the same time. They are the slip of water over a streambed. Water that can dimple and dive and eddy. And yet, can also become a serene pool.
American author, Bell Hooks wrote, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” Her words are like river water, too. When we embrace ourselves and others through these lenses of compassion and forgiveness, we open a trail of hope and possibility. Instead of projecting our fear and insecurity onto others, we can accept them, don our hiking shoes, and begin a journey together.
So, friend, do you want to walk with me where silver water slips by the stream trail and allow the scent of pine to soothe?
"No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste; everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons. This quick, inevitable interest attaching to everything seems marvelous until the hand of God becomes visible; then it seems reasonable that what interests Him may well interest us. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell..." (Muir, 1987:157). When John Muir accompanied a sheep-herder into the Sierra Nevadas in 1869, the notes and sketches he created from that expedition were filled with inspiring descriptions, moments, and musings. Perhaps most amazing, but not surprising, is how he met God in the details of natural life.
As human beings, we leave a trail of waste. Signs for our activity are evident in towering landfills, scraps left to float in outer space, disastrous oil spills, bleached coral reef, corn rows devoid of meadow spaces for monarchs, suburban sprawl, intensely populated farms known as CAFOs that pollute on a dilapidating scale, etc. It can feel overwhelming. Regardless of your spiritual views, humankind is in a unique position. But, we are not separate from the myriad systems that span our planet - we are intimately attached to them.
Discover the reality behind political propaganda. Visit places and talk with people who are involved at the root level of key issues that surround environmental issues. Instead of viewing issues as "us" vs. "them" - remember that we are all in this together. What happens to Earth, happens to humans, too.
What if we really looked at the essential quality of what it means to be human and applied that to every person we meet? What if we looked past cultural differences, individual preferences, and socio-economic statuses, to grasp a world view that recognized the dignity, the simple beauty, and the beginning goodness each human being has? Or, another way: what if we judged ourselves as harshly as we judge others? What if we took personal responsibility to do our part in the place God put us - not just in taking care of ourselves and our families, but also in caring for our planet, for our habits, for the ways in which we mar our part of Earth?
Here's to hope that individuals recognize their impact; because, we are all connected. God's heart beats within us all.
Light stings and sears and silences. It's evocative and unnerving. Sometimes it seems to cleanse and other times it seems to merely illuminate that which we would rather not see.
We all have moments where we glow with the pristine light of humanity at its best. Perhaps it's found when we're selflessly volunteering to help someone in need. Other times, that glow surrounds a moment when we slow down and savor time spent with a loved one. And it always surrounds often more fleeting opportunities for us to dive into a personal passion: whether it's a musical instrument, preparing a special meal, or practicing some other favorite creative art.
We all also have moments where that light is hidden. Dulled by overwork or the rhythmic stress that saturates our frames and minds, we can become sullen and snappy. In those moments, the light can pinpoint what we don't like about ourselves and can offer a way to change it: by immersing ourselves in what revitalizes us, even if we don't feel like slipping our hands in clay on the potter's wheel or stitching intricate patterns in a textile design or wielding a blacksmith's hammer and settling near the heat of a forge.
If you don't have a creative outlet, I encourage you to develop one. Try a new technique or song in your art, or a completely new type of creative art. And most importantly, remember to share the beauty you create with someone you trust or someone that needs some beauty in their lives. Pristine light is meant to be shared.
During the time since my last post, I have been struggling. Life with three young boys can have its challenges, most of which revolve around the time and energy homeschooling requires, while also keeping up with pottery commissions, writing submissions, and managing a poetry journal. However, I've also added several other projects that I never expected to come my way: such as researching a pre-Civil War era graveyard, which most likely holds the final resting places of enslaved people, and helping to reclaim it from its abandonment to briars and gravity; assisting with an Empty Bowl soup supper and finishing 50 bowls for the event; and writing a chapter for a Coming To The Table anthology, set for publication later this year. Isn't that how life goes? Often when we're at our busiest, more piles up until the clutter becomes more overwhelming than our emotional comfort will allow.
In January, our family ventured to St. Augustine, Kissimmee, and Tarpon Springs. The driving was tiresome, especially since the trip began and ended with kids getting sick in the car. Preparing and unpacking were arduous chores as I took into account the needs of three children for our travels. Our minivan was so packed, I boggled over how we accumulated so much stuff. And, like any family on a trip, we grabbed more stuff along the way: some were gifts for family and friends or postcards I love to send, others were useful around the house or studio, like wool sponges or a sand dollar nightlight, and yet more would be consumed right away, like orange marmalade or honeybells or fresh strawberries from Plant City. And yet, with all this stuff, still the most remarkable parts of life are those bits you hold in your heart. As Helen Keller reminds us, "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart."
The beach is magical. Honeymoon Island in the Gulf of Mexico, along the Floridian coast where manatees overwinter, on a warm day in January impressed just such an enchantment as Helen Keller mentioned. The frothy waters pushed up shells, broken sand dollars, smoothed stones, grasses, as well as bits of plastic and discarded trash here and there. Such accumulations were sometimes breathtaking, other times heartwrenching. And yet, it was the sound of waves, the prismatic glint of sun across the rippling surface of the water, the feel of soft sand on bare soles, the wind's gentle touch, and the childlike delight that percolates upon exploring someplace new - it was these authentic aspects about the day, not the accumulations, that still brings a smile to my face. Have you had such touches of magic recently? Or has the day's to-dos felt so burdensome that you wonder what it's like to simply sit and be: to savor a sunrise, a well-acted Shakespearean play, to ruminate over the silken stretch of sun and clouds that hang like a patchworked bojagi overhead, to fully engage in a moment with friends - free of your worries - or overarch time through full engagement in an artistic expression.
Life with young children is not all play and it's not always fun. Life is good at not giving us what we want, but what we need, even when it's painful. But, life also gives beauty and hope and joy - gifts we often overlook or downplay for the tumult that usually ensues. What magical moment encourages you when life is lackluster or lamentable?
For Christians, the season of Lent provides a time of scouring ourselves - more specifically, giving up something that draws us away from our focus on God or adding something that draws us closer to God for the purpose of spiritual gain. It's a time to develop habits that can inspire a life more centered on God and his kingdom goals. Regardless of your faith, it's always a good idea to detox from the negative. What will you do? Perhaps you can donate the extra clothes in your closets or create a quilt, volunteer for a soup kitchen or make bagged meals to give to the homeless, recycle or incorporate washable alternatives to things you throw away, choose a more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation that better suits the distances you travel everyday, give up an evening watching cable or Netflix to write a letter to a friend or enjoy conversation, a good book, a fun game, or learning a new language with your loved ones. Maybe it's time to learn an instrument, to fast more and be intentional on eating healthier meals, to dance or hike or find ways to incorporate exercise more frequently, to grow even a small garden - with evening primroses that pop open delightfully or vegetables you can savor, to live the way you want to and not the way society dictates.
"[As\ long as we put ourselves into God's hands, then maybe something good can happen, not because of us, but because he helps" (L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972:59). Through the journey of the Lenten season, the joy of Easter becomes clearer and more magical. May you find more enchanting moments in your life, too: free of the clutter and overflowing with the calm.
My one year old is enamored with sunlight. Often he watches it fall through the window into a patch upon the floor or illuminate dust particles floating in the air. Carefully, he tries to pick up the light, but instead his fingers find the more tangible qualities of wood or wall or window pane. The light eludes him, and yet he is content to sit and savor it.
On a warm afternoon, while my family traverses one of the myriad country roads in the Shenandoah Valley, I find my hand eager to slice through air breezing past the open car window. I suddenly feel like a child again, trying to grab sunlight. As soon as my palm flickers as brightly as a firefly, I close my hand like a snare. But, the enclosing fingers cast shadow where light should be. And instead of illumination, I seem to only grasp at more murky questions.
Do you feel that way, friend? Is it difficult for you, too, to filter the light from the shadow of life? The dappling of both gives deeper meaning to the other. I yearn for the constance of joy and peace and hope, but I'm cognizant that these are more richly experienced when there is perseverance through the asperity that life proffers. In moments like these, the greater fear is the creeping in of apathy.
Frederick Douglass, a 19th century abolitionist and orator, urged his brethren: "Be prayerful - be brave - be hopeful" (September 5, 1850: "A Letter to the American Slaves From Those Who Have Fled From American Slavery"). This line from the newspaper, The North Star, reflects the sentiments in Romans 12:12, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer," which is one of my favorite inspirations. Human atrocities are unsettling. We see examples of them every day in newspapers, podcasts, tweets and posts, and personal conversations, so much so that they become paralyzing. In such times, we must look beyond ourselves and our personal biases to those who have experienced far greater hardships and chosen to walk a path of dignity and hope. In so doing, we're allowing sunlight to shine where we least expect it. It's a light that can elucidate those murky questions better than our own limited understandings. May today be such a day of clarity for all of us.
Winter contains inherent beauty. Bare limbs and blue land, clear skies and a chimerical array of constellations that seems less dim than during summer's humid nights. I'm fond of winter. But, I'm fonder of spring.
While late winter breezes whip past dried flower stalks and grasses, which the birds have cleared of lingering seeds, my eyes roam the garden for signs of warmer weather. Sage and thyme both show greener leaves in their depths. And, I also notice indigo starting to yearn to show off its vibrant flowers. Nor are those wild thorn bushes just donned in gray, for a rosiness blushes in their tips now.
February whispers garden. Do you hear it? By the end of the month, little sugar snap peas will be sown into their raised beds, along with leafy greens and similar cold-weather plants that do well in the Shenandoah Valley. I'm also yearning to start my indoor seeds, too.
Even moreso, I'm yearning to cultivate my soul's glow. Like long, deeply-felt illness, stagnation often seeps in when we least expect it. I can feel my heart longing for its awakening - for its time to shine beyond the pain and longing and bitterness that grow like weeds. Do you know the feeling, friend?
May winter's slowing lead to warmer and happier opportunities for you, too, friend. Take a moment to savor something that makes you truly happy - and then promise yourself you will share that joy with others. Don't hold back, don't resort to automatic pilot, and don't let yourself fall back into ruts. Cling desperately to God's calling and smile.
Birds in flight, swooping into fluid form together, are mesmerizing. At times the mass unravels into fraying threads that stream into individuality, but like shoaling fish, the careening flock creates a beautiful dance that entrances even the sky.
So it is with people, too, in times of swarming. Consider the peaceable act of barn raising in Amish communities or Kenyans working together to build sand dams. Acts of commonality, in which the greater good sings from the hearts of each individual, can evoke moments of true beauty - the kind of moments that show the worth of humanity.
We need individual voices to encourage and remind us - especially when rights are being denied or the mob mentality meanders along a less-than-ideal course. But, we also need to remember the strength of community. Together, mankind can accomplish remarkable feats of compassion that leave a lasting impression - even if it is focused on just one family.
Today, find time to align yourself with something larger than just one life: serve in a soup kitchen, build a Habitat house, tutor at-risk children from your local schools, advocate for the oppressed. You'll be amazed by what more than you can do.
The sun lights up yellowing cornstalks, an autumnal scene that seems destined for a stained glass. Even on a cool morning, warmth radiates all around when that golden glow slants in through the windowpane. Light lands across the bed, where the summer quilt lays in gentle heaps like rolling mountains on the edge of a vale. The baseboard's rich woodgrain mimics the clouds' layering in the sky outside and even shadows reveal the day's mood as birds twitter toward post-dawn and the wind shivers leaves on limbs. The silhouette of muntin bars proves the only constant as I linger in the coziness. And, for a moment I feel like the old (wo)man in the mountain, sleeping under the comfy quilt of blue ridges.
Just before the baby's waking coos, the house is silent. There is a sense of calm, although once the day begins serenity quickly vacates the property. Often our perspectives are like that, too, when we peer through the glazing at the lives of others. Everything seems perfect, or at least much easier than the lives we know. Any specks that would otherwise be noticeable are really just smudges on the pane that still don't deter the happy home interpretation that aligns with what we want to see. But just as we see, others do too. Our lives, from the strained sight of others, may seem so rich in the full sense of the word that it would shock us.
It is human nature to feel one's own plight more ardently than the despair of others. And when others do have perceivable difficulties, we are quick to help - for a little while, until we almost ache to have such care aimed at ourselves. If we're honest, we all feel that way.
So, today, amid the chaos you perceive, may God's golden glow remind you that you have special worth. You are a treasure, too, even with the frays that sometimes run you ragged.
Bee balm blossoms spread like fireworks. Their long stalks meander through porch slats, shade the verdant carpet of lithodora, and invade the gravely garden path. Poignant shadows, devoid of the vibrant red, shimmer on the gray porch boards, cracked from weathering.
Just the other day, churning storm clouds, which vibrated with more thunder-growls than lightning-strikes, brought a battering of rain. A bumblebee, its wings resting from flight, sat silently on the dry side of the porch post. The wind chimes were still, perhaps savoring nature's influx of percussion, which was as transfixing as Japanese fire drummers in an outdoor amphitheater.
Today, though, the sky is blue. But not just blue. It's the sort of blue upon which you can barely gaze and yet it calls to you. It's pure and unhazed by humidity. It's cheerful and tips over even the most dismal mood. And, it enhances everything: wisteria vine scrolls, browning delphinium flowers, even bee balm shadows.
Whether rainy or sunny, the allure of bee balm brings a pleasant visitor. I heard the hover first. Not the zingy bumble of a fuzzy bee. No. There's more intonation to it. The sound captures a primal chant, smooth and constant. I always hear it first. Then, eyes roving across the array, I catch the fluid flight of the hummingbird.
Such moments make life worthwhile. Amidst the waiting and the whirl-winding, we delight in stringing together the wonder we find. Sometimes we place such finds in a box - one that's worn and smooth with a slight creak in the opening - with a uniquely-shaped rock, a dried flower, a colorful shell, a black and white snapshot of people you always wished to know. We set them out in a strand over time, letting the sun and the rain, the night and the closeness settle in, so that no two are alike. And as you admire your own box of memories, take a moment to ponder the beauty in those of others, too. Maybe it will slow your quick words, pop a smile where indifference usually looms, and invite you to see beauty where you expected not to see it.
SENK, an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley, savors moments contemplating life's intricate beauty.