Monday, June 26, 2017

The Green Place

The Green Place

Over millennia mankind has crafted a myriad of obstacles that hide the doorway to an inviolable part of the soul.  We cover the entrance with arrogance, we cover it with fear.  We visit it only in vulnerability, in brokenness, in wonder. It is a green place that lives in the core of our being, a place which, left ignored or untended, can, over time, turn utterly to dust, leaving us blind to the treasures we are offered in this life. It is an elusive part of the soul, but wisdom floats on its breezes and hope shines down in its light.  I cannot tell you how to get there, I doubt that anyone can.  But you’ll know it when you do.

I have wandered the hillsides of this green place many times, often guided by  poets whose words I cannot explain but understand as well as I do my own name.  They are the weavers of wisdom, people to whom a gift has been given, and so often their words are the incantation that unlocks this door to my soul, setting me loose to wander these illuminated fields like an inarticulate child glimpsing heaven.   Poet David Whyte has written, “Poetry is the language against which we have no defenses.”   And he’s right.  Poetry so often comes bearing a light of truth that only our soul understands.  We need it, especially now.

April was National Poetry Month here in the US and I gave myself a personal challenge of sorts to post a favourite poem each April day on my Instagram page.  Despite my concern that I wouldn’t have enough, I found I had many, many left over and I realized anew how much poetry has influenced and comforted me throughout my life. 

 At present, there seems to be a concentrated effort in the world to devalue the beautiful and denigrate those very things that make the soul breathe.  Empathy is weakness.  Wisdom is superseded by financial success.  When America’s president publicly expresses contempt for the poor and is applauded for it, we have not only turned our backs on truth, but we’ve closed the door on decency as well.   In this time of darkness it is imperative that we find that green place in our soul.  We must dig through any vines that have grown up over the door, dig till our fingers bleed and tears stain our faces.  Once on that hillside we will know we are not alone in our hunger for goodness.  
On that hillside we will hear Shakespeare say, 

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this scepter sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, Jew, 
Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation:  we do pray for mercy."

We will hear the echo of Mary Oliver’s question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
 with your one wild and precious life?” 

And we may resolve, like Amy Lowell:
“...For I have time for nothing
But the endeavor to balance myself
Upon a broken world.”

painting above by Gustave Dore

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Waiting for the Bird to Sing: A Summer Reading LIst

Waiting for the Bird to Sing
A Summer Reading List

It often commences around two in the morning.  A song as lyrical as any angel’s, it drifts out of the trees almost casually, as though the singer has no idea how magical it is.  It is a song of pure joy, its lilts and trills like laughter through the darkness.  I often slip from the cool linen and go to the window seat - to listen, to marvel, to applaud.  I have no idea what sort of bird this is, or even if anyone else can hear him.  Perhaps he sings for me alone, a spectral creature visiting one he knows is awake and listening.  
And of course I am awake.
I am reading.

Summer nights, when the air is still as a stare and sits heavy on the cottage roof, I am often to be found reading.  The stack of new books by my bed is a teetering tower of temptations that I found impossible to resist.  There are books I brought home from John Sandoe’s in London, braving the risk of overweight luggage fees without so much as a thought.  ( I made it just fine.)  There are new books, and some old ones I missed.  There are suggestions from Instagram friends and one recommended by writer Anne Lamott when I heard her speak a couple of months ago.  I am making my way through the stack as though it were a box of favorite chocolates, each one more delicious than the last.
In these troubled times I find I'm reaching for both comfort and escape.  Perhaps you are as well.  
For escape there’s always Daphne DuMaurier or Agatha Christie. For comfort, I often find it in John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry and the aforementioned Anne Lamott.
I hope you’ll find a bit of both comfort and escape on this summer reading list of mine.
And maybe a few laughs, which are always welcome.
Just click on book photo to see more.

As for me, tonight I’ll be reading again,
 waiting for the bird to sing.

1.  The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
I saw this in the window of John Sandoe’s in London.
Could not resist it.

2.  The Riders 
by Tim Winton

3.  My Cousin Rachel
by Daphne du Maurier
Read the book before seeing the movie.

4.  Churchill and Orwell
The Fight for Freedom
by Thomas E. Ricks

5.  Happy All the Time
by Laurie Colwin
Anne Lamott was right.
This book is wonderful.

6.  Grief Cottage
by Gail Godwin

7.  Theft by Finding
Diaries 1977-2002
by David Sedaris
Always witty and laugh out loud funny.

8. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
by Penelope Lively

9.  The Chilbury Ladies Choir 
by Jennifer Ryan

10.  Al Franken, Giant of the Senate
by Al Franken
Funny, smart, and wise.

11.  The World-Ending Fire
The Essential Wendell Berry
Selected by Paul Kingsnorth

12.  Sherlock Holmes
by Arthur Conan Doyle and read by Stephen Fry
A treat to be sure.

13.  Weatherland
by Alexandra Harris

14.  Highland Retreats
The Architecture and Interiors of Scotland’s Most Romantic North
by Mary Meirs

15.  For Love of Country
A Journey Through the Hebrides
by Madeleine Bunting

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Work We Must Do

Work We Must Do

Southerners are known to scoff at the calendar page of June.  With long-held authority it trumpets the twenty-first of this month as the beginning of summer, but of course we know better.  Already the heat lies heavy on the magnolia blooms; they burst open under its weight in a storm of lemon fragrance and a scattering of sticky stamens that shower the the newly mown ground.  Already the fan whirls. Already the girls are wearing white.  For any Southerner worth her salt knows full well that, here, summer arrives with Memorial Day, no matter what the calendar may say.  Memorial Day was this past Monday.  This, therefore, is summer.

Though it has certain pleasures to be sure, summer is not the favourite season of anyone residing at The House of Edward.  None of us, be they fair-skinned or furry, finds particular joy in humidity, or mosquitos, or heat.  But one of us in particular is especially disapproving of this season now upon us for it brings forth that most despicable creature known to dog, the heinous chipmunk.  Edward has always been too dignified to overly concern himself with these insignificant trifles of den and burrow.  He barely raises an eye when they chance to dart across the garden.  But Apple.  Oh, Apple hates chipmunks.

We were setting the table for breakfast when we noticed Apple wasn’t inside.  A quick glance out the window revealed her to be in her usual summer morning post, sitting on the stones of the courtyard staring into the cool shade of the back garden.  She will sit like this, still as stone, for hours - waiting, waiting, for that one errant chipmunk who would dare cross her path.  This morning, however, The Songwriter followed the line of her rapier-straight stare - out past the bird feeder, on under the poplar tree- till he saw…. a large… a formidable… raccoon.  He grabbed a yellow dustmop from the mudroom and headed outside at a clip.

Unaware of the danger she was actually in, Apple stared at the long-clawed raccoon with complete and utter focus.  She didn’t hear when The Songwriter called her.  She didn’t notice him heading her way.   Dog and raccoon were locked in a confrontational stance and any sudden move would make Apple bolt towards a fight she was in no way prepared for.  Then The Songwriter placed the yellow mop in front of her face and, pop!, her attention snapped.  Just for a second, but long enough for him to hoist her up and lug her inside.  Disaster averted.

Like Apple, it is, I think, difficult for some of us these days to recognize, or perhaps admit, the danger we just might be in.  There seem to be threatening creatures on every newspaper page, every television channel.  Each day brings something new to set our souls reeling.   It’s hard, almost impossible, to look away.  And should we?  As Margaret Atwood wrote in her horrifying book, The Handmaid’s Tale, “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance.  You have to work at it.”   But is it work we should, on occasion, endeavour to do?  

Even in the face of escalating and frequently overwhelming concern about the state of things in my country, I have found there is a necessity to periodically look away, if only to gain the strength required to adequately, in my own small way, address these concerns with any sense or decorum.  It does not denote irresponsibility, rather it is essential for the nourishment of a healthy equilibrium.  I recently journeyed to London to lose myself in gardens, museums and the occasional custard tart.  It was as therapeutic as it was fun.  We took Edward and Apple to the mountains for a long walk in green shade.  I listened to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music the other day.  I read Beverley Nichols.  Tomorrow night, The Songwriter and I are going dancing.

None of the activities I’ve just mentioned are mere distractions.  Instead, I believe they function like that bright yellow dust mop waved in front of Apple to break her focus, a focus that could have only done her harm.  We need to turn away and lock eyes with Beauty as much as possible these days, for Beauty heals as much as It enlightens.  It is an oasis in this desert, one that stays with you even when you must trudge back out in the heat and sand to once again write your representative in Congress.  It is work we must do.