A Gift Just for Showing Up

If I hadn’t had a role to play in the service today, I would have skipped church. With family visiting all too briefly from out of town, another cup of coffee together sounded like a better plan. But since I was needed there I drove to church instead, listening to NPR on the way.

I’ve resisted the anniversary observances of 9/11 this year, wanting to avoid dwelling on the suffering in that event and the dismay at what has transpired since then. But the reminders are everywhere this weekend, and this morning’s coverage left me feeling the weight of the past ten years.

I found myself thinking that if I had to be going anywhere I was glad it was to church. If nothing else, I was glad to be offering up the events and emotions of this anniversary with others, as part of a service that makes remembering more bearable and perhaps even more meaningful because it is shared.

As I waited in back to follow a cherubic acolyte up the aisle during the opening hymn, I had a vision of the sanctuary I had never experienced before. The glass walls at the back of the sanctuary caught the light in just the right way to reflect the trees in the garden behind the church.

The reflection of their trunks blended with the wood of the pews on the other side of the glass, so that the trees seemed to have taken root in the sanctuary. A canopy of green appeared to shelter the worshipers and the center aisle was like a tree-lined garden walk. As a breeze lifted the branches and rustled the leaves outside, the reflected movement seemed an image of the holy spirit, stirring gently among the congregation.

Knowing I couldn’t possibly do justice to the scene, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo anyway, just to help me remember. It’s the picture you see here, the photographic equivalent of an illegibly scribbled note.

I’ve written about trees in a church before—something I find to be a meaningful symbol. That’s why this scene of a worship service overlaid with the life of a garden felt like a gift. In the fullness of late-summer growth, brought to life by a gentle wind, the reflected image of the trees spoke of suppleness and fruitfulness, deep roots and new branches, life and hope.

At its best, that’s what a church is all about. And because I showed up today, I was able to experience a reminder of the good that can come from people gathering together. On today, of all days, I’m glad I was there.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the opening hymn we sang:

Yes, on through life’s long path,
still singing as you go,
from youth to age, by night and day,
in gladness and in woe
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.




What to Watch

Still on the vintage jewelry kick, I recently brought home a box from an estate sale for $10. It looked to me like there were treasures among its contents, and finding them is fun. A watch with a band made of tiny links was one of the things that charmed me. Even with its worn finish it’s a lovely, well-made piece that feels good against my wrist. I’m looking for the right way to make it into a bracelet.

I popped out the watchworks and face, leaving just the crystal. I knew that as long as the face remained I would keep wanting it to tell the time. But the design of the bracelet and my own long habits keep me glancing at that clear window expecting something to be there. Something important should occupy that space, but I haven’t figured out what. It needs to reflect light if it’s going to be visible. A pearl shows up well, but that’s not the answer.

Without a focus on time, how to decide? If not the minutes and hours, what’s worth framing? worth watching?

A few weeks ago I wrote about a watch that suspends time. I could wear this one with its empty crystal and accomplish the same thing, but without the option of an instant return to temporal reality—or at least measuring it.

I like the idea of a mechanism that keeps track of the changing tides on my favorite beach, or represents the orbits of planets around the sun, or the spiraling of the Milky Way. Not that I’ve seen such a watch, but it’s appealing to consider time on a more cosmic level.

In the meantime, the crystal is a window onto the skin of my wrist when I put it on—it reads a hair past a freckle as they say. I could leave it that way as a reminder to simply be in my own skin, to not be overly concerned with schedules. But I’m still looking for another idea.

What would you place behind the crystal?



Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

The Work in Front of You

I like what Karen Maezen Miller says about work in her memoir, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

“Accord yourself with what needs to be done—the very thing that appears before you. What appears before you is not only the most important thing; it is the only thing, all other things existing in your imagination, for the time being.”

Miller is both a suburban mom and a Zen Buddhist priest, a combination of roles that seems particularly apt to me. When she talks about the work in front of her, she often means the same work that confronts me: piles of laundry and a kitchen to clean. Work that an unenlightened being on a bad day might consider drudgery.

Yet I know enough to recognize the wisdom in her teaching. I know that the dread I feel when the insurance company demands documentation is far worse than the effort of retrieving those papers from the files. I know that the frustration of cluttered counters and closets is far more painful than actually clearing them.

The problem is that I have better things to do with my time, or at least I think I do. I have more creative pursuits to follow, more important work to accomplish. I have a more fulfilling life to live than the messy one in front of me with all of its exasperating details.

On the other hand, sometimes the work in front of me is more complicated. That work may be the next step to take toward a larger goal. Often the problem that arises then is that I don’t know how to do it. Which means the additional task of learning to take on something I haven’t done before. There’s no ease with that, no sense of mastery. It would be so much more comfortable to just do what I’m good at.

I can avoid the big scary projects for a while, immersing myself in other things. But no one moves forward that way. And eventually all other endeavors lose their flavor if I’m not doing the work that calls to me. At the same time, it’s hard to do that higher level work when I’m tripping over the shoes and magazines piled on the floor.

So the work in front of me may be a sink full of dishes, or it may be the next step in making a dream come true. Both matter. Sometimes I experience a day in which each kind of work is a welcome respite from the other, a day in which I can gladly take on what’s in front of me without feeling I should be doing something different. When I can bring that kind of presence to my working, I’m released from the draining effects of second-guessing and doubt. What I’m doing is the right thing, and it’s all that matters.

As Miller says, “At the moment when I’m in the muck, at the moment when I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.”

What work is in front of you?

When Searching Doesn’t Work: Being Prepared to Find

For the past few weeks I’ve had a single silver earring hanging from the stand on my dresser. The forlorn half of a pair, it hasn’t been worn since the day I lost its mate.

I looked everywhere I could for the missing dangle—in the weave of my sweater, the folds of my scarf, the lining of my coat; behind the seat cushion of the car, in the carpet on the floorboards, among the detritus of a day of errands; on floors and countertops and inside grocery bags. I could only conclude that it lay somewhere among the miles of parking lots and store aisles I had crossed that day.

The earrings were a pair I wore often. They were simple and well-formed, bought years ago from a local artist. Back then I stretched a bit to afford them, though given their price per wearing they were a bargain. I was sad to lose something that fit so well into my life.

Today an easing of winter’s onslaught inspired me to sweep the garage, motivated mostly by the prospect of less dead leaves, dirt, and crud to track into the house. Pushing a mound of debris in front of the broom, I noticed a glint of light. When I stopped to look, yes, there was the earring missing for these many weeks.

I had examined the garage floor in my search, and since then had crossed and re-crossed the path where that familiar silver form must have fallen. But somehow I missed it.

Not until I swept things clean, tumbling the leaves and dirt and trash together, re-ordering that small part of the world, could I find what I had searched for so diligently and nonetheless overlooked. There’s a lot to be said for a cleaning binge. In sweeping out and putting things in order, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

It pays to do the chores with eyes open, to notice what gleams among the debris. It helps to have some idea of what we’re looking for as well. Remarkable things, even the things we search for, sometimes show up in unexpected places.

What are you looking for?

The Red River Gorge at Nightfall

I had a chance to visit the Red River Gorge over the holidays—a brief but beautiful drive with my family on the return trip from a Christmas visit.

We arrived at dusk, knowing our time was limited but wanting to see all we could before dark. The main road was snow-covered and a new snow had fallen, softening the landscape and offering up each bare tree and dark evergreen in clear contrast against the field of white.

It was immensely quiet there. The trees closed overhead and the light faded as we wound down to the river. As night began to fall, the snow reflected what little light remained. It held off the darkness, creating the sense of a moment outside of time in an otherworldly place.

Robert Frost’s words kept echoing through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Gazing into awe, I was humbled by the power and mystery of this life.

The Gorge, a place of dramatic beauty, sits right off the highway. We usually drive by it on our way to somewhere else. But stopping by those woods on that snowy evening was a memory, and perhaps even a glimpse of eternity, to hold for a long time.

Have you had a glimpse of the eternal?

Getting Past What We Think We See

I’m fascinated by this optical illusion.

I’m so sure of what I’m seeing here—a gray and white checkerboard—I can hardly believe the demonstration showing how it’s not that simple. Certainty encourages me to dismiss any new information. It limits what I am able to perceive. I can barely take in the information that challenges my understanding because I “know” what I saw. But it turns out I was wrong.


I wouldn’t want to go through life never trusting my sense of how things are. I need to rely on my perceptions to get through the day. But I also know from experience that certainty can be misplaced. Past choices that seemed perfectly clear at the time had far more room for questioning than I was able to see. I know now that I knew less than I thought I did back then, if you can follow that convoluted sentence.

But I was generally doing the best I could with what I had. Who can do more than that? It’s what we all do. But it would have been better to ask if there were more to know than what meets the eye. I might have made better decisions if I had been willing to test my assumptions.

Yet even in our lack of wisdom and experience we are given an inner sense of when things are out of balance. When our misperceptions matter, life provides indications that we need to pay closer attention. They accrue until we finally notice.

Within us is a life force, a holy spirit, urging us forward and helping us to transcend illusion. Often it speaks with a still, small voice that helps us know what we need to know, even when thoughts and perceptions are confused. Occasionally it jolts us into waking up to what is going on around us.

Could it be that this clever video is speaking to us of such things, even now?

And if you still don’t believe the squares are the same color, check out this demonstration:
The Checker-Shadow Illusion

Everyday Rituals

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a task can be transformed by a sense of ritual. Ritual lends weight to what we’re doing. To clear space in our mind and schedule for a particular task is to acknowledge its importance. It says there is nothing we should be doing instead, and no reason to hurry through this moment on the way to the next thing. That alone is a relief, and all too rare. Ritual invites us to be fully present, to set aside anything else pulling at our attention and focus on the one thing in front of us.

Cooking dinner can be that kind of experience on days when I clear the countertops, turn on “All Things Considered,” and set aside the time to chop, saute, and simmer. Other days it’s a chore I squeeze in between other things, hurrying on to the next thing I need or want to do. The difference is whether I make space around it and become present in doing it. Ritual encourages presence, attention.

I remember as a child watching my father polish his shoes. He had a box where he kept everything he needed: the round tin of dark polish, the cotton rag saturated with its orange-brown color and oily scent. He would spread a newspaper on the floor to mark his work space, then open a tin and rub the cloth over it in a circular motion. After he worked the polish into the leather he would take up the wide wooden brush with soft black bristles, placing his hand inside the shoe to hold it and brushing with long sweeping strokes until it shone. I can still hear the thump of the brush against the shoe, the whisper of bristles across its polished surface. Then he folded the newspaper and threw it away, carried the box and gleaming shoes back to where they belonged.

I remember my mother preparing to iron, sprinkling clothes with water from a Coke bottle fitted with a metal-capped cork, its rounded surface filled with holes like a salt shaker. There was the muted sparkle and splash of water inside the glass bottle and the dark spots of moisture on cotton. She rolled up the clothes for the dampness to permeate, with an extra sprinkle over the bundle for good measure. With its hiss and rising steam, the transformation of rumpled fabrics into crisp, clean, finished laundry, ironing didn’t look like a chore. It looked like an important part of the week.

As I didn’t have responsibility for doing them, those tasks never appeared to be a burden. Instead they seemed special, meriting the time set aside for them. To a child fascinated by its particular tools, the job was clearly important. It offered elements perhaps of pleasure, but at the very least of satisfaction. I liked ironing handkerchiefs and helping to brush shoes.

I don’t know if my mother and father brought the same attention to their tasks that I brought to watching them. I was free to do something else if I grew bored, while they had to see the job through. And having raised a family myself now, I’m sure they had other things on their mind. Perhaps it’s easier to be mindful about someone else’s work.

Nonetheless, I think that how they went about their work taught me something of value. Ritual creates space around something important. When we turn the pages of a magazine, a few words on a large field of white rivets our attention. In the same way, we can put focus on the most important aspects of our lives by giving them breathing room. We add meaning to our lives when we notice what they contain. We elevate our work when we set it apart through the simple rituals that center us in the moment and ground us in our lives.

What are the tasks that give you satisfaction? Are they enhanced by a ritual of some kind?

The Restorative Power of Deep Attention

This week I watched “Rivers and Tides,” a wonderful film directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, about the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy works outdoors, often in the Scottish countryside where he lives. He uses elements from the natural world—leaves, stones, moss, bracken, ice—in surprising ways to create beautiful and powerful forms.

Andy Goldsworthy's Rivers & Tides

Much of his work endures only for a few hours, or even minutes, undone by elements as natural as the materials he uses. He brings to his work the expectation that it will soon yield to water, heat, gravity, wind, growth, decay, and time, incorporating nature’s claim on his creations into the viewer’s experience of the art. His ephemeral art, made of elements yielded by that particular place, are offered back to the landscape. Nature reclaims the elements of his work and once again changes their form. He says of a serpentine line of ice, made from icicle fragments and glowing gold in the rising sun, “The very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” as the sculpture begins to melt.

In one sequence (you can view a clip here) he uses bleached driftwood to build a beautiful, domed structure with a perfectly round hole in the top, like the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome. He constructs it at a place where river and sea meet, the lines of the rounded walls echoing the swirling motion of the water next to it. As the tide comes in, the water washes up around the dome and lifts a few of the logs at its base. They separate from the structure, encircling it and becoming part of the circular flow mirrored by the lines of the dome. As it yields to the water, the dome becomes an even clearer expression of the motion it is made to suggest.

As Goldsworthy says in the film, “It doesn’t feel at all like destruction.” Eventually it is carried away by that very motion and incorporated into a flow it could only emulate when it was intact. He could be speaking of this circular structure later in the film when he says of another piece, “The sea has taken the work and made more of it than I ever could have hoped.”

Watching this film, I could feel my heartbeat slow, my breathing deepen, my muscles relax. When it ended, I felt the kind of inner quiet and spaciousness that comes after prayer or meditation. A sense of reverence infuses the film. It evokes a sense of wonder and of awe.

Goldsworthy’s rooted presence in the natural world, and his ability to convey it through his work and his words, are a rare gift. He brings deep attention to growth and change in nature, to the details of creation. He knows the characteristics of rocks and leaves, the path of the river, the ebb and flow of the tide. He seems to be exploring how to live in relationship with the overwhelming power of the natural world, finding ways to meet it with his own power as an artist, and working to know the world around him and his place in it.

His work is a reminder that we are part of a miraculous creation, in its enormity and power as well as its specificity and detail. Living with the kind of attention he brings helps us to be present for moments of divine clarity, when life on this earth shimmers with the presence of a reality beyond the one we can know.

What helps foster a sense of reverence in your life?

Working with Stones

I’m fascinated by the limestone fences that line the Central Kentucky landscape. Constructed without mortar by skilled builders, many of whom were itinerant Irish and Scottish masons, they can endure for centuries. The Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy teaches this almost-lost art to local masons, preserving and spreading the knowledge that allows the old rock fences to be repaired and maintained in the original way, as well as new ones built.

To study a section of stone fence is to appreciate the depth of attention brought to the work. Rough and irregular stones are layered without gaps, as if each settled naturally into its place according to its nature. Even the smallest stone is an integral part of the whole, filling a space that would otherwise weaken the structure. Made of limestone from the surrounding fields, the fences come from the land and fit easily into the landscape. They were built from the necessity of working with materials at hand. They belong.

Labor and skill are apparent in these old stone fences, but so is a sense of reverence for the world as it is. The builders worked with the nature of the stones, so that the textured unity of the fence is not imposed through conformity but coaxed from diversity. The strength and beauty of a rock wall comes from working with what is given, carefully determining the placement of each piece so that is part of a cohesive whole. Nothing is forced; every stone is different. Yet put together in the right way the stones yield a structure that is beautiful, cohesive, and strong. Each stone lends its strength to something that endures.

The building method works because the stones are different shapes. They don’t just sit side by side, they fit into each other. Scattered across the ground, the stones don’t look like building material. They’re just rocks. They suggest nothing of the potential seen by a mason. But placed by a master builder, they become part of something beautiful and enduring.

In the same way, it can be hard to see what the scattered parts of our lives add up to. Sometimes we lack the perspective on our selves, or on our communities, to see anything more than a rocky field. At those times it helps me to remember that I’m not the mason. In spite of everything I try to do and learn and accomplish and create, there is only so much improvement of myself or the world that I can bring about under my own power. But there is a master builder who has the vision to make something good of my life and its odd-shaped elements, and of this world and its rough-edged inhabitants. There is good work in progress.

What helps give you a builder’s perspective?