Two Sticks and a Saturday Evening Post

Sticks with the River in 'em.

Sticks with the River in ‘em.

My younger self would have balked. A beautiful late spring Saturday evening and what were my plans? Church and getting groceries? What kind of life is that?

But then my younger mind’s eye couldn’t have seen what I’d encounter along the way.  Everyday mysteries.  Inspirations unfold when you are present to receive them.

Earlier that day, I’d been reading Stephen King’s memoir-cum-manual On Writing. Again, my younger, pretentious self would have balked.  Why take writing advice from the pop horror king, when my own pretensions were of the literary ilk?  I was guilty, yet again, of contempt prior to investigation.  It turns out Stephen’s book is a classic for a reason. Amongst the gems, it stoked my imagination to find stories waiting to be told, the ‘fossil’ you unbury, as King terms it. Where do you dig? In the field of observation, not unlike a Sherlock Holmes, seeing the ordinary clue, hidden in plain view, and perceiving the extraordinary.   Just look around you and apply the primary question of the writer, the investigator and the scientist: what if…?

Just before turning left into the church parking lot, I saw three little women, resembling a mother and two girls, on the street.  All three brown-skinned, with long black hair, I could see only the mother’s round face, with high cheekbones. She looked Mexican, not unusual in New Mexico.  What’s so special there? Well, first, the littlest of the trio, a girl of about four, was hopping on one foot, stretching one hand up to the shoulder of the taller girl, about nine or ten, to her right, and the other hand up to her mom, a petite woman not five feet tall. The little one was missing a shoe, with a big bandage stretched across her left foot.  Aside from the injury, what inspired the possibility for a story was a furtive glance of the mother over her shoulder, her dark eyes scanning the street.  Why was she anxious? What was wrong? How had the injury happened?  Was she guilty? Was she afraid of someone? Or afraid that they’d get deported, so they didn’t go to the E.R.? I didn’t know, of course.  My imagination could only play “What if?” and run with it.

Late for church, I slipped into a pew.  Mass had just started.  It was pretty ordinary, except for a new seminarian visiting for the summer. The 22-year old philosophy graduate introduced himself, with a lot of ums, to the parish. He wasn’t the new Martin Luther King, but there was something earnest and brave about this young man.  Vocations to the priesthood in the US are exceedingly rare these days. (In 21st Century Catholicism, missionary priests now are imported to the US from Africa and Asia and not vice versa, as it was forty-plus years ago when my mother had worked for the Society of African Missions.  Generations of Western missionary nuns and priests had gone all over the world, to Africa, Asia and South America, to baptize and educate children who now, in the 21st Century, would grow up to lead the Church.  We now even have the first South American pope, Francis, toppling hierarchies and upsetting precedents.)  Also unusual, this youth in training for the priesthood was a New Mexico boy.  He’d come up in Cimarron, New Mexico, just over the canyon.

Where mountains meet the plains

Cimarron: Where the mountains meet the plains

Cimarron always tweaks my heart because it’s the headquarters of Philmont, a famous Boy Scout wilderness camp in New Mexico that my brother, Danny, now deceased for nearly nine years, had attended as a youth.  After I’d traveled the world and come home to Chicago to visit Danny in his sickbed and show him my pictures, he told me, “I haven’t seen much of the world, but New Mexico is really beautiful.” Today, the young man from Cimarron talked about how his seed of desire to become a priest had been visible to his mother since he was a toddler. That seed waited only for water and light to let it grow. He told of a priest visiting his school who’d said, “Just because no one from Cimarron has been called by God to be a priest yet, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.” This resonated within the boy.  It could happen to him. He could be the trailblazer.

I sat there, lost in reverie. Earlier that day I’d compiled a document from websites that featured authors who’d first published after 40 and 50.  A round number birthday is on the horizon for me, so I needed inspiration. I’d once had a trusted spiritual teacher undermine my writing aspirations with this cut: “If it hasn’t happened already, it isn’t meant to.”  Yet like this boy’s burning desire to serve as a priest, the desire to serve as a writer was planted in me early, before the age of five, and hadn’t yet been extinguished by decades on the planet.   All the evidence was there: degrees in English, a career in publishing, thousands of books and hundreds of journals. I’d shipped them back and forth from continent to continent, while I got detoured following this pied piper who claimed to be the guru of creatives.   Only problem was that in tuning in so intently to the guru, I’d started to lose my own voice. It had only recently begun to return, here, in the high mountain desert, where it was quiet enough to listen.

The priest’s banter jolted me back to the present moment.  Mass was soon over, and I went for the groceries. One good thing about shopping on a Saturday night is no lines at the check-out.  As I packed my car, a man from Taos Pueblo asked me to buy fresh sage sticks. I’m not a smudger, but they looked and smelt beautiful.  He seemed honest, too. When I asked him how his day was, he said, “Today’s better than yesterday. Yesterday was no good.” I thought, I can do this.  I pulled out five bucks and took two sticks. Smudges may go for a lot more in a shop; I’m not sure, I was a virgin to buying smudge sticks.   Bringing them in, the fresh sage filled the car, overpowering the artificial mango-scented bar I’d picked up at a car wash two days prior.  In the parking lot, the man was saying something to me I couldn’t hear.  He motioned for me to roll down the window and said, “They’re so fresh because they have the Rio Grande in them. I picked them today by the Rio in Pilar.”  We smiled at each other.

Inhaling the tangy eucalyptus  scent on the way home, I felt far from ordinary.  Sure, I’d just gone through the mundane practice of attending a weekly Mass and I picked up groceries. But where do you get hit on to buy fresh sage sticks in the parking lot except Taos?  Where else do you get to bring the Rio Grande into your car?

Sunsetting

Sun setting to the west

Sunset began to unfold as I drove home.  We’d sung “Morning Has Broken” at Mass tonight. It speaks of the dawn:  “God’s recreation of the new day.” I flash-backed to Cat Stevens’ version and his quest. This music I’d first heard as a young girl growing up in the seventies, one of the songs that stoked the spiritual flames of a generation. Tonight, the evening skies in Taos were celebrating the culmination of the old day.  To the west, rays of light beamed like a spotlight through a cloud-hole in the curtain closing on this seemingly ordinary day.  As I write this, I recalled the advice of writer John Banville at an Irish Writers’ Week I attended a few years ago in Listowel, County Kerry. He said that writers need a boring life. The drama needed to happen on the page. It struck me that I now had the perfect life, a hotbed of ordinary-extraordinary in small town, rural New Mexico.

Taos Mt. from Tune Drive

Taos Mt. to the east from Tune Drive

To the east, the scenery was subtle yet exquisite. The late spring snows and early monsoon rains have blessed us with verdant grass and delicate yellow-green weeds across the mesa. In past arid years since I’ve lived here, we’ve had just barren sagebrush for greenery.  This season’s lushness quenched like lemonade on a blistering afternoon.

So this is my Saturday evening post. Two sticks of sage with the river in ‘em. A couple or more stories to ponder.  A tribute to the ordinary, a song of gratitude.

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The Cloud of Unknowing

Finding your way

Finding your way

Just now, installing an update to this Word Press blog, I came across this quote I’d saved in a draft back in December when I was blogging daily. It’s from the French poet, Andre Gide:  “Do not think your truth can be found by anyone else.”

Days of exhaustion do come up when I reach for shortcuts.  The wisdom delivered by elders, gurus, doctors, priests, famous authors who’ve made cottage industries from delivering nuggets of truth and step-by-step ways to reach that mountain – in just 30 days and for only $$ – payable in installments by Visa and MasterCard.

The truth is, the mountain is clouded, obscured.  My path is not your path.  We may walk the same road, and maybe one of us is lost and the other found.  And if I have found a way to my truth, my map, with its detours and delays – will not work for you.  You must find your own.

I am not advocating for isolation. I cannot live on a desert isle, anymore than you can.  We need each other; we are connected.

But the path to your inner truth is yours alone, as is mine.  Sometimes I weary of the climb and sit back to listen to someone else, someone who has purported to find the truth.  I might follow his or her map for a while. But the steps I take require my own strength, endurance, bravery, and sure footing, my own pushing through the fog.  I have fallen many times and have not yet reached the top. Sometimes I get a quick glimpse.  Then the fog rolls back in.

It’s okay.  Halfway up is what it is.  If I take a step forwards or backwards, it’s all okay.  I will get there when I get there, as will you.

Let’s be kind to each other, along the way.

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We are not in charge here.

Spring Showers

Spring Showers

Thursday, after weeks of dryness, it snowed again. Just in time for closing weekends of the ski resorts  in Northern New Mexico. A little “tease” from Mother Nature or final gift?

Here in the “moisture challenged” Southwest, we welcome whatever moisture comes, whenever.  I saw snow melting around dandelions this morning; that made me smile. Friday, Spring returned for a guest appearance.  Blue skies, temps in the 50s. Followed by Saturday – more snow and rain, coming and going, interspersed by patches of blue sky.  Up at the Taos Ski Valley, everything is closing – with the usual bang and fanfare – as the hard core skiers and snowboarders pack up their gear until next winter.

In the midst of all this unpredictability, while I am unsettled by the howling winds, hail and spring thunder, I also take comfort.  Life is so unpredictable. We never know what is coming next. We think we do; we think there should be a reasonable order to life. Winter followed by Spring.  Not all jumbled together, like snow on dandelions.

But this is what we get.  Roll with the punches. Find the silver linings. Sit in awe before the mountains and remember again that we are not in charge.

Taos Mountain April Storm

Taos Mountain April Storm

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Gotta Start Somewhere

Blossoms in Albuquerque

Blossoms in Albuquerque

After posting for twenty-three days in a row in December — leading up to Christmas Eve, my blog fell into a deep freeze for the winter! Halfway through Lent and not a peep, until now. Well, I had my reasons, namely that my partner had a stroke on January 15th. Let’s just say the new year started off with a bang, and it has taken a season for me to find my feet again.

You have to start somewhere. So here I am, back again. Watching the person closest to you lose his ability to speak (temporarily – it is coming back – word by word) has renewed my awe and wonder at the mystery of language and the power of communication. I suppose my own silence on this blog reflects the enormity of what we have been through.

I look forward to sharing more reflections with you throughout the spring. For now, the ice has been broken.

Red River melting, Questa, NM

Red River melting, Questa, NM

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The Little Bagpipe Boy – Being Yourself is the Best Present.

The Bagpipe Boy

Bagpipe Boy

It’s the Eve of Christmas Eve.  There is a “to-do” list tomorrow.  However, I feel no stress or anxiety around these things.

Whenever I have come home to Chicago around the holidays, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, adrenaline rush: getting from here to there, playing Santa for my elderly parents, getting all the shopping and wrapping and decorating and visiting done, rushing from one side of this big city to the other.

This year is different. It’s quieter – inside and out.  First of all, of course, Dad’s gone.  His absence is felt, an undercurrent running through the daily stream of activities.  He’s not sitting at the table, but I hear his voice, and sense of humor, in my heart. And my brother Dan is gone another year, but still seems just a heartbeat away.

Dad - the Jokester!

Dad – the Jokester!

My sweetheart isn’t here, either.  He is holding down the fort in Taos, juggling two jobs.  He’s also watching our sweet dog – Roxy.

Christmas Puppy

Christmas Puppy

Last time I was here in Chicago, Tilghman was with me, at my side, holding me through Dad’s funeral.  He had returned to Delaware a few weeks ago to see his aging Dad, at Thanksgiving. So we are spending both of these holidays apart – first time in five years. But it’s okay.  Sometimes life calls you in different directions. We’ll be together in a few days and will ring in the New Year. We are able to do this journey, a day at a time, both together and apart.

Me & My Sweetie

Me & My Sweetie, Tilghman Evans

Mom’s doing okay, just slowing down as is normal as the years add up. She’s holding up remarkably well, given that her brother was buried this morning in Ireland. It is good to be with her.  I am moving more slowly, being present. There’s really no rush. There’s nothing to prove.

I can’t afford to splurge on presents this year with four trips to Chicago in the past year, since my dad’s decline, and my sister Anne and I were working to find the best way forward for Mom & Dad. So there’s no rushing around the malls, except to help Mom get the things she needs to stay warm during an especially frigid winter.  I can calm down, breathe, be.

Mom & my sister Anne

Mom & my sister Anne

Every night I look forward to this nearly midnight ritual of writing the blog. I share a “cuppa” tea with my Mom in the late evening, and then I retire to the guest room I’ve been able to stay in down the hall for the past three nights.  It’s humbling to be staying amongst the elderly at the Central Baptist Village.  To listen to their stories at the dinner table, the stories of children and grandchildren they are so proud of, or frustrated with, or estranged from – the whole range of human drama.

It’s almost midnight and I pledged to get this posted every day. I am down to the wire. This is the sweetest ‘adrenaline’, the rush for the daily deadline. Maybe I am a journalist after all, at heart.  Time will tell.

My final thoughts before Christmas Eve officially starts are inspired by the “little drummer boy” Christmas carol.  The little drummer boy had no gift to bring that was “fit to give a King.”  He decided to just be himself and was inspired.  ”I’ll play my drum for Him – pa-rumpa-pum-pum. I played my best for Him, pa-rumpa-pum-pum… Then He smiled at me, pa-rumpa-pum-pum. Me and my drum.”

In my parents’ Nativity set, there was not a drummer boy.  But there was a bagpipe player!  I guess this was the Irish twist on the drummer boy.

I feel like the little drummer boy.  I am not bearing many gifts this year. But I am writing. That’s my drum. I gave myself – in this writing. I played my best for Him (and for you and me, too), every day, every night – whatever my best was that day.  And all is good.

I played my best for Him.

I played my best for Him.

May you have a beautiful, blessed, safe and Merry Christmas.

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Spiritual Mathematics

DSCN0077In my years in a yoga spiritual community, I was encouraged to study the Spiritual Diary of Paramahansa Yogananda. He had been an early teacher of my former meditation master. Founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Yogananda had suggested that December 23rd be used as a “spiritual Christmas” for all devotees of Christ, to be spent in an “ever-increasingly deep meditation.” Then, he suggested that the 25th be approached as the “social celebration” of Christmas.

A beautiful suggestion.  Spending hours in prayer and meditation, however, may not be practical or even possible for many people, with work and family obligations. Yet everyone can find a few moments. Even a mere second or two, with pure intention, can deeply shift one’s inner being.

All we need to do is pause, and remember. What is the real reason for the season? How can you prepare your heart? Is there anything you need to let go of, to make room for love?  Spirituality is more often a matter of subtraction than it is of addition. (I believe Meister Eckhart said that; one mystic or another did!)

Along these lines, I wonder if spirituality is neither a matter of subtraction or addition. Maybe it is better to look at the equal sign, pointing to balance.  Just being.

It is = what it is.

There is always enough time. There is always now.

The only moment available to grace is Now.

Snow on Sage

Snow on Sage

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Mother Mary and the Solstice Birthday

Gift to Mom

Gift to Mom

I took this photo three years ago, the last time I was in for my mother’s Solstice birthday.  I’d given her a copy of my friend Mirabai Starr’s and Fr. William Hart McNichols’ book, Mother of God: Similar to Fire, which Mom keeps close at hand to this day, on her coffee table. Today that table is chock-full of Christmas and birthday cards, bouquets and ornaments, with Mother of God in the midst of it all.

After I’d returned to New Mexico in 2010, Mom told me she’d pick the book up at night and often read one poem before sleep, as a part of her nightly prayers.  She said she’d never read poems quite like them, that she knew Mary truly understood her pain, through these masterful poems.  My mother, herself named Mary, had always held Our Lady close to her heart, and had taught me that I could pray to her, “Oh clement, oh loving, oh sweet Virgin Mary…” was one of the refrains I’d learned as a child.  ”I fly onto Thee, O Virgin of Virgins…”  I loved that one, imagining myself ‘flying onto’ Mary.

My mother taught me to come to Mary as mother.  Simple, real, accessible. She would intercede for you.  Just like in the home growing up, where so many children can ask Mom first, trustingly, pleadingly, open and needy.  She would embrace you and do all she could to make it happen…

The Divine Feminine is so simple. So many of us know it, from mother-love. And even if one’s own mother was not available in one way or another, other women will be mother to many, like Mary of Nazareth can be to us all. We all meet these women everyday in our lives. She is the kind woman at the grocery store, the bus stop, one of the carolers in the resident choir that sang tonight here to the elderly folks in my mother’s retirement home on a dreary, wet, Chicago December night. She is your special friend who opens her heart and her home and bears witness to your journey. She is that nurturing friend who loves you enough that you can grow up, stand straight in the world, no matter how old you are, or how far away from home.

On this darkest day of the year – the Winter Solstice – the turning point where light and darkness intersect and our hemisphere begins its journey back to the light, my mother was born.  I am grateful to her, and to her mother, Grandma Annie… for revealing so much about the gentle healing power of tenderness and love, in my life. (And St. Anne, of course, was the mother of Mary of Nazareth… No coincidence there!)

Grandma Annie Crawford & I, circa 1988, in Connolly, Clare, Ireland

Grandma Annie Crawford & I, circa 1988, in Connolly, Clare, Ireland

 

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Spread the Good News

The Modern Day Saint Nick

The Modern Day Saint Nick

Arriving in Chicago tonight, I was greeted by good news on the nightly news.  A spree of Christmas angels have been gracing department stores like K-mart and Walmart. By anonymously paying off the balances for folks laying away toys and clothing for children, these angels spread the true meaning of the season.  The television news reported that many of those being gifted by the Christmas angels are “paying it forward” and helping other families in need.

This reminds me of other good efforts of the season – like Taos Feeds Taos back home in New Mexico.

It was a sad day for our family – Uncle Tom – my mother’s brother, passed away this morning in Ireland. Relatives are going home to bury him, and there is another loss to grieve.

When angels like those in the department stores practice random acts of kindness, and when good people organize to help make sure everyone can share the harvest and have a full table – it helps more than just the recipients. All of the community is lifted up.

We need good news everyday.  What can you do to spread it?

 

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Peace – by any other name – is peace.

Photo of Banner hanging on a Brooklyn, NY fence in the week after 9/11.

Banner hanging on Brooklyn, NY fence, the week after 9/11.

Shalom. Peace. Al-Salam.

I took this photo in Brooklyn, New York, in September 2001.

Peace, by any other name, is still peace.

God, by any other name, is still God.

**

Today I head for the travel zone, first leg of the pilgrimage home to Chicago for Christmas.

It can be a challenge to infuse ‘peace/shalom/salam’ into the whirlwind of holiday travel.

And it is the most important thing to carry.

The inner awareness of resting in that peace, whatever the outer circumstances.

**

Peace be with you, my friends.

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Find God in yourself, and find yourself in God…

Heart in center of labyrinth at CAC

Heart in center of labyrinth at CAC

Wednesdays: the “hump” day – seems to be the busiest day of the week.  Today I turn for inspiration to Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of The Center for Action and Contemplation, based in Albuquerque, NM.  cac.org

Richard Rohr’s little book, Preparing for Christmas, was my Advent gift to self this year.  Turning to it today was a great uplifter.  Tomorrow I start my holiday travel to spend time in Chicago with my mother.  We lost Dad this past summer, and it’ll be her first Christmas in 55+years, without him.

Before I leave, there are all the loose ends to wrap up on my desks at home, school and office.  Oh, and don’t forget to pull together documents for the new health care applications, gather income statements, etc.  When I look at my end-of-year numbers, it can be a challenge not to plummet emotionally into the ‘compare & despair’ game.

Then I remember my commitment to write this blog, and turn to Richard Rohr’s daily reading for inspiration.  Just what the spiritual doctor ordered.

Advent Reflections by Richard Rohr

Advent Reflections by Richard Rohr

In today’s reading for Wednesday, the third week of Advent, he concludes with the following:  ”As John says, ‘Why do you look to one another for approval instead of the approval that comes from the one God?’ [5:44] So many of us accept either a successful or a negative self image instead of a system of false images to begin with!” This will never work.  We must find our true self ‘hidden with Christ in God’ as Paul says [Colossians 3:3].  Or as Teresa of Avila put it, ‘Find God in yourself, and find yourself in God.‘ Then we do not go up and down, but are built on the Rock of Ages.”

Richard Rohr ends with asking us to reflect on which self-images, either positive or negative, interfere with our relationship to God.  He points out that whenever we get defensive or go emotionally up and down, that it is a sign we are attached to a self-image.

Perfect medicine. For me, it means a return to contemplation, a resting in God.  The place where all is well, despite seeming evidence to the contrary, as Julian of Norwich wrote.

Julian of Norwich's "hermitage" at CAC

Julian of Norwich’s “hermitage” at CAC

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