Tug and Sigh

Datura blossoms, also known as angel's trumpet

Like the datura’s yellow trumpets

I am waiting for the breath of angels

to perfume the twilight

of this ordinary day

and play the vigil hymn

reminding me

that heaven and earth

wed long ago.

I too am married

to the unseen

sigh and scent,

filling and returning,

thus never full –

always longing,

often failing,

yet ever blessed

with heaven’s pull.


(Title from “The Silence Now” by May Sarton)


Look As Though with Your Arms Open

A sarus crane with its wings open

I sometimes wonder about Saint Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Did he mean this literally? Surely not. Maybe he thought that by setting a ridiculously high standard, he was giving his readers a worthy if unattainable goal to aspire to, one that in real life only monastics can come close to. Or perhaps those early Christians who believed the end of the world was nigh could detach enough from the cares of daily life to devote every waking moment to prayer, but for me, caught up in all the demands of 21st-century life, it seems impossible. I feel impressed with myself when I find twenty minutes a day to meditate.

One foggy summer morning while on retreat at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, I took a walk as usual on the road that winds steeply down from the mountaintop monastery to Highway 1. This question of how to pray unceasingly lingered in the back of my mind as the mist and morning sun teased and flirted with each other up and down the mountainside. Along the way is a magnificent oak tree bearing a plaque with a verse from Psalm 34:

Here I was startled into stopping. A spider web hung between the oak’s branches, each silk festoon precisely limned with delicate droplets, and sunbeams pouring through the canopy above lit them up like jewels in a tapestry. This same glow highlighted each mote of mist wafting around the tree, and I stood transfixed, watching until the fog completely dissipated. With my mind empty of thought and my heart full of gratitude, an answer to my question came to me.

In her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” Mary Oliver explains how she reaches for things, like the idea of God, that cannot be reached:

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around

   As though with your arms open.

In my moment of wordless wonder that foggy summer morning, it was as if I were embracing the scene with open arms, and I realized suddenly, this was prayer. My attention was my praise.

I wish I could say that ever since I’ve been a model of mindfulness, but no, I’m still working on this not-so-secret trick to blessing the Lord at all times, still aspiring to pay constant attention. As always, I’m grateful for Mary Oliver as a role model. Like her, may I morning to night never be done with looking as though with my arms wide open.

Gray-Haired Woman under the Harvest Moon

full moon

Sixty summers I’ve seen ease into autumn,

and I recognize this patient tug 

of nighttime on the days,

gentle at first like my own hand

easing a ripe tomato from the vine,

then insistent,

darkness yearning

for the tomb of winter.

At sixty a sprain is slow to heal,

and vigor wanes

before day’s work is done.

Tonight, though, last light

like the scent of apples

round the cider press

lingers on summer’s wake

as the orange belly

of this pregnant season

peeps over the horizon.

What will I gather

in the gloaming?

Paint on the cavern wall

the hieroglyph for patience,

And plant me as a seed,

for sixty years have shown me —

winter is a womb.

Feast me now with hazelnuts

and pour a cup of mead

to seal the promise

of a distant spring.

Like crickets and tree roots,

I am beholden to darkness

and care not 

what the world in me may see. 

Touched by harvest moonlight,

I know my silver beauty,

and novice though I am,

surrender to the night.

Image courtesy of C.E. Price

Hold Us in the Great Hands of Light

photo of garden at New Camaldoli

Touching the outside,

you make the inside glow.

Drinking my coffee

by halogen light,

I may not see it,

but the fig tree knows.

It all began with you.

Fiat lux,

and so it was 

that first day.

This morning

light on leaf

draws my eye

as a chipmunk 

nibbles the fig I left

last night on the fence rail,

dainty as a lady at a tea,

all of us beholden

to you,

one of countless,

but in this blue sky

our one, our only.

Title from “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver

The Traveling Reader

One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is to find the coffeeshop with the best mocha in town. (Luckily, this is a priority and pleasure that my sweetheart shares.) Even if the mocha disappoints, absorbing the atmosphere of the coffeeshop, observing and eavesdropping on the people who hang out there gives us an entrée to the locale that sightseeing doesn’t. Likewise, the local independent bookstore.

Word After Word Books in Truckee, CA

Yes, I am now going to out myself as a promiscuous book nerd. At home, browsing in Bookshop Santa Cruz or Bad Animal Books is a regular delight, but visiting a bookstore in another town offers a particular thrill. The differences are so alluring! Is the shop light and bright? Or dark, wood-paneled, and cozy? Busy or quiet? Are the shelves so high they need library ladders? Do books stacked up on the floor create a kind of biblio-maze? If I’m lucky, I discover a book I’ve never heard of but now can’t live without, or I come across a used copy in fine condition of a title I’ve been dreaming of. Even if this serendipity doesn’t occur, the quirky displays and books of local interest make browsing fun. Whether I’m roaming for hours in the multistory mecca of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon or breezing through Bookworks just down the road in Pacific Grove, the atmosphere of the local independent bookstore introduces me in a unique way to the place that hosts it.

And if, like Powell’s and Bookworks, it features an espresso bar where I can sip a mocha while reading a new book? Heaven!

Bart’s Books in Ojai, CA

Come Back to Still Water

The time has come

To stop allowing the clutter

To clutter my mind

Like dirty snow,

Shove it off and find

Clear time, clear water.

                        May Sarton in “New Year’s Resolve”

Let me start with a confession: the only way I can sustain a tech sabbath is by cheating.

I should have admitted this up front because I felt terrible when one reader told me she liked the idea of abstaining from technology once a week, but she didn’t want to give up Facetime with her grandchildren. Another admitted she likes to watch television in the evening so she couldn’t do it either. Here’s the deal. When I decided to do a tech sabbath for Lent this year, I allowed myself certain exceptions: I can text, make phone calls, watch TV after dinner with my sweetheart, and attend Zoom meetings with my spiritual community. The practice was meant to disengage me from devices, not from my loved ones. “The solution to mankind’s most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization,” Rabbi Heschel writes in The Sabbath, “but in attaining some degree of independence from it.”

If you decide to try a tech sabbath, I invite you make Jesus your role model. One sabbath day He was walking through cornfields with His disciples, who began to pick ears of corn as they went. Judgmental Pharisees jumped all over them for doing forbidden work on the holy day, but Jesus admonished, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, don’t let rules get in the way of a meaningful practice.

Here are some ideas for designing your own tech sabbath:

  1. Choose your time. I pick a 24-hour period over the weekend, usually 4 pm Saturday to 4 pm Sunday, but it’s okay to do a shorter amount of time, a different day of the week, or to change the day depending on your schedule.
  2. Set parameters that work for you. Facetime with your loved ones if you want to. Photograph flowers with your phone. You are constructing your own unique palace in time, and it can be as simple or elaborate as you like. What soulful activities are calling you?
  3. Create a ritual.  At the beginning of my sabbath I light a candle and make a tiny ceremony of shutting down my laptop and iPad. Then I put them away in the closet. For the next 24 hours I mostly leave my phone out of sight in another room. When the sabbath is over, I again light a candle and smudge all my devices before I turn them back on, praying to use them mindfully in the week to come.
  4. Reflect afterwards. As you dwell in your palace over the next weeks and months, think about what was hard, what surprised you, what you loved. You will notice the aspects of technology that are most deleterious for you — these are the ones to strictly avoid during your sabbath – but you will also become aware of surprising gifts. Keep and celebrate them!

Revelations of Reverie

Candle, book titled The Sabbath, and iphone

In the fifteen years since the first iPhone was released, reaching for our smartphones has become a cultural habit. Whenever we feel the least inkling of boredom — standing in line, sitting in a waiting room — out comes the phone. I do it too. I like instant relief from that restless ennui, but sometimes I wonder what I might be losing by trying to avoid it.  In fact, I originally planned to title this post “The Benefits of Boredom” and explore how it might encourage creativity. “The idea has an intuitive appeal and an illustrious history,” Margaret Talbot admits in an essay in the New Yorker, but then she quickly cites researchers who “say there isn’t much empirical evidence that boredom unleashes creativity.”

Yet during each tech sabbath, as I unplugged from my pandemic habit of listening to a podcast or audiobook when I went for a walk, I gradually recognized that my inkling was right. I was missing out on something: not boredom maybe, but the opportunity for reverie.It might seem like I was doing it all when I strode out with Airpods in my ears – exercising and absorbing Vitamin D while also indulging my love of literature – but I was giving up that dreamy and delicious mindset of looking up at the sky to find shapes in the clouds. I was sacrificing my own thoughts for someone else’s, for at its best reverie becomes a kind of sober intoxication conducive to deep and imaginative thinking. At the very least it can lead to rest and relaxation.

I used to judge people strolling along the ocean with a phone in their hands, but my AirPods made me one of them. I might be enjoying an entertaining novel, but I didn’t notice the sea otter frolicking with her pup. Forgotten was the Latin phrase I once claimed as a motto:

solvitur ambulando

It is solved by walking. For me, solitude combined with the easy stride of my sturdy legs in the outdoors is a brain tonic. The “problems” I solve might involve mentally rehearsing a presentation for work or pondering the next line of a poem I’m writing, considering a decision as major as when I should retire or as mundane as what to have for dinner. I might just daydream.

Author on a walk looking a creek

Not that listening to a podcast or audiobook is a bad thing, but I can save them for the gym or my commute. Which reminds me of another Latin phrase, modus omnibus in rebus, moderation in all things. Mentally removing yourself from your environment may be okay when your environment is a tedious line at Safeway, but loss occurs when it becomes a mindless habit. Take time out from your devices to think your own thoughts and indulge in reverie! Pausing the constant stimuli from tech makes it possible for you to listen more deeply – to birdsong, your loved ones, the voice of the Divine. It might even make room for a creative spark, and who knows where that will lead?

A Poverty of Attention

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,

— the harvest of a quiet eye.

            William Wordsworth at the end of “A Poet’s Epitaph”

Photo of iPhone, candle, and the book "The Sabbath"

I don’t need a research study to tell me that my attention span has decreased since reading more on screens and digital devices. I feel it halfway through a Zoom meeting when I start to slouch and squirm. Sitting up straight and scolding myself barely check my desire to pick up my phone and do the New York Times Mini Crossword right now. Although I stay in my seat trying to listen, even the strictest self-admonishment doesn’t prevent me from mindlessly reaching for my chocolate stash or getting distracted by the blue jay that just landed on the garden arch outside my window.

More distressing than a case of the fidgets on Zoom is that I can no longer immerse myself in a book for as long as I used to. All those long summer vacation afternoons lazing in the sun with an Agatha Christie or a juicy romance, the pre-Netflix late nights when I dismissed all thoughts of an alarm clock just to read one more chapter lie far in the past. As much as I still love to read, I no longer spend hours lost in a book.

Part of the problem may be information overload. According to a 2009 study at UC San Diego, the average person reads the equivalent of 100,000 words a day. (As a point of reference this post has 506 words.) If you feel overwhelmed by all the information that lands in your email and pops up in your social media feed every day, you’re not alone. How often do you quit an article before you finish and move on to the next thing? Sorry, TLDR. (Too long, didn’t read.) As the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon predicted back in 1977, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

But surely another factor in our distractibility is that we consume those 34 gigabytes of word-stuff in short bursts across multiple digital devices. When your phone is at arm’s reach and you know that at any moment a seductive alert could notify you of a text, tweet, or coveted thumbs-up on Facebook, it’s hard to find the quiet eye that Wordsworth talks about in “A Poet’s Epitaph,” the sustained observation and musing that can harvest the gifts in the real world around you and within your own mind that lead to a new idea,  a deep thought. When I have popcorn brain, it’s hard to hear the soft voice in the cave of my heart.

So, besides loosening the tether between my phone and me, another reason I decided to try a tech Sabbath was to see if stepping away from the wealth of information my devices offer could help restore my quiet eye. I want to build a palace in time that holds a wealth of attention.

How has your ability to pay attention changed in the last ten years?

A Palace in Time with a Kingdom for All

Have you seen the Lord of the Rings? Remember the scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring when Bilbo Baggins panics because he can’t find the ring only to discover with relief that it was in his pocket? Or how he transforms for a moment from a kindly old hobbit into an unrecognizable creature with a nasty grimace – just because Gandalf encourages him to give it up? I knew I was in trouble when I started to recognize myself in Bilbo. Just like him I was in thrall to an object — but it wasn’t a magical ring.

It was my iPhone.

I don’t think of myself as particularly attached to my phone – I put it away in social situations, and I don’t miss it when I’m on retreat at New Camaldoli where the absence of cell service renders it useless, but I’ve grown more and more attached. I feel Bilbo’s panic when I misplace it and that sweet relief when I realize it’s right there in my purse. I keep it close and grab it first thing when I get up in the morning — even if it is only to use the timer for my meditation.

The thought that I was addicted made me uneasy, so when I started to hear about a practice called a tech sabbath, I was intrigued enough to try it, and I’m pained to confess to you, dear reader, I couldn’t stick with it. Imagine my shock and dismay! I like to think of myself as a poet and a nature-loving spiritual being, yet I couldn’t live without my devices for 24 hours.

What exactly is a tech sabbath? It’s rooted in the Jewish tradition of observing God’s commandment to keep the seventh day holy by resting and refraining from work. In his beautiful book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel likens the Sabbath to “a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” framing it as “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives, to collect rather than to dissipate time.” A tech sabbath is simply when you avoid digital technology for one day a week. Why do this? In his article Should I Take a Digital Sabbath? one of the founders of the Digital Sabbath Experiment gives several reasons: to improve creativity, deepen connections with others, remember how to listen, and rest. We often turn to our devices for a quick break, but he calls this façade rest. After all, does scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix really refresh you?

This year I decided to give tech sabbath another try as my practice for Lent. After a lifetime of Lenten observance starting with giving up ice cream as a kid, Lent has a power that fills the sails of my self-discipline, and with a few bumps and lessons learned along the way, I more or less succeeded. In my next few posts I plan to delve into the reasons for trying this practice and share ideas for making it your own.

In the meantime, happy Easter, and blessings to my friends under the Tent of Abraham who are celebrating Ramadan and Passover. I’d love to hear from readers who observe any kind of sabbath. How do you achieve a day of rest and what does it mean to you?

The Secret Cup

The Essential Rumi (book on floral background with a tulip)

I first came to Rumi in the fall of 2000 at the suggestion of my teacher Carolyn Flynn. In response to a now forgotten comment or question, she recommended that I read his poem “Love Dogs.” A few months in her writing group had already dispelled my notion formed in college that poetry was an esoteric genre best left to more literary readers, and I trusted her judgement completely.

“Where can I find it?”

She pulled a worn copy of The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks from the bookshelf behind her and held it up; the next day I held my own copy in my hands.

“Love Dogs” tells the story of a man who gave up praising Allah after a cynic pointed out that he’d never gotten a response. In a dream, Khidr, the guide of souls, explains to him:

This longing

You express is the return message.

The grief you cry out from

draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness

that wants help

is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.

That whining is the connection.

It was as if the guide of souls had appeared in my own dream, offering me solace and a way out of my confusion. As soon as I finished, my eyes pulled my heart into the next poem, “Cry Out in Your Weakness,” and before I came to the end, I was weeping.

Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.

A nursing mother, all she does

is wait to hear her child.

Just a little beginning-whimper,

and she’s there.

At the time, I was going through a divorce, which had been preceded by discovering I was infertile. The loss of my marriage was piled on the grief of my empty womb, so many dreams for my life gone, and here was God like a mother wanting nothing more than to let the milk of loving flow into me. Suddenly I began to encounter Rumi everywhere. My friend Eric was quoting him in Caffe Bene, Sufi translator Kabir Helminski read at the Vets Hall, Coleman Barks at the Rio theater. One might never guess this celebrated poet had been born eight hundred years before in Afghanistan!

Rumi was a Sufi scholar guiding a community in Turkey in 1244 when a wandering dervish named Shams showed up and changed his life. The friendship between the two men transformed Rumi into a mystic and a poet spouting inspired verse as he whirled in the Sufi tradition. Fortunately for us, Rumi was profligate with the wisdom he received in his ecstatic dance. Like the right key fitting into a well-oiled lock, his poems opened my heart to the sensuality of the Divine. Rumi didn’t simply rave about bliss, nor did he discuss it in intellectual terms; he actually gave me a taste. And always Rumi had the right words.

When, in the thrill of new love, I half-complained to my therapist about not getting enough sleep, he laughed and shared a few lines from Rumi:

When I am with you, we stay up all night.

When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.

Praise God for these two insomnias!

And the difference between them.

After the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, the director of the International Students Program at Foothill College was planning a memorial service for our students who had lost loved ones. He called me in the library, asking for the poem “No Man Is an Island” or any poem I thought would be appropriate. Instead of John Donne I gave him Rumi: This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression … (p. 109) “That was perfect,” he told me later. And so a teacher from the 13th century found grieving students in the 21st, a mystic born in Afghanistan becomes a bestselling poet in the United States.

With eyes opened by Rumi I became alert to hints of sensual spirituality in the Bible. Taste and see how good the Lord is, David sang three thousand years ago, inviting us in Psalm 34 to use our senses to experience the Divine, while the Song of Songs offers a gorgeous allegory for our connection with God in its celebration of the erotic longing between a man and a woman: Arise, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come away …  As a woman privately grappling with the patriarchy of my church, I felt the delight of noticing spring’s first roses whenever I discovered feminine imagery. More than once in the Psalms David compares God to a mother bird protecting her young, and Isaiah likewise promises that as a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you. Jesus takes up the metaphor when He laments over Jerusalem: how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings ….

As a Muslim and a scholar, it seems likely that Rumi was familiar with Hebrew and Christian scripture. Maybe some of those verses lived in his subsconscious and ignited in a moment of ecstatic twirling. Or could it be that the resonance of Rumi with other worshipers under the Tent of Abraham speaks to the universality of our experience?

It turns out that the Christian tradition also has a rich legacy of mystics. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Teresa of Avila have joined The Essential Rumi on my bookshelves, but Rumi has a special place in my heart. He is there whenever I need to cry out in my weakness or simply long to taste and see the goodness of the Divine.