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.

Women’s Real Power

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is discovered.” – Audre Lorde

In the year 2000 I was in the throes of a divorce, trying to finish a novel before I had to look for a job. Of course I got writer’s block. The process of sitting down at the computer every day to bring another world to life had lost its juicy zest. I was missing my passion. As a cure, a friend suggested I call a woman he knew who led a writing group, a talented writer who might offer me just the tonic I needed. Her name was Carolyn Flynn, and her group was called “Writing To Feed the Soul.” I signed up with no idea what was in store for me. This was more than a writing group. It turned out that feeding the soul required more than simply writing about soulful topics. It meant sharing — reading the personal words you had just penned out loud to the circle of women and in turn listening with equal intentness to their intimate thoughts. Hearing and being heard were as important as the words on the page. As I did this work week after week, my passion for writing was restored, and I gained a community.

Occasionally the circle rippled when a woman departed the group for one reason or another, and those of us remaining lamented her loss until we recognized a kindred spirit in the new member who took her place. To meet demand Carolyn eventually expanded her teaching schedule to offer more groups meeting less frequently. While I missed the friends who changed to another group, I didn’t lose them because a larger circle held us all. Even if we weren’t in a regular writing group together, I saw them over the years at a writing retreat or poetry reading, a wedding or birthday party. Whenever Carolyn took time off, some of us continued to meet on our own — the sense of community she nurtured turned out to be sustainable and enduring. 

This essay began as a paean to my writing group, but in pondering Audre Lorde’s recognition of the redemptive power women find in nurturing each other, two more images popped into my mind, bookends for my marriage: the women who drank champagne, joked, and offered advice at my bridal shower and, eleven years later, the women who smudged and chanted (and yes, drank champagne) at the ritual house cleansing after my divorce. Those two snapshots hold my mother, who was the first woman I ever knew and my first spiritual teacher, my two sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, and girlfriends. Add to that circle teachers, roommates, library mentors and colleagues, and you can see the company of women who have helped and encouraged me all my life.

The power Audre Lorde writes about manifests both collectively and one-on-one. Women may connect in groups — a book club, moon circle, or sports team like my sister’s aptly named cycling club Sorella Forte — but the power in a private conversation with a woman friend is just as potent. Everyday moments attach us to one another as much as rituals and milestones. Admittedly, it’s not always parties and walks on the beach. Connection and community require commitment, just as in a marriage vow — for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Sometimes we’re called on when we’re busy and tired, so it also takes wisdom to discern priorities, the work of triage that women excel at.

Do women have a monopoly on nurturing? No, certainly not. My father’s love helped give me a strong start in life, and my partner … well, don’t get me started. He’s strong but sensitive, both a problem-solver and an incorrigible romantic who validates and loves me in ways I never imagined. One of the qualities that certainly benefits me but also makes him a good friend in general is the delight he takes in looking for the praiseworthy in others to buoy them with genuine compliments. In the larger world too, at work and church and out and about, I see kind and caring men, but for women, this “need and desire to nurture each other” is our power.

The very first circles I ever joined were for girls: Brownies in second grade, followed by Junior Scouts two years later. One of our practices, as described on the Girl Scout website, was the friendship circle: girls “standing in a circle, crossing their right arms over their left, and clasping hands with their friends on both sides. Everyone then makes a silent wish as a friendship squeeze is passed from hand to hand around the circle.” Although the book clubs and bible studies, the committees and writing groups that were to come may not have practiced an intentional friendship circle, that spirit in the silent wish and squeeze of the hands bonded the women in each group.

Cover of the book Sisters Singing

In her introduction to Sisters Singing, an anthology of prayers, poetry, and sacred stories by women, Carolyn Flynn writes about a term from carpentry: “A piece of wood attached alongside an existing beam for extra support is called a sister joint. And the verb describing the particular and specific action of providing essential, side-by-side support is known as sistering.” In my connections to women, whether we are bound by blood, books, or spirit, I find sisters.

The Girl Scout motto is “be prepared.” Little did I realize when I was ten years old that my Girl Scout troop was preparing us to sister. Holding the hands of two girls in a friendship circle was the template for my future, for the communities of women who invite me into my real power.

Why Write?

book stacks

Do articles and blogs bombard your email inbox the way they do mine? On top of the important news, intriguing essays, and inspirational nuggets delivered digitally every day, books fill the shelves in my house and are stacked in every place I might sit down to read. Even though I work in a library, I still get a thrill out of browsing in bookstores.

Why then would I add to the volume of words our information age is already exploding with? I just turned 60, so this is not an idle question. Why spend the time I hold dear writing? When I was 35, laboring on a novel, I wanted to be a bestselling author. Even now that I’m happily earning a living as a librarian, I wouldn’t complain if my blog suddenly went viral or if I were named poet laureate of Santa Cruz. But when the garden languishes for want of my tending and my sweetheart wants to go on a bike ride with me, those pipe dreams are not good enough reasons to spend time scribbling in my notebook. 

So why bother? 

My writing friends have different answers to this fundamental and deeply personal question. “We’re all just piles of sand,” one said when we talked about this recently. “If sand could write, it would.” The human person is meant to work, to be of service. Of course, people who are overworked can rightfully complain that too much work is exhausting and soul-draining, but the opposite of the old aphorism is also true: all play and no work makes us dull too. Artists create, writers write. It’s what we do. But what if your innate drive gets stifled somehow? Another friend called on the artist’s sense of responsibility. “Who are you not to write?” she mused. “To share what only you can give voice to?”

For some of us, writing is personal. One friend writes to process. Through the alchemy of writing, a painful experience can be transformed into something beautiful. “Writing is medicine,” another said. In fact, Carolyn Brigit Flynn, the beloved teacher who originally brought us all together, calls what she teaches “writing to feed the soul.” This is certainly true for me. Writing nourishes me, and I often turn to my journal in lieu of a therapist.

Like Joan Didion, I also write to find out what I think, whether it’s sorting out an environmental issue or exploring my own anxieties and aspirations. I delight in discovery, the surprises that sometimes burble up from secret places when I’m working on a poem. Was that insight waiting in my subconscious all along, or was it just this minute delivered from the Divine? “The writing of poems must be counted as much a contemplative practice,” Jane Hirshfield writes in Ten Windows, “as a communicative one.”

Indeed, while writing is personal for me, it is also, obviously, about communicating. I’m currently looking for an agent for my novel; I submit poems to journals and publish this blog. Something impels me to share. Is it just that old desire for acclaim I had when I longed to write a bestseller? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The friend for whom writing is medicine explained that the real magic happens when she reads her work aloud in a circle of women and is witnessed. As reader and listener as well as writer, I agree.

An old adage claims that there are three ingredients for happiness: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. In a busy life already full of words, why do I bother putting more on a page? When I was younger, I wanted a product. Now, it’s all about process: reflection, discovery, sharing, healing. The challenge of trying to write well both torments and stimulates me, and when I feel I’ve succeeded, it delivers an intellectual pleasure without compare. Quite simply, I write because it gives me joy. 

What is your art, and why do you bother? I look forward to hearing from you!

Our Jacaranda

In April seed pods the size of black plums dangled from the bare branches of the jacaranda we had just planted in the heart of our garden. Would they drop eventually, we wondered? These dark ornaments were … well, ugly to our eyes. We worried too that — even though we’d purposely chosen a sapling with multiple trunks to create the effect of a copse instead of a lone tree – it might split. But what could we do now? Just trust in the nurseryman’s confidence in a tree’s capacity to heal itself and twice a week nurse it with buckets full of water, as precious in this drought as wine.

All spring we watched like new parents as lengthening days untied the knots of green nubs that formed on the jacaranda’s branches and unfurled feathery fronds. The seed pods hung there still, dusty black spades amidst the green froth. Would they ever drop? Should I prune them? But I don’t want to weed, rake, and trim nature right out of the garden.  Sometimes when we try to beautify a landscape, we expunge wild processes we don’t understand. If I cut off the seed pods, would I cut off some vital service to the tree? A dozen websites and gardening books ignored my question but cautioned me not to expect blooms this first year. What cause for rejoicing then, like a baby’s first steps, when I noticed tiny buds in June. As if the jacaranda knew the myth of flowers blossoming on a magical fern deep in the Polish forest, a purple cloud bloomed to crown our garden. Yet even this halo could not hide the devil’s paws clutching last year’s dead limbs. Would they ever drop?

It is November now. With carapaces hard as glass, the pods hang there still, but I notice they have opened – just barely opened like a rotten oyster loathe to let go its pearls. The tree-given desire for life even in such tiny pips as a jacaranda’s seeds is enough to pry open the possessive lover’s door. The pods may never drop, but it seems the seeds have found their way to earth and (we may hope) rebirth.

Use Less, Share More

If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich.

Tao te Ching

Collage of three desert photos: the author sitting on a rock, a Joshua tree, and a chollo cactus.

Of all the places I might go on my spring break as pandemic restrictions began to lift earlier this year, I chose Joshua Tree National Park. I craved the austere beauty of the desert in a way I couldn’t explain, but when I arrived in that wide-open wild landscape of dry sand and iconic rock formations, I realized that the book I was reading, The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, must have sent me to the desert to look for role models of how to use less.

Who would have guessed that a science book would turn out to be the perfect reading for Lent? A spiritual text is a more obvious choice, Abandonment to Divine Providence say, or Prayer in the Cave of the Heart, but The Story of More by Hope Jahren had been waiting on my to-be-read pile for months. I loved her funny, poignant memoir Lab Girl and was curious what a smart botanist with a good sense of humor would have to say about climate change.

Photo of the book The Story of More next to a cactus

For a book loaded with statistics, The Story of More is surprisingly easy to read, partly thanks to Jahren’s casual, engaging style, partly to how relevant and vivid her statistics are. Instead of stating coal and oil use in tons and gallons, for example, she paints a picture: “Since 1969, the nations of the globe have burned enough coal to fill a grave the size of Texas and a volume of oil large enough to fill Lake Pontchartrain three times over.” Or she simply puts things in perspective: “waste of edible food has increased such that it now equals the amount of food needed to adequately feed all of the undernourished people on Earth.” Statistics like these break by heart.

So maybe I should have said that her book is readable instead of easy to read because in fact, reading it was hard, hard in all kinds of ways – painful to acknowledge the species that have gone extinct, frightening to consider devastating heat waves and crop failures, uncomfortable above all, to recognize our greed and waste and that we might need to change. When I say our and we, by the way, I mean those of us who live in the 36 countries of the OECD (including North America, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). We’re the ones using the most energy and throwing food away.

Step by step Jahren takes us through population growth, the ways we grow (and waste) food, and how we make and use energy – not to make us feel guilty, but to explain how we got to climate change. She writes clearly, and even if the book is disturbing to read, it’s easy to understand. Ultimately, it’s hopeful because Jahren has ideas, just as her subtitle promises, for where to go from here. She sums them up in a simple motto: use less, share more. That motto is what made this book the perfect read for a season of fasting and almsgiving and maybe subconsciously what sent me to Joshua Tree looking for inspiration.

There, where the Mojave meets the Colorado Desert, plants and animals have evolved to survive in hot sun with little water. In contrast, as a human being I needed to slather on sunscreen, wear a shade hat, and drink at least a gallon of water a day. So how do desert flora and fauna do it? The Joshua tree, according to Blue Planet Biomes, turns its spiky leaves upwards to catch any moisture in the air and stores the water in its fibrous limbs and trunk; it also has an extra root system for storing surplus water. Human beings don’t have eons to evolve our physiology to that degree, but maybe our ingenuity can save us.

Illustration by Ann Thomas

Consider the tobacco moth caterpillar that naturalist Bernd Heinrich describes in his essay “Reading Tree Leaves.” In the Mojave this caterpillar grabs tight with its rear legs to the stem that attaches a jimsonweed leaf to the plant’s stalk, reaches its forelegs out to the tip of the leaf, and nibbles away at the edge while using the remainder of the leaf for shade, its own little green umbrella.

Climate change can feel so overwhelming that it’s paralyzing. At the end of her book Jahren suggests that the reader choose just one issue to focus on, one that tugs at your heart or that you worry about when you can’t sleep at three in the morning. Maybe it’s world hunger or ocean pollution, national parks or green energy. Pick an issue that matters enough to you that you’re willing to make a sacrifice for it and start by learning more about it. That’s exactly what I plan to do in future blog posts.

Which environmental issue is calling to you for action? Please reply in the comments!


Ann Thomas is a freeelance writer and illustrator living in Portland, Oregon.

The Art and Pleasure of Aimless Wandering

I found Lauren Elkin’s book Flaneuse in the travel writing section of Bookshop Santa Cruz, but it is pleasantly hard to categorize: part memoir (a young woman leaves suburbia for the big city and eventually a life abroad), part musing on culture and feminism, part travelog. As any francophone could tell from the title, the focus is on walking. I don’t alas speak French, so I needed Lauren Elkin’s translation of flaneur: one who wanders aimlessly. She concentrates on the woman walker, the flaneuse, whom she defines specifically as “a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”

Elkin herself fits this definition, and so do the women she writes about in her homage to the cities of New York, Paris, London, and Venice, to seeing them on foot, as a woman. (She writes about Tokyo too, but her relationship with that city seems as fraught and unfortunate as her relationship with the man she followed there.) Because my bent is towards literature, I especially enjoyed the chapters about Virginia Woolf in London and George Sand in Paris in which Elkin skillfully blends their relationship to those cities with her own, mixing literary reflections with travelog and memoir.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t also appreciate her forays into art, history, and politics. Reading about revolution and the history of the protest march in Paris, I found an explanation for the impulse that pulled me into the streets of Santa Cruz on January 21, 2017 even though I wasn’t sure what difference the Women’s March would make. “Marching is an instinctive response to feeling wronged, or desperate, or compelled to make a statement,” Elkin writes. I felt all three of those things after the 2016 election. “It makes us feel stronger to be part of a group,” she continues. “It feels good. Marching is a political act, but it’s a social one as well. We … feel we belong to something bigger than us.” I marched that day with my mother and my sister, friends, neighbors, and strangers, while my best friend joined over 470,000 people in Washington, D.C.  and millions marched around the world. It did feel good, but Elkin recognizes the risk too. She describes participating in a march in Paris that splinters when the police block the street. She inadvertently follows a group of anarchists and ends up as part of a mob. “I felt uneasy. It was too easy to be led who knows where, by who knows whom, to do who knows what.” Her accidental experience stands in sharp contrast the mob that overran the Capitol on Wednesday. The insurrectionists might think that Trump led them there to stop the certification of an election he falsely claimed was stolen, but I can’t help thinking how satisfying the sight of that rampage on the house of the American people must have been to anarchists everywhere.

Mary on a bridge in ParisMy motto is solvitur ambulando, it can be solved by walking. Like Martha Gelhorn I find flânerie “as necessary as solitude: that is how the compost keeps growing in the mind.” But I’m not a city person. Although I’ve meandered happily in Paris, London, Istanbul, and New York, in truth the city quickly becomes overstimulating for me, oppressive even and exhausting. I have to retreat to a hotel room to recover or better yet to the country where I can walk a quiet lane or a path in the woods. Yet Elkin managed to sweep me up in the romance of flaneuse-ing around a city, and maybe precisely because the pandemic has put it out of reach, I now fantasize about flying to Paris with a pair of comfortable shoes and my notebook. Paris is where Elkin has made her home and the city she writes most about, a city whose streets I too have wandered many times over the last forty years, with friends and sweethearts, with my sisters and by myself, so I’m seduced equally by Elkin’s evocative writing and my own memories.

“There is a sense of the city you can’t plot on a map or a phone,” she says, and I long for that elusive sense, to roam aimlessly, to trust where my feet and chance might take me. What would I observe this time, “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city,” as I strolled through the Marais or the Luxembourg Gardens? When I got tired and overstimulated, what would I write as I sat in a café people-watching and drinking café crème?

Yet here comes my inner realist to rein in the romantic. It’s January, the weather is miserable, maybe I’ll wait till summer. For now, I’ll sit with a notebook here at home, enjoying the view out my window of the winter garden and armchair traveling with an accomplished writer who knows how to share “the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”

New Year Blessing

 

On the winter solstice a few friends joined me on my patio, all of us masked and sitting in a circle several feet apart, for an afternoon of writing together. The nights were cold that week of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the mornings crisp, but at one-thirty on the sunny patio it was too warm for us to believe that winter had really arrived.

Sarojani looked up and asked Barbara, the painter, “What color blue is this sky?”

“Cerulean,” she answered.

We took off sweaters, put on broad-brimmed hats, and I read John O’Donohue’s poem “In Praise of Fire” as a blessing for us and also as a prompt for the writing we would do together:

As short as the time

From spark to flame,

So brief may the distance be

Between heart and being.

For thirty minutes in the Santa Cruz sunshine, we labored over notebooks and laptop, seeking that secret inspired place in each of us that might birth a poem, that could reveal the depths of what we really know. On the shortest day of the year the sun dips quickly, and cool shadows were spreading across the garden as we shared what we’d written. My poem began

May each new drop of light

in the lengthening days

fall into the dark well

where anyone might forget

the names we are called to say.

Even in the dark

may we remember …

“You write a lot of prayers,” Barbara pointed out when I finished and then, noticing John O’Donohue’s book on the table, asked, “What’s the difference between a prayer and a blessing?”

Well, that’s easy, I thought, but as I tried to formulate an answer, I was flummoxed. Are they the same? Is a blessing a form of prayer? Kim suggested that a prayer is offered, a blessing is bestowed. After they left, I pulled my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary off the shelf and looked up the verb to bless. Maybe part of the reason I was confused when I tried to answer Barbara’s question is that blessing carries multiple meanings:

  1. Hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word
  2. Hallow with the sign of the cross
  3. Invoke divine care for (bless your heart)
  4. Praise, glorify (bless his holy name)
  5. Approve, speak well of.

To pray has fewer definitions in my dictionary:

  1. Make a request in a humble manner
  2. Address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving.

As I’d thought, there is overlap between these two actions. To invoke divine care or to praise God is both to bless and to pray, but that first definition of bless, to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word, seemed to stand alone.

In my Catholic tradition the power to consecrate rests in the hands of the ordained priest. I learned this at age eight when I made my First Holy Communion. Only the priest can perform the sacramental rite that turns ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet he clearly isn’t a magician. He calls on the power of God to make the bread and wine holy. Only through divine action does transubstantiation take place. I think my first instinct was correct, blessing is a form of prayer, and so was Kim’s, a prayer is offered, a blessing bestowed.

The day I put on my white lace dress and veil to make my First Communion, my grandmother gave me a rosary as a gift. After Mass my mother took me to our pastor to ask for his blessing on it. He made a Sign of the Cross over the beads while saying some words I couldn’t quite hear, maybe something like this prayer I found online: may those who devoutly use this rosary to pray be blessed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. “Amen,” my mother finished, and I quickly copied her. Although I wouldn’t have used Merriam-Webster’s words to describe what happened, it was clearly something special, yet now that I think about it, not so different from one of the very first prayers I learned, grace before dinner: Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts …

Objects and buildings, animals and people may all receive a blessing, and John O’Donohue believes that as human beings we each have the power to give a blessing too. “I never doubted that I could bless,” Kim shared during our gathering on the winter solstice, but despite learning to say grace from an early age, as a Catholic it took me a long time to realize, and I thank the role models who showed me that I too could perform this priestly act. Over the years I have joined in a blessing way for a pregnant mother, led ritual cleansings of new homes, laid hands on sick friends, blessed travelers, knit prayers into shawls, and anointed women with water from Brigit’s sacred well in Ireland.

“It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another,” John O’Donohue says in his book To Bless the Space Between Us. “Despite all the darkness, human hope is based on the instinct that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway. This is the heart of blessing.”

At the end of an apocalyptic year, still in the midst of a global pandemic, at the beginning of what will likely be a hard winter, I believe with John O’Donohue that an intimate kindness prevails, and I call on this kindness to bless you and keep you. When you find yourself in darkness, may it shine upon you.

Beholding Your Sanctuary

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Deck

My Grandma Sammie knew many psalms by heart and could quote them chapter and verse. Maybe she’s the one who inspired me one day almost twenty years ago to learn Psalm 63 (the first nine verses anyway). I studied it carefully to imprint the words on my memory.  When I came to the line, so I have seen you in your sanctuary, beholding your power and glory, I pictured my place of worship, Holy Cross Church, with its high ceiling and sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.

Then, to my surprise, my imagination leapt out of the building and into Yosemite Valley with the distinct curve of Half Dome and the craggy heights of El Capitan soaring above me. Yet maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Isn’t nature as much the home of the Divine as my dear parish church? John Muir called the Sierra Nevada the range of light, and I visited those mountains every summer. Why wouldn’t my mind latch onto Yosemite as the sanctuary of the Holy One? Psalm 63 itself begins with sensual longing: my body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water. It set me up to conflate God with the earth.

I returned to the mental exercise of memorizing the psalm. My soul shall be filled as with a banquet … Now came another image to mind, the morning of December 21, 1999, the last winter solstice of the millennium.

That day I went out before dawn for a walk along the ocean cliffs in Santa Cruz. What was purported to be the brightest full moon in a hundred years was setting in the west, swathed in swirling mist. For forty-five minutes it was my beacon and companion, and I was in awe. Finally, just as I reached my turning point, it dipped below the horizon. Show’s over, I thought sadly and turned around to start for home. What I saw then nearly took my breath away: a gorgeous sunrise had stolen up behind my back and was now in full bloom across the bay. I had only to turn around to see fresh beauty on the horizon. Here was the generosity of the Beloved on full display, sun and moon playing with the earth in a wild dance that seemed a secret shared between them and at the same time a wanton display for all us creatures to see.

Before King David composed the psalms, we were given nature as a scripture. Praying Psalm 63 is a way for me to celebrate the written Bible and the book of creation at the same time. Both help me find my way into the cave of my heart. At a time when I no longer take clean air or our democracy for granted, this is not a small thing. It might seem like escapism, and yes, it is a respite — like a walk along the ocean is — but the intention is to return to face COVID, the fight against racism, and wildfires with a hope and compassion I don’t have on my own.

Merced River, Yosemite Valley

Where do you perceive the Divine? What invites you into the cave of your heart? These are deeply personal questions, but if you feel like sharing what gives you hope in troubled times, please reply in the comments.