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Advice From a Tree

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Today I am (supposed to be) rushing around, closing up the house for winter, hauling in the picnic table, cleaning out the frig, scrubbing toilets, vacuuming rugs, packing bedding and silverware in plastic to deter the field mice who generally move in for the winter when my cats and I depart.

I picked up my winter supply of New Hampshire honey and goats milk moisturizing lotion on the way back from Willa’s grave yesterday, but I forgot to visit the Post Office so I have to go back into town.

Today is also the deadline for sending in my sermon on gentleness (done, at last!) and I so, so want to be finished with all of this in time to watch the debate with my neighbor tonight!

All to say that I don’t have time to write, but I found this wonderful message from the Sierra Club that I thought you might enjoy.

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Dig your roots way down underground into the richest soil of life, hold on, and enjoy the view today!

Waiting for Willa

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Today I’m headed to Jaffrey, New Hampshire to wait for my muse. She often visits me at the grave of author Willa Cather.

Willa never meant much to me growing up, just a writer that my father liked, but I’ve developed a deep appreciation for her since writing an odd bit of memoir/biography about her in grad school. Our lives meshed in my mind. I tried to understand who she was, what motivated her, what she feared, why she wrote. I think she appreciated my respect and curiosity — bordering on obsession — and she has since come to live in my heart with my Dad.

So I’m off on my pilgrimage. The forty-five minute drive is glorious in the fall, even on a dreary day like today. I will sit on the stone wall that surrounds Willa’s grave and talk to her about my life, about my writing, about my aspirations, about my frustrations.

She listens. So does Edith, her life partner who is buried next to her.

And I’ll wait. Because Willa usually answers me. No kidding. And I need talking to, most especially about my writing and where it’s going. Or not going.

Here is the story of my first visit to her grave, taken from the grad school essay that I have yet to publish:

As I step into the Old Burying Ground and pull the gate closed behind me, I am completely alone. There must be a thousand monuments covering the hillside, and I wonder how Ill find Cathers grave. I begin wandering among the granite slabs, some standing askew, others lying broken in pieces. Small American flags flutter in a slight breeze, and a few polished stone obelisks reflect the setting sun. I read the worn names underneath patches of gray and green lichen: Spofford, Pierce, Worster, Brigham. A large square stone marker standing in the lowest corner of the cemetery catches my eye, and somehow, I feel certain its hers. As I walk toward it, I can see dozens of small rocks lining the top of the gray marker, and I know Ive found it. Admirers have left talismans to honor her. I realize its quite possible that my father made his own pilgrimage to this simple shrine during one of our stays at the farmhouse down the road.

Her grave is next to a low stone wall that marks the southwestern corner of the cemetery. Just outside the wall grow gnarled rhododendron bushes and towering pine, beech, and maple trees. The marker itself is about three feet tall and the same across. Around it is a small garden of impatiens, encircled by rectangles of cut granite. The sun casts shadow branches on the face of the gravestone, and I have to lean in close to read the words:

WILLA CATHER

December 7, 1876 April 24, 1947

THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT

SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK

WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER

COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE

“…that is happiness, to be dissolved

into something complete and great.

From My Antonia

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A Trump-Free Day. Kind Of. Not.

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Finally a day where I’ve done what I was supposed to do! Except for the daily blog, that is. But here’s my offering, just under the wire. Day fifteen.

For purposes of mental health, I’ve committed to creating some psychic distance between myself and Mr. Trump, so I won’t be blogging about him. I spent the day in prayer & meditation, reading the Bible, and working on my sermon.

OK, OK, I checked for new political polling a couple of times, and yeah, I read a few articles about the implosion of the Republican party. And yes, I did check Twitter to see what his fans were saying about his latest escapades. (Wow, do they live in la-la land.) At any rate, I did not spend the majority of the day musing about Trump. Only some. A little.

This evening I’ve been making phone calls on behalf of the Democratic Senate candidate up here in New Hampshire, and that feels good. It’s a super-close race and it’s nice to actually be doing something productive.

So as I say, I won’t blog about Trump. I will just share a psalm that particularly struck me this morning, which has nothing to do with Trump. Absolutely not a thing.

It’s Psalm 52: 1-7

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?

    Why do you boast all day long,

    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?

You who practice deceit,

    your tongue plots destruction;

    it is like a sharpened razor.

You love evil rather than good,

    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.

You love every harmful word,

    you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:

    [S]he will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;

    [S]he will uproot you from the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;

    they will laugh at you, saying,

“Here now is the man

    who did not make God his stronghold

but trusted in his great wealth

    and grew strong by destroying others!”

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Day fifteen: daily blogging pursuit

Recovering From My Social Media/Trump Addiction

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RECOVERING FROM MY SOCIAL MEDIA/TRUMP ADDICTION

I’ve decided to take another fasting day from social media and Donald J. Trump. Yesterday I got just a glimpse of what I’ve been doing to my psyche. I felt as if I’d been set free from an abusive imprisonment after just a few hours away from Orange Man and his tweet-world.

I read the Bible, read a book called Courageous Gentleness, and took time for prayer and meditation and napping. I prayed for Haiti. Every five minutes, I would absentmindedly flip open the cover of my laptop and see written in pencil across the top: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” (Annie Dillard.) Then I would close it.

Yes, I watched the VP debate, and then I and stayed up late watching pundits and tweeting about it. Not at all how I want to spend my life. I’m not even going to add to the ruckus by commenting on it here.

This morning I am journaling, which I neglect more and more as I get sucked into this social media/electoral addiction. I will share with you a few snippets from my first week here at my little haven in New Hampshire:

September 28

Arrived & well-settled at Quiet Hills. I took off Monday, watched the first presidential debate over pizza and wine at the Scottish Inn in PA and then made it here with an hour to spare on Tuesday evening before the Garrison Keillor show with E.

What a gift for story he has! It’s beautiful and touching. He started out just by humming a note and without using hand gestures or anything, he soon had the whole theatre humming it and then started us all in singing, “My Country Tis of Thee,” or whatever it’s actually called. Lovely. He went on for two straight hours, digression after digression but somehow tying it all together. No notes, all memory, flawless. He talked about the beauty of words and language, went from high-brow to low-brow, sonnets to limericks, funerals to urination. Remarkable.

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On the way home, E & I saw an owl standing by the side of the road (probably over an unfortunate mouse) and it took off and flew right over our windshield. I am here.

September 30

I’ve started my time up here not too well — too much computer, obsessing over political articles and polls. I’ve committed to post a blog every day while I’m here. Yipes. Tomorrow the calendar turns over its page and I can see the end of my time here already. Mustn’t think that way! I have three weeks left. Smile. What a stretch!

Kind of funky weather. Cloudy, rain possible for the next four days, in the fifties. Humid. Not good house-airing weather.

October 1

Honestly, I am the luckiest. Quiet, early evening. The sun sets twenty minutes earlier here than in D.C. — 6:30. It’s 5 now, tea time. (When is it not?) Want to light a fire, but I’m going in to town for a cello/piano concert at St. James.

I’m thinking about doing a story on Badger Balm. At the pizza party they hosted last night, I met Bill, the founder. I joked something about “All you need is a dream right? No work at all,” and he responded, “There are invisible forces at work.” What a fun interview that would be! KInda want to do it, pitch it, and get it published in one of those “good news” magazines. Lot of work, but it would be good to get back into practice. Know what? I have the chops for this.

October 4

Dearest Book, how I neglect you! That dreadful laptop takes all my attention. Today I am fasting from it, and hence from Donald Trump. This morning I checked polls (Hillary 72% chance of winning) and headlines: Trump & Hillary stuff and nonsense and a massive hurricane hitting Haiti right now. Really, God? How much farther into the ground can those poor people be driven? I read that they don’t want to evacuate because their few belongings will be stolen. Hard to fathom. I am so grateful to have been to the slums of Nairobi so that I can *begin* to fathom and empathize. Prayers.

I have kept my commitment to blog every day. Not even sure why. I thought it might get my writing muscles moving each day, but it clearly peters out and turns into wandering the internet and falling into social media.

So very ugly in the Twitter world. I fear for my country. Such contempt & disdain & viciousness. I felt it from the Hillary people when I supported Bernie; now I feel it from the “still Bernie” people because I support Hillary. And the Trump people, OMG. It’s like a bunch of sociopathic middle schoolers have taken over adult Twitter accounts.

Afternoon:

Oh, this is *so*  much better! I can’t believe I’ve been living like that, trapped inside my computer, held hostage by mental busyness. I was mistaking that for life. I’ve read the Bible some, written prayers for church after reading the upcoming sermon, and read a bit of Frederick Buechner. 

I note in my gmail that there’s a debate going on about race and police on my Facebook page, but I have not clicked to see what’s up. Have at it. I think it might behoove me to turn off the modem. Gmail is also unhelpful.

Oh! There is the sun on green-gold maples leaves out the window! And that sweet goldfinch song. And a pileated! It’s been drizzly and dreary for days, but we’re at the beginning of a nice stretch.

I have a candle lit, signifying my intention to be present to Jesus, and I’m going to meditate now. Sweet.

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Day Eight in my daily blogging adventure

Values Collide

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I went to the Quaker meeting in Putney, Vermont this morning. As much as I treasure my church family at home in Maryland, there is something about a Quaker meeting that reaches deep down inside me and makes me . . . me.

I’m stripped, gently, to my essence. All pretense and self-centeredness, agendas and plans, self-importance and neediness melt away during forty-five minutes of silent worship which is sometimes enhanced by a statement from someone who feels moved to share. I’ve never encountered anything else like it.

An older fellow named Parker, all wooly and flannelly in forest green and brown, started off the meeting with a brief reading. A “query,” as the Quakers call them — food for thought to be used in worship meetings and personal reflection. I can’t find it online, but the query Parker read had to do with vocation and valuing work, whether paid or unpaid, in the home or out of it.

It’s a timely question for me, as I gear up to get back into the world of paid work. It was good to be reminded that I already work my butt off most days, and I should value and honor my work and do it as well as I can. I always feel small and not good enough when I “admit” to someone that my pastoral and writing work is unpaid. Do I really value money that much? Is that where I get my worth? I hope not.

During the silence, my mind wandered from vocation to the general question of exactly what do I value?

Then I noticed that many people around me had slipped off their shoes when they sat down to worship, as Moses did when he encountered the burning bush and God told him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” I found their act deeply profound, expressing humility, gentleness, and openness. Shoes are noisy, they announce our coming, they leave our marks in the world, and they protect us from fully experiencing the world.

As I contemplated why I was so moved by this simple, reverent gesture, I realized that these are some of my core values. Humility, gentleness, and an openness marked by honesty and authenticity.

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“. . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” — Colossians 3:12

I also realized, at long last, why I am so deeply troubled by Donald J. Trump — I mean aside from the obvious devastation he would wreak on our country and the world. His very existence causes turmoil in my gut, deep upset at a visceral, personal level. He’s in my dreams. And now I understand why. His arrogance, viciousness, and lying are the very antithesis of everything I treasure; the qualities I hope to see and represent in the world, he sucks up and spits out. And he’s got millions of people thinking his behavior is something to emulate.

Thank God for Quaker meetings, is all I can say. They may keep me sane until November 8th.

Breathe. Just breathe.

So anyway — what do you value?

Day five in my efforts to blog daily.

Reasons to Come to New Hampshire

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There are so many reasons to come to New Hampshire in the fall. The subtle rose pink of the hydrangea bush that presides over my grandmother’s flower bed, which is mostly golden rod at present with a few late purple phlox here and there. The smell of browning yellow leaves piled up beneath the towering maples as I rustle through them on the way to the barn. The faintly orange-blushed and scarlet-tipped trees at the bottom of the field, promising to take my breath away in a week or two.

Beedie’s maples. Beedie’s barn. Beedie’s flowerbeds and fields. Funny how I still think of this whole place as belonging to my grandmother, gone lo these thirty years. (Writing in this old house brings out words like lo and lest.)

black and white quiet hills

There are ghosts here, most certainly. Beedie had a friendship of sorts with the one who haunts the attic — our whole family called him Andy, one of the early residents of the house who is now buried in the town graveyard.

Andy’s father Temple Baker bought the farm in 1862 for fifteen hundred dollars and had lived here less than a decade when a cow kicked him in the leg and he died. Andy and his siblings (except Fred, who died as a child) grew up in the house and carried on farming until the mid-twenties. Beedie always swore she heard Andy at night when she was alone, and she spoke to him openly.

I only heard him once, playing one long mournful note on the ancient pipe organ in the attic late at night. I just about peed my pants. That was nearly fifty years ago, and I’m still not entirely at ease in the attic.

I sense family spirits here almost constantly. But I don’t think of them as ghosts in the building, rather as sprits living inside me who become more real when I’m up here, if that makes any sense. My brother’s passing is too recent for me to allow him in — he’s still painfully real to me most of the time — but Beedie, Mom, Aunt Val, Cousin Averil, the uncles — they all belong to this house out of time. I am not alone.

Granite State Voters

Another reason to come to New Hampshire in the fall, especially every four years, is the presidential election. I like volunteering, even though the beleaguered citizens of the Granite State can get pretty grumpy as election day nears, after their phones have been rung and their doors have been knocked and their TVs have been inundated with political ads for weeks and weeks and weeks. 

Tomorrow I am making massive amounts of macaroni salad and marinated zucchini to drop off at the Democratic headquarters in town, where busloads of volunteers will be arriving from Massachusetts for the first of four weekends of door-knocking. I love the energy of election season.

Life Goes On

But I won’t get serious about volunteering for a while. I need downtime, writing time, reading time. This is the best reason for coming to New Hampshire. Tonight I’m joining my neighbors for outdoor pizza night at an organic farm up the road, and tomorrow I’ll be going to a free cello concert at a lovely stone church in town. Sunday I’ll attend the Quaker meeting in Putney Vermont. It’s the first Sunday of the month, so there will be a potluck. And I’ll stop to buy apples and a pumpkin at the farmer’s market on the way home.

Life is simpler here, even during the swirling insanity of the 2016 election.

Day 3 of my attempt at a month of daily blogging

Daily Writing: Discipline or Drivel?

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I don’t know how this will go, but I’m considering blogging every day while I’m hidden away here at my New Hampshire writing retreat. The theory is that blogging will get my pen moving and words of some sort flowing, and the moving pen and flowing words will continue beyond the blogging and miraculously become a full-length memoir. 

 

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Could happen.

Or more likely, the blogging will siphon off just enough creative energy each day that there’s nothing left to flow elsewhere. Worst case — which happened yesterday — is that I post a blog and then get lost in articles, political blogs, pollsters, and youtubes and end up blowing the whole day. Although the video of Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama shopping at CVS was pretty funny. 

So consider this fair warning. I have no idea what you might find on this page over the next month. The good news is, it will likely be shorter than my usual offerings. There may be reflections and photos after a walk in the woods, a poem or two, a to-do list with commentary, struggles with my sermon prep, snippets from my journal, snarks about Trump. Who knows the places we’ll go!

I will be volunteering for the senate and presidential campaigns while I’m up here, so you’ll hear about that. Volunteering in my very-blue home state of Maryland makes me feel virtuous but probably doesn’t do much else. Here, though, every vote counts towards keeping the old red, white and blue from being tainted with orange hair dye and tanning cream.

Sorry, that was mean. Donald Trump does not bring out the best in me. Or anyone, for that matter.

Anyway, I’ve volunteered to make scads of food for busloads of volunteers coming up from Massachusetts this weekend. So who knows? Maybe I’ll share some “recipes from the campaign trail” with you. The possibilities are endless! Got any suggestions for topics?

Day two. Short and (mostly) sweet.

Photo attribution: Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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