Swine Heart

The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don’t flower.
For everything flowers from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words, and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
down to the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
~ Galway Kinnell

This week I stood in the presence of ‘the long, perfect loveliness of sow.’ Visiting the Minnesota State Fair, a part of the pilgrimage always takes us to the Swine Barn. In this mixture of sawdust and straw are nestled the thick lengths of these often misunderstood animals. Most of the time we city dwellers think of them as dense, slow moving houses for our bacon loving. But seeing them in their uniqueness, their various shades of pink, gray, speckled, brown, I am always humbled by their beauty. Watching the sows lazily care for the needs of their young always makes me wish I could have been as laid back caring for my own off-spring. It seems they have much to teach us.

A trip to the Miracle of Birth building only reinforces this. This week’s heat has these enormous animals laying and heaving to bring yet more of their species into the world. All while gawkers surround. No human would put up with this. But, for the sake of curiosity and education, there they are. Children and adults crowd around to glimpse these mothers and their young, babies born at around three pounds who will in six short months weigh over two hundred. Miracle, indeed.

I love the idea that Saint Francis, in his simple wisdom, blessed the sow and helped her remember her loveliness. I would equally love the idea that somehow in our visiting these thick, oblong animals, that we, too, are offering them blessing. Talking to the veterinarians who moved easily through the State Fair crowds, I heard their own respect for this most humble of God’s creatures. It warmed my heart as had the wiggling, piglets nuzzling their food source so they could begin their quick growing process.

Coming into contact with these animals and others at the Fair is a gift for this human one who lives most days bathed in concrete. Seeing the honor and respect their human handlers give them is a lesson in the making. It is yet one more reminder of the intricate ways we are woven together in Creation and the way we are all lovely in the eyes of our Creator. The two-leggeds and four-leggeds all need reteaching in this ancient, love song of relationship. We each are both bud and blossom at varying times.

And sometimes it takes a saint to put a hand on our forehead to remind us of our loveliness and heal our great broken heart.


Leave Taking

There is leave taking with the coming of each new day. As we wake we let go of the dreams or nightmares that plagued our sleep. We leave behind what was unfinished yesterday and either forget it or add it to the hopes of the hours to come. We take our leave of one day on the calendar, turn to the next, hope for the best. Even though it seems unbelievable to me, I have been told our bodies, every day, leave behind some of our sloughed off skin and our cells make something new of their old form. We are created to be leave-taking creatures.

I am surrounded by passages, by leave taking, these days. Some dear ones who grace my life are making their way from this place near me to other places miles away. My heart will need to stretch mightily to hold this, to continue to feel their connection. Leave taking. Some friends have recently lost their aged parents changing the shape of a life they have always known. Leave taking. The young ones in our lives are taking new steps into school, some for the first time, others for the last for at least a while. Friends and loved ones are moving from vocations they have known to places of unknown freedoms and a new way of shaping their days. Leave taking.

These days we are traveling are taking us to the season of leave taking. Autumn. I watch as, first one, and then another leaf lets go from the trees in our yard, taking their leave of the branch that has held them and brought them nourishment. In just a few short weeks the winds will howl and violently sweep their siblings from their same comfortable home. Leave taking with be followed by leaf raking.

“Of all horrid things, leave taking is the worst
.” Jane Austen wrote these words in her novel Emma. Perhaps. These moments, days, years of movement from one place to another, leaving someone, someplace, behind are certainly the heart-breaking times of life. But they are also the needed dance of growth, of possibility, of creativity made manifest. We know this as parents, as teachers, as friends, as earth-walkers. Before we can understand the joy and exhilaration of flying we must let go the rope that tethers us.

So it goes. And so I am holding my heart in my hands. Outstretched. The leave taking will push those I love to places of newness and great adventures, of the next chapter in a life well lived. And because my life is so intricately woven into the fabric of this Creation, I too, will feel its pull. It is as it has always been and ever will be. Amen and amen.


Grace of Silence

I spent the majority of last week in the presence of Quakers. I am still basking in the glow of it. There is something wonderful that happens to people who welcome silence, who sit in silence and name is worship, who need not fill up every moment with the sound of their own voices. Even in the presence of those whose language rules their days, these people hold out a certain gem of possibility. “Perhaps the answer……or the question, lives in the silence”. They seem to breath this message into a gaggle of talkers. Yes, perhaps this is true.

During our large group gatherings there was not that much literal silence. People spoke. We sang. We laughed. Some cried. But because there were, sprinkled among us, those who knew how to hold silence, how to be silence, the communal setting took on a gentleness and ease that filled my heart. If real and true silence came, there was an ability to sit with it until something shifted and sound began again. It was a rich, rich experience.

Sunday’s scripture was the parable of the farmer whose crops had yielded so much that he believed the only answer was to tear down the barn he had and build bigger barns. Remember it? It is a story that boggles the 21st century brain, the consumer-driven mind. Of course, parables can have a wide range of meanings and are almost always limited only by the imagination of the reader. One of Jesus’s great gifts to us are these multi-meaning stories. They make us work for our understanding, our faith, our interpretation. No easy answers here! For me this ancient story says much about ‘enough’. It really gives my ego a sucker punch. The farmer sees success and is ready in the blink of an eye to throw away what had been just fine up till then. This land-tender is seduced by the ‘more is better’ mentality. More. Bigger. It is a trap I know all too well.

Hearing this story after my time with the Quakers created a nice fabric for reflection. So much of my day is filled with words, information that must be taken in, analyzed, put to some good use. The stock-piling of words, the contribution of sound can sometimes create the illusion of fullness, a fullness that is not quite it seems.

This is when silence becomes the safe place to rest until my soul catches up with the activity of body and mind. “Restless, I go down to the barn and attempt to dissect the concept of ‘peace’.” These words begin the memoir of Mary Rose O’Reilly about her learning as a Quaker, Buddhist shepherd in The Barn at the End of the World. In this beautifully written encounter with the often silent life of the farm, O’Reilly tells of the hard work, reflection and gift of silence that gives birth to a deeper dwelling for what we name holy in our different ways. It is a gem of a book.

As I look back on this experience of last week’s silent gifts, I am reminded of the scripture from 1 Kings in which the prophet Elijah experiences the presence of God. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was spitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah came to experience God not in all the wild and powerful sounds but in silence.

This week when the sounds of the world are pushing in, making it difficult to hear myself into the day, I am going to tune into my inner Quaker and remember the sheer grace of these people I experienced who walk so quietly in the world. Just thinking this makes me smile.


Right Here

“…..And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.”
~Wendell Berry

This week I heard this poem read in its entirety. It is a full and beautiful piece of poetry with the title ‘Wild Geese’ but it was these last few lines that gripped my heart and held on for dear life. ‘What we need is here.’

What we need is here. Do we believe this certain and direct statement? I think of all the conversations, both spoken and overheard, that tell the opposite story. The story of ‘not enough’, of ‘ not now’ is more common, of some distant future in which all will be as it should be, fully realized paradise or at least less pain and heartache. The here and now seems to hold little trust for many.

We live in a culture that lures us into believing that we are not enough, that we do not have the resources, the talent, the brains, the education, you name it, whatever it is we do not have enough of it. But Berry’s wisdom offers us another slice of a much more delicious pie: We have what we need…..right here, right now.

Those of us who make a home in institutions like the church or in other structures created to house the human spirt, schools, universities, hospitals, clinics, neighborhoods, families, often look for someone or something outside the circle to help shape an uncertain future. The present is filled with problems and challenges we did not see coming, that do not fit neatly into the boundaries those before us created. Our nation and our world, our governments and leaders face this same view of who and what we were while realizing that the sands are shifting toward a future that demands more of us. If we allow ourselves, we see, we feel this tugging and pulling all around.

I believe we live in a pivotal, tilting place and much is being required of us. Perhaps it has always been this way. Perhaps our ability to know so much about what is happening in the world in the blink of an eye, in the brush of a Google keystroke makes it seem more real, more urgent. Whatever the soil into which we have been planted, there is an itching toward change, big change for most of what we have known to be bedrock. Do you sense this?

For this reason Berry’s words have stayed with me. It is so easy to look outside ourselves for answers. And yet, this poem so clearly states that we have what we need to solve whatever perceived problem stares us in the face. We have the right people, the best resources, the answers to the questions, right here, right now. The creativity needed must be fed by a quiet heart and the clarity to see the gifts that often go unnoticed, unopened in our midst.

What challenges do you face this day? What problem seems overflowing in your life? As you look out the window of your soul toward the world that nests you, what seems to be unraveling, shifting?

Today may be the day to quiet our hearts, to see, really see with the greatest clarity. What we need is here.



Train a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it.”
~Proverbs 22:6

The other day I was audience to some mighty parenting. Sitting on the beach looking over Lake Superior just north of Bayfield, Wisconsin, I watched as a mother gave very important and direct instruction to her two children. She was clear. She was consistent. She insisted that their actions had consequences. In my early parenting days, these were all lessons I had been told were important in nurturing and helping a child to become independent and to grow in a healthy way. It was amazing to see this in action.

This parenting I observed was not happening between two children and their parent on the beach. Instead, this clear and instructive behavior was shown to me by a mother merganzer and her two, furry little young ones. I first noticed them swimming along as they rode on her back in the frigid, blue water. The mother’s fancy, furry head looked like a hat worn at the Kentucky derby, all pointed, reddish spikes of feathers sticking out like a crown. The two young ones did not yet have any distinctive markings but instead were just two balls of cuteness going along for the ride.

That is until Mom rose up just enough out of the water, wings wide, to send the two little ones splashing into the water. On their own. She never looked back but kept right on with her measured, slow movement along the water’s surface. One of the little birds hugged the edge of the pier keeping its body as close to something solid as it could. The other one clearly was having none of this independence stuff. It jumped right back onto Mom’s back. She swan just a few inches and then ‘boom’ up she rose again sending the little one back into the water. On its own. For another go at the individuated life.

This parenting dance went on for some time as I looked on. At one point both little birds scooted….that’s the only way to describe it….across the top of the water and landed on their parent’s back once again. I think they thought they were home-free. But within a few minutes, the mother bird had risen up and dumped them back into the water for another go at growing up.

Over on the beach I watched as two human parents played with their children on the beach. The parents were trying to lure their children into the cold waters of the lake. First, the father ran in and submerged himself to his chest as the little girl and boy cheered. Then the mother did the same. Both parents tried to coax the children from the beach. The young girl waded out to get her feet wet but was not charmed by the frigid water. The little boy wanted desperately to try the water, to do what dad had done, but its expanse seemed to frighten him.

This growing up, this parenting is not for the faint of heart. Whether human or animal, being present to the growing up of another is work filled with both the deepest joy and the rawest pain. Some who are new to the world want to hold on to older hands for as long as possible. Others cannot let go soon enough. But the role of parent, or that of soul friend, often means flapping wings and sending the other from the nest so they can become their truest self. It is the way of the world. It is the way of Creation.

School will soon be starting and parents will put children on buses driven by folks they barely know but must trust. Middle schoolers will walk into hallways that seem longer and more intimidating than those they knew last year in their younger selves. High school students will begin to sense a new found independence and the unveiling of future possibilities. Those headed to college will take steps both frightening and full of excitement.

As it all happens, someplace a parent is moving into the shadows knowing their work is done. At least for this leg of the journey.


Healing Sounds

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.
~Henri Nouwen

Late last week I visited one of our dear ones who had had surgery. She was still in hospital and when I arrived the caring angels known as nurses were attending to getting her back into bed. I waited outside the room till she was settled. While I was standing there I looked up to see a card that was posted on the wall outside the doors. ” Quiet please…..healing in progress.” I allowed this invitation to slosh around in my mind. Those who have not been in hospitals with any regularity may not know that they can sometimes be one of the loudest spaces around. As family members and guests come and go from visits, as the pages for this and that booms through the sound system, as the beeps and blips of the various machines sound out, it can combine to make quite the racket.

Healing does take a certain dose of quiet. Stillness. Being present to breath and heartbeat. Anyone who has gone through any kind of surgery, accident or injury knows this. There is a certain amount of silence that is needed for whatever our bodies require to repair themselves to their healthy state. The same is true for those wounds that come to our minds, psyche, our hearts. Quiet can do much to soothe what ails our bodies and minds to create this progress toward healing.

Of course, in contexts that house our spirits, quiet has always played a part. Religious traditions that nurture the spirit have always understood the element of quiet that weaves through whatever other rituals help us express the spiritual in our lives. Whether that is outright silence in prayer or meditation or the wordless act of dance and intentional, mindful walking, quiet brings some gift of healing to the noise and chaos of our world.

But sometimes healing demands not so much quiet as a voice. Sometimes that voice is loud and big and fills the space that surrounds the one who longs for healing. I think of those whose lives have been torn by abuse or addiction, those whose voices have been stifled for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes healing comes in shouting or screaming so the world will hear, so you will be noticed, seen. Often the silence has held too much pain, too much secrecy and the healing can only begin with sound.

It has been my privilege over the years to be present to healing, healing that was physical and much that was of a spiritual nature. I have watched people come back from ailments or conditions of the body that seemed impossible. Other times I have been present to the measured motion of a spirit healed. All these movements have taken determination, tears, skill, patience and a powerful showering of prayer. There have been quiet, often silent moments in this healing. There have also been shouts of anger and frustration and railings toward self and God and the seeming unfairness of the world. At the time it seemed a big soup pot of countless ingredients that eventually led to healing.

But when those who know healing look back at their journey, and I count myself among them, they almost always see the intricate dance of silence and sound. The steps of the path of healing are like a weaving of so many threads we understand and those that are pure mystery. It has always been so.

For all those who seek healing this day, may there be the quiet that is needed and the space for the sound that must be heard.


This Way

And now perhaps our travels will bring us again to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne like so many, pilgrims and tourists alike. Most will venture over only between the tides when the island is an island in name only. The tide comes in and the place becomes quieter. With tourist and holiday-maker less in evidence, islander and island speak, and smile, then leave us to thoughts of our own. It has always been that way.”
~ Ronald Blythe

Yesterday as I made my way out into the early morning, I was hit full force with a feeling of home. By this I do not mean the home I have known, have made, for the last few decades. Instead I was plunged head long into the home of my childhood. The morning was bright but understated in its light. But the air was filled with moisture that was causing a fog to move in along the fields I passed on my way to the gym. These fields are full of tiny little creeks that wind and turn through the tall, green grass. The mist of the morning created not only a visible image of the foggy mornings of my childhood but also the smell, fresh and full of autumn, a sensation I wanted to ignore in favor of holding onto summer as long as possible. This experience left me thinking about the ways in which place finds a home in us, creates memory, memories that can cause a flood of feeling to wash over us and define our day.

Later in my morning reading, I came across these words of Ronald Blythe about the holy island of Lindisfarne, a place I visited three years ago. It had been a life long dream to go to this island that has the ebb and flow of sea around it, allowing people to cross to its shores only when the tide is out and to be a resident there until the tide recedes again several hours later. It is a place inhabited by those who welcome pilgrims and travelers, those whose life’s work is to tell the stories of the ancient ones who once prayed and studied there, those who tried to make sense of what it meant to be the people of God in their time, in this ever-changing place. Visiting this place as I did, I was both pilgrim and tourist. Pilgrim seeking to experience the Holy in this place where so many prayers had been prayed for so many years. Tourist in the need to purchase small tokens to remember the place, trying to hold on to something of the sacred nature of it all for the times when my spirit feels disconnected from the vast expanse of the Universe.

What captured my imagination in Blythe’s words was the idea that once there is enough space, ‘island and islander speak.’ This reminded me of what I have experienced in so many places, this sense that as humans we have a conversation going on with the landscape that houses us. If we can calm our minds. If we can create space. If we can stop talking in words meant to dazzle and distract.

Last week as I sat on the shore of Lake Superior, I engaged in one of these wordless conversations. Each morning I sat and allowed the Big Lake to talk to me, teach me, hold out its wisdom to my waiting hand, my hungry heart. Through the glistening of sun on the glasslike water to the ways in which those with wings calmly glided along the water’s path, the lake spoke and I listened. We did not use words but the ancient language of knowing passed between us. We were both reminded of the vastness of which we are a part. We were both urged to remember the ways we are connected. We reminded each other of the gifts of gratitude and awe and mystery. This being a part of Creation is holy work and I felt blessed to be in the dialogue.

The smell of yesterday morning transported me to the soil and sky that shaped me. Last week’s conversation with Minnesota’s enormous lake filled me up until next time. Remembering my crossing to Lindisfarne helped me see the long line of those who have conversed with land and sea, who have carried on these wordless prayers for centuries, offering praise and thanksgiving to the One who breathes through us all.

It has always been this way.