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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: October, 2021

in search of diamond country

sometimes i feel like a pilgrim without certain destination. i left a shore that no longer feels like home, like safe harbor, and i’m either adrift or paddling like hell toward parts unknown. i need to remind myself that not knowing does not equal nowhere. 

i’m speaking of the realm of religion; i’m speaking of a search for something beyond creed and dogma. i’m speaking of the search for something truer, for something eternally sacred, not outlined within the confines of human imagination, human motivations ill-begotten or simply mistaken. or cruel.

i firmly believe i’m pulled toward and by the pulsing heart of the purity i know as God. but, still, it’s shaky out here beyond the boundaries. beyond the catechism i was so dutifully taught so long ago. 

i suppose i’ve always been drawn to margins, to the outer rim of wherever i wandered. i remember a third-grade essay that got me in trouble. i remember watching a long litany of others get picked for red rover. i remember how in the halls of my high school, i huddled often with those sitting alone on the benches outside the lunch room. i remember i was certain it was why i was homecoming queen; i’d rejected the confines of cliques. 

and then, in a newsroom years and years later, i fell in love with and married a man of another religion, an interweaving not without hurdles and hard spots. we were squarely on the uncharted margins.

but i never let go of my core beliefs, never let go of my own guiding principles: turn the other cheek; love as you would be loved; welcome the little child; do for the least among us. seek the face of God in all faces, seek the sacred — in all peoples and places and things. 

and over and over, my mother taught me one indelible thing: don’t let the church get in the way of God. 

and so, in stumbling along, in my wanderings that in some ways mimic the ancient celtic tradition of peregrination — setting sail into the unknown — i gather up my own lifeline of wisdom seekers whose words illuminate my zigzagging way. they’re my personal pantheon of saints. some, i read about in the pages of books. some i meet in the checkout line.

which brings me to kenneth white, a scottish poet, and modern celtic prophet. born in 1936 in the slums of glasgow, he’s spent most of his adult life in france, teaching modern poetry at the sorbonne, and, though not all critics concur, he’s been hailed there as “one of the foremost english-language poets of today.” his poetry, it’s been said, holds traces of william carlos williams, ezra pound, and walt whitman, and, too, it weaves in filaments of zen buddhism and american transcendentalism. 

what i love most, in the not enough that i know, is that he points us toward seeing the shining deep in the natural landscape and seascape and skyscape. that shining, he teaches, is the light of the divine. he calls it “the diamond country” in the heart of all things. he sees it, writes j. philip newell, “glistening in earth, sea, and sky.” 

in a poem titled, “a high blue day on the scalpay,” white writes:

…the sea shimmering, shimmering

no art can touch it, the mind can only 

try to become attuned to it

to become quiet…open…still…

knowing itself in the diamond country, in

the ultimate unlettered light.

white belongs in a long line of thinkers who subscribe to an ancient theology known as the Book of Nature, a theology i’ve written a book about (though it waits still for an editor to send me her notes), a theology that holds that God’s first text was and is in and through creation, a text spelled out in the alphabet of leaves and stones, stars and sunlight, and the dawn and dusk of each day. a text birthed anew with each breath of creation.

it’s a theology that draws heavily from ancient celtic threads, threads that trace their roots to ancient eastern religions, to desert mothers and fathers of egypt, to persia and beyond. it’s a theology that subscribes not to pantheism but panentheism, God in all things. 

white, like emerson and thoreau, merton and all indigenous peoples, sees the natural world as a sacred text: “the sound of the wind in the treetops, the roaring of the waves, all these are sacred voices,” he writes.

put simply, it’s being awake to the sacred in all its iterations and voices, understanding the divine glistens and shimmers and stirs deep in the heart of all that is of this earth and its heavens. 

judaism teaches that at creation every drop of divine light was contained in a single vessel, but the vessel couldn’t contain it, so it shattered, scattering shards of light throughout the cosmos. our job, the rabbis teach us, is to search for and gather up those shards. 

kenneth white teaches so, too. “look for the shining in the deep of all things.” white is no romantic. he knows that the world is both “terrible and joyous.” (that’s an especially apt description of the now, though white wrote those words at another moment in history; terrible and joyous, a refrain without end.) yet beneath the glory and pain, the beauty and suffering, the pulse point, the epicenter, is always the deep, deep shining. the sacred eternal. the glistening of the diamond country.

he writes:

the loveliness is everywhere

even

in the ugliest 

and most hostile environment

the loveliness is everywhere

at the turning of a corner

in the eyes

and on the lips

of a stranger

in the emptiest areas

with no place for hope

and only death 

to invite the heart

the loveliness is everywhere

it emerges

incomprehensible

inexplicable

it rises in its own reality

and what we must learn is

how to receive it

into ours

i find solace in white’s promise, comfort in the embrace of his sharp-edged seeing. he’s not glossing over the pox, not disregarding the brokenness. he’s reminding: the sacred is ever-present, God doesn’t retreat. even when we cannot, for the life of us, make out even the faintest of outlines.

and there’s our pursuit, our life’s work: seek the loveliness, find your way to the diamond country. the sacred is stirring, is waiting….

gather the shards, glistening…

name a shining you’ve noticed of late. name ten shinings if you’re so stirred….

*photo above by will kamin

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.

the homestead, circa 1957

this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.

marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental. 

but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789. 

and everything changed. 

inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned. 

when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss. 

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)

the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins. 

it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.

i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)

but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes. 

and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot. 

it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department. 

to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy. 

but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams? 

i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.

mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?