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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

 

A guest post from Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, on a Christmas theme:

tim120

Tim Steele

When in 2008 the BBC asked choirmasters in the United Kingdom and United States to name their favorite Christmas carol, Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” topped their list. The poem first appeared in 1872 in a holiday issue of Scribner’s Monthly, which had asked Rossetti for a contribution appropriate to the season. Though she never collected the poem in a book, her brother William included it in the edition of her Poetical Works that he published in 1904, ten years after her death. The poetry-loving Gustav Holst recognized the poem’s choral possibilities and in 1906 did a setting of it that some prefer to Darke’s, which dates from 1911.

rosetti1

She was troubled. (Photo: Lewis Carroll)

For all its lovely directness, “In the Bleak Midwinter” reflects Rossetti’s troubled religious faith. An Anglo-Catholic influenced by Calvinism and Adventism, she found God the Father terrifying and remote but identified with the humanity and suffering of Jesus. In describing the nativity, she mentions the attendant celestial spirits but stresses the earthier elements of the scene—the tangible milk and love that Mary gives her child and the comforting companionship of the animals in the stable. This attraction to natural manifestations of divinity may remind us of Emily Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s nearly exact contemporary and of whose work Rossetti was an early champion. (Both poets were born in the bleak, midwintery December of 1830—Rossetti on the 5th, Dickinson on the 10th—though Dickinson died in 1886, eight years before Rossetti.)

Below is the text of Rossetti’s carol, plus a performance of it in Darke’s setting.

“A Christmas Carol”

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter,
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

– Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 – 9:50am
Photo by Chris Ford
BY PARKER J. PALMER (@PARKERJPALMER), WEEKLY COLUMNIST

A while back, I saw that my 21 year-old granddaughter had posted a quote from one of my books on her Facebook page. I was honored, of course.

Because my granddaughter is a lot smarter than I am about a lot of things, I thought I ought to take a look at what I wrote in that book.  Maybe there was something to it!

So here’s a story about what I was struggling with in my late thirties, when I lived and worked at Pendle Hill, the Quaker living-learning community near Philadelphia.

I was trying and failing to find a new direction for my life, and feeling very discouraged about it, when I got some life-changing counsel from an older woman named Ruth.

I’m older now than Ruth was then, but her counsel continues to guide me. If someone else finds it helpful, I’ll be glad I passed her wisdom along…

“If I were to discover a new direction, I though, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite all the good intentions, left me even more discouraged. ‘Have faith,’ they said, ‘and way will open.’

‘I have faith,’ I thought to myself. ‘What I don’t have is time to wait for “way” to open. I’m approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have yet to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that’s opened so far is the wrong way.’

After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well-known for her thoughtfulness and candor. ‘Ruth,’ I said, ‘people keep telling me that “way will open.” Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.’

Ruth’s reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking: ‘I’m a birthright Friend,’ she said somberly, ‘and in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’

I laughed with her, laughed loud and long, the kind of laughter that comes when a simple truth exposes your heart for the needlessly neurotic mess it has become. Ruth’s honesty gave me a new way to look at my vocational journey, and my experience has long-since confirmed the lesson she taught me that day: there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.”

BY PARKER J. PALMER  WEEKLY COLUMNIST

As you know, I say unkind things about winter every now and then. But cut me some slack, winter-lovers! I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ve earned my stripes when it comes to ice and snow and zero temps!

Truth be told, there are certain features of this season that I, too, love. For example, on the introverted/extroverted scale, I’m right in the middle. Winter is good for my introverted side.

As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, I find myself going inward in ways that nourish my soul. It’s a spiritual version of hibernation, I suppose.

That’s why I love this poem by David Whyte. It takes me on an inner journey, touching on things I need to remember and truths I need to embrace.

At the moment, this line speaks to me: “what disturbs and then nourishes has everything we need.” If you’re in a mood to sit by this virtual fire for a while in solitude and silence, maybe this poem has a gift for you.

winter fire--fire of the winter in the midnight designermr

The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,

what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.

Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

winter dawn

winterforest cascades washington

PARKER J. PALMER is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. He is someone my late husband knew and respected for many years.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory