prayer for the first week of Lent

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Dear...God,
I told a friend about praying and she said, "To Who? The Universe?" and laughed (though not unkindly) because she knows about my latest trouble with names and I know she would feel so much better if I could just use the Name we're used to because something like "The Universe" feels too big, too uncontainable, I think, which is kind of the point for me, but I understand that it might be scary when what you really need is a friend on the other end of prayer and not some un-nameable Being or Force or Love-Who-Always-Reaches, which is the shape you have taken in my mind lately.  There are those pictures of the Milky Way - you know the ones? with the velvet sky and the scatter of stars across that rumpled skein of color? - which always make my heart stutter a little because I think that is where you are but also above it and around it for billions of miles, maybe an eternity of miles, and also below it and close, close as the space between one heartbeat and the next, close as the threads between my thoughts, plucking them every so softly, till they tremble, till they resonate with the goodness that is you and is always recognizable, always knowable,  even though I cannot, maybe don't want to, name you.

work, in progress

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They've torn down the old apple trees and the thicket of blackberries along the trail.  In their place are sections of chain link fence held together with orange construction tape.  Our town is growing.  The airport needs a new access road.  Warehouses will go up, businesses will move in; more houses will need to be built.

So much of life feels like it is going the way of the fields and the apple trees right now.   The planet is at the mercy of unchecked prosperity; culture is trying desperately to keep up with technology and rapid change; our bodies are reeling under the weight of industrial pollutants and foods.  Personally, we are facing the reality of a truly empty nest, trying to imagine what marriage, what life itself, will look like in a pared down environment.  Some days I feel like my hands are clutching sand.

~~

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"My work is loving the world," Mary Oliver wrote. When we first moved here we made ourselves promise to notice the landscape.  To really see it before progress changed it.  We set out to appreciate the open fields and hedgerows, the stands of trees along the rambling creek, the stillness of all that open space.  I know the curves and hollows of our trail by foot because we've walked it nearly every day for years - in the freezing cold, the rain, the fog, the heat.  We've even walked it in the dark with only the light of the full moon.  Day by day it has become our own.  Not in the sense of physical ownership, but through familiarity, and understanding.

The changes are hard to take.  I was angry after the loss of the thicket and the trees, the wide fields. And there's a part of me that's angry that I can't keep my children near me forever.  It is natural in us to feel jealous, possessive, of what is beautiful and good.

~~

There's a book I've been reading slowly, about the first Oregonians.  The ones who walked this land before my ancestors arrived to cut down the trees and make farms, dam the rivers, cut in roads, build power plants and fast food restaurants, kill the wolves and over fish the salmon.  The piece of land that our little town inhabits used to be an annual meeting place for the Northwest Tribes.  I think of them lately, how it was to watch others encroach and change, to watch the things they loved being stolen and - to their minds, at least - ruined.  How do you find the grace to live in the middle of such a painful dismantling and not give up hope?  I don't think they knew; there is no answer in the book I'm reading.  There is no sure answer in my heart.

I keep going back to Mary Oliver:"Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

This is important, I think, this matching of work with standing still, with astonishment (and in her first line, with love.)  Lack of these things seems to be at the root of so many of our problems today.  How can you preserve what you are too busy to see?  What you do not value, let alone love?  To train ourselves to focused wonder, to unembarrassed cherishing, to standing still and seeing, and to consider such things our life's work.  Maybe that's a way forward, even if it's not a solution to the loss.

Before the bulldozers came this fall I watched a red-tailed hawk pirouette over these now broken fields.  She wasn't hunting, she was playing.  I stood and watched her for a long time.  She dove and swooped, bolted upwards and then floated down with her wings wide-spread to skim across the surface of the tall grass. Over and over again she danced, drinking in the goodness of the sun, the air, those shimmering fields.  I came home and recorded it in my journal, the abandonment, the sheer joy of it.  The words are still there now, and as soon as I read them they conjure for me again the beauty of that morning.   The bulldozers have taken the field, but the hawk and her dance, the joy, are my own.  Today when I passed by the same spot, I searched the sky for her but she wasn't there.  The field was full of tire tracks and churned mud, the footprints of progress.  But along the edge, where the fences wobbled, was a bright stand of tansy and the red-brown tendrils of the blackberry vines that are never deterred for long.  I smiled to welcome them back, to encourage them to find the gaps, to stake a foothold in our changed and changing world.

mentors: William Stafford

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I first discovered William Stafford through his work as an Oregon poet.  His poem Traveling Through the Dark is probably his most well-known piece and justly so:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:that road is narrow;

to swerve might make more dead. By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly. My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated. The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,

then pushed her over the edge into the river.

His poetry contained an accessibility, intelligence, and gentleness that resonated with me.  Later, I learned that his writing had been developed and honed as a young Conscientious Objector interned at Camp Belden (California) during WWII.  This helped explained the strange camaraderie I felt with him, as I consider myself a pacifist of sorts.  "He believed in the fragile but essential community of the world, and he wrote on behalf of what he called "the unknown good in our enemies," writes his son, Kim.  At the heart of Stafford's work lies what I hope my own work gives witness to: a commitment to wholeness and to the dignity and humanity of every person.

(Side note:  I included a Conscientious Objector character in my first novel in honor of Stafford.)

After he was released from the camps, Stafford went on to teach at universities and write poetry the rest of his life.  Though he was well-respected, and well-known (he was the Poet Laureate of Oregon for 15 years), he refused to be pretentious.  He wrote for himself, and his vision of the way the world could be, but he carried no hubris when it came to publishing:

"I have genuinely felt throughout my life a sense that any acceptance of what I write is a bonus, a gift from other people....I've always felt the editor's role is to get the best possible material for the readers...not to serve the writer...So I never have felt that I needed to push this stuff into the world. If it's invited in, then it will come."

In art, as in many fields, it is rare to come across such humility, such self-contained awareness, and it speaks to a deep part of me as a writer.  It is vital that I believe in the work I do, that I push myself to the limits of excellence as much as I am able, but then, to let it go, to believe that it will find its place in the world without my desperate striving or need for validation.  Stafford embodied this posture and I read over his work frequently to remind myself it is possible.

He has contributed so much to the formation of my own writing, it would be difficult to record it all in this post.  His meticulous habit of daily writing; his belief that you create good writing by living a life that enables good writing to come about; his refusal to be dismissed as simplistic or sentimental by people who didn't understand his motivations; his ability to be at home within himself and in the world; his rejection of cynicism, all touch me deeply.

About the latter, Stafford says:

"Certain writers create a zone of language that deliberately offends but stays within its own invidious conventions. Challenging genteel culture, these people attain a swagger, in effect saying like a child, "Look at me, I am being bad."Indulging in this kind of affront could be temporarily interesting, but relying on it for a main accomplishment becomes tiresome and petty. And to live by it is to narrow one's ambitions, is to forsake a host of more satisfying accomplishments.These writers reveal an obsession about gentility. Most of us are not permanently shocked enough to be amused for long, but apparently these dabblers in making mud pies can derive a lifelong charge out of defying something they profess not to believe in. Further, if they can maintain their pose of being bad, they can ascribe any negative assessments of their accomplishment to the narrowness of their audience, and thus avoid being judged on the adequacy of their vision, liveliness of invention, depth of realization, flexibility of language, or other such criteria.Gaining attention as they do is as cheap as attempting such by bribery, advertising, demagoguery or any other false means. Timid critics help by not wanting to appear squeamish; they give attention to what is outlandish and fail to remark the shallowness of such attainment that lives by being bizarre."

In my work, writing novels and stories, I often wonder where I fit into the publishing world.  I dislike naivete in writing, I abhor moralism and sentimentality, and yet I find I naturally write of goodness that rises out of darkness, of redemption, healing, love that endures.  Is there a place for my work in a cynical world that seems to hunger mostly for the kind of realism that shatters hope rather than guards it?  I don't know yet, but Stafford holds a lantern for me:

"What if we could all hold in mind the same good dream? That is what a literary work accomplishes momentarily...The myth I hold is not that of the curse on the family, the guilt hovering forever as a result of a bad deed; but instead the vision of life haunted by some unerasable good deed: a life that can’t lose for long, or at least forever. Not Oedipus doomed, but Aeneas bearing the unshruggable potential for later life - this is the pattern I note."

The pattern I note in Stafford's life: peace-making, humility, optimism, dedication, goodness, vision, and excellence, have impacted me greatly.   I'm incredibly thankful that his work was invited into the world and I was allowed to learn from it. 

Recommended books:

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford You Must Revise Your Life*

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains*

Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time

Every War Has Two Losers(There is a 30 minute film related to this book here.)*

Both these books have a rambling, organic style which can be hard to follow, but they are littered with gems.  I look through them regularly.

 Stafford's son Kim has written a fabulous book on writing as well:The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft   

american summer

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 In the extreme July sun

the old-fashioned roses are born,

and die,

on the same day.

Deer are called from the woods

by the soft thud of apples in

the long grass of the neglected pasture,

and

the smell of ripening tomatoes,futilely fenced.

Mullein tilts her span upwards,

reaches- almost -the arc of sky,

then topples.

Everywhere, heat shimmers.

The neighbor's flags,

4th-hung,

once proud,

sag from the stiff reach of their poles,

drooping,

dispirited as the rest of us.