Snowflakes and Blackberries

It’s snowing this morning, and coincidentally, I ran across a few words I jotted down about snow, several years ago. It was one of those moments that stretches your mind and reminds you of divinity and cosmos.

This reminded me of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her words on blackberries.

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Searching for this quote, I rediscovered the longer poem of which it is a part, and found that it articulates my own belief about the spiritual nature of art. I kept reading, and Elizabeth kept building out the thesis in keeping with my own sense of things.

Human beings are inescapably spiritual. We are inescapably natural. We are created in the image of God, incarnated as He was, fully human and whole-souled just as He was fully human and fully divine. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe all creation is lifted up in Christ. ALL CREATION. This means I see God as much in a tiny snowflake as in a book of theology. I love that.

As a writer, I know I can’t let go of spirit to write about natural life. They are not separate. Not in the smallest detail. Some writing is more obviously “spiritual” or “religious” than others, but I believe all good art, perhaps I would say all “genuine” art, has as much spiritual as natural content. The measure of its greatness is the extent to which the fire of heaven shines through it.

Elizabeth says this more beautifully than I could, so here are her words to feed your thoughts on this snowy morning.

From ‘Aurora Leigh’
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift 5
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant’s face here, coarse and lined,
You’ll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension’s competent,
You’ll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Aye, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed: an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?
The bird’s not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Decades later, I still remember it.

What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?

When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.

There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.

Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.

Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.

A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.

Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.

Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.

I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

and often is his gold complexion dimmed.

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade

when in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.

Sonnet 18 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
By William Shakespearehttp://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/by2g21, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.

Land, trees, illustrated books

In the snowy yard with our corgi, I am the X at the center of a joyful, galloping figure 8. You can see the map of his progress like the marks of a skater on the ice. Happy corgis always run in circles.

Sniffing, woofing, galloping like a bunny while his bat-ears flapped in the breeze, Ferdinand enjoyed our yard at nose-and-paw level. I did what I have done ever since the day we moved in – reveled in the amazing enchantment of owning LAND. Land with dirt and birds and twigs and ferns. Land with slope and streamlet. Land with trees older than I am. It will never grow old. The enchantment will survive mowing and weeding and shoveling. I love it under my feet and before my eyes.

Recounting this joy to my husband after dinner, I heard myself saying that it’s like writing a book and having it illustrated. These are two joys that never grow dim. I wondered briefly why they came together in my mind, and I realized they are the same. Both are something ethereal made tangible. Dream made visible. Wish made palpable. And both are full of their own beauty.

Glory!

You need a new plan

Ever catch yourself thinking the same thing in multiple situations and realize it’s one of those Big True Things About Life? Here’s one that’s recurring for me:

If your plan depends on controlling the beliefs (and consequently the actions) of other people, you need another plan.

Now think about this without escaping through the word “controlling.” Are you assuming the would-be controller is a bad person? Make them a good person, someone who cares deeply about a worthy cause. What is that person asking of the world?

In my experience, personal and organizational plans for “change” and “awareness” and “saving the world” usually boil down to everyone thinking and acting according to one set of values. That will never happen. We know from history that even total dictatorship can’t maintain uniformity for long. It’s not in the nature of things. No matter how hard you argue, campaign, rant, emote, reason – pick your verb. No matter how hard.

Wasted effort frustrates me. I’m tired of the disappointment it brings. I’m tired of dreams falling apart because the dreamer resisted practicality. How often do smaller, feasible solutions to specific problems fall by the wayside in the mad dash for the panacea?

Feed the person in front of you. Plug the hole you can reach. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t have to save the world.

If everyone did that…See? Even me!

#bloginstead Day 1: What is interesting so far?

I was up early (child, dog, job), and that first groggy waking moment had a crisp edge of curiousity on it because TODAY is Day 1 of our #bloginstead challenge. I have the WordPress app, so I peeked at the notifications after breakfast. Sure enough – there you were! I saw posts from friends, and friends commenting on posts from friends. I love this!

Relief

Leaping off a social norm is always interesting, and I expect many moments of insight during #bloginstead. The first? It’s striking that the primary expressed emotion among the group is RELIEF. Blogging is slower than Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, and it’s deeper. And at least for now, it’s beautifully free of the death spiral of insanity we see daily online. I know not every blogger is sane, but the group intentionally communing for #bloginstead? All quite sane. Lovely. Articulate. Interesting.

Mechanics

The second thing that struck me was my own awkwardness at getting around to see all of the participating blogs. It’s been a while since I did this, and the participants are on several different platforms. Makes me realize how I’ve adapted to the one-finger scroll on social. That awkward feeling is just the brain stretch of releasing one habit and looking to build another. No problem.

Food for Thoughts

Yes, that was a typo at first – “thoughts” – but then I left it because it fits. Already, just a few hours into #bloginstead, the experience itself and the posts and comments have spurred a host of ideas, questions, introspections, speculations. Perhaps that’s the natural result of any step outside routine. Or it could be that this platform – which was intended to help you WRITE – is naturally more conducive to THOUGHT than the frenetic anxiety scroll in which we usually indulge. It’s too soon to draw conclusions, so I’m planning to enjoy the wondering.

If failure was impossible

UPDATE: Please note that we have 2 new members of our group, and 2 current members with a new address: New members are Amanda at https://emberings.com/ and Susan at https://kindlerofjoy.com/ and Matthew’s new address is http://vespersinvienna.com/index.html and Catherine’s new address is http://eventhinealtars.home.blog .

It’s Day 1 For REAL of #bloginstead, so now I can dream up interesting things to talk about with this friendly group of people who are spending these 3 days communicating with one another ONLY on our blogs.

So ask yourself this: if it was not possible for you to fail at anything, what would you choose to do with your life? What would your career be if you knew going in that every choice you made along the way would be the right choice? What if all your plans would be flawless and smoothly implemented? What would you do if you really could do ANYTHING?

The last day of 2019

This moment has little in common with the year that preceded it. It’s quiet. I have no immediate responsibilities, and I’ve had enough sleep for several days. The writer in me has relaxed into a daydreaming creative. Gratitude and peace are vying for space in my heart.

As always, I reserve this space for reflection on only those aspects of my personal life that directly manifest in my writing life, so I will not be journaling the events of this year. They were many, and more than once, they were life-changing. But I learned from them, and I’m glad of that.

In my writing life, I broke into two new genres! First, board books. It began with Piggy in Heaven, and then I got a contract for a second board book (due out in 2021), and a third is about to be contracted for August 2020. Three board books, three different publishers. Happy dance!

I love board books! I love writing stories that will be illustrated. I don’t think that will ever get old – hooray for illustrators! And I love the solid cardboard pages. I remember that board books are often teething toys, and this makes me smile. Little hands, dimply cheeks, wide eyes. God bless them every one.

My second burst into a new genre is a book I wrote with a group of friends. That in itself is unexplored territory, but the genre – a devotional journal – is also new to me. I’m looking forward with curiosity and wonder to the Fall 2020 release of Seven Holy Women, from Ancient Faith Publishing.

The third Sam and Saucer book took shape this year. I just sent in my revisions. The name of this one is still evolving, but it’s due out in July 2020. It’s interesting, to me at least, to look back to the scratch papers scrawls, the short story, the collection of short stories, the day we abandoned the collection, and the birth of that first book, Shepherding Sam. At first, I thought that was the only book. But the second – The Barn and the Book – came quickly, and its release in Romania was another highlight of 2019. I was sure there would be only two Sam and Saucer books. My editor said she thought there might be three. No, I said, just two. But maybe there are three, she persisted. Well, maybe. Actually, yes. It turns out there are three, and now I have learned not to decide how many books are in a series, because what do I know?

This was the year of audiobooks, too. Shepherding Sam and The Barn and the Book are now both on Audible, and with the gifted help of actress Sophia Boyer, so is Letters to Saint Lydia!

And now. I’ve lived too long with my wild brain and my busy life and my acceptance of the many twists and turns in the Great Plotline to make plans for 2020 in the ways I might have once. I do have hopes. I hope I write often. I hope there will be board books. I hope there will be many spacious hours adrift in the middle-grade novel I began this year. I hope I photograph our corgi doing one of the zillion adorable things he does, all the time, when I can’t reach my phone.

God bless and keep you!

Image: Clock, Grand Central Terminal, New York City, Bryce Barker on Unsplash

Wishful Thinking on Independence Day

Close up of the American Flag

On this 4th of July, I am pondering the complexity of military service and national identity. As with many human conditions, the outward show of military life is a fraction of its meaning. Because they are the “instruments of foreign policy,” service members are held up as symbols of what is most loved and hated by proponents of various ideologies in our country. They live on the receiving end of assumptions that are more often based on emotion than information.

The crux of military service is an existence that would be unnecessary in a perfect world. Armed forces are the painfully tangible proof that human beings do not treat each other as they should. Many would argue that July 4th is not a military holiday. It is the commemoration of our birth as an independent nation. At some level, we all rebel against the idea that this independence is impossible without military force.

Military life teaches you to engage what IS. You won’t last long clinging to what you WISH would be. Military life is predicated on the understanding that you control far less of your reality than a civilian does. But it also reveals the truth that civilians control far less than they wish to. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that evil is both totally unnecessary and extremely powerful. Stand in that space for a few minutes today – the space in which you know that evil could be stopped if enough good choices were made, and in which you also know that actual human beings, many of them, would rather die than make those choices.

 

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

Things that Make Me Happy

Last night, I stood in my front yard, looking up. Through the black lace of branches, I saw stars. I traced a constellation, then another. It was a perfect thing – the earth, the tree, the deep midnight blue mystery, and the stars.

All around me are so many things that I love but don’t always notice. They’re like the colors sliding past in a kaleidoscope. Today, I’m taking a moment to focus the lens of my inward eye and see them in detail.

What makes me happy?

The textured plaster swirls on my living-room wall.

Raspberries picked from the prickly bush, still warm from afternoon sun.

The corgi mischief in my dog’s face when he glances back at me over his shoulder.

The touch of book pages on my fingers. Especially the old ones, thick and slightly stiff.

Babies.

Good lettuce. Fresh, crisp, still tasting of the garden.

The clicking sound of rapid typing.

The scent of jasmine tea.

Lilacs in bloom. I will swerve off the sidewalk and sniff the blossoms in a stranger’s yard. I love lilacs.

Shoes that fit well.

Gazing out of windows. Almost any window. House window, classroom window, car window, office window. Windows!

Daydreaming.

Writing the whole story, all the way to the end.

Walled gardens. But it must be a proper garden – full of old-fashioned flowers, old trees, a bench or two, a fountain, winding paths – an a proper wall of moss-grown stones with a path along the top that you may run along to the village, if you choose.

Reading in bed, by lamplight.

My glasses! They are miraculous, I think. Eyes for my eyes.

Baking bread. I love it all – stirring, kneading, and the wonderful warm yeasty aroma of it baking and coming fresh from the hot oven. Crusty joy.

Warm water indoors, and summer rain outdoors. I love rain – the scent of it in the air, the sound of it on the roof, the shimmer, the way it soaks away into the thirsty earth.

Going to wash the dinner dishes when your hands are cold. See above, re: warm water.

Small friendly herbivores, wild or tame. I love little creatures with bright eyes and tiny paws.

Opening the box of author copies and holding my newly published books for the first time. This is an enchantment that will never grow old. Worlds within worlds, coming from imagination into being.

What makes you happy?

 

Photo by Marian May on Unsplash