Purification

Catharsis finds its best depiction in Greek myth and Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is never far from my experience. My eyes fill and my chest tightens each time Les Miserables’ Fantine sings, “Cosette, it’s turned so cold. Cosette, it’s past your bedtime.” And romantic that I am, catharsis can occur as I read books not quite equal to Greek tragedy, like Moyes’ Me Before You. And knowing the sad ending, I still chose to rent the movie. Catharsis—so good for my mind and heart.

Nature offers me moments of catharsis, a purification every bit as powerful as those times inside a book or theater. I have to “pull a geographical,” though, and move away from my own noise and my preoccupation with screens, big and little. What awaits me is the crunch of leaf beneath my feet, the flit of butterfly near my cheek, the feel of water cupped in my hand.

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Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

William Butler Yeats

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Two weeks ago, I traveled from Hillsboro to central Oregon and the Metolius River. The cabin that two of us shared was a small space (we washed dishes in the bathroom sink), but the setting was exactly what the sign above the door promised: serenity. No Wi-Fi and no phone service meant that the main sound came from the river, no more than thirty feet from our cabin’s picture window. How many hours did I spend mesmerized by water, marveling at its ever-changing light and shadow, listening to a lullaby, both wild and soothing, that it sang through the night?

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For three nights and four days river purified me, released me from needless anxiety and silly fretting. Not quite the catharsis of an Oedipus, Othello, or Fantine, but I had the chance to sink briefly into a nature throbbing with life; into the rush of waters, into rebirth. Next year I will return to the woods, find a cabin called “Serenity,” and let the Metolius cool the inevitable fires raging inside my head.

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Attention

Remember Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fable of guileless children and preoccupied, inattentive adults? Remember what the narrator (so consumed with matters of consequence) learns from the tiny prince (so consumed about tending his rose)? And it is a single rose that lives on his planet, a rose who “chose her colors with the greatest care” and who did not “wish to go out in the world all rumpled, like the field poppies.” Certainly the fable is one of friendship, love, and loss of the unique, but what makes me smile is the depiction of the rose. How vain the flower is, how she expects to be protected, and how true to life Saint-Exupéry describes the tending of a rose.

HPIM0284Six years ago, I had my own rose bush, just outside the door. I cared for it: watched the leaves burn red and green, delighted in the new buds, breathed in the fragrance of the bush, clipped the flower just about the five leaf, pruned it knee-high in November, clipped it low, shaped like a basin, in February, and waited for the apricot surprise waiting every summer.

HPIM0283Years have passed and I have not cared for a single rose. Even though I live in an apartment complex, I was sure that management would give me permission to plant one outside my patio. The answer was “No.” I do understand. Like the flower of the little prince, roses demand attention. Then, in May, a young friend who was moving offered me a plant. “It will get better care with you,” she said. And she handed me a rose twig perfectly suited to the pot and the sunlight on my patio.

Over the months I have faithfully tended this tiny plant. And little by little she has flourished. Not yet ready to bloom, but so close, so close.

You’d think I would be content. Instead, I have walked the neighborhood noting rose bushes, the healthy ones peering from inside fences, the bedraggled ones hanging limp outside the yards.

IMG_1005A neighbor lady and I met one morning, a sad rose bush between us. As she watered her potted geraniums and golden zinnias, we talked about warm weather and our dogs and summer plants.

“What about this rose bush?” I asked.

“Not mine. It’s in the neighborhood’s common space.”

“I need a rose to tend.”

“You go for it.” she answered.

I clipped old blooms just above the five-leaf marker. New leaves burned a familiar green and red. Not having been tended for a while, the leaves had suffered insect nibbling and the bush was a bit on the shabby side. Gradually, though, the buds are coming, not in apricot tones, but in lipstick red.

IMG_1043I will fuss over my tiny roses and the larger cluster just two blocks away. There is a difference, however, between me and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. My patio rose and I may watch sunset traces and falling stars, but I cannot drag a lawn chair down the street. My neighbor, initially gracious and generous, would probably open her curtains, observe the scene outside her window, and judge me a bit obsessed, sitting in the dark, paying too close attention to a singular rose bush.

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Miss Manners

Not so long ago, individuals were expected to follow rules of etiquette. The courteous were welcomed in society because they displayed gracious manners, educated opinions, and the ability to listen to those with differing views. Crass or cruelbehavior had no place in polite society.

And in the canine upper-class world, Angel was expected to excel in social graces. After all, she possessed papers verifying her noble Shih Tzu bloodlines. But because she is only human—whoops, canine—she had to learn the hard way how to navigate in the big, bad world.

Rule # 1: With a patient strategy, the domineering can be redeemed.

In the beginning, Darla, a huge lab, considered Angel and her leash as dog toys. One tug and Angel turned biblical: “Wherever you go, I will go, too.” Darla, though, was just a gentle giant. If Angel didn’t resist, Darla lost interest. The gist of this story (the little and big of it), is that the two became good friends.

Rule # 2: In matters of war and peace, the former gets you riled and the latter helps you sleep.

Somewhere around eight months, Angel decided to assert herself—a behavior she carries to this day. No one would treat her like a stuffed toy. She scampered around so fast that humans thought petting her was akin to chasing a squirrel. Playing hard and wild taught Angel an additional truth: too much exertion ends in collapse. Out of self-preservation she settled for a more non-confrontational posture.

Rule # 3: Sharing is essential to the common good.

Oh, but generosity has never come easily to this eight-and-a-half-pound pup. She prefers her own toys and her own company. How simple that would have been if she were the only dog, but for ten years she has lived in a household of visiting dogs and adoptive siblings, so she has no choice but to share. And the meeting place is the living room dog bed. 

Rule # 4: Sometimes the one so different from us becomes the greatest treasure.

Of all the dogs in Angel’s life, her best buddy was a big, gangly, scruffy mutt named Josie. By appearances, they would have seemed a strange pair, but what a bond. No matter that one was a breeder’s darling and the other a cast-off, or that Angel’s hair was silky beige and white and Josie’s was wiry black and gray. So different, so linked, such faithful friends, content to share time and cushion. When, after twelve years of life, Josie began to fail, Angel refused to leave her side.

The other day I sang along with Anne Murray’s “Sure Could Use a Little Good News Today.” So often, the world’s anger knocks the wind out of me, and then I look at Angel’s funny face and I laugh. Miss Manners? Maybe not all the time, but just enough. If creatures, through instinct, can curl up with those four rules, if animals can give and take and make friends with those different from them, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Feet First

 

The publication of my book was only the beginning. The hard part for me is the trek into marketing. When Seuss promised, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, he described my experience from first to last.

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Congratulations!
Today is your day.

The journey began with a celebration at my cousin’s home in the Oakland Hills of California. I had memorized my thirty-minute presentation and outfitted myself in black-and-white with super-cool sandals. Surely I fit the description:

Your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet

My audience, in turn, was a group Seuss would recognize in a minute as both brainy and footsy. The Q & A brought forth stories and questions of spiritual journeys and nun memories, of the 1960’s power and disillusionment, of promises made and kept and broken, and of the desire for something greater than ourselves.

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At Ashland’s Bloomsbury Books and All Saint’s Church Hall in Portland, I felt like the high fliers Seuss describes. Whispering Winds and Forest Grove’s 55+ communities welcomed me. The audience at Cortland Village Apartments preferred discussion to snacks. What a surprise to reconnect with high school classmates, former students, Franciscan friends, and my family, both immediate and extended. But the seduction of success tricked me into claiming Seuss’ tongue-in-cheek lines:

You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

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Except when they don’t.
because, sometimes, they won’t.

Ah, well to remember Seuss’ advice and make my way through the rubble. Among the bricks and mortar, though, I end up having to wait. Maybe, just maybe, book sales will rise; book reviewers will call; Amazon, Goodreads, and The Oregonian will praise my memoir. And those contests I entered? First place is too much to expect, but wouldn’t it be nice to be among the chosen ten?

In the meantime I need a head full of brains and shoes full of feet. One last admonition (a variation on the good Doctor’s words) as I practice my talks, don my paisley, and pull on my leather boots:

Be careful, nimble, and cleverly deft
so you’ll never mix up right foot from left.

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Oh, the Places I’ll Go:

  • July 9: Laurel Parc at Bethany
  • July 18: Mary’s Woods, Marylhurst
  • August 17: Art Accelerated Gallery, Tillamook
  • September 9: Beaverton Lodge Retirement Community
  • September 12, Book Group, Portland
  • September 22: Hillsboro Library Book Fair
  • October: St. Mary’s Academy Creative Writing Classes

Falling

IMG_0762-1Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.

yin-yangSadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.

As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.

IMG_0844 (1)I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.

Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.

Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.

IMG_0690 (2)I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:

If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.

Undercover

After reading Cullen Murphy’s delicious Cartoon CountryMy Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, I was once again in the good company of “Prince Valiant” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” One cartoon I do not want to forget is that of Calvin trying to convince a skeptical Hobbes that his flimsy report will be a winner. Calvin’s secret weapon is what no teacher can resist: a clear plastic binder cover.

Oh, how I would have longed for such a simple solution to my cover dilemma for Far from Home. Sure that I had a designer eye, I notified my awesome FUZE editor Molly Best Tinsley that I would be sending sample covers. I looked at photos of roads leading away into the distance, of a cross far away in a meadow. I experimented with symbols for God, for flight, for adventure, and for redemption. What resulted was a product which I was sure, like Calvin and his plastic cover, no one browsing Powell’s or Barnes & Noble, could resist.

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I sent it first to a writer friend, sure of her accolades. She was quick to respond. “Toni, this cover has every possible cliche: bird, spire, sun. I would immediately summarize the plot: ‘Errant Woman Returns to the Faith.’ I would never buy this book.”

I read her email and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I still chuckle each time I think of that response. My friend possesses the gifts an aspiring writer needs: humor, honesty, and wisdom—a Hobbes to my Calvin. Crossing that cover off my list, I looked critically at my other etchings and admitted I was out of my depth.

Enter Ray Rhamey from “Flogging the Quill.” He works with FUZE authors and is a designer, teacher, and author. With utmost patience, he sent me numerous designs of woodland paths, an open window, a door and garden gate ajar. None of these seemed to fit the memoir.

When he asked, “What do you envision as the central theme of the book?” I thought immediately of my childhood and of the Lindberg’s Heilege Schutzengel painting that had hung above my bed.

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Ray liked the theme of youthful adventurers but thought the image too childlike. What he did send were five more designs of “on the move,” but it was the woman stepping across river stones that caught my attention. Ray, creative man, shaped the title to mirror the reflection, and he extended the rocks into a wrap-around affect from front to back.

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Calvin wanted his teachers to say “Wow!” That is the factor which generous, noted authors Shirley Abbott and Kim Stafford lent. Their words of praise not only complete the cover story, but begin the tale contained inside.

The book jacket is more than Calvin’s plastic cover. What I am hoping for is not to fool a reader, but to offer an invitation. Pick up the book, hold it in your hand. Like Abbott and Stafford, move beyond the jacket’s limited tale and travel undercover into where a new story, mysterious and slippery as river stones, awaits.

Loops

Two weeks ago, I had a reading in Bend to promote my book, Far from Home. One of the side excursions was a trip to the Old Mill District, located along the Deschutes River. Two hundred plus acres that were once occupied by lumber mills are now a beautifully landscaped mixed-use area of historic buildings, new galleries, shops, and restaurants. This Old Mill District sculpture in the perfect visual definition of loop: a structure or process where the end is connected to the beginning.

That has been my experience, not only of writing my memoir, but also sharing my personal journey with audiences in Oakland, Ashland, Portland, and Bend. It is the experience of retracing steps from here to there and back again, seeking what T.S. Eliot promised in “Little Gidding,” that we will journey and “arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” For me it has been an exploration of my novitiate years, touching old photographs and old letters to come in contact with who I was, what forces shaped me, and how I remain the same.

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Toni cheerleading 3 (4)What these photos and documents remind me is that there is nothing quite like the idealism of the young who cheer life with colored pompoms; that memories let us walk in a childhood landscape that Rebecca Mead speaks of in My Life in Middlemarch. She writes that this enthusiasm is not a desire to return to an earlier time or wish life had been different, but to appreciate the waters from which we came and along which we travel.

I needed that trip to Bend, to walk along the Deschutes and look at nature’s loops. So, I am grateful for a trek around the river, wildflower and pine cone designs, and that lucky connection I wrote about on Facebook—a woman who remembered the joy of cheerleading over a half-century ago. My circular path resembles that of T.S. Eliot, once again:

Pinecone BendThrough the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

—Little Gidding

Entry

The lovely entrance to the home of my niece Andrea Bigcraft is a metaphor for the welcome I have experienced during these weeks of promoting my memoir Far from Home. The doors of family and friends have opened wide in Oakland, California, Ashland and Portland, Oregon. It is the hospitality Judy Collins celebrates in “Song for Judith”: “Open the door and come on in.”

My love for doors did not just arrive because of a published book. Entrances are both works of art and a way to learn about treasures inside. Below are my door photos from travels to Denmark’s Kronberg Slot, better known as Hamlet’s Castle, and a building in Riga, Latvia.

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Years ago, Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, literature scholar and extraordinary educator, introduced me to the theme of hospitality. We studied Greek myths, like The Odyssey and the story of Philemon and Baucis (so similar to the angel story in Genesis 19). A poor couple welcomes into their home Jupiter and Mercury, the gods disguised as weary travelers. Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Oost depicted the story in art, but this engraving caught my eye.

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There is no beautiful door leading into the cottage, simply a wooden structure meant to keep out the cold, but open to pilgrims. “Come on in,” Baucis and Philemon say. “Share our fire, fruit, eggs, and wine.”

Nancy Haught’s wise and wonderful Sacred Strangers explores the same theme of open doors in Scripture. The universal lesson is this: welcome others into your home because you never know if and when you will be in the presence of the Divine. And the way in is through a door.

Doors Frick (2)If I had my preference, entries would possess carvings, color, and beauty, but more importantly, there would be someone on the other side ready to turn the knob and share hospitality, like Andrea. Judy Collins’ song continues, “I’m so glad to see you, my friend.”

So here I come, full circle, to where I started with my Facebook post, outside the splendid woodwork of the Frick Museum doors, sure that welcome and beauty are right across the threshold.

 

Lean In

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On a sunny day in Redding, California, the magnificent Sundial Bridge tilted in greeting. Santiago Calatrava’s design is a glass-decked wonder, 217 feet high. That day the Sacramento River glimmered into a diamond-flecked waterway, and I was awed by the bridge’s 710 foot span across the water.

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Often we hear of “intentional slant” as partisans bicker, but crossing Sundial has little to do with politics. What a phenomenon to have a creation meant to tilt one way or the other. There are plenty of architectural designs that had no intention of ending in a slant. Tourists bemoan the leaning of Bologna’s Garisenda Tower and London’s Big Ben. The listing often occurs in foundation issues, soft ground, or unexpected geological faults.

In direct contrast are the intentional slants of The Gate of Europe in Spain and the Nationale-Nederlanden in Prague—the latter referred to as “Fred & Ginger.”

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Architects know that tilt offers fluidity, natural light, dancing movement, and shading.

Calatrava, in his design for the world’s largest working sundial, takes the knowledge one step further. Telling time is as old as our first ancestors watching the sun rise and the sun set. The irony of the sundial is not that people stared endlessly into the sun, but that they studied shadows, and that is what his creation does: casts shadows on a large dial plate and into the nature garden—the gradual ticking of nature’s clock.

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Emily Dickinson wrote about the tilt of life which applies to poets and architects and travelers across a bridge:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

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Anticipation

The awe and surprise on my sister Mary’s face came not only from the possibility of an adventure, but the magic of riding high in the saddle. That little girl, captured forever in Kodak images, is a sure bet to elicit smiles and laughter.

The photo is also a symbol for expectation. Perfect for right now, for isn’t anticipation what we celebrate during days of Passover, Springtime, and Easter?

 

The Festival of Freedom, April’s flowering dogwoods, and the Resurrection tell and retell familiar stories. Passover commemorates God’s people breaking free of enslavement. Spring discovers new nests in the crotch of a tree. Easter celebrates the risen Christ. Age-old traditions, arriving annually, encourage us to be like my sister Mary: clasp hands in anticipation and then sit high on Life.

One of my favorite poems is Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon.” These verses, humming with expectation, describe a similar passing from grief to joy, death to life, past to present:

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in the green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

tulipsToday, daffodils and tulips opened and birds ate from a grassy green table. Since Nature’s festivals of freedom and communion are in full celebration mode, I wish us (expectant children of the universe) Happy Passover, Happy Spring, Happy Easter.