Sabbath

How to Grow A Sabbath:
A Lesson for Spiritual Gardeners

To grow a healthy sabbath you need fertile ground.
The ground you seek may not be immediately visible.
Keep looking. Often, you will find it, moist and waiting,
beneath a frozen layer.
Once it is exposed to light and warmth, it is ready
to be seeded.

Plant the seed of waiting. Step aside from your path.
Appreciate.
Hear the calls of the sea, the sand and the sky.
Take the time to touch the grasses,
the moss, tiny shells. Feel the wind.
Raise your eyes to the clouds, the birds,
the particular slant of the light.
.

Plant the seed of resting. Still your mind. Still your body.
Avoid accomplishing.
Expose your heart. Share love and comfort with all the
creatures who enrich your life.
Close your eyes and remember who you are–
a child of God. A miracle.
No more than other lives, but no less, either.

Plant the seed of embracing creation. Gaze softly.
Look deeply into the center of life. Connect.
Touch with gentleness and wonder.
Settle into your place in the web of existence.

Plant the seed of feasting on beauty. Nourish
your senses, your heart, your imagination.
In the natural world, while beauty abounds,
perfection is scant.
Cultivate your vision.

Once planted, feed these seeds with your attention. Soak them often with living waters. Expose them daily to the warmth of the Spirit. When sprouted, these seeds grow into strong practices that nurture, and honor, all of life.

Red bird, red bird, what do you see?

Whiteout winter world
Where powdered pine boughs bend
Resplendent, with tiny, twinkling flakes,
Red flier, turns his tail to winter wind.
Aloft, lined up on grey roof shingles, he holds–
Aileron at ready.
Now “Clear”,
in sudden, shining, sunlit sparkles, his true configuration comes confirmed.
Not flier there, lined up to wait,
but bright red leaf–iced and parked, in tie-down on the shingles.

It was all over the internet recently, and as neuroscientists tried to solve the puzzle it posed, they abandoned the work that had brought them together at a large convention to debate it–The Dress: Was it blue or white? Was its trim black or gold? Or, perhaps some other color, entirely? It was impossible to find consensus. Each person who saw it, saw it differently. Like the picture book by Bill Martin Jr., quoted in my title, what we see is influenced by more than our rods and cones. What we see is shaped by what we know, or what we have experienced, or even by our attitudes and assumptions. Often, what we see is what we’re looking for–like the cardinal I was certain had alighted on my neighbor’s roof at the end of a daylong snow storm! I needed to know that wild creatures had survived such bitter cold weather, and so I saw a sign–the cardinal on the roof. So if it’s true that we see what we want to find, how might we train ourselves–and our eyes, both inner and outer–to see not the darkness and turmoil that abound, but the true light that is surrounding us and all of this world? I suggest that it is the heart that is the key to this kind of seeing. When we can go beyond the physical–beyond seeing with our eyes–to seeing from our emotional center, possibilities open. This kind of vision allows an imaginative response to events, or to people, or to information, that may precede their transformation. Thus a painful story becomes a vehicle for healing. A tragic loss may open way for a larger gift. A person from another culture may help us to re-think our own. The transformation that occurred when I looked at that simple, red leaf and it became–in my eyes–the sole avian survivor of snow-pocalypse offered me laughter and hope, especially once I realized the true nature of my vision. Since then, I have become more conscious of the necessity of seeing the world imaginatively. It is imagination that may open way for growth and change. And while it takes work to do this, I believe it is work worth doing. Imaginatively transforming darkness with light is essential to seeing the sacred nature of all of life and is, most certainly, the work of the heart.

Holy Companion

In a vacant lot near my home, a single tulip bloomed each spring. As the snow melted, my father and I would drive slowly by looking for it. When at last we spotted its brilliant red flower among the weeds, we rejoiced. To us, that was the moment spring returned. When I asked my father how the tulip came to bloom there, in such an unfriendly place, he told me, with a shrug, “God knows.”

I now know that either an animal or a bird had probably stolen a tulip bulb from someone’s garden and dropped into the middle of that overgrown thicket. But as a young child, it was a miracle to find that bright red tulip blooming in solitary splendor in that vacant lot!

I still experience the Spirit in the natural world. The Holy is closest when I am outside: on the trails I run, on the rocks I climb, in my garden. The breath of the Holy is like the wind: too strong and too unruly to be contained in a building, moving everything and bringing abundant life everywhere—even in a vacant lot.

I value my spiritual community for its fellowship, and for being a place where I can hear and be heard, but it is in the woods or the mountains, at the seaside or in the desert, where I sense the presence of my Holy companion, and where I am filled with reverence.

Place

Autumn rain bows flower heads

Like mine–a prayerful moment shared,

Walking home from church.

My seaside flower garden looks a little ragged now. The lush, pink profusion of summer blossoming is reduced to a dwindling swarth of green and brown. The echinacea, the foxglove, the primrose and the campion have dropped their petals in favor of forming seed pods. But the roses bloom on.

Lulled by late summer sunshine and warm breezes from the south and sheltered by an ancient apple tree in a corner of the back garden, the roses don’t seem to know that it is, officially, autumn. Their scarlet petals remain as a brilliant reminder of the summer just passed.

These roses, strong climbers with thick canes supported by a sagging white trellis, have bloomed in this spot for over forty years. Planted by a previous generation–a professor and his wife now in their eighties—the roses have been lovingly nurtured ever since by caring hands. Despite their age and the challenge of the volatile New England–if-you-don’t-like-the-weather-wait-a-minute climate–they thrive here.

Eighteen months after hurricane Katrina had laid waste to the Crescent City, evidence of the storm’s devastation was still widely visible. In New Orleans as a volunteer librarian assisting with the clean up and reopening of neighborhood libraries, my early morning walk to work took me through a boarded over neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain. As I turned a corner, I came upon a single, white flower anchored firmly in a crack in the sidewalk. It’s hopeful presence caused my eyes to prick with unexpected tears.

With energy and concern, with care and love, many of us had come to New Orleans to share strength and hope with the residents there who had been left without much of either. But nothing we did or said as volunteers could bring the kind of hope found in the sight of that single flower. In spite of all the debris, all the broken promises, the lack of food and housing, this flower thrived. Did this mean that the people could thrive again, too? Did this somehow explain their unwillingness to leave for a less volatile climate?

Places root us. In an age where we are urged to give up our specific places to become citizens of global space, it is difficult to find those who will admit to the importance of this very particular attachment to their place. Despite urgings to the contrary, a sense of rootedness and connection to place calls us to stay still, even when the urge to flee is more powerful.

Despite icy winters and rocky ground, the roses bloom in Maine in October. Despite the lack of resources and support, those visited by disasters in cities like New Orleans remain and rebuild. In this way, each life expresses a deep and authentic attachment to a particular ground called home.

Great Marsh

Cape Cod–perhaps first visited by Vikings, but certainly by Nathaniel Gosnold–who named it for the abundance of cod fish in its waters–sits on the eastern edge of the state of Massachusetts. In the center of this peninsula that juts 60 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, lies the town of Barnstable. On Barnstable’s northern boundary is a barrier beach known as Sandy Neck. Sandy Neck is a crooked finger of land attached precariously to the rest of the Cape by a narrow joint, separating Barnstable’s working harbor from the sea. A bit over 100 acres of Sandy Neck is made up of a boggy, grassy ecosystem called The Great Marsh.

Summer at the Great Marsh is bleached white on the ground and faded blue overhead. Tiny cottages weathered gray by the salt air, are strung like beads along the road to Neck, their shutters flung open as if to offer conversation, their sun-bleached white curtains blowing in breeze like a blond’s sun-bleached tresses. Rosa rugosa grows along the roadside and clumps of Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susan fill the fields. Oak and sumac are here, their growth stunted by the winter storms off the Atlantic. You share the winding approach to the Neck with a corps of beach-goers, called by the sun and the smell of salt air to head for the sea.

Winter here is steel gray clouds and a strong easterly wind that takes your breath–as if you had fallen on your back off a swing. Deserted now, the cottages are void of speech. They sit, silent, anchored on their sandy cushions, as if in meditation. The roses are past their bloom. In their place, the sumac explodes red and the dune grasses wave in the wind. The foot traffic is lighter. Instead of beach goers and sun-seekers, there are bike riders and hikers. They are headed for the trails through the Great Marsh.

Entering the Great Marsh trails from the parking lot at Sandy Neck, it doesn’t take long before it seems as though the rest of Cape Cod has vanished. The cedar trees wrapped with hanging vines, the huge dunes that hug the trail on either side, evoke the feeling that you have gone through a portal into a small, hidden kingdom apart from the rest of the Cape.

No houses are visible from the trails. No people either. Beach sparrows flit over your head, calling their territorial songs. Higher up, gulls and osprey circle over the sea, looking for fish. The coyote lives here. Several large packs are sustained by the Marsh ecosystem, as well as by forays into surrounding neighborhoods where cats and small dogs are their favored prey. The coyotes are shy and nonaggressive with humans.

Late afternoon in the Marsh brings with it a special quality of light. It is the setting sun reflected upon the acres of deep green marsh grass that gives this light its luminous aura. Walking here in late afternoon, the light seems both to illuminate and to obscure. Shafts of blinding brightness penetrate each moving shadow, as if the movement is celestially choreographed.

Leaving the trails to enter into the Great Marsh is not encouraged. Nesting boxes for Northern Harrier and Osprey are placed there. Human proximity makes these raptors less likely to breed. Those compelled to venture off trail find thick grass, about three feet high, with the texture of scouring pads. Deep gray muck is under that. If your foot sinks into the muck, it can be difficult to extract. Once the Marsh gets you in its grip, it lets you go only reluctantly.

Tinkers Lane

This morning, I walk through the shriveled vegetation that is the evidence of autumn’s first frost, down to the end of Tinkers Lane. It is just daylight when I close my heavy, outer door and leave the comfort of my kitchen for the semi-darkness outside. My sleep the previous night has been filled with wild, disjointed images of my early life here on the island. When I wake up, I decide to head to the place those dreams portrayed. My morning walks are a routine and, even in the cold pre-dawn, I relish them.
Tinkers Lane runs east off the main road to town. You need not come very far in before you are completely enclosed by tall spruces, forming a wall around you that obliterates all light. Even at noon in summer, the lane is shaded and cool. This morning, in early October, it is blue-black dark. Still, I know the way well enough that I don’t need the light, and I halt only briefly at a sharp cry that comes from the woods. Raccoons, likely. Not after me, just the windfall apples from the long abandoned trees lining the lane.
As I reach the rocky shore at the end of the lane, the sun stretches itself above the blurred line of the horizon. It’s overcast this morning, in advance of a hurricane moving up the coast, and sunrise is less than spectacular. Still, I watch for a while, enjoying the calm, silver-grey water, and the gulls and terns circling for their breakfast–inhaling the scent of spruce mixed with salt from the bay. Soon, I decide to head home to my coffee and the breaking of my own fast.
I have been to the end of Tinkers Lane many times. The lane is not more than a quarter mile from the house where my paternal grandparents lived when I was a child–the house where I often visited them. Tinkers was within the area we were allowed to roam in those earlier, innocent days of our childhoods–before children were snatched off the streets and adults everywhere–even on a small Maine island–became the frightened and watchful people we are now. But in all the times I have been this way, I have never noticed the dilapidated building, set on the rocks, hidden just beyond the end of the Lane. Seeing it now, I am reminded of its appearance in my dreams, last night. I have the sense that I have been called to come here this morning.
I am drawn, often, to those things others have discarded. Whether the thrift store table, the plants left in the community compost heap, the stray animal, or this abandoned building, I feel compelled by their condition to offer shelter, nurturance and/or rehabilitation, to that which others find undesirable.
Approaching this small, deteriorating, structure, I find it covered with lichen–growing yellow-gold against the greyed cedar shingles on the exterior. Windows and roof are intact, but the dirty window glass and peeling blue paint on the shutters and the door let me know that no one has been regularly caring for this place.
I wonder if its owner has died, or is simply no longer able to make the walk down the lane. I have no way of knowing, of course. But, wanting to discover what I can, I try the door. Happily, as I lift the thumb latch, and pull it gently toward me, the door yields. Standing on the large piece of granite set as a step, I peer into the dim interior.
The shafts of light from the windows are filled with dust motes, swirling in the air. Along the whitewashed walls hang coils of rope, buoys, and oars. Traps meant to catch lobsters are stacked on the floor. These are wooden traps, not the plastic-coated metal ones in use now, so I know that this equipment is from at least twenty years ago. I can see that no one has used it for a long time. I wonder about the fisherman who owned this place and why he never came back. I pray, silently, that it was not misfortune that kept him away.
I think about how often we abandon what is worn and well used in favor of what is pristine and new. The equipment stored here is in good repair–recently painted buoys, neatly mended nets–and tells me that the fisherman who owned this place took pride in the tools of his trade. I feel he would not have simply abandoned them to acquire shiny, new replacements meant to be housed in a new place.
I want to wash the dirty windows and sweep the floor clean, but although it’s unlocked, I feel that entering the building would be akin to trespassing. I decide against going inside. Offering a silent blessing to both the building, and its prior occupant, I shut the door gently and turn for home.

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Peace

This skyline isn’t defined by a row of tall buildings or a range of mountain peaks, but rather by a jagged line of tall spruce trees, standing straight against the sky. Approaching this coast in a boat, you are most aware of, and concerned with, the rocks that are your obstacles and your landing places. But when you see this coast up close, on foot or on a bicycle, you soon realize that you are surrounded by forest! It’s the best of both worlds, living in a forest by the sea.
This far north, native deciduous trees are few. There is no flowery, exuberant laurel to punctuate the springtime. There is no brilliantly colored oak or maple to light up the fall. The white birch is one of the few deciduous trees to thrive and is clearly at home here among nature’s minimalist architecture. It offers soft contrast to the simple starkness of the spruce–green-black needles, smooth bark and sculptural form.
Today, morning fog clings to the rocks from which the trees grow, making them seem suspended, very slightly, above the earth, detached, floating. Just the opposite of their usual rooted integrity.
The shapes of the spruces and the leafless white birch seem honed by a razor until all the extraneous bits have been skillfully removed. Revealed is the beauty to be found in the unadorned, the pure and simple. In the way that the structure of the haiku makes the poem appear, the structure of the forest, with its simple contrast of colors and textures, can remind us what lies beneath our own surface.
Many religious traditions encourage us to strip away the inessential in a quest to reveal the soul within. To be found there is our truest nature, our essential self, an image of God. There are many ways to hone our soul and to release it from its outer cover: prayer, meditation, spiritual friendships, crisis, calamity, falling in love, having a child. However we manage to do it, stripping away the mask of self is a lifetime’s work.
It’s a blessed, peaceful presence that the spruces offer. Lifting eyes to the skyline brings awareness of the the ground upon which we stand, and of the the timelessness of it. Grounded and enveloped, you can center here and be drawn into the forest world. There is a world not of busyness, but of the still and intimate presence of God made plain by the profound beauty of these majestic trees, clean against morning’s silver sky.