The second week of National Poetry Month is dedicated to David Whyte, the poet, essayist, and speaker, who reignited my love of poetry almost two decades ago. I “studied” a fair amount of poetry for both my graduate and undergraduate degrees,  which I mostly neither cared for, nor truly understood. As a result, my early love for poetry faded away. But one day, I heard David Whyte speak at a conference and he rekindled the fire. In the midst of reading his poetry, he also preached a message about importance of bringing passion and commitment to your life and work. He lit a spark in me, which has become a flame that burns in me to this day. Here is that poem he shared.

“Sweet Darkness”

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

When I heard Whyte speak, I was in the midst of parenting three small children. While I would not have called my life “dark,” it had certainly gotten smaller, more noisy and chaotic. I had allowed so many voices into my head – culture, church, parent, spouse, children –  I had little idea what my own voice was saying. When Whyte repeated this line – over and over again:

Anything or anyone/ that does not bring you alive/ is too small for you.

something deep within me stirred and I recognized a truth I had not dared to speak, or even recognize. My life was too small and I was ready for this time of “confinement” to be over. Something new needed to be born – the fullness of me as a woman in her own right, not simply as a wife and mother. I shared these lines of Whyte’s poetry with Tim Kirkpatrick and he met me there, convinced as I was that “the world was made to be free in.” It has been a sweet, sometimes lonely, and dark journey, but it has been worth it every step of the way.

What is too small for you right now?

Who is limiting your potential?

Where do you find yourself trapped instead of free?

Don’t be afraid to name whoever, or whatever arises as you ask these questions. It does not mean they are bad, or that you have to leave them, but it does mean you can start pushing against the boundaries, creating more freedom for everyone in the process.

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Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

While I certainly didn’t live up to my hopes of publishing every day during this first week of National Poetry Month, I more or less lived up to any reality-based expectations I had of myself. However, hope springs eternal, so if all goes well, I will be sharing a new poet with you tomorrow, (but it could be a day or two later)!

Late on this Sunday evening, I offer you some closing thoughts from Mary Oliver.

“To Begin With, the Sweet Grass: Part 7”

What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.

Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.

That was many years ago.

Since then I have gone out from my confinements,

though with difficulty.

 

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.

I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.

They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment

somehow or another).

 

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

 

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

 

This is a poet writing from a place of maturity, peace, and wisdom. She has struggled; she has grown; she has something to offer us. Do you know who is willing to take risks and be vulnerable by sharing all they know? Those who trust in their own value and their place in the world.  The poet has reached that stage and I am grateful for it.

This poem has found it’s way into my heart by alluding to so much spiritual (and scriptural) wisdom in whimsical language, and short sentences. They remind me of things I am just beginning to know.

Nothing is wasted. Everything belongs. Love your enemy as yourself. As your ego dies, you are reborn. You are important, but you aren’t important at all. Be light. Be free. Be Love.

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Photo by Jesse Zheng on Pexels.com

I hit my first snag, just two days in to National Poetry Month, but as a bonus, you get two Mary Oliver poems today. While nature continues to be her primary motif, the theme is slightly different. See if you can recognize what has shifted in her attitude.

“Foolishness? No. It’s Not”

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count

the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have

to climb branch by branch and write down

the numbers in a little book. So I suppose

from their point of view, it’s reasonable that

my friends say: what foolishness! She’s got

her head in the clouds again.

 

But it’s not. Of course I have to give up, but

by then I’m half crazy with the wonder of it

– the abundance of the leaves, the

quietness of the branches, the hopelessness

of my effort. And I am in that delicious and

important place, roaring with laughter, full

of earth-praise.

 

“Green, Green is My Sister’s House”

Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent way to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.

But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly.

I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and not want to go back.  So

if someday you can’t find me you might
look into that tree or—of course
it’s possible—under it.

 

Obviously, Oliver has been aroused to write about a completely different experience in nature. Instead of awe and reverence, the company of trees evokes a lightheartedness in the poet. She forgets any limitations put upon her by her age, her friends, or even her species and responds to the arboreal invitations with joyful enthusiasm. While I have little experience with any trees but palm trees, which are no good for climbing, I have a lot of experience with the emotions they bring about in her.

I cannot count the number of days I have spent at the beach “roaring with laughter” and “half crazy with the wonder.” From surfing with Tim and the kids, to rolling in the shore break with my siblings (when we were small and even just last year), to playing frisbee up to our knees in the waves, the effervescence of the waves seems to bubble up within me as well, producing an overflow of emotion. In those moments, held by the water and waves, the point of our existence together seems to be nothing but joy.

Oliver puts it so well: “I try to be good but sometimes/ a person just has to break out and/ act like the wild and springy thing/ one used to be. It’s impossible not/ to remember wild and not want to go back.”

What nature helps you remember your wild? Where do you find your inner child? What still leaves you breathless, laughing and aware of the absurdity of our overly-cultured and sanitized existence? When have you last gotten so “outside” your comfort zone that you giggled from the rediscovery of an original home ?

Oliver writes about more than just nature, which we will begin to explore tomorrow.

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Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

What I want to do this morning is run (away), so what I’m forcing myself to do is sit (still). I want to run away from the anxiety I feel about so many things, not the least of which are the fires raging here in California, the loss of life, home, habitat, and economy. There is also personal, marital, and professional grist for the mill of my unhappy mind, so I found myself doing what I often do on high stress days – (after sweeping of course). I started making a list of all the things I “have” to do today: errands, emails, the gym, banking, cooking, cleaning, but it’s total bullshit.  I don’t have to do any of it, but I would much prefer to do those things than to be present to the world’s pain, or my own. If I stay busy with what is “urgent” then I can ignore what is important.

Is a trip to Vons to buy juice boxes for Molly’s lunch more important than struggling with some life questions that might set me on a new path? Nope, but it’s way easier to check it off my list.

I don’t have to put it in such binary terms. I can do both kinds of things. I can work out, go grocery shopping, put in a half-day at Wavelines and have time for meditation, and journaling, but the temptation is to start checking things off the “urgent” list and never get to the end of it, and therefore never get to the things that are ultimately transformative and life-giving. For all the days I follow that pattern, a beautiful part of what it means to be human – to learn, to change, to grow in life and love – is lost. So today, I am starting with the prayer and meditation, with poetry and writing to all of you and I’ll get to rest later. (Tim, I’m going to be a little late getting to the shop today!)

Let me leave you with this thought.

I want to do something to ease the suffering of those affected by the California wildfires, but I’m too far away to be of any help personally. So I can donate some money, reach out to those I know are hurting and I can pray. I’m not sure exactly what good that last item does, but this poem by Alice Walker in her latest book, Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, has strengthened my resolve to keep at it.

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“The Energy of the Wave”

As a child I sensed

but did not

grasp

the power

of prayer.

It was my innocence

of the depths

that kept me unaware.

How could the passion of the heart

sent flying towards others

through humble words

change anything?

Or, rather,

what might this change?

 But prayer is an energy

that crosses mountains and deserts

and continents and seas

and is never stopped

nor even slowed

by anything.

It arrives

at its destination

as a blessing

that says: I feel – though it is but

a shadow of your sorrow –

the suffering

that has befallen

you.

Though far away,

you are securely cradled

 in the safety

of my heart.

I am but a droplet

in what must become

a vast sea

to create the big wave

that washes

away

whatever demons

are harming

you.

Prayer is the beginning: when

we don’t know

what else to do.

It is in this

spirit

of awareness and near impotence

beloved

kin

of butchered Africa

that we stand with you.

 

Walker dedicated this poem to the people of Africa, but I am confident in its universal application. So let us pray today for all the sorrows in all the hearts in all parts of the world, as far as we can imagine and as close as our own. Let our prayers be a droplet in a wave of compassion, generosity, forgiveness and mercy that this world so desperately needs.

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“A Voice from I Don’t Know Where”

It seems you love this world very much.

“Yes,” I said, “This beautiful world.”

 

And you don’t mind the mind, that keeps you

busy all the time with its dark and bright wanderings?

“No. I’m quite used to it. Busy, busy

all the time.”

 

And you don’t mind living with those questions,

I mean the hard ones, that no one can answer.

“Actually, they’re the most interesting.”

 

And you have a person in your life whose hand

you like to hold?

“Yes, I do.”

 

It must surely, then, be very happy down there

in your heart.

“Yes,” I said. “It is.”

 

Mary Oliver, “Moliver,” from  Felicity

On the first day of National Poetry Month, I knew this would be the poem I offered on the last day. Though there are other favorites from other poets, this was the note I wanted to end on. It is the last poem in Moliver’s collection, Felicity, as well, so I’d like to think I’m using it as the author intended, as a final summation and quiet reflection on her life. It’s a subtle poem, a simple series of questions and responses, but that’s what I like about it.

One of my favorite things about poetry is how gems like this one can slip by unnoticed on a first, second, or even tenth reading. Though I try not to collect books, (Tim may disagree), I tend to keep poetry around me. What I pass by one day, can bring me to tears on another. So if you find a poet, or a collection you like, keep it. Read it over a period of time: months, years, or decades even. It will always be new, because you are always new. One of my habits is to scribble the date on which I “fell in love” with a poem in the margin. I may not always be “in love” with it, but it honors the part of me that was and what I learned from it at the time.

I’ve heard from many of you that poetry is not your favorite, that you “don’t get it,” but that over the past month, these little reflections have helped you engage with it in a new way. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! Poetry can be challenging to read and difficult to understand, but most things worth our time are also challenging and difficult, and ultimately enrich our lives.

Marriage, parenting, family, community-building, spirituality, engineering, physics, politics – they matter and most of the time, we “don’t get it” right the first or second time, but we try again and again. Poetry is something I’ve added to that list of “worth my time,” as a meditative practice and calming influence at the end, or beginning of a busy day.  Here are some tips.

When I read it, I try not to get frustrated; I let it wash over me, once, twice, a third time.

What do I notice? What line do I like? What pushed me away? Is there even one thing I can understand?

And then I let it go. I will be drawn back to it, or not. No problem either way.

My favorite moment is when I realize that a poet, (though not every poet,) writing five years, decades, or even centuries ago, had access to my heart, which is of course the universal heart. Their hopes are my hopes; their fears my own. We are asking the same questions, celebrating the same joys and suffering the same losses. We are not so different after all and if nothing else, I hope this month of poetry showed you that.

 

 

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“Descending Theology: The Garden”

We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.
From Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr, poet, author, and adult convert to Roman Catholicism.
I began National Poetry Month with a poem taking place on Holy Thursday and thought I’d wrap up the month in that place as well. Tomorrow is the last day of the month and the final poem, at least for a while.
Mary Karr has a keen, realistic take on all things, even, or perhaps especially, the scriptures.  This is the third poem in a five-part series on “Descending Theology,” focusing on the “descent” of God into humanity, through the mystery of the Incarnation. Oh, how human Jesus appears in this moment! Isolated, disappointed, scared, resigned, and finally resolute.I think my favorite line is:

“The Father couldn’t/ intervene,/ though that gaze was never/ not rapt, a mantle around him.”

The use of the double negative, “never/not,” brings a laser focus to the wordplay that follows. “Rapt” is used as both an expression of God’s undivided focus on the beloved son and as a homonym for “wrapped,” the mantle of Divine love that held Jesus closely, even in this darkest and most desolate of hours. As a parent whose own children are beginning to leave the nest and face their own dark nights, I am “rapt” and they too are “wrapped.”
Perhaps this focused attention and love, “rapt/wrapped,” makes no practical difference, but it matters deeply to both the gazer and the receiver of the gaze. It is the pathway through which Love flows between them, sustaining each for another day, another task, another way of being in the world. Without the “rapt gaze,” the Resurrection never happens, not for Jesus and not for any of us.
Anyway, I pray that by the time I breathe my last, I too will be able to acknowledge that the goodness of my life, “was all mercy anyhow,/ unearned as breath” and “pray for pardon.”

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Photo by David Whyte

“Prayer for an Invitation”

I pray for you, world
to come and find me,
to see me and recognize me
and beckon me out,
to call me
even when I lose
the ability to call on
you who have searched
so long for me.

I pray to understand
the stranger inside me
who will emerge in the end
to take your gift.

I pray for the world
to find me
in its own wise way.

I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those I have
learned to love
and those
I must learn to love.

I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those I cannot
recognize
in my self-imposed
aloneness.

And
I pray to be wanted
and needed
by those
I wish to be
wanted by.

But I acknowledge
the power
of your beautiful
disguise, and I ask
for the patient heart
of all things
to understand
the abiding
fear I feel
in following
your unknown
ways,
in my
fear of receiving,
in my fear of
taking your hand,
in my fear
of following
your hidden,
difficult
and forever
beckoning
way.

“Prayer for an Invitation” from the newly published collection THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD

 

David Whyte, author, teacher and corporate consultant, is one of my favorite poets and philosophers, but not one easily included in this month-long collection. His poems are not the like the nature-based verse of “Moliver,” nor the lovely ruminations of Rumi, the humor of Hafiz, or even the accessible gravity of Rilke. His poetry is full of solitude, and melancholic soul-searching. But when I’m blue and don’t want to be cheered up, or am struggling with an inner question that will not be resolved easily, Whyte is the poet I reach for. Perhaps you can see why?

This is the type of prayer I can relate to, the type of prayer that often fills the pages of my morning journal. When I am moved to pray, it is never with a simple and direct request.  Anne Lamott, whose writing I adore, has said we only need three prayers: Help! Thanks! Wow! In other words, humility, gratitude and awe. But for wordy folk like myself and Whyte, those three words fall far short of expressing the complexity of our longing for the Divine, or the divine fullness of our own humanity.

I love how Whyte takes the time to articulate six different longings in the first six stanzas, direct prayers that require distinct acknowledgement. To pray, “I want to love and be loved,” is one thing, but to understand how your own shadow will avoid the recognition of that love is a greater gift that can lead to greater good.

After those first prayers, the poem turns, with the word “But.” Did you recognize it on first reading? Here, the narrator shifts to humble self-reflection, in essence saying, “I know I just asked for all those things – to be wanted, needed, loved – but now I’ll admit that my fear will be the very thing that will keep me from accepting the invitations you might send to answer my prayers.”

Why are we so afraid? Why do we so often refuse God’s invitations, even though they contain the very answers to our prayers?

For myself, I can only offer the words of another of my favorite teachers, Paula D’Arcy: “God shows up disguised as our lives,” a concept Whyte must be familiar with, proffering his own poetic version: “I acknowledge/ the power/ of your beautiful/ disguise.” We are afraid of strangers and strangeness, of walking blindly and opening our hands to receive, when we do not know what will be placed in our open hands.  But if we trust the Giver, God disguised as our lives, can we not trust the gift as well?

Obviously, I don’t have the answer that question, but poetry like Whyte’s asks me to reflect on it faithfully.

 

 

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“Shoveling Snow with Buddha”

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

 

Former Poet-Laureate, Billy Collins, is sometimes called a “people’s poet,” because he can write poetically about every day items like weighing your dog on the bathroom scale, a great osso bucco dinner, and a surreptitious review of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog, which landed in the mailbox with his wife’s name on it. (No, I’m not kidding, and even that poem made me smile with its sardonic wit and self-awareness.)

I was hoping to find a Buddhist poem to share with all of you, and that may still happen, but I ran across this poem by Collins and couldn’t resist it. To me, it is the perfect integration of lofty spiritual ideas and the drudgery of every day life. If one must shovel snow, what could be more sublime, or transcendent than shoveling snow with Buddha?  Clearly it transported Collins for several hours one morning while he completed what I can only assume is a truly onerous task.

The acronym, “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?) has graced bracelets and posters for a decade or more, but I never understood the appeal of that eponymous Christian question. When faced with a difficult dilemma, it makes far more sense to me to just ask him directly: “Jesus, what would you do?” Go directly to the source, so to speak.

I think Collins would share my impulse. If one has an unpleasant task, why not do it in the company of your hero? Why not draw near the master to watch and learn from a place of proximity and intimacy, instead of through the lens of distance, history and third-party interpretations?

Shoveling snow with Buddha taught Collins about patience, equanimity, silence, the satisfaction of a job well done and the simple pleasures of community, cards and chocolate. Obviously, that’s not all the Buddha has to teach him, but it’s certainly a place to start.

Who would you shovel snow with? Who would you like to spend a few hours with, engaged in a difficult, physical task? What might they teach you and how would you reward yourself afterwards?  It is the start of a weekend, so perhaps you’ll get the chance. 

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“On the Death of the Beloved”

Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you.

Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.

The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.

Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.

Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.

We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.

Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.

Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.

When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.

May you continue to inspire us:

To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.

 

John O’Donohue, poet, philosopher and former Catholic priest.

This was not the poem I had in mind for today; something brighter was drafted, but will have to wait for tomorrow. Today is a day for remembering and grieving a man who meant so much to so many: Fr. Christian Mondor. He passed away last night, just days before his 93rd birthday. From all accounts, he was present and at peace in mind, body and spirit until the end, which doesn’t surprise me. He died as he lived: present and at peace.

Fr. Christian was a Franciscan priest who had lived and worked at my childhood parish, Sts. Simon and Jude. For decades, he attended La Casa de Maria Family Retreat, which has been such a pivotal part of our family’s life and faith. He was an avid surfer, traveler and banjo player, but most of all, he was a pastor. Though never holding the official position, Fr. Christian was a “pastor” in the truest sense of the word, watching over and caring for his “flock,” which was simply every one he met.

I was no exception. I liked Fr. Christian growing up, though I didn’t know him well, but as I got older and began reading the mystics, and theology, Fr. Christian came along side me at some critical moments, always with an encouraging word. We saw things in much the same way, and discussed some of our favorites, like Teilhard de Chardin and his beloved St. Francis.

One of my favorite moments came after I had spoken on to an audience about the difficulty I had relating to Jesus. I had not been well-educated on how interpret Jesus’ interactions with women and I found them distant and off-putting at times. After my talk, Fr. Christian sat down across the table from me and said, “You know, Jesus was a feminist. In fact, I believe he was a feminine spirit in a masculine body, the exact image and likeness of God, who must encompass both genders if we all come from that Source.” I could have wept at his kindness, at his articulation of this healing truth, which has stayed with me to this day, and always calls me back when I find myself distancing myself from the Son of Man.

Strangely (but perfectly) enough, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote a meditation today on what he called “Franciscan Feminism.”  As I read these lines, I thought of Fr. Christian and how I ought to send him a note today expressing my gratitude for how he has embodied this Franciscan spirituality. I didn’t know I wouldn’t get that chance, but just an hour later, I heard the news.

Happy and healthy Franciscans seem to present a combination of lightness of heart and firmness of foot at the same time. By this I mean that they do not take themselves so seriously, as upward-bound men often do; they often serve with quiet conviction and personal freedom as many mature women do… I believe the lightness of heart comes from contact with deep feminine intuition and with consciousness itself; the firmness of foot emerges when that feminine principle integrates with the mature masculine soul and moves forward with confidence into the outer world.

O’Donohue’s poem is the perfect goodbye blessing to this gentle man, who was a blessing to all who knew him. Though his days here were not brief, his legacy will last even longer. I’ve listened to the banjo play today; our family is heading out to beach in few moments to catch some waves in his honor; I’ll rest in the love of the Divine tonight, confident that if Fr. Christian called me friend and wanted my company, then the historical Jesus would as well.

May you continue to inspire us:

To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.

 

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“Missing the Boat”

It is not so much that the boat passed
and you failed to notice it.
It is more like the boat stopping
directly outside your bedroom window,
the captain blowing the signal-horn,
the band playing a rousing march.

The boat shouted, waving bright flags,
its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.

But you had this idea you were going by train.

You kept checking the time-table,
digging for tracks.

And the boat got tired of you,
so tired it pulled up the anchor
and raised the ramp.

The boat bobbed into the distance,
shrinking like a toy—
at which point you probably realized
you had always loved the sea.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye is a modern American poet, born of a Palestinian father and American mother (of Northern European stock) and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her most famous poem is “Kindness,” which I encourage you to check out, but it is longer and, frankly a little more work. I thought I’d keep it simple here. This is from her first collection, Different Ways to Pray, published in 1980 when she was 28.

This poem is simple, accessible and true, but deceptively so. On the surface, Nye takes the common metaphor, “missing the boat” at face value, but then she pushes our understanding of it. How often have we “missed the boat” with little consequence? Dozens of times. We get distracted, or ambivalent, stall out and “miss the boat.” Concert tickets, a school dance, dinner with friends. No big deal.

But what about slightly bigger stakes? A house just outside our financial comfort zone that doubled in value? A big job opportunity that would have launched our career, if only we’d been brave enough to apply for it? A semester abroad that might have cured our fear of travel and foreign places? Those boats are “missed” a bit more, because we can point to them as turning points in our lives. Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (a classic of American high school education), those boats are harder to forget (and to forgive ourselves for).

But the boat that Nye is talking about here is something else entirely.  Nye’s boat is our life, docked before us and calling us to embark. In Christian circles, this boat is your “vocation;” in Japan, your ikigai, in French, your raison d’ etre. Call it your soul’s work, your true self, your dharma. Call it what you will, but call it something and call it to you, but when it comes calling, don’t be afraid to get on board!

I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of her final lines, but also feel a twinge of sadness. We all know people (or might be people) who feel like they “missed the boat,” who go to hated jobs on a daily basis, who were blind to the fact that a boat even existed, because everything in their life conspired to keep them on the train, instead of adventuring at sea. I, for one, am encouraging the kids in my life, to look by air, land, and sea to find the means of transportation that’s going to take them where they want to go.