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“Your Mother and My Mother”

Fear is the cheapest room in the house.

I would like to see you living

In better conditions,

 

For your mother and my mother

Were friends.

 

I know the Innkeeper

In this part of the universe.

Get some rest tonight,

Come to my verse again tomorrow,

We’ll go speak to the Friend together.

 

I should not make any promises right now,

But I know if you

Pray

Somewhere in this world –

Something good will happen.

 

God wants to see

More love and playfulness in your eyes

For that is your greatest witness to Him.

 

Your soul and my soul

Once sat in the Beloved’s womb

Playing footsie.

 

Your heart and my heart

Are very, very old

Friends.

 

It’s hard to believe that I made it thirteen days before I introduced a poem by Hafiz, the masterful, 14th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. I knew once I started I would never want to stop. Thirty days of Hafiz would be a pleasure for me.

Hafiz can make me laugh and cry, feel totally understood and totally bewildered, but never, never bored. The Gift, a collection of his poetry translated by Daniel Ladinsky, is my frequent companion. It sits on my bedside table and goes on just about every trip I do, dog-eared, penciled, highlighted, and full of mementoes from various locations. Hafiz’s mystical playfulness resonates deeply with me; I am always looking for a way to joy,  to fun and laughter, to companionship with the people around me and with God. I love how Hafiz refers to God as “Beloved” and “Friend, “and calls his readers by those names as well. We’re all in this together his poems seem to say.

In this poem, I love how Hafiz portrays himself as an ancient real estate broker, looking out for a special client who has fallen upon hard times. (Who among us hasn’t?) “Fear” has become their habitat and Hafiz can’t bear to see it and is confident God will feel likewise. We cannot “witness” when we are in fear, rather only when “love and playfulness” radiate from our eyes. Can we trust Hafiz to get us relocated? I think so; after all, our souls once played footsie in the “Beloved’s womb.” Having just seen pictures of a friend’s newborn baby, I can honestly say, I believe that’s exactly where she came from.

Something that might be missed in a quick reading of the poem is the line that Hafiz delivers, almost sotto voce, a little secret about prayer: “If you/ Pray/ Somewhere in this world –/ Something good will happen.” In these little lines, in the middle of this little poem, he upends everything we’ve been taught about prayer and at the same time, redeems it. From our very first moments, we are taught petitionary prayer, to ask for things, or for things to happen. Inevitably, we are disappointed when they don’t, but what if our prayers were answered, somewhere and for someone? What if the energy, intention, love, devotion and faithfulness we put into our prayers enter the Divine womb to heal and help in ways we never know about?

That’s what my friend, Hafiz, does so well: offer encouragement, wisdom, compassion and love, each and every time.

 

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“Keeping Quiet”

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

 

Pablo Neruda was a 20th century Chilean poet, diplomat and Nobel Prize winner. He is most famous for his love poetry, but was deeply involved in politics as well.

Instead of spreading out the two poems about war and peace, I wanted to join O’Tuama’s poem with Neruda’s. One counts the cost of violence; one offers a solution. It may be a fantastic one we are tempted to scoff at, but still, he creates an inviting picture of what the world might look like if we simply went silent together. A count of twelve? It’s a place to start. Would it accomplish anything? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. It’s never been done. Who knows how it might affect our global consciousness to have all 7 billion of us make a choice to be at peace for a period of time, however brief?

But I will move away from the “woo woo” aspect of the poem and get to the nitty-gritty of it, because eventually Neruda does get to the root of the problem, the cause of the violence, war, and aggression that haunts our world. Perhaps” If we were not so single-minded/ about keeping our lives moving,/ and for once could do nothing,” it “might interrupt this sadness/ of never understanding ourselves.”

It’s a simple, but great wisdom to understand that “hurt people hurt people,” and that “if we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it,” usually to the most vulnerable people around us, our children and spouses, our employees and those on the margins who serve our needs. And don’t forget all the ways we daily declare war on ourselves for some minor “transgression” that any one else could easily forgive. This is the sadness we would face in our “count up to twelve,” but as badly as it might hurt, it wouldn’t hurt as nearly as badly as we’re hurting the world and everyone in it by refusing to face it. Neruda’s reference to the resurrection mystery embedded at the heart of the universe,”when everything seems dead/and later proves to be alive,” is the wisdom we must seek when seeking for peace.

While I can’t offer you a recording of Neruda reading this poem, I can suggest you listen to the one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Sylvia Boorstein, read it to a live audience. Her warm, husky voice is soothing and wise. She makes me believe that “Keeping Quiet” might just be a possibility.

P.S. As I was getting ready to hit publish, I saw that Parker Palmer, a Quaker activist, author and teacher, had just published this same poem in his blog on On Being. Apparently, something in the universe is calling many of us toward this radical idea.

 

 

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“Pedagogy of Conflict”

When I was a child,

I learnt to count:

one, two, three, four, five.

But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count

one life

one life

one life

one life

one life.

Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.

Legitimate Target

has sixteen letters

and one

long

abominable

space

between

two

dehumanizing

words.

 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and the leader of Corrymeela, a spiritual community in Northern Ireland, which was instrumental in the peace process that brought a ceasefire to their nation. Don’t let the big word in the title intimidate you. “Pedagogy” is an academic term, which simply means the method of instruction. Here, the poet is suggesting we might find peace if this was what we taught our children about the cost of conflict.

I grew up in a time of peace, in a country at peace. There might have been a few “conflicts,” or “scandals”, but by the time I got to high school even the Cold War was thawing and walls were falling down. I used to look around the world and feel sorry for all those “other places,” including Ireland, where violence was an everyday fact of life that took place in the streets and schools and shopping malls.

But then the Oklahoma City Bombing happened (1995) and Columbine (1999) took place and 9/11 (2001) brought foreign terrorism to my everyday consciousness and there were no more illusions that things like that happened to “other people” in “other places.” They happen here in places I frequent and frequently love like churches and schools and concerts and nightclubs and places of business. It happens to people who look like me and to people I might know and love: white, latinx, African-American, Asian, straight, gay, old, young, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, immigrant, or American.

In the hours following the Parkland shooting this year, O’ Tuama’s poem haunted me:

One life

one life

one life

one life

one life

I was “counting lives” seventeen times that day for each of those fourteen children and the three adults who dedicated their lives to serving them. I wept in grief, but also in gratitude for  every single day my kids have come home from school alive. Each school shooting deepens my understanding that what I took as a right feels more like a privilege and deepens my sorrow that we as a nation seem unwilling to find solutions to prevent that from becoming more and more true. Perhaps if we started counting as O’ Tuama does, we’d change that.

This is one of those poems that must be read aloud to experience the full impact. Read it aloud while you hold the faces of victims of gun violence, of any kind, in your mind’s eye.  And finally, you can hear the poet read it himself  here.

 

 

 

 

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“My First Love Story”

The minute I heard my first love story

I started looking for you,

not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.

They are in each other all along.

 

“Sometimes I Do”

In your light, I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest,

where no one sees you,

but sometimes I do,

and that light becomes this art.

 

“The Price of Kissing”

I would love to kiss you.

The price of kissing is your life. 

Now my loving is running to my life shouting,

What a bargain, let’s buy it. 

 

“The Most Alive Moment”

The most alive moment comes

when those who love each other

meet each other’s eyes

and in what flows between them.

(This first stanza captures the spark of recognition that comes between lovers, sometimes at the very first sight. Though I don’t consider ours a “love at first sight” story, I still remember the very first time I laid eyes on Tim. He was looking down, but when his eyes came up and met mine, I thought, “Oh.” It felt nothing like love, but certainly like I had just met someone significant in some way I didn’t yet understand.)

 

To see your face in a crowd of others,

or alone on a frightening street,

I weep for that.

(After a time together, the physical presence of the beloved can bring immediate relief. In the midst of crowds and chaos, the lover is safety, security, home.)

 

Our tears improve the earth.

The time you scolded me,

your gratitude, your laughing,

always your qualities increase the soul.

(In these lines, Rumi affirms the whole range of emotions and experiences he shares with his beloved. Love is not just happiness, but tears and difficulties. What is essential is that they “increase the soul” of the other and their ability to fully alive and fully human.)

 

Seeing you is a wine

that does not muddle, or numb.

(This love is delicious, intoxicating and necessary – wine was the essential liquid of his time –  but it is not an escape. It does not allow him to deny, or keep him from reality.)

 

We sit inside the cypress shadow

where amazement and clear thought

twine their slow growth into us.

(All lovers have private places they go to while away the hours in dreams and conversations. True lovers are edified by that time away and come back with greater clarity about themselves and the world around them.)

 

Is anyone else thinking, “Finally, a love poem!” or is it just me? Honestly, I’ve held out for a full ten days, which I thought was pretty impressive. But perhaps you haven’t even noticed,  since so many of my poems have been about Love: love of God, neighbor, self, or the world. I’m not going to count “Funeral Blues,” since it was about love after loss, not love that could be enjoyed in the here and now.

But romantic love is what most of us associate with poetry. Just about every goofy, poetic stereotype has to do with a love-sick soul who pours his, or her heart out in bad verse. It has been a classic sign of infatuation and the undying devotion that accompanies it. We’ve probably all scribbled some of that sweet nonsense ourselves, either in a journal, or if we were really brave, in what we hope by now is a long-lost love letter. If we’re really lucky, we might have even received a stanza, or two that made our hearts race and our cheeks flush. The thrill of being seen in our best light is such a pleasurable one!

I don’t care if that kind of sentimental drivel gives poetry a bad rap. Let lovers write! Let Hallmark cards reign! Let roses be red and violets be blue! As long as we can have love poems like these from Rumi, the genre will not be completely disgraced and rest assured, a few more are coming this month from some other poets as well!

 

 

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“Drifting”

I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path

wherever it was taking me, the earth roots

beginning to stir.

I didn’t intend to start thinking about God,

it just happened.

How God, or the gods, are invisible,

quite understandable.

But holiness is visible, entirely.

It’s wonderful to walk along like that,

thought not the usual intention to reach an answer

but merely drifting.

Like clouds that only seem weightless

but of course are not.

Are really important.

I mean, terribly important.

Not decoration by any means.

By next week the violets will be blooming.

Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.

What was it actually about?

 

Think about what it is that music is trying to say.

It was something like that.

 

Mary Oliver from Blue Horses, 2014.

This is the second of Oliver’s poems on the subject of meditation that I wanted to share, but if you missed the first, here’s it is.

Few people have a dedicated meditation practice, but many have experienced the “drift” that “Moliver” describes in this poem, a stream of thoughts that wander from where we are to somewhere else, for better, or worse. Meditation, at least the type I practice, is not so different from that. According to the teaching I have received, thoughts will come and the practice is to let them go, allowing them to pass by, like clouds in the sky. They may be stormy thoughts, full of rain and rage, or wispy ones that tempt you to linger and imagine all sorts of good things. It doesn’t matter that they come; don’t judge them (or yourself); just let them drift away, so you can return to the entirely visible holiness of the present moment. Remain there, until you find find you’ve drifted away again, “watching the clouds.” Then, just come back to the “invisible” Presence of God.

This past weekend was a whirlwind of activity for Molly and me: 48 hours of flights and field hockey games, shared hotel rooms and food-on-the-go, lots of time for laughter, but little for silence. However, in the midst of it all, there was the inevitable “drift” towards holiness and gratitude.

 

Clear, blue sky after a rainy night

Bright yellow mustard fields blooming roadside

Smell of sweet white alyssum, catching me by surprise on a morning walk

Wild turkey in a field

Cow in a pasture next to a parking lot

Hugs from a sweaty girl, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in defeat

Girls of every size, shape and color on the field, playing their hearts out

 

Yes, indeed, Mary Oliver, “God, or the gods” may be invisible, “But holiness is visible, entirely./ It’s wonderful to walk along like that.”

 

 

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“Woman Looking in a Mirror” by Faith Ringgold

“Love After Love”

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott is a Caribbean-born poet and playwright, a winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. Walcott’s most famous poem is his epic, Omeros, but this poem seemed perfect for a Sunday morning.

This is one of the most gentle poems on the subject of self-reflection I’ve ever encountered, So often, I associate self-reflection with self-criticism. When I take a look in the mirror, literally, or figuratively, I am trained to point out flaws and the voice I use is neither kind, nor compassionate.

I think Wolcott’s poem is made to be read in mid-life, after we’re done hustling for the love of another and when we’ve begun to realize that all our self-improvement projects, while not useless, will never bear the results we once hoped for.

Can we forgive ourselves?

I hope so. I’m working on it. Wolcott gently reminds us that at forty, fifty, sixty, it is time to fall in love with ourselves again. When I read this poem, I see in my mind’s eye, the freckle-faced girl, the budding young woman, the struggling first-time mother, and I can smile at the mistakes they made. I can feed myself on the sacrament of my best moments, and the good intentions that drove all my decisions, the ones that worked out and the ones that didn’t. What better way to “feast on your life”?

 

 

 

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“The Cadence of Silk” excerpt

…I was hooked on the undulant ballet
of the pattern offense, on the set play
back-door under the basket, and, at times,
even on the auctioneer’s pace and elocution
of play-by-play man. Now I watch
the Lakers, having returned to Los Angeles
some years ago, love them even more than
the Seattle team, long since broken up and aging.
The Lakers are incomparable, numerous
options for any situation, their players
the league’s quickest, most intelligent,
and, it is my opinion, frankly, the most cool.
Few bruisers, they are sleek as arctic seals,
especially the small forward
as he dodges through the key, away from
the ball, rubbing off his man on the screen,
setting for his shot. Then, slick as spit,
comes the ball from the point guard,
and my man goes up, cradling the ball
in his right hand like a waiter balancing
a tray piled with champagne in stemmed glasses,
cocking his arm and bringing the ball
back behind his ear, pumping, letting fly then
as he jumps, popcorn-like, in the corner,
while the ball, launched, slung dexterously
with a slight backspin, slashes through
the basket’s silk net with a small,
sonorous splash of completion.

Garret Hongo is a Japanese-American Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and academic.

I was in graduate school when I heard my first “sports poem,” (besides the obligatory “Casey at Bat.”) Being a typical literary snob, I had low expectations when a fellow student got up to read a “poem about baseball” he’d written. Instead, I was transfixed and transported to a game in media res (in the middle of the action). Since that time, I’ve always kept an ear out for good sports poems and when it comes to sports poetry, the ear is key. To be fully appreciated, it must be experienced out loud. Give it a go with the poem above, and watch how the rhythm and cadence bring the action to life. Sports poetry is the best – bar none – at using onomatopoeia. (Of course that’s just a fancy word for saying that the word sounds a lot like the sound the word is describing. Listen for it in the lines above!)

I gravitated towards “Silk,” since I grew up watching Lakers basketball in its heyday, the “Showtime” Hongo describes in this poem. It is one of the strongest associations I have with my dad: his devotion to NBA basketball and the Lakers in particular. Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and Byron felt like friends who could have dropped by for dinner any night and I still recall classic lines from Chick Hearn, their play-by-play man. In the time before DVRs, Netflix and a TV in every room, my Dad would commandeer the family room and whether we were paying attention or not, we would be captivated by the smack of a blocked shot, the screech of rubber soles on the varnished floor, the thump of the dribble, the swish of a perfect shot, the shrill whistle of a ref’s call , or even the silent flash of Magic Johnson’s enormous grin. This poem reminds me of the countless hours I spent watching a sport I loved, but never had the skills to play. (For the record, my dad did. His ability to still dunk in his forties gave me all sorts of street cred on the playground.)
We often associate poetry with love, vulnerability, and softness, but it wasn’t always that way. All the first poets were men, writing about war and violence, immortality and tragedy. Remember The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epics we were supposed to understand in high school? I’m glad the genre expanded, but I’m also glad that sports poetry carries on, highlighting the beauty and grace of bodies in competition.  

 

 

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“Funeral Blues”

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

(In this stanza, the narrator is asking for standard funeral conventions of his time to be followed.)

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

(Here he is asking for over-the-top, impractical public displays of grief.)

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

(And here he reveals what the deceased truly meant to him.)

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

(Finally, he articulates the depth of his grief and his vision of what a world without his beloved should look like.)

 

W.H. Auden is 20th century English poet and literary giant, someone who might show up as an answer to a Jeopardy question. I don’t often relate to his work, but this poem is the exception.

I thought of “Funeral Blues” when I was writing about John O’Donohue, but reading it again brought to mind my many friends who have lost important men in their lives: husbands, fathers, sons. This poem perfectly captures the grief I’ve witnessed in their faces, bodies, eyes, lives. For the most part, their losses were unexpected and so too was the level of disorientation that affected them for months, and sometimes even years, afterwards. The loss of an essential loved one causes us to lose something essential within ourselves as well. How could it not if we share hearts, history and sometimes even DNA?

How does life go on and anyway, why does it?

It takes a long time to answer those questions and each of us must come to our own conclusions. We have to navigate our own way through the unfamiliar topography that is our life after a great loss. Who knows their way around a world with starless nights and sunless days, an oceanless shore and treeless woods?  Sometimes, poetry is our best map and guide in those liminal spaces, when we exist between two worlds and find our home in neither of them. What a blessing to have good friends like Auden and O’Donohue, Rilke, Rumi and others to help us find our way.

This poem was brought to widespread popularity by its use in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of the poem by Scottish actor, John Hannah, tune in here.

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“Time After Time”

Time after time

I came to your gate with raised hands,

Asking for more and yet more.

You gave and gave, now in slow measure, now

In sudden excess.

I took some, and some thing I let drop; some

Lay heavy on my hands;

Some I made in to playthings and broke them

When tired;

Till the wrecks and hoards of your gifts grew

Immense, hiding you, and the ceaseless

Expectation wore my heart out.

Take, oh take – has now become my cry.

Shatter all from this beggar’s bowl:

Put out the lamp of the importunate

Watcher.

Hold my hands, raise me from the

Still-gathering heap of your gifts

Into the bare infinity of your uncrowded

Presence.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet, playwright, musician and essayist, who wrote about everything from spirituality to politics to science.  He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The first time I read this poem, it shattered me, like the mirror it held up so I could see myself. In Tagore’s words, I saw my inevitable posture toward God – hands stretched out in supplication. Though it has been many years and I’ve made a real effort, not much has changed. Though grateful for my blessings, I am often aware of a perceived lack, that little extra “something” that would make my life better. Sometimes it is material, but often it is just a change in circumstance for me, my family, or the world. When I read this poem, I could weep with shame at my greed and blindness. Though healthy, educated, happily married with three children and the means to support them, surrounded by friends and family who love me, living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, I still want more. More youth, more opportunity, more security, more excitement, more clarity. You name it,  I’ve probably desired it.

To me, this is a poem about the privilege of having more than we need, more than we’ve earned, more than we can use and still believing that it’s not enough. Blame biology, culture, or consumerism, but our automatic response is to ask for more. This poem reminds me that my “scarcity” is a farce, my “gratitude” is lip service, and that what I truly need is ultimately right here with and within me.

This poem convicts me, but finally ends on a hopeful note. I believe the Presence will come and deliver the gift of itself.  After all, it has been waiting to be asked for just that all along.

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“On Meditating, Sort Of”

Meditation, so I’ve heard, is best accomplished

if you entertain a certain strict posture.

Frankly, I prefer just to lounge under a tree.

So why should I think I could ever be successful?

 

Somedays, I even fall asleep, or land in that

even better place – half-asleep – where the world,

spring, summer, autumn, winter –

flies through my mind in its

hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.

 

So I just lie like that, while distance and time

reveal their true attitudes: they never

heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.

 

Of course, I wake up finally

thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,

made out of earth and water,

my own thoughts, my own fingerprints –

all that glorious, temporary stuff.

 

The poet Mary Oliver, or “Moliver” as she is affectionately referred to around our house, is someone you will see pop up a few times this month. She is one of my favorites and there is a theme in her writing I’d like to explore with all of you: the sacrament of Nature, of being present in the moment however it arises and recognizing it for the holy gift it is.

I think this poem is a great start. Meditation and its companion, mindfulness, are buzzwords these days. They are offered as a remedy for everything from stress to chronic pain, as relief from anxiety and exhaustion. They will help us lose weight, sleep well, and even become better “team players” at work and home! Ugh! It kind of drives me crazy, because developing a meditation practice for those things is like taking a prescription drug for its “off-label” side effects. We might experience a relief of our symptoms, but it’s not what it was made for and it’s definitely not going to cure the underlying cause.

But I think Mary’s version of meditation might be just what the doctor ordered, in its gentle and holistic approach.

Lie down somewhere beautiful and let your mind drift. Don’t cling to what you think you’re supposed to do, or feel, or experience. Let life pass you by for a moment, or two and see yourself in the midst of things, where “distance and time” have “never heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.” From that place, we might wake refreshed and perhaps even “cured” of what ailed us in the first place. We might even find ourselves grateful to be in our own bodies and a part of this beautiful world.

Let this poem inspire you! It’s Spring! Go find a tree, a little patch of sunlight, a place where the breeze can kiss your face. Close your eyes and in the words of Rumi, allow yourself “to be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love,” which I hope is yourself and this beautiful, suffering world we live in.

 

Post Script: I recently acquired a copy of “Moliver’s” newest book, Devotions, as a gift from Tim. I had been on the waiting list at the library for so long and when I finally got my hands on a copy, the weeks just flew by. On the last day it was in my possession, he  caught me taking pictures of page after page on my cell phone. (Desperate times call for desperate measures! It took me months to get my hands on it the first time and I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait again.) However, two days later, it was in my mailbox. Though Tim generally supports my book-buying restraint, in this case, it deserved an exception. I highly recommend you put your name on the waiting list at your local library, or maybe even treat yourself to a copy!