It’s a difficult and strange time. Do you feel as though your spiritual life is suffering, your practice is hard or nonexistent, you don’t have the community you need? Perhaps having a dedicated companion along the way would help. Consider my individual spiritual accompaniment, a monthly deep dive into what most matters to you. Would love to have a free consultation to see whether it’s something that would work for you.
I am thinking about Neil Gaiman’s writing process a lot. Gaiman is the author of American Gods, Stardust, Neverwhere, and my personal favorite, the graphic novel series, Sandman, among other works. He has a very regular, even rigid by some standards, schedule. He has a room in which he writes, and he is there for six (? I think) hours every day. He may get up to make tea or use the rest room. He may stare out the window for as long as he likes. And he may write. Those are the allowable activities.
Staring out the window for as long as he likes is very important.
Ever since I had the “Withhold nothing” revelation, I’ve been wondering about this woolgathering piece. The looking out the window piece. I think of Madeleine L’Engle, of blessed memory, who is most famous for the first in a series of books, A Wrinkle in Time. (The movie by the same name can be burnt to a cinder and sent to Hell for all I care, by the way.)
L’Engle was my favorite author (next to Tolkien) when I was young. In her memoir about writing and creativity, A Circle of Quiet, she writes about how she no longer feels guilty about going out and lying on a star-watching rock. She knew she needed to look up at the sky and watch stars (obvs) or clouds, to bask in the sun, or feel the evening New England chill. She knew it—the “just being,” as she described it—was essential to her spiritual practice, as well as to her creativity and ability to write.
I’m not so good at any of this. I mean, I suppose I contemplate my plants. I touch the fern that, like an unruly cat or toddler, wants to be in the Zoom picture; I marvel at Sabrina the zebrina, and I enjoy so much the wandering of the philodendron-looking-plant-that-is-not-a-philodendron living in water next to Sabrina. I look out the window at the dogwood, the lilac, the scraggly red rhododendron, or the nearly busting-to-bloom peony when I’m trying to find a word or when I’m listening deeply to someone. That’s all good. It is good.
Considering the garden plants and trees—the “Tree of Gondor” dogwood is coming into leaf now and the petals of the gorgeous, rich pink are falling away—is good for me. It is good to notice that the somewhat shadier side has more flowers left than the sunnier side. It is good to see and be in our little courtyard. I can feel it in my bones.
I do these things too rarely. Too unmindfully. With too little skill and too little intention.
What I’m trying to say here is that for those of us of creative or mystical bents, contemplation, pure and intentional, is essential. And I suspect it’s good for all of us, whether we identify with those descriptions or not. Just watching, just listening, just being attentive to the world and especially to the immediate, to the place in which we live. And just being quiet. Quiet.
Not doing two things at once (or more…oh COVID+ADHD brain…). Not claiming that our practice is rich and full when we’re typing or responding to emails while half-hearing a guided meditation in the background. Yes, I’ve done that too.
Can we just… stop?
Soon the lilac blooms will pass and it will be time to prune it. Soon the dogwood will be all over summertime leaves. Soon that scraggly little rhododendron won’t even have the half-dozen big blooms it’s working on. Surely they have things to tell me. Surely I can just look at them and do nothing else. Can’t I?
And not only regarding the outside world, but it is good to read, no? News flash, right? Not only is it good, but it is essential for a full, rich, helpful ministry. And I, particularly in these COVID moments, am finding is very difficult to do. So difficult.
I am hearing similar things from other people. That reading, that solace, that friend of a lifetime, is suddenly too hard. People who have been reading steadily since they were 5, for more or less their entire lives, are so mentally and psychologically exhausted that reading is just too much.
I can read the novel aloud that my wife and I are sharing. And I refer to my spiritual texts that I keep by my computer. But Spying on Whales, I started this winter and haven’t finished. Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a favorite of my father’s, goes unread. And poor, poor Beowulf; my dear Molly and I were reading it together, and we have abandoned him to the part where he tells the tale all over again. Perhaps we will work on it again soon. Perhaps? I both doubt it and hope so.
The sky is blue today, friends, and the high is supposed to be seventy degrees Fahrenheit. I will pay attention. I will marvel at the moss in the courtyard. I will consider even the recycling, compost, and trash cans on the curb. I will watch for clouds and wonder about the pine that had all its street-facing branches cut off; it looks so odd to me. But I will look today.
Will you look with me? Shall we lie on the Star-Watching Rock together?
So much love, friends, so much.
PS—For those of you who know about Unitarian Universalist ordained ministry, a happy note. I have been welcomed into Full Fellowship (it’s a little bit like tenure in Humanities in academia). I am delighted and amazed, really kind of shocked. Thank you so much for everyone who got me here. You are one of those people.