Friday, February 25, 2011

To Make Music in the Heart

Snowy Seattle
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In the past few weeks, I’ve gone from a silent retreat (see previous post) to a writing retreat, where I am now, at the Seattle apartment of vacationing friends. Thanks to their generosity, I have a change of venue from my rural, island home, to the city… to write about the two years my family and I lived in the remote mountain village of Stehekin, WA. I’ve schlepped journals with me here to freshen memories of that time seventeen years ago as I work on the rough draft of a book-length memoir.

Yesterday, I re-read pages I had written that snowy first winter in Stehekin.  Snowfall outside the Seattle apartment transported me back to that time when inches and inches of snow slowed and focused my journey inward.  Questions about the work God called me to accumulated on the pages as the snowdrifts grew outside. 

Prior to our move to Stehekin, much of my identity had been tied to work as a public health nurse, caring for infants, children, and women with high-risk pregnancies. That work had fed me for many years, had brought me satisfaction and gratitude that I had been led to help others.  After about twenty years, though, I was drained. Day after day, in the privacy of our mountain cabin, I peeled away layer upon layer of uncertainty about my work and my worth. I carried out assignments in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, writing to the recognition that I was tired of taking care of others. My three pages of free-flow writing every morning became questions to God about what I was being led to and how I was to serve.

The solitude and beauty of the mountains, river, and forest awakened my creativity and revealed how depleted I was.  I had become a shriveled sponge in desperate need of re-hydrating with art, music, walks, reading, cooking, writing, and being with friends and family. I had expected that a few weeks or months of attending to myself would saturate my dryness, but as the days grew shorter, the snow piled deeper, and the air chilled my skin on daily hikes, I recognized not only the intensity of my exhaustion but nudges to a new calling. 

Early in December that year, a card sent by a long-time nursing friend buoyed me. The card’s message, Howard Thurman’s poem, “Christmas Begins,” spoke directly to me. Thurman’s words suggested that after the song of the angel, the star, the kings and the shepherds are gone, the work of Christmas begins:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among peoples,
To make music in the heart.”

Could it be that God had led me to that time of healing, restoring, and renewing so that I could make music in my heart? It took me awhile, but I’m now clear that I am called to work that makes music in the heart, through listening and words and stories. My belief is that such music helps find the lost and heal the broken, and brings peace.

Late Wednesday night, as snow glistened in the streetlights and powdered the sidewalks of Seattle, I received an e-mail that I’ve been accepted into an MFA in creative writing program. There, I’ll continue to write my memoir and other stories that I hope will further Thurman’s notion of the work of Christmas.

~  ~  ~  ~ 

Blogging update – The January/February issue of Western Friend magazine focuses on the written ministry of Quaker bloggers in the West ( Almost all of the content of the issue is available online, but WF editor, Kathy Hyzy, printed excerpts from ten blogs (including a post from this one). For those new to blogging (and perhaps hesitant to explore this new media), the WF print version offers a gentle introduction. Enthusiastic bloggers will find the issue a great resource as well, with links to dozens more Western Quaker bloggers and to Quaker organizations all over.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Silent Retreat

I once avoided silence; at times, even feared it. Now I relish the silence, seek it out, embrace it and the gifts it provides. I begin most days in solitary meditation and spend many of my hours in silence, writing or working in my art studio.

So why, then, do I travel for three hours at the end of January each year to retreat with other Quakers in silence? This weekend Silent Retreat sponsored by my Quarterly Meeting has become one of my rituals to bring in a new year.  This year, thirty-two of us gathered at our usual spot, a rustic camp at the edge of a state park. After a potluck dinner and introductions on Friday evening, we entered into silence to pray, journal, walk, read, prepare meals, sleep, eat, and worship together.

This year’s retreat was a wet one. The air was warm, almost like spring, and the rain was unrelenting. The rhythm of its patter on the cabin’s metal roof directed me to relax, reflect, and forget the clock. One of the disciplines I follow at the silent retreat is to re-read my spiritual journal of the past year. I read with attention to themes; I log the titles of books and articles I referred to during the year; and I recall the events that I recorded in my journal pages.

On Saturday morning, I followed the rain’s instructions so well that I nearly missed lunch. Absorbed in reviewing my journal, I was only vaguely aware of the leavings and returnings of others to my dorm’s common room. A subtle scent of tomatoes and onions circled the soft couch as someone sat down next to me. Thinking it was noon, I shuffled to my bunk in the next room and checked my clock; its digital face read 1:17. I gathered my dishes and side-stepped mud puddles to the dining hall. The soup on the lunch menu was gone, but I feasted on cheese; bread; a crunchy, sweet, russet-skinned pear; and a wedge of peanut butter cookie.

Back in the cabin’s common room after my late lunch, a fire glowed in the tiny wood stove. Rain-slicked hooded jackets in red, green, purple, and fluorescent lemon hung over hooks, doors, and chairs.  I had no desire to leave the dry warmth, content with my journal and books in the company of silent Friends. Being with others in silence, together without interacting verbally, close to others without the pressure of interacting, is a relief for me. There’s an intimacy in sharing space without sharing words. There are a number of regulars at this retreat that I see only here. I don’t know many details of their lives—the kind of work they do, whether they have children, what organizations they belong to, whether they garden or are marathon runners— yet I feel I know them, and am known by them, more deeply than many people I see daily or weekly.

The silence of the weekend carried me to different places; to a depth of being I rarely get to in a typical day. I listened—not to music or voices, but to the groaning pines, the whispering wind, the rumbling river. I listened to my breath, exhaling out the jangle of sounds that usually surround me and inhaling, inhaling deeply and sinking into my meditation. Resting one sense took me to an awareness I usually don’t get to with my daily times of worship. During this year’s journal review, words I’d read and written in the past spoke to me in new ways. Ideas I’d considered, but put aside, re-surfaced with new urgency and clarity. Now I was ready for them when I hadn’t been before. The silence cleared space for God’s presence to enfold and guide me.

Forty hours of not talking, not putting my thoughts into spoken words, not listening to others’ spoken words, brought me to the doorway, beyond the doorway, into sustained connection with Spirit.  This year, that connection bestowed peace and renewal.