Three days of hard writing. One day in Paris. Worth every ounce of work. Tonight my mind is rich with Impressionist splendors and unicorn tapestries and the opulence of the hall of mirrors at Versailles. But at days end, after twelve intensive hours of adventure, our little expeditionary force was tired out. So as the sun set, we walked a last few blocks up from the Eiffel Tower (which, I have decided, is lovelier than I expected, as if it was woven of steel lace that seems to glow gold) and went to Cafe Constance, a local place with little baskets of tender, crusty bread, with tables and patrons all jostled gladly together, and simple food that is the essence of comfort. I filled a stomach emptied by a day of hard walking with butter roasted chicken and potatoes simmered in herbs and bacon.
And then I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the best sights out of a day crammed with unforgettable images. In a corner table under the stairs sat a very old woman with a round, pink face, seated on a red velvet bench. Swathed in a lovely wrap, her white hair was piled in a soft bun high on her head, and she sat very straight. But her air was gentle, slightly plaintive. Her fur coat was draped over the chair across the table, her hands rested quietly on her napkin, and the whole of her essence bespoke an old world gentility.
Until a tiny, spry little Yorkie suddenly dashed from under the table, sprang onto the red velvet and merrily stole her napkin.
“No, no!” she scolded. Then smiled. Laughed. And scratched his ears. The waiters were not in the least phased by the extra customer, and seemed quite familiar with the duo. They bent close to laugh and talk, take her order and acknowledge her canine companion. She smiled at the world and ate her excellent dinner with relish. In the hour we were there, she finished two entrees and four glasses of wine and was just leaning forward to order again. She was rosy, happy, attentive, alive.
She is a picture I hope to remember.
I hope I’m as lovely when I grow up someday.
Today I visited Saint-Chapelle. And was glad to remember these words from an author who is quickly becoming a favorite:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
-Hans Urs von Balthasar.
I’m in a writing vortex. Have you ever experienced this? It’s when you eat and sleep and breathe and wake up in the night thinking about a project until you feel just a tad, the smallest tad, mind you, insane. Writing is hard. Sweat and tears hard. People always seem to have this image of writers as lounging in a high-backed chair sipping tea and being inspired. For me, it’s an almost painful exercise in wrangling the inchoate, intuitive things I know on the level of deepest soul into the cramped containers of words. It takes hours. It takes intense, ridiculous focus. It takes a vortex.
This is the only way I know to get a book written.
But at dusk tonight, as a round, flared crimson sun shimmered down the horizon and the world got misty and cool, I sat with my lovelies and we took a deep breath. You have to do that, you have to make the space in which to breathe and claim it as a discipline, a grace. We talked and wondered, discussing how life is richly blessed. But we also spoke of how it is never easy. How good relationships, like good books, take an immense amount of work. How life demands much more, sometimes than we think we can give. Easy? I don’t know that it ever will be.
For a long time, I felt that my life was somehow all wrong, that the pace and stress and work and swiftness of the days were an imbalance. I kept looking for a life of calm in which to finally settle. But it never stopped, and finally I understood. I think this swift, river rush of a life is where creativity and love, good work and hard choices are forged. Anything worth doing is difficult. And a breathless heart can follow you even into the calmest life.
The secret I think is in a Psalm I recently quoted to a friend – Psalm 131 – “I have composed and quieted my soul…” I thought of that this evening, breathless and strained as I was. In the middle of this muddle, this work, this swiftness, the secret of it all is learning to quiet and compose my soul so that calm rises up within me, an inner room in which I may dwell if I so choose…
I stood at the sink tonight, in a tiny house in a country I’ve never visited before, up to my elbows in sudsy water. I’m on a brief, and wholly working holiday with half of my family. Tomorrow, we work on a project, and work darn hard. Tonight, however, after a trek to a village shop for a week’s supply of crusty bread and cheese, we rested. And ate with relish. A little of the weariness of the travel day sloughed away with the salad and bread, the dark wine and soft cheese. We lit candles. Listened to music. And as I washed up, my brother sat facing me over the counter playing samples from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Interstellar. Funny how weariness can both heighten and blend the senses. In the slowed consciousness of my growing exhaustion, the warm water was a grip on my skin, the music not just a melody in the room, but somehow suffused throughout it, one with my gentling pulse. I felt that I stood soaked in music as in water.
“Listen, listen,” said my brother, explaining the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint that made the rich soundscape, that made of notes and instruments a narrative unfolding in my imagination. “He’s not just making music as a background, he’s using the whole soundscape to help tell the story.”
Show, don’t tell, says every writing instructor I’ve ever met. Taste and see, says the Psalmist. Abruptly, immersed in music and sleepiness and grace, I wonder if God evokes as well as dictates his love. For weeks now, I’ve studied the Incarnation. I finished my doctrine project on the train this morning, thank you very much. My mind is crammed with theological points about the embodied Word that speaks in the tiniest particular of human physicality and experience, that narrates itself to us in touch and taste and sound and sense. But my mind and body have been in ceaseless, unseeing movement; I have been too busy with outlining the Incarnation to experience it.
Yesterday, I had an hour of panic over many things. I fretted. I squirmed. And wondered why I couldn’t gain center again.
Stop and taste. Halt and see.
I stood at the sink tonight, beloved souls near me, the water hot and gentle on my hands. food in my stomach, a tender, pink sky fading out the window, music, that music like air in my lungs, and in my weariness, I stopped. I tasted and saw. I savored every sense as it tingled with given life, even felt the heavy, rich exhaustion of the moment. And I saw.
This Word of ours, he’s not just making beauty as a background, he’s using all the world to tell his story…
When the end of term draws nigh and essays clamor for completion and every day seems far too short for all that must be crammed into its hours… the only thing to do is drop everything and go for an early breakfast. Two days ago, I did just that with two lovely friends. Midst scrambled eggs and mushrooms, crispy toast and coffee comfortingly hot after the chill of an early walk, we had a good chat about everything but the work awaiting our return.
When coffee had loosed our tongues and eased our muscles we got to talking about the works of imagination we’d been mulling. Stories, paintings, poems, books, a wealth of inner imagery and idea eager for expression. The rhythm of creativity is difficult to keep amidst the academic vortex, not to mention the vagaries of daily life. But for each of us, essential things still simmer beneath it all, the true and beautiful things we see, the deep things of soul that undergird our work and beg to be told.
I’ve struggled mightily of late to return to a rhythm of writing here. As you might have noticed, I haven’t managed much yet. But to write creatively, which really just means to write what I see with as much truth and attention as I can muster, is a form of prayer, a way of giving, a means by which to walk out my questions but also the way that I give my word of witness to the present goodness undergirding even this broken world. I ache to write. But at the end of an essay day, with miles of walking behind my feet, and a dinner of toast and cheese, it’s difficult to summon my flagging creative resources.
So when one of my friends whipped out her phone and said, “you have to see this artist, she paints one tiny picture each day and she did it for a year,” the switch of possibility clicked back on in my head. She showed me this website, and the minute I saw it I knew what I wanted to do to quicken my writing capacity once more.
One picture a day. Why not one paragraph? (Maybe two.) I may not be able to conjure full essays or extended contemplations. But not a single day goes by without my witnessing at least one something I could weave into words. The medium of miniature anything means you have to focus in on a limited space of sight or experience. There’s a honing, a care, that goes into what you create at the level of the very particular. Like the interwoven illumination of the Book of Kells. Or the tiny portraits artist brushed onto brooches in centuries past. Or the little pictures on the site above.
So, I’m going to begin a year of small written wonderings. Some days it may be a photo or a piece of art with just a few words. Sometimes a line of poem. Sometimes a paragraph with a little extra. I will definitely interject longer pieces here and there. I’ll probably miss a day or five somewhere along the way. But as far as is possible with slightly scatter-brained me, I’m going to post a miniature meditation here once a day here. I’ll number them. And I’ll see what I find in a year of following those penny sized sights up the horizon….
by Joel Clarkson
Step by step descend into the dark,
Enter the void until all you can see
Conceived within you is the cursed mark
Of Lazarus, and barren Calvary.
Descend into the dark but do not fear,
For even though the stone now bars the way,
There is another who has languished here,
His passion incarnated into clay…
To read the rest, go HERE.