There is an agonizing sweetness when I slip into the place between the worlds. When I look out the window at the street and the houses, and it could be fifty or a hundred years ago. The birds I hear as I lie awake in the early dawn could be singing in another time or place. I could have been alive for 150 years. And I feel outside of time, as if I could pass between the years at will. I don’t know whether this sweet agony is a yearning for the past, for something lost… or the sorrow of knowing I must, soon, snap back to the realities of the present moment… or whether it is, ultimately, a yearning for heaven, where all that is lost will be restored, when all nostalgia and longing will be abated because all will be as perfectly beautiful as the most long-cherished memory of childhood’s clearest summer day.

I say the agony is sweet because I want to follow to the mysterious somewhere to which it leads, like the child lured away in the poem by Yeats, “with a fairy hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” But my obligations in this life call me back… There is a pull toward dwelling forever in that twilight place where the past– the past of my youth and the more distant past of my ancestors– calls me to linger there. Or maybe it isn’t the past; but then, where is it?

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…

woman in garden

And I wonder, If I just let myself keep going… going… shaking off the impatient tug of the present urging me to return, then, where would I…?

But the painful truth is, that to reach heaven, where this sweetness will last forever in an eternal present, when there will be no painful tearing away, there is no choice but to return to this life, to this time, no choice but to endure it. The only way out is through. And that is so painful, for the way is long and I am a stranger in a strange land where no stone under my foot speaks to me, no field or meadow knows my name, and even the trees sigh a foreign language.


beauty presses on

Beauty presses on, no matter what I do to thwart it.

I don’t mean to thwart it. In fact, I am always filled with desires and plans and ideas for bringing a little bit more beauty into the world. But somehow, it doesn’t often work out.

For example, one of my beautification programs concerns gardening. We have a tiny yard, too small for baseball games or other activities requiring a lot of space. I am always trying to think of ways to draw us, especially the children, into the outdoors, hence the chickens to tend, the swimming pool to play in, and, well, this gardening idea.

Every winter, I pore through gardening books and seed catalogs planning how to turn our tiny yard into a garden paradise. I am studying herbology, so winding paths passing through fragrant mounds of medicinal and culinary herbs appeal to me, along with blueberries and raspberries like those my mother tended at my childhood home in Branford, flowers for the butterflies, and maybe, perhaps next summer, a bee skep. Not an ordinary box-like beehive mind you, but one of those old fashioned spirally bee-skeps that Yeats must have envisioned when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree:”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is perhaps my favorite poem. It encapsulates so many of my dreams as I “stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,” when my heart is away by the lapping water, the bee-loud glade, the evening full of linnet’s wings. In those winter hours spent perusing gardening books, I imagine turning our tiny yard into a haven of beauty, afresh with herbs and fruits and flowers, alive with lovely living things, where peace indeed comes dropping slow.

And when spring comes, I always make a start. I purchase some plants, turn over some soil, and manage to beautify one little corner, feeling hopeful and telling myself that soon I will do more. “Plant by plant” was the motto I adopted this year, the idea being that even if I could only manage a little at a time, by summer’s end my dream would be accomplished. Then, maybe this winter’s reading would be about the next step: beekeeping, in preparation for next spring…

But this year as every other, things stalled. The budget would not allow the purchase of more than a few plants. I saw some medicinal herbs I coveted– yarrow, mullein, comfrey– growing free for the taking by the roadway, but could not afford the composted manure to prepare a proper bed for them. The affordable Amish orchard from which I hoped to buy a few fruit trees had stopped selling for the season. The weeks-long drought made my little corner garden look weary and sad. Spring possibilities turned to midsummer dreams gone by.

I took a walk in the cool of one early morning, hoping to get in a little exercise before the heat set in. In a yard I pass often, a small pear tree had begun to bear fruit; tiny, burnished little pears had begun to develop on its boughs. Autumn is coming, I thought. Autumn will be here before I know it, home schooling will begin again, nature will fold its wings, and my garden dreams will die for another year. I had had grand plans, but I could not make them happen. I fought the discouraging voices that told me someone else could have managed it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful. In any case, I had failed to bring the beauty I dreamed of into the world. I had failed.

I looked at the pears, and for a moment, felt sad. Then I thought: Here I am, looking at these beautiful little burgeoning pears. Beauty presses on in spite of me. Life presses on. I smiled and thought of a verse from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” a verse that described the Grinch’s failure to stem the irrepressible arrival of Christmas Day:

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming– IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And I thought: someone else COULD manage it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful: God. God has filled this beautiful world with life and loveliness. What I could not do without plants or manure, God accomplishes season after season, year after year, all around me. He just can’t help it. Seeing my sorrow over my garden, He wanted to say: I will give you beauty. Here it is, all around you.

So my garden dreams will keep for another year. But our Father, who never fails to give his children what they need, has strewn this world with beauty. I hadn’t stopped beauty from coming– it came. Somehow or other, it came just the same.

When I was a kid in Pine Orchard Elementary School in Branford, I loved getting My Weekly Reader in school. Partly educational and partly tabloid-style journalism for kids, My Weekly Reader also offered a book club from which, one year, I ordered two items which greatly impacted my life.

The first was a set of ESP cards with an informational booklet on how to use the cards with their squiggly lines and geometric shapes to determine whether you or your friends possessed ESP (extra-sensory perception).

Not only did I score high on the test, but at the ripe age of 9, I corresponded for quite some time with one of the researchers mentioned in the booklet, who kindly took an interest in my fledgling abilities and sent me all kinds of articles on the paranormal.

The second item was the book Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer. All through my life I have had a sense of a sort of timelessness (see my post “no lasting city”). The veil between past, present, and future is very thin and always shifting for me, and I found this book very affirming. In it, a young girl lives by the sea near a place where old houses used to be; only their cellar holes remain. But when the fog comes in, the houses reappear, along with a new friend from another era. For similar reasons, I love the old Dark Shadows TV series with its themes of time travel in which characters shift between past and present, and parallel time in which they live their lives in completely different ways simultaneously.

Given all the bad decisions I’ve made in my life, I cannot claim to have great psychic powers. But through the years, there have been enough incidents where I have “sensed” something that turned out to be true to confirm that I have at least some heightened perceptual ability. The Catholic Church clearly teaches that using psychic powers to manipulate others, to summon or channel spirits, for financial gain, or other negative purposes is taboo. Yet, we cannot deny the fact of St. Padre Pio’s well-documented telepathic abilities, for example. And a natural ability to “see” realities hidden in the past, present, or future is a gift from God that need not be written off as dangerous.

With God, there is no such thing as time.  God is eternal, with no beginning and no end, and all reality is present for God as one timeless moment. For example, Mary’s purity and sinlessness were foreseen by God, hence her being chosen to be immaculately conceived in order to become the mother of Christ. Our sins were foreseen by God, hence Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection over 2000 years ago are effective in our lives today. And it works the other way too; in his book Consoling the Heart of Jesus, Fr. Michael Gaitley explains that we can console Jesus now even though His passion is completed and He is happy in heaven, because just as He could foresee our future sins and our need of His salvation, He could anticipate our prayers, suffering, and sacrifices and be consoled by them during his agony.

I find myself lying awake most nights for an hour or three. This has become my most fervent time of prayer, a sort of nocturnal adoration when I pray for all the needs of my family and friends but also for the world. On a recent night, I received an image of my father. Dad was an Ivy leaguer turned enlisted Marine who fought in the Pacific theater in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. I got a sudden image of him, a young man in his twenties, in a miserable jungle hellhole lying awake and longing for home. This image was so poignant and detailed that I knew I was being given a picture of something real. My father has been dead for over twenty years and the war ended decades before that, but I found myself praying to God to console this young Marine, my future Dad, to give him courage and peace, faith and consolation. I prayed that he would not be afraid, and that Jesus would keep his loving hand on him through the terrors of the night in that hostile place so far from home. And somehow, I knew that my prayers had real effect, that through God’s timelessness, they reached back to the jungles of Okinawa circa 1945 and consoled that young soldier. Somehow, it wasn’t too late.

This timelessness of God.  I am at a kind of crossroads in my life, where at the age of 50 the curtain seems to be falling on certain possibilities, certain cherished dreams. I have been wrestling with accepting these perceived limitations, and at times, the future has seemed destined to be a wasteland of one renunciation after another, “a perfect graveyard of buried hopes” as Anne of Green Gables would say. But these past couple days, in the midst of moments of fear or discouragement, I have been getting sudden flashes of the limitlessness of God. There is a road I travel frequently with beautiful homes from which I usually have to look away lest I go down the rabbithole of dissatisfaction; yesterday I drove past and found myself smiling with a sense of eager anticipation instead of envy. There are places I’d like to go that I scarcely allow myself to think about any more because they seem out of reach; but yesterday, I found myself actually mentally planning what I’ll do when I next go to, say, Ireland, as if it were a reality that could happen tomorrow. In truth, I may not know when it will be,  but there is no reason why it can’t happen! After all, I may be broke, but God is very, very wealthy. I may be getting older, but God says “Old? Don’t make me laugh!” Suddenly I have started waking up to this fact: God loves me! In fact, He is head over heels in love with me, and wants to shower gifts and blessings on me! He actually wants me to be happy. The same goes for you, my friend. Things may look one way now, but God has no limits. He is the clairvoyant par excellence, the time traveler uber alles, able to leap tall limitations in a single bound.  The veil of the present could tear away any moment and reveal an amazing, undreamt-of future. It’s never too late. It’s never too late. And don’t let anybody tell you different.

I am new to Facebook and have been rediscovering old friends from my childhood and high school days. Trying to summarize how I have spent the last 30 years since I last saw a certain group of friends, I rattled off things like going to college; studying Tibetan medicine in India & Nepal; living in a teepee on an organic farm; going to graduate school; studying Chinese Medicine in Maryland, New York, and England; practicing Chinese medicine in New York City; owning a dairy goat farm in North Carolina; selling antiques in Massachusetts; training to work with students with learning disabilities; and raising three kids (still working on that). A couple of friends commented on my “accomplishments” compared with their simpler, more consistent lives. I was immediately struck by the difference between “doing a lot of stuff” and real accomplishment. I may have “done a lot of stuff” in my life, but let me tell you some REAL accomplishments of seven people I know. I am not casting my net to include missionaries in third world countries, Olympic athletes, or other exceptional people. In fact, my point is, the ordinary IS the exceptional. These are a few real people from my real life; one of them might be you.

— 1 —

A mother who, every school year, prayerfully considers each of her many children, their personalities, their souls, their gifts and struggles, and diligently visits and interviews schools, teachers, staff, to find just the right school where each child will be nurtured and challenged in the ways that they need. While I am homeschooling, I think of this mother and how, though she chooses to enroll her children in school, she is mothering them every step of the way.

— 2 —

A woman who has had one husband and one job for 26 years. They have four children; two “came with the package” as she says, two they had together, and all four they have guided to a happy adulthood. When I think of my years spent flitting around the world pursuing various ephemeral somethings, she stands out as a model of stability and peacefulness.

— 3 —

A young man who has been searching for a job for two years. Not a week goes by that he does not pound the pavement, send out resumes, fill out applications online, check back at placed he’s applied. After two years of apparently fruitless searching, he has never become impatient or frustrated, and continues to say each day “God has a plan; I just have to trust in God and everything will work out.”

— 4 —

A woman on welfare who started long before Christmas each year, quietly setting aside a dollar here and there, seeking, finding, and tucking away special treasures for her children’s Christmas gifts, refusing to let poverty keep her from giving joy. An English teacher before her marriage, she trained to become a secretary, quietly supporting the office cleaning woman on her small salary. She also prepared and delivered a homemade holiday meal to an elderly couple each Christmas and Easter, delaying her own family meal till they enjoyed theirs.

— 5 —

A priest who was paralyzed on one side after a stroke. When his parish was closed, he broke down and wept, and retired as a pastor, but continues to serve Mass at other churches and do works of charity despite severe and incurable pain which he offers for others who are suffering.

— 6 —

A woman who, with her husband, carefully packed her family’s belongings and her young children for a move to South America, leaving behind home and friends. A year later, shortly after the earthquake, they again uprooted and moved their young family back to the U.S. This woman is remarkable to me because, in all the many homes she has lived in, it is she who is really “home” for her family, creating grace and peace wherever she is.

— 7 —

An elderly man who looks at his wife as if she was a new bride. He holds her hand whenever they are sitting together and uses terms of endearment whenever he speaks to her or about her. Though he can barely stand without tottering, he pulls out his wife’s chair at the table and remains standing until she is comfortable seated. He planted a flower garden outside her kitchen window so she would always have beauty to look at. At almost 90 years of age, he still tells his wife he is a lucky man to have her.

I might have done a lot of stuff in my life, but when I look at these examples, I think: maybe some day I will actually accomplish something.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

My daughter Evangeline wrote this prayer. I remember she wrote it some time ago, but somehow, when I was printing something today, it mysteriously came out of the printer. Maybe it will speak to your heart as it did to mine with the beautifully simple words of a child.

Jesus and Mary, Help Me

Jesus and Mary, thank you for this day

Help me to be good day and night

And make me happy when I am sad

I love you very much

And you are like a flower, Mary

Jesus, you are like a beautiful apple tree

Thank you for my family and friends

by Evangeline

I really want to be holy. I really do. Teresa of Avila, among many other saints, has given holiness a fairly simple definition: to always follow God’s will. But while in some areas I’m just too weak or selfish to do what I should do, in other areas I am sincerely willing but genuinely confused about just what God’s will is.

Many books have been written on this subject. Don’t let ’em fool ya; they won’t tell you how you can always know God’s will so you might as well save your money. Sure, we know there are at least a few clear-cut ways to discern God’s will: obeying the ten commandments and precepts of the Church; tending to the obvious duties of our state in life (caring for a sick child, being diligent at work, preparing food for the family); fulfilling vows we have made, whether to marriage, the priesthood, or religious life; following inspirations to perform acts of charity that do not impinge on our primary obligations; and so on. But there is still a lot of gray area, and as far as I can tell, no book is going to clear this up for me. Neither is “praying about it;” I am rarely never given any divine revelations on this score.

The torment continues when I consider an oft-stated fact that is meant to console but instead leaves me in a state of confusion: When we sincerely attempt to discern God’s will, and do what we think His will is to the best of our knowledge, He honors that choice, even if it does not perfectly fulfill what He would have chosen for us at that moment. In other words, we are rewarded exactly as if we had known and followed God’s ordaining will. Since this means a sincere person really can’t lose, why does it torment me? Because I’m not merely “uncertain” about God’s will; I often fail at taking even the wildest stab in the dark at what it is.

Let me give you an example. As a woman of a certain age with a husband and three kids, I am also home schooling, working on a number of projects, and part of several different church-related groups, each with its obligations. I often struggle with the question of how to budget my energy. If the kids want to go on an adventure in the morning, do I abandon myself to the spirit of the moment, pour out my energy, and trust that God will give me what I need to get through the afternoon chores, visit a friend recuperating from surgery, and shop for, cook, and serve the meal I promised for a local church’s Community Meals program? Or do I hold back in the morning to be sure I have enough energy to get through the evening? What if a friend with five kids asks me to babysit one morning, which means pushing homeschooling to the afternoon, putting off a grocery shopping trip till evening, and not getting my messy house cleaned yet another day? Do I say yes because she needs the help and technically I will be home, hoping God will supply the energy I lack, or do I decline, predicting it might leave me too exhausted for the homeschooling and other duties? Do I volunteer for a worthwhile church activity even though I feel overextended already, hoping God will bless the sacrifice; or do I humbly recognize my limits and politely decline?

Father Jacques Philippe writes about this dilemma. He makes the point that God is not always calling us to do the hardest thing. He tells how sometimes he knows he is being called to stay up and spend an extra hour in prayer at the chapel. Yet another time, with a problem weighing on his mind, he concludes that God is telling him that instead of struggling to stay awake and pray, he should rest, and let God solve the problem while he sleeps.

But how do we know which is is? I’ve tried it both ways: holding back and pouring out. There is no predictable outcome. Sometimes I pour out all my energy and find I am miraculously given more. But sometimes the opposite happens, and I am left exhausted and lifeless. On the other hand, sometimes when I hold back on something, I find I have more to give to something else. But other times it works the opposite way, and after holding back, I find I STILL don’t have enough energy for the rest of the day’s obligations. The results of years of tinkering with this delicate balance are inconclusive. And this is just one of dozens of areas of uncertainty.

“Of course, some people do go both ways…”

But I am able to conclude one thing. Once again, it is a call to abandonment. To not have a system. To not bargain with God or weigh everything in the balance. To stop trying to predict the outcome.  Because as my friend Kate has told me (see “it’s all for you”), we never really do anything;  it’s all God. When we accomplish incredible things, He is really the life-giving source. And when it seems we can’t manage anything, it’s He who carries us like weary children in His fatherly arms. Part of the lesson for me in all of this is: sometimes I have to accept not doing things well.  I have to accept carrying on despite exhaustion. I have to accept the sense of regret and failure when I have opted out of a sacrifice. I have to accept that I am not in control of my life. And I have to accept not knowing whether I have pleased God. But I think somehow, peacefully accepting not knowing may be what pleases Him most.

I have figured it out.

I’ve figured out why I am never at home away from the water.

When I was a kid growing up in Branford, the onset of summer signaled the annual pilgrimage to Page’s Sport Shop on Main Street to pick up a copy of the Tide Table. The Tide Table ruled my life in the summer. It determined what time of day I would pedal my bike over to Hotchkiss Grove Beach or Branford Point in order to hit high tide and the best swimming with my friends who haunted the same beaches (we lived a barefoot, semi-feral existence in the summer months)….unless I wanted to combine swimming with a search for shells or seaglass or digging for clams, in which case it was a fine art determining when to hit the beach so that the tide would be coming in just when I finished collecting my treasures and I could once again make my home in the waves.

Some years ago, I saw the movie “The Secret of Roan Inish” which unfolds something like a fairy tale and includes, among many themes, the Celtic myth of the selkie– if indeed a myth it be. A selkie is a seal who can assume human form by removing its skin, though the sea always remains its true home. In the movie, a man discovers that the woman he has fallen in love with is a selkie. He marries her, hiding her sealskin to keep her on land, and she goes about in a state of wistful longing until she finally discovers the skin and returns to the sea.

Well, that explains it. I don’t live anywhere near salt water now, alas, but I am constantly seeking water…As I float along in one of the local lakes, invariably my eyes close and I imagine I am back at one of the craggy beaches in Connecticut, or in Nantucket, or Prince Edward Island. In a pinch, even a pool will do, as I have vivid powers of imagination. But always and everywhere, in lake or pond or rain puddle, I am seeking the sea.

In “The Secret of Roan Inish” there are scenes where seals are bobbing their heads above water, then disappearing beneath the surface, closely watching the doings of human beings from a safe distance. I saw a similar scene in Nantucket last summer when a family of seals appeared along the horizon line, popping up above the surface and then plunging back down to the depths. It reminded me of those days on the beaches of my youth, when Peter, Beth, Joey, and I, with whoever else might be there, played a game called Marco Polo, diving and surfacing over and over again trying to escape whoever was “it.”

I’ve figured out my true identity. And why I am always homesick away from the water. And why I am always just a little outside the world of human beings.

If I could just find where that sealskin is hidden.

(Painting by Jessica Shirley. Visit her art blog: http://www.jessicashirley.blogspot.com/)