Several people have asked if it is possible to purchase a print of my grandmother’s painting of the Owl and Girl which graces this site. There is a small printing company called Encore Editions that carries the image and will make various sizes for purchase. Visit their website and search for Jane Morton Norton. That is my Grandmother (1909-1988). She would be thrilled by the attention to her art.
One thing that I can see that is coming to light from our time spent with the pandemic is the great disparity of how each of us is impacted. One might be enjoying her isolation, as another longs to escape. Some are pulling fifty-hour shifts in chaotic ICU wards, while others are learning how to bake with the quiet time offered them. Some are dying, while others are learning to live more authentically than ever. Life is a paradox. It always has been. Anytime you are enjoying a meal, you can be sure that a mother, somewhere in the world, is unable to feed her child. Life is unfair. This has always been true. But, it is also true that life around the globe is improving. The New York Times contributor Nicholas Kristof writes a piece at the end of every year about the state of the world. I try and send it around to friends. The world makes great strides every year in the alleviation of poverty and all the ills that accompany it. It’s vitally important, if we wish for the lives of every member of the family of man to improve around the globe, that the awareness of the disparity of how those lives are lived comes near enough to touch our hearts. This pandemic is bringing this understanding nearer. I pray we listen to what it has to teach us.
So many of us are fearful of the battle going on in Washington, it feels so very mired in divisiveness and hatred. I understand that it is tough to stay positive of our future. If one is too hopeful of things coming right, one risks being seen as naïve, as not following politics closely enough. It is difficult to keep one’s faith alight when there is so much news that frustrates, infuriates. I understand, but at the same time I continue to believe that the progress of mankind is inevitable, and I hold on to the belief in the ultimate unfolding of the good and noble spirit of this country. One notion that keeps me afloat is the belief that there are beings, (let’s call them angels) who watch over the souls of nations. I like to try and picture our country’s grand angel, hovering over us, loving us, guiding us.
Two years ago, while talking to a friend on the phone who lives in New York City, I went to a despairing place around the apparent narrowing of our country’s generous spirit. I lost my hope for a moment, and so in turn did my friend. We finally hung up from the exhaustion of our shared despair. An hour later, exactly five minutes apart from one another, we sent each other photos, which we had just taken of the sky over our homes, (one hundred miles from one another). Each image was of an unusual cloud. My friend’s photo revealed a magnificent feather in the sky over Manhattan and my photo was of what looked to be a grand spirit coming down from the heavens to kiss the ground.
We had spoken in the past of the idea of that an angelic being might be employed to watch over us. We were both at least willing to believe that The United States had such a guardian. We were truly lifted.
At the risk of being perceived as too trusting, I encourage you to try and keep the faith in the good spirit of our nation. We will come through this.
I have been walking in the same rural park for twenty-five years with my dogs, and for a time, I followed a path that took me by two tall straight maple trees. Every day, while nearing them, I found that I would stop and stare in the direction of these trees, as if there were something, or someone there that arrested my attention. I wondered whether it could be an angel, or some other spirit of the forest. Once I stopped, and could see that some trees just behind these two tall trees had fallen and created a cross. After some time I thought I would bring a little gift to whomever it was arresting my attention in this spot in the woods, and brought a small cross of red glass (just an inch tall). I hung it on a tiny chain on one of the trees. The next day as I approached this spot, the sun burst through the woods, bounced off of the cross and hit me in the chest with a tremendously warm, red vibrancy. I stood in this light for sometime, feeling that it had some other-worldly power. It really was tremendous. I felt deeply touched.
After this day, assuming that this wonderful experience was due to the timing of my arrival, and the sun’s angle, I attempted to arrive around the same time in the morning to elicit the same response from the angle of the sun shining on the cross. But, as much as I tried to recreate the conditions of the light display, this phenomenon was never repeated. Throughout the four seasons of seven or so years, the cross hung in the same spot, but never reflected a single shaft of light. I had to conclude that the piercing light I experienced the day after I had offered the gift to the woods had been a sort of thank you.
At the end of those seven years, the cross disappeared. I hope whoever took it found it a comfort.
At some point, during a particularly hot summer I started to walk another section of the park that would allow for my dogs to cool off in a lively creek. I walked this path for another seven years or so, but have just recently altered my course to follow the path that passes the two maples again.
The other day I thought to myself, I wonder if it really was a being in this spot near the trees that I was sensing? An angel perhaps?
When I neared the trees, I was arrested by a leaf hanging by a long thread of an old cobweb. The leaf, twisting and moving on its thread would turn gently, allowing me to see it from all angles, and then move away to the right on an angle that made it look so much like a little bird that it was truly uncanny. I watched this magical leaf/bird/leaf/bird for sometime before I took my phone out to capture its display.
click on link below
This past winter I revisited an old love from my childhood. When I was seven, the movie Thomasina was released. I was thoroughly in love with this film, narrated at times through the mind of a cat, and revolving around a difficult, and seemingly heartless veterinarian with a practice in a small village in Scotland. I remembered the movie mostly for one character: a woman believed to be a witch by some of the residents of the town, and who lives in the hills caring for the wild animals. These creatures would find her cottage when wounded or distressed and she would keep them and care for them until they could be rereleased into the wild. Over half a century passed before I thought to search for the film. It was difficult to find, I had to purchase it, but I was charmed all over again, such a beautiful story exploring faith and redemption.
Though I adored the movie, I suspected that it might have only hinted at the depth of the story – it was, after all, produced by Mr. Disney – and so I went searching for the book. I am so happy I persevered! The book, written by Paul Gallico, explores the themes of prayer and faith with such a graceful pen. I highly recommend it!
Thomasina, by Paul Gallico
We have just witnessed a political narrative of enormous consequence in our country with the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stating that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. We cannot know the truth, because none of us was in that room when the alleged assault occurred. There are those who will say that they believe her without question, and those who say that they believe him without question, but none of us can know with absolute surety. There was a third person in the room, Mark Judge, who has denied Dr. Ford’s allegations.
In Christine’s testimony she said that several times during the assault she looked pleadingly at Mark to help her and he chose not come to her aid. Thirty years later, when Christine again looked to Mark to come to her aid, he chose not to support her allegations. If what Dr. Ford testified to having happened is the truth, then Mr. Judge was given two chances to right a wrong, and chose twice to decline.
Having watched both Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s defense, I lean heavily toward believing Dr. Ford, but I understand that I may never know the truth. And, though I believed that Judge Kavanaugh’s response to the allegations, his coming unhinged, his partisan rant should have disqualified him, the choice was made by the majority in the senate to allow this man the great privilege of serving the court, and I must accept this. This could be viewed as a win for those who wished for his confirmation. And, for those who did not wish for this man to be confirmed, it could very well be viewed as a loss. But I have to believe that if a win is based on a lie it is ultimately a loss, and that which is construed as a worldly win will prove not to be a win after all.
Just before Jesus departed the world he told his disciples not to despair, that he would send them the comforter, the Holy Spirit, that which he called the “Spirit of Truth.”
We might be tempted at times like these to believe that the Spirit of Truth is on holiday, taking a long nap, or worse. I don’t believe this. The Spirit of Truth is still very much alive. Indeed, I have found with my own wrestlings with the truth, and by observing others, that each time we are given an opportunity to speak the truth, and make the choice to bury it, the Spirit of Truth is given even greater license to find ways of exposing our falsehoods. These opportunities will come round and round in the course of our lives, and each time the opportunity is given us, it will be more painful for us to push the deceit back down into our spirits. Our spirits long to speak the truth. The truth sets us free from the bondage of living with a lie. I have also observed that each time we are given an opportunity to release a lie, the consequences of not doing so are greater. A lie will eat at our mental and physical health, our lives, our happiness.
Take heart, friends, the Spirit of Truth has suffered no wounds from this national narrative, it is still tirelessly working to set us all free.
Barking to the Choir
by Gregory Boyle
I heard an interview on NPR recently with the Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle. For those who are not familiar with him, he was placed in the eighties as a parish priest in the poorest, gang-beleaguered neighborhood in LA. And, as a result, founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.
Greg told the interviewer that he was moved to become a Jesuit because he went to a Jesuit school, and he found the Jesuits to be the funniest people he knew. He is a very funny person himself, and his writings, and I understand his talks, are more stand-up comedy than one might expect, given his subject matter.
The radio interview was to promote his second book, Barking to the Choir, which I immediately downloaded as an audio book. I liked his voice. I only listen to audio books in the car, and so spent the next couple of weeks driving around in a state of heightened emotions, drowning in tears and explosive hysteria. Each trip to the grocery store was a lifetime’s worth of enlightenment. It is a story of true walking faith.
I have always believed that comedy was holy. Like music, it falls from heaven.
How else could we absorb such stories as the histories of those drawn and affected by gang violence, without falling into utter despair? This book does more than allow us to walk in the shoes of those in Gregory Boyles’ world, it lifts us into the luminous atmosphere of pure love. “Throw away all of your books on faith,” I wrote on his Amazon page, “and read this book!”
Approximately nine months after I turned in my playwriting pen for one that I could use to write essays, I began to pray for an editor. As with many of my prayers, the longer I waited for the answer, the pickier I grew, adding all sorts of conditions to my original request. Among my list of qualifications were that this person be clear, firm, smart, (but not smart enough to refuse to take me on) and, most important, gentle.
At some point during this time I volunteered to help my childhood friend Boo pack up and move her mother Doris out of her apartment in Massachusetts. Doris had been my grandmother Jane’s closest friend. This grandmother is the one who painted the painting on the cover of this book, and who had such a positive influence on my childhood.
Boo and I allowed ourselves two days for packing and sometime during the afternoon of the first day we panicked. “We have to go out to get more boxes,” Boo said. “Yes,” I agreed, “but if we do that we will never be finished in time.” We proceeded to stare off in paralyzed lethargy. A moment later my editor Aina Barten walked through the door. Her husband followed with a stack of boxes. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that she was my editor. She was another of my grandmother’s friends and, I was to discover, worked at the time editing for Orion Magazine. Did my grandmother have a hand in orchestrating this encounter? I’m not sure how these things work, but I do know that Aina is the perfect answer to my fussy prayers.
This story was a precursor to that which I recently encountered after praying for a book designer for this project. After months of prayer and added embellishment, I began to lose heart. I wanted someone who shared similar sensibilities, who would create something lovely, but (and this is the tricky part), I hoped for someone I could work with in person.
My very fine poet friend, Hayden Saunier, who it turns out made a living for several years as a copy editor, fell easily into my team, willing to plod through my book, pointing out boo-boos and inconsistencies. A friend of Hayden’s suggested I take a look at a website based in England that connects authors and designers. I searched and searched the site with growing frustration. Most of the near 400 designers would have been a miserable fit, and those who vaguely resonated lived in Glasgow or Sidney. The next day my friend Carolyn Mercatante, the artist who took such care with the woodland illustrations for the chapter headings (also a perfect fit), offered to sit with me while I looked through the site. We combed and combed, with nothing even remotely speaking to us, when we stumbled upon Brooke Koven, and both heard the Halleluiah Chorus.
“Perfect!” we sang out. “I don’t care where she lives!” I added. We did look to see where she was located, out of curiosity, and discovered that her address was twenty minutes from where we sat. Kismet.
Of course, nothing ever seems that simple when one is anxiously hoping for answers. The few paragraphs above represent fourteen years, and buckets full of doubts. But, all the while, I can see that I was guided.
So, let me thank the one who guides me. Thank you Dear, for my Grandmother Jane who painted, for Aina who edits, for Carolyn who draws, for Hayden who proofs and for Brooke who designs.
I am all-aglow with gratitude.
I think it is time I introduced my beloved George MacDonald. Perhaps some of you might be familiar with his children’s literature. I began reading him as a child and have never let up.
MacDonald was born in Scotland in 1824, became a minister, and because of his honesty with his parishioners about what it really means to follow the teachings of Jesus, he was slowly forced out of his parish. Offered a lower and lower salary, as his wife produced more and more offspring, MacDonald was finally forced to retire. I say, thank God for this because it gave him the time and inclination to write. This he did with a fury for the rest of his life, piling up forty novels, many fairy tales, several children’s books and reams of poetry.
My first introduction to him was a book written for children called The Princess and the Goblin, the first of two books about Curdie, the son of a coal miner, who helps to rid his kingdom of goblins. The book is very beautifully written, and captured my heart.
There is a metaphor for God in the book, a mystical grandmother of sorts, which illuminates the ways in which God might work in our lives. I have read the book many times since a child, and memorably revisited it when I went through a particularly painful failure (or so I viewed it) of one of my plays in New York, when I was in my early thirties. Grateful to have my good friend by my side, I was much comforted, and learned to see the experience as instructive, a gift rather than a beating.
I’ve read this book so many times before and since this experience that it has taken up permanent residence on my bedside table.
There is a door, I believe, in each of us, that I will call The Child Door. It’s through this door that the simplest, purest philosophical thought will sometimes enter. This is the door that allows us to welcome truth without the weight of dogma, to begin to remember what we might have known before we came into this life. I hope to write a piece for Listen Well about the wisdom of keeping this door ajar, or if somehow it has been allowed to shut, to attempt to pry it open.
I would recommend, if you wish to invite these simple truths into your life, that you consider reading George MacDonald. You might begin with The Princess and the Goblin, and continue on to his collection of Fairy tales.
Ok, so a Christian a Muslim and an atheist walk into a restaurant. One of them gives the waiter all sorts of hell, complains about his table, sends his food back, twice, and refuses to leave a tip. Do we care what the man’s theology is?
I would like to give a shout out to my atheist and agnostic peeps. I have known plenty of people who deny, or are unsure of the existence of a spiritual world, but whose daily practice of loving-kindness would astound. If I understand the basic teachings of Jesus correctly, anyone who treats his neighbor as he would hope to be treated is a practicing Christian. And, we are all just practicing our creeds, our philosophies. I would rather see the teachings of Jesus acted out in service than in lip service.
I am heaps more uncomfortable with the fundamentalist than the atheist, though it is possible to be a fundamentalist atheist, and these can be pretty frightening. Any philosophy can be twisted by a rabid mind.
I will not always recommend books whose authors wear their religion on their sleeve. There are some books that are written with such a loving pen, such generosity toward their characters, that I consider these books to be transcendent. I will try and recommend books that have taken me to a place where my mind has been lifted into the finer atmosphere of love.
One such book is The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer. The book is a memoir of the author’s upbringing on Long Island, raised by a single mother and the kindly regulars of local watering hole. “Everyone has a holy place, a refuge, where their heart is purer, their mind clearer, where they feel close to God or love or truth or whatever it is they happen to worship,” writes Moehringer, of the bar where his uncle bartended, and where he found a group of fathering souls.
I fell in love with this book. I hope you will too.
You might have noticed that the Listen Well site has undergone a shmancy new upgrade. At some point during discussions with my web designer it was suggested that I might wish to write a small blog.
“But, the spoken word pieces serve as a blog!” (or a blab, as I like to call it), “Wouldn’t this be redundant?”
But then it occurred to me that I might use the space to do what I like most to do to my friends: nag them into reading the latest book that I have fallen in love with.
I can love a book with overwhelming obsession. I fall like a teenager, and aggravate everyone around me with my worshiping zeal. But unlike a teenager, I am not fickle, and certain writers have occupied rooms in my heart for so long that I consider them family members. “Ah yes,” I might say, “I believe that was said by old uncle Ralph Waldo.” Or, “has anyone seen my copy of cousin Clive’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? I was thinking of pushing it on a new friend.”
In fact, let me begin my recommendations with this first book of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series.
My grandmother read The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to me when I was five, and I fell utterly in love. I was to read the full series when I was a bit older, and have continued to revisit these books throughout my life. They are among the wagon-full of books that I have pulled along beside me through life. They have continued to sustain me throughout every decade, sharpening my faith, my curiosity, my love of life, nature, animals.
When I was a child, I did not understand that the figure of the great lion, Aslan, was a metaphor for Christ, and that the books were loaded with allegory. I just knew that I loved them, and I loved Aslan. In later years I would come to appreciate the wisdom behind this choice of allegorical figures.
The image above is of a wooden lion’s head that hung on my grandmother’s wall for years, and now hangs on mine. It has always reminded me of the great Aslan, and has led me back to the land of Narnia time after time.
If you have never read this series, or only did so as a child, I beg you – you see what my friends have been putting up with for years? – I strongly recommend that you run to the store and buy a copy of the first book in the series, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.