Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton’

“Wilson’s Bird of Paradise,” by Diana Sudyka (2007).

“Here is an entry from my journal that fell off my desk and landed on my lap and opened to this page.”

This quote is from an article (“Prayer, Poverty, and Creativity”) by Brother Paul Quenon in Parabola’s Spring 2012 issue. The quote had been pulled out and featured in a largish text box, so it was impossible to miss. And since I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to write about, I took it as a sign and used it as a writing prompt: I would randomly choose a page from my own online journal and use it as a jumping-off point for a blog post.

This was a risky move. Brother Paul’s journal entry was a meaningful and beautifully written meditation on prayer; he used it as the foundation of a piece about contemplation and creativity. He wove in some lovely poetry by Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson. Altogether it was so wonderful I could hardly stand it.

But I randomly opened one of the journals I keep on the computer and landed on a passage that was quite colorful and referenced an original poem of my own—a bonus. I dug the poem out of the archives to include as decoration and make my post more like Brother Paul’s piece. Not that I am presenting my journal entry + poem as comparable to Brother Paul’s—far from it.

(In fact, as I tried to jot down some notes about the article so I wouldn’t forget them, I found that my pen sputtered and spit in a really aggravating way. It’s my favorite pen, mind you. Usually it writes very smoothly and is a pleasure to use, but once in a while it becomes cantankerous, distributing ink unevenly or not at all. It seems to like only the finest paper, and performs well only at a certain temperature. This led me to contemplate that I am exactly the same, myself. Once in a while I am able to write clearly and say precisely what I wish; other times I have a devil of a time getting anything down at all, or it comes out in such an unholy mess that it makes me stamp around and sulk.)

The journal entry that fell open (though not on my lap) was about just such a day. So without further ado, here it is, with a poem in the middle:

I have started a story, but it’s not going well.  I got distracted and had to write a poem for Will’s birthday, because I forgot his birthday until several days after it had passed.  Lateness required that I write him a poem to make up for it….  Funny thing is, last year I wrote him a birthday poem because he whined for one, and I ended up writing about the Florida wildfires. I got up this morning and there it was on the news:  more Florida wildfires.  There must be a connection between Will’s birthday and conflagration. 

William’s birthday?
No, it’s not!
(Yes, it was.
I just forgot.)
My perfect record
Has a blot
His birthday passed,
And I forgot.
Blame it on
A wicked plot!
Faulty calendars!
Advanced brain-rot!
Blame on, blame on,
It matters not—
The simple truth is
I forgot.
But William, here’s
A worn ten-spot.
Is all forgiven…
…and forgot?

A couple of nights ago we watched “Attenborough in Paradise” on PBS. David Attenborough went deep into the jungles of New Guinea to film birds of paradise. They are really amazing things, with brightly colored feathers that shoot out in all directions like fireworks.  My personal favorite was the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  The little curled tail-feathers are precious, and the Carolina-blue helmet is nice, too.  I found the most adorable painting of this bird at The Tiny Aviary blog, and the artist, Diana Sudyka, wrote underneath it: “I swear I did not make this bird up.”  It does look like a made-up bird.

Speaking of birds, last night on “Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern was in Spain. He traveled out into the countryside and stopped at a restaurant where the chef prepared sautéed rooster combs and served them with rice. Andrew tried one and said, “Oh, they just melt in your mouth.”  Here’s what he wrote about it on his blog:  “A rooster crest really is the zigzag crown that sits on top of a rooster’s head. They are braised, peeled, and then some of the crests are chopped and stirred into the risotto, while several others are napped with a chicken glacé and perched atop the finished dish. If you love chicken feet, imagine all the gelatinous delight of those morsels multiplied by a factor of 100.”

The next day, Ernesto was still talking about his suddenly urgent desire to go to Barcelona, stay in the country, and eat delicious cheeses and ham.  “And rooster combs,” I reminded him.
“Rooster combs?” he said. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“Why not? Andrew says they melt in your mouth.”
Ernesto considered this.  “They will have to melt somewhere else,” he said.

Now that I’ve pieced together my journal entry and poem, illustrated it with Diana Sudyka’s wonderful painting (used with permission), and have run out of ink, as it were, I’m going to go back to Brother Paul’s article and pull out the essence of what he had to say about creativity:

True creativity does not need an excuse. It is its own motivation. It is spontaneous. It need not win public recognition, and its aim is not success.

Success is not the goal of creativity. Success can be a threat to creativity and become an end to itself. As Merton said, “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” Creativity, as life itself, is grounded in and shares in the sacred. … St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries opens with an appeal: Listen. … Listen, obaudire, also means obey. In listening, something new can emerge, something beyond my own assumptions, control and agenda.

I hear you, Brother Paul. I hear you.

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I quoted Thomas Merton in my last post, and now it seems as if I’m running across his writings everywhere. My friend Wendy in Jacksonville forwarded his poem “Song: If You Seek” to me awhile back; I’m including it below. When she sent it, she wrote that she knew a man who had been a friend of Merton’s, and the friend told her, “Merton was a writer. He could not scratch his nose without writing about it.” Wendy added:

And, just yesterday, it came to me that a reason I like Merton so much is that he wrote his life out for all to see, sort of mapping human thought, human expression.  And the message is: I am human, an aspect of All That Is; no thought is alien to me.

Sometimes I worry that most of the writing I do is altogether too human, filled with more nose-scratching than could possibly be healthy. As evidence, I give you two actual journal entries from 2002:

I ordered pizza for supper and only ate three small slices, so maybe I am sick and don’t know it. I took sinus med again this evening, because my face-ache started up again.

I had to take two Benadryl to combat stuffy nose/headache symptoms, and that of course meant I had to go to bed straight away. I slept for two solid hours, then got up and read, made some notes on my story (very few), and ate a bowl of cereal. Later I had popcorn.

Now, there are much more interesting entries in my journals, but I am singling out the everyday, plodding-along sort of writing that feels like old chewing gum. This is the sort of writing in which it is clear that the writer has nothing to say, really, but knows that she must keep writing. Well, I maintain—and I believe that Merton would agree—that even the dreariest, most self-involved of this everyday writing has a certain power: The power to evoke something better. Everyday writing keeps a door propped open, so even as a parade of ills, errands, and grievances marches past on the page, a real insight may suddenly emerge and surprise us all.

Not today, you understand, but possibly soon.


Song: If You Seek

If you seek a heavenly light
I, Solitude, am your professor!

I go before you into emptiness,
Raise strange suns for your new mornings,
Opening the windows
Of your innermost apartment.

When I, loneliness, give my special signal
Follow my silence, follow where I beckon!
Fear not, little beast, little spirit
(Thou word and animal)
I, Solitude, am angel
And have prayed in your name.

Look at the empty, wealthy night
The pilgrim moon!
I am the appointed hour,
The “now” that cuts
Time like a blade.

I am the unexpected flash
Beyond “yes,” beyond “no,”
The forerunner of the Word of God.

Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers:
For I, Solitude, am thine own self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen!

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Christmas Eve 2010

Thanksgiving is behind us, but Ernesto and I are still recovering from some of the effects of our travel to North Carolina. I came home with a nasty case of poison ivy from digging fishing worms. He evidently caught a nasty cold from one of the many sniffly children on our return flight. Ernesto thinks that our ailments are actually physical manifestations of  North Carolina withdrawal, plain and simple, and he may be right. We had such a great time with family, and we ate so much wonderful food like Hursey’s barbecue, Nixon’s fried perch, Zooland Special pizza from Liberty, and oh my goodness banana cake with caramel frosting and pumpkin pie and pork roast and turkey and ham and sweet potato casserole and the food at the Carolina Inn and breakfast at Foster’s and link sausages from Layden’s Country Store in Belvidere. Oh, and Mama’s German chocolate pie—I snagged the last piece.

Then there are the happy memories of sloshing pumpkin pie filling into the floor while trying to get the pans into the oven and Holli ‘s “My name’s Chubby” routine, where she mashes her face between her hands to make herself look very much like a Sharpei while making up things for Chubby to say that always end with the most hilarious little Chubby smile. 

So of course getting poison ivy (on my face) was a small price to pay for so much joy.

Now we are keeping cheerful by reliving our visit and taking medications and watching the Christmas lights go up on all the houses around ours. I am partial to the gazebo lights on the house two doors down, which I have a clear view of from the kitchen window. It makes me very happy when those particular lights come on. For one thing, it signals that I will soon have a whole week off while the university is closed for the holidays, and that means time to slow down, read a lot, and try to write. For another thing, it reminds me that writing itself is a way of turning on a light—not for any practical purpose, but simply for the charm of the light itself.

Two years ago I read several memorable books over the Christmas break. One was Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin. The title character is a nun in late 19th-century Russia with a gift for solving mysteries. Her bishop asks that she visit his aunt, whose prized bulldogs are being poisoned.

(As he tells Sr. Pelagia about the aunt and her dogs, the bishop peppers his story with random bulldog details as he thinks of them: The bulldogs are being bred to be all white with one brown ear, which is supposed to resemble the helmets worn by a noble order of gentlemen; they are bred to have pink noses with black spots; they are also bred to have particularly loose, slobbery mouths. Later, as she walks to the aunt’s house to investigate the dogs’ deaths, Sr. Pelagia passes an area near the river where a crowd is gathered to watch the police recover three beheaded bodies. She pauses there, thinking, “Some people had fearful mysteries to untangle, and others had to investigate how an old woman’s slack-lipped darling had died.”) 

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Sr. Pelagia sits down to dinner with the family and a few guests that first evening. They talk about art, and the difference between talent and genius. One guest says talent and genius mean nothing—you must simply do the task before you diligently. Then the guests ask Pelagia what the church has to say on the subject of talent and genius. She replies:

I think that there is genius hidden in everyone, a little hole through which God is visible. But it is rare for anyone to discover this opening in themselves. Everybody gropes for it like blind kittens, but they keep missing. If a miracle occurs, then someone realizes straightaway that this is what he came into the world for, and after that he lives with a calm confidence and cannot be distracted by anybody else, and that is genius. But talents are encountered far more frequently. They are people who have not found that little magic window, but are close to it and are nourished by the reflected glow of its miraculous light.

During that same Christmas break I read Jill Jepson’s Writing as a Sacred Path, and she echoed Akunin’s idea that writing draws the writer closer to God. She quoted Thomas Merton, who said that writing helped him pray because it made the “mirror inside” very clear: “God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if he had come close to me while I was writing, and I had not observed his coming.”

Of course Thomas Merton is a genius, and I am not. But it is the trying that matters. If I look for the light in the little magic window I know I will at least sense a reflected glow, and sometimes that  is miracle enough.


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