Seashells: Walking and Light

A friend gave me twenty-six seashells. Each is beautiful, complex, and unique. They are unexpected gifts found in unexpected places to be received, treasured and shared. The twenty-fifth shell.

I went for a walk in the cemetery today. That’s where I usually end up when I step out the door with a mind toward wandering the neighborhood to pound some of my scattered clamor of thoughts into the pavement.
There was a chilly wind.
The sun was starting its descent.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped pushing against the wind and started to walk with it. Not in the wind’s direction, but in my own…with less resistance to the push and chill of the wind.
Less occupied with keeping myself away from the wind, my mind was free to let a lot of its clamor blow away. The feel of the wind whipping at my sweatshirt and the sound of my walking shoes thumping on the pavement…these slowly came to own my thoughts. Those thoughts eventually gave way to remembrance.
Then simple revelation.
A good many of the formative moments in my memory are somehow touched by two things: walking and light (or the lack of it…or its movement). When I attempt a description of these moments, my memory finds rest in the sound of my feet on the pavement and the surrounding light.

Strange noticing this. And I can’t say exactly why.

Walking and light. Movement and sight.
For these I am thankful.


Dad’s Poetry: The Foundling

The Foundling

Darkness blinding,
Robbing, binding
Killing life and spawning fears,

Took his heart and
Courage, virtue
In defenseless, early years.

Stripped him, shamed him,
Mocked him, maimed him,
Plunged him deep in awful sin.

Bent him, rent him
To present him
Trophy to a devil. Then

He from God fled
Where the path led
In long halls of horrid hell,

Where he tarried,
Wearied, harried
Till in agony he fell,

Beaten, dying,
Weeping, sighing,
Swallowed by the grieving deep,

Past despairing,
Nor yet daring
From the precipice to leap.

Though hope had died
His spirit cried
And in torment sought to call

On One above
Whose whispered love
Sounded faintly through the pall.

Then in the night
Came probing light,
Undeterred by price to pay.
Great God came down,
Put off His crown,
Took the child He’d brought to bay

To sheltered fold,
To peace untold
Where await ninety and nine.

By mirrored pool
Redemption’s jewel
Rests eternally to shine

As witness of
Avenging Dove
And to bow before his King

Through endless days
To join in praise
For slain Lamb twixt cherub’s wing.

Alive, once dead,
To bride now wed,
Holy, shining like the sun.

And in His light
All is set right.
Heaven’s victory is won.

Seashells: I’m Nathan Coulter.

A friend gave me twenty-six seashells. Each is beautiful, complex, and unique. They are unexpected gifts found in unexpected places to be received, treasured and shared. The twenty-fourth shell.

A good many of these shells mark times that I encounter beauty. Beauty is not a word I like to use lightly because it does hold such depths of transcendence – of joy and pain entwined with something large and eternal. This beauty, if I allow it, gives me pause. It makes its way through the labyrinth that is my heart and, for a moment, time is suspended and a line of vision appears. In that moment I am allowed a glimpse of myself – that most central part of a person which no word but their own name, spoken in truth and in love, is able to touch.

One of these moments came along last week as I was reading one of Wendell Berry’s Three Short Novels. I’ll share it here in the hope that you’ll find it as beautiful as I did. Here we have Nathan Coulter as a young boy, encountering beauty:

“Let’s go swimming,” Brother said.
He started upstream again toward the sandbar, and I went with him, feeling a little guilty  as if Jig might tell the Lord on us.But when we got to the sandbar Brother began to take his clothes off, running to the water; and I ran too, trying to beat him.
I kicked my clothes off and ran out into the river, letting the weight of it against my legs trip me under. I felt the water slap over my head, and I swam down the slope of the rock bottom until the deep cold made my ears ache. I rolled over and looked up into the blackness. The current carried me along. I loosened myself in it, and held still in the movement of the water, I couldn’t tell whether my head was up or down; I felt as if I could swim forever in any direction. My lungs tightened, wanting to breathe, and I kicked the bottom away from me and swam up until I saw a patch of light floating on the surface. I broke through it into the air again. I shook the water out of my eyes and floated. The sky seemed a deeper blue after my eyes had been in the dark. Over my head a white cloud unraveled in the wind. The sky widened to the tops of the hills that circled around the valley. Inside the ring of hilltops trees grew along both banks of the river. They leaned toward me — willow and maple and sycamore.
I watched them, letting myself float in the slow current. I thought if I floated to the mouth of the river I’d always be at the center of a ring of trees and a ring of hills and a ring where the sky touched. I said, “I’m Nathan Coulter.” It seemed strange.
Brother swam up behind me and threw water in my face. We raced back to the shallow water and waded out onto the bar.


Talking about bread again…

I find that I do most of this baking on Sunday afternoons. Sundays I come home from church and go to the kitchen and I bake tins of muffins, loaves of banana bread. Slowly, I begin to understand the timing, that all this Sunday afternoon baking is a response to church, that I want to feed people as Ellie feeds people, as I have been fed; not being a priest, all these muffins are the closest I can come. I read that bread is “regarded as necessary for sustaining life.” I bake loaves of whole-wheat challah, zucchini bread. I leave them on doorsteps all over town.

Something from Lauren Winner’s new book Still that a friend passed along to me this week. Thought I’d share it here while munching on a slice of homemade bread.


Church is not easy for me and I have my doubts that this will ever change (mmm…cynical, much?). God doesn’t seem distant or close, real or imagined. Just mysterious, the big and intriguingly dark kind of mysterious. There’s very little in the day to day that brings a sense of rootedness in that mystery other than my own squirming awareness of it and my dislike of the snippy, unambiguous, black and white images of God floating around…

All that being said, I bake bread. I bake it and give it away. There’s something in the making and giving of this bread that is…I don’t know. There’s a certain transcendence to it. A response to the mystery, maybe…

Seashells: “It’s okay. You can go now.”

A friend gave me twenty-six seashells. Each is beautiful, complex, and unique. They are unexpected gifts found in unexpected places to be received, treasured and shared. The twenty-third shell.

My mom tells a story of a time she visited an elderly woman in the hospital. The woman was dying. She was ready to die. She wanted to die. Her family was clinging to her, wailing, begging her not to leave. So she was hanging on.
Mom sat with the family for a while, then went to hold the woman’s hand. Leaning close, Mom whispered in the woman’s ear, “It’s okay. You can go now.”

The woman’s hearbeat flatlined.

She only needed to hear the words.

*  *  *

I often go for walks in the local cemetery. Enter the grounds with a raucous, anxiety-riden heart and leave with, if not a quieter heart, at least one that is tethered to something way bigger and more transcendent than myself.
Toward the center of the grounds, the headstones date back to the early 1800s. Paved pathways make it a nice place to go for a run, but it’s always good to slow down and step off the path to traipse over the grass (or leaves or snow…depending on the season) and read the headstones. Wonder about the stories these names and dates represent.

It’s quiet. It reminds me that my life is a tiny blip in the continuous flow of time.

*  *  *

During these weeks of training on the new job, immersed in the world of life insurance, several of us in the group of newbies were struggling with what language to use with customers when discussing their life insurance policies. If you approach it with any kind of honesty, the words death and die have to be given a place the conversation. But we don’t like to go there. That’s a scary concept and more useful as a scare tactic than as a positive marketing tool. I guess it’s just got me thinking…

*  *  *

When I was five, I wanted to be a ballerina. It didn’t take long for that dream to die when I discovered Florence Nightengale –  then I wanted to be a nurse. My first real (and almost unconscious) encounter with actual blood derailed that fairly quickly – then came the veterinarian phase (thanks to James Herriot), the missionary phase, the rock star phase. Then came college and the brick wall of reality. I was well into a degree in accounting before I realized I hated what I was doing. Then grad school…and now student loans. I just started work at a life insurance company. I love the people I work with…and the company is really great. But I never would have imagined that this would be my life at age twenty-seven. I’m not the person, inwardly or outwardly, that the nine-year-old me thought I would be. And there is some kind of death in that.

*  *  *

I like people. I like hearing and being a part of their stories. But I struggle with letting them come close, getting to know them really well and letting them know me. Familiarity in a friendship is in no way fully synonymous with anything easy or unchanging. You think you know a person and then…you do. And there is some kind of death in that.

*  *  *

Cynical? I dearly hope not.

I don’t often allow death to happen the way it needs to. Things die and new things are born. That’s the cycle of the universe, the course of history.

But that doesn’t make it easy to let something die. It isn’t easy to whisper the words, “It’s okay. You can go now.”

Dad’s Poetry: Late Snows


Late Snows

Robbed of icy strength,
Betrayed by warmth hid
Deep in April’s wind,
These last flurries come

Weeping, fluttering,
Tumbling, they tug at
The sky in clusters
And swirls. Then yearning

To fly, they fall, and
Rush away in shimmering
Streamlets to
Awaken in cold

Earth the hope of spring.

Seashells: A lost arrival…

A friend gave me twenty-six seashells. Each is beautiful, complex, and unique. They are unexpected gifts found in unexpected places to be received, treasured and shared. The twenty-second shell.

Looking back over all the seashells posts this morning, I think I’ve inadvertently traced the shape of the past ten months. I’ve often thought it was a shame that I wasn’t “tracking” the wanderings very well. Archiving the goings on of my life makes it all seem more solid, grounded…and connected. But it seems I have kept track of it all, in a way.

In all of these posts…and in the “archiving” process itself, there’s always a reaching in or a reaching forward — similar to what I find in reading a good story. I search and wonder — sometimes grasp — for integration, personal and intimate involvement, and movement toward that ultimate…oh, what would you call it? Not the moral of the story. Not the purpose of the story. That sounds too functional, as though I could take a good story or the story of my life and bend it to my own whims. Which I suppose is possible, though probably not creative or life-giving. But a good story has a certain drive — it may be strong and loud, or gentle and nearly invisible, but it is a drive toward something. The fullness of its potential for beauty? Eh. Not “potential.” That sounds so…functional. Like motivational self talk. How about….capacity. The drive, or the longing, to find the story’s capacity for beauty? Or increase it?


Whatever it is…it seems the arrival of that something remains on the horizon or in the air like a soft mist that you can barely taste in your mouth

A lost arrival is wandering…

Is the wandering arrival what keeps the heart of the creative drive beating with wild strength? It keeps hope alive — hope that the story’s capacity for beauty is endless.
A shell in honor of lost arrivals that wander and keep the desire for beauty alive and kicking.

A lost arrival is wandering…

I woke up this morning with a line from a poem stuck in my head. I wanted to use it for the next shell (which, believe it or not, will actually be posted here sooner, I hope, rather than later), but wanted to give credit where it’s due.

I said it over and over, hoping to get some hint as to whose “voice” would have written it. I kept hearing John O’Donohue, but probably just because I’ve been visiting his words a lot these past few weeks.

My internet search turned up nothing.

Then something clicked…

I pulled a little book off my shelf — A Fragile City, Micheal O’Siahail (my pronunciation of his name is quite pitiful).  I had only read one poem from this particular collection, the first. “Transit.” I had stopped with the intention of soaking up the one poem for a while and just never make it back to the actual book. But I had written one line on the cover of my Moleskine:

Here’s the full poem…very liminal, may I say?


Urgencies of language: check-in, stand-by, take-off.
Everything apace, businesslike. But I’m happy here
Gazing at all the meetings and farewells. I love
To see those strangers’ faces quickened and bare.
A lost arrival is wandering. A moment on edge,
He pans a lounge for his countersign of welcome.
A flash of greeting, sudden lightening of baggage,
As though he journeyed out only to journey home.
I watch a parting couple in their embrace and freeing.
The woman turns, a Veronica with her handkerchief
Absorbing into herself a last stain of a countenance.
She dissolves in crowds. An aura of her leaving glance
Travels through the yearning air. Tell me we live
For those faces wiped into the folds of our being. 

Happy New Year: For a New Beginning

We’re closer to the new year…but not close enough for a midnight post. So, random thoughts it will be…for now.

I went on a walk today that turned into more of a run. Cast a passing glance at a puddle, more to avoid and ice-cold and wet foot for the remainder of my trotting wander through the neighborhood. Went several yards beyond it before I stopped. Turned around. Took a picture that makes me smile.

For dinner…I ate the best piece of pizza I’ve had in a very long time — made from scratch by my friend Chadwick, eaten among friends around the big dining room table.

Went bowling. It’s funny game, bowling, that begins with the communal experience of terribly uncomfortable neon-laced shoes. Then you find a ball that is neither to heavy nor too light and somehow manage to roll it down the lane, hurling toward a bunch of pins. Try as you might to send the thing off without looking like a complete idiot or falling on your face…you still end up (or, uh…maybe this is just me) wiggling and leaning and twisting your feet in odd directions to steer to ball telepathically toward the pins. I’ve never been very good at these kinds of things, but am apparently better than I thought. I beat the boys :)

It’s hard to follow Tree of Life (the movie) while typing out random thoughts for this blog post. So I will stop typing now…and come back for a New Years’ blessing.

. . .

2012 is upon us. A blessing on this new beginning from John O’Donohue:

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Oh, the beauty of O’Donohue

I’m not sure what it is about John O’Donohue’s writing (and his voice…oh, his voice) that I ache for as a new year approaches, but it’s becoming tradition. One I’m happy to embrace.

He completely oozes this beauty that…has the feel, even the taste, of the land. The words are these beautiful tendrils that reach something in me yet untouched by cynicism and fear…a place of hope. Maybe that’s why I feel such a need for him as a new year begins.

Here are some bits and pieces of beauty worth every tear. If you’re around later tonight, when midnight strikes in West Michigan, watch for another post — I’ll be sharing his blessing “for a new beginning.”



On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May he clay dance
To balance you.

And When your eyes
Freeze behind
The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the curragh of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
And invisible cloak
To mind your life.


If you’d like to hear O’Donohue read this poem, here you go. You are welcome.

If you’d like some visual beauty to accompany the audio, here you go. You owe me one.