Inner Peace Part 1: Zen Gardens

Zen gardens were all the rage when I installed a modified version in my backyard some years ago. They still are, I’ve noticed.

Peek behind the gentrified urban home or into a back corner of the suburban lot and you’re likely to see the telltale rock triad, the twisting gravel path, the lone dwarf evergreen, and the stone water bowl of the Zen garden.

Just a peek won’t give you the intended experience, though. Japanese gardens are meant to be strolled through.

The sound of the gravel under your feet is soothing. Shinto priests in pre-Buddhist Japan sensed this over fifteen hundred years ago, and so their sacred spaces were spread with small stones.

The odd windings of the Zen garden path are meant to slow you down, while taking you meditatively through real life in abbreviated form. Medieval Zen priests planned out these gardens as spiritually-directed space. The way to enlightenment is necessarily contorted, they said. The Zen path is designed to take you through life’s inevitable twists and turns without getting tangled or tied in knots.

You might come upon an asymmetrical rock grouping or a single rock with its swirling strata roughly exposed. These are the irregularities of human relations, the ups and downs, the rough and the smooth. Suddenly confronting them, you mustn’t stumble. [Read more...]

Ripping Out My Past

I’m in the attic staring at boxes. One is labeled Journals, 1979-1985. Another is Journals, 1986-1990. Another is Letters: friends and family, 1975-1982. Another…

But I stop to muse: Look at these hundreds of pages of letters exchanged in only seven years. Typed or handwritten originals from recipients; carbon copies of my replies. Yes, we wrote long letters then, and treasured them enough to keep them.

And the journals. Spiral bound notebooks that I kept by hand daily from 1979 until a couple years ago, though the past ten years or so are scanty. That’s because I started using the computer for all my writing.

The journals had been my “commonplace books,” as I thought of them, modeling myself on Virginia Woolf. She kept notes of her reading, notes for writing projects, and personal reflections all in one consecutive notebook. Once I started thinking of myself as a writer, I imitated her practice.

So in these boxes of notebooks is a record of my every thought during about thirty years.

And they all have to go.

[Read more...]

Prado’s Ex-Voto: Dumbfounded By Mystics and Clothing Stores

What might it be like to truly live with God?

Not in the way I usually think I do: sitting twice a day for my regular prayer times, speaking words of praise and thanks while my mind wanders to my to-do list.

No, it might be like this:

An ant stops me in my tracks,
“What’s your hurry, miscreant, no time to help me?”
But it’s not her voice, it’s His…

Or this:

Airplanes are scary
because God is in them.
Embrace me, God, with Your flesh and blood arm.

Or this:

The One who gave me these words is writing this,
with my hand.

These lines on God’s companionship are Brazilian poet Adelia Prado’s, from Ex-Voto, a new English translation of her poems published by Tupelo Press.

[Read more...]

Did Dante Convert Me?

Many years ago, my husband took a job in Rochester, New York, four hundred miles from our Boston home. Neither of us had ever been to Rochester, and we were apprehensive about the move. Our ten-year-old son was more than apprehensive: he was devastated. When we told him about the move, he burst into tears—because Rochester didn’t have a major league baseball team.

The move was scheduled for the end of the summer. Sometime mid-summer, I decided I needed to start reading something long and engaging, as a stable grounding during the uprooting of the move.

Though a firm agnostic at the time, I chose Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite my doctorate in English Literature, I’d never read it. (Well, maybe because my doctorate was in English Literature, the academy was pretty parochial in those days.)

Somehow we had John Ciardi’s three-volume verse translation on our shelves. So I started “Midway in our life’s journey” and continued from there, down into the Inferno. I was beginning my ascent through Purgatory when we loaded the U-Haul truck and drove west.

During the weeks of settling into our new home—arranging furniture, buying fabric to make curtains, finding a good grocery store, helping our son adjust to his new school—I reached the top of Purgatory and entered the dazzling light of Paradise. I stayed in Paradise while raking fall leaves—all the way to the final “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

[Read more...]

25 Years of Image, 18 of Glen Workshops

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays by people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the earlier installments, Stumbling into the WaterfallHenri Nouwen, Reaching Out, and The Notecards of Paradise.

I’m at lunch in a college cafeteria. At my table, the conversation goes like this:

“Have you heard John Tavener’s Protecting Veil?”

“Yeah, it’s like icon painting in music.”

“Icon writing, you mean.”

“When I listen to Tavener, I feel I could be immersed in George Wingate’s ethereal canvases—maybe his Earthhead.”

“Mmm, I saw his work in an issue of Image. I remember especially his Tree—it seemed to be breaking into the beyond.”

“For me it would be James Turrell’s amazing sky-spaces: the way he almost sculpts light. They give me the same feeling as Tavener’s music: of the divine mysteriously penetrating our world.”

“I wonder if there’s a novel that does that…”

“Well, this isn’t a novel, but Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being would be my call.”

I’m riveted by the creative energy of the conversation. But this isn’t at my college. It’s at one of the Glen Workshops I’ve attended over the years.

[Read more...]


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