The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

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Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

What delighted you today?

Narnia

Narnia. Mark IrvineCC BY

The sky became bluer and bluer and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the face of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light became green. A bee buzzed across their path. 

“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping. This is spring . . .”

—”Aslan is Nearer,” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

What delighted you today?

That it’s the first day of spring delights me.

The beautiful description of spring coming after a hundred years of winter (but never Christmas) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe delights me.

That I remember first reading that passage at age ten delights me.

The painting of a child in a green forest clearing, reaching out to pet a deer that may be merely a statue, or might be real, or will become real at the touch of her hand, delights me.

—I’ve decided to notice things that delight me, every day.

As way of stopping to breathe in the daily grind, of pushing back the domineering world, of finding a moment of stillness, even seconds of stillness, to savor something I see, hear, taste, touch, smell—or simply sense within my soul.

Such as:

the three finch eggs in the nest on my front door

birdsong early in the morning

my youngest son asking when I’ll be home so we can go walking

my husband’s laughter

Henry the dog’s ecstasy at any sighting of me

finally writing something down after its wings have beating in my head or heart for ever so long

What delighted you today?

All around us are affirmations, if we open ourselves to receive them. The wondrous exists in close proximity, is even ours for the taking, if we remain aware. As grand as a bald eagle at the roadside, as pure as the light in a child’s eyes, as simple as a stranger passing by with a genuine smile and a “Hello! How are you today?”

What delighted you today?

Might even pay to keep a journal of delight, to read and re-read when most needed, to create a pocket of peace amid the clamor, to strike a spark in the dark.

Every day has its gifts, small and great, that await.

What delighted you today?

—And what delight will you be?

Sun day

Here in the heart of North Carolina, epic snow and bitter temperatures haven’t been an issue.

We’ve had a different plague.

For nine dark days in a row, it’s rained.

Rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain

Small rivers flowing over roads and through parking lots. Yards turned to absolute bogs. Maybe we can raise a bumper crop of Venus flytraps.

The farmers say it’s good for the cows, that continuously pulling their feet up high from so much mud as they walk builds their muscles (is this true? The rain is beefing up the beef?).

Not so for humans. The utter gloom left us in a zombie-like stupor.

Gray day after gray day after gray day . . . .what did the sun even look like? Feel like?

Wait—I remember reading something like this. I first encountered it long, long ago. A story of bad enchantment. . .

“When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story” . . . Slowly and gravely, the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated in a softer, deeper voice: “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together: “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

—C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

How easy to forget there ever was a sun, succumbing to the mind-numbing sound of rain, rain rain, just as Prince Rilian, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum fell under the spell cast by the strum, strum, strum of the Witch on her stringed instrument.

Until yesterday, that is, when I heard a sound other than falling water.

Just outside my bedroom window, birds were singing. Merrily.

Despite the pouring rain, on a morning with no sun, they sang with pure zest.

How it lifted my spirits. Surely the sun could not be far from returning. Surely the birds knew it, were proclaiming it ahead of time: This this this too will pass pass pass. This this too will pass pass pass, wait and see, wait and see . . .

Then, today, bit by bit, the grayness lifted. Yellow shafts of light suddenly spilled through the blinds; I ran right outside to revel in the brightness. Now, as the afternoon wanes, shimmering golden fingers are playing across my keyboard, my hands, the table, the walls. I think of a happy child, dancing, full of joie de vivre, joy of living.

Today just so happens to be Sunday.

And now I have a bit of song for you, little harbinger birds:

Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right.

—George Harrison

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

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In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Morning snow

Snow

There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country.

-C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Snow swirled down in the gray dawn yesterday, winter whispering farewell in its dying breath: I’m still here, but not for long. Just one more time . . . .

There’s a silence, a stillness, to Sunday mornings anyway, a sense of expectancy, an invitation to step away from the world.

Of course I think of Narnia. I always do when it snows.

I was ten years old, scouring the school library shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, when I encountered a compelling title: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

“Sounds interesting,” I thought, opening the cover, not realizing that it was a portal to another world that I’d never fully leave  – or want to leave. I fell in and never climbed all the way out again. Part of that pull is the longing C.S. Lewis infused into the Narnia Chronicles, the sense of “realness” that pervades the magic. Lewis poured what he loved into the stories, and they live because of it.

Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.

Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.

Which is why, for me, Narnia is never very far away.

Especially when it snows.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

The unplanned baby

Banjo 8 weeks

Banjo, 8 weeks old

He was born on a Sunday in early November, during the first freeze. For some reason, his mother didn’t seek shelter. She delivered nine puppies out in the open on that bitter night; before they were discovered, five of them died.

Getting a puppy was not even a thought when my husband and I stayed with his sister on her Virginia farm near the turn of the year. Our minds were consumed by the purpose of our trip: consulting with a surgeon on my husband’s rare form of eye disease. Following the appointment, burdened with the confirmation that my husband would soon lose his eye, my sister-in-law drove us by the old hay barn where her son was working:

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants a puppy. They’re pure Labs but this litter was unplanned, the second this year. I just want them to go to good homes.”

I was halfway paying attention from the back seat of the Suburban when she rolled the window down and called out: “Go get the big one.”

My nephew slipped into the barn. He returned momentarily with a fuzzy yellow ball, walked around to the passenger side, and placed it in my husband’s arms.

Two sky-blue, baby eyes looked round at me from a face that seemed a hundred years old.

He came home with us, of course, this unplanned baby that cried at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs the entire three-hour journey back to North Carolina. We’re insane, I thought. We have a surgery to contend with and the surgeon said recuperation would be rough. We don’t even know what the long-term prognosis will be. There’s no puppy stuff at home, he’s going to shed like crazy, a big dog in the house, there’s the whole ordeal of housebreaking, we already HAVE a dog, that’s really enough, dear Lord, listen to this crying, we will never sleep another night…

Our college student/musician son was waiting at the door when we pulled up. He nestled the puppy against his heart and named him Banjo, not after the instrument, but the video game he loved as a child, Banjo Kazooie.  Baby Banjo slept in the bed with him and, incredibly, never made a peep that night or any night thereafter.

It was our darkest winter. Through snow, ice storms, surgery to remove my husband’s eye and his painful recovery, Banjo was the bright spot, an endearing and comical diversion, exactly what we needed. He radiated life, healing, and joy; he drove the bleakness away. His very presence represented survival. Turns out that instead of coming at the worst possible time, the unplanned baby came at the best time of all.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the characters sail into a darkness where nightmares come true, with no obvious means of escape. Just as the nightmares begin, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” An albatross appears in the darkness, circles Lucy, and whispers to her in Aslan’s voice: “Courage, dear heart.” Within minutes, the darkness begins to lift; the characters find their way out.

For the record, Banjo looked so like a lion cub that we briefly thought about renaming him Aslan, until we decided that it would be utterly impossible ever to reprimand a creature with that name.

Reflect: When has your life or work been interrupted by something unplanned? Where in that experience might there be an unexpected gift? What chances are you willing to take to find it?

If you’d like to read more about Banjo: Making adjustments.

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Update: A condensed version of “The Unplanned Baby” is published in the 2017-2018 North Carolina Reading Association’s Young Authors Project anthology, on the theme of “Show Your Strength!”