Monday, April 11, 2016

the basic condition

I felt in need of a great pilgrimage
so I sat still for three

and God came
to me. 

- Kabir, in Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices form the East and West

So let's begin, thinking about silence. The yearning for three days in which to sit still. And let's think about how to find points of silence amid all the daily noise.

"We spend a lot of time looking for happiness when the world right around us is full of wonder. To be alive and walk on the Earth is a miracle, and yet most of us are running as if there were some better place to get to. There is beauty calling to us every day, every hour, but we are rarely in a position to listen.

The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence."

- from Silence, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Have you heard of World Listening Day? 


I find it encouraging to know that there are people who have spent time finding the quietest square inch in the United States. 

A quick mom-brag. This is Chloe's digital rendition of the flowers:

I follow On Being on Facebook, and am led to so many good things because of it. This next article for example, "Solitude: A Reprieve from the Noise of Doing" by Katrina Kenison, which begins:

"There comes a moment. 
You love your life and the precious people in it. Yet, suddenly, the very intimacy you cherish feels like a burden you can no longer carry. You want to see yourself as a person who is competent and sturdy and kind. But today you are able to be none of these things. 
You can’t plan one more meal or push the cart through the frigid produce aisles one more time or carry one more bag of groceries in from the car. You can’t cook another balanced dinner or sit at the table and have one more meaningful conversation. You can’t anticipate or meet one more need or set one more thing to rights."

The article ends with this quotation:

The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life.
You might never have been, but you are,
because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.

- Frederick Buechner

So here is your life. Here is your world. The noise and clatter of it. The endless cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping. The making sure that everyone you love and are close to is okay. The constant asking, before going out for the groceries, do you have what you need? and generally, do you have what you need? And then, is all well? are you okay? How was your day? And, have we done all those things we were meant to have done?

And what you yourself are craving is three days alone to sit, with the computer off, and no one needing anything. I don't know how, or when, but I'm going to make this happen for myself before the end of this year. A small goal. 

This is the Time for Silence

by Hafiz

The beauty of the mountain is talked about
most from a distance,

not while one is scaling the summit with 
life at risk. That is the time for silence,

reflection, and drawing upon all your 
skills so you might return from the cloud's 

and inspire others to breathe closer to God,
while still human, the way you did.

(translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

But okay, for now, no, there will be no sitting, no silence. And there is something to be said for just giving in to that space, too. In allowing the noise to happen.

Next weekend, April 17th, I'll be leading a workshop on Photography and Poetry. Let me tell you, this is way out of my comfort zone, but also, lovely, in that I've been thinking about all the intersections of the two, especially in terms of process.

And so, rather happily I was recently led to a page (by that magic we call internet) on the always wonderful BrainPickings in which she quotes from Italo Calvino's book of short stories, Difficult Loves.

"Through the words of one of his characters — a photographer named Antonino — Calvino channels the compulsive nature of our “aesthetic consumerism” and captures our tendency to leave the moment in the act of immortalizing it:

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness."

Which points us to another page on BrainPickings which quotes from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

"But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer."

All of this leads me to wonder though, if there isn't another way, a way to move between these two ways of seeing. And then, how does one inform the other?

Can we call a certain way of seeing poetic seeing?

I offer this little series of photos starring some Korean pancakes I made recently. So now that it's possible once again with the spring light to take food photos, I realize I am completely stuck in a rut with my food shots. I could repaint my kitchen, get new furniture, reconfigure everything, like, if I had a budget to do that. Right. Or, I could look for another angle, another vantage point, instead of using my usual go-to spots. I could move around, stick half my body out the back door, get down low, get down on one knee. In doing this, the light was different. Perhaps not mindblowingly so, but still.

In this exercise by just trying something slightly different, I think I learned a bit about natural light, and it made me think about my subject in a new way.

Not so different from working on a piece of writing that just isn't going where you want it to, and coming at it from a new angle, a bit off-kilter, a bit strange and uncomfortable.

Word Spreads About Good Cooking

by Hafiz

The movements of our hands help build the 

We add to the universe by our efforts.
Whatever we do, we should never think it is 
whatever we do, we should not conclude it 
is so important either. Between those two 

poles find your balance; between those two 
regions your talents will bloom.

Word spreads about good cooking.
Become that, an exquisite meal for us.

The alchemy stone is waiting to retire and confess …
something in us is its power.

- from A Year with Hafiz

And there it is. The secret to creative success: this balance between believing that what you do is relevant, but also: not so important either. 

You may remember from last week, my impending trip to Toronto, which has now been taken. And it was lovely, and I met some splendid, splendid people. The highlight was perhaps meeting the inimitable Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This fame. You can't imagine how beautifully nice and kind and real she is. And she's such a force in the literary world. AND, she has a novel coming out next year. Which is very exciting and something for us all to look forward to - hooray! 

So, next, a quick tour of the hotel where I stayed. The Gladstone. Firstly, you should know I'm not anywhere near cool enough for this place. Happily, I was treated as though I were, which was very sweet, indeed. 

Really loved this little desk - and am sorry I didn't take a photo of it with the cupboard part open - a really darling nook inside. 

Can't really say enough about the groovy wallpaper. 

The halls are filled with art - a rotating show.

Very nice coffee available in the morning, and a comfortable common area where I spent some time reading.

One of my goals this next while is to learn how to better use my iPhone. I completely admit that most of the photos I take with it are pure rubbish. I know it's possible to take great photos with one, I just haven't figured out how yet.

I really need to up my breakfast photo game. Not joking - I have a thing for breakfast photos. These for example.

I'm a sucker for coffee art. Or in this case, coffee heart. 

It was a quick trip, and a cold one, so I quite honestly did not stray from the hotel until it was time to head off and hit the bookstore for the reading. You should be able to see photos from the evening on Facebook even if you're not on it: on the Palimpsest Press page. I think, I hope. 

You can read about the restoration of the hotel here, and this is what it says about the elevator:
- The meticulously restored Victorian elevator is one of the last hand-operated elevators in Toronto.
- The elevator was likely installed just after the electrification of the city in 1904.
- The wrought iron cage would have floated in the stairwell with no structural enclosure.

Later in the day, I headed back to the cafe/bar for a cup of tea. Such a cozy spot, and time to practice that iPhoneography....

Next. Me goofing around taking cheesy pre-reading selfies.

So then that was that, and came home to bits of spring, signs. 

April in Maine

by May Sarton

The days are cold and brown,
Brown fields, no sign of green,
Brown twigs, not even swelling,
And dirty snow in the woods.

But as the dark flows in
The tree frogs begin
Their shrill sweet singing,
And we lie on our beds
Through the ecstatic night,
Wide awake, cracked open.

There will be no going back.


And spring does have a way of cracking us open, waking us up again.

And the morning, this ecstatic morning, after I got back there was all this light and birdsong. Blue Jays carrying around twigs and straw and one cruised by me with a huge peanut. When I hit the dry pond, the catkins were aglow like Christmas lights. It seemed the trees were all yelling out, we're alive, we really are alive. Let's do this.

So in my happiness I took a billion photos, which I don't expect anyone really to do much but scroll quickly through. I'll leave you with them, then, and wishes for a calm week ahead. Or at least some good moments of calm. And of course, some time for silence.

- Shawna

(The soundtrack for the writing of this post has been Max Richter.....along with intervals of silence).


  1. Great post, as always. I really loved your photos of all the tiny signs of spring. I devoured them and then went back and sovoured them slowly. There are no signs of spring here at all. It's snowing heavily and the snowbanks are 5 feet high. Payback for our green Christmas I guess.
    Regarding the Calvino quote, I've been pondering that very question. I'm an impulsive Instagrammer and it began to bother me, that whole thing about experiencing the world through the filter of the lens. So now I separate things, as I once did when I was a photography student. Sometimes I live without the lens, but when I pick up a camera, I'm mindful that what I am doing is making a photo, or hunting one. The act of photographing is a deliberate one, not just an incidental part of my experience. This frees me from the tyranny of aesthetic materialism,: when I'm not deliberately taking a picture, I'm not at the mercy of thinking about what a great shot this moment would make.
    Hapoy Spring to you!

    1. Thanks, Kim. I think this mindfulness is the thing. Hope spring finds you soon.

  2. You are so cool, and it was a pleasure to meet you in real life! xo

    1. Ha, thanks. You are also very cool. :)

  3. Three days of silence would be dreamy! I hope you are able to make it happen.

  4. Simply beautiful blog, Shawna...writing, photos, poetry. All sources kin to my heart. Right now reading "Asking" - elegant, exquisite, takes my breath away. And given my love of Rumi, first "met" you via your recent novel. I look forward to meeting you at the Devonian on Sunday. I feel I've met an inspiring kindred soul. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much Katharine, and see you on the weekend then! Looking forward to meeting you.

  5. Thank you again Shawna so much for what you do. I look forward to your blog each week. The time spent with it elevates me, calms me, and grounds me in to my authentic place. I read everything aloud and savor both writing and photos. You are a gift.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth - makes me happy to hear this!

  6. paying attention, that's what your photos remind me of.

    and i love this: "All of this leads me to wonder though, if there isn't another way, a way to move between these two ways of seeing." the both-and(ness) of things rather than their either/or(ness) is something that I think of a lot.

    Glad to have found your blog, and your words, and your photos, and the poems you share. I loved the Frederick Buechner one. (and Hafiz, and Ladinsky, I have no words for. . . they're the ones who got me started on poetry)

    1. And I love what you say about the both-and(ness). Yes.

      So happy you're here.


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