"God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy.
This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us...”
~ Henri Nouwen, Gracias.
On Christmas Day, I went to an exquisitely beautiful place that is just at the edge of Portland- called Gilsland Farm. This is an old favorite place of mine, and throughout the week my wish had been to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of this Maine Audubon Society refuge. Days without schedule or demand offer opportunities to wander- and my steps invariably take me to the ocean. In this part of the world, there are multiple meandering and convenient ways to walk down to the sea. At the Gilsland sanctuary, river waters meet the Atlantic, and so the walkways offer many perches in a domain frequented by small birds and great herons alike. Rolling terrain permits for straight-ahead views of open skies. The combination of expanse and intimate inlets remind me to draw in plenty of deep breaths of fresh air. Pines, sweetgrass, and sea- all together on the same canvas.
Places that are significant to our individual journeys become our personal historic sites. Returning to explore- to simply inhabit these spaces- cultivates depth of perception. Now that I think of it, I’ve enjoyed the quiet of Gilsland for the better part of two decades- by bicycle, on foot, and by car- in every kind of weather. It’s where I’ve watched owls from very close. Gilsland is one of those nearby places I choose to visit for sorting matters out, regathering, or for seeing things anew. Even without the memories, revisiting any place reveals insight with each landing. Being out-of-doors, surrounded by nature, simply observing the panorama sizes down the accumulated doldrums to their appropriate proportions. Stopping in a place that represents a withdrawal from what promotes and perpetuates restlessness allows me to go further than just catching up with thoughts: from there I can extend that attentiveness beyond thoughts and listen for the Creator Spirit. As with the ancient Psalmist, the lamp within is rekindled amidst wide-open, limitless spaces for my steps and eyes.
At the surface, repose may be perceived simply as physical rest. In greater depth, rest manifests as peace of heart. While walking the Gilsland trails, for example, the woods, waterways, and quiet provided a soul respite. There are no demands, no cause to strain any senses. Moreover, on a holiday, there was no agenda. It wasn’t even all that cold, so I could pause to write at leisure. A fine and rare occasion to let things be, and to blend into the landscape. My years have made it possible for me to form a personality that is prone to forcing things into existence. It continues as a kind of recurrent old background chatter that says I have almost no resources and must build from scratch at every turn. At many times, this has been strenuously true- but I’ve learned to challenge that thinking. The breaks and the blessings must not be forgotten, and a good hike in the woods helps right the ship. Nature reminds me that I’m not running on my own power as I tend to believe. After all, do the trees will themselves to their heights? Can tides refute the moon phases, or refuse to freeze at rivers’ edges? So I walked along a frozen salt marsh and stopped at a dock to write, “grace is not contingent upon human effort, though I toil at a constantly arduous pace.” But no straining at Gilsland on Christmas Day. A gift to keep in mind.
If spiritual fortitude isn’t limited to situations of stoppage, then I might rest assured while in motion. Reaching a highland, and looking around at the hilltops around me, it occurred to me that times of forging ahead must be balanced by times of groundskeeping. Profound progress can be made by letting go of the control I purport to have. And in letting go, I become better aware of the grip of grace. Lately, I hear the expression, “it is what it is” an awful lot. Yet another term that straddles the superimposed worlds of business and sports- and common usage- that expresses a resigned reckoning with exasperation. It can’t be helped, tough luck can’t be reversed: “it is what it is.” Noticing my infuriated response to the shrug, I now imagine the words taken more literally. What happens when that which is beyond one’s single-handed control is left to “be what it is?” Isn’t it presumptuous to think I can change everything? Perhaps, then, the admission that something is what it inherently is, makes a situation easier to engage. The best of that expression is an observation about refraining from striving. It might be a useful way to perceive not trying to grind something into what it isn’t. Resting assured expresses faith in the certitude of sustenance.
An old hymn refrain returned to my thoughts, that goes: “My God is a rock in a weary land, shelter in the time of sorrow.” Yes, it was one of those work-weeks; one of those strings of long days filled with serving a notably needy representation of the public. Perhaps a reflection of the season, and the sense of urgency that it impresses upon many- but at the blunt end of it are those who equally serve the rude and the courteous, the shrill and the calm, the smug and the genuine- all with the same alacrity. One evening, walking home the long way, I remembered that hymn- which I hadn’t heard in a very long time. There’s something in those lyrics that speak to me, I thought; but wait- only in the time of sorrow? How about the times of confusion, of shipwreck, or when computers malfunction, or when I can’t find both gloves, or when someone says something resentful? That’s when the risk is greater of losing sight of the rock in a weary land: when the sorrows are deceptively small- almost too subtle to identify with specific words. It could well be that the human soul is the weary land. Yes, I think it is. It’s the ground that comes from the earth; the land that longs to be rooted, especially when all there is to hold fast to is the Rock and stronghold of consolation. Terrain can be weary, too, and the mind can regain its productivity when it is nourished from still more productive sources. During a recent wakeful night, at about 3 o’clock in the morning, I pencilled these words in my notebook: “don’t be angry- they are what they are.” Mine is not the business of changing what people do. Rest assured. The Gilsland trails provided the untethered moments I needed such that it was impossible not to be grateful for spiritual assurance.
This new season paralleling the start of a new year invites new insight. As I write these words, there is a swirling blizzard outside my windows. Surely, the trails I’d just traversed are now covered over with snow. Trails dotted with shreds of dried leaves and patches of residual ice, perfectly phrasing the meeting of autumn’s end and winter’s beginning. Settling upon exterior surfaces, hard edges are now canopied, traffic sounds are muffled. Back in art college, I had a teacher that would say, “we’re snowed in; that means it’s time to get in the darkroom and print.” We’d all head into our studios, armed with our reams of film- undoubtedly plenty of images from sunny days past. Now I must assure non-practitioners that printing in darkrooms is not a gloomy thing to do at all. For us photographers, it is integral to the creative process. It’s very much the process. As with journaling, conceptualizing our questions demands that we write them down. Put the impressions on paper, so that the words may face up to the light and air. Scribed marks can be re-read; they may be commented upon. Words and images rest assured and boldly upon our creative surfaces. What ensues will be what it is, will be reckoned with, and will be navigated, as the continuum moves forward with confidence.