New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

Full moon rises over the Big Horn Basin outside Cody.

“Begin as you intend to continue,” my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that’s the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.)

It’s an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it’s easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you’ll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year’s Eve party last night, I thought, I’ll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast.

Then I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission:

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet.

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it.

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It’s also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, “To everyone everywhere.” By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life.

And wouldn’t you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don’t want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that’s difficult.

The spruce tree visible from my yoga spot.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning.

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it’s a compelling vision that will speak to others.

The gamble is that you won’t necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn’t ever cohere and sing.

That’s where I’ve been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn’t know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable.

These past few weeks, I’ve been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself.

The manuscript for Bless the Birds

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me.

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole.

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It’s full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life.

I’m going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I’ve been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds.

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year’s. May you begin this year as you intend to continue.

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day.

Oh yeah, I’m gonna shine!

Walk in Love

Sunday night, after the latest mass shooting at a small Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I went to Evensong at Christ Episcopal, the church I attend.

I don't think of myself as a "churchy" person; in the tradition of Quakers, I live my spiritual beliefs in my everyday life. But there's no Quaker Meeting in Cody, and Christ Episcopal is nearby. It offers great music, plus inspiring and thoughtful sermons by the Rector, Rev. Mary Caucutt; also, I have good friends are among the eight-o-clockers, the attendees of the early service. All of which equals community for me.

Evensong is a sung worship service that grew out of the Catholic tradition of vespers, evening prayers. I first heard it in Cambridge, England, when for two college terms, I attended lectures, worked with the Conservation Corps, and once a week took in Evensong at Kings College Chapel with its soaring Gothic architecture and famed choir. 

The beauty of any kind of spiritual liturgy sung, chanted, and set to music transcends anything I can write. Perhaps that is due to music's power to move us beyond words, and into the realm of awe unfettered by our analyzing, critical left brains. (Listen to the voices of Kings College Choir sing Evensong here, to see what I mean.)

The news of the shooting in Texas came on the heels of another spate of deaths among my close friends, two expected but still leaving huge holes, another totally out of the blue–a friend with two kids in high school who died of sudden heart failure. My own heart was pretty sore when I walked across the church parking lot in the snow on Sunday evening and slipped inside to find a seat.

And then the music began, first just the organ, soaring notes that filled the church the way good music can, twining around each of us, as if drawing us closer and wrapping us in its warmth and richness. And then the choir, their voices adding to the ribbons of sound.

Then quiet, and all of us chanting a prayer, before the organ took over again, and the choir coming in, voices mixing and melding. Then silence, another chant, and the bell choir, ringing out a gorgeous round, each note holding and then fading, the whole a sonic tapestry. 

The service continued on, music alternating with chanting, and some spoken word. I felt my heart swell with the notes and crack open. I felt the music rush in to soothe the pain. At the end of the hour, it was just the organ again, swelling and then receding, the echoes hanging in the air with the most gossamer of shimmers. 

The choir at Westminster Abbey singing evensong. (Photo from the Westminster Abbey website.)

Sated and uplifted by that spiritual hour in the company of friends, I walked back home in the darkness and snow to my cozy house, feeling more at peace with the world. I grieve still, but my heart no longer feels like a bleeding wound. 

The words that stayed with me are these four, "And walk in love…." If you're a Bible-person, you may recognize the phrase from Ephesians 5:2, an epistle written to early Christians guiding them in living their faith. (I had to look it up, a Bible scholar I am not!)

What does it mean to "walk in love"? To me, it means:

  • Doing whatever we can to heal our own hurts, and then extending our compassion and kindness to the world. 
  • Speaking our own version of truth to power, not letting ourselves be cowed or silenced.
  • Standing up for fairness and justice, for the right to be safe in our daily lives.  
  • Spreading Light in the form of loving daily actions, not engaging in the darkness of hatred and fear. 
  • Nurturing and celebrating diversity of thought and lives; appreciating that when we walk with love, we will take many different paths.
  • Sheltering and tending the "least among us," who may not have all they need to live whole, healthy lives. 
  • Embracing all of life, finding the beauty in each day, and the humanity in each heart. 

In sum, for me, it means living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. (I'm paraphrasing a line from a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter.)

I'm sure you can think of many more ways to walk in love through our days. There are many different ways to live a life with love, just as there are many different people in the world. That's a good thing; if we were all alike, the world would be a poorer place. If we decree that there was only one "right path," we block others from  walking their version of love. 

There is quiet but muscled power in walking in love through life, in speaking up for what we believe in. In tending to heart and spirit in order to use their strength for healing and action and restoration of this battered world.

Together, we can walk in love. We must. 

A flock of American White Pelicans migrating toward safe water in the snowstorm, each bird's huge wings drafting the one just behind it, and the leaders rotating to the quieter air behind the flock when they tire. It's the pelican version of walking in love, a community nurturing itself because each member matters.