All blog posts must be in this category.

“Hmm…” was the clue for 6-Across in a recent L.A. Times Sunday crossword puzzle. 6-Across had seven squares, so I filled in “IWONDER.” Which sent me down a rabbit hole of several things I’ve been wondering about lately, in this time of pandemic and quarantine.

I wonder if the companies that make the brass fittings for coffins are now considered “essential businesses.”

Will face masks become the next fashion accessory? And how will deaf people “hear” if they can’t lip-read?

Have I ever before felt such waves of gratitude for the checkout clerks, the local organic farmers, the team that collects my trash at 6:30 every Wednesday morning? Do I promise now never to forget how much I love them?

Are the underwater creatures in the Pacific Ocean aware of the human chaos on the land? Would they like to help us if they could?

I wonder if Zoom will replace all committee meetings, blind dates, and family reunions from now on?

Are the hummingbirds that peer in the kitchen window impressed by how carefully we’re sanitizing our surfaces and our foods?

How many of the dozens of breathtaking daily headlines will end up being just statistical footnotes by next year?

I wonder about journalists’ duty as historians – and I’m thinking about true journalism vs social media. Journalists have a duty to discover and collect the details, to fact check and record the news accurately and clearly. But I wonder: does that professional duty extend to actually publishing and airing all those details, especially every incendiary, ill-advised political rant or armed-mob chant?

I think often about medical triage, about the painful ethical decisions coming in such overwhelming numbers for healthcare workers that each choice can’t possibly be given the thoughtful consideration it needs. Will these decisions haunt medical staff for the rest of their lives? How long a life are our front-line caregivers likely to have, given their repeated exposure to the menace of coronavirus?

And how is it possible that spring is happening despite the headlines? How can it be joyfully bursting forth from the soil of the tulip fields in the Skagit Valley, from the tips of maple branches, from the nests of finches, from window boxes and roadside ditches – how can that possibly be?

So these days I occupy my brain with these little wonderings, because my mind just can’t comprehend the huge reality of this new worldwide plague, and of a madman presiding over 55,000 Americans dead of Covid-19 in the past three months.

By the way, the correct answer to the “Hmm…” crossword puzzle clue was “LETSSEE.” Let’s see, indeed, what the rest of 2020 holds for us.

I wonder . . .

May you be well through all of this trying year.



“Statues” was a game we kids played during recess on the playground. One kid (usually a girl, a bossy “Lucy” type) got to control the action; the rest of us would dance and whirl and act crazy until she shouted “Freeze!” and we’d all stop in mid-action. Whoever wobbled first from their “statue” pose was out of the game. Of course some of the poses were so ridiculous that most of us would start giggling and jiggling and eventually we’d all just fall on the ground laughing.

Several decades later, in the midst of our whirling ordinary lives and crazy business-as-usual, a pandemic has shouted “freeze!” and we have                          


We have sheltered-in-place; hidden in fear; closed our businesses, schools, places of worship.
We’ve lost our footing, lost our income, been bewildered, been disinformed.
We’ve cooked from our freezers and pantries, checked on neighbors, sent “I love you” emails.
We’ve gotten sick. We’ve died.

There have been lots of words about this in the ether of the internet – wise words, beautiful words, panicked words, informed words. Too many words.

I don’t want to add many more words to the ever-growing pile. What I do want to do is something I seldom do in this blog: offer you two of my newest poems. One was written “before,” in the first week of January (“Loving Mother Anyway”), and the other was written last week (“Obeisance to Mt. Baker”). They pretty much contain everything I have to say about the pandemic . . . so far.

May you be well.


Loving Mother Anyway

Joyfully immersed in her creative project,
she coddled, nourished, patiently evolved us
from single-cell simplicity
to complicated sentience.

Now we believe
we are the apex of her creativity,
the very reason she exists.
We crow our brilliance to her heavens
as we scar her skies with contrails
and chlorofluorocarbon.
We lacerate her skin
then salve her wounds
with trash and poisons.
We suck her riches dry
and kill each other
when we feel deprived.

Tired, she whispers now.
I grow so tired of them.
I feel no joy in keeping them.
Soon, she says,
very soon I’ll shake these parasites
from my exhausted body.
I’ll loose them from my gravity
with whirling, angry storms.
They will fall up
through holes ripped in my shawl.
They’ll vaporize in empty darkness,
and I will not take them back.

Anxiously I watch
her growing discontent.
I wonder: could I love her well enough
to make her change her plans?
Our science says too late for that.
But do I cherish the bounty
and the beauty of her life enough
to love her anyway,
as she destroys humanity
so she can heal herself?


Obeisance to Mt. Baker

Green-fringed fir shawls
flail in gusts nor’westerly.
A dozen gulls and two great eagles
sail between gray waves, pale sky.
Digital 1s and 0s swarming
everywhere, invisible,
mutate into small-screen warnings:

I’m bewildered in this swirl.
My jaw is clenched,
my fingers too.
I can’t find meaning,
cannot focus.

But tall above the Cascade Range,
stolid when all else is trembling,
brilliant white Mt. Baker stands,
commands attention.
The peak will not,
cannot be ignored.

I meet the mountain’s ancient stare,
hear its silent hallowing demands.
My breathing slows.
Wind and code falter in the ether.
Turmoil is becalmed.

Reverently I press my palms together,
peak my fingers, mirroring
the mountain.
Accept its deep initiation.
Embed its calm into my heart
where chaos cannot reach.

photo by Corrine Bayley

 “I used to think bearing witness was a passive act, but I don’t believe that anymore. When we are present, when we do not divert our gaze, something is revealed. The very marrow of life. We change. A transformation occurs. A consciousness shift.”  Terry Tempest Williams, quoted on


A stoic does not express emotion. A stoic family is mostly expressionless.

I was reared in a stoic household: Germanic (on Mom’s side – she referred back only as far as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” because she liked their folk art) and Welsh (on Dad’s side – traced back to the 15th century and Sir Rhys ap Thomas, Knight of the Garter and Governor of Wales who hosted jousting tournaments at his Carew Castle. I was pleased to discover, as an adult visiting Wales, that Sir Rhys’s armor was not all as shiny as I’d been led to believe!)

When I was a child, not only was I not versed in the language of emotions, but also it was clear that I should not feel emotions at all. Nor, my parents hoped, would I ever express them, because Mom and Dad would not know what to do with loose emotions flitting around in our home like bats that had snuck in through tiny chinks in our walls.

It took decades for me to feel safe with emotions, and years more to identify and name them.

This past winter I experienced for the first time a prolonged depression, and I gained a huge compassion for people who often feel depressed. The emotion matched the weather, as if layers of gray, leaden clouds pressed down on the daylight, on the land, on my body, on my energy, on my eyelids. Some days the only thing I wanted to do was to hide under a quilt and sleep. What helped me the most was just being-with: allowing myself to feel what I was feeling, and not fighting it. I allowed myself to have compassion for me, and to accept the compassion of friends who checked in on me and who made sure that occasionally I got out from under my quilt even if I didn’t think I wanted to. Like the gray clouds, thankfully the depression has finally moved on by.

Though it is not depression, in the past months I have felt a lot of sadness, and have come to understand that most of it is not “mine.” Several friends recently have lost spouses and friends and beloved pets. Though I do not feel sad in myself for these losses, my friends’ sadnesses have come to visit me. I can name the feeling as “sad” and “grief,” and I have invited those others’ feelings to come in and stay a while with me. I believe that my holding them temporarily may lessen their impact on my friends. And I’m pleased to notice that I can tell the difference between emotions that are “mine” and ones that are “theirs.”

But in the last few weeks I’ve felt . . . something . . . that is probably an emotion, but I have no name for it. It’s been appearing several times a day recently. I’m definitely feeling it, because I’m no longer the stoic I was raised to be; emotions of all sorts are allowed in my life.

And, being a poet, I’m searching for a name for what I’m feeling, or at least a metaphor or a simile that will help me understand it.

        This feeling is both poignant and sweet.

        It is like the aroma of an evening’s dinner, still alluring at the far corner of the house long after the meal is finished and I am full.

        It is a sensuous, musical feeling, like when a dissonant chord is held so long it becomes foreplay, and its resolution portends orgasm.

        It is like the afterglow from a vanished dream.

        It is like Midwestern air just before a thunderstorm trips and falls into a million wet pieces.

        This feeling is like a crocus risking February with both fear and elation.

        And trying to describe this feeling is like hearing an unfamiliar bird that calls from a hidden place, and then trying to describe the call to an Audubon member.

This feeling that I can’t yet name seems to be located not so much in my gut, where the heavier emotions live, but nearer my heart because there is lightness and joy in it as well as mystery. All I know to do is simply feel it, to be-with it just as I was with depression. While I seek its name I will smile or weep, stomp or twirl, maybe share a cup of tea with the feeling, and perhaps a square of dark chocolate with almonds.

Whatever this emotion is, I’m quite certain it contains something wonderful for me. Maybe it holds a wise insight. It might reveal ecstasy, if I stay with it long enough. What a very un-stoic thought!

At the very least, even if I never can name it, maybe this mystery emotion contains the seeds of a brand new poem.


Last week I had one of the most memorable meals of my life.

Out of curiosity I’ve searched back through my memory files, and found just a few other such memorable repasts:

– A wiener roast on the top of a high snow-covered dune (we called it “Mt. Everest”) on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the middle of winter. My family and another family were all bundled in snowsuits and boots, hats and scarves and gloves. I was four years old. The grownups built a bonfire for roasting hot dogs until they were charred in the kid-approved summer-picnic fashion (minus the crunchy sand). After wieners we had charred marshmallows and hot cocoa. It was childhood feast, memorable for over 70 years.

– Sometime in the late 1980s, my husband Joe and I had a memorable meal with our friends Wes and Judy. They were wealthy, we were not; and the four of us loved dining and playing and traveling together. To solve the income disparity, we agreed to alternate our social planning – Joe and I would plan one evening or road trip (inexpensive), Wes and Judy would plan the next (without regard to cost). The memorable meal happened at the restaurant atop the Westin Hotel in Chicago. (Wes wanted to go there because the restaurant featured a roving musician who played a Stradivarius violin.) It was a luxury restaurant, one of those that had “ladies’ menus” with no prices listed, so female diners need not fret about the tab which their male companions would, of course, pay. I tried to sneak a peak at Joe’s menu, but couldn’t manage it. So I made up my mind thusly: Okay, Cynthia, you are here in this fabulous restaurant. No matter what you order, the price will be way beyond what you think you can afford. SO – order what you really want to eat. Enjoy EVERY morsel of it. Be grateful. Do NOT give up a single moment to fretting; figure out later where you’ll find the money to pay off the credit card. And I did just that. I ordered in-season soft-shell crab, a lovely white wine, and even a crème brûlée for dessert. It was a glorious meal.

– Here I’ll give a nod to another meal, the reason I knew about soft-shell crab in the first place. A few years earlier Joe and I had driven deep into the bayous south of New Orleans. We found a little dump of a tavern where cars pulled up to one side of the building and small fishing boats pulled up to the other side. The soft-shell crabs we ate that afternoon had made the briefest of stops in a frying pan on the way from a boat to our plates!

– Another jaunt to New Orleans, another of my most memorable meals: one of the components of the prix fixe lunch at the Quarter’s tiny iconic Tujague’s Restaurant that day was a red rémoulade sauce. I remember nothing more of the meal – just that sublime sauce that my tastebud-memory can still recall perfectly.

– One more memory before I return to last week’s meal. This memorable meal was a picnic in Tennessee, with Joe and our friend Jim. We’d brought sandwiches we purchased at a deli, and a bottle of wine that Joe was excited about trying (he was a wine aficionado). We drove beside the Little Pigeon River, outside Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky Mountains, until we found a pull-off area that looked promising – where the river was shallow and raced around a few table-sized granite boulders. After leaving our shoes in the grass at the edge of the river we distributed our sandwiches and wine glasses among the three of us, and each claimed a relatively flat-topped boulder. On his boulder Jim opened the wine, stood up and poured a dram into the river as a blessing of gratitude; we passed the bottle from boulder to boulder, and it was, indeed, worth being excited about. I think the sandwiches were good, but the wine and the friendship, the granite and the cold rushing water are what I hold in my memory.

And now I’ll tell of my most recent memorable meal. The setting was an isolated cafe on Whidbey Island, the only commercial establishment for miles around, near the ferry dock on the west side of the island. Privately I was feeling sorry for myself about yet another sign of my aging: just an hour earlier I’d gotten (and paid for – gasp!) hearing aids. It had been raining all day, and I didn’t feel like socializing. But I’d made this date with my friend Katherine, and I was cautiously glad to be emerging from a couple of months of social/emotional hibernation. So there I was, in a motley mix of feelings, staring at the menu at Callen’s Restaurant. I ordered a steak, knowing that it might be tough (serves me right for wanting red meat). What the waitress delivered was a five-ounce sirloin steak, almost as thick as it was wide; beside it were two stalks of steamed broccolini, a finger-sized whole carrot, and a mound of garlic mashed potatoes – chunky, as I prefer them. I cut into the steak – it was tender, perfectly medium-rare and so delicious I nearly swooned. Soon I realized I was eating with pure joy! 

I ate every morsel of food on my plate, then had a discussion with the waitress about available desserts and ordered a “warm chocolate truffle cake” (it might not actually taste good, which would serve me right for eating all that sugar). What the waitress delivered was a little hill of dark chocolate cake, embracing a core of hot fudge filling; there was a scoop of vanilla on the flank of the hill, and a shawl of raspberry sauce around its shoulders, with just a touch of whipped cream trim. It was bliss, and I devoured it with sensuous JOY. I did offer Katherine a bite, but she declined. I have no idea what she and I had been talking about (sorry, Katherine), but she tells me that I ate that entire dessert, every last tasty gram and granule, in less than seven minutes. With exuberance and moans!

A meal may be memorable for its tastes, its textures, its unexpected ingredients. A meal may be memorable for its location, its companions, its emotion du jour. The mental file in which I keep my memorable meals now has a new entry, memorable for its secret joy. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed it too as I’ve recounted it. Bon appétite!



This month, when acquaintances and clerks and baristas asked, “Are you doing anything special for the holidays?” I replied, “I’m doing nothing.” If they assumed that that was a sad, or lonesome, or irreligious state, I might add, “I love being in the dark time of year, and I don’t want to lose a moment of it to the hustle and glitter and parties, and hours in the kitchen. So I’m doing nothing, just being fully in the dark and quiet.” And they’d nod as if they understood, but I’m not sure they did.


For me, and for many of my friends, this year has seemed particularly dark – meteorologically, physically, politically, ecologically. And it seems to me that if that’s the hand we’ve been dealt in 2019, we’d be wise to study our cards carefully to see what patterns of meaning they hold. We’d be wise to discern how best to play those cards, for the greatest good of all. That discernment requires a time of damping down sensory input for a while. The dark time of year is a natural time to do that.

Or here’s a different metaphor, one that feels just right on the drizzly day I’m writing this: A few times in my life I’ve swum in the softness of a freshwater lake in the darkness of a midwestern summer night. It felt as if the gentle enfolding water recognized itself in me. I lost all sense of limitations; there were no boundaries between the water and my body.

That’s what being fully in the dark time feels like in these final days of this year: letting go, opening up, expanding, merging with something benevolent that is more than myself. I do not want to be distracted from that commingling. And so, for the holidays, I am doing “nothing.”

Gradually, as the tilt of the earth’s axis brings a few minutes more of light to each day, I’ll clamber out of the dark time. I’ll enter spring, the beginning-again time, happily christened with a new appreciation of connectedness and possibility.

A month ago I went away for a week to do nothing but write poetry.

I went prepared, taking with me my poetry “sketchbooks” (ideas for new poems), and potential poetry drafts that I hadn’t nurtured in years, and a few pretty good poems that just needed their “final” polish (note: for a poet, no poem is ever “finished,” even after it is published!).

Given the luxury of a whole week with no distractions (I didn’t even have to prepare my meals!), I anticipated entering, and writing from, those interior spaces where the emotions live, the deep places that often resist being explored.

But as my writing time unfolded, I was fascinated to see that the drafts I wrote from my interior were mostly theological. What I wrote were questions, dispatched from my internal darkness into the limitless ether. Three, then five, then ten drafts of potential poetry about divinity, and those eternal Big Questions: what does it mean to be human? Is there a God? Can there be an I/Thou relationship between a human and the Creator? Which metaphors best convey the unknowing?

As I wrote I realized I was not seeking answers so much as wanting to ask the questions clearly. I hoped to wear the questions more comfortably in my daily life. This has been a lifelong pattern for me, this wanting to explore the inner questions. As early as age eight or nine I was deeply curious about the target of people’s praying – but I didn’t dare ask about it because in my Unitarian family we had judgments about prayer, and we didn’t “do” it. (We didn’t talk about sex either, but that’s for a future essay, not this one.)

When I was a teenager I consulted pastors and preachers and teachers of various stripes to find out what their personal experiences of Life and Death and God were. Almost to a person, they offered me a book or three to read, and sent me, dissatisfied, on my way.

Then, for three decades I was a practicing Roman Catholic. I found consolation and a feeling of divine connection in the rituals and mysticism of the Church. But eventually those Big Questions started rising up again, and the Church no longer satisfied.

In my late forties I returned to college to complete a bachelor of arts degree. I remember taking an ethics course in which we were assigned a research paper on any one of the major ethics issues (abortion, euthanasia, bioengineering, etc.). We were to research what professional ethicists had to say about the issue we chose, and summarize their work in our paper. But I wanted to unearth, and report on, what I thought about the issue. I was nearly fifty, and I had a lot more life experience than most of my classmates; I wanted to wrestle with my own reasoning, not regurgitate the rationales of others. It took some cajoling, but eventually the professor acquiesced, and I got to write the paper my way. When he saw the results of my ethical struggles, he agreed that all my upcoming papers might be written the same way. He hadn’t been used to students actually thinking!

And now, twenty-some years and a masters degree in theology later, I’m still eager to discover my own truths. I still want to clarify my own questions. I like diving deep and braving those dark, interior spaces. I love the hints hidden in dreams. I need metaphors to provide insights where plain words don’t suffice. All of that takes creative time, plus some amount of courage and tenacity. And that explains why I came home from my writing week with over a dozen raw question-filled poetry sketches instead of a collection of finished work.

Guess I’ll just have to go away for another writing week. I want to explore those new drafts, and see how I might enfold unanswerable questions into meaningful metaphors, so some of my questions can be brought out of the darkness. My inner nine-year-old still wants to hold them up to the light.<

PLEASE COME ALONG WITH ME on a stroll through this past month, and encounter with me some of what I’ve noticed:

Three new houses are under construction on the short cul de sac on which I live. I watched as the lots were surveyed and marked, and the land was reshaped and remeasured. The footings were created, then the foundations. Then the walls go up and the roof is constructed. Each of the three houses is very different from the others, and as new skills were employed, and supply trucks arrived, and ready-mix concrete trucks lined the street and their delivery chute cranes rose up like sci-fi monsters, I found myself saying over and over, “Wow, so THAT’s how it’s done!”

A full day devoted to deleting emails and unsubscribing from internet stuff is not only unsatisfying, it’s futile – which is why it’s unsatisfying. Like dishwashing and laundry, it will all have to be done again in a very short while.

Many of this month’s nights were cloudy, but I loved tracking the phases of the moon during middle-of-the-night cloud breaks.

I have the honor to be a volunteer at Enso House, our local end-of-life care residence. Last week our new guest was suffering from pain and anxiety but was unable to receive medications orally. So I got to see a newly-invented (2015)medical appliance called the Macy Catheter that enables an alternate route of medication and fluid administration that doesn’t involve pumps, needles, or IV lines. It’s an uncomplicated rectal device, with tubing taped to thigh or belly. It’ssimple enough for families to use for home hospice care – and for Enso House volunteers to use for our guests. I don’t usually get excited about medical devices, but THIS one can relieve so much suffering in the last weeks of life! I saw it with my own eyes. Blessings on the hospice nurse, Brad Macy, who invented it!

It’s always a joy to meet visitors and folks new to the Island who interest me and might just develop into friends. September was rich with cuppa-tea-encounters and fascinating conversations that started with provocative questions and went deep into thoughtful territory.

I have tiny veins in my arms, ones that hide and squirm and “blow out” for most phlebotomists. And I am dreadfullyneedle-phobic. But I didn’t dread a pending blood draw on the 16th because “my” phlebotomist Rachel is so skilled. Her combination of confidence and intuition make her THE best!

With the flip of a calendar page (from September 21st to the 22nd), our warm bright summer turned to cool wet autumn. Now I’m watching trees and plants slowly sink back into their winter’s rest, to gather their resources for next spring’s renewal.


All this noticing of the little details of my days is the stuff from which my poetry emerges. Noticing is what a poet does. Poetry is what she constructs from what she notices. And it’s been a special delight this week to be composing poetry, hosted by my friend Corrine in her lovely home overlooking Saratoga Passage, Camano Island, and the Cascade Mountains. I don’t have to do anything during these days but write, from the time she serves me my breakfast coffee until she tells me “Supper’s on.” What luxury! And my time has been productive as well as indulgent. I’m hoping to have enough new poems written by year’s end to publish a second collection in 2020.

In the meantime, September was a very good month for my getting individual poems published in literary journals. Two online journals will carry my poems in October, and I invite you to take a look.

On October 1 Gyroscope Review will publish a special issue called “Crone Power.” My poem “Molting” will be on page 13 at

On October 19 a lovely new journal called Sky Island Journal will publish my poem called “Navigation Lights.” You can find it at . The issue’s poems are published in alphabetical order by poet’s first name.

Later on, exact date to be announced, the “Oldest Independent U.S. Journal of Nature Writing,” called Snowy Egret (nine decades old!), will publish two of my poems, “Bay Tree Invitation” and “Beware.”   You can subscribe at .

September is drawing to a close, and so is this blog post. It has been a good month; I’ve enjoyed every day, and I hope you’ve enjoyed a few of my noticings.

Recently I read these numbers in an article in “The Week” magazine: CNBC reports that a day on Princess Cruises costs about $135. A day in a private room of a nursing home costs $253. When you compare the monthly costs, Princess Cruises adds up to about $4,200, and the private room at the nursing home is nearly $8,000. According to Genworth Financial, the national monthly median cost of an assisted living apartment is $3,628, or $119 per day, just a bit less than the cruise ship.


Wow,I thought, luxury rather than lethargy for a retirement residence!

There are loads of variables, of course, but I love thinking about a cruise ship as a retirement option.

Although a cruise ship carries 3000 or more passengers, I confess that retirement to a cruise ship appeals to the “social hermit” in me. I want to live in seclusion while still being able to interact with helpful and interesting people whenever I choose to open my door to them. Staff and other residents on a ship do not intrude uninvited, as they tend to in assisted living. Plus, cruise ships have a higher ratio of employees to passengers than assisted living facilities.

What’s not to like about the idea of sitting out on my stateroom balcony, writing and reading to my heart’s content, watching the ocean from which we evolved? Or maybe just napping in that deck chair? And visiting foreign ports for new experiences, encounters, and writing-topics without having to schlep luggage. And having meals waiting for me and/or room service (whenever I choose) would be a great perk. Laundry service is available for a fee, as it is in assisted living.

How about medical care? I found this info from the British Medical Journal: Cruise ships have superior health facilities—one or more doctors, nurses available 24 hours a day, defibrillators, equipment for dealing with medical emergencies, and the ability to give intravenous fluids and antibiotics . . . Assisted living facilities almost never have doctors on site and seldom have nurses available 24 hours.

The authors of the BMJ article calculate that the long term cost for a person to live on a cruise ship from the age of 80 until his or her death would be $230,497 compared with $228,075 for an assisted living facility.

And what if several friends-of-the-heart all “retired” to the same cruise ship together . . .?? That would be far less hassle than creating a co-housing community (several of us have already tried that option).

One of my friends says she’d “rather stay on terra firma, thank you.”

Another friend wonders about “burial at sea.” That’s an option for someone connected with naval military service (with lots of permits and hoops to jump through), but not from a cruise ship. Cremains might be scattered from a cruise ship, but they don’t have crematoriums on board.

There is one enterprise, Storylines Cruise Line, that is creating floating condominiums for passengers to purchase and own that become part of their estate, to be sold or bequeathed as you choose. The first of this company’s residential ships, The MV Narrative, is to set sail in mid-2020, with condos starting at $155,000.

To me, the most important thing about considering a residential cruising retirement is that it has gotten me out of the box of thinking that a regular assisted living residence or a nursing home are the only options available for when I need more assistance than I can affordin my own home. This possibility can encourage my friends and me to broaden our ideas and think more creatively in our conversations about our futures. Perhaps we can find situations that we could welcome instead of dread. If nothing else, it’s fun to brainstorm, as wildly as possible, because – who knows? – we might just dream up something great for ourselves!  Bon voyage.

Twenty-five years ago I was working as a nationally certified hospital chaplain. The work I treasured most was time I spent with dying people, and I wanted to apply for a regional chaplaincy position with Hospice – which required a masters degree that I didn’t have. My husband of 33 years had died several months earlier, so I figured “Why not?”

I chose, and was accepted by, the Jesuit School of Theology (I thought that sounded impressive) at Berkeley (which to me meant “perpetual offbeat distractions” off campus) to work for a Master of Theological Studies Degree.

During my studies a classmate mentioned a book about Celtic spirituality, called Listening for the Heartbeat of God by J. Philip Newell. With so much else to read, I could only skim through the book, but I did learn about the Synod of Whitby held in 664AD. Various leaders of the Christian Church met that year to concretize some “official” practices of the Church. This pitted the Celtic Christian traditions against the Roman Christian traditions.

There were great debates about such trivial things as whether a monk’s hair should be tonsured at the crown or at the sides, and the actual date of Easter. But more importantly, the choices made by ecclesial authorities in this Synod would gradually define the underlying spirituality of the Christian Church from that point on.

Would the Church rely on the Authority of St. John, whom Jesus called his “beloved disciple” and whose spirituality informed the Celtic Church? Or would they look to St. Peter, whom Jesus called “the rock” and whose spirituality informed the Roman Church? I’m not going to recount the tedious arguments of contemporary scholars about all this – those kinds of discussions are what nearly made me give up on earning my degree (I got the degree, but that pretty much finished off my career as a Christian).

As a poet I am far more interested in rich metaphors than academic minutiae. Is God immediately available to us (John, leaning in at the Last Supper to listen for the heartbeat of God)? Or is God distant, accessible only through intermediaries (Peter, holding and guarding the keys to the Kingdom)?

A few weeks ago I read the phrase “Celtic spirituality” in a book of poetry, which sent me rooting around on my bookshelves, looking for Newell’s book again. I found it, blew the dust off the top, and started reading; I became fascinated with Pelagius, a Celtic Christian monk born two centuries before the Synod of Whitby.

I wanted to read more, not just about Pelagius, but by him. I was able to borrow an old copy of The Letters of Pelagius through an interlibrary loan from a theological college library in Texas (I LOVE our library system!). If I wanted to own a copy of the book, The Letters  of Pelagius now costs from $74 to $244 used, and from $259 up for a new copy. Wouldn’t a fourth century monk vowed to poverty be astonished at that?

Pelagius was the son of a Welsh bard, steeped in the nature mysticism that preceded Christianity in Britain. As a Christian monk he travelled to Rome where he became a teacher, a writer, and a spiritual guide. Church, for him, was more a community than an institution. He counseled that we should look for our spiritual truths not in an organized Church, but with an anamchara, a soul friend, what we might today call a spiritual counsellor or spiritual director – someone whose spiritual life we admire, to whom we can speak to honestly about our spiritual wonderings. We can better understand what we think in our hearts by saying it out loud to someone who will honor it in confidence.

Pelagius preached the goodness of creation: “If we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” That goodness includes people, who are born not in sin but in goodness, what Matthew Fox in our own time would come to call “original blessing.” Yes, humans do evil things, but any darkness in them is less than the divine Light in them, which the darkness “cannot overcome,” according to St. John.

Pelagius called for the redistribution of wealth (even from the Church and its leaders), taught women to read Scripture, preached equality of male and female. In one of Pelagius’ letters he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize the Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.”

No wonder Pelagius was excommunicated from the Church, banished from Rome, and labeled a heretic! We cannot have Christians actually following the teachings of Jesus, actually acting as he did! Distributing wealth? Caring for the marginalized? Renouncing power-over? Listening within our own hearts for the wisdom that we seek? Blasphemy! This is why one almost never hears the name Pelagius without an accompanying word: heresy. Pelagius returned from Rome to the Celtic world, probably Ireland, where he worked “underground,” writing anonymously, serving the Celtic faithful, and continuing to praise the deep goodness of creation.

In my own spiritual life, I’ve decided to correct the regrettable decisions made at the Synod of Whitby. I choose the open-heartedness of John rather than the tight-fistedness of Peter.

 Furthermore, seeing how well Pelagius’ teachings align with my own theology, I’ve chosen to change the conventional phrase “Pelagian Heresy” to “Pelagian Heritage.”

And I’m delighted to go even one step further: I’ve decided to elevate him (because I can) to “Saint Pelagius.” I think I’ll make September 26 his feast day, and the white oak leaf his symbol, standing for generosity, inherent wisdom, and rebirth.

“Saint Pelagius.” It has a nice, Celtic, old-time-religion ring to it.