Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mid-week Muse: What cows can tell us about inspiration

Image by Vladimir Lytvak - stock.xchng
Where does inspiration come from? More specifically, how does that lightning-in-a-bottle ah-ha-moment happen? I think the answer might be found in the connection between cows and goddesses. Seriously.

Bear with me a moment. Let’s muse a bit on, well, musing:


verb (used without object)

1. to think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.

2. Archaic . to gaze meditatively or wonderingly.

3. to meditate on.

4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.


(Thank you,!)

The verb form of the word provides four definitions that to me seem more a series of four sub-actions that define the overarching action of “to muse.”  You first meditate in silence, gazing with wonder (with inner and/or outer eye) on a thing or subject, considering it meditatively, just long enough to then comment on it (for self, internally, or for others, externally) thoughtfully. Ironically, the starting point of inspiration is silence, since many ground-breaking ideas end up making a lot of noise (so to speak).

But we are a busy and noisy people. How can anyone find the silence or time needed for the reflection that leads to anything resembling an original thought? (I get this question a lot.) The only real answer is you have to want it badly enough. However, the sort of silence that leads to meditative wonder is less a lowered decibel level for any given span of time than it is a stillness of spirit cultivated with practice that creates space for rumination. It takes practice and intentionality.

But where does that new thought come from? From whence the muse? I believe the answer is hidden in the rumination. And here’s where the dictionary is once again helpful.


verb (used without object)

1. to chew the cud, as a ruminant (a cud-chewing quadruped, like cattle).

2. to meditate or muse; ponder.

I have rarely seen a cow do much of anything but stand and chew. Slowly. Occasionally, they sit. Standing or sitting, they appear to be looking at you or the fence or the grass and sky at the same time, taking it all in, or none of it, with a certain amount of pondering disinterest. And they do all of this while they chew, and chew, in magnificent silence.

To chew on, over and over again, to ponder, ruminate, like a cow… interesting. It is thinking, but not the type of thinking we are much taught how to do in school (particularly not business school). It is an “inefficient” kind of thought, one that does not start with the end in mind, but simply starts with the one chewy subject and allows itself to be led by that starting point. And after a first round of chewing, of going down the uncharted pathway, the thinking goes back to the beginning and starts chewing again, tasting the topic all over again, allowing for alternative paths.

I tend to do this type of thinking through my pen or keyboard. I write it out and follow the path the words mark out for me. Conversation can also provide this perfect pondering, if the participants are patient with the silences, tolerant of non-linear thinking, and not looking for an instant solution to a particular problem. Some of my most memorable moments of friendship – and inspiration – have occurred through such perfectly messy banter.

So, back to the beginning of our muse at hand. Let’s now chew on the noun form of Muse for a moment:


1. Classical Mythology .

a. any of a number of sister goddesses, originally given as Aoede (song), Melete (meditation), and Mneme (memory), but latterly and more commonly as the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who presided over various arts: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (religious music), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy); identified by the Romans with the Camenae.

b. any goddess presiding over a particular art.

2. ( sometimes lowercase ) the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.

3. ( lowercase ) the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

The noun embodies the action of musing. Goddess, power, or genius, it is that seemingly mysterious THING that inspires and characterizes the poet, artist, or creative thinker.

I love that there are nine sister goddesses called muses, representing a range of domain expertise from epic poetry to astronomy. Even comedy gets its own muse! What it tells me is that there are certain core disciplines that feed inspiration across all disciplines and stimulate the musings of artists, poets, musicians, choreographers, comedians, and scientists alike.

I like to think of it as the discipline of inefficient thought. It is the patience of cattle that allows for the silence and the open spaces and the chewing on over and over again. It is the genius that fearlessly explores the inherently messy mind, not to put it in order, but to discover yet another crumb to nibble.

So what about the lightning-in-a-bottle moment? I believe it is a mystery we may never fully solve, but there are clues we can pick up along the way. Surely it is magic, but a magic that comes to those ready and waiting. And chewing.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

All Nine contributor-muse Dr. Holly Ordway finds grace, if not words, in the poem “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” by C.S. Lewis. Holly is a poet, teacher, and friend, as well as an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway


Failing to Find Words: Reflecting on C.S. Lewis’ The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

by Dr. Holly Ordway
I struggled to find a poem to write about for this piece; having chosen one, I found I had nothing good to say, so I tried again, and then again, and ended up with yet more deleted drafts for my pains. Eventually, I found myself circling back to a poem I had considered, and then set aside: C.S. Lewis’ “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer.”  

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

It's an odd choice, in a way, because it's not one of the poems of Lewis’ that I particularly like as a poem. There are others that I enjoy or find compelling and beautiful as poems, like “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” “Five Sonnets,” “The Dragon Speaks,” “Reason,” “Re-adjustment,” or “Pilgrim’s Problem” to name a few. In contrast, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” feels flat.

But in its very flatness it speaks to that feeling I get at the end of a long day of talking, teaching, writing: as if my words fall lifeless. It's a poem of poverty of language, in a way... of being unable to say what I want to say (or even to think it).

As a teacher, a writer, an apologist, I find that it is too easy to think that words and more words, arguments and more arguments, ideas explained and defended, are all that matters. “All my lame defeats” loom large, and at the end of that long day, or week, of defending the faith, of teaching and talking and writing, even “all the victories that I seemed to score” can feel hollow. I enjoy writing and know that I am good at it, yet when I tried to write this piece, the words that came on the first, second, third attempts were facile, shallow, and pathetic. I read them and was depressed in spirit.  

But wait - am I even seeing the problem correctly? Lewis’ phrase got under my skin: “From all the victories that I seemed to score” -- what I think of as victories and defeats may be something else entirely. Certainly, Lewis says, what may pass as victory could be its opposite: “From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf / At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh; / ... deliver me.” But if the world’s idea of victory is unreliable, so too is the world’s (and my) idea of failure.

“Thoughts are but coins” -- and words, too -- “Let me not trust, instead / Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.” I must remember to look to the Source of the image, not to the image... but I am reminded by Lewis, here, that even while I remember that the coin is not the original, and has no value of its own, yet it still has value in its use. And when my own words feel like a debased currency, I am reminded to take refuge in the liturgy that has rung true over centuries, in words of prayer that the saints have spoken before me and will speak after me.

“From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.” Fair Silence is a gift indeed: the hushing of the over-busy mind, not to say ‘no’ to my work of words and arguments and ideas, but to say ‘peace; rest.’

“Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye, / Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.” The OED defines “trumpery” as “worthless stuff, rubbish, nonsense” with an additional meaning of “showy clothing; worthless finery.” Words and arguments and ideas can become ‘trumpery’ if we mistake the words themselves for the Truth they point toward. Yet I find it significant that Lewis nonetheless describes God in Scriptural phrases that are themselves metaphors: the “narrow gate” and the “needle’s eye.” As human beings, word-bearers, we cannot express ourselves other than in words, we cannot think without images, even while we know that all our images and words are “trumpery” if we think they are true in and of themselves.

It’s a narrow path, a delicate balance. No wonder Lewis ends in a plea. And that honesty, that empty-handed, exhausted prayer for grace, is what in the end makes this poem ring true for me. It is possible to over-think everything, and that includes reflecting on one’s own inadequacy. Lewis reminds me, here, of the depth of God’s grace, always renewed; by that grace, I can rest in being present in the moment as it truly is.
C.S. Lewis, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” in Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bishop’s Sandpiper: Taking the biggest gifts for granted

Last week I found myself quite unexpectedly in a moment of complete peace and silence, reading without interruption the poem “Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop, and enjoying it immensely. The images, sounds, feelings she evokes are ones only to be captured through first hand observation and experience of the Atlantic Ocean, by one who has seen many times the “controlled panic” of the sandpiper running south along the shoreline.

I thought, “Oh, she gets it. She must have lived near here.” Turns out, sure enough, she did. She was New England born and bred (with a short time in Nova Scotia), and died in Massachusetts in 1979, three years after my first view of the Atlantic Ocean, a view that would change my life.

You see, I live near the Atlantic now, but it hasn’t always been this way. I live close enough to smell the watermelon-seaweed saltiness as a storm comes up the coast; close enough to feel the fog in my bones; close enough to watch the tide rush back through my toes, to see the world as minute and vast in one moment as only the mighty Atlantic allows.

My childhood was spent in upstate New York, four hours from the ocean. My first experience of the roaring surf was in 1976. I was ten years old, and my family drove to Cape Cod for the rare vacation beyond the borders of New York state. And there was one trip not long after that to visit cousins in New York City, which included an afternoon trip to Long Island. That is where I first experienced “a beach hissing like fat” where the “tide was higher or lower” but we couldn’t tell which. After that point, I would not be completely satisfied living anywhere outside of a five-minute drive to those “interrupting waters.” It would be another seven years before I would get back to the coast – for college – and stay for the better part of my life (so far).

In preparation for this post, I read a number of critical pieces and reviews of “Sandpiper” and I came up short. You see, most analysts were looking for the “meaning” behind the words, as if the words themselves were not clear enough. Maybe Bishop was telling about her own life, as some suggest, that she is that sandpiper, all finical and awkward. Maybe there is some more subtle reading to the Blake reference. But to me, the meaning is all there, crystal clear. That is, it is clear if you have walked the pebbled beaches of New England, paying attention to sandpipers and the way the world is bound to shake as the wave pounds earth.

This poem captured me as much as it captures the sandpiper for that very reason: I have been there, and I do take it for granted. The roaring alongside as much as the millions of grains of multi-colored sand are there every single day, waiting for me to take notice. And most days I do not notice. But let’s be honest, the ocean is not really waiting for me, either. I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other that allows for this taking for granted. The beach is there with its pounding and roaring and misting, and I am here with my finite controlled efforts to capture that experience in words. Unlike the sort of taking for granted that discards and destroys, we take these gifts for granted from a sense of place, and balance, and gratitude.

When I do make it down to the beach, the experience of it is the same as the sandpipers, except without the panic or the searching obsession. There is a sense of the infinite and the finite that comes together, the vast and the minute. I walk slowly, not running to the south, but walking first east (toward the water), then slowly north and turning around to come back slowly to the south. Toes tingling with the sixty-five degree tide, I bend slowly to pick up then pocket a mottled stone, reddish-gray with lines of white running through, and a piece of broken shell.

I am both focused and preoccupied, caring too much for a broken piece of a seagull’s lunch, and not caring much at all as my thoughts bounce along the beach, following the sandpipers.

In my life, there has been nothing but walking along a New England beach to make me feel this way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Standing and Waiting: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Standing and Waiting: John Milton's "On His Blindness"

Andrew Lazo

I find myself a little swoony about the latest addition to my poetry library: a few slim volumes from the Everyman’s Pocket Poets, including the lovely little Milton volume pictured here. My favorite of Milton’s Sonnets, “On His Blindness,” makes its debut on page one, and since it occupies the pride of place, I thought I’d have a look at some of its stanzas and phrases and see if I can’t make sense of it for the week ahead.

This poem offers a pretty decent example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet: it has an octave (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines), and the ideas often contrast or even oppose each other. Many, such as Petrarch’s poetry for Laura, focus on the unattainable (the two may have had little contact; she was married to another). The octave rhymes a b b a b b a; the sestet has a number of rhyming options, including the one here, c d e c d e.

Milton went blind as an adult, losing his vision over many years. He composed the whole of Paradise Lost after losing all of his sight; some suggest he dictated it to his daughters. So here’s the whole poem; afterwards I’ll take it in bits and wander my way through.

When I consider how my light is spent
            Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
            And that one talent which is death to hide,
            Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
           My true account, lest he returning chide,
           “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
           I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need  
           Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best         
           Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state  
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed,
         And post o’er land and ocean without rest;           
         They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Let me pull apart a few of the key moments that move me in the poem as I walk through these fourteen lines in search of some help from this blind poet who somehow saw so well.

When I consider how my light is spent
        Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

Here we find Milton doing what most of us would: contemplating and even lamenting a loss, made all the more poignant because he lived out so much of his vocation as a poet in utter darkness. It certainly reminds me of the fact that Beethoven went deaf. And while my own little life in some ways cannot compare the lives of these giants of creativity, I too know a bit about “this dark world and wide.” I imagine we all do. Milton reminds that sometimes staring deeply enough into darkness helps me notice even the smallest scrap of light. And sometimes that’s the only good thing darkness does for me.

And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
          My true account, lest he returning chide,

Here Milton alludes to the parable of the talents—a talent is a measure of gold equaling about twenty years’ wages. Think of having a great pile of money plopped in your lap. A wealthy master goes away, leaving five talents with one servant, two with another, and one talent with a third. The first two play the ancient Israeli version of the stock market and double their money, but the third just buries the gold and does nothing—not even investing it in a sixty-day low-yield interest-bearing account. He literally hides it away, burying it in the ground. And then the master returns, and rewards the two profitable servants, but casts the last one into outer darkness. Now if a stock broker faced the death penalty for a bear market, you might get me watching CNBC—that’s the kind of reality show that has some teeth: unlimited wealth or certain death!

Milton certainly understood the implicit pun in English—his “talent” means his ability and gift with which to make much of his life; and he has seen it snuffed out, and would likely trade a world of wealth for it if he could. That’s what he means—he finds his gift of reading and writing useless, though his soul desires all the more to serve his Master. But as I thought deeply about this poem, all of a sudden the next line seemed to open itself up, offering me a key or maybe even a fulcrum to this whole sonnet.
Milton expresses an urgency to serve God to avoid the penalty of (according to the parable) eternal darkness. Perhaps he’d had enough darkness for this lifetime and could not contemplate an eternity of the stuff. Notice too his tone as he laments his condition and fears God’s criticism. His blindness seems to prevent Milton from being able to serve as best he could, to “present [his] true account, lest he [that is, God] returning chides.” Milton wishes he hadn’t gone blind because he fears that God will come to him at the end of his life and upbraid him for not doing enough.

Wait—what? Milton fears that God will give him grief over all he has not done? His talent lies buried, useless inside him. His hands are tied. A grief he can hardly express overwhelms him, drives him into darkness and despair and his big concern consists in not doing more? And Milton had so much more to do, although out of an ever-increasing deficit as the years of his terrible blindness wore on.

To me, this rings all too true. How often have I climbed the weary stairs at the end of a too-long day, having labored in the classroom, and labored at the grading desk, and trudged home only to grouse at myself for not having done the breakfast dishes? How often have I, when bearing great grief, chided myself for not doing more, or for getting tired of the burden I cannot help but bear. And all the more, how many of those times have I blamed that screechy, never-satisfied voice in my head on God?

But Jesus ended his work on the cross saying, “It is finished.” The cross carried all grief, all care, all of the heavy burdens. And it wiped out once and for all any cruel and idolatrous image of a God tapping his foot, looking at His watch, impatient with all of my never-enough. The cross allowed grace to become sufficient for me, and His power to be made perfect in my weakness. It turned the world upside down—which of course means right-side up. And though God will surely return, He will not chide those of us He has hidden in the shadow of the cross, however we cower and cling to it. Christ finished the job for us, and He Himself provides the return on our investment, even if, like a mustard seed, we trust Him with the littlest bits.

And of course, the rest of the sonnet says the same thing. Patience speaks—and Patience here serves as the sound of the true voice of God, satisfied by the saving work of the death of His Son. Patience prevents my murmuring. Patience reminds me that I must bear as best I can the mild yoke, the easy burden—and in so doing Patience wisely whispers that, when I grow weary of carrying the heavy load, I have somehow been fooled into carrying the wrong one. God’s gift and His burden should ride lightly on my shoulders—and when it does not, I can know surely that I’ve swapped out my heavy load for His light one.

No, God neither needs my work, nor the gifts He has given me. Frederick Buechner says, “God’s love’s all gift, for He has need of naught.” And slipping this burden reminds me of my royal state—that, by adoption, the king of this universe has claimed me as His own, and that His power, wealth, and even His deep joy can come upon me.

So what remains? Milton reminds me that I also serve when I can do only two things. I must stand up. I stand for truth, I stand simply so that I do not let whatever burden I bear bow me down to the ground. I stand up, vertical against this horizontal earth in which I will someday sleep, and in doing so, I get my head just that much closer to Heaven.

And then I wait. I cry “how long?” with the Psalmist. I wait for the coming kingdom, I wait for the next few words to write. I wait for good gifts to fall into my hands so that I may do my best this day and the days to come. I read poems and I make poems, even as I await the ones who need to hear them most, like water in a weary land.

And so with Milton, I acknowledge my want, my lack, the darkness in and around me. And patiently I wait for the day of the Lord. And until then, I celebrate songs in the darkness, where I stand and wait, and so serve God, who chideth not His children.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing from the well

I am thrilled to be starting a new writing workshop next month in southern Maine. Writing From the Well is a unique workshop experience providing a safe and inspiring space for creative exploration. Are you ready to collaborate with your Muses to inspire, create, and illuminate? Please join me for two dedicated hours each month to draw on your internal well of creativity and courage, and break through the writing wall.

WHO: Courageous word wranglers
WHEN: 7:00 – 9:00 p.m., 2nd Thursday monthly, starting September 2012 (next month!)
WHERE: Natural Care Wellness Center, 6 Seely Lane, Eliot, ME

Class size is limited to 12. Call Natural Care Wellness Center at 207-439-9242 to reserve your seat.

$35 per session OR $290 for 9 sessions.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The ABCs of Poetry: Musing on Guite's Spell

All Nine contributer Rebekah Choat takes us back to school with Malcolm Guite’s “Spell.” Becka is a reader, a writer, a lover of the printed word, dedicated to bringing people books to nourish mind, soul, and spirit. Her website is

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six
enchanters.  Spelling silence into sound,
they bind and loose, they find and are not found.
Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,
summon the summoners, the shaping shapes
the grounds of sound, the generative gramma
signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana
runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,
leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,
shining, re-combining in their dance
the genesis of every utterance,
pattering the pattern of the Tree.
Summon the summoners, and let them sing.
The summoners will summon Everything.

Image by Rebekah Choat

I’m preparing to start kindergarten again, for the fourth time. I’d thought our homeschooling season would end when Baby Girl the First finished high school last year, but you know what Mr. Burns said about the best laid plans of mice and men…Baby Girl the Second came along just in time for my fortieth birthday, giving me one more opportunity to begin at the very beginning.

When you read you begin with ABC, or summon the summoners, the twenty-six enchanters.  What a motley set of characters – only a couple of them able to stand alone, but let them start joining up, and there they go, spelling silence into sound.  How do they do that?  How do a bunch of little black marks on a white page bring forth purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain?  And that’s just the most obvious manifestation of their powers.

They bind:  once you know a rose is a rose you can’t very well imagine it by any other name; and loose:  the rose isn’t just a rose, it’s velvet and fragrance and innocence and my luve is like a red, red rose.  They are the shaping shapes:  sometimes they actually do take on something of the shape of the object they signify – bed, for instance, or hollyhock .  How cool is that?

These twenty-six little bits of code are signs of the Mystery – like the Word that is from the beginning, they lend form to the intangible, showing us glimpses of things beyond our comprehending; runes from the root-tree, searching down to the bedrock of our knowledge; leaves from the tale-tree, spreading, reaching, leaping greenly.  And speaking of re-combining, do they mean the things they name, or do they name the things they mean?

In a strange, fascinating book I read a few years ago (Libyrinth, by Pearl North), I came across an alternate ending that I really like:  “Now I know my ABC’s, all the books are mine to read.”  Yes.  They are the genesis of every utterance, the keys that open the books that open the world.  So this September I’ll be starting down that path again, to teach Baby Girl the Second how to summon the summoners, and let them sing, and see the magic light up her eyes as she discovers how the summoners will summon Everything.