contemplative life, domestic arts, everyday parables

a room in the kingdom

There’s a room in the kingdom where your sisters are weaving.

No one’s speaking now, not after days of late-night talks and early-morning laughter, of sermons and studies and gathered meals. Instead, some read, some write, and others tend their little looms, weaving bands with colors like a winter sky. Someone at the piano recalls the song we sang last night, when the lights went out under roaring wind and thunder.  This morning, as sunshine dyes the hour gold, they hum along, “…all I have needed, Thy hands have provided…” And their hands pray with thread and rag, drawing the weft like hours and days and years, ordinary moments given form and glory by the upright cords of the warp: covenants that neither bend nor break.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where your friends are feasting.

The tables are heavy with brisket and chicken salad, fajitas and rice, lemonade and Dr. Pepper. The family could have circled close, hiding their grief in seemly privacy. But they know their father better: beloved host, he would open the doors, tell his children to bring their friends home, too. After all, who else will eat this food? And so they laugh even as they weep, telling stories, explaining the intricate display of cotton bolls, the feed-sack, the photograph, the family legend and dear history.

They eat well, affirming the resurrection with second helpings, until, as they house empties, they turn to you and say, “Tell us.” And even here, even in their grief, they listen to the hard choice. Offering no easy answers, betraying no awkward impatience, they listen deep and wide, wide with the love of those who grieved, deep with the hope of those who believe.

And so, having feasted at their father’s table, you find yourself outside, four friends holding one another against the cold. They pray for you beneath the blazing stars, upbank from the river that can bless and flood. Four friends against the cold, and then — a fifth draws near.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where strangers are meeting.

You can hear the drums before you leave the house, and the firelight tells you where to find them. Circled already: neighbors, friends, and strangers linked by firelight and rhythm. They would burst the seams of your little house, but here around the fire there is room: room to beat a drum with jubilation or shy intensity, room to slip out for a cigarette or a dance, room to join or wait.

Bring your banjo and tambourine, your bucket or pot, your tingling bells or child’s drum. Bring your clapping hands and timid feet, surrender to something beyond your power, something beyond your right to start or end, manage or maintain.

***

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

(Matthew 4:17 ESV)

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contemplative life, imagination

Imagination: the power that sees

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

These are the thirteen shades of indigo, as described by E. Bemis in his 1806 The Dyer’s Companion. I came across this list in a useful but dry reference book on natural dyes, and these names fascinated me, as though they were a kind of incantation. I have known for years that indigo is the plant that gives our denim and chambray fabrics their blues, but I had never noticed thirteen different shades.

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

For the last month, I’ve been teaching a weekly seminar called “Reclaiming Imagination for the Common Good” through a think tank here, The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. During our first week, we talked about what “imagination” actually means.

We often think about the imagination as the faculty that frees us from reality, offering an escape into private fantasies and unbounded visions. Such assumptions, I think, can cause a great deal of harm without being grounded in the more fundamental work of the imagination: it is, first of all, the power that sees.

Scientists have known for years that the raw data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, and nerves is not identical to what we experience as sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Images from our two eyes must be flipped and collated into the single image we see. Beyond this basic level of perception, our imagination is our image-bearing power. It calls images up from memory when the object of sight is no longer present. It frames our attention, so that instead of lumping all hues of a certain range into the single name of “blue,” we notice subtle shades and distinctions, thirteen varieties from a single dyepot.

More mysteriously, the imagination weaves together these images, noticing connections between something we see here with something we once saw there, providing the foundation for metaphor, and perhaps for language itself. Thus these thirteen names call back a whole world. “Sky,” like “milk,” or “pearl,” evoke the natural world and gives us images of blues that we might have seen on a fine summer day, or in the faint tinge in the cream we pour in our tea. “Mazareen,” on the other hand, probably comes from Hortense Mancini, the Duchesse de Mazarin, a seventeenth-century French noblewoman and mistress of the English King Charles II. Whoever named this deeper, darker blue, might have imagined the rustling of silks in the royal court, the mingling French and English laughter at a decadent feast. A blue that, like night itself, conceals what moves on the earth, even as it reveals the bright courses of the stars.

If we say we wish to be students of wisdom, imagination is one of our most powerful tools. It can do mighty works. but first we sharpen it by seeing, by turning the eyes of our head and heart to the world around us. Noticing not merely, “That is blue,” but realizing that there are thirteen blues–or more–in a single pot of dye, and then giving meaningful, mysterious, clarifying names to each.

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