Why Aelwie Cave?

My experience of the Aelwie [Aillwee, Ailwee, etc.] Cave in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994 was the basis for my choice of that name for this blog. With tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent, it seemed a good time to explain that choice for the title.

The Aelwie Cave is located in the Burren, an extensive region of over 100 square miles noted for its extraordinary rock formations. At first glance, the region appears barren and lifeless, a kind of lunar landscape. General Ludlow, who led the Cromwellian forces into Clare in 1651 said that the Burren “is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” But below the carboniferous limestone surface lie many turloughs, seasonal lakes which appear and disappear, and the flowers and plants of the Burren have made it a favorite of botanists because of the cohabitation of Mediterranean and arctic-alpine plants. [Information from Fodor’s 90 Ireland]

We find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent, and also begins to incline toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.

A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is a darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has become a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’

While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection.

This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.

Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you?


And ain’t I a woman?

On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth died at the age of 86.

According to Robert Ellsberg, in his book ALL SAINTS, Daily Reflections of Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, Sojourner Truth “was widely acclaimed as one of the most influential women of her day: an illiterate black woman, a political activist without office, a preacher without credentials save for her penetrating and holistic vision of God’s justice .”

Perhaps her most famous speech was delivered at a women’s rights meeting, when she said, “I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me––and ain’t I a woman? I have born’d five childrun and seen ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard––and ain’t I a woman? … Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, ’cause Christ warn’t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from? What did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him!”

May she not rest in peace but rise up among us as the Spirit of Truth she is.images-1

II. Talitha koum, Little Girl, Get Up


Like a dog digging, ignorant

of that for which it digs, but smelling

something––go after it. Find it out,

dirt flying up on either side

claws tearing through rock and gravel

in a whimpering ecstasy known by dogs,

an eagerness driven by sheer not-knowing

like digging potatoes in the harvest garden

––how many, how big, the excitement builds––

like that. Like presents under the tree

and a child tearing in a fever

of getting more, more––that’s how it is

with this going back to the central core

unnamed, uncolonized.

First, divest.

Get naked and dig. You are what you are,

whatever that is. Displace the layers

of paint and dirt, back to elementary

matter, the core as I’ve called it

above. Below, at center, it is to consume

the seeds––supposedly poison. Pay no attention.

It’s only the apple of God. You’ve already eaten

in to the core. Might as well eat the seeds

and see what happens.


I’m about the business of learning Finnish
tricking out my mother’s life by tens
of letters in single words: k’s, n’s, omnipresent
o’s struggle with my western speech for dominance.

I fall back to lullaby then
meet with resistance at the early hour
of Anglicization, acculturation
in a neighborhood where a different majority ruled.

In my majority I choose her language
and feel the gates of the sluiceway lift
when I dive down
in a rush of syllables, trusting when I surface

again, I’ll surface in Finland,
my keel, my rudder,
my compass––my mother tongue.
*Finnish for mother tongue

Unless you become like a little child…

Pricked with the point of a safety pin

my index finger dripped blood

on the index of my life’s book:

If you don’t destroy the world, I will give you my life.

Nine years old, I signed the note

in blood, buried it in a woodsy glade

where it rotted into the earth

with root and maggot.

Now at the other end of life

I look out on a May-green field

bordered by ash and wild cherry,

burgeoning lilac, poised to bloom.

The world blooms.

You’ve kept your side of the bargain.

I’ve kept mine too, amazed to find

that giving over a life is life, not self-denial

fulfillment of a kind all unexpected.

I. Talitha koum, Little Girl, Get Up


I remember standing the last in line

awaiting communion at a friend’s wedding.

When I reached the rail, the priest

judged my life and turned away.

Rooted in those raw moments

I stood, hoping he had overlooked me

or had gone back for more hosts––

but no; he resumed the Mass.

I turned then, returned to my seat.


it took a dozen more years

to leave that house where I was not wanted

when another man-of-god

a priest in Cambridge, Massachusetts

turned away from my outstretched hand.

I recognized the gesture and left the church.


I return to the cellar nightly

pressing my cupped ear against the unyielding side

of the water heater.

I crouch in the dark.

Gurgle and hum inside the tank

summon words sleeping within me

in waters older than time.

Mothers collectively cross my mind.

I rise, I walk,

I follow them through the dark

sensing my way.

SAIVA SARVA [Finnish/Lappish for reindeer as the shaman’s token animal]

You courted me when I was young

although I did not know your name,

only the shape you assumed in dream––

a hart. You chased me in a field

caught up and bumped me

from behind. I encircled your neck

with my arm and was lifted

into the night sky. Fearful

I  clung to you for life.

As we flew, fear faded

and I opened myself to the night.

Limbs outstretched I flew with grace

and wanted to see the face of my dead mother.

There she was, standing below

with others, looking up at me

and smiling full.

The Red Tent

Last night fourteen of us sat around a candle-lit table in the 7 o’clock darkness of the approaching solstice here at the end of a dirt road in rural Maine. As we have been doing for the last 10 years, for two hours we shared our lives over food and drink, in laughter, and in prayer.

From the earliest stages, the group called itself The Red Tent, borrowing the name from Anita Diamant’s 1997 best-selling novel of biblical times (learn more about that here).

From a core of five or so choristers from the local Catholic Church, who wanted more to eat and more to drink of their own shared spirituality than they were able to partake of at Mass, the group has grown in diversity and numbers. Most of the original group of “petitioners” have continued to attend church, are still in the choir and continue to identify with the “tribe,” the family, as one of the women termed their relationship with the church.

We women have worked through the years at home and in the communities in our area, have become widowed, endured life-threatening illnesses, have cared for and lost parents, have raised children and now have grandchildren. Our ages range from 40 to 82, and religious expression ranges from active Catholic, to agnostic, to completely unchurched, but most, having had infant baptism and subsequent adult choice, consider themselves Christian.

One recent addition to the group, a white-haired grand- and great-grandmother who came for the first time after the sudden death of her middle-aged son, wrote a succinct summary of what The Red Tent means to her and which she read to us last night. To wit:

Under the tent my sisters all sit.

Some of us wear jeans, some of us skirts.

Some wear make-up, and some do not.

Some are dark-haired, some are not.

Some can sing like angels, and some can even whistle.

But under it all we are one, in our love and sisterhood, always there for one another.

The support we have for one another is unconditional and respectful and above all, loving. In January 2015 we will mark 11 years together with a pot luck supper, opened with prayer, and closed the same way, by passing around a cup of wine in a vintage tea cup that belonged to the mother of two of our sisters, from which we all drink. The thought behind the ritual is that the essence of everything we have shared at the meeting––prayer, talk, laughter, tears, food and drink––is distilled and contained in the cup we pass, one to the other in peace and love.

Grace Paley’s “In the Bus”

UnknownGod did make a way for me to begin again, aided and abetted by that humanitarian activist poet and short story writer, Grace Paley, whose “In the Bus” continues as a touchstone for me.

She read it at the library in Gardiner, Maine, while she was filling a temporary residency at nearby Bates College. I asked her after the reading if the event related in the poem had actually happened as she wrote it, and she assured me that indeed it had.

In thinking about writing this blog, I wrote

Letter to Grace Paley re “In the Bus.”

I gave away the monograph you autographed for me,
handing it to me as casually as the morning paper.
I treasured that poem and hung it beside
the Regulator clock on our kitchen wall
whose pendulum was a message of time passing

like the content of your poem, which exhorted you
and so, the reader to begin again. Decades have passed
since then, and only the clock remains, the monograph
gone to a young writer, who attributed her writing life
to your inspiration. She herself had sought your signature

breathlessly on a street in P’town, where you were speaker
at a writer’s workshop. That autograph drowned with much
else in a flooding storm, she needed the monograph more
than I who had long ago internalized the poem’s message:
To begin again, and so I did and do.


Sometimes it is in disobedience that true obedience is uncovered, the way cleared only when we can let go of tightly gripped partial truths about God, about ourselves, about the world.

At my last experience of sacramental confession in the Roman Catholic Church, I was filled with joy as I confessed the sin of idolatry, a sin against the first commandment: Thou shalt have no strange gods before me. The strange god was one of presumption, that I knew how to worship God, through all the ages-old liturgies of the church, especially the Mass.

What became clear to me by the grace of God was my own ignorance. I knew nothing and came to rejoice in the not-knowing. Lip service to mystery, even the acting out of it in mediated worship was not enough. Recognition of the relationship between Creator and creature wanted addressing. God made a way for me to begin again, that One having pulled the prayer rug out from under me.

The following poem was written during that period.

My Retinue

Raise up the story of your grave past

from beneath the stone foundation

of your first house

where blocked in living cement

you lived like an anchoress

attached to a church

closed in and fed

by an unseen hand

through an opening in the wall.

You survived the enclosure

until the iconoclast of your own desire

dismantled that wall

stone by stone

and you stepped forth

finding yourself full grown.

From stones of stories set aside

build a foundation for another house,

where I will come and keep you, my retinue.