Grace Notes 12 — Quiet Joy

Well, to nick a phrase from Garrison Keillor, it’s been a quiet month in Grace Street land. A lovely quiet holiday season—oh bliss! No travel outside the fifteen-minute drive to our near-and-dear for Christmas, followed by an equally quiet New Year’s weekend and month of January. After a bursting-busy year of unanticipated adventures, it felt just-right to sit tight and digest it all. I read, made many cups of tea, and took several deep warm fuzzy naps. We walked around the neighborhood and silently thanked our neighbors for the cheerful and sometimes over-the-top holiday displays, and I smiled at our Christmas tree (with tiny multicolored lights this year) until little Christmas on January 6, when we took it down.
 
It was quiet enough to watch the amaryllis in its daily unfolding at the dining room window. They start out as such unassuming looking bulbs. I gave seven of them out to dear friends and learned that they all seem to bloom on their own timetable. And then: THIS! Magnificence! It’s a bit like the year felt like to me. Not necessarily the magnificence part, but after a lot of work going on under the surface into the ‘bulb’ of a book, going on for years, seemingly forever, until I cringed when someone asked, “So, how is your book going?” But the toiling away below the radar continues and then: there it is! And you get to watch it do its own blooming out of your hands, to watch it passed from person to person, entering people’s hearts and minds. And I am left with a sense of deep thankfulness, in the case of Grace Street, of gratitude growing from the compost of grief.

The calm and beautiful scene before the Dana Cunningham concert.

While we’re still reflecting on December, remember in the last Grace Notes I mentioned the musician Dana Cunningham, whose piano music was such a frequent companion as I was working on the book? I was thrilled to have made email contact with her and she gave me permission to use some excerpts in the the audio book we are starting on.
 
Well, even better, it turned out she was playing two rare concerts in New Hampshire and that spelled: road trip! We talked our BFFs into coming with us and were treated to the archetype of a beautiful holiday concert in a small church, filled with soft lights and beautiful music that I wish I could link to here, because it was just so peace-filled and lovely. The photo of her piano just before the concert began conveys some of the feeling.
 
But! It gets better! Way better! I had never met Dana and wanted to introduce myself after our email exchange, so I scurried downstairs when the concert was finished and was the first person to greet her. Here’s what happened next.
 
Me: “Dana? Hi, I’m Maureen Callahan Smith, I had emailed . . . “
Dana: “Maureen! oh my goodness! That book! That poem in the front! Did you . . is that your poem?” (We are shaking hands now)
Me: “Yes.”
Dana, to a friend who had joined her: “This book! This poem—I recited it last night!”
Me: “What? You recited . . . You memorized . . . ?”
Dana: “Yes.”
And she turned to me and began aloud: “On earth, it goes like this: our most golden, precious moments must come to letting go, and more stunning than the sun in its most dazzling farewell are these shining human hearts, which, knowing this, go on loving anyway.”
(It is the epigraph to the book, the last few lines from the poem “Wingaersheek” which closes the book.)
Seeing my astonished-to-muteness reaction, she continued, “I often use a poem during the concert. I almost recited this one tonight! I love it! I used it just last night!” (Insert head exploding emoji here!)
 
The evening with our beloved friends, the setting, the ****MUSIC**** and this conversation with an artist I so admire? The well-worn phrase It doesn’t get any better than this! came to mind.   
Once again, Dana’s music is available at danacunningham.com. You will not be sorry.

Meeting Dana Cunningham. Can you tell how thrilled I am?

There is a poem that I love by Billy Collins, called “Envoy.”
A friend introduced me to it, and it captures the feeling of that moment for me with Dana.

Envoy
Go, little book,
Out of this house and into the world.
 
carriage made of paper rolling toward town
bearing a single passenger
beyond the reach of this jittery pen
and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.
 
It is time to decamp,
put on a jacket and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes,
bound to be held by other hands.
 
So off you go, infants of the brain,
with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:
 
stay out as late as you like,
don’t bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can.
 
(– from Aimless Love, New and Selected Poems, by Billy Collins, available at https://billycollinspoetry.com/)

So, I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Too many years of Catholic education (though it must be said, the older I am, the more I appreciate it) leaving too many “shoulds” behind in my brain. I don’t need any additional should-ing!

That said, I’ve heard a few people talk about “their word” this year. And that, I can buy into. I read online how surprised someone was, looking back, by the influence “her word” had on her last year. So, I let that sit. And as I was out walking one late January afternoon, my word arrived. Well, actually it was two words. Quiet joy. That’s my word for this year. And since I have agreed with myself that that it is my word, I indeed find myself noticing evidence of it popping up everywhere.
 
When I first start seeing folks in therapy, I will usually ask them: What are the things you do, or are part of your life, that just bring you some tiny pop of pleasure, or if not pleasure, then satisfaction, that no one else would probably even notice but you? It’s often a small, homely menu: the cat popping up in my lap, that first sip of coffee in the morning, the birds at the feeder, the feel of the soft hat my daughter knit me. Finishing a piece of work. A few minutes to read my book. You get the drift. These moments, from everything we are learning about the brain, are medicinal. Pleasure is medicinal. It causes the private, boutique pharmacy in our brain to release little doses of contentment, or satisfaction, even happiness into our day. So, I am on the lookout this year for moments of quiet joy. Currently, the amaryllis at my elbow as I write, combined with late afternoon sunlight filtering into the dining room, is filling the bill.
 
What are your quiet joys? And what is your word, or words for the year?
 
And of course, because I’ve encouraged you to find yourself a notebook, my next question is: Can you write about it? What does that word mean to you, in very specific and unique you ways? How does it make you feel? In a form of therapy work I do called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), we ask people all the time: Where do you feel that in your body? Think of this as you write your response to your word ONLY, remember, for yourself, for your own eyes. Your own heart. To get better acquainted with yourself.

Then again, if you’re hoping to hatch a project of some kind this year, you could do yourself a favor and take a look at this guide from author Kara Cutruzulla: Do It for Yourself.


This book has an equally helpful sibling: Do It Today.

Kara is a student of the creative process and writes the newsletter Brass Ring Daily. She has created many, many things, and is a student of how we actually move the ball on creative projects and get things done. This book is a beautiful tome of encouragement, suggestions, and (short!) journal exercises, designed in cheerful pop-art colors.

My mentor in creativity-land was the late artist Kate Ransohoff, whose whole approach was based on play. PLAY as the underlying elemental activity, as the juice feeding the Making. (More on this, and Kate, another time.) But the design of Kara’s book is PLAYful yet focused and, in its own way, serious about the importance of the endeavor. (A quote from Bob Dylan comes to mind. When asked about his song-writing earlier in his career, he answered, “You’re either serious about this stuff, or you’re not.”) In any case, if you would like a companion as you set out, or as you continue with whatever you are creating, check out Kara’s work, including her books, at her website.

And if you would love some time-frame structure and online company for whatever you might be thinking about hatching creatively, check out The 100 Day Project. People sign up from all over the world to tackle a practice, a thing they decide to do every day for 100 days. It starts February 22—or anytime you wish. Participants post all over social media with the #100dayproject hashtag, so everyone can see what’s cookin.’ If you’d like to join a community discussion to learn more and decide whether to join in, Great Barrington artist and writer Suzi Banks Baum will host a free zoom call on February 18 at 3pm EST to discuss it. You can register for it on her website.

And about grief: How is yours? I ask at this point because I feel a) we all carry grief of some sort, especially after these past nearly three years, and b) this is all related. Quiet and music and writing and things mending or growing out of sight, life surprising us, the weave of our hands making something.

When 9/11 happened and we arrived at the studio in the days that followed, distraught, Kate (mentioned above) told us, “Get your hands busy right away. Take all that’s inside wanting to pour out and make something with it—some marks, some music, some words or images. Let it come out through your hands.”  

I think about the people I have met over this past year through Grace Street, at all the various venues and spaces, of your faces, your questions and engaged hearts. I am still digesting our conversations and wondering how you are doing. WhereEVER you are in the process is of course exactly where you need to be. And, no marching orders about making anything. I am just reflecting here about the straws I kept grasping that pulled me back, inch by inch, for whatever help that may offer you. And I’m sending blessings back your way as we launch into a new year and, day by day, can watch the light increase.  

Wishing you all the best in 2023!

— Maureen

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