Every Place on Earth is Thin

Rob WiltshireBack in the days when I was actively producing novels and teaching at writing conferences across the country, I tried to impress upon would-be writers the importance of white space on the page. Shorter paragraphs. Reduction of excessive verbiage. Less irrelevant adverbization.

“We live in a world of the twelve-second attention span,” I’d say. “Give your readers a place to rest their eyes.”

Now, with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, emoticons and Instagram, the national attention span has shrunk to eight seconds, and white space has become more important than ever.

But not just white space for the eyes. White space for the soul. A place, now and then, free of noise and rush and pressure, free of the frantic angst and worry and fear that is so much a part of 21st century life.

Since my wife Pam and I moved to Ecuador in September of last year, our lifestyle has changed dramatically. Much of our time each day is taken up with the simple business of living—going to the Mercado, buying fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking everything from scratch, washing dishes by hand, hanging laundry on the clothesline. We spend most evenings sitting on the terraza talking and sipping wine and watching the sun go down. We don’t own a TV. We catch a few shows on the computer, but we do it on our own schedule. Most of our leisure time is spent reading and listening to music—mostly classical, almost always peaceful.

If it sounds like we’ve dropped through a time warp back to the 1950s, sometimes it feels that way, too. With the exception of high speed Internet, life in Ecuador offers us a slower pace reminiscent of Mayberry, where people talk to their neighbors, come home for lunch, stroll along the river bank, and sit in the park to watch the dogs play.

But we don’t have to move abroad to make such a change. A simple shift in awareness will do as well.

Light in tree

Every place on earth is thin,
if only we have eyes to see the light
that pierces through,
or ears to hear the whispers
from another room.

Every place on earth is thin,
every step a threshold,
every stream a holy path,
every arching tree a portal,
every beast a totem
and a spirit guide.

All around us
breezes from the breath of God
ripple the curtains that divide;
each leaf and weed and bush
holds holy flame,
and every bird
sings glory.

©Penelope J. Stokes

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Home By Another Way


Epiphany. The Magi. Astrologers from a faraway land, following the light of an unknown star, their intellectual and spiritual curiosity driving them on to find…what?

An enigma swaddled in a mystery.
A terrible beauty.
A piercing question.
A challenge so deep and rich and dangerous that they had to go home by a different way.

All right, you’ll tell me that Epiphany is over, that on the 12th day of Christmas you took down your tree, put away the decorations, changed the colors on the altar, liberated the partridge from the pear tree, and braced yourself for the New Year to come.


But you’d be wrong. Epiphany isn’t over. It’s only getting started. Like the Incarnation, it’s always beginning. New life, new challenge, new year, new path.

In our end is our beginning,  T.S. Eliot wrote,

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

We long for Epiphany, for awakening, for that starlit Eureka moment when the earth tilts on its axis and the light grows bright. Some days, even a small Epiphanette would do.  What we forget is that Epiphany brings change. Radical change. Unexpected change. Sometimes unwelcome change.

The journey transforms us. The road keeps shifting. The way closes up behind us. We cannot return to who we were before the stars came out. We can’t go home the same way we arrived. Maybe we can’t go home at all.

milky way








The star-search leads us all
To unanticipated ends.
When our best understanding falters,
The stars hold no answers,
Only humility,
Only the question:
“Where are You?”

Where, in the blaze
Of a million suns
Lies that one candle?
Where is that single light,
The tiny, flickering wick
Whose fire alone
Can make our spirits burn?

The stars could lead us on
Looking for predictable places.
Or now, here,
Willing to lay down at last
The burden of our treasure,
We could kneel
And wonder.

©Penelope J. Stokes

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Bui-Doi: They Are All Our Children, Too

MissSaigonPosterI’m old enough to remember Vietnam. The horrific images of napalm warfare splashed across our TV screens. The propaganda. The rationalization. The fear. I remember in particular the images of the evacuation of Saigon, where helicopters airlifted out the last of the soldiers while television journalists on the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel filmed the inglorious retreat.

Last February, my partner Pam and I stood on that same rooftop in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City and looked across toward the old American Embassy. I could almost hear the thundering thump-thump-thump of the helicopters.

Then yesterday we went to the Flat Rock Playhouse to see the musical, Miss Saigon. I had never seen the play, and only vaguely knew a few details:  that it was based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and that it was set in Saigon during the Vietnam war.

I came away stunned.

Miss Saigon is not just the story of something that happened forty years ago, something so vile and violent that millions of us were driven to the streets in protest. In some ways it’s also the story of what’s happening right here, right now, this moment–something so vile and violent that we ought to be taking to the streets. Something that should never, never happen in a nation that began with a conscience call to freedom.

two-little-kids-looking-out-to-seaI’m talking about the children. The ones who come following a dream of peace and safety only to find themselves arrested and detained and crowded into places that look remarkably like concentration camps.

Those dirty, frightened, innocent children. The ones who strike such fear in our hearts.


Here’s the song from Miss Saigon that left me breathless and in tears.
Click the link to listen. And please, listen carefully. Read the lyrics below.
And ask yourself. . .well, just ask yourself.

Bui-Doi (They Are All Our Children, Too)


from Miss Saigon

They’re called Bui-Doi
The Dust of Life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminders
Of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all
Our children too

Like all survivors, I once thought
When I’m home I won’t give a damn
But now I know I’m caught
I’ll never leave Vietnam

War isn’t over when it ends
Some pictures never leave your mind
They are the faces of the children
The ones we left behind

They’re called Bui-Doi
The Dust of Life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminders
Of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all
Our children too

These kids hit walls on every side
They don’t belong in any place
Their secret they can’t hide
Its printed on their face
I never thought I’d plead
For half-breeds from a land that’s torn
But then I saw a camp for children
Whose crime was being born

They’re called Bui-Doi
The Dust of Life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
We owe them fathers, and a family –
A loving home they never knew
Because we know
Deep in our hearts
That they are all
Our children too

These are souls in need
They need us to give
Someone has to pay
For their chance to life
Help me try

They’re called Bui-Doi
The Dust of Life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminders
Of all the good we failed to do
That’s why we know
Deep in our hearts
That they are all
Our children too

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Suffer the Little Children

For the last two Sundays we’ve been discussing Genesis 22. A troubling text, this story about God calling Abraham to go and sacrifice Isaac, the child of the promise, as a so-called test of the old man’s faith.

The story won’t let me go. I’ve been thinking about how children still tremble under the sacrificial knife, how we offer up their well-being on the altars of materialism, greed, political ambition, selfishness, and societal expectation. I’ve been thinking about all those children here, in the richest country in the world, living in homelessness and hunger and crushing poverty. I’ve been thinking about all those children whose parents are being deported under our heartless immigration laws.

And then this morning, in a moment of serendipity, my friend and colleague Maren Tirabassi sent me this poem from her blog, Gifts in Open Hands.

I was touched. And I think you will be, too.

Mark 10:13-16 for the United States

Little children were coming
from the triangle of Guatemala,
El Salvador, Honduras –
many with only
their birth certificates

and there were authorities
and politicians
who wanted to turn away this “surge,”
saying maybe these children
have measles or lice.

But Jesus was indignant with them
and said,
“Let the children come
for it is by the welcome to these
that anyone can identify
what is the country of God.

“Truly, I tell you
whoever sends militia
to close the border or stop a bus
against one such child
will receive no visa
to the country of God.”

And Jesus took them up
into his arms,
in spite of drug cartels,
nativists, ICE,
and laid his hands on them
and blessed them.

Do you question my translation?
I forgot
the traditional word.
They do – suffer, the little children.

–Maren Tirabassi
July 9, 2014

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Struck by Pentecost

lightning tree

Without a whispered warning,
Spirit bolts us to the ground,
stands every hair on end,
rearranges neurons
and leaves us singed and breathless,
scarred along each nerve
by hot transcendence.

Fire in the brain,
surge in the heart and lungs,
garbled words upon the tongue;
thought without language,
language without thought,
the sudden, shining moment
of rebirth

Once ignited,

we are ever changed:
terrified, illuminated,
filled with longings,
and purpose.

Always watchful,
one eye on the skies,
we sniff the ozone,
taste the air,
and wait
for the proverb to be disproved
and the firebolt to descend
once more.

© 2014 by Penelope J. Stokes







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An Encounter with the Easter Bunny

Easter is almost upon us. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and suddenly we’re ushered into Holy Week. Where has Lent gone? What happened to all my good intentions for being intentional?

Courtesy of prozac1FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Courtesy of prozac1 FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. I’m trying to be mindful of each day, grateful for the grace of the present moment.

I’m trying to slow down, to breathe, to wake up and open my eyes and see beyond the mundane to the mystery. To relish the moment and find the presence of God even in the smallest things.

This week, one of those moments came rushing back–a small, seemingly insignificant encounter from three or four years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of a cool spring morning.

At the time, my partner Pam had not yet retired, and her morning ablutions began far earlier than my own. She was in the habit of getting up at 4:30 and leaving for work before the sun came up.  But this particular morning, something interfered with that schedule.

Vaguely aware of her departure, I had just settled down for another two hours of sleep when the doorbell began to ring. The back doorbell. Our dog Rags jumped onto my stomach and added his shrill warning bark to the cacophony. I struggled out of bed and groped my way to the back door. And there I found find Pam attempting to fend off Moses, the cat, who apparently had captured something and was intent on having it for Kitty Breakfast.

Clearly, she needed a hand. Besides, I was the designated mole/vole/chipmunk/mouse disposer in the family. I figured Moses had caught yet another of the thousand voles that inhabited tunnels under our front yard. Dead or alive, it was my job to get rid of the beast.

Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Valks, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I stepped out and surveyed the situation. In an instant I realized that this was no disposal job. It was a rescue.

At the corner between the brick wall of the house and the trash can, Moses had cornered a tiny, terrified baby rabbit. With its nose to the wall and its tail to the wind, it shuddered and trembled, but was not about to turn and face its predator.

Pam corralled Moses. I scooped up the bunny and headed him back into the woods. The whole operation happened so fast we could have easily missed the message.

Because it wasn’t just any spring morning. It was Holy Week….


“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you;
don’t go back to sleep.”

Crouched in the darkness
with its back to the predator,
the prey shivers,
for the final blow
of tooth and claw.

I take it in my hands,
stroke the brown baby fur
between its ears,
whisper a word of comfort,
and feel the panicked heartbeat
thrumming against my lifeline.

How safe it is
cradled between my palms,
it cannot comprehend;
cannot understand
the assurances I murmur,
cannot know
the love I feel.

And so I release it to the woods,
prod its furry backside
and send it hopping
toward its mama,
toward the dawn.

In this moment
at cockcrow,
standing at the verge of the trees
in my pajamas,
I bear witness to the ultimate grace:
without a death.

(Not nearly so dramatic, perhaps,
but easier on the bunny.)

And I wonder:
How many Easter mornings
have dawned without me
I was asleep?

© Penelope J. Stokes




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Mindfulness, Buddha, and the White Oak Tree

Pam and I love our house. The lot is wooded and mostly private, and it backs up to a steep ravine. There’s an old deserted AME church on the other side, and a weathered graveyard—barely visible except in the dead of winter. Sometimes, when the wind is just right, you can almost hear the echo of spirituals on the breeze.

There’s just one problem with our property:  too many trees.

Now, understand, I grew up in a family where there was no such thing as too many trees. Our eleventh commandment read, “Thou shalt not lay the saw to the bark.” I remember when I was ten and our little sixties rambler was being built, how Mama went out and stood in front of the bulldozer, daring the contractor to take down that huge pine tree at the front corner of the yard. I believe her exact words were, “Over my dead body.”

So you can imagine my consternation when Pam started talking about taking down trees. The house needed room to breathe, she said. The garden plot needed more sun.

I hyperventilated for a day or two, and then I gave in.

One by one, the trees came down. Seven of them. Big ones. The two poplars brooding over the deck in the back; three more on the bank above the garden, and (worst of all) the enormous white oak trees in front, right outside my office window. The trees where the white squirrels played.

208We left one stump, three feet or more in diameter. Placed a small Buddha on it, and a little cairn of rocks we’d collected on our travels. When I look out my office window now, I see that Buddha, his back to me, his face toward the larger world, meditating.

But I also see something else.

From the first deep cut where the saw went in, just below the top of the stump, that white oak tree is budding out again.

I’m learning these days about mindfulness, about opening up my field of vision, about viewing change with an open heart, a willing soul, and a curious mind. I’m learning that control is an illusion, like water clutched in my fist, like sand sifted through my fingers.

I’m learning that even a felled oak tree can live again.
And I say grace.


The metronome of culture
ticktocks us to the grave,
the rhythm of clods
hitting the coffin,
the rhythm of rain upon the roof,
heaven’s tears
mourning what might have been.

The articulate among us
have memorized their lines,
a flawless stump speech
delivered from the back of a departing train,
or from the dead remains
of a tree cut down in spring,
whose rings whisper for justice
in the still of the night.
You can hear it
if you listen.

Some of us,
suspecting there is more,
abandon articulation
for exploration,
groping in the darkness
for a language
to wrap around our wonder,
only to find ourselves
in the presence
of this Mystery.

©2013 by Penelope J. Stokes

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Becoming Saints. . .Sort Of

saint someday draft1In the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a new novel. It’s a coming of age story called Saint Someday—the journey of 15-year-old Brigid Landry through a troubled adolescence into adulthood. Because of her hyper-religious and abusive stepfather, Brigid can’t bring herself to believe in God, but she loves the saints.

The saints, after all, are human. They share her doubts and pain and longings. They listen when she speaks. They understand.

This novel has been in the works for almost seven years. In the process of writing and rewriting, I’ve thought lot about sainthood. Familiar images come to mind:  Mother Teresa in her blue striped sari, Gandhi at his spinning wheel, Desmond Tutu’s mischievous grin, the twinkle in his eyes.  And it leads me to wonder what, exactly, makes a person into a saint?

I’m not talking about the “official” process of beatification and canonization that is necessary for a person to be declared a saint of the Catholic church. Whatever your religious leanings, there’s a saint hovering somewhere in the background. Judaism honors the tzaddiks, Hinduism reveres its gurus, Buddhism the bodhisattvas, and Sikhism the sants. And although the definitions vary, the saints of all religions—and even no religion at all—tend to be defined as women and men who have lived lives of great virtue, enlightenment, and compassion.

Ah, but what about the miracles?

Good point. Catholic tradition requires a verified miracle from their candidates for sainthood. That eliminates most of us from the picture.

Or does it?
Maybe it depends on your definition of miracle.

Let’s see. Changing water into wine? Feeding thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread? Raising the dead? Not likely.

But maybe the real miracle would be transforming the polluted rivers and seas of this planet into clear flowing streams. Providing safe drinking water. Feeding the hungry by sharing what we have. Preventing deaths by making sure people have warmth and shelter. Healing the sick by offering accessible medical care.

Or maybe the miracle is even closer to home, and simpler. Giving birth to new life:  a baby, a poem, a garden, a pie. Reaching out to heal a broken heart, dry a tear, hold a hand. Taking time to listen when the rest of the world turns a deaf ear.

Maybe the miracle comes with the look in a lover’s eyes, the touch that makes all things new.

St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux

Consider St. Therese of Lisieux, Carmelite nun and the youngest person ever to be named a Doctor of the Church. She was called the Little Flower—an intelligent, beautiful child who entered the convent at 15, lived a cloistered life, and died at the age of 24. “What matters in life,” she wrote in Story of a Soul, “is not great deeds, but great love.”

Therese never did anything big or important by the world’s standards. She wasn’t a martyr. She wasn’t even a particularly remarkable nun.  She became a saint because she lived and taught that true spirituality lies in doing the ordinary with extraordinary love.

Now, that’s what I call a miracle.

And it occurs to me:  Maybe that’s how we can be saints for one another.


Interested in exploring further?

Read Chapter 1 of Saint Someday

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A Word on Sabbath Rest

IMG_0981This past weekend we went on retreat with 100 or so members from our church. The theme of the retreat was Weaving the Ways of Worship and Prayer. We made Tibetan prayer flags. We wrote our spiritual longings on strips of fabric and wove them together into an altar cloth. We made art prayers with doodles and colored pencils. It was all about finding rest, keeping Sabbath, learning to give ourselves time and permission for centering and healing.

Why, I wonder, do we need permission? What is it about our society that pushes us to work more, rest less, feel guilty if we sit down for five minutes?

I found the answer–or one answer–on the road to the retreat center.

We took the long way: Highway 276, the lovely, winding mountain road that snakes its way IMG_0977along the Davidson River through Pisgah National Forest, up and over the mountain. Along the way we passed Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock, the Cradle of Forestry, the bend in the river where we scattered my mother’s ashes.

It’s a drive we often take, just for the love of it. We go slow. We stop and look. We give in to wonder. And every half mile or so we pull off to let the next tailgating, engine-revving hurrier go by.

So much in this mixed-up world of ours is about competition:  being first, best, fastest. Or if not fastest, at least ahead of you. If not richest, at least accumulating more than the next guy’s got.  If not more powerful, at least superior to somebody.

Such a mindset runs counter to everything Jesus taught:  the last shall be first; the greatest among you is the servant of all. Consider the lilies. Be at peace. Let not your heart be troubled.

IMG_4661And so I invite you to join me this morning. Take a breath. Get a pad and pen and doodle some prayers. Stare out the window. Listen to the birds. Breathe.

It may be the most spiritual thing you do all day.



This path is not a highway—
not a road, even.
It is a trail made for meanderers
who have no map,
who know that getting lost
is part of the adventure
and brings the grace and gifts
of divine surprise.

This is no journey for the faint of heart,
the small of soul,
the perfectionist,
the controller,
the one who must always be right.
For there is no right way,
only the whisper in the trees
that urges, “Here! Here!”
Only the way of gut and intuition
that lures us forward
like a distant light—
a light that may be
no light at all
but only mirage,
a trick of the mind.

Do not seek to know,
to understand.
Move with the leaning of your heart.
Part the palm fronds,
duck behind the waterfall,
turn toward the sun.
Somewhere lies a hidden clearing
for you to call it

© 2013 Penelope J. Stokes

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How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?
Once, a long time ago, Grace Benedict had friends. Good friends. In college she and her roommates Tess, Lovey, and Liz, had been inseparable. And even though life has taken them in different directions, they’ve stayed in touch. For thirty years they’ve kept a circle journal, sharing with one another the ups and downs of their lives, their celebrations and victories, their struggles and heartaches.


Grace’s life hasn’t been easy. And now, as she faces a diagnosis of cancer that shakes her to the core, she needs her friends more than ever.

There’s just one problem. Grace has been lying to them. For thirty years, she’s been fabricating a life, creating a fiction of the way she wished things would be. Love, success, family, fulfillment—she’s had it all. In her imagination, anyway.

If she’s ever going to reclaim those friendships, she needs to tell the truth. About herself, about her needs, about the sadness and unfulfilled longing that has marked her life. She’s running out of time.

Telling the truth just might change everything. But can she find the courage? And more importantly, can she unravel her true self from the tangled web of deception that has held her captive?

Want to see more? Read Chapter 1

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