Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 218

A funny thing happened to me on the way to preparing for my monthly gathering, “Writing as a Spiritual Practice.” The poem I had selected for reflection and writing prompts dealt with writing a will. The poem’s narrator is told by the lawyer to attach a letter to his will detailing which of his “personal effects” will go to whom “…to prevent/potential discord over artifacts/valued only for their sentiment.”

It’s a lovely, melancholic poem that reminds us how few meaningful articles we really possess that we would want to pass on to a friend or family member. I mean does anyone really want my used True Writer ball point pen? It also reminds of the intangible things and experiences that made our lives worthwhile that we don’t really possess and can’t pass on to anyone—a first kiss, a shaft of sunlight on an oak desk, the ringing of the neighborhood church bells when my father died.

So, I’m sailing along writing discussion questions and writing prompts, kind of surfing my life in a superficial search for sentimental artifacts and memories.

Then the doctor tells me, “You have a malignant eye tumor. We can either remove your eye or try radiation. This cancer spreads to the lungs and liver so you will need some tests to see if it has.” It kind of shakes you up, if you know what I mean. I take the tests and they are negative. The cancer has not metastasized. In a week or so, I will begin radiation plaque therapy.

Just like that, the poem ceases to be a routine exercise and becomes my heartbeat. I review my discussion questions and writing prompts with both terror and awe. Writing an imaginary will is not so “pretend” anymore. Time, oodles of it, is not a given. Are there any personal artifacts that I would want to pass on? Which ones? Why these? To whom? I look around my room and writing space and office and can’t find five things that anyone would want. Even I don’t want them. But there are those intangible, precious moments and experiences and memories from my life that I want to try and preserve in someone’s heart. No, that I want to relish and treasure in my heart in the days that are to come. Talk about a tough, yet wonderful, wake-up call.

Here’s the poem.

Personal Effects
by Raymond Burns

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father, grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wished to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee,

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.

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