Luci Shaw "A Journey of Faith & Creativity" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences right around the world. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or thumbs-up or even share this episode will mean a great deal to us and allow us to reach more people with meaningful and, hopefully, deeply spiritual content that continually reminds us of Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that we are God’s beloved child.
So, with that said, let me take a moment to introduce my guest. I am honored to be joined in conversation by Luci Shaw. Luci is a poet, an editor, a retreat leader, a lecturer, and the author of 40 books, including Thumbprint in the Clay and The Adventure of Ascent. Luci is 93 years old. She and her husband live in Bellingham, Washington. I love how Richard Rohr describes Luci Shaw’s writing: “What a delight when someone has something really good to say and then says it with such style and grace. Such is Luci Shaw. She sees and describes the divine thumbprints well.”
Luci Shaw, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Luci Shaw: Thank you, Karen.
Karen Pascal: As I said, I have really enjoyed your books. I thought maybe we might start just by talking a little bit about Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes from a Lifelong Journey. It’s a great read. It’s the steep uphill climb of old age is what I found there, which was quite a challenge. Tell me a little bit about writing this book, what it meant to you.
Luci Shaw: Well, you know, I’ve been writing so long and been active in literature and conferences and teaching for so long. And I really was realizing that I had been living a long time and I was not sure how long I could continue to do this sort of thing, but that book was printed in 2014 and here we are in 2022 and I’m still at it.
Karen Pascal: I’m impressed.
Luci Shaw: Yeah. It’s really talking about what old age feels like. And some of the events and relationships I’ve had. So, you know, this is a book that has some poetry and some sort of reminiscences of what my life had been doing up until that point, which was several years ago.
Karen Pascal: You know what I loved about it? You were so honest. You laugh at yourself, you’re honest about the realities of old age, and how it comes on and what some of the things that are challenging. But you wrote this eight years ago. And one of the things that I find in the pages was this question of what’s the next part look like for you? You’re eight years down the road from that book; what’s it been like?
Luci Shaw: Well, it hasn’t stopped. Life just keeps going. I’m thankful for good health. I’m thankful that I can still find words to write and that somehow my husband and I’ve been able to survive the pandemic in its various iterations without too much problem. We’re on this journey together. And I’m not afraid. I don’t believe God wants us to be afraid. So we just are doing our best.
Karen Pascal: Can I ask you about how your faith has grown over the years? What have been the things that have grown it? Clearly, one of the things seems to be your response to creation, but tell me a bit about how that faith that began in you has grown
Luci Shaw: Well, you know, all my life I have loved the color green. My first little book of poetry was called Listen to the Green. That was way back in the 1970s. And since then, you know, I continued to write. God has been very good, because nature is all around me, particularly where we live now in Bellingham, Washington. We are surrounded by mountains and forests and seas and islands and lakes, and it’s all so beautiful. And it all speaks to me, through creation, of grace, of divine grace that is being given to us freely. We just have to take it.
One of the practices that John and I have been doing since we’ve been somewhat isolated, is we go out in the car almost every day. And because we live in such a beautiful area of woods and forests, we drive the little back roads slowly, and I have a Leica camera in my car. So, I keep taking photographs out our car window. The car and the open window and the forest – it all works together to be a time of great joy and refreshment. And I love to document that, both in imagery and in poetry. So that’s what’s been happening the last couple of years.
Karen Pascal: I’ve been so touched by how some little thing catches your eye and then you’re drawn into it. And somehow a poem is birthed. Can you tell us a little bit more about that process of poetry coming? How do you grab it? Obviously, your Leica camera is one method. Tell us a bit about the process of poetry in your heart.
Luci Shaw: I have in the side pocket in our car, a little notebook. And when an idea or a phrase seems to speak to me from the landscape, I will jot my little notes. I’ll find several words that seem to speak to me. And then when I get home, I can transcribe them into my computer and continue to work the poetic process. Because, you know, the poems grow, they grow from that initial impulse of beauty. My new book that’s coming out in March from Paraclete Press is called Angels Everywhere. And I like that title, because the word “angel” means “messenger.” And so, all the messages that God sends through the natural creation, that is what I am listening for – for the angels everywhere.
Karen Pascal: I think what your books do is you open our eyes and our ears freshly. As I read several of your books, both the prose and the poetry, I just found myself chastising myself that I was spending not enough time looking, not enough time allowing creation to enliven my imagination and my mind and my spirit and my heart. I love what you give us. I know because you’ve taught poetry, writing all over the world, it seems. Tell me a little bit, I’m sure people come to you and say, “How do I write a poem?” And what do you tell them? How do you teach them?
Luci Shaw: People ask me, you know, “Where does this come from?” I have to say that I’m really, really grateful for the way my parents insisted that we read good literature, not just children’s books, but books, you know, that have renown, that have lasted the ages. And it allowed us to understand how language works. I was never very good at reconstructing sentences or taking them apart and diagramming them. But I know when a sentence is working, when it has the verbs and the nouns and the adjectives working together to process a thought or an idea and present it on the page. So, that’s become such an almost instinctive, natural process for me. I can’t stop doing it and I hope I never will have to stop doing it.
Karen Pascal: You know, what I loved as I was reading your books, what I found was even the prose, obviously the poetry, but even the prose was so rich that I couldn’t read it too fast. I had to savor it. They were choice words that you had packed together, full of meaning and full of light. And I just enjoyed it so much. And I could see that language is obviously something that you love and you care a great deal about.
One of the books that you wrote that I read was Thumbprint in the Clay. You say, “I see the fingerprints of the Creator with eyes that have been formed by the Creator, with ability to recognize meaning and beauty, to notice and be formed and enlivened.” I think that you give the credit back to the Creator, but he’s given you this sense of what’s there. Tell us bit about this book.
Luci Shaw: Well, it reminds me of all the ways that we understand and view and glimpse the creative work of God in the creation around us. The subtitle of the book is Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace. And those three things all work together like a divine imperative that we need to take seriously and act on. So, that’s the way I’ve always understood – because I’m a photographer; I’m not a painter, but I am a really good photographer. This is one way that I can remember what I’ve been seeing and what seems to me a message of grace from God that comes through that beauty, because God is a God of beauty. And he instilled in us this aesthetic response to what is beauty and beautiful and meaningful.
This is the way it works and it’s become such a natural process for me that I hope I never stop doing it. I love doing it. It brings me such joy. When I have a new poem arriving, I have to stop doing all the other things and just get down to it and start working on and playing with it. So, it’s such fun.
Karen Pascal: Well, I sense it’s life-giving. I can see it. I can even see it on your face. I mean, it is obviously life-giving. You agree with a quote by Paul Mariani: “Your craft is your spiritual discipline and God blesses you with a gift. Exercise the gift as a trust given to you by God.” I sense this is maybe the story of your life and your career. You’ve intently pursued the gift God trusted you with.
Luci Shaw: Yes, it is. It’s a trust. And if you ignore it and downplay it, you’re not honoring God. In this book, I do talk about a transformative experience I had with Richard Rohr, the Franciscan leader of this wonderful organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So, I read Richard Rohr every morning and he has opened up for me this immense sense of beauty and meaning in the universe, that we’re all part of it, we participate in it so freely. So, that’s part of this book – the story of that is in this book. But then I began to think about all the other ways individuals in the Bible were imprinted by God. You know, either through a vision or – I think of St. Paul, the story of his conversion when God flung him from his horse and blinded him with this vision of glory. And he couldn’t even see for several days, he had to be led around, because he was so full of the glory of God. And then, of course, we don’t know what happened, but Paul, we believe, went into seclusion somewhere and had immense visions of glory and of God. He doesn’t even talk about them. He says that he can’t even discuss them, because they’re too holy and too beautiful. But then, we see how wonderful Paul is in all the epistles, and what great imagery he uses to press home his ideas about salvation and about life in God.
Karen Pascal: Another book that I enjoyed so much was Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life. And this one here, the introduction is by Eugene Peterson. It reminds me that you have had some very special friends throughout your life, special creative friends, Madeline L’Engle, Philip Yancy, others. I read about the various people that have filtered through your life in your books. You must have some sense that God has ordered your steps, that there are all these interesting writers and creators in your world.
Luci Shaw: Well, you know, we’re kind of like birds: We flock together. When you have people who love to write and who have this sort of transcendent sense of divine calling, you do tend to flock together and get together and talk together and pray together and write together. And Madeline and I were close; I think I was her closest friend and she was mine for 35 years. And it just was an immense privilege. You know, we just had these wonderful conversations. I edited 11 of her books and that’s how our relationship started – because she’d written a couple of little books of poetry that had gone out of print. And the first time I met her, I said, “Madeline, I’m a publisher. I’d love to bring those books back into print. And maybe you could add some new poems.” Which is what she did.
And then I asked her to write the book that ended up being, Walking on Water, which became a hallmark of the Madeline L’Engle conference just a couple of years ago in New York City. But it was a lovely story.
I said, “Madeline, write about faith and art. What do you think about faith and art?” And about six months later, she thrust into my hands this big bunch of typescript. We didn’t have computers back in those days. It was all typed out by hand. So, I sort of took it apart and reordered it, and it became Walking on Water, which is still a best seller. But that’s what endeared us to each other, because we were able to work together to produce something that gave glory to God. And that’s what Walking on Water was all about.
Karen Pascal: Steel sharpens steel. You two could speak into each other’s lives and be heard. That’s really quite wonderful to hear. I loved another book, this one here, Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life. And I thought it was very interesting. You just used the whole metaphor of the garden to introduce us to how to have, in a way, a deeper, richer relationship. You kind of start by the reality of talking about the fact that there’s something of wilderness that we may experience in our lives. And before we even go into this cultivated garden experience, have you had a wilderness experience in your life?
Luci Shaw: Well, sure, because I am a poet and I have very strong emotions, either positive or negative. I think, you know, my first husband died of cancer, and I wrote a book called God in the Dark during that time, that sort of chronicled how his illness progressed and how I was trying to deal with it on a daily basis. And I wrote in my journal every day about what was going on. We’d get a little bit of hope, because a test was taken that seemed to be showing improvement. And of course, in the end, he did die. And I had to come to terms with that and learn how God was going to heal me from that. And part of that healing was writing this book, God in the Dark, and Zondervan published it. And I had immense numbers of people writing to me and saying, “Oh, this helps me so much in my own time of bereavement.” So, you know, it’s sort of a common experience. Death from disease or death from old age, everybody in humanity is going to have to undergo it at one level or another. So, it’s something that people respond to because it is so universal.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because I’m sure you felt at that point, life could never be good again. And yet I also loved kind of reading your journey forward from that point. It was obviously a low point. But you also went forward. There was a lot of bravery in it. I love the fact that you went and built a place. You know, I found that so fascinating. You kind of forced yourself into things that were quite courageous. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like, and how the next part of your life unfolded?
Luci Shaw: Well, after Harold’s death, I had to learn a lot of things that he had always done for me. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, for one thing. I mean, at the very most pedestrian level, he took care of money, and I had to learn how to deal with money. I had to maintain the publishing house that we had started together, and we published about, oh, I’d say between 40 and 45 books every year. So that became employment – my work, that’s what it was, to publish. And we were the first ones, I think, in the Christian publishing area to do literary poetry. Not just, you know, poetry that rhymed like a hymn, but truly literary, creative poetry. And we were able to bring into print a number of really fine poets who were people of faith, but had sort of not found a place in the larger process of poetry publishing, but because of their faith, somehow, they were suspect. So, we started to publish a lot of good, literary poetry by Christians.
Karen Pascal: You remind me a little of my mother. My father died when I was quite young and she was an artist, but she had to take over the family business to go forward, to exist. Really. And that was a very interesting time in her life. And I wonder with you, did it mean that you had to give up your poetry in order to kind of keep your head above water?
Luci Shaw: Well, of course I couldn’t really stop doing the poetry. It, you know, it’s not a matter of deciding to do it or not to do it. It’s there and it has to have a voice. So, it’s a discipline. So, you continue to grow in that discipline while you’re trying to be responsible for all the other parts in your life, including my five children. And the grandchildren kept showing up. And I was a very devoted grandmother as well as a publisher. So life was very, very rich in spite of the darkness of death. God was so generous to me and still is, and still is. Of course, I’ve had my moments of despair and doubt. I think any Christian who is honest with themselves will go through times of doubt. Wondering whether God is really there and is God really interested in human activities and is he really loving to individual people? Or is it just that he loves creation as a whole? So, all of that comes into play in your thinking and your writing.
Karen Pascal: When we touched base a few weeks ago, I asked you, “Has Henri Nouwen been an influence in your life?” And I I’d love to hear a little bit. Did you ever get to meet Henri? Did your paths cross, or did you just meet him in his books?
Luci Shaw: Well, you know, the first book I read of his was The Genesee Diary, and I really loved that, because it spoke to me at a time when he was discovering a lot of things about himself, and I was discovering things about myself. I read some of his other books, the one about the prodigal son but, you know, I just loved his serene spirit, his openness to what God was saying to him, his honesty with his questions. And then the way he sort of guilelessly wrote about that, and didn’t try to make himself out to be any more spiritual or intelligent. He just was . . . I just loved the simplicity of his spirit, but also the profundity of the lessons he was learning.
And of course, he had to continue learning those lessons for the rest of his life. I think he always had struggles. I think he always was honest about the questions that he had. Because he was so brilliant, people just assumed that he knew everything and that he had all the answers, and I don’t think he felt that at all.
Karen Pascal: No, I don’t think he did, either. I think you’re very right. I think his vulnerability and his honesty is a place where, especially the timing, at that point, too, I felt like he opened a door for a different kind of leadership, the wounded-healer kind of leadership, where your weaknesses and your vulnerabilities and your uncertainties, you could be honest about and your need to meet God in those places.
Luci Shaw: Yeah. And particularly, you know, his final decision to live in L’Arche and to be a friend and lover of people with deep, deep needs. And he just was there to stand with them and support them and love them and care for them. And that is the true mark of a holy person. And that was Henri Nouwen for me.
Karen Pascal: I would love it if you would read a few poems for us. Would you consider that? Is there something that feels right for the moment?
Luci Shaw: Oh, I’d love to. Let’s see. I don’t know where to start.
Karen Pascal: Would you like to read Rumi’s Request? I thought that was a fascinating one.
Luci Shaw: I’ve got that here. You know, Rumi was a natural philosopher and mystic and his request, which was recorded, was “When I threw away my old eyes, grass grew from the sockets,” which is such a mystical idea. So, this is a poem I began to write from that:
I begin to think of my ripening body as
a sack of fertilizer richer than compost or
plant food from Costco.
So, when it is time, bury me shallow,
my skull a bowl of bone with
eye sockets easily entered (into the space
once occupied by thought) by small,
They will feed like kings.
Think what bone marrow will accomplish
as it leaks into the soil and nourishes
nematodes. Beetles will love me.
I’ll be humus. Instead of weeds and
crab grass, I will grow green grapes
and wheat. Jasmine will flourish above me,
sweet with the smell of my dying.
Karen Pascal: That is a lovely poem. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
Luci Shaw: That’s a favorite of mine, too. Okay. Here’s one called Unable to See Far:
Unable to see far, I write
what’s near. How snow
responds to footprints and
the garden to a spade.
How my cat’s small, lion face
relaxes under my caress.
How words fall through me
like water, though some
thicken into thoughts
How the two chairs on our deck,
Each a foot deep in snow,
face each other as if
conversing about the weather.
when I complained of cold,
my husband covered me
with the old green blanket
and I napped and I dreamed
of summer. And how this afternoon
one robin, having arrived
too early, sits now on the
power line, thinking to himself
“This is not so smart.”
That’s a fun poem.
Karen Pascal: I love it. I love it. The images are so clear there. You know me, I’ve got lots more questions, but I’m going to just ask you if you have things that you would like to focus on or share.
Luci Shaw: This is the most recent book that’s come out.
Karen Pascal: Oh, I have a copy of that one, too, and I thought it was delightful. The book is called The O in Hope. Tell me a little bit about the making of this.
Luci Shaw: Okay. Well, I had some friends that I didn’t even know about, but one of them is Ned Bustard, who has his own publishing company called Square Halo Books and they have a gallery, but he read a poem of mine in The Generosity that was called The O in Hope. And in this poem, I just find all the different words that have O in them. And it sort of formed a poem and Ned, bless his heart, liked the poem. And his wife said, “You could make a book about that.” So, without my even asking him, Ned sent me all these paper cut-out illustrations that he had done. And then we had a mutual friend who said, “You need to send that to InterVarsity Press, because they’re doing a new line of kids’ books.” So, that’s how this came into being, with virtually no effort on my part. Someone else took the poem, illustrated it, we sent it off. And it’s the first children’s book I’ve written as such, but we’re planning another one that’s based on numbers instead of words.
Karen Pascal: You’ve done some things that just sparkle with wit and with lots of wisdom and lots of kindness and honesty. And that’s something I appreciate so much. There’s another place where you kind of remind me of Henri Nouwen, and that was, I think it might have been in one of your books that you talked about, you know, being sensitive to criticism. And I think that was one of the vulnerabilities of Henri, you know, that the look that wasn’t pleasing or whatever, could just send him into a tizzy. Tell me a little bit about how you have learned to cope with that, because it takes such courage to put something out there and say, “Here I am, this is something I wrote.” It takes incredible courage.
Luci Shaw: It’s like being naked and in public. Because you’re exposing your deepest emotions, and thinking and hoping that people will respond positively. But what do you do if they don’t? What if they hate it? Of course, then they won’t buy the book. So, that’s okay. But I do hope that this . . . you know, I dedicated this book to my four great-grandchildren. And I’m just so grateful that I live close enough to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren that we can know each other. And, you know, these are young kids that are going to face challenges that I have never had to face.
You know, the culture is just evolving in very destructive ways. I think. I don’t want to talk politics, but the politics these days are so mean-spirited and so shortsighted, from both parties. And I’m not pointing fingers here, but I just wish we could learn to get along better, to cooperate instead of being in a contest to see who says the most, or is the most powerful.
Power is the big, big question mark, because, and this is one of the things that I loved about Henri Nouwen, was that he didn’t seem to be hungry for power. He was able to let that go. Even when he got tempted to, you know, be an authority or to be a major speaker or teacher, I think he really wanted to maintain a spirit of poverty and of humility. Don’t you think that, Karen? Don’t you feel that in his writing?
Karen Pascal: I have often said that I felt like he had a plumb line in him, and the plumb line was Jesus. And he could fly out on either side of it, but it kept pulling him back. And he kept going, you know, he wanted to be right with the heart of Jesus. And I think that’s one place where he brings together Catholics and Protestants and evangelicals, because his plumb line was something he could return to. He wrote so wonderfully about how tempting it is to be known and to be what you have and what, you know, all those kinds of things could be temptations, but he could name them in himself and come back to that plumb line of truth.
Luci Shaw: It’s one thing to be honest with everybody else in your life, but it’s another thing to be honest with yourself. And I think that’s one of his great virtues, that he really was able to look at himself and his life and make considered judgements about his decisions and his lifestyle.
Karen Pascal: Luci, thank you so much for taking time to meet with me today. I really have enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you. You’re a wise woman. You’re an incredibly accomplished woman of letters. I mean, really, 40 books! That’s pretty awesome! I’m very, very impressed. And you have inspired me. You have fed into my life words of wisdom, but also the challenge to be aware of the world I’m in and to love what I see there. To take time to see it, to not miss it. And I’ve loved that about you. You have been careful not to miss what’s there that feeds the spirit.
Luci Shaw: Thank you so much for our conversation. It’s been a pleasure.
Karen Pascal: It’s a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you. Thanks so much for this.
Luci Shaw: God be with you.
Karen Pascal: God be with you, too. Thank you, Luci.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Luci Shaw. My life has been enriched by reading Luci’s work. I confess, I especially enjoyed The Adventure of Ascent, where Luci gives us her field notes from a lifelong journey. For more resources related to this program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions for Henri Nouwen’s works.
If you enjoy today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up or pass this on to your friends and companions on the faith journey. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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