on 7 August 2013
In Mary Rose O'Reilley's amazing memoir, "The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd" she chronicles a year-long spiritual journey tending sheep and an extended stay with Thich N'hat Hanh in a Buddhist monastery in France.
In short vignettes Mary, an English teacher at a University in Minnesota, draws on Catholicism, Quakerism, Buddhism and the monastic tradition. Her many powerful stories moved me to look at life anew. How she "grew up at the intersection of narrative and silence." How even "the silent members of her family exerted an influence as well, the aunts who sat wordlessly rocking, the ones who chose not to speak or were silenced, their stories controlled by others."
Mary says her Quaker religion obligates her to a unique discipline: to speak only from experience. She says her mind and body begin to alter in their relation to each other when cleaning out the lambing pens. "I cannot think about "peace"; I cannot think about anything. This is a natural consequence of doing the kind of repetitive work called "mindless" by those that disdain it. Yet my mind is not so much absent but still."
When Mary became interested in the theory of nonfiction and memoir she reflected on George Fox, the founder of the Quaker religion's famous challenge to his followers: "Christ saith this and the Apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light?..." She adds, "What would be more validating to the journal keeper." She says non-fiction is a subspecies of poetry, and poetry is a way to honor the stream of things by observation. "Before you can follow your heart's desire, you have to examine your heart closely. It's a subtle instrument of inquiry, the examined heart."
In Mary's chapter about catching, flipping and sheering sheep she humorously says, "I can't reach from the chin to the tail of a large animal. Mostly I slide around in sheep shit to the delight of anyone in the barn." She also confesses, "My bones ache; my mind throbs and misfires over calculations about food ratios. I wonder if I am too old to take a new direction..."
I identified with many of Mary's stories. In "Across the Face of a Clock" she writes about the disciplines of gardening. She says, I'm the one who overdoes, rather than under does, tears into a project, and faints in the heat of the day.... in athletic terms I'm a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner. So every day I ration myself in the garden, one hour early in the garden, no more.
Mary also speaks of her panicky scramble to find something in her purse at a bank until the bank teller gave her a "fine present" she's been trying to pass on. He said, "I have all the time in the world."
In another story Mary's writes about the pre-vet student stabbing her upper lip with the big shears used to dig impacted shit out of the sheep's hoof. Mary wrote, "After stabbing me with the filthy instrument...the student began screaming, which on the whole I felt to be my prerogative." She said the nurses at the emergency room seemed pleased to write on her chart, "dirty stab wound" with feces contaminated large pruning scissors used to trim sheep's hooves. The doctor also seemed pleased and asked her why at age fifty-one she was studying agriculture.
I could also relate to her blaming herself for being in a mood of depressed anxiety. She says, "Blame generated shame. Shame occasions a judgment about how stupid it is to feel ashamed...I make mistakes and mistakes make me angry at myself. There you have the knot of the whole human condition."
When Mary's in a better frame of mind she "merely resolved to be humble, as befits my level of stupidity." She also reflects on the "whole chorus of conflicting voices in what I loosely call myself."
At the Buddhist monastery in France Mary learned from Thich N'hat Hanh that social activism fueled by "righteous" indignation and anger makes us less productive. She realized she is more useful to society when she operates out of friendly acceptance of the views of others and has "a weariness about the splendor of my own ideas...and a detachment from who should get the credit."
Each of Mary's amazing stories broadened my perspective of what it means to be fully alive in the world. "The Barn at the End of the World" is a remarkable book.
on 24 February 2014
This is one of my all-time favourite books of spiritual wisdom. I'm now on my third reading, and I know I will come back to it many more times. Why? Because it has two qualities that are rare in spiritual writing: it's original, and this woman can truly write. She's gritty, funny, unexpected, and every so often she comes up with something that says to you: 'I knew that - but I didn't know I knew it.' One 'health warning': some of the shepherd stuff is gruesome. But it all adds to the growth of this writer and this reader. She has a wonderful sense of irony, is honest to the bone, and if she doesn't know the answer, boy, will she say so. Whether it's sheep s***, Catholic nunnery, sex or Buddhist precepts, everything comes in for her whole-hearted, humane, deeply questioning response. Brilliant.