Narthex comes from the Greek word for fennel because of, as my old Webster’s says, “a fancied resemblance of the [church] porch to the hollow stem.” The narthex of Trinity Church in Boston runs the full width of the much larger sanctuary beyond. It features stained glass, a colorfully tiled floor, and staff who greet tourists and visitors, explain policies, and answer questions. Which is to say, we repeat ourselves A Lot, often non-stop, hour after hour and day after day. But I get to share this role with an amazing group of other Creative Part-Timers!
Is there a word for writing in or about the same place so often you want to scream? There should be. Sameoldsameoldgraphaphobia? In quiet moments between visitors, I have written a small volume of haiku about the narthex in all seasons, but mostly late fall, winter, and early spring, when tourists are fewer. Same walls, furnishings, and changes in the light: as lovely as the room is, as much as it beats a beige cubicle, its sameness is still sameness. Haiku hamster wheel. But sameness can also be a challenge that energizes creativity. What haven’t I written about? (Well, I have not written about being sworn at or about both toddlers and adults taking their clothes off, but let’s draw a curtain there.)
So what is the antidote for [insert unknown word for wanting to scream]? For me it’s two other words, presence and practice. In his wonderful book Seeds from a Birch Tree, Clark Strand writes that the ancient Japanese, seventeen-syllable haiku “demands a fresh creative response to each new situation…arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, and balanced on a pause…it is difficult to go beyond these three simple rules: form, season, and present mind.” He also says that writing haiku “is to say that we go to a particular place and write the poetry of that place…what we have seen—what struck us or moved our hearts.” Haiku can be a meeting point for artistic and spiritual practice. Offering presence, openness, and a pen to the everyday acknowledges it as new, and new, and new, even when it looks like the same old narthex.
The mind can begin to see again any time. That’s a central part of my spiritual practice, but, boots on the ground, it helps as a CPT to appreciate Being Creative wherever and whenever it can happen. Even the old church, with tradition and preservation at its heart, never stops changing or revealing itself anew to a Beginner’s Mind and/or to a determined Creative Part-Timer.
Haiku from One Corner of the Narthex
Soon woodwork will grow
cold to the touch and dark in
the fall afternoons.
Organ notes, like a
wolf running on fallen leaves,
fill the room’s shadows.
Fingerprints of light
appear on the carved flowers
of an old table.
Three days past the snow.
Salt flecks red and blue floor tiles
in vague shapes of feet.
Looking for white on
a snowless Christmas Eve: white
papers, flowers, light.