It was the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, although the significance of that fact wasn’t yet apparent to me. My friend and fellow writer, Carol Tyx, had accompanied me to Lovely Lane Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to participate in a day-long writing workshop led by singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer. The theme for the workshop was “The Sacred Art of Paying Attention: Writing as a Spiritual Practice.” Since I had previously led retreats focusing on writing for personal spiritual growth, I looked forward to learning from Carrie’s facilitation techniques, as well as to gaining insights about my practice of writing. Most importantly though, I came to meet Carrie Newcomer whose music I had so admired since initially discovering it three months earlier. I also had brought along a copy of a personal essay I’d recently written titled A Geode Connection in which I quoted from one of Carrie’s songs that is especially significant for me, “Geodes.” I intended to give the essay to her as a symbol of my appreciation for her music and its inspiration to my writing. I didn’t have to wait long to do so.
After Carol and I checked in at the workshop registration table inside the front door of the church, and had obtained our materials and nametags, I walked into the spacious room where the workshop itself was to be held. It was the kind of “fellowship hall” that is found in many U. S. churches dating to the 1960s and ‘70s. The workshop organizers had set up a number of round tables towards one end of the room, each configured with chairs in sufficient number to accommodate the participants. I liked this table arrangement since it suggested that the workshop might involve discussion and interaction among the participants, which was something from which I expected to gain much.
It was then I saw Carrie Newcomer for the first time. I recognized her from the publicity photos I had seen of her before coming to Iowa. She was speaking with two other people at that moment, so I walked up and stood at the side while they concluded their conversation. I then shook Carrie’s hand, introduced myself, and welcomed her to Iowa. Even as an interloper to the state myself, I figured it was the least I could do. I immediately sensed her warm, attentive manner as I inquired about the inspiration for her song about geodes. That then led to sharing of our mutual affinities for these native Indiana stones. I informed her about my personal essay concerning geodes, and indicated that I wanted to give her a copy of it. I then walked back to my seat, took the essay from its clear plastic folder, and quickly wrote on the front page:
“March 17, 2012 – From one geode lover to another. Thank you, Carrie, for coming to Cedar Rapids and offering this writing workshop. Steve.”
I went back and handed the essay to Carrie. She looked at it and smiled as she saw the photograph of a geode on the first page. “And there it is!” she exclaimed. She put the essay into her briefcase and said she would read it later. I thanked her and walked back to my table as she continued to prepare for the workshop to begin.
Carrie opened the workshop by singing one of her songs—“I Believe.” I had not heard it before:
I believe in a good strong cup of ginger tea,
and all these shoots and roots will become a tree;
all I know is I can’t help
but see all of this as so very holy…
I knew I was in the right place.
Carrie’s initial activity for each of us was to give our name and offer a one word description of how we felt at the outset of the workshop. The responses ranged from “happy” to “rushed” to “anxious.” I simply stated that I felt “blessed.” This word conveyed a sense of my happiness and fulfillment after the brief conversations I had shared with Carrie about our connections to geodes and having already given a copy of my essay to her. From my perspective then, the rest of the workshop would be icing on the cake. Of course, it had only just begun and there were a number of blessings to come.
After our introductions, Carrie moved us into writing a brief description of some “detail” we had observed during the previous day. I wrote about a special time of conversation my wife, Mary Ann, and I had shared with Carol on the porch of her home the previous evening as the sun was setting and the room was filling with darkness. It was a good exercise for me since it opened me to the reality that my feelings of blessing went beyond just meeting Carrie Newcomer for the first time and participating in the workshop.
I spoke with Carrie again during the morning break and asked about her connections to Purdue University. She had gone there as an undergraduate student, as had I. She told me that she later moved to Bloomington (the location of Indiana University) because it is a vital arts community. That precipitated my sharing with her about having published a short essay in the Indiana University (IU) alumni magazine about how I, a Purdue guy, had come to terms with my family’s strong connection to IU. She agreed that it’s not always easy to live as a Boilermaker in the shadow of the IU campus. “Sometimes I just have to keep my pedigree kinda quiet,” she observed with a smile.
As the workshop progressed, Carrie shared a number of insights that resonated deeply with me:
• “The more you notice the more you notice—and it eventually becomes a practice.”
• “Reaching into the large ideas and universal themes through the small moment or human experience can make your work more intimate, authentic and powerful.”
• “The stories you hold inside you are human stories. We speak from our own experience and context, but it is essentially the human story.”
• “Invite someone to tell you about their grandmother—and they will.”
After lunch, Carrie opened the afternoon session with another song—“Geodes.” I’ll never know if her decision to sing this song during the workshop might have been a response to our earlier conversations. Whatever her reasons, the song connected with me like never before—as one geode lover to another. I wrote in my workshop notes, “How can it get any better?” It did.
In a writing exercise during the afternoon, Carrie had us briefly describe three situations where we had experienced kindness from another person. After we wrote for a period of time, we paired up and Carol and I read our writings to each other. Carrie had prompted us, as listeners to the other’s reading, to respond by simply saying, “And that was holy.” Only four words but their effect upon us was amazing. It was a profound affirmation of both story and process.
As the workshop concluded later that afternoon, I gathered my things together and bid farewell to the other participants who were at my table. I went up to Carrie one final time and thanked her for her skillful facilitation of the workshop. She again expressed appreciation for having received the geode essay and said she looked forward to reading it. I wished her well with the concert that evening and departed. I re-joined Carol and together we met up with Mary Ann and went to take a late-afternoon walk together.
I had earlier expressed to Carol an interest in seeing Mt. Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, which is where she serves as a member of the English composition faculty. We decided to take our post-workshop walk on the Mt. Mercy campus. After we arrived, we parked near one of the principal campus buildings and set out to explore. As we walked up a nearby hill, I noticed an unusual structure in the distance that appeared to be some kind of shrine. I asked Carol about it and she replied that it was the campus Grotto. My only prior exposure to a grotto was the one in West Bend, Iowa, that was depicted in the popular 1999 film “The Straight Story.” Based on that limited exposure, I knew that grottos were unusual places.
William Lightner build the “Our Lady of Sorrows” Grotto on the Mt. Mercy campus over the period from 1929 to 1941—right through the heart of the Great Depression in the United States. A former professional boxer, Lightner had later become a partner in his family’s construction business. Although he built other structures in eastern Iowa during his career, the Mt. Mercy Grotto is considered to be his most artistic work. In building this grotto, Lightner was continuing a long European tradition of creating special places made of both natural and artificial materials that might serve for spiritual contemplation. He was motivated to undertake the grotto project to acknowledge his earlier conversion to Catholicism, as well as to honor the college’s founding Roman Catholic order, the Sisters of Mercy.
A wealthy heiress founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland in 1831. By the time of her death, the order had communities spread throughout Ireland, England and other areas of the British Commonwealth. With the migration of large numbers of Irish people to North America in the mid-1800s, the Sisters of Mercy also came here to establish schools and hospitals. They arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1875 and initially established a boarding school for girls. Mt. Mercy eventually became a women’s college in the 1920s, and it is a co-educational university today.
As we approached the Grotto, Mary Ann suddenly exclaimed, “Look, there are geodes!” William Lightner had included geodes among the stones he used to construct his grotto. Most of them were broken before being inserted into the structures so that their hollow, crystalline interiors would be exposed to the viewer. A few, however, remained intact. Lightner had traveled more than forty thousand miles in the United States and Mexico, at his own expense, to look for unusual stones and other objects he could use in the construction of his Grotto. These materials included coral from Hawaii, petrified wood, white quartz, blue azurite, rose quartz, sea shells—and geodes. Geodes occur naturally in southeastern Iowa, but it’s unclear whether the ones used in Lightner’s Grotto came from there or other areas of the Midwest. These varied geological elements used in the Grotto, including the geodes, give it a fanciful appearance that make the structures seem like they might fit right into a carnival.
Having just been involved in Carrie’s writing workshop, and recalling our earlier conversations and her “Geodes” song, I felt a sense of serendipity as I walked through the Grotto and observed its stones. I took some photographs, and especially of the geodes. After a bit more time, we left the Grotto and Carol continued to introduce us to other sites on campus. We then went to dinner before returning to Lovely Lane Church in time for Carrie’s evening concert.
There were many aspects of the concert that were memorable for me, but perhaps most significant within the context of this day was her decision to once again include the song “Geodes” on her playlist for that evening. As she offered forth the familiar chords and words, I was once again back into our earlier conversations about these stones of the Heartland, as well as my experience of viewing them at the Grotto. After about two hours, the concert was over and Mary Ann and I immediately began our return journey to Minnesota and to the busy lives that awaited us there.
And the whole world moved on
Like the last notes of a song.
A love letter sent without return address.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
A couple of days after my return to Minnesota, I finally got around to getting a closer look at the photographs I had taken at Mt. Mercy Grotto. Since the pictures were made with my cell phone camera, most were not very good so I discarded them. I kept a few though, and I determined to make some prints of those to put in my journal with the entry I had written about my experiences in Cedar Rapids. As I prepared to print one photo that showed a geode in the Grotto, a man’s face came to me from within the crystalline interior of the stone. I was stunned since I hadn’t noticed any face when I took the picture. But there it was, as clear as could be—two eyes beneath a heavy brow, a nose, a mustache and the hint of a beard. His face was looking right at me. Who was he and what did his appearing mean for me? I thought about these questions for a few hours, and during that time I remembered that the Grotto had been commissioned by a religious order originally from Ireland—and that I had photographed this face in the geode on the feast day of St. Patrick. I reasoned that since every good Catholic shrine needs an apparition, why wouldn’t St. Patrick appear at the Mt. Mercy Grotto on his special day?
Born in Scotland, St. Patrick became known over the centuries as the “Apostle of Ireland.” His missionary work during the middle and latter portions of the 5th Century was important for introducing Christianity to the indigenous people of Ireland. He’s thought to have died on March 17th in the year 493. That date of the year is still commemorated in the United States and other nations as “St. Patrick’s Day.” Although no direct connection appears to exist between the Sisters of Mercy and St. Patrick that might explain why the good saint would choose to appear at their Grotto in Iowa, they are of Irish origin and the face did appear on his feast day—so that’s good enough for me.
Before I encountered St. Patrick at Mt. Mercy Grotto, he had been known to me mostly as the one who supposedly cleared Ireland of snakes. This is only legend, of course, but it did make a favorable impression on me as a boy in Indiana when I was very afraid of snakes whenever I encountered them in nature. More recently, I’ve come to know the words attributed to him in the ancient Christian hymn, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” that were purportedly written in the 5th Century. They offer me assurance, comfort and strength—and now in the context of St. Patrick having appeared to me in a geode at Mt. Mercy Grotto, they seem even more meaningful:
Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide…
—from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” in the Book of Armagh (9th Century)
And inside there shines a secret bright as promise.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.