Ep. 11 | Luci Shaw | The Crime Of Living Cautiously
~ Luci Shaw
In this episode, poet, publisher and author Luci Shaw describes what she calls, “The crime of living cautiously.” Luci loves the idea that we can say to a child, “Look this way! There is something fresh to enter into your life,” rather than following the “well worn ruts of civilization.”
Luci reflects on childhood, faith, and friendship, from her 9 decades of beautifully articulated perspective.
Luci ShawPoet, author and speaker Luci Shaw was born in 1928 in London, England. She’s lived in Canada, Australia and currently resides in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of Washington State, where we met up with her for this interview. She has lectured widely on topics such as art and imagination, poetry and writing as an aid to artistic and spiritual growth.
Luci Shaw’s authored over eleven volumes of poetry including her newest, Eye of the Beholder, and has also authored several books of non-fiction prose, including three with her lifelong friend Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle In Time.
Transcript | Ep. 11 | Luci Shaw | The Crime Of Living Cautiously
Rachel Cram – Lucy thanks so much for giving us the time today. We’re so looking forward to getting to know you better.
Luci Shaw – I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.
Rachel Cram – Thank you. I’m going to start with a question and you just go any direction you want with it. Aristotle stated, “Give me a child until they’re seven and I will show you the adult.” Are there stories or experiences from your childhood that shaped the person that you are today, at 90, right?
Luci Shaw – Yes. My dad was a primary influence in my life. I was his first child and he was 60 when I was born. My brother came along two years later. But my dad was an enthusiastic adventurer, a hero in my life. He taught me to skate, to swim. He made me swim a mile across a lake when I was 10. I mean he made me do it but I wanted to do it too. He just infused us with all kinds of activities that went beyond the normal things.
He taught us to sail. He made a small sailboat and to make it safe, he put under the thwarts, he put some airtight containers so that it wouldn’t sink. And with that he would send us off and we would sail for days at a time. And swim. And it just brought me into touch with the natural world that has always been a starting point for my thinking and my enjoyment, the wonderful greenness and growth and beauty that’s inherent in creation. He just expected us to have the same interests and enthusiasms, which we did.
My mother was always a little worried that he was going to go too far and he was going to bring us into danger. But we survived.
Rachel Cram – Well what you’re describing, I think, is a life that’s almost a past era now. It’s not often that parents just send their young children, you’re saying you were 10, off into the lake on a sailboat.
I think that’s,
Luci Shaw – Do you think so?
Rachel Cram – I do.
Luci Shaw – know that there’s a greater concern about the safety of children abroad in our communities these days. But I don’t know. I would treat my own kids the same way.
Rachel Cram – And did you? As you were raising your own kids?
Luci Shaw – I think I did. Right. Yeah right.
Rachel Cram – What was your mom like? Can you tell me more about that?
Luci Shaw – Mother was a little younger than Dad. I was born when she was in her late 40s and my brother came along later. It was very hard for her because my dad traveled constantly all around the world. And it would leave her with responsibility for me and my brother. She was not an easy person to be around. She had such high expectations that I never was able to fulfill.
My Dad was a restless man and my Mother was very different. She was timid. She was very interested in appearances. So we had to be good. The two almost polar opposites in personality. I just actually wrote a poem about my family. I don’t know if you’d be interested.
Rachel Cram – I would love to hear it. I’m actually wondering if I’ve already read it?
Luci Shaw – No. It’s a new one.
Rachel Cram – Is it from, Eye Of The Beholder?
Luci Shaw – It’s a brand new one. It’s not in there.
Rachel Cram – Oh, wow! Want to find that?
Luci Shaw – Let’s see if I’ve got it. I’ll get it.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, do. No rush. Hot off the press. Love it.
Luci Shaw – OK. Ok
Rachel Cram – Thank you. This is a real honor to get to hear a brand new poem.
Luci Shaw – This poem is called, Family Of Origin.
Our parents keep circulating
in the rooms of our lives.
Mine are long gone, but if it would
satisfy them I would take my heart
out of its cage and gift-wrap it
for their anniversary.
I glimpse them often, Dad reading
a book over my shoulder,
now and again offering words
of advice that might have made
sense fifty years ago. The words
form clots in my memory, cells
bright as blood, a private language
unlike any other.
My mother demanded mountains
of me. I managed to supply foothills.
They were lovely foothills, but
failure would hang in the air. We still
seem to meet in the heart of an old
argument, words hanging unresolved,
glittering sparks in the dark air.
Sometimes, when I feel most wrong
about how to remember them, I am
most right, seeing them as they settled
into the grooves of my own memory.
I am my own narrative arc,
yet I arranged the candles and
flowers on my mantelpiece the way
my mother would have done it.
And for my father I still write
small poems, like the ones he
carried in his briefcase to
show his friends when I
was very young.
Luci Shaw – So that’s a little picture, it’s not a complete picture but yeah. Dad loved poetry and he loved my poetry and he was very proud of it. My mother always wanted me to stay humble so she didn’t like people to praise my work. She was afraid it would lead to pride, which was a cardinal sin in her Christian theology.
Rachel Cram – How old were you when you started writing?
Luci Shaw – Probably three or four, I was putting words together. And then in high school I began to do it more seriously and I had good teachers. And then in college, I was an English lit major at Wheaton, and I had the most wonderful mentors who just let me do whatever I want.
Rachel Cram – Well you have, as I read your history, you have had some amazing mentors in your life and friendships.
Luci Shaw – Yes.
Rachel Cram – People that you’ve walked alongside. Peers. Madeleine L’Engle.
Luci Shaw – Yes
Rachel Cram – Eugene Peterson.
Luci Shaw – Yes
Rachel Cram – Dr. Kilby
Luci Shaw – Clyde Kilby.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, Clyde Kilby, who I think is who brought C.S. Lewis kind of onto the North American stage, Right?
Luci Shaw – Yes, he did. He was the one who sort of enlarged the whole understanding of C.S. Lewis in North America. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – And he was who really encouraged you to write. I believe.
Luci Shaw – He was.
Rachel Cram – So you’ve had these incredible people to live life alongside,
Luci Shaw – Oh yes.
Rachel Cram – but to step into those relationships you already had your own sense of wonder and creativity
Luci Shaw – Oh yes.
Rachel Cram – and imagination growing inside of you. And you started that right from when you were three. So what pushed you along that journey? What fuels you?
Luci Shaw – Well my parents did read good books to me. We didn’t have children’s books but we would read good novels. We would enlarge our language powers just by becoming familiar with really good writing and the rhythms and the construction of writing, so that it was something almost in my blood right from the beginning.
Rachel Cram – Were your parents reading you adults books?
Luci Shaw – Yeah. Well I mean they were, they were not racy. But they were some of the great novels of Western literature.
Rachel Cram – The books that your parents read to you Lucy. Were there any in particular that stick in your mind.
Luci Shaw – Well Dickens of course. You know David Copperfield, the amazing characters that he drew in his fiction. Yeah, that’s the one that I remember most clearly.
Rachel Cram – Well I think often now as parents we think those books would be boring for children but obviously that’s not true.
Luci Shaw – Well of course language styles change. You know, literary styles evolve. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t gain so much richness from an older pattern of speech. English is such an amazingly rich language. I mean, it’s a difficult language because it doesn’t always follow the rules but the richness of it. The number of words we have at our disposal and then the images that they bring to us.
And of course I worked a lot with Madeleine L’Engle. She wrote sonnets. They just sort of flowed out of her. She and I worked, I mean she was she was my heart friend, my best friend for 35 years. And we spent an awful lot of time together. We traveled together. We visited back and forth. I drove her around the Canadian Rockies.
Rachel Cram – They’ve just done a movie of her book, A Wrinkle in Time.
Luci Shaw – a wrinkle.. it’s terrible. It’s terrible.
Rachel Cram – I kind of heard it didn’t get good,
Luci Shaw – It’s just, it’s not Madeleine at all.
Rachel Cram – So you saw it,
Luci Shaw – And they skipped all the really wonderful scriptural passages where she calls on the greatness of God. And they just cut all that out and you know made it just a fantasy. And I’ve spent some time with Madeleine’s granddaughters, Charlotte and Lena. I was with them at Calvin College last year. We had a wonderful public conversation, talking about our memories of Madeleine, which is a lot of fun.
Rachel Cram – Was she more a poet or more a prose writer?
Luci Shaw – Oh she was a fiction writer for sure but the poetry just came whether she wanted it to or not. And I published a couple of books of her poems, put them together and made them into books and they’re published, so yeah.
Rachel Cram – One of the things that I find really amazing about poetry, as a busy working mother, is that you can take these little moments in your day, just five minutes to read something. You can just let that ruminate in the back of your head.
Luci Shaw – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – One of my favorite poems is one that you’ve written for your son John. You’ve written it about being a poet and your first line is, “To be a poet you must write more than you know, hoping it to be true.” I’m wondering, can you read your poem, Take These Words?
Luci Shaw – Yes
Rachel Cram – Because I feel you can even put the word ‘parent’ in there. To be a parent you must write more than you know, hoping it to be true. Can I hand you your book, for you to read it?
Luci Shaw – I’d love too. I’d love too. I love this poem.
Rachel Cram – I do too. It’s my favorite right now.
Luci Shaw – It’s ok to be in love with your own work.
Rachel Cram – I think you should be.
Luci Shaw – Take These Words from my son John on his birthday.
To be a poet you must write
more than you know, hoping it to be true,
that the words will have a life beyond the moment,
taking the shape of their meaning, like rain
filling a bowl – drops gathering into a formless
that is wholly fresh and drinkable. I remember
the urge, last week, to describe to the poet in you
(for your birthday) how a spear of fireweed
delivered her pale fluff to the wind.
And how bird songs tangled in the vine maples
and fell to the dry grass like lace. And the cricket,
faithful in his endless summer thrum,
sang simply what he was born to sing, knowing nothing
of the calm it brings us.
I’d wanted words to tell you how, as long shadows
took over the campground and sank into our bodies,
swifts and swallows, stitching the air, took
their fill of gnats while above them the stars circled,
beyond speech. But I, astonished and grateful,
pondering the ongoing script of your life,
find no heart words adequate to send. Take
these, then. Perhaps you can fill in the gaps.
Luci Shaw – I think what I always wanted my kids to have was an exercise of the imagination. Not just interested in facts and figures but to go beyond that. A lot of poems are just sort of guesses and hints. And I love the fact a hint gets you to start thinking on your own.
Rachel Cram – Well that’s a beautiful experience for children to have. What I’m hearing you saying is, just giving that open space for discovery and for surprise and things not being dualistic.
Luci Shaw – Exactly. Exactly
Rachel Cram – Things not being right or wrong.
Luci Shaw – And mystery.
Rachel Cram – Can you talk more about mystery. I love that.
Luci Shaw – Oh, well, mystery; you know it, it just means that there’s more. There’s more to be discovered. And of course there’s levels of experience. There’s the physical level. There’s the emotional level. There’s the spiritual level. And I think that mystery engages all those different levels in our humanity. And I think God created us to be creators. I’m created to create. And I love the word poem, ‘poema’, means something that is made. And that’s our task. And it’s a task to name things; the beauties of the world around us, to bring them into focus to reflect something that we have discovered, that we want someone else to discover, perhaps for the first time
Rachel Cram – When you were saying that God gave us the task, and you’ve used that I think, to launch your book The Crime Of Living Cautiously. Can you talk a little bit about that? You know what I’m talking about? That parable of,
Luci Shaw – the talents
Rachel Cram – the talents. Can you tell that parable and then carry on to give the understanding that you have of how we’re not called to live cautiously.
Luci Shaw – Well you know the parable is about three sons. Their father had to go away for a while and he left them with responsibilities and he gave the money to invest. One of them invested it and gained some interest. And that went well. And one of them just put the money in a safe place and let it sit. And it was not invested so it never brought back any royalties, any return for the money. And that’s a little bit like the way our lives are. We need to invest in the riches that are around us, that are available to us. And not just sit and let things happen.
Rachel Cram – You are saying that he took the money and he was safe with it.
Luci Shaw – He was safe.
Rachel Cram – And I feel in your books, in your writings, you’re not really big on safe.
Luci Shaw – I’m not good on safe.Yeah.
Rachel Cram – What’s the problem with safe?
Luci Shaw – It’s, it’s so, what’s the problem was safe? It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s dull and it’s dead. It leads, it leads to death.
Of course we want our kids to be safe but we don’t want to hem them in to such a degree that they never want to reach out and have an adventure or try something new or
Rachel Cram – Define hemmed in Lucy. What do you mean by that?
Luci Shaw – Well if you live like a horse in a meadow. A nice meadow but it’s got fences all around it so it can’t get out. And yet there’s that amazing world of hills and valleys that the horse wants to enjoy. And I think that’s true for human beings. We want to keep people from danger and pride all the seven deadly sins. And we hem them in so much that there’s such fear of moving out of that and experimentation and adventure, that our lives just become stilted and stale. There’s such a fear of causing negative comment or judgment.
Rachel Cram – Back to what your mom used to rail against.
Luci Shaw – Yeah
Rachel Cram – Keeping up appearances.
Luci Shaw – Yes. Keeping up appearances – very much.
Rachel Cram – So how do you move against that? How do you get up in the morning and choose to live life differently? for you Lucy Shaw. What do you do?
Luci Shaw – I don’t know. What do I do? It just happens so automatically that I don’t even have to think about that. But it’s, it’s, opening up my mind to culture, to spirituality, to the wide world that’s available to us as human beings. And we’ve got these little brains and we’ve got these little minds and bodies but they can expand into a powerful thing that can affect the people around us and we hope the generations that follow us. We hope.
Rachel Cram – That concept of opening up your minds. I read this quote by you. I’m just going to find it. Here it is. “My job as a poet is to be listening; sending up a lightning rod so that the lightning can touch and electrify me.” So what does listening mean for you?
Luci Shaw – Well listening isn’t just hearing. You know, you can hear something, you can hear a bird and just notice it. But then, if you’re really listening, you focus on that and you’re allowed to speak to you. So listening has a different feel than just merely hearing. The messages of nature are so powerful. Nearly all my poetry has to do with some aspect of nature or some experience that I have in the natural world. I love some of the discoveries of science and how the human mind is just always hungry for information, for learning more about how life works.
Rachel Cram – Well not all human minds are like that. I think that’s something that has to be nurtured.
Luci Shaw – Yes.
Rachel Cram – That curiosity.
Luci Shaw – Yes.
Rachel Cram – That desire to know. You know you’ve made reference to nurturing creativity, mystery and listening. When you are with your children Lucy, how do you attempt to nurture that in them?
Luci Shaw – I think that the way to do that is to give examples of something that has been powerful in your own thinking in life. As far as children goes, I think I was just too busy doing the laundry, making the meals and you know making sure they got enough sleep and enough vitamins, that I was working too hard to nurture the imagination in them.
Rachel Cram – That takes off a lot of pressure. To hear you say that. So no formulas.
Luci Shaw – Each of my five kids has taken a very different path in life and showed different kinds of gifts. I mean, they’re all wonderful people but you cannot project into the future. You have to be open with children. Be prepared for whatever it is that you can take or ignore or celebrate or explore. I mean, life is so full of richness in so many directions. And yet it all takes creativity and imagination to bring these things into being. And to see the potential. To see what is there to be explored and expanded.
Rachel Cram – If you were to give, from your life experience, one thought for people to ponder,
Luci Shaw – That’s scary.
Rachel Cram – I’ll make it more specific then. One thought to ponder about raising children with an openness to that list of wonderful qualities that you gave; things that you’re going to ignore, things that you’re going to pay attention to.
Luci Shaw –I love the word Jesus used. “Behold.” Here’s something interesting. Look at it. Follow it. I love the idea that you can say to your child, “Look in this direction. Look this way.” Or, “Look that way. There is something fresh to enter into your life, to enrich it” and not just to follow the well-worn ruts of civilization.
All the great scientists and poets had these aha moments, when suddenly things fall into place and they can move ahead with something fresh. And when you think of all the stimuli and the insights we receive on a daily basis; the knowledge we acquire, the wisdom we hear from other people, it can all be put together in our own lives in a way that’s creative and wholesome and loving. So that’s why it’s so important to expose our children to good literature, to good poetry, to good music. To music that’s going to make them stretch a bit. That’s not just simplistic but it has depth of meaning it has a thickness to it.
Rachel Cram – Do you think we tend to lean towards being too simplistic in what we give to children.
Luci Shaw – It’s easier. You know, we don’t have to think very hard about it. You know we just do the next thing physically; what’s necessary, while neglecting the other parts of the human being which are the mind, the soul and the hidden gifts that are waiting there to be woken.
So we took our children camping. That’s where you’re immersed in the natural world in a way that no words can fully describe. You have to experience it. Experience is what brings wonder.
Rachel Cram – I wish I could remember the exact, quote is not the right word but, I’ve actually heard that reading and camping are two of the key predictors of how a child goes on to do in life.
Luci Shaw – Wow.
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Luci Shaw – I didn’t know that. Oh Good!
Rachel Cram – Well apparently if a child’s read five books a day while they’re young, and they don’t have to be long books. The way that enhances their vocabulary, their understanding of language, their understanding of the flow of language; That’s very significant. But then they also went on to say that families that camp together, even if just for one week a summer, what that does for a child’s brain, a family experience of being in the outdoors, is akin to that reading experience.
Luci Shaw – Oh I would absolutely affirm both of those things. Yes! absolutely! You know, experiences like that. You go down to the stream to get your drinking water and fill your canister and you see a bear in the undergrowth and, “hey, there’s a bear kids. Did you see?” things that happened without your planning them. Something fresh or new that expands our whole soul.
Rachel Cram – You’ve used the word soul a few times. It’s a word that I think is coming back more for us to consider and engage with. What does the word soul mean to you?
Luci Shaw – I think it’s the elemental part of us that makes us individuals. And it’s capable of being enriched and expanded. It’s a living thing. It’s not static. It’s hungry for richness and for information and for experience.
So I mean, that’s, that’s an essential part of the human being, is to have this capacity to move beyond ourselves to.
Rachel Cram – Move beyond ourselves. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Luci Shaw – I think it takes courage to be a human being. It would be easy to protect yourself, easy just to sort of guard yourself and surround yourself with safe things. But that’s a very dry and uninteresting way to live. You have to take risks. I think you have to allow your kids to take risks, otherwise they’re never going to experience the excitement of taking a risk and having it work out to be something wonderful.
Rachel Cram – Lucy is there anything else that you want to see before we close off?
Luci Shaw – I’m sure I’ll think of about a dozen things I want to say after you’ve gone.
Rachel Cram – Well I thank you so much. It has been so wonderful to be able to sit and talk with you and probe into your mind and,
Luci Shaw – Oh, well it’s a privilege to talk to someone who ask the right questions. You know. You really do. I just wish I were a little bit more fluent in my answers.
Rachel Cram – Oh you’ve been beautifully fluid. Thank you so much.
Luci Shaw is a teacher, editor, poet, and writer of creative prose, as well as a journal keeper and ardent photographer. She is the author of more than twenty-five books, eight of them volumes of poetry and she’s collaborated on multiple other works, including several with writer Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle In Time). Her poems are widely anthologized.
Luci is a frequent lecturer in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. She lives in Washington State with her husband, John Hoyte.
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