A Small Steadying Sail of Love
by Nancy Gibbs Richard
Reviewed by Rick Seifert
How often in life’s turmoil do we turn to the still, calming power of the Inner Light? When I find myself tossed, or just jostled, by life’s storms, I’ve discovered that same inner strength reflected in the poetry, meditations and photos of a small book by Friend Nancy Gibbs Richard.
The book’s title, A Small Steadying Sail of Love, is a metaphor that illuminates much of the book’s content. It requires a short explanation for land-lubbers. Sailors know that a “Steadying Sail,” which is indeed small, is used to ride out tempests that would overwhelm normal sails or even no sails at all. The purpose of a steadying sail, as Nancy explains, is to safely position the boat to survive, to keep it upright and headed into to the wind so that it doesn’t capsize. She emphasizes that a steadying sail doesn’t move the boat forward into the storm, but saves it for a later, safe voyage. Nancy, a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, hopes that her book will offer just such sustaining strength through the steadying power of prayer and love.
Since I encountered her book, I have made it a daily companion. For me, each day needs to begin with a “steadying sail.” And some turbulent, worrying times require it ‘round the clock for days. Imagine starting the day with any of the poems you find on these two pages. What a difference they can make. So I keep this little book an arm’s reach away most days. It sits on my desk. It is on the table next to the bed. It is one of two or three books I choose to take with me on trips...just in case.... The “Steadying Sail” is at the ready for all of my voyages, whether in safe harbor or on rough seas. And, of course, I have given copies to others similarly “at sea.” And aren’t we all?
As a teen, Nancy came to admire R.H. Blyth’s four-volume study of Japanese Haiku. While her poetry doesn’t share the formal structure of Haiku, it certainly is alive with its simple, direct and, at times, surprising images. A friend, who is also a Quaker, once told Nancy that her verses combine the confrontational power of both Quaker Query and Zen Koan.
I find particular poetic truth and power in Nancy’s images about prayer. One poem speaks of learning and trusting that God will “pray me through the hard places.” Her words offer me a new perspective on prayer. Prayers aren’t answered, they are conduits through which we are “prayed through” by the power of the Divine Spirit. She repeats and expands the idea when she writes of entering deeply and repeatedly into prayer. She concludes that when prayers are written “upon your heart...the day may come when you find that the prayer is praying you.”
After you experience Nancy’s poems and photographs, it comes as no surprise when she tells you that they themselves emerged from the power of the spirit. They are themselves prayers “praying her,” “praying her through.” And they pray us, her readers as well. They pray us through.
Clearly the power here, in this small, steadying sail, in this small steadying book, is the spiritual power of both prayer and love to help us survive life’s large and small storms.
I have a couple of quibbles about editorial decisions made about the book. Only at the very end, in the acknowledgements which follow the index, do we learn that Nancy is a Quaker. She was a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting for 25 years before coming to Portland in 2011. Several of her images are “Quakerly.”
The important explanation of the metaphor about the steadying sail can’t be found within the covers on the book; instead it is on the back cover, a place where one would least expect to look for it.
You can order Nancy’s book on-line from her publisher, Angela Center Press
at angelacenterpress.org. In the late ‘90s, Nancy wrote “Poems and Prayers” from which some of these poems were taken. It is illustrated with a friend’s pen and ink drawings. Copies of it can be obtained through Nancy directly, email@example.com. ♦
Rick Seifert is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting, serves on the board of Western Friend, and helps facilitate Quaker Quest sessions for Friends General Conference.