Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hospitality

Though I am a Northwesterner now, I spent my first 7 years in the South, and my mother's people were all Southerners. So when I saw this hotel verandah in St.Petersburg, Florida, it spoke to me immediately of Southern Hospitality. My Nanny K in Suffolk, Virginia, had a similar verandah (though smaller, of course) with the same green wicker chairs and glass topped tables; the same broad columns and slow-turning fans.

But there's more to Southern Hospitality than wicker chairs and mint juleps. I think it has to do with a slower pace of life, a willingness to "stop and set a while," something we Northerners do rarely, if at all. And in the Northwest (as we discovered when we moved here from Vermont almost 20 years ago), it not only happens rarely, but you also need two weeks notice!

So you can imagine how delighted we were, as former East Coast folk, to move into our new home and discover our neighbors were the sort that were not only inclined to "stop and set a while," but also to do so on a moment's notice. This morning we got a call to say our neighbors had put up some soup and would be delighted to share with us, so this evening we enjoyed, not only their soup, but also their wine, and their stories of their recent visit East.

We showed up armed with a good old-fashioned lemon meringue pie, like the kind my mama used to make, and a few stories of our own, and shared a lovely time with these dear friends. And over the course of the evening other neighbors stopped by, and good friends called, and everyone listened to one another's stories. Stories of plane rides included thoughts on which airlines were more hospitable. Stories of families included discussions of which kinds of families and family constellations were more hospitable. Stories of movies included opinions on which movies were more hospitable to men and which were more hospitable to women.

It was as if hospitality, like Plato's concepts of Truth and Beauty, has some absolute form that we all understand; a form that includes, not just openness and invitation, but also such essentials as humor, and paying attention, and sharing something that will feed, either our bodies or our souls. Hospitality involves a willingness to set aside our own concerns and listen to those of others. And with that comes an acceptance that though we may dress differently or think differently we each have value that extends beyond what we say or do. And, above all, there's a reciprocity, an exchange: I listen to you, and you listen to me; I feed you, and you feed me. It's not a score card; it just ... is.

As I began writing this, I was thinking that meditation is like making time to sit on the verandah, to "stop and set a spell" with God, something I tried to do every morning we were at the hotel in this picture. We make time for God by stepping apart from our everyday concerns, and God makes time for us as well, paying attention to our stories and showering us with acceptance.

But what I find is that when I'm in the steady habit of doing that, it frees me to notice all the other times when God offers to feed us, to fill our souls with signs and stories. And then I am reminded of Henri Nouwen's thoughts on Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing." In Clowning in Rome, Nouwen says "To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God..."

Perhaps that is the essence of hospitality: that somehow this conscious effort to make time to sit with others is unspoken acknowledgement that each of us is a sign and symbol of God; and that God, the love of God, the message and story of God, moves in and through each moment, and each person -- if only we stop and take the time to pay attention.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Feeding our Roots

It's a truism to say that a lot of people find Christmas to be a very difficult season. I think particularly of my friend who lost her daughter this year; of another 12-year-old who lost her mother to cancer a year ago; and of a friend of my own daughter whose father won't live til next Christmas.

It's a hard season for those of us who are survivors: we find it difficult to be conscious of anything beyond the losses. Like the grapevines at the vineyard nearby, life seems barren: where are the leaves, so colorful in the fall? Where is the fruit, so juicy and sweet? But winter is often barren -- a fact we can sometimes forget in the Northwest, where winter is so often our greenest time of year.

I recieved a note today reminding me "that these very trees that appear dead and lifeless are growing and nourishing their roots so as to be able to spring forth with life when the light returns. Something an old gardener once told me has become a spiritual metaphor for my work; 'don't forget to feed your roots in the winter'."

How do we do that? At first I just thought it meant we must continue to nurture those deepest parts of ourselves, to curl up around the spark of light within us and blow it back into flame. But on a simpler level it's just another reason why Christmas traditions are so important to us -- they, too, reconnect us with our roots.

Last night my daughter (just home from college) and I put up and decorated the Christmas tree, and it was an evening full of memories. We played the traditional Bing Crosby CD; put the crumpled foil star that she made in pre-school on top of the tree; argued over which lights to use and where to put them; broke out the tacky little angel dolls my now-deceased mother-in-law made to represent us for our first Christmas; set up the painted plaster-of-paris creche figures my husband made in Sunday School at the ripe age of 6; and hung the stockings, including the very ratty-looking felt one that was made for me by my FIRST mother-in-law for my first Christmas with my FIRST husband.

And through it all we had my oldest daughter listening in on the speaker phone from Taiwan, laughing and teasing and crying a little because she couldn't be with us this year. Where, she wondered, was the wonderful book we used to read aloud every Christmas Eve, about the birth of the Baby Jesus? I'm sure it's in a box somewhere; we've moved a few times since the last time the girls were willing to sit still for that.

But someday, I promised, when she has children of her own, I'll find it and send it off to her. Because that story, and that book with its lovely soft brushed pictures, are a part of HER roots. And as we all sit here, steeped in darkness, watching the lights on the tree, that story, even unread, works its magic still, filling us with the promise of spring to come.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ka-Ching, Ka-Ching!

Years ago, when we lived on a tiny little island with little or no mercantile distractions, we were adopted by an abandoned gosling. The rumor was that an Osprey had abducted him from his family and then dropped him by the side of the road; after several visits from his parents he was rejected, so we took him in.

I mention this because Kiwi (as the girls named him) taught me about imprinting. He learned very quickly that I was the one responsible for meeting his basic needs: for feeding him, for providing water, and for the warmth of a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. And he became imprinted on me. I was mama; he had a special cry that would only be satisfied if I came to him, and he followed me everywhere. He would even go for walks down to the beach with me, following me in a line as we walked while our springer spaniel, Sockeye, trailed along, barking at the eagles who circled looking for a fresh bite of gosling.

My reading this morning was the parable about the man who prepares a feast and invites his friends to dinner but they're all too busy to come: one has some business to transact; another has a new house to furnish; a third needs to pay his taxes... so instead the man opens his home to anyone he finds on the street.

So I read this, thought on it a bit, drew some obvious conclusions, and then went upstairs to check my email. I played a couple of rounds of my current favorite video game, which involves sliding pieces on a board to complete a row of three or more like pieces, in which case you get a satisfying "Ka-Ching!", the board changes color, and the pieces disappear. After the second round I remembered I hadn't yet done my meditation, so I went downstairs to sit in my favorite chair and closed my eyes.

Kaching! Kaching! Everytime I tried to move into that quiet space inside, it was like I'd moved a piece into place, and everything would click and slide away. My brain had imprinted on the video game, which has a timer built in to increase the pressure a bit, and I had a terrible time stepping out of that rush, rush, rush.

I think the businessman and the homeowner and the taxpayer in the parable were in the same difficulty. I think that the challenge we face, living in the world we do, is that the pressures of our lives get terribly addictive, and we get imprinted on whatever we do most. We work all day at the computer, and then come home and retire to compute some more instead of interacting with the family. We go on vacation and spend the first few days checking the cellphone constantly for business messages.

Or like the woman in CS Lewis's the Great Divorce, we get so caught up in our children's lives that we forget that we have lives of our own, or that time with our spouses could keep us sane and centered. Or we get so used to building our lives around a mate that we can no longer make space for other friendships. Or we get so caught up in building our wine collection, or being on church or PTA committees, or getting the house decorated for Christmas, or planning our next vacation, that we forget about all those who struggle just to feed their children.

Though it may affect each of us in different ways, the world is a most addictive presence. Add to that the holes, the hunger in each of our lives, and we are very easily imprinted. Think how simple it is to fill those holes with the worldly addictions. Aha, we think. A drink, a drug, another round of roulette. Another website, another email, another video game to play; another item checked off the Christmas to-do list; another pair of shoes, another bite of chocolate, another tchotke for the windowsill... Kaching, Kaching; it's a match, something slid into place and now that particular pressure goes away.

There's always another hole to fill; always another reason to put off the meditation, or the family time; always something else to capture our interest and lure us away from that still center. We are imprinted on the world, and it becomes a very hard cycle to break.

I think if I had been living then where I live now, I might never have noticed that gosling by the side of the road. I would have been too busy with my important errands; too intent on rushing to "the next thing." Had we not noticed that little abandoned goose, our family might never have experienced the joy we found caring for Kiwi, and I might never have known how it feels to hold a grown goose in my arms and have him kiss me goodbye.

The blessing of that life was its lack of worldly distraction, and perhaps it was the years of being imprinted on that environment that makes meditation, my contemplative photography, and this blog possible.

Whatever the reason, I now understand -- at least intellectually, though I do not always pay attention -- that there always exists that invitation to the greater feast; to that deeper joy that comes with silence, with listening, with attending to the compassionate voice that calls to us.

I'm not sure about this, and I certainly haven't mastered the problem. But I think that if we do our best to stay centered in the present, it becomes easier to understand that every present moment carries with it a choice. If we understand that we are making millions of tiny choices every day AND if we can begin to listen before we make those choices, then perhaps we can do a better job of staying in touch with that deeper joy; of staying aware of the consequences of our actions; of staying in tune with the needs of those around us. Perhaps then our hunger will be quenched by the great feast that lies always before us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

This I Believe

I was talking with a dear friend yesterday about the healing power of meditation. And then, with the synchronicity that seems to occur so often these days, my Thomas reading this morning closed with the following admonition: "seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a corpse and be eaten."

It's a bit dramatic, but I realized, thinking about it, that it vividly captures my feelings about meditation. The world, lovely though it may be, is a very demanding and stressful place: when I am sitting in meditation and I begin to be distracted by the concerns of my daily life, my first clue that I have left the meditative space is the way my body tenses, curls in upon itself, as if in defense -- even if I am doing something as simple as thinking about Christmas presents.

When I return to my inner core, I feel my head lift, my shoulders relax, my hips settle into place... So thinking about that, this morning, I realized that one reason meditation is so important for me is that, for some brief period in my day, I am relaxed and open, listening, absorbing; all of the body's defense systems are at rest.

So then I thought, of course meditation has healing properties. But why, and how does that work? This is what I believe: the world, our daily life, however beautiful it may be, is filled with stress and challenges, people and events, situations and responses that can be all-consuming. We can be eaten up with fear, or guilt, or jealousy; at the mercy of shoulds and to-do lists; taken over by our hunger for more, or better, or bigger.

But I also believe that at the core of each of us, however frenetic or disturbed our lives or personalities may be, there lies a still center, a wholeness, a rootedness, a connectedness that continues to exist despite all the layers above it. We can call it heart, or soul; God, or bodhichitta, or simply a place of rest. For me, it contains the stillness of the water in this picture; for my daughter I suspect it is the rich quiet of the forest; for you it may be something else altogether.

But it is always there, however buried it may be. And if we can return to that space, however briefly, it means an interrupt in all those other pressures that weigh us down and eat us up; the things that deaden us and suck the joy out of our lives.

So, yes, for me, meditation is healing. Every time I practice, I am acknowledging that that space exists within me. Every time I practice, I am clarifying that I am more than the pain, more than the stress and tension; that there is some richness in me that exists apart from all that.

Every time I practice, if that is God, then I am saying God, I want to hear your voice; I want to pay attention to you. Every time I practice, if I remember that this space within me is somehow the heart of life, and is mysteriously linked to a similar space in you, in my friends; in my family or my neighbor; in my co-worker or my boss or my enemy -- even in the tree outside my window, in my dog and my cats and the fish that swim in the sea -- every time I touch into that space I grow in respect and compassion for the world around me.

Every time I breathe, I can breathe in the distractions of my world, my pain, or my fear, or my stress. I can also choose to breathe that in with a conscious awareness that others are breathing in the same thing, whatever it might be. And then, if I can touch into that space of rest, I can breathe out the peace I find there, breathe it out into the world, to soften the tensions that bind and entangle, not just my own life, but also the lives around me.

So, yes. However difficult it may be to get past all the petty concerns that rise up as I sit (and, yes, some mornings I just give up and keep a pad of paper and a pen beside my chair to release some of those things), it's still important to take the time to sit. It's a statement, and a healing one: an affirmation that there is more to life than what I see or feel; more than the constant stream of messages my mind and nervous system send me. I choose to tap into that more, as best I can, and trust that with time I will become more attuned to the peace I find there.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ain't gonna study war no more

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I braved the cold and snow to venture out this morning to my favorite 8 am service.

The first lesson of the morning was the familiar passage about beating swords into plowshares and ceasing to learn about war, and on hearing those words I was instantly transported back in time to third grade. In those days, my father was in a singing group called "The Rumrunners" and he played a gut-bucket: a simple bass made out of a washtub, a long 2 x 4, and a single string of catgut.

I found myself looking up at the ceiling of the church and at the same time sitting in my old living room with my dad strumming the gutbucket with his friends in rehearsal, singing "ain't gonna study war no more, ain't gonna study war no more, ain't gonna stu-dy, war, no, more, no more..."

While we were in Ybor City over Thanksgiving week, we passed this statue, and that voice in my head kept insisting I photograph it, so I left our tour group briefly and walked across the street to take its picture, then scurried back across without ever reading the inscription below the statue.

Now, looking at it today, having come home from church with my father's song in my head, I see what I didn't see then: the strong resemblance between the statue and a photo in my family album of my father, his brother, and his parents coming over on the boat from Sweden. The hats and clothing are very similar, as are the ages of the children.

And now, looking at the inscription, I see that the statue was "Dedicated May 31, 1992, to those courageous men and women who came to this country in search of personal freedom, economic opportunity, and a future of hope."

I suppose I could say two out of three ain't bad. Certainly my father's family found personal freedom here. And, after growing up in the tenements of Hoboken, my father closed out his days as a retired IBM exec in a good-sized house in Austin Texas with a swimming pool.

But what about the future of hope? Have we sacrificed that in our efforts to protect our personal freedom, and, probably more critical to many of us, our economic opportunities? Because we clearly have NOT beaten our swords into plowshares; we have instead sacrificed those same plowshares to build more swords. And we still seem intent on studying, both military war and economic war.

Advent is the season of hope, of waiting, of listening. But I sat in an audience last night which was invited to shout out words having to do with the holidays, and the words shouted were "santa" and "presents" and "shopping" and "cookies"; there was nothing of faith, or angels, or Jesus, or hope, or waiting, or advent, or listening, or even carols.

Maybe this is just sour grapes -- I have to confess I haven't yet purchased a single Christmas present, and it is already December 2. And I am frankly dreading what could easily be dubbed "the shopping wars," getting out there and fighting for parking places, squabbling over finite merchandise, fighting to hold a place in line. Even getting a latte becomes a trial in shopping season.

When I look again at this picture, I see hope most clearly in the face of the little girl. But it doesn't look like the hope we see mirrored in our children's faces on Sunday morning. It looks more like the hope we and our wars and our economic lusts have been destroying for children all over the world -- a hope for a warm home, and good food, clothes that fit and a place to play safely without fear.

Is that asking so much? Even the baby Jesus found that in his stable, yet we persist in denying those rights to the children of our enemies. Where, I ask, in this advent season, where is their future of hope?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Under the Influence



My reading this morning in the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 56, concerns the whole dilemma of being in the world but not of the world; in fact the world is described as a corpse. In pondering this, I realized that my quip in yesterday's post about the irreverence of my recent blogs being influenced by the irreverence of my characters was actually false.

I didn't do any blog entries while we were in St. Petersburg, and it's actually just the ones I've done since I got back that felt off, uninspired, contrived... It didn't feel like they were flowing from that inner well of consciousness from which these things usually bubble up. And thinking about that this morning, in the context of today's logion, I realized (duh) of course! They're disconnected because I'm disconnected. While I was in Florida I was NOT meditating, I was NOT reading the Gospel of Thomas. And even though I was only gone a week, I am feeling the effects of that.

It's not unlike the effects of breaking my diet. I have gone back onto the low carb diet I used to drop 30 pounds three years ago, as my weight began creeping up a bit this year, and yesterday I had a burger for lunch and decided to go ahead and eat the bun as well. And sure enough, by mid afternoon the munchies had kicked in: I found myself craving sweets, snacking on a piece of toast, chewing gum... because eating carbs for some reason makes me crave more carbs.

Maybe the world works the same way, and meditation serves as a sort of diet from it, a chance to cut back the cravings. If we don't take a break from the world's enchantments, we get caught up in them and it becomes harder to stay in touch with the source, the aliveness and creativity within us that is NOT entangled with the world.

So why these photographs? Initially I just planned to post the one on the left, of the sunset, though I wasn't sure why it was relevant to the subject. But now, having written about this, I realize that this photograph was taken my first night in Florida, and though there was not actually a cross on the building in the distance, I thought there was, and I was surprised when I got home to see it wasn't there.

In contrast, there is another photograph I took at the end of my visit, the one on the right; a lovely picture of a little fake gingerbread chapel which sat on a barge across from our hotel, designed to be towed out to the middle of the bay for weddings. And my question is this: Which is the real church? The one I saw at the beginning, still under the influence of meditation? Or the false one I photographed at the end of the week, the world's image of a chapel; the one not anchored, merely floating; not used for worship, only as a stage set? It's almost as if by the end of the week I no longer saw with my heart, but only with my head.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!


Yesterday I passed the 50,000 word mark on my Nanowrimo novel! Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month,began with 21 people in 1999; this year there were 90,000 participants, including my neighbor here, my friend Sue in Vermont (who told me about the project in the first place), her daughter, and my daughter. The deal is, you sign up to begin writing November 1, and your goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. Along the way you get encouraging emails from famous authors and repeated warnings NOT to get hung up on little things like plot, editing or characters; the goal is just to let it flow and save all the editing until December.

As a lifelong editor by nature and often by trade, I found this whole concept incredibly freeing. We were admonished NOT to worry about plot or characters before November 1, just to start typing on that day and see what happened. When I sat down November 1 (I went up to Shaw Island for a couple of days to get off to a good start) I had decided on a title, but was otherwise flying blind. And now that the 50,000 words are up, I see that the title has very little to do with the plot (it was to be called Gap Year but the action takes place over about a month) and that where I ended up (with all four of my major characters speeding to a clinic after having been a)shot, b)hit on the head, c)bound and gagged and left in a van overnight and d)knocked out) is a LONG way away from where I started (an Episcopal priest taking on an interim parish assignment on a small island in the San Juans after the priest runs off with one of his parishioners).

Obviously I have a lot of loose ends to tie up! But the important thing is that, for the first time, I was actually able to churn out an entire novel -- roughly 1700 words a day for 30 days! Whether I ever tidy this one up so it's actually readable (which I hope to do, if it's possible) or I never write another one (as if! I can't wait til NEXT November to do it again!) I'm just pleased that I did it, pleased that I stuck with it. And, frankly, it was a LOT of fun watching the characters spring to life and take me to such interesting places.

So now you know why this blog slowed down so much this month -- my writing energies were going elsewhere. And the growing irreverence of my entries is probably a result of hanging out with my irreverent characters -- clearly they were a bad influence on me!

I think I'll stop here and go tackle those loose ends -- I'm sure it's going to take another chapter or two to get everyone stabilized and back on track.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Enlightenment

You may remember this guy from the Tom Hanks movie, Big; he's all about granting wishes, offering all those things we long for on the worldly plane. I mean, just look at him! He's a symbol of wealth, health, power, romance and virility -- and check out the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil dudes at his fingertips. Plus he knows the future; what more could you want?

But my reading for today is this: "You poor are blessed, for the realm of heaven is already yours." What? Heaven isn't off in the future, some place where we have riches and romance and power?

I'm thinking that as long as we're caught up in chasing all of Zoltar's promises we're probably not really appreciating the gifts we have right here, right now. But it's more than that. Pema Chodron, in Comfortable with Uncertainty, tells us that the most promise we have is in the poverty we feel right now; that those places where we feel raw, or empty, or bruised are the openings where the riches pour in.

Our job, she says, is to breathe out the moments of joy that we feel, to send those blessings out into the world to comfort those who do not have what we have at this time. When we breathe in, and feel our poverty, or pain, hunger or loss, we share in the poverty, pain, hunger and loss of others. And somehow, in that space between the breathing out and the breathing in, there is that stillness, the peaceful quiet place of completion, where we know that all we have in that moment is exactly enough.

See how arrested Zoltar looks? I think he's caught in exactly that moment. And that flash/reflection over his head, the one that looks like a lightbulb? By george, I think he's got it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dancing Outside the Boxes

I passed this intriguing image -- a life-size painting installed on the side of a bungalow -- in Ybor City, Florida last week. I'm not sure you can find Ybor City on a map; the little Garmin GPS we had rented for the trip couldn't seem to recognize the name, and she insisted (in her endlessly pleasing little voice) that the address we sought was in Tampa.

But the people of Ybor City -- once the cigar-rolling capital of the United States -- clearly do NOT believe they live in Tampa. The public buildings all proclaim Ybor City, and the docents who give you a tour of the town make it clear that although during the city's heyday they might have been under the jurisdiction of the Tampa police, at the end of the day those police went BACK to Tampa, and the residents of Ybor City were free to follow their own rules.

Which rules, we were told, included a nightly conga line from the Tampa-enforced WHITE Cuban social club to the Tampa- enforced BLACK Cuban social club, where the black cubans were invited to join the dance back to the white club for an all-night dance party. Apparently the Cubans didn't hold with segregation and liked to mix things up a bit.

So here we have one kind of rule -- thou shalt have separate establishments for different colors -- and another sort of rule altogether: thou shalt either wear or be a work of art. It seems clear to me, even though I was actually raised in the south, that the second sort of rule is more godly than the first. Not just because the lady in question bears a strong resemblance to our popular conception of Eve. But also because art is all about creativity -- as is God. And I would claim that the nightly conga line was a deliciously creative solution to a challenging situation.

The Tampa police wanted to put the black Cubans in a box, and in so doing boxed in the white Cubans as well. But neither group thought of themselves as white or black; they thought of themselves as Cuban, and danced right out of those boxes.

I think this may be where religious traditions often fail us: they begin as pointers to God, as reminders of God, but somehow over time they become boxes, and we find ourselves feeling separated from other equally spiritual individuals who are trapped in other boxes. I think those of us with a strong ecumenical bent are like the Cubans -- we are being called by God to dance outside the box, to be art -- signs and symbols of God's infinite creativity, dancing an invitation, seeking ways to reunite the human community.

Which doesn't mean the box is bad; it's okay to go back in there from time to time. We just need to remember that we are one with the folks who are in the other boxes. We need to consciously step outside from time to time and extend that invitation to dance; to think and dream together of what our world could be without these arbitrary restrictions.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Worshipping Through the Lens


We returned late last night from our Thanksgiving adventure, then rose early this morning to find banks of fog rolling in under a full moon. I rose and dressed with every intention of going to church, but found myself stopping frequently along the way to take pictures. I finally gave up and decided to worship through the lens this morning...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Listening to your inner voice

An artist friend called today to say she'd been invited to a critique group but didn't want to go. "I've spent my whole life learning to trust my OWN voice," she said. "Why would I want other people telling me what to do with my art?"

I told her about an article I had read just this morning, in Shutterbug Magazine, about how, if you are a successful photographer, you get more and more people -- agents, editors, gallery owners, art directors, family members, friends -- all telling you what to shoot, what works. But since it's the little voice inside you, telling you what to shoot, that got you to this point, you need to keep listening to that little voice.

I read another article today in another magazine (I'm working through a pile of old ones before we go away for Thanksgiving, saving my books for the plane) that said the biggest difference between unsuccessful and successful people is that successful people fail more, and learn from their failures.

So I told my friend about that article as well -- after all, if you listen to your own voice, you'll probably try a few things that don't work. And she said she'd been reading a book about success that offered a simple formula: E+R=O. Sounds kind of simplistic, I thought, but I waited for her explanation. "It IS simple," she said. "Event plus Response equals Outcome."

Our conversation meandered on a while, and then I got off the phone and took the dog for a walk -- which was hard, because my knee had been bothering me all day. But I realized on the walk that the important thing is not that my knee is bothering me, and therefore life is a drag. That would just be E = O. I forget that there's an opportunity to effect a change in the O with my Response.

I can't make the pain go away. But I can stop thinking I must have done something stupid for it to hurt, or that the rest of my life I'll be in pain, or that it's terrible it's a weekend and I can't see a doctor. I can just stay with the feeling of soreness, maybe take some ibuprofen, and see what I learn about myself, about the world, about pain from paying attention. Maybe there's a message there? That R, my response, is a chance to make a difference.

So then I thought I wanted to blog about it. What would the right photo be? Something, I thought, that I had taken for fun, prompted by the small voice within. And here's what came up.

It's not a great photo, by any stretch of the imagination. It would totally fail a critique. And who but other people who live nearby and see this thing -- Frog Rock, it's called; no surprise there -- every day would realize how funny it is that someone put fangs on the frog for Halloween?

But when I looked at it again, I realized the stop sign almost looks like a mirror. And there seems to be a leaf attached to the post, that's sort of waving at the frog. And somehow the picture becomes very sweet, as if even a scary ugly frog wants a little reassurance. And the mirror senses that and wants to acknowledge the frog's concerns.

I know it's all a little silly. And I didn't see any of those things when I took the picture; they only emerge now when I look at it after the fact. And at the time a voice said "this is just a record shot, it has no use, why are you taking this?"

But maybe even this little "record shot" has a message, and maybe that's why the inner voice encouraged me to take the picture. Maybe it's a way of saying that if you sit with the scary things that come along in life, they become less scary... even, sometimes, endearing. It may take a while -- a long while. Or, like the pain in my knee, once you pay attention, it may just go away. And then you find yourself almost missing it.

But not very much.

And PS: don't you love that this scary old frog has a heart? I didn't even see that when I took the picture.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Breath of Lavender

Last week I left some samples of my work at a gallery up in Edmonds, and a day or two later I heard from the owner, who loved my work but needed to know if any of it had been "in any way digitally enhanced," because the gallery had a rule against showing anything that had been digitally altered.

In response I went through all of the images I had left for her, explaining what had been done with each. Most had been lightened in order for my printer to produce what I saw on the screen; some had been desaturated to black and white because my camera only shoots color; for some I'd applied the equivalent of a digital polarizing filter because I don't have one that fits my digital lens.

I did none of those things for this image, which is probably my favorite of all the boat photos I've taken over the years. But what drew me to take the shot in the first place was the faint purplish tinge on the sides that heralds the imminence of dawn, and that tinge was missing when the photo left the camera and entered my computer.

So I put it back in; just a breath of palest lavender on the right side, right where the sun was beginning to hit.

Is that faint brushing -- or are any of the other techniques I mentioned -- digital alteration? You bet. Do traditional film photographers try similar tricks in the darkroom? You bet. Is this post another entry into the ongoing battle between film and digital aficionadoes?

Nope. No way.

Because whether this is digital or not, or altered or not; whether I get into that gallery or not... these are all questions whose answers might be completely different or even irrelevant in another time and place. I want to ask instead, what are the timeless, eternal questions which arise as a result of this image? What does it say about the journey, about dawn or beginnings, about dusk and endings, about age and beauty, about hope, hard work, or rest; about color and form?

And perhaps most importantly, what does this image say about light? Because this boat, in full daylight, is just a white boat sitting in a gray bay. How is it that at times of transition the colors are so much richer? And why is that color, just the faint wisp of it, so inviting, so... tender?

I'm sure the physics of it could provide a useful answer, but for now I say with John Mayer in his song, Gravity --

Just keep me in the light,
keep me in the light,
keep me in the light.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Here the Light is Mingled with Shadows

This morning I read an excerpt from a Rumi poem, from Light Upon Light, which contained this line: "here the light is mingled with shadows." There is a music and a rhythm to that line that I find very satisfying, but there is, of course, truth as well.

The light in our lives, that light in which we revel, is often mixed with shadows. Most times, I think, the shadows create a pleasing contrast; sometimes they are even alluring. And it certainly seems that shadows can be our surest guarantee that somewhere there must be light.

But at other times the shadows, whether from our own darker sides or from those cast by catastrophic events, can be overwhelming. We get lost in them, and it becomes very difficult to find our way back to the light, or even to remember or believe that it exists.

My friend Karen sent me a wonderful piece about being in this space from a column by Ron Rolheiser (www.ronrolheiser.com):

"When we are in the middle of a storm we shouldn’t pretend that the sun is shining or, indeed, that there is anything we can do to stop the storm. The task is to wait it out, together, hand in hand, offering each the assurance that we aren’t alone.

"Waiting it out is precisely what is required. The Book of Lamentations tells us that there are times and seasons when all you can do is "put your mouth to the dust and wait." That’s bitter, stoic advice, but it imparts real hope rather than false optimism. What it tells us and draws us to is the fact that, right now, for this immediate time, this pain must be borne, however crushing. There is nothing to be done. Consolation will come eventually, but it must be waited for and, in the meantime, we need to keep "vigil". And that is why we call the service before funeral a "vigil". We gather not just to celebrate the deceased life, but to, together, "put our mouths to the dust and wait."

"And that waiting can be very painful, a time when we see everything through the dark prism of our loss and where for awhile we sincerely believe that we will never find joy again. This kind of waiting brings to the surface a frightening kind of loneliness that reveals to us how fragile and vulnerable it all is.

"But that is exactly what we need to accept and process. And so we shouldn’t be afraid to feel afraid, nor despair about feeling despair. Neither negates courage or faith. As Kierkegaard put it, "courage isn’t the absence of despair and fear but the capacity to move ahead in spite of them."

Yesterday I received an email from Charles Radican about my recent post on Qoheleth and his search for wisdom. It was a wonderful response, moving beyond the questions I was asking to some of the deeper questions that arise when we begin to explore the nature of suffering. And Charles shared a poem he had written, about what can happen when we move into that shadow space, "seeing everything through the dark prism of loss." He has kindly given me permission to share his poem with you, which I do here because it serves as an exhilarating reminder of that clear pure celestial light beyond the shadows:

Sometime When you Realize
(by Charles Radican)

Sometime, when you realize
in your deep despair
how used to the stagnant waters
of this normal madness
you have become,
you may descend
into a deeper cellar
and drink from the dangerous liquor
of your own most ancient vintage.

Head bursting from that pure proof,
you must find the heart
to throw the thick log
of whom you thought you were
onto the living flame
that you truly are.

And you will be in wonder
Amid all the escaping light, amid
the scattering embers,
stampeding like wild horses
into the edgeless dark of heaven,

where you may take your place
among the constellations of the gods,
and finally realize
you are on a journey
you have no power to stop.

Monday, November 5, 2007

What goes around...

About three and a half years ago my husband and I went back to New England to celebrate our 20th anniversary. While there, we shared a pancake breakfast with my old friends David and Susan, who live in a beautifully restored white clapboard home in Vermont overlooking one of the prettiest covered bridges in the state.

While in their home, I kept being drawn to this one corner, and finally I got out my camera and photographed it. Something about the light and the emptiness of it appealed to me, and I've kept the photo all these years since, not knowing exactly what to do with it but loving it too much to discard it.

Two days ago while waiting in the ferry line after a long day of driving home from the San Juan's, I got a phone call from my husband asking me to "call this number." I called the number and it turned out to be a cellphone belonging to Elizabeth, the now-29-year-old daughter of my friends David and Susan in Vermont. Elizabeth, who is now a jazz trombonist and vocalist, was in Seattle (she actually lives in NYC now) and was calling to invite me to a concert the next evening at the loft apartment of a friend of hers. And, coincidentally, it would be her 29th birthday party, so we would be served birthday cake after the concert.

Now that our girls are off and away, we can DO exciting things like going to Seattle on the spur of the moment to hear a friend's daughter play jazz, so we did. And just before we left, I thought, I should take her a birthday present.

Well, you can see where this is going, of course: remembering this photograph, I decided to print it off and matt it for her; wrapped it up in birthday paper, and handed it to her at the beginning of the evening. I titled it "Remembrance," and said nothing to explain; she set the wrapped present aside and continued to greet her other guests.

While Chris and I were setting up our chairs, a man reached out his hand to me and said, "Diane?" And to my surprise and joy, it was an old and dear friend who, like Elizabeth's father, had been a bass player in my ex-husband's jazz band, some 30 years ago. I was delighted to see him again after so many years, and even more delighted to be introduced to his lovely wife, Diane, who, as it turns out, would be playing piano for Elizabeth's concert.

Elizabeth sang and played beautifully, some old standards and some new compositions of her own, and one song written by a guitar player friend of hers, to which she had written the words. The words spoke of that moment in a relationship when two begin to consider becoming three, and I thought back to the time when her parents were contemplating that decision -- and she, of course, had been the result.

Elizabeth looks a lot like her mother did at the same age, all those years ago, and I could see her mother in her face and form, but I could also see her mother's gift for mothering: raised by Susan, Elizabeth had grown to be an open, confident and engaging woman with a clear sense of her own gifts and passion and calling, but not in a superior or managing sense, just an acceptance.

Her last song of the evening was Bye, Bye, Blackbird, and after she sang the chorus she played a solo on the trombone, and I could suddenly see her father soloing on trombone on the same tune, all those years ago. So it was a wonderful evening of circles, of re-connecting with the past and seeing the promise of the future.

On the ferry on the way home my cell phone rang again, and it was Elizabeth. She had just opened my present, and was astonished. "When did you take this? she cried, "this is SO COOL!" And I thought, yes, that the evening and I had been able to give a connection to her past just as she and the evening had given me a connection to mine. There is a strong sense of joy now welling up in both of us, expressed by her in her beautiful music, and by me in my photo, and in being able to share this story with you. However far we each have traveled, that connection to joy remains nourishing to us both. And for that, I am most grateful.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Searching for Wisdom

This morning my friend Karen sent me a pointer to another blogger she knows who was asking questions about wisdom. The questions seemed connected, both with the thoughts in my last two blogs about good and evil, and also with my Thomas reading this morning, which suggested that both good and evil flow from within, from the human heart, not from external sources.

The blogger had heard this said about wisdom: "Wisdom made Qoheleth miserable. Why? Because it revealed that so much in life was beyond human repair." And she wondered what our reactions were to that. The comments in response seemed to stay largely in that space, the space where we know there is so much pain and suffering in the world, even for the "good" people, the undeserving ones, and we have to wonder where God's purpose might be in that.

But Karen (wisely) saw that there was more to wisdom than that space. She referred to a chapter in Matthew Fox's book, Original Blessing, entitled "Letting Pain be Pain," and suggested in closing that "I would ask the kindest, most patient people you know…usually, they have suffered, and they have simple, earthy, wisdom. I think it often looks like LOVE."

Which made me think of a couple of the poems I read in Daniel Ladinsky's wonderful book, "Love Poems from God."

The poet Rabia, in a poem called "It Acts Like Love," says this:

"My body is covered with wounds this world made, but I still longed to kiss Him, even when God said, "Could you also kiss the hand that caused each scar, for you will not find me until you do."

And St. Teresa of Avila says this: "Life smooths us, rounds, perfects, as does the river the stone, and there is no place our Beloved is not flowing, though the current's force you may not always like...I loved what I could love until I held Him, for then --all things -- every world disappeared."

To me, what these poems say is that it's really not about the pain and suffering and the brokenness that we experience; it's about seeing beyond that to the love that binds all together. I’ve always thought the scariest and probably most important prayer is “not my will but thine be done.” As a born and bred Presbyterian, I have this innate sense that even if I DO get carried away by my own stuff and ignore God’s will that God’s will is somehow in that as well, but beyond that complexity and confusion is this sense that my job is always to listen for God’s will.

It may well be that I listen out of some vain hope that if I listen God won’t smite me with the various horrors of the world, rather like trying to be humble in hopes of someday being exalted. But I’m hoping that over time it will be more about listening because that’s how I stay in relationship with God. That relationship, in the end, gives me whatever that thing is that helps me keep going. And I don’t name that thing because I think it varies with time and experience, and that only God knows what is needed to put in that place. Sometimes hope, sometimes love, sometimes compassion, sometimes doubt and confusion, sometimes even a deep well of apparently bottomless sorrow. My job is to walk into it, to feel it, to learn what needs to be learned, and to listen for “the still small voice.”

It feels to me that the problem with Qoheleth's search for wisdom is that the search comes out of his desire to be like God; a desire that has gotten us into trouble right from the beginning of human time. In fact I think any time we seek "the knowledge of God's will" we are pretty much going to get into trouble. Because however close we may feel to God at times, however much we may be aware of that spark of God that lies within us, the paradox that lies in the wisdom phrase "there is nothing that is not God" is really that we are not God.

To me, wisdom -- the human variety, that is -- may be more about the humility of that paradox. If I think of the wise people I know, I see that they understand that none of us is protected from or immune to that break in the arm, the car accident, the cancer, the suicide of a child. Dreadful things happen to good people as well as bad, so how do we deal with that?

If wisdom comes from such trauma, perhaps it is a wisdom that says more about compassion and humility than about knowledge. What we learn at such times is that everything we thought we knew may have been wrong; everything we thought was safe was not. In wisdom we watch with tenderness our own desperate efforts to protect our hearts; we watch with compassion as others struggle with great pain; we see at last that we are not alone, that this undercurrent of fear and pain is, in fact, universal.

And then I think of the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, about which I began reading just last night: When we breathe in, we breathe in the sorrows and the pain and the suffering, and feel them, not just our own, but sensing how our own are replicated in so many other lives. Taking that, we drop into the clear well of being that connection to humanity and God can bring, and then we breathe out compassion and tenderness for all whose lives are linked with ours.

So why do I put this photo at the top of this blog? Why do I even take photos like this one? I think it is my attempt to express that clear well of being, to do my part to breathe out compassion, faith, deep water joy into a troubled world. Bahauddin, in The Drowned Book, says this:

"Your conscious being, with what you've been given, should be like a beautifully laid-out park with wildflowers and cultivated wonders, a swift stream with secluded places to sit and rest beside it. When a grieving person sees you, he or she should recognize a refuge, refreshment, a generous house where one need not bring bread and cheese. There will be plenty."

I'm not there yet, as a person. but I think that sometimes my camera may be.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lost in a Masquerade

After finishing yesterday's blog entry I went to see the musical, Jekyll and Hyde. When the show ended, a friend asked what we thought the author meant to convey in this plot. Was it just to point out that everyone has a good side and an evil side, but the evil must be unacknowledged or it will get out of hand? Was it to say that we must all listen to the guidance of our social betters; that society's rules must be followed and that the individual who breaks away from the norm is doomed? Could it be that we need to leave vengeance in the hands of the gods, for when we take it into our own hands it can get addictive and we can get carried away? Or, as the old song says, is it just that "You always hurt the one you love"?

Given that the book was written (by Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1885, it seems safe to assume that most if not all of the above figured heavily in the author's plot decisions. But I found myself thinking again of the pharisee and the tax collector from yesterday's lesson. Surely the bishop in the musical was rather like the pharisee, praying in his arrogance with gratitude that he was pure and good. And surely Jekyll, beset as he was by his awareness of the capacity for evil within him, had that in common with the penitent tax collector.

So what does this story -- however imperfect it may be -- have to say about arrogance, humility and community? There's a song in the musical called "Facade." The song begins:

"There's a face that we wear
In the cold light of day -
It's society's mask,
It's society's way,
And the truth is
That it's all a fa├žade"

and then concludes:

"Man is not one, but two,
He is evil and good,
An' he walks the fine line
We'd all cross if we could!"

Essentially there's a Jekyll and Hyde in each of us, and we may respond to that awareness with the humility of the taxpayer, but are more likely to respond as does the Pharisee: to don the societal mask and play by the rules, loudly proclaiming our innocence. So perhaps the issue here is to discover the difference between society and community.

Perhaps society, that which makes the rules by which we play, is in truth indifferent to the soul within; appearances are everything. But community, at its best, contains within it a grain of intimacy which makes it more difficult to mask the truth. Confronted with the good, the bad, and the ugly in others, within the context of community, we have little choice but to confront the good, the bad, and the ugly within our own hearts. With luck, we can build enough trust in community that we can safely set aside our masks, if only for a moment, to reveal the true self within.

So then the question becomes, what is the nature of the true self within? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it both? Or is it possible that, like the shadow that each of us carries, the "bad self" is only empowered because it is masked; that, once revealed and explored, once opened to the light, it has as much potential for good as the positive aspects we so admire in ourselves? And if that's true, how can we as communities provide a safe space within which the unmasking can take place? I'm not sure I have the answer, but it's certainly something to think about.

On Separation and Community

As humans we are both defined and cursed by our sense of separateness. There is that longing to be special, to be different, and at the same time the longing to be part of something larger than ourselves.

One common way we balance the two is to become part of a group or community that has its own specialness, so that we take on that identity for ourselves. But then, even within the group, there is the posturing, the competition, the clamor for key roles; the building of alliances and opposition, the temptation to divide, and then to align -- and to malign. We expect this in political situations, but in church, we long to be freed from that, and it can be disheartening to see the separation and alienation, the divisions that can thrive even in that holy space.

In church this morning we heard the story of the two men praying in church: the tax collector praying for forgiveness, and the Pharisee voicing his gratitude that he is NOT like the tax collector. The conclusion of the passage is that the humble shall be exalted and the exalted shall be humbled.

It would be easy to stop there, to just point out the virtues of humility; end of sermon. I love that instead of taking the easy way out Bill, our preacher, didn't rest there but pointed out that this could end up being a false humility, assumed purely in hope of someday being exalted. What if, instead of being careful just "not to pray like the Pharisee," instead of declaring the Pharisee's arrogance bad and the tax-collector's self-flagellation good, we stepped back and saw that the humbling is in accepting both as part of a community.

To be a part of a community can bring its own gift of humility. It can be humbling to serve others, to know their stories, to worship beside them. Humbling, too, I think, to know that we have both the pharisee and the tax collector clamoring inside us -- and easier to spot them within when we are part of a community, with all the opportunities community can present to showcase our individual gifts and flaws.

Worshipping in the round as we do in this particular church, it's impossible to think that church is just something that happens between me and God, or maybe between me and Bill and God: we can't NOT see that there are other people in the room, and then, again, the clamoring, the posturing, the competing begins -- all the voices in our heads that drown out the gospel words with petty observations about who's wearing what, who looks tired, whose handshake is stronger or weaker, whose voice is more on pitch. It's embarrassing, it's awkward, it's... yes, humbling.

It's one thing, to sit in meditation, observing your own flaws, letting go of the thoughts and self-condemnation, broadening the circle of compassion by learning to love your own imperfect self. But that is only one step on the journey. I am reminded of a musician who determined that because he was a better saxophonist and a better pianist than anyone he knew, and because with modern technology he could develop his own bass lines and drum patterns, he should therefore rent a music studio for a week and make a fabulous recording all by himself.

But at the end of the week he had nothing to show for his time. What my friend learned in that week alone was that he needed the other musicians -- however imperfect they might be. He needed to play off of their riffs, to interact, to hear other responses; he realized that the sum of the whole could be, in fact, much greater than the parts. Or, as a priest friend once said, a coal cannot burn alone, it needs other coals to make a fire.

Lynn Bauman puts this another way. "Typically we dislike ambiguity, and move as quickly as possible toward some resolution that aligns us with an either/or position where one side is accepted and its opposite rejected....We need instead to learn to live in a state of both/and where we feel the ambiguous nature which constitutes much of reality because it includes what appears to be contradictions that must be held together in tension."

And then Bauman challenges his reader. "As you live through your day, note your tendency to privilege one side over the other... can you experience both with equanimity? See what happens when you hold them together."

Before leaving for church this morning I read a quote from Rabbi Rami Shapiro: "If God were "other than," there would be a place where God was not. God could not be infinite if God did not include you. God includes all. Nothing is "other than" to God. Nothing is outside of God."

God is not just that to which we pray. God is not just that spark of goodness within, the bodhichitta. God is all of us, the tax collectors and the priests, the Pharisees and the children, the presidents and the janitors, the hungry, the wealthy, the celebrity and the barista. There is nothing, there is no one, in us or outside of us, that is not God. And the best way to grasp that may be to hold all those parts of us and the world together in community.

Compassion, then, must be more than just accepting or being sympathetic with the flaws and challenges we or others face. Because that still implies a separation. True compassion must be an understanding that goes to and flows from our very core, an understanding that we all truly are one, that we need one another, that each is part of the whole, that the fire is richer for each of its coals, the melody enriched by the counterpoint and harmonies; that whatever passion we may have as individuals is in fact empowered, multiplied and enflamed by the collection of community.

So then the question becomes: where do you belong? Where do I belong? And how long will it take for us to understand that the fence that divides and separates us from that for which we long is of our own construction?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Diving into Art

Yesterday I had a bit of time between appointments, so I stopped by the Gallery to see how the current exhibit was doing. The staff were arranging some lovely glass bowls in a cupboard, sorting them by color, and the result was so pleasing that when I walked in they asked me to photograph it.

My camera does not do particularly well in interiors, so the photos I took were somewhat less than pleasing, and certainly not as appealing as the rows of colored glass bowls. But it's rare that I get to be in a gallery -- any gallery -- with permission to use my camera, so I began wandering around, looking to see if there were other photographs in the making.

The gallery is a lovely place: the creativity and rich colors of the displays and the merchandise, the careful attention paid to reflections and groupings are most satisfying to the eye, so it was a pleasure to look at everything from the photographer's perspective rather than the artist or shopper's perspective.

The image that most determinedly caught my eye was this one, shot in the corner of the exhibit room. I love that the colors of glass reflect the colors of the artworks above (the left of which is one of my pieces). But what I really love is the swimmer, poised as if to dive into the watery realms of the paintings above.

Even more intriguing to me are the shadows she casts upon the wall behind her. From this perspective the swimmer herself looks exultant, rather like a gymnast who has just executed a particularly succesful landing; it is the shadow that conveys the sense of preparation before a dive. But both the swimmer and her shadow have an openness, an acceptance, a radiant willingness to receive what the world has to offer that I find both charming and challenging. And, given that her physique is not unlike my own, I am doubly curious about what she might be saying to me.

But rather than list here the conclusions I could draw, it seems more important to let this photograph speak its own language to other viewers. The challenge of being both a writer and a photographer is that I am tempted too often to explain and to verbalize. But most of the people who wanted copies of those meditations I was doing all last year wanted copies of the photographs WITHOUT the words: the photographs spoke loudly enough to them that the words became extraneous, a distraction.

Having been a writer most of my life and a photographer for only 11 years, it's hard sometimes for me to step aside and have the confidence to let the photos speak for themselves. And it's hard sometimes to give myself permission to do that: is there something that NEEDS to be said here? Is it my responsibility to say it? It's rather like being a parent -- when do we control, and when is it important to back off and let our children discover for themselves?

So there. Without telling you what I learn from this photo, I can nonetheless explore the questions that it raises. For you there may be different questions, and vastly different answers. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Deep Water Joy

Years ago, when we first moved to the San Juans, we rented a tiny cabin on the south side of our island. The cabin sat on a low cliff overlooking a rocky beach filled with intriguing driftwood and endless tidepools, and that summer our kids had a glorious time chasing crabs and fish and building driftwood forts.

But at some point near the end of that summer our lovely beach became littered and slippery with seaweed, particularly giant bull kelp, which made walking tricky. So I wrote to my landlord and asked if we were supposed to do something about the kelp, thinking that perhaps our beach had been clean because he made it so, and we were responsible for keeping it up. And I remember he wrote back and said that no, it was not our responsibility, it was just a part of the cycle of seasons. "The tide giveth," he said, "and the tide taketh away."

I remember being struck by the biblical quality of his response, because he was not, to my knowledge, a religious person. But I now understand that when you live close to nature you come to have an almost religious understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Close to nature, or dependent upon nature, you learn that much of life is indeed out of your control, and that it falls to you to make the best of what you've been given for the moment. So instead of being put to work clearing the beach, our children learned to stretch the bull kelp out on rocks to dry. From its dried bulbous tips made they made doll heads and flutes, and from its long broad tails wove all number of baskets and dreams.

Now we live on a different island, at the tip of a sandspit that curves around to almost touch land again, and through the narrow channel that separates us from the rest of our island there are tides that flow twice daily, creating a shallow lagoon. The bank above the lagoon on the island side is a bit fragile, and about two months ago, one of the dead trees on the bank lost its hold in the clay soil and tumbled into the water.

When the tide rose, the tree floated out of the lagoon but stuck in the sand a little way from the entrance. A day or two later, I saw some people pushing it out into the tide again, but this time it floated across onto our beach and lodged itself again.

It's not very attractive there, the tree that now lives on our beach. But it doesn't seem inclined to float away either. And sometimes I think that when the next high tide comes we should put on our hip boots and push the tree out to sea again, to lodge somewhere else.

But the truth is a mix of these things: that we are too lazy to do that; that at least on our beach the tree is safe, and will not become a submerged deadhead, jeopardizing small boats that drift into its path; and that there is a part of me that remembers my landlord's phrase, that the tide giveth and the tide taketh away. I choose to believe that when it is time for our tree visitor to leave, it will go.

And in the meantime? When the tide is out the birds frolic in its exposed branches, and the gulls drop shells on its hard trunk, to break them open and expose the tasty clams within. When the tide is in that trunk becomes a host to hundreds of barnacles, which are slowly turning the brown trunk gray.

And when the sun is out and the tide is in, our fallen tree adds texture to our view. And for that, I am grateful, a gratefulness that flows as much out of the beauty the tree allows me to photograph as out of my own happiness at being given permission to be lazy. This gratitude flows from somewhere deep inside me, and enriches my heart like joy; a deep water joy, or, as Raficq Abdulla describes it in Words of Paradise, "that subterranean flow of joy that runs like a laughing torrent in you."

Friday, October 19, 2007

I am a drop in the ocean of now

My last post was written (as usual) in my office, which is in my husband's closet. But this time he was there, as well, getting ready to leave for work, asking questions and engaging in casual chatter. When I went back later in the day to look at the post, I realized that in one paragraph (and I remember it was the one I was trying to write while he was in and out of the closet) I must have used the word "this" about 7 times.

Why all the "this's"? I suspect I was trying to draw my own attention back to the subject at hand; an effort, however subconscious at the time, to regain control of the situation. The sad thing is that when I posted the blog I was completely unaware of this flaw; it wasn't until later, looking at the post from outside the situation, that I noticed the problem.

Thinking about all that this morning, I remembered that when I told a friend about the subject of that post, she immediately asked if it was about letting go of control. And I realized the word control hadn't even entered the post. But certainly the ACT of control did -- you can tell from all those this's. I didn't know I was doing that, but it was perfectly clear from the outside.

Which I think is how control issues OFTEN work. We spend much of our lives trying to control our situations, maintain security or status quo, keep our own agendas running. And we think we're being totally subtle about that, because we're so caught up in it. But from the outside it can often be painfully obvious; in fact, in those rare moments when we CAN step outside ourselves, we, too, can see those pitiful efforts at control, and it can be downright embarrassing.

Which brings me back to something I read a day or two ago in Pema Chodron's "Comfortable With Uncertainty." She claims that meditation gives us an opportunity to do just that: to step outside ourselves and watch the thoughts roll in. Pleasant or unpleasant, embarrassing or foolish, the thoughts keep arising. If we can learn to just watch them and let them go; if we can be compassionate with our own embarrassing foolishness, that in turn enhances our ability to be compassionate with the embarrassing foolishness of others.

As I sat in my chair, pondering this, I realized at the same time that much of my meditation practice up to this point has been centered in some point OUTSIDE my self. Everytime I let a thought go, I would re-focus, but not inward, rather, I would move my attention back to some invisible horizon -- I suspect it has been a way of ensuring I would not get too caught up in my own "stuff". But what if, instead, I returned to my OWN center (somewhere in the region of my heart, not my head)? (and why is it that I am SO SLOW in figuring these things out?) (Ah, Little Cricket, another opportunity to practice compassion on yourself).

For the remainder of my practice today I chose to return to my own center -- wherever that might be, without trying to visualize it or project anything onto it -- and I realized that a lot of my earlier struggles trying to integrate the horizontal and vertical axes were considerably eased. And once the compassionate gaze could rest tenderly upon my own center, the waves of tenderness and compassion could radiate outward to all of creation as naturally and peacefully as the ripples radiate out from a drop in water.

Ah, I see: I am a drop in the ocean of now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Listening for the Light


I have been in the habit for several months now of starting my day with a cup of coffee and a reading from Lynn Bauman's study guide to The Gospel of Thomas, called "In Trouble and in Wonder." Many of Jesus' sayings in Thomas are familiar, having been recorded elsewhere in the Bible, and today's was no exception -- it was the passage about not hiding your light under a bushel. But it was also about proclaiming what you hear; listening with your inner ear and sharing that wisdom out in the world.

So I began to think about what it might mean to listen for the light. And I realized that the only time I can claim to do that with any consistency is when I am out with my camera. So this weekend, for example, we were visiting my favorite little island, and I rose early, had my coffee, read my Thomas, and set off with my camera.

When I left the house I had planned to go a familiar route (it's a small island, and there are only so many directions you can go) but as I came down the hill to the intersection where I had intended to turn right, I encountered the wonderful fog you see pictured here. So, at the bottom of the hill, on a hunch, I turned left instead of right. I hadn't been on this particular road for several years, and part of me kept wanting to turn back to more familiar turf, but it felt like I should continue moving forward, so I did, and eventually I came to a beach I had forgotten even existed. I got some wonderful photographs, but for some reason the blogger software isn't letting me add any of them, so I guess I'll shift gears and write instead about what it might mean to listen for the light on a daily basis.

Hmm. So hard, sometimes, to change course in midstream. But of course, that's what this is about: if we pay attention to those inner promptings, it often means we'll be invited to stray from our well-worn thought paths. The loudest example of this in my life right now is still a discovery we made almost a year ago that one of our daughters has Irlen Syndrome. In her case this manifests as a simple reading disability which can be cured by wearing colored glasses. But I should add that she was a senior in high school, taking AP English, when we discovered the problem.

And all I could think was, how did we miss the signs? Why didn't we ever LISTEN when she said reading made her tired, or gave her headaches? How is it that we just assumed that she was just "not a reader," instead of investigating that, instead of wondering why, in a family full of avid readers, there was one child who was different? And why did it take me over a year, after learning of the existence of this syndrome, to realize that it might apply to my own daughter? What might her school experience have been like if we had discovered this, say, six years earlier?

I think this is another instance where mindfulness would be a key. It's so easy to make assumptions and generalizations; as my mathematician husband would say, "to reduce it to a previously solved problem." For the most part, we go about our days more caught up in the workings of our minds than in the promptings of the moment. Certainly as parents, especially when our children are little, it becomes almost habitual to ignore what are often highly repetitive phrases and actions. But occasionally, if we are lucky, the light breaks through in spite of it all.

I am thinking now of a week I spent, almost 2 years ago now, meditating on an island up in British Columbia, under the tutelage of Cynthia Bourgeault. I had had a rough year, I was struggling to get my meditation practice back off the ground, and the eight hours a day of sitting in contemplation were mostly occupied with frustration.

And I remember so clearly: there was a woman in the room who had a chronic cough -- I just assumed it was some sort of low-level cold -- and on Thursday morning she coughed rather abruptly as we were meditating, and the sound somehow propelled me out of my self-flagellation and frustration and into a deeper space filled with color and light. It was incredible, the first time in years that I had been able to experience that "deep-water joy" that meditation can bring.

At the end of the week we went around the room, talking about what the week had been like for us, and she moved us all by explaining that she had Cystic Fibrosis, and that coming to the retreat had been a total act of faith for her, because she had not known if she could handle it. She then apologized for her constant cough, which is apparently a side-effect of the disease. So then, of course, I shared the impact of that cough on my own practice: it served as a sort of jump-start that has kept my meditative motor running ever since.

Which is all to say just this: that we need to listen, to pay attention, to be in the moment, to step out of our egoic preoccupations and into the light. Because, if we take that chance or make that choice, there may be amazing, even life-changing insights and surprises just waiting for us. Like this beach, that picture I promised, which the blogger is finally allowing me to load!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Drinking in the moment



Poised,
sipping at the lip of Now,
I am suddenly awash
in the sweet liquid fire of Eternity.
Today I thirst for the brown groundedness of the earth
and drink
the luscious blueberry sky;


my aching shoulders quenched by the flood of leafy green,
my heart is set alight with Sumac flame.

Emptying myself,
I welcome You:
Pour into me and over me;
Drench me in your sacred color.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mindfulness and the Via Media


I have spent much of my time this past week processing photographs -- naming and filing the best ones, tossing the bad ones. But there's another step in there that I don't talk about very much, because, for photographers, there's a little bit of shame around that step.

This particular step, the one I realized in meditation this morning that I have been ashamed to talk about, is Photoshopping: taking a weak photo and making it better. Why is there shame around this issue? In my particular case, the shame is this: I bought a new camera back in January, and I cannot seem to get it to handle light as gracefully as my former camera did. I have played with any number of settings, but cannot achieve the balance of light and color that my old camera did almost automatically.

So why is this shameful? Because there is a sense among photographers that we should KNOW our equipment; that we should be able to manipulate all the variables available to us -- focus, aperture, exposure, ASA, etc. -- to produce a uniquely individual image that expresses our particular vision of the world. But I am not what is known in the trade as an equipment jock: I tend to stick to one camera and one lens; for me photography is about composition, what I see through the viewfinder and its relation to the world around me. In the Tao of photography, we are "supposed" to strike a balance between the feminine side of photography -- capturing what we see in response to some inner muse -- and the masculine side: manipulating the event and the equipment to CREATE an image. Clearly I tend to err on the feminine side of this equation.


Which is not to say I don't manipulate. But I do my manipulating in Photoshop. What I realized this morning is that what I do in Photoshop is not unlike what I do in meditation: I look for the point of interest, the object or subject that was capturing me at the time I popped the shutter, and I attempt to throw light on it. And, because my camera hasn't been doing a good job of this, I have to be much more conscious about the process.

What this means is that I take an image like this one and, using Photoshop, I work to achieve a more even balance between the light and the dark, so that the point of interest may be more exposed, and so that the other elements of the photo also have a chance to shine. Because if each element does its part in a balanced manner, the image will have the impact that the composition deserves. The data that emerges is already in the image, but for whatever reason the initial capture was out of balance. The result of my labors is the image that appears at the top of this post.

What does this have to do with mindfulness and the Via Media? Hmm. I think it may take SEVERAL blogs to answer that question. But the short answer is this: that mindfulness is the act of drawing attention to the present moment, while at the same time being aware of all that is happening around the focus of that moment. Mindfulness is being aware of the possibilities in the moment as well as its situation and context. Which is what happens in the Photoshopping process: I am going back into the photographic moment and drawing attention to the subject of my photo, while at the same time, by evening out the balance of light and color, attempting to give weight to what is going on around the photo. And my particular approach to that is very like my approach to faith, and politics, and life in general: an emphasis on the Via Media, the Middle Way. Or, another way to say that, everything in moderation, everything in balance. In politics, in faith, and in photography, I approach the subject with an egalitarian willingness to consider that, on some plane, every point may have value. I try -- though I do not always succeed -- to approach human beings the same way. As Einstein says, "Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized."

Which, I realize as I look out the window and see that the morning fog has rolled in, is probably why, as a photographer, I am so much more pleased with my work when shooting here in the Northwest. The diffuse light created by gray skies and fog makes it easier for me and my camera to achieve a balance of light and color. In New England, as in Venice, it was those glorious bright sunny days that made it so difficult to achieve the balance I seek.

For some reason that makes me think of a quote I read just this morning from Bahauddin's The Drowned Book: "Grief is better than happiness, because in grief a person draws close to God. Your wings open. A tent is set up in the desert where God can visit you." Perhaps grief, like gray skies, fog and rain, draws a blanket of gray over our vision, like one of those neutralizing filters we photographers are supposed to use on bright sunny days. And somehow leveling life out that way, even though it makes life or images feel flat, allows what is really important to shine through; raises our conscious awareness of the totality of each moment, of all the factors that contribute to who we are and what we see and feel. And it may be that that openness to the possibility of the moment is the ingredient most likely to fuel growth and change.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's all a Mystery

I was back in New England last week, visiting my daughter's college and staying with several dear friends. It's funny, when you live somewhere for a long time you grow attached to certain types of vegetation. I know that when I left the San Juan Islands the Madrona trees brought tears to my eyes. And when I left New England one of the things I missed the most were the Paniculata Grandiflora hydrangea trees. Out here hydrangeas are bushes at best, but in New England the stately Paniculata Grandiflora has the graceful shape of a fruit tree, and in the fall its conical clumps of flowers turn a lovely rosy pink. You can cut the flowers off and preserve the pink (I learned this in college) simply by placing the stem in a soda bottle full of sugar water.

So when I drove to the graveyard beside our old home in Vermont, I was delighted to see that someone had planted a hydrangea tree near a patch of graves, and I photographed it in all its fall glory. It wasn't until I got home that I saw the name on the grave beside it. The grave says, simply, CHILD.

Now you need to know that there is a beautiful pond across the street from the graveyard, known as Child's Pond (here's what it looked like that lovely New England morning).

... and there are numerous members of the Child family buried in this graveyard, some dating back to the 1600's. But there is something about this gravestone that speaks to me of the one loss that seems most difficult to bear; the one hole that seems darkest and most impossible to fill: the loss of a child. As I said in my very first post, this blog is dedicated to a child who was lost. And Katie is not the only child whose loss has touched me deeply; there was also my daughter's dear friend Garth, who died six years ago this past summer.

So here again the mystery emerges: how did I not notice the grave? How is it that photographing one thing I miss brings to mind others that I miss much more? How is it that this photograph is so closely tied to the holes I showed earlier? And how is it that in a world where children are dying every day we who are left behind still dare to hope and believe? I guess that's all part of the mystery.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A River Runs Through It


I could be the rocks,
glowing red in the morning light,
so shiny,
so still;
resisting the water's pull,
time's patient erosion.

I could be the water,
so blue,
so clear,
relentless, like sand,
like sands through the hour glass
rush to completion.

Somewhere a salmon
is swimming upstream
battered and buffeted,
driven by destiny.


But I, like the cedar flakes,
could cling to the sidelines
content to watch and slowly decay.

And you:
who are you?
Where are you in this photograph?
Are you the sun?
Or the wind?
Or the sky?
Are you stillness or movement,
Atom, or molecule?
Under a rock,
or up on the bridge,
driving to work with no thought of the river,
no thought of the salmon,
no thought of her children
bubbling by.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Those Black Holes


So often we see holes as imperfections, signs of failure to care for what we have been given; signs of infestation, or of weakness; harbingers of death and loss to come.

But what if, instead of looking at the holes as a kind of sieve, a sign that the goodness of life is leaking out, we saw them instead as an opportunity for God to break through? We work so hard to keep things perfect, secure; struggling constantly to shore up flagging energy, to patch the walls around our hearts, to hold the world at bay. But often it is at the moments when we realize our work has been for naught -- that exercise cannot stop the aging process, that giving a child every opportunity to succeed does not guarantee success, that carefully regulated diet will not always keep disease at bay -- that our lives may be flooded with a surprising richness.

I heard today that a former actor friend has discovered he is HIV-positive. And the woman who wrote to tell me this had the following observation:

"It seems to be the best thing that could have happened to him. He is getting assistance with health care and can get free counseling. He was as happy as I had ever seen him. Dare I say, almost grounded."

Which is not to say that the holey moments in life are not difficult or even dangerous; no one could deny the fear and sorrow, the enormous potential for loss that arises in these situations. But sometimes it is at those very moments when we face into the darkness that the rich light and color of our lives is most dramatically thrown into relief. And it is the act of facing into the darkness that is itself so often the bearer of that light.

I read a wonderful quotation this morning from Pema Chodron's book, Comfortable with Uncertainty. She says:

"The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day? For those of us with a hunger to know the truth, painful emotions are like flags going up to say, "You're stuck!"... When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we're about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation."

Sure, we can paper over the holes in our lives. But what if we don't? What if we allow them to show; what if we accept them, even peer into them? And if I stand before you, exposed, allowing my own weakness to show, both to my mirror and your eyes, could it not be that both our lives might be enriched? And with luck, in that last glowing moment before all fades and turns to dust, we will see clearly the soft green promise of the spring that is to come.