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.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

From a distance...


Bizarre. I am working on my friend Dave's (unfamiliar to me) laptop, and I have just erased the first paragraph of this post -- which was all about a discussion he and I had in which both of us were observing how we knew before the Iraq war that the war would not be a good idea, even though neither of us is particularly political or remotely involved in the government.

I know. Way more political than I tend to get, or intend this blog to get. But it's important because it is the context for the choice of this photograph. The important question is, how can we who are so removed from this situation, see it so clearly, when those who are in it and SHOULD be more in touch with it can be so deluded? It was with that as the last open question in the conversation that Dave left to take his shower and left me here in his beautiful kitchen in New England, surrounded by red barns, slowly turning trees, and a Maxfield Parrish sky, to look for a photograph that would speak to me today.

So I went poking around on my website (there's no obvious way I can load in the photos I took this morning) to see what spoke to me and this image emerged. And I think it struck me because I photographed a photographer. Like Powell and Cheney and Bush and Rove and all those poor misguided congressmen and senators, he is IN THE PICTURE. And because, like them, he has his own agenda, a particular photograph HE is trying to get (and I can imagine, from my perspective, that it might be a photograph in which his own reflection is possibly emerging from the mouth of that giant face behind him), he does not see that I can see the whole picture; I can see that he is photographing. I can't actually KNOW what he is photographing, but I can see THAT he is photographing. We can't actually know WHAT all those pro-war agendas were, but we can see that they had agendas.

So it seems that to see clearly the issues and challenges in our lives, we need to get a little distance -- a truism, of course, but easy to forget as we become immersed in our day-to-day struggles, battles, challenges etc. I think, for me, that this is the gift meditation provides: an opportunity to step outside my box, however briefly; an opportunity to feel more connection and compassion for all the players in life's drama; an opportunity to listen for the blessings and messages, the sub-texts and the dreams that are being played out on the tiny piece of stage that I can see.

But even then, once removed, as my camera is from this picture, like the photographer in the picture I still only see what _I_ can see, or, in this case, what my camera can see. There is no sign of the woman sleeping on the bench off to the right, or the baby splashing contentedly behind me, carefully watched by its mother, or of the taxi down the street that turned the corner too quickly and crashed into the limosine, killing its occupants, or of the young boy holding a rifle thousands of miles away, preparing to kill -- what? an animal? an enemy?

Dave is out of his shower now, and holding a phone meeting in the next room; the occasional faint hum of his voice blends with the hum of the refrigerator, the tick of his clock, the bird song in the garden, and the gentle wheeze of his old dog Dolma as she grumbles in her sleep. These are the only sounds I hear right now, except for the click of these computer keys as I type. I am in this moment, as this photographer is in his moment, as you are in your moment, and yet we are all connected. It takes a bit of distance to see that, and those of us in the picture must choose to make that leap, to step out of our own agendas and see the impact and the connections from whatever distance we can achieve.

So what strikes me is this: how is it that living in the moment can be both so infinite and so clarifying, and at the same time so narrow and stultifying? How is it that the absolute mystery of life can be so beautifully revealed by living fully in the moment -- who knows what incredible and inspired image came from this photographer's concentrated look at the reflections below his feet? And yet, at the same time, how can it be that by being so focused on what is happening in our own particular moments we can completely miss the significance of everything going on around us?

Another mystery to explore, I guess. Perhaps Dave and I will discuss this when he gets off the phone, and then another blog will emerge!