Saturday, May 31, 2008

Therein lies peace

For the last couple of months I have been living in a construction zone, so much of my time has been spent coping, planning, organizing, cleaning, and waiting. I had known it was coming, so I prepared myself as best I could for the challenges -- and the loss of control of my time and my life -- so it hasn't been as stressful as it might have been.

But of course you can't prepare for or anticipate everything, and there have been a few surprises along the way, some less pleasant than others. And while I knew that there would be blessings at the end of the journey, it hadn't occurred to me that there might be blessings along the way.

Perhaps the most significant of those blessings has been the opportunity to connect with my younger self, and to discover in so doing that, for all the external changes and complexities of aging, the core self and the path it seems to travel have stayed very much constant. As letters to and from old friends emerge, along with notes from workshops taken, test results from a variety of circumstances, and a treasure trove of poems written in my twenties, I see that who I am has remained very much the same.

Take, for example, this poem, written for a college poetry class:

I beg the treatise of this hallowed day

The peace I seek is not of man,
of man's decision not to war,
It is of God, when wandering
beyond the trees the silence grows
into a forest of unanswered questions.

I seek the subtle life wherein
the smile is treasured. Barefoot men
and women walk the beach alone,
together -- how very little difference there...

Intruding on the silence of a fallen tear
Life should be heard and seen and felt
in mud between the toes, and sand,
and hummings as the earth goes round.

Softly cultured,
the wind bows gracefully
and goes.

Clearly then, as now, I was engaged in exploration: what does peace look like? What happens when we strip away attachments, consider the moment; allow the vicissitudes of life and value to pass through like a breeze?

And if I am still on that exploratory path, what has changed? With the advent of the digital camera and Photoshop, I see that more often than not the path takes me into an image, and that my words, which I have always carried with me like a suitcase of tools, now have a visual counterpart to help dissect the mysteries.

What does peace look like? It differs from moment to moment, but the essence, always shifting, lies hidden like a treasured pearl beneath the surface of each moment -- in the planning, in the organizing, in the coping and the waiting, in the cleaning, in the hoping, in the faces of the workers, in the water overflowing, in the dust and in the drawers. All it needs is our attention. Notice the now; therein lies peace.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Nectar for the mind

Today the only peace I have to offer lies in this photograph.

Too many things are calling at me:
the cat, crying to come into my office;
the dog, stumbling blindly across the deck;
the dishes piled upon the kitchen counter,
stacks of paper everywhere.

Time to put away the weedwhacker and its cord,
the bucket and the hose, the laundry;
Time to fix the broken lightswitch
til the electrician comes;
Time to box up all unwanted clothes,
and break down all unwanted boxes.

I'm glad I stopped, if only for a moment,
and took the time to breathe.
Breathe in for all the ones who cannot take the time;
Breathe out this feast of color;
Nectar for the mind.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sunshine of Your Love

When I was arranging our flight to Taiwan, to visit our daughter over Christmas break last year, the flight that worked the best for us left from the Vancouver BC airport. So on Christmas morning we loaded up the car and drove north through intermittent snow, allowing plenty of time in case the weather got worse.

We had, as a result, plenty of time to wander the Vancouver Airport, which is definitely the most beautiful airport I've ever visited. The image you see here is actually an enormous work made of glass (or possibly plexiglas) strips that hang down from the ceiling at the head of a small stream that runs through part of the airport, and though I've never been that much of a fan of native art I was fascinated by it.

This morning I was reintroduced to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet I last encountered in college as an English major some 38 years ago, and my response to his rich lyricism today was very like my response to this multi-story glass sculpture. I realize now that I must have loved Hopkins' poetry as an undergraduate because the lines, read again after all these years, take me back to that time in my life with the same immediacy of music from that era, though I'm not sure it's any compliment to Hopkins to be declared to be in a class with Cream, The Temptations, and The Band!

But I read "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" and I could feel my heart begin to sing along, my soul to tap its fingers. By the time I got to the line "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things" I could feel my whole spirit resonating like a tuning fork.

So I came to my computer to seek an image that would convey that deep down freshness, and realized that this particular line of poetry perfectly describes what it is I seem to photograph most, and what it is that feeds me about photography. There were literally hundreds of images depicting "the freshness deep down" that I could have placed at the top of this page, each of them alluring in its own way.

But I chose this one, because, while so many of my photographs hint at that which lies beneath, to me this image NAMES that deep down freshness that lies at the heart of things. To me this incredible work of art speaks definitively of God, source of that richness that wells up from within. It is as if you took the sun and placed it at the root of all being, so that its light and energy radiate up and out through everything.

I'm not sure what Hopkins meant by the word charged: at the time he was writing electricity had not yet been invented. But to me, now, thinking of that pure fresh energy that flows through us when we tap into the Source, it seems that the world is indeed "charged with the grandeur of God."

Could it be that same grandeur fueled Cream's greatest hit from that era? It was called, after all, "The Sunshine of Your Love."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The hope of loving

I looked up from my reading this morning to see two deer leaping about on our beach. They appeared to be sampling every different type of weed and grass we had to offer, and they were obviously not finding what they were looking for.

Though they appeared to have come from the beach next door, I couldn't imagine them traveling the length of the sandspit looking for food; having seen them on the beach across the water only a day or two earlier, I suspect they swam over to check out the food possibilities and would soon be swimming back in disappointment. The sand which passes for soil over here is hardly capable of supporting the sort of rich diet they need.

Luckily for them, the opposite shore with its dense collection of gardens, salal, clover and fir trees is an easy walk at low tide. But for the rest of us who occasionally find ourselves in environments which cannot feed us, the escape to a less hostile environment and safety is not always so easy. If the channel is deep and fast, or we have to cross a long arduous desert, there's always the temptation to stay put, to subsist on what crumbs we can gather and try to ignore the fact that our souls are shriveling for lack of nourishment.

Meister Eckhart has a lovely poem about that space.
It's called "The Hope of Loving":

What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?
I think it is the hope of loving
or being loved.

I heard a fable once about the sun going on a journey
to find its source, and how the moon wept
without her lover's
warm gaze.

We weep when light does not reach our hearts.
We wither like fields if someone close
does not rain their kindness
upon us.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Plumbing the depths of the sacred

"As the heart opens and the mind clears," writes Roger Walsh in Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, "we see further and further into the boundless depths of the mind."

When we begin to plumb the depths of the sacred, there is a sense of transparency that arises. Things we thought were obvious become less clear; the boundaries between finite and infinite, right and wrong, "them" and "us" and grow less distinct.

It's a bit like looking at this photograph: Where and what is real? On what safe, incontrovertible ground can we actually stand? Is it the grasses, rooted in the sand below, waving gently as the wind stirs the water? Is it the water itself, whose surface, ruffled by the summer breeze, adds texture to what we see?

Is it the boat above, which remains unseen, or could it be the reflection of the boat, its colors enriched and intensified by the light above shining through to the grasses below; that reflection which could disappear the moment a hand disturbs the water?

Is the pole part of the boat? Are they connected? Or is it only the piling to which the boat is tied? Is it just proximity that creates this ephemeral illusion of connection?

If recollection serves, this photograph was shot almost 11 years ago, when I was still living on Shaw Island. The boat belongs to the husband of a dear friend who is now struggling with cancer, and the image continues, despite all the photographs I've shot since then, to be one of my enduring favorites. But I don't believe I've ever actually been able to sell it. I remember framing it in white wood, then seeing it displayed on the floor by the door of the gallery, where it was accidentally kicked a time or two; the scuffs permanently marring the purity of the frame.

Which probably means that the ambiguity of the image -- that confusion, illusion and transparency which for me adds to its appeal -- is not as satisfying to the buying public, which responds more readily to the concreteness of the image below. For many of us the questions that arise in the course of exploration become uncomfortable. As Dostoevsky says in his Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, mankind is more interested in having a crust of bread and someone to worship than in the pure joy of freedom that is Christ's most definitive offer.

The problem, I suspect, lies in the unfathomable distance that looms between the comfortable plane of reality and the peace that rests at the center of things. Like the Israelites, we find the journey across the liminal desert that lies between now and destiny to be interminably long and terrifying. When surface becomes permeable, when storms bring waves of anxiety, when we begin to detect the illusory nature of existence, to question that which once we took for granted, things can get very uncomfortable.

I am grateful now, for all the friends, writers, mystics, sages and spiritual advisors along the way and through the centuries, who continue to invite me to explore the spiritual deep, and who reach out and take my hand when I, like Peter, having stepped out of my safe and comfortable boat, lose faith, and begin to sink. With their help, each time I step out, I go a little further, become a little more comfortable with ambiguity, and come a little closer to the deepest peace, that serene calm that wells up from the Source in which all the levels come to rest.

Monday, May 26, 2008

That'll be the gate, it will...

Yesterday marked the last -- and quite possibly the best -- performance of The Secret Garden, and several of us were in tears as we sang "Come to the Garden" for the last time.

It's not just that the play is over, that the delicate web of community and relationships that gets woven during a play will no longer be as carefully tended, and will begin to disintegrate. For me, at least, it's also because the play has been so inspiring.

I've been inspired by Teresa and Lynda Sue's fierce yet loving direction, by the dedication of Deirdre, Jack, Austin and Matt, and by the phenomenal voices in the cast: it encourages me to take voice lessons, to sing with more intention. I've been inspired by the responsibility and dedication of our younger cast members: they give me great hope for the future.

I've been inspired by the music and lyrics, which, since I have been playing them pretty much non-stop in my car, still move me to tears on occasion. And I've been inspired by yet another triumphant example of community theater at its best.

Community theaters have so many strikes against them; they are, when all is said and done, often rag-tag organizations, loosely constructed, with all the confusing chains of command and dropped balls and last-minute frenzy that largely volunteer organizations in all arenas can face. It is nothing short of miraculous when everything comes together, and yet, week after week, in theater after theater, across the country and around the world, these theatrical miracles continue to occur.

Yes, of course, there are minor irritations. But that sense of community that builds in the cast and crew is the cornerstone of all those successes: we work together, support one another, gift and tease and cajole and reassure; study, coach and practice, move sets and sew costumes, not just for the chance to appear on stage but with the larger goal of bringing the play to life and entertaining the larger community.

And sometimes we get amazingly lucky, and the end result is more inspiring and magnificent than even the sum of all that effort could possibly have achieved. This was definitely one of those times, and I am profoundly grateful.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Touched in Love

I have always loved the tenderness of this image, shot years ago when an Orcas friend invited me to photograph a harpists' weekend at her home.

This morning, in The Enlightened Heart, I read the perfect explanation -- by the poet Rumi -- for why the image has always resonated so with me:

As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings --
The Holy Spirit is our harpist
And all strings
which are touched in Love
must sound.

This afternoon will mark our last performance of The Secret Garden, with its soaring harmonies and its moving message of hope and resurrection. Surely in this play, Source has struck the note, the Holy Spirit has been our harpist, and we have been touched in Love.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A white flower grows in the quietness

This morning I found a piece of a Rumi poem to share with you:

"Lo, I am with you always"
means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking,
nearer to you than your self
or things that have happened to you.
There's no need to go outside.
Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.

A white flower grows in the quietness.
Let your tongue become that flower.

Friday, May 23, 2008

When peace is disrupted

Yesterday evening presented some unusual challenges. While my husband was still across the water, I was sitting in my new office typing and heard a very strange sound coming from the kitchen. When I went to investigate, there were streams of water pouring out of the light fixture next to (sadly not over) the sink. Clearly the washing machine had begun to overflow in its new location in the closet above the kitchen.

I grabbed bowls and put them under the worst of the leaks then ran upstairs to investigate and discovered that the washer's drain hose had not been properly hooked up: it had jumped ship with the vibrations from the rinse cycle, and instead of spewing down the drain it was spewing all over the closet floor.

I pushed it back into the drain, dropped towels all over the floor to soak up the water, and ran back downstairs to put more towels around the bowls, and spent the next 20 minutes spreading towels everywhere, replacing damp towels with dry towels, and attempting somewhat unsuccessfully to pry an old unused speaker out of the kitchen ceiling so that the last of the water could exit.

My neighbor came over to help me move the washing machine away from the wall so I could start drying out the rug; we turned on the heat, opened the windows and set up fans. Because I'd had to turn off the circuit breakers for the kitchen, the neighbors invited me over for dinner, and as I sat at their table, eating homemade bean soup and bread and nursing the little cup of sherry they gave me to calm me down, I could feel my adrenaline and pulse rate begin to subside.

By bedtime I was calm again, but I found my brain kept wandering down unfortunate paths. Because life has been very good lately, and, like any cradle Presbyterian, I expect that goodness to come to an end and a parade of calamities to ensue at any moment. All those old voices in my head were chiming in that this was only the beginning, that my period of blessings was over and the trials would begin. With my husband out test-driving motorcycles and two daughters making long plane flights in the near future, I began to feel pretty anxious.

But this morning I woke up and realized how fortunate we were that all this had happened before the closet was done, while our clothes are still lying all over the back room, while we can still access the baseboards to rip them out and roll back the carpet and pad. Because now it will be easy to set up the washer so this won't happen again, or, if it does, so there will be safeguards in place.

So I took my coffee, sat down in relatively good spirits and began reading The Enlightened Heart. But as I read, with the drone of the fans and heaters in the background, my anxiety levels began to rise again. I flipped through several pages of poems that didn't resonate; clearly I wasn't truly calm yet, and I began to worry again that this simple calamity would easily overcome the hard-won peace I have enjoyed so much these last few months.

And then I came to this simple poem by Dogen, called "On the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye:

Midnight. No waves,
no wind, the empty boat
is flooded with moonlight.

The poem filled me with peace. I wondered at that, then accepted the gift. And now, telling the story, I realize the trap I'd been in. Caught in the moment, I'd done everything I could to assuage the damage of our little watery adventure. But afterwards I had begun to leave the moment, to rehash my steps at the time of the outpouring, to wander on into the future and worry what other unpleasant surprises might await me.

Our awareness of the peace of the boat -- empty, no waves, no wind, moonlight -- will always be temporary. Which is why we need to accept and rejoice in it while we have it, just as we step up to the plate when circumstances require quick thinking and action. But the peace itself is always there, under, over and around the surface of things, awaiting the return of our awareness.

Before I began typing in the Dogen poem, I read again the poem on the facing page. By Wu-Men, this poem is even simpler than the other, perfectly profound, and profoundly applicable:

Moon and clouds are the same;
Mountain and valley are different.
All are blessed; all are blessed.

Life will always be full of hills and valleys. But peace, like the moon and the clouds, will remain a constant, though it may not always be in our field of awareness.
And all are blessed.

All are blessed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Preferences, choices and opinions

Yesterday afternoon I got a call from the newspaper: would I be willing to photograph a silent bicycle ride in honor of bicyclists who have been killed or injured on the road?

These requests are rare; the paper has a staff of paid photographers, and I am just a stringer, used when noone else is available. So I try always to say yes and do the best I can. But there are always challenges and surprises in these little jobs. In this case, I had been told what their route would be and positioned myself accordingly, but instead of coming toward me through the intersection they turned left, and I found myself photographing mostly backs.

So (since I can't walk faster than a bike) I got in my car and went to the roundabout, thinking a shot of them circling the roundabout would be really cool, but again they made an unanticipated turn. So I went back to where they had started -- it was only to be a twenty minute ride, so I figured it would not be long before they returned -- and waited. This time the direction was perfect, but it was late and the clouds were gathering for a storm, so the light wasn't strong enough and everything was a blur.

Fortunately I had taken lots of shots at each of the intersections, trying to stay open and flexible to the possibilities, so despite the challenges there were some images that worked. And then it came down to the essence of any artist's work: choices. Which shots were better compositions, which shots did a better job of conveying the gravity of the moment, which shots had better light and color, which shots were more in focus. In the end I submitted three, of which this was my favorite, because, though the man in front is not in perfect focus, he appears to be thinking very soberly of the purpose of his ride.

This morning, continuing my reading of Mitchell's anthology, The Enlightened Heart, I came to a poem called "The Mind of Absolute Trust" by a late 6th century philosopher named Seng-Ts'An. And the opening line of the poem reads:

The Great Way isn't difficult
for those who are unattached to their preferences.

...and then in a later verse,

Don't keep searching for the truth,
Just let go of your opinions.

My first thought, upon reading this, was complete discouragement: no wonder I cannot seem to approach enlightenment: I am an artist, and art is ALWAYS about preferences and choices. And though I have heard it said that digital photography is not art, because you can do all those after-the-fact manipulations, I think it has become MORE of an art because of that.

With any camera you need to make choices: what to shoot, when to shoot, where to stand, what to focus on, which settings to use, what to convey. And then, in any darkroom, whether film or digital, there are more choices: what to burn or dodge, how much exposure, how to balance the colors.

But in the digital darkroom still more choices emerge: should anything be removed or added to balance this image? What might be blurred or sharpened, stretched or condensed, raised, lowered, twisted... and all of those are essentially artistic decisions. Reality becomes a medium, like paint, to be poured onto a surface in measured doses, in whatever way seems best to convey what the artist feels a need to communicate.

As a film photographer I felt safe: there were distinct boundaries defining my work for me -- and these boundaries are still very much there even in the digital world if I am shooting for the newspaper. But if my work is art, then those boundaries of truth, accuracy and the limitations of the moment are removed and the choices become almost infinite.

But now, reading Seng-Ts'An again, I see it is not the making of choices, that constant spin of yes and no around the circumference of life that dooms me. It is only attachment to the choices that will cause a problem. And that's where the ego comes in: it's okay for me to say that this choice or that is better for this image or that one. It's when I say that those were the RIGHT choices, or when I become convinced that one image or artist or friend or food or American Idol contestant or presidential candidate is absolutely imperatively irrevocably better than another that I get into trouble.

Because in reality each choice may have validity in certain circumstances, and circumstances are always changing, just like the path my bikers took. Life is unpredictable; perhaps it is better to stay in the moment; to remain flexible and open, ready and willing to shift to the opposite corner if that which you are here to capture or learn makes an unexpected move.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Returning to the deep within

I spotted this tree, on the road just above the Japanese teahouse, as I was walking down to the retreat last Saturday, and one of the first things I did when we were sent off to contemplate was to go back to it with my camera.

At the time I was on a mission to visit the swans, so I took a quick couple of shots of the tree and headed off down the path to the pond without looking at what I'd gotten. So it wasn't until I got home and downloaded the day's photos into the computer that I realized I'd gotten some sunspots with this one.

Like most kids in my generation, I grew up watching the Wizard of Oz, so this image bore a strong resemblance -- for me, at least -- of that lovely bubble that brings the Good Witch to Dorothy whenever she is needed.

And, as I typed this, I happened to glance at my desk, and there's a postcard on it, with an image of Dorothy's feet in her ruby slippers, with the Good Witch's wand, and the words "There's No Place Like Home" announcing a going-away party. Such a curious coincidence!

The academic in me is contemplating all kinds of alternative analyses and possibilities in this. But if I just stick with what I know, what is here with me now, this morning, then perhaps I need to look at my prayer practice.

I'm supposed to be doing Centering Prayer, emptying my mind of thoughts. But I tend to go off on these tangents, visualizing things outside myself and focusing on them, creating and gathering images rather than going back to the center. And I realized just this morning that I've gotten hooked on yet another image that I need to release, a sort of maternal reaching out that happens from God.

Father Thomas Keating, the leading proponent of Centering Prayer, has strong feelings about this temptation to get distracted by our thoughts and images. "Even if you meet the Virgin Mary," he says, "you have to let her go."

I don't think I was meeting anything so noble as the Virgin Mary. I think I was reaching out to the Good Witch, hoping she would touch me with her magic wand and send me home, to that lovely clear space within. I've been forgetting -- again -- that I already have everything I need to get there; I just have to remember that being in that space is more important than any of the distractions and enchantments that tempt me.

I remember back in my 20's, after I stopped doing Transcendental Meditation and embarked on a more Buddhist path, learning that my thoughts were like bubbles; that I should stay as deep as possible and not get caught up in them, just watch them rise to the surface and let them go. This image seems like a perfect reminder: I've been too engrossed in the bubbles, and need to get back to the deep within.

Repeat after me:

There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wait til the mud settles

This is another of the images from last weekend's retreat; one of those mystical experiences, when you know to click the shutter but have no idea what you captured until later. I call her my leaf goddess; she seems both beckoning and tender, that aspect of spirit that reaches out to me every time I remember to reach out to spirit.

This morning I read in Lao-Tzu:

Do you have the patience to wait
til your mud settles and the water is clear?

and I thought of this image. Because that's what happens, if I am intentional about sitting and being present. It's like walking in the lagoon to look at the sand dollars: as long as I keep walking, it stirs the mud and I can't see them. But if I stop, eventually the mud settles and they lie there at my feet, hundreds of them. It is what my husband would call a two-part algorithm, I think. You have to be still, and you have to be open, to notice, to be aware of what rises to the surface and what lies beneath.

And if that brings tears, let them come, replenish the water, magnify the vision; it's all good. Breathe, let them fall, watch the splash, let them go. Let the coolness of the hidden springs within wash through and nourish your soul, and see the reflection of the goddess within, watching tenderly as you mourn.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Outside and In

I first came to the Pacific Northwest in 1989 for a friend's wedding. We stayed in a tiny house on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle's University District, but I had contracted a terrible cold and spent most of the first day in bed.

That first evening our hosts held a pre-wedding party which I was too sick to attend, and I remember lying in bed with the windows open to the deck, listening to two of our friends playing banjo and guitar and singing Bill Staines wonderful tune, "The Roseville Fair."

Oh, the night was clear, and the stars were shining
And the moon came up so quiet in the sky.
And the people gathered 'round and the band was a'tuning.
I can hear them now playing "Coming Thru the Rye."

And we danced all night to the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I still remember
When we fell in love at the Roseville Fair.

As the music echoed softly across the water, I fell in love -- with the song, and with Seattle, and I remember that what struck me most was that the windows were wide open, and they had no screens; no barriers between inside and outside. It was amazing, to me, to live in an environment not dominated by the need to protect against flying insects, in a place where you could be totally open to the outdoors.

This past weekend, on retreat at the Bloedel Reserve, our gathering place was the Japanese Teahouse at the reserve. It was a hot day, but the teahouse was cool, and again, because we do not have to contend with the insects that keep New Englanders behind screens, we left open the enormous sliding doors that lead to the zen garden in front of the house and to the deck overlooking the Japanese garden and pond behind the house.

At one point in the afternoon, as I lay on the couch by the fireplace, looking out across the opposite couch to the light, and the trees, and the rhododendron beyond, I realized that this is still exactly how I want to live: no barriers between inside and outside; no screens, no filters, just the breeze of the spirit blowing through.

This morning I began rereading a book given to me years ago by a dear friend who seems to have known my path before I even knew I was in the woods. Called The Enlightened Heart, the book is an anthology of sacred poetry, edited by Stephen Mitchell, and it begins with this observation:

"We dance round in a ring and suppose,/But the Secret sits in the middle and knows," wrote Robert Frost, looking in from the outside. Looking out from the inside, Chuang-Tzu wrote "When we understand, we are at the center of the circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference." This anonymous center -- which is called God in Jewish, Christian and Moslem cultures, and Tao, Self, or Buddha in the great Eastern traditions -- is the realest of realities."

This vision, of sitting with the secret at the center, is the pure joy of contemplation; that rare and precious jewel that gleams when we allow that barrier between outside and inside to slide away; when we stop our ceaseless comparing and evaluating, judging, testing, complaining... all those ego-centric patterns we have that keep us circling around the Yes and the No.

The joy that comes when we take the time to sit still is the cessation of that endless dance. And I long for that. But to get that peace, I have to choose to stop, to let go of all those selfish absorptions and just be. It is only when I make that choice that I can return to center and release the barriers that separate inside from outside. As it says in Psalm 19:

Let me keep surrendering my self
Until I am utterly transparent.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What lies beneath

I spent most of yesterday at the Bloedel Reserve on a contemplative retreat sponsored by our local congregational church. It's rhododendron season, and I've never managed to spend time there with my camera at this time of year, so I knew I'd be taking my camera, but I wanted to be sure to strike a balance between contemplation and photography.

Knowing that the weather was expected to be warm and sunny, I went to the reserve earlier in the week, when the weather was damp and cloudy, thinking the light would be better for photography, and that if I shot photos of all the things that enchanted me I'd be less tempted to get distracted by my camera during the retreat.

So this morning I have loaded in both sets of photos -- the ones from the cool cloudy day and the "good" camera, and the ones from the retreat, shot with a lesser camera and a bad white balance setting (this camera is relatively new, and I haven't quite mastered it yet).

It shouldn't surprise me -- you'd think I'd have figured this out by now -- but the photos shot yesterday are better, even though I wasn't using my lovely SLR camera and I have to photoshop them a bit to compensate for the white balance setting (they are all rather yellow, so I have to pump up the blue). And what you can see in these images (I will show more over the next week or so) is that yesterday I was intentional; silent, contemplative; putting the spirit first, unlike the earlier excursion, which seemed to be more about the surface of things. And because I was looking from a deeper place, I saw what I hadn't seen before, the magic, the rootedness that lies beneath.

This morning in church, we heard again the familiar creation story from Genesis. And this time what I heard was not what was created on which day, or that the sabbath was created for rest, but rather that as God created each thing he blessed it, and "saw that it was good." And now I see that if I really look, if I pay attention to what I see instead of photographing with an eye to past or future, then I, too, will see that even the simplest thing, a root full of life bursting out from beneath a concrete slab, is good.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pain into sweetness

Summer did some sort of end run around spring and danced onto the island yesterday; after months of nightly frosts, the temperature is now 70 and still climbing as I write.

A friend and I met for coffee yesterday afternoon, then celebrated the change in the weather with a walk along the waterfront. Rejoicing in the sunshine on our shoulders and the breeze ruffling the water, we stood on the boardwalk, talking of this and that; of art and influence, faith and families while staring at the water below, mesmerized by the shifting patterns of light and shadow.

The subject of dogs came up -- she has two -- and I asked if she had read yesterday's blog, and she replied that it had been hard to find time to sit with the blog lately. There was the call of the garden -- new rhodies to tend -- and then there was that incredible risk you take if you choose to step off the treadmill for a minute or two: like some sort of Indiana Jones momentum problem, the body stops but the mind keeps going and gets wrapped around the wheel. "If I sit," she said, "I start to cry."

"That's okay," I said. "I love to sit. I can sit for two."

And then I read in Rumi this morning,

"Don't worry about transient things.
Think how the animals live.

The dove on the branch giving thanks.
The glorious singing of the nightingale.
The gnat. The elephant. Every living thing
trusts in God for its nourishment.

These pains that you feel are messengers.
Listen to them.
Turn them to sweetness.
The night is almost over."

.. and I thought, maybe we both have a lot to learn from our dogs...

But the poem continues on with a harangue, a wife who turns on her sermonizing husband, saying,

"Spiritual arrogance is the ugliest of all things're not as satisfied as you pretend!
...You talk about God a lot,
and you make me feel guilty by using that word.
You better watch out!"

No, perhaps I cannot sit for two: I barely have enough sit in me for one, before I am up and doing things again, worrying my to-do list like a dog with a bone. The problem is, there's no meat on those bones, nothing to feed me.

And so I sit again: I listen to the pains, watch God turn them to sweetness, and find in that process the rest and nourishment I need to take me through another day.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Wrong Dog

One foggy morning, while driving through the Skagit Valley, I stopped to photograph a birch tree which stood, alone and magnificent, in a nursery amid rows of shrubbery.

I got out of the car to take a closer look at this field, which lay along the water's edge, and encountered this sweet sad dog, tied to a tree. She was very patient, receptive and gentle, happy to see me, didn't jump up, didn't beg or whine or snarl, and seemed accustomed to -- though not necessarily happy with -- her lot. In some ways I saw myself reflected in her eyes: I found myself thinking, she got the wrong owner -- and I got the wrong dog.

A couple of days ago I encountered again a book I had set down in mid-read several months ago. I suspect I set it down because the subject became too difficult to read: the book, by Lewis, Amini and Lannon, is called A General Theory of Love, and I had reached the section where it explains something best summarized by Roger Martin in a review in American Scientist Online:

"Throughout our lives, we reach, time and again, for that old familiar love—the kind we knew in our families, the kind that came our way, for better or worse, from mother, father, siblings, nanny. These blueprints lead some of us into the arms of those who yawn and look at their watches, or pick on us, or praise us and belittle us in the same breath, or reject us cruelly—or even hit. Like chocolate Labradors (who also have limbic systems), we may cross paths with folks who would be kinder to us than those we ultimately choose, who would be quicker with treats, fonder of walks. But we pooh-pooh the nice guys: We sniff a little and trot off, uninterested. Later, over merlot, we lament to friends: "Geez, he's a swell guy, but the chemistry's just not there."

I find this concept of the early familial imprinting which guides some of us to repeatedly choose inappropriate friends and lovers to be ineffably sad. And the image of the dog, inextricably bonded to his master even though others might feed him better treats, or walk him more, or tie him up less, is truly heartbreaking. Moreso, I think, because (like many dog owners) I feel my own dog doesn't really get the life he deserves.

In a lot of ways my dog is perfect: he's medium sized, fuzzily adorable, doesn't shed, doesn't need a lot of exercise, and is totally bonded to me. But he barks loudly and snarls terrifyingly at anyone who comes to our door, and is very protective of me. (A friend has suggested that I have projected all my trust issues onto him).

In addition, we cannot allow him to roam free, as we live on a beach and his greatest delight is to roll in and/or eat dead things and otter or goose poop and throw up in the house. Though we used to make allowances for this, we can no longer risk letting him out loose, as he has become diabetic and we have to watch his diet too closely. So his only outings occur on leash, but he is way more interested in sniffing the leavings of other dogs than he is in walking -- despite obedience sessions with three different trainers -- so the walks tend to be control battles, and rarely last long enough to give either of us any exercise.

Luckily humans can have their limbic inclinations retrained by competent psychiatrists. But for a dog, the choices are more limited, and it falls to us to cope as best we can with the dog we have been given, to provide at least a semblance of the tender care and affection they deserve. Like that bumper sticker a former contractor of mine had on the back of his truck:

Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.

Somehow I suspect that I didn't get the wrong dog at all: I got the right dog to help me in ways I can only begin to comprehend. And in learning to live gracefully with his quirks, I can come to gain a fuller acceptance of my own.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gone but not forgotten

Though I live on an island, the island is nestled in the crook of an arm of land that folds around us from the mainland, like a father carrying a small child on his shoulder. And though our primary access is by ferry, from Seattle, we can also cross to that arm of land via a bridge from the north end of the island.

For the first few years after we moved here, crossing the bridge meant a long slow slog along the outskirts of Poulsbo, with inevitable halts at the several traffic lights installed along Route 305. This house sat in a field of cattails and willow trees along the left side of the road; graceful and inviting, but empty and increasingly graffiti-covered until one day it was bulldozed away, the road was widened, and what had been a sluggish two-lane road became a relatively quick and easy bypass.

The longer I live, the more I see and accept that life moves in cycles: Spring with its daffodils and cherry trees slides through summer into fall; day follows night; the parallel tracks of a marriage shudder and shift with the inevitable bumps in the landscape, then straighten out again. At the same time, train wrecks do occasionally result; things get lost, or destroyed, and we don't get always get to say goodbye before they go.

Which is one good reason, I think, to pay attention to what life is now, in this moment. I was lucky: one of the many days I was stuck in the traffic outside Poulsbo, waiting for the light to change, I had my camera with me, and took a minute to photograph this house. And now, though the cattails and the willow are gone, and bulldozers are smoothing gravel and asphalt over the rise, and there is a large sign suggesting that there will eventually be medical condos for lease (whatever that means), I have this photograph to remind me of the green and the beauty and the home that used to be.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Power of one

This morning, both my readings -- the Gospel of Thomas and Anne Lamott -- speak of the power of unitive peacemaking. When adversaries make the effort to cooperate, they can be so much more effective and powerful than when all their energies are spent fighting each other.

Not that this woman and her horse are necessarily adversaries. But they certainly could be: the horse could be stubborn, the woman could be angry or abusive. But to clear this hurdle, they need to move as one being, with one goal, and the effect of it is truly beautiful.

When Jesus was speaking of this phenomenon, I suspect he was more interested in unifying the warring factions within us; trying to encourage us to be at peace within, one with the spirit within us, undivided by the petty concerns that fight for survival or recognition; that worry there won't be enough food or love or attention or money or whatever it is we think we need. If we stay focused on God, if we can be at one with our calling, all those things will fall into place.

Ms Lamott was speaking from a more political perspective, believing that if we could set aside our need to be more, or better, or right, and pay more attention to our common needs and desires -- our common future -- we could quite possibly restore health to the earth and all its inhabitants, end war, end this relentless rape and pillage of our precious environment.

I find myself thinking on a much shallower level this morning. I just wish our democratic candidates would stop taking potshots at each other and focus on what is best for our country as a whole. I wish the leaders of Myanmar would stop protecting their turf and let people into their country to care for all the devastation the cyclone has brought. I wish the leaders who govern my little island would stop creating fiefdoms and arguing about budget shortfalls, abandon all their grandiose plans to appeal to more tourists and unite in the single task of taking care of the citizens and resources they already have.

It seems like common sense, to me: if we spend all our energy fighting with each other, we will have none left to tend the charges we have been given. There are plenty of hurdles in life. I think it has to be far easier to surmount them if we can work together in peace; pursuing a corporate agenda that has benefit for all rather than a selfish personal agenda. The trick, of course, is learning to trust that others will do the same -- and forgiving them for the times in the past that they have failed to do so. And that's a very tall order.

One of my daughters is currently studying under Mac Maharaj, a South African man who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and who is now attempting to build peace in Iraq with an initiative modeled on this principle of trust and forgiveness. He was interviewed about his efforts on NPR yesterday, and has some impressive observations about the challenge and promise of his labors:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pace yourself, Effie!

Spring has come to the Sandspit at last, and the garden tools are coming out with the daisies and the tulips, basking in the sunlight after a long gray winter.

But they're not supposed to be in the picture; wouldn't this be a better image if I used a little Photoshop, took out the secateurs and the hose, made the grass a little greener, the sky a little bluer?

The problem is, once you get started cleaning up a photograph like this, where do you stop? I've already taken out the standpipe on the roof; should I take out the electric meter as well? What about those dead leaves on the right? And wouldn't the walk be SO much prettier if it were red brick? Halfway into what becomes a lengthy project, the cat will jump on the keyboard, and all my work will be gone. Better to just do the simple things and let the viewer's imagination supply the rest.

Spring comes, and the urge to fix everything is not far behind. Now that it's warm enough to stand being outside, we begin to notice the grass in the gutters, the pine needles on the roof, the dirty windows, the aging lawn furniture. What to fix? What to toss? What to replace? Where do we begin? And once we begin, when do we stop? After a long season of inactivity, we don't want to take on too much the first day or we'll hurt ourselves and risk being out for the season.

On the other hand, we don't want to tackle something really obvious and then lose heart in the middle.

Life changes can be like that, too. You go through these long wintry dry spells, and finally you feel your energy start to come back and you want to solve everything in the space of a heartbeat. Quit the job, dump the husband, put the kids in boarding school, go on a diet, take up exercising, move to a new town, buy a new house... just chuck it all and start over, why don't you?

Before each performance of this play that I'm in we have a little bonding time: we stand in a circle, hold hands, and pass around important reminders: Diction. Focus. Energy. Pace. Each night we get a new word, but we have to remember all the previous nights' words as well. We start small and build up; it's a way of pacing ourselves, not taking on too much but at the same time making a concerted effort to change.

The garden is like that, too. If you take on too much the first day, your knees might give out. Or you might not have the energy to put away your tools at the end of the day. It's all about pacing.

Need to make a change in your life? Try pacing it, starting small. Just weed a little corner of the garden. Just commit to 10 minutes of prayer or meditation or exercise, and make it an easy commitment to keep: don't schedule it for the minute the kids get home from school, or the interruptions will frustrate you, and you'll quit. Give yourself a break on weekends, when life gets out of routine into topsy-turvy land, and remember to come back to it on Monday.

Set yourself a simple goal you're pretty sure you can meet: a cigarette every other hour instead of every hour. Got a whole list of projects to take on? Tackle just one thing on the to-do list, something you can finish, and don't start anything else until this one is done. And most importantly, don't try for perfection: just concentrate on improvement. One day at a time, one step at a time, and things inevitably improve. And sometimes, as with this picture, you just need to say, "That's enough; this task is done," and move on.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mothers Day

It's Mothers Day, and Pentecost as well; plus the bishop was coming to church this morning, so we were all invited to wear red, orange or yellow for the occasion.

I decided to show up in this absolutely delicious (and VERY 80's -- my husband says I look like a real estate agent in it) red leather blazer with white leather piping that I picked up for a song at a local consignment store.

But I went to the early service, which was not attended by the bishop, and there were only a handful of folks there, none wearing red or even orange. So I stood out a bit -- unusual for me, as despite my thespian tendencies I tend to keep a low profile -- and that was okay. I'm thinking that as I get older I should be able to relax and dress as the mood strikes me. But at the same time I was very aware that if my daughters had been at home I would not have been allowed out of the house in this jacket!

I was reading Anne Lamott again over breakfast this morning, and (perfect timing) found myself at the chapter where she is struggling mightily with her son over his use of the car. I am not in that awful phase with my daughters right now -- they are very far away, and we are missing each other, so that sort of roiling fury you can get into when you are all living on top of each other hasn't happened in quite a while.

But I realized, when I began to choose an image for today's blog, that even though those struggles are pretty distant right now, I still didn't quite want to pick "the pretty image" to represent Mothers Day. The apple blossom was the first I shot; it is from my not-so-recently deceased 90-year-old neighbor's apple tree, and it seemed appropriate because she definitely mothered me (and I loved her dearly). And there is that Biblical connection, with Eve, and the apple tree, and that wonderful line in Genesis 3:16 about "great will be your labors in childbirth."

But I wanted something else. So I took some of the flowers my daughter sent for Mothers Day and mixed them with some fake flowers in a pink bucket and put them outside on the table with our garden goddess. But the color is chipping off her cheeks, and she looks a bit put-upon by the flowers, so I decided to just shoot the flowers next to a piece of driftwood.

And that's probably the prettiest shot. But I think the one I like best is still the middle one. Because mothering isn't always pretty, and it can wear away at the mask we like to keep up, the mask of competence and control. The gifts it brings can sometimes be uncomfortable, and the whole process definitely cuts into our alone time...

But then I look at the tulip, resting so sweetly against the scarred cheek, and there is a tenderness there, reflected in the sweet half-smile and downcast eyes of the goddess. And that tenderness, to me, is the heart of it all, both the heart of what I have come to feel for my daughters -- and learned to feel from the first moment I held them -- and the heart of what I have begun to sense coming from that godly spirit that rests within me and above me and encircles me with love.

Like that line from the service which I have cited before: may you feel the blessing of the Holy Spirit, that broods over creation like a mother over her children. And so I wish a Happy Mothers Day to mothers and children everywhere; may you find that tenderness and cherish it, if only for a moment.

Friday, May 9, 2008

On being lost

Our play, The Secret Garden, opens tonight. We had an open dress rehearsal last night, with a fairly good-sized audience, and they gave us a standing ovation at the end of the performance, so we have all breathed a collective sigh of relief: it's a very complicated production, and we are delighted to hear that it actually works.

Which at some level is amazing. Because there were so many last minute scenes to work before last night's production, we had no time to warm up together before rehearsal, and so the opening scenes were a bit tentative, and unexpected problems kept cropping up. It is, however, a very seasoned and competent cast, so no one said anything negative about how things were going and we just kept plowing through.

But there is one moment in the first act that might have been a turning point. Little Mary Lennox is awakened in the night by the sound of someone crying (it is Colin, afraid in his room, because a storm is brewing) and she begins to prowl the halls of the mansion in search of the sound. At the same time her Uncle Archie has awakened, hearing the wailing of his deceased wife, Lily.

So Colin is crying in his bed offstage while Lily, Archie and Mary are wandering the halls, all crying out, all frightened and alone, and parts of the scenery are weaving in and out across the stage. It's very like those really horrible transition times in life, when everything in life is in flux, all the familiar landmarks are gone or have shifted, and we feel so terrifyingly alone.

The confusion and fear are echoed in the cast -- the music is complex, the set changes are complicated, the lighting keeps changing, and everyone must walk their own path and somehow know that it will all come together at the end of the scene.

But our director, Teresa Thuman, is amazing, and it DOES come together. And at the climactic moment the entire cast is on stage (though some of us are hiding behind the curtains) singing the last three and highest and loudest notes of the song: "I AM LOST!"

We, you and I, whether spectators or participants in the play, know that somehow that which is lost will be found, and the garden that lives within our hearts will be revealed. But there are those scary moments when it looks pretty hopeless -- a bit like this forest picture. You know there is light, somewhere; you know there is hope. But there are times when all you can see are the trees looming over you. The path is overgrown, you can't seem to find your way out, and there's this paralyzing fear that you may be stuck in this moment, this place, this situation forever.

At such times it becomes an enormous act of faith to step even one foot forward, and I will always be grateful, not just for our director, who could visualize and create a scene that so perfectly mirrors those moments, but for my faith, which has survived and blossomed in those times, and for the friends who continued to beckon me forward when I just wanted to curl up in a ball and wail. Thank you!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

There's an old joke about three blind men in a room with an elephant. Asked to describe the elephant, the first man put his hand on its trunk, and he said: "This creature is like a water-pipe." The hand of the second touched its ear, so to him the elephant appeared to be like a fan. The third, who handled its leg, said: "The elephant is shaped like a pillar."

As humans, we often mistake the one aspect of truth that we can perceive to be truth itself, and allow that assumption to blind us to the whole truth. It is as if we were to come to a door, and instead of opening the door to the magic on the other side, we declared the door to be our destiny.

Such a beautiful door, we say; so old and venerable. Obviously many people have touched this door; it must be very special. This color has meaning; I will fill my life with this color! Ah, this white patch is like a window to the soul!

We stand and admire the door, forgetting that it is only a portal to that which lies before us, and eventually the handle grows rusty from years of disuse and we forget it ever led anywhere.

I think for many people religion falls into this category: We get caught up in our own particular church building; our own particular interpretation of the Bible; our own particular dogma. And even for me, though I get that faith and God are more than I am taking in at any one moment, I seem to be only able to deal with one or at most two aspects of faith and spirituality at a time.

My years of exposure to the soft and occasionally smelly underbelly of the organized church have taught me that there is always more to the picture than what we see in any given moment. And I do my best to carry that awareness out into my world. But, being human and imperfect, I am not always successful about holding some awareness of the larger picture. And though I like to think I'm getting better at this as I age, I cannot but be aware that in some ways this is a mixed blessing: it seems now that the bigger the picture I can retain, the fuzzier the details become.

It's sort of like what happens when you enlarge a digital image. There comes a point when the bits get so huge that the image has grown terribly fuzzy, and it takes a good deal of distance to interpret it. You need to get far enough away from it to put it back into perspective.

So if I were to enlarge this image of the door, I would have to step further back from it to see the details of it. And stepping further back is the last thing I want to do: what I REALLY want is to open the door and walk out into the light. Because, though it resembles light that white patch is only the appearance of light.

It's time I grabbed that rusty handle and pulled; time for all of us to stop being content with the appearance of faith, the illusion of openness, the pretense of hope. It's time to take the risk, do the work, drag out the oil can if necessary; to grab the handle, pull, and step through the doorway of "church" into the arena of faith and hope that lies beyond.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In the swing of things

I have been thinking about swings this morning. I am still reading Anne Lamott's latest book, and I came today to the chapter in which she buys a cheap rug for the nursery of her Sunday School, discovers a moldy spot, attempts to return it, and can't get her money back.

It's an injustice, of course, and she finds herself in what to me is a very familiar pattern: someone bumps or hurts you in some way, and the swing is set in motion. "Injustice!," we cry, as we notice we have been pushed away from our comfortable center. That sense of injustice peaks, and we begin the swing back through the center to the other side, and fury takes over.

In the height of fury, we lash out at the other person, and then the fall begins into guilt and self-loathing. To reassure ourselves, we push back with self-justification "He pushed me first!", but however high that propels us, there is still something in us that knows we over-reacted, so we fall back again. If we are lucky. the back and forth, the fight or flight mechanism, eventually settles down and we are centered again.

But more often we get stuck, both as individuals and as groups: stuck in fury, like the suicide bombers of Al-Qaeda, or stuck in the fake apologetics of political correctness. And of course there are those for whom the swinging feels more alive than just sitting in the center. For them, the swing must always be in motion, and if there is no actual injustice they will invent or imagine it, for the thrill of the rise and the fall.

It seems to me that the point at which the swing is most steady, when our feet can touch the ground and the ropes to which we cling are perfectly vertical, is the point when we are most in tune: with God, with nature, with humanity... it is the point when everything seems very even.

But of course we don't get to stay there very often. And even if life is being very fair to us on any given day, we know it is surely unfair to someone else. Perhaps our compassion for that keeps us grounded and in tune, centered? But I am thinking we complicate things with our entitlement issues: we think we are entitled to keep or hoard what stability or security we have, so that any fluctuation in blessings initiates the swing again into perceived injustice, reactionary fury, and back into self-loathing and self-justification.

It's a tricky question: what is acceptable, and what is not? What do I deserve, and what am I willing to put up with? Here the vacillation begins in earnest -- ouch, I have been mistreated; fury, how dare they; guilt, I probably deserved it; whine, these guys are such creeps. And I think it is when we reach the whining stage that we begin to recruit fellow-sufferers, reinforcements for the journey. If we are lucky, they pull us back to center and hold the swing steady so we can choose to step off if necessary.

But often the friends we find in misery are on swings of their own, and instead of returning to center we end up in a sort of collective spinout, and suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of what feels like a war, choosing sides, assessing weapons, planning strategies, building arsenals, holding war councils...

So then I thought about war, and the hopelessness of it; all the mistakes made on both sides; the centuries of injustice that fuel the conflicts in the middle east as well as family feuds; that sense that nothing could ever set things right, that all hope of balance has been lost.

The fact is that life is unfair, wealth and power are unevenly distributed, and there will always be imbalances. Perhaps it is in the decisions we make in attempting to deal with that imbalance that we manifest the strength and stretch of the vertical connection in our lives. Because the further away we are seated from that branch to which the swing is tied, the longer the swing will take and the farther we will travel from center.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Maternal vigilance

The inscription below this statue reads "Molly Stark, wife of General John Stark, mother of 11 chilren, homemaker, patriot, and defender of the household. Her love, courage, and self-reliance were common virtues among the many hearty women of frontier New England."

It goes on from there, but I didn't photograph the rest of the inscription: it was the mix of Molly's vigilance and tenderness that captured my interest. It reminds me of the words spoken at the end of the service every Sunday, when the priest asks for the blessing of "the Holy Spirit, who broods over creation like a mother over her children."

This morning I felt that brooding of the Spirit. I was remembering a conversation with my daughter last night, when I was complaining -- quite venomously, I think, looking back on it -- about a young person involved in my play who was spending way too much time flirting (with females WELL below the age of consent) and not enough time attending to his work.

That venom. Where does it come from? Why was I feeling so contemptuous? And where is the compassion in that? In fact, couldn't a case be made for contempt and compassion being complete opposites? Clearly I had not been practicing what I preach, and the fury I felt with myself for having been so self-righteous was perfectly captured by an image I found in my files of a young man in a play who was threatening to shoot himself.

But the Holy Spirit was there, brooding with me over my sins, and somehow, with the vigilance ("you need to examine this one") came a maternal tenderness -- "Look at it, learn what you need to learn. But don't shoot yourself over it." And then, during communion, our pianist played what sounded initially like a random composition but which eventually I realized was a series of riffs over the old Bob Dylan song: "I shall be released." And I was.

They say ev'ry man needs protection,
They say ev'ry man must fall.
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

Yes, the lessons we hear in church on Sunday usually include a reminder that "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done." But the service ends, always, with that blessing, the message of hope, forgiveness and compassion which models, as a mother models for her children, the combination of protective vigilance and loving acceptance we need to develop, not just for ourselves, but for all those with whom we share this beautiful, fragile planet.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

If the shoe fits...

Before my daughters were born my feet were a size 9 1/2, a very easy size to find and fit. After my first was born, my feet stretched to a 10 -- still easy. But with the second pregnancy they grew to a 10 1/2, and most manufacturers don't bother with half sizes after 10.

Add to that the fact that my feet are extremely flat, so any shoe must either have arch support or accomodate orthotics, and you have the ideal Zappos customer.

Ah, Zappos. I love Zappos, because going to a shoe store was always so difficult: to find one pair of shoes I would have to try on so many, and (people-pleaser that I am) I would feel guilty about the number of times the poor salesperson would have to go in the back and retrieve another stack of shoe boxes.

Sometimes I would even give up and take whatever had seemed to be the most reasonable pair, hoping they'd grow more comfortable with time, and buy them, just to reward the salesperson for all their labors on my behalf.

But of course those shoes never did improve with time, and there I'd be, stuck with a pair of shoes that didn't fit, still longing for a pair that did -- and would look good on my huge feet. An impossible equation.

And then, along came Zappos, and suddenly I could browse and try on at my leisure, order several boxes at a time and send them all back without feeling guilty. With the luxury to explore and experiment, I began to discover which shapes and brands work for me; to read the customer reviews and learn which key words might mean the difference between an adequate fit and a good fit.

And then, this morning, I was reading Anne Lamott's account of an assisted death. And when she and the cancer patient were wondering together what death might be like, she remarks that she once heard an eastern mystic say that he thought death might be "like slipping out of a pair of shoes that never fit very well."

Such a graphic description! And I found myself tearing up a bit. Because the sad thing is that, although we all find ways to make it work, it seems to me that for lots of us life is a bit like a pair of shoes that don't fit. There's always a little twinge somewhere, and on the hard days, it's like you've been on your feet for hours and it would be lovely to kick off the shoes, to stretch out your feet and luxuriate in cool air, or warm water, or fuzzy socks...

How often are we really comfortable? And where are we; what are we doing when we step beyond comfort into ENERGIZED -- that feeling you get with a brand new pair of running shoes, when you feel you could go for hours, buoyed up by all that support?

And then I thought -- the times when life doesn't fit are SO much like the times when I find myself walking away from the shoe store with a pair of SHOES that don't fit: it usually means I've gotten out of balance. I haven't respected my own needs and rights enough (my need for a pair of shoes, my right to keep trying on until I get a good fit, my right to only spend money if I DO find a pair that fits) and I've constructed a fable in my mind about someone else and then tried to be the hero in that tale. (He or she works on commission, they deserve to sell a pair of shoes, they shouldn't have to work so hard, etc. etc. etc.)

The fact is that the shoe salesperson is PAID to keep retrieving shoes that interest me, to help me find a shoe that fits me and my lifestyle. They have their role, and I have mine, and the whole process is thrown off when I don't stick to my lines. Because when I walk out of the store with a pair of shoes that don't fit, BOTH of us have failed.

Yes, Zappos is easier -- kind of like it's easier now for so many of us to interact via email than it is to deal in person. But part of getting better at life is to keep walking back into the shoe store. Because for some of us, learning that it is okay to say no -- that it is okay NOT to be the hero that rescues someone else -- may be the most difficult lesson we have to learn.

... and here's a thought that occurred to me later, after writing this post: Isn't this yet another case where it's the polite lie that's getting us into trouble? (See my last March post, "Liar, liar, pants on fire")

Friday, May 2, 2008

Drops below the surface

Yesterday I read this in the Gospel of Thomas (Logion 36):

"Do not spend your time from one day to the next worrying about your outer appearance, what you wear and what you look like."

And then I read this comment from Anne Lamott, about her mother:

"She didn't have a clue that you could take care of the inside of things, like friends or your won heart, by tending to surfaces: putting on a little moisturizer, say, or making the bed. Surfaces were strictly for tricking nonfamily into thinking you and your family were enviable, more functional than you were."

Reading these two passages together, it occurred to me that the first need not be solely about clothes or possessions. It might be about any number of the other kinds of claims and pretenses, of surfaces, of denial and falsehood with which we clothe our lives: claiming the marriage is okay, pretending mom -- or our teenager -- is not an alcoholic, claiming global warming is a sham, pretending the economy is all going to be okay, claiming we didn't have sex with that intern, pretending this job or this husband isn't abusive, claiming we can afford this house or this car or this war, pretending that none of us will ever die.

Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks, tells us this:

"Most people's lives are run by desire and fear. Desire is the need to add something to yourself in order to be yourself more fully. All fear is the fear of losing something and thereby becoming diminished and being less."

All this pretense -- and the isolation, suspicion, envy, selfishness and fear which it engenders -- keeps us treading in circles on the surface of things, stuck in grooves like the needle on a record.

And yet... somehow that surface activity, that continuous cycling through the spirals of desire and fear, creates a music in our lives -- a music we can't hear as long as we are caught up in the churning.

Lamott goes on, in Grace (Eventually), to say that her mother was "always frantic, like a hummingbird that can't quite find the flower and keeps jabbing around: she must have been starving to death a lot of the time."

Stress, that constant, exhausting cycle of rushing and doing, pretending and hiding, collecting and avoiding, leaves us caught in the surface tension of fear and desire, unable to tap into the richness that lies below it all. We need, instead, to be willing to stop and sink into that place of emptiness, of nakedness, where there is nothing to hide behind, nothing to protect us from the truth. If we take that risk, we are given the opportunity to discover the music, the poetry, the sweet stillness that lies beneath.

"Wait for the illuminated openness," says Rumi, "as though your chest were filling with light.

Don't look for it outside yourself.
There is a fountain inside you.
Don't walk around with an empty bucket,
you have a channel into the ocean."

Reality need not be the complex structures of pretense we build at the surface level of our lives to protect our fragile, naked hearts. The reality is that we are all part of one life; there is a rich and nourishing ocean of oneness that connects and feeds us all. Sink into it -- and learn to breathe.