Sunday, November 30, 2008

Atonement as At-one-ment: Breaking the Cycle

For some time now I have known that there is a cycle that plays out in me: I get hurt, I get angry, and then I feel guilty. I never really thought about it much, except to be aware enough to realize that any time I act on the anger I'll be left with the guilt -- and to know that -- and I always thought this was my fate, having been raised as a protestant -- guilt seems to be as natural to me as breathing. Not necessarily good, you understand, just... there. It's probably the root of all the times I say I'm sorry.

This morning, having been restored after a four day hiatus to my morning ritual of strong coffee, reading, and meditation, I have realized that there is a fourth step in this cycle, and it is not apologizing (which may explain why I can't seem to break out of the cycle) it is atonement.

I always thought of atonement as a sort of creepily Catholic term, having to do with self-flagellation, sackcloth and ashes, that sort of thing. But that's not the sort of atonement I'm talking about here. What I realized this morning is that atonement is not about making up for the harm you have done by inflicting harm on yourself in some way. Atonement is about at-one-ment; about understanding our underlying connection with all of creation; understanding (as we heard in church last Sunday) "insomuch as you do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)

Charlotte Joko Beck, in Nothing Special, describes the cycle by using the word sacrifice as a verb. When we feel hurt, we feel like we have been made a victim (and of course, as we all know, it's quite easy to get stuck in that phase of the cycle): we have been sacrificed. At this point in the cycle, for many of us, the urge is to sacrifice back, to strike out in return, either at the one who hurt us, or, if we are powerless to do that, to strike out at someone or something else as a way of releasing that impulse. We all know people who get stuck in that part of the cycle as well.

But feeling guilty -- apologizing -- doesn't really move you out of the cycle either: it's just another place to get stuck. Here's how Beck explains it:

"We can't wipe out what we have done in the past; we've done it. Feeling guilty about it is a way of sacrificing ourselves now because we have sacrificed others in the past...feeling guilty is an expression of the ego: we can feel sorry for ourselves (and a bit noble) if we get lost in our guilt. In true atonement, instead of focusing upon our guilt, we learn to focus more upon our sisters and brothers, upon our children, upon anyone who is suffering."

How do we stop the endless cycle? Not by staying in our bitter thoughts about the past hurts and possible future revenge; not even by feeling guilty or apologizing. We escape the cycle by staying fully in the present, by staying aware of our reactions, by noticing when we feel hurt, and by making a conscious choice to break the cycle, by choosing not to snap back.

I have no siblings of my own -- which may explain why I get stuck in the guilt part of the cycle. When I was growing up my hurts came not from siblings but from parents, which meant that lashing out in response was punished. Powerless to lash back, the thoughts festered and became anger, and then I would feel guilty, internalizing the parent and punishing myself for my own frustrations.

But I have just spent four days with my daughters, who are siblings, and with my husband and his siblings. And what I see, watching them, is this same cycle that I know in myself playing out in family, and it doesn't seem to be any easier with siblings than it is as an only child. One hurts another -- either accidentally or on purpose -- and rather than being present, knowing the hurt and saying "ouch", the victim nurses the hurt and strikes back in other ways. The other, hurt in turn -- and possibly not understanding that it's a strikeback -- does the same.

This cycle, unbroken, seems to have a life of its own -- kind of like what Eckhart Tolle calls the painbody. And as the Bible says, "the evil is visited upon generation after generation."

But there is a way out. If we can stop nursing our victimhood and instead choose to be committed to healing, we can make a conscious choice to break the cycle. And the way to do that is through atonement -- not through apology, guilt, self-flagellation or revenge, because none of those ends the cycle -- but through understanding that we are "at one" with each other, that what hurts one hurts all, that by lashing out we continue the cycle, that by choosing not to we can break it.

If I were, like Beck, a Buddhist, this sermon would stop here. But as a Christian, I believe that another piece may be necessary for full healing. And that piece is forgiveness. Being who I am, it's not enough to break the cycle. I need to forgive my brethren, my sisters and brothers in humanity, for the harm they may have inflicted on me. And I need to forgive myself for any harm I have inflicted - or have longed to inflict - on them in return.

What I have learned is that forgiveness is not always easy, and I can't always do it alone. But there is that wonderful line that we Episcopalians say over and over again in the Baptismal Covenant: "I will, with God's help."

And what I have learned this past year is that once I have made that choice, to will forgiveness, that with God's help the choice can actually become reality; that actually I CAN, with God's help, forgive. And the blessing of that God-assisted forgiveness is a truly exhilarating sense of release.

So, as they say in the old commercial: Try it -- you'll like it!

I guarantee it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blessings for the journey

I had planned to blog Friday morning about a long conversation Thursday night with my daughters, but when I tried to load in the photo I had chosen it failed, and then my brother-in-law came into the lobby to talk with me, so I abandoned ship; it just wasn't meant to be.

Today we dropped our younger daughter at the airport at 10 then went for a drive (we didn't need to be at the airport until noon) and ended up visiting the Gilbert Ortega Museum and Gallery in Scottsdale. This sweet madonna was waiting by the door just as we were leaving and blessed us on our trip; the sunset I shot from the plane window just as we were landing. Since most of you who travel at Thanksgiving will be returning home tomorrow, I send this off to bless you on your journey.

Mothering is a journey, too, full of satisfactions and failures, obstacles to overcome and opportunities for faith and bravery. So this is also a blessing for all of us who mother friends, lovers, communities and children as they embark upon their own journeys. May you have beautiful skies and an easy landing, and may all that attentiveness, nurturing, challenging, forgiving, and exhorting you do bring growth and tenderness and love to all.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

May you be in her tender care

Today we visited the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Arizona Biltmore Hotel, and there were several of these figures around the property. I love the grace and tenderness of this one, so at odds with its crisp edges and squared features; it's a delightful and surprising contrast. And as I look at her, I think of the people of Mumbai, and ache for their pain and fear and loss.

It's another day without meditation or reading, and again this blog, which I am trying to write in a hotel lobby (the internet doesn't seem to work in our room) is suffering from the lack of preparation, lack of silence, lack of privacy... But I offer this lovely lady as a gesture of Thanksgiving for all of you who continue to read this blog, and who continue to send encouraging words my way, even though there are many of you whom I have never met. I am grateful for your ongoing presence in my life, and I wish you all the best in the year to come.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I found this today in a museum shop, and loved the juxtaposition. Nothing magical to say about it -- I had no time to meditate or read this morning -- but I wanted to share this image.

Sheep, goats and chickens
dancing across the fenceposts:
Music to her eyes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reflections on a yellow wood

I finished The Cloud of Unknowing this morning, and in the last section of the book he points out that if meditation does not bring you great joy, you may well not be called to it; it is okay to walk away. And then, of course, he admits that the joy won't always be there, and that's okay, too.

And then, because I finished my first chapter of Jesus, The Teacher Within yesterday, I thought I'd embark on the study questions we had been given. The first one on the list was this: Are there other questions you have experienced as redemptive in your life? And, having just read that passage in the Cloud of Unknowing, I remembered my first year on Shaw Island.

I had quit a job I loved, a job I had thought I would hold for the rest of my life, because the political climate where I worked made it impossible for me to do the job in good conscience. I had moved to a small island with my two daughters, only seeing my husband on weekends, with the idea that I would write a book. The book was written, I had a publisher interested, and then my mother died, suddenly, after a routine surgery.

Hers was the fourth death among friends and family in the space of less than a year, and the combined total of all the losses -- the deaths, the job, being away from my husband, in a home not my own -- threw me into a tailspin. I was angry, depressed, lost and lonely, all of it playing out in my body with various aches, pains and illnesses, and my computer and email were my lifeline to the world.

And the question my dear friend Nan Cobbey emailed me when I was at the bottom of that spiral was this: what sort of job or activity would make you leap out of bed with joy in the morning, eager to tackle another day?

It was a wonderful question, simple, and yet redemptive -- perhaps because it reminded me that joy was possible, reminded me to look for joy, and assured me that I deserved joy. It was also life-changing, because in seeking the answer I came to realize how much photography meant to me; how much joy it brought me; how consistently it seemed to bring me closer to God -- unlike the job, which I missed so much, which I thought I had been DOING for God.

That question allowed me to engineer a subtle shift of direction that also helped me discover my deep desire for meditative/contemplative activities. And that, as it says in the Robert Frost poem, has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Travelin' Light

They say a man's home is his castle, but now, having seen this castle in Naples, I realize my home is FAR from a castle. Like this castle, it sits on the edge of the water, though not quite as close!

But unlike this castle, it is made of wood, and glass; vulnerable to wind and tide. And as I prepare to walk away from it again for a few days, I find myself looking around at my home and its contents, imagining what life might be like if it were to disappear in my absence. And if I had a plastic box, in which I could place those things (not animals, or people) which mean the most to me, what would go in there?

It's a good question to ask, I think -- especially as a photographer. Because it's not really a question about what would cost most to replace; it's really about what is irreplaceable: what, if lost, could never be found again. Which means (to me, anyway) which photographs and photo albums would I save; which works of art; which letters, papers, and books...

In the end, of course, the real question emerges: are any of our possessions THAT important to us? And now that I bump up against that one, I see that I already had to visit that space, when my father died and everything I had grown up with -- books, games, records, china, furniture, tchotchkes, piano, my father's Karmann Ghia, his stamp collection, my grandfather's desk, my grandmother's four poster bed... all of it went to my stepmother. She passed on the family photographs, a quilt my mother had made, two boxes my grandfather had made, and all my mother's paintings, but the rest was gone.

I mourned it for a few years -- especially the books, the records, and the Ghia -- but eventually I learned to let go. And I realize now, looking around me, that there was a life lesson learned in that as well. It is actually possible to live, and to live happily, without "the stuff;" the tangible relics of a life lived in a certain time and space. Not that I wouldn't miss them; not that I wouldn't be devastated to lose so much that has nurtured me over the years. But in the end it would be okay.

Which is probably why now, looking around me, I see that though there's a lot I would miss if this particular castle of ours were to fall into the sea, there's very little I would need to put in that mythical plastic box: our wedding album, the album of photos from our first year on Shaw Island; the piece of glass I brought back from my first trip to Venice... Which is good. I can walk away feeling easy -- especially if I have my laptop full of photos with me!

There's a wonderful old Billie Holiday song that comes to mind as I write: It's called "Travelin Light."

I'm trav'lin' light
Because my man has gone
And from now on
I'm trav'lin' light

He said goodbye
And took my heart away
So from today
I'm trav'lin' light

No one to see
I'm free as the breeze
No one but me
And my memories

Some lucky night
He may come back again
But until then
I'm trav'lin' light

Hearing the lyrics to this song again, I realize that for all the pain and abandonment I felt around my father's death (yes, there is way more to that story), there was in fact a gift (isn't there always?) in the midst of it. Because that man has gone, I'm free as the breeze...

... and travelin' light.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Food for thought

When I am alone in the house I am usually working in silence; I love music, but rarely listen except in the car or when I am doing some particularly onerous task of housework. But it is the weekend, which means my husband is in the house, which means -- inevitably -- that the radio in the kitchen is on, set to NPR.

Usually I can just tune it out, but yesterday I overheard someone say to Rick Steves (what this has to do with travel, I'm not sure) that Americans seem to be obsessed with personal happiness, but for him (whoever he was) he felt that happiness was 100% relational.

I was intrigued by that, and by the implications of it -- particularly since he was so matter-of-fact about it. "Of COURSE!" he seemed to be saying, "Everyone but you foolish Americans seems to understand that happiness is about connecting with others!" And so, being one of those agreeable sorts, I smiled to myself and said, yes, those foolish Americans, its why we are so greedy, and fight wars, and poison the environment, because we do not understand that we are all connected, that one person cannot be truly happy unless all are happy.

But then I thought -- but wait: everytime I look outside myself for happiness, it fails. For me, happiness wells up from within, when I am feeling centered and whole. Are these irreconcilable differences? It seems to me that whenever we look to relationships to provide happiness we are disappointed.

So then, this morning, still reading Laurence Freeman (this book is really dense, and very slow-going, so I may be reading it for a while!), he talks about what he calls "divine love-longing":

"It is found deep in Jesus, in God, and in the human being, and it unites God and humanity in their common thirst for each other...the consuming longing to transmit the whole of one's self to another...this passion for self-communication is at the very heart of reality."

Which brings me back to what he calls the "Key Question" -- Who do you say that I am? I think we humans do indeed hunger deeply for relationship. We long for that childlike trust and connection that allows us to safely ask that question, hoping the answer will be a gift of love; that the person will "get" us, see who we really are at the deepest level, and respect and honor that.

Which is why Charlie Harper, in the TV show "Two and a Half Men" can always get a woman into bed by saying "I understand." The longing to be known and understood is at heart a longing for intimacy -- emotional and spiritual intimacy, that is -- but all too often we confuse that with sexual intimacy, settling for the second when what we long for is the first.

Hmm. I suppose I got off topic there, distracted by what I see as I watch the young people I know trying to find happiness in relationships...

But Freeman also says that we cannot answer the question for Jesus until we answer it for ourselves; that we cannot fully comprehend the Divine until we are able to give that childlike trust and acceptance to ourselves. But what does it take to get to that point?

And as I was standing there at the kitchen counter, my mind wandering down all these paths, the radio personality -- or perhaps it was Rick Steves -- mentioned Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

So I looked that up before embarking on this post. And apparently Maslow (yes, I knew this long ago as a college student, but had forgotten) objected to the fact that so many psychologists drew their conclusions from studying troubled people. So he elected to study healthy people instead. And his conclusion was that to be a happy and healthy person there are a NUMBER of needs to be satisfied, and that they come in a particular order, a hierarchy, usually displayed as a pyramid. The Wiki kindly offers this image, which I share with you:

And interestingly enough, Maslow calls the lower four tiers on the pyramid "deficiency needs (or D-needs)," saying that if we do not get them we will be anxious and tense. But if those needs are met, then we can begin to tackle what he calls Growth Needs or Being needs (B-needs), those listed in the Self-Actualization category. And then the Wiki goes on to say that "the motivation to realize our maximum potential and possibilities is considered to be the master motive or the only real motive, all other motives being its various forms."

Hmm. Sounds very 70's to me. Apparently Maslow put forth this theory in 1943, around the time all us baby-boomers were beginning to be born; do you suppose this stuff was at the heart of the behaviors attributed to the so-called "Me Generation?" Or did we all just get stuck at the esteem level and never make it to the top tier?

I guess I just don't buy it. Because, yes, I agree that humans have all those needs. But it seems to me that the behaviors at the top of the pyramid operate independently of all the others; that in fact we may be more likely to see those admirable qualities in people who are lacking fulfillment at the basest of levels than in, say, someone like Dick Cheney, who presumably has it all at the D-need level.

So perhaps this is the unique American fallacy, that happiness can ever come from satisfying any or all of those D-needs for one human being. Because all of those things are individual, where as the B-needs seem to me to be more relational -- and, in fact, to flow out of an understanding of our deep connection with the Divine and with all of creation. I'd like to think it is by setting aside our craving for all those D-needs and just focusing on the B-needs (isn't that what Gandhi did?) that we find true fulfillment and joy. But that's easy for me to say, because for the moment my D-needs seem to be mostly met. Would I be as "good" or "happy" a person if they weren't?

Oy. How did I wander down this road, anyway? Perhaps it's because I minored in Psychology in college; the temptation to analyze can still hook me after all these years. But what the heck: it's all food for thought -- and some of it quite tasty!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

There are places I remember...

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed:
Some forever, not for better:
Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living;
In my life I've loved them all.

When I rose from my meditation this morning, it was to discover that a thick fog had rolled in. The tide was pouring into the lagoon as well, and the gulls were squabbling over the fish in the shallows, trying to grab them before the deeper waters came in and carried them away.

Several images had wandered into my head during my meditation, but I loved watching the gulls -- though they were hardly photogenic -- and I thought I'd look for something foggy to share. And there, in my file of fog pictures, lay this photograph, taken some three and a half years ago in Mexico.

I love this image: the color of the morning sky, echoed in the buildings; the shapes of the mountains, the string of lights marching down the hill, its shape echoed in the road below; the tree in the middle with its graceful web of branches, the contrast of the light peach and the dark green... It has the fog, but it has color, too; subtle, but inviting.

The only problem is, I didn't like being there. On the advice of a friend we had chosen to vacation in Ixtapa. But on arrival we realized the hotel she'd recommended had definitely seen better days, and the now seriously depressed town -- unlike Zihuatenejo, the utterly charming fishing village nearby which I became too sick (on hotel food) to visit -- had been created out of nothing, its sole raison-d'etre to be a tourist trap.

As I look out my kitchen window, watching the gulls frolicking in the lagoon, I feel suffused with joy: it is a familiar scene, not particularly photogenic, almost devoid of color (though full of sound!), but I am happy to be here.

The photo, though, lovely as it is, fills me with sadness: for that depressed town, for that once magnificent and now almost empty hotel, for the misery of being feverish and ill in a room whose air conditioning smelled of sewage, and most of all for the young girl we took with us on the trip, a friend of our daughter's whose father was killed in a freak car accident shortly after we returned from Mexico.

Which is why the song above drifted into my head, I suppose: the sort of wistful quality fits the scene. And despite its beauty, I associate it with change, and loss; with missed opportunities, with hopes disappointed, and with the deep abiding sadness that still fills that young girl's heart.

And how does that relate to this question: who do you say that I am? Perhaps it is just that the answer to that question will always be -- whoever asks or answers -- complex; a mix of joy and color, sunny days and fog, sadness and loss, sickness and health, home and away, silence and sound, hope and despair, life and death... And a careful, thoughtful answer, voiced in love and tenderness, will hold and accept them all.

Freeman says, in my reading for today,

"Jesus asks Who do you say I am, not What am I or even Who do you think I say I am? It is an intimately personal question. If we do not feel its intimacy as disturbing -- even intrusive -- we have not listened to it. It is not twisting our arm however. Its authority is not violent but vulnerable, not forceful but humble. To ask a person who they really think you are is a declaration of love."

And somehow that brings me to that final verse:

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before --
I know I'll often stop and think about them;
In my life I love you more.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Art as verb, question, and sacred mystery

Yesterday evening I took some time to visit some of my favorite blogs. And in the November 10 post on Bob Cornelis' art blog (see link on left) there was gorgeous image, very simple, with intriguing layers and colors. And what he had written about was his own reluctance or inability to specialize in one single kind of art; to focus on one single subject matter.

The comments on this post were great, raising lots of interesting questions, and one woman, Miki, actually said that none of her own pieces graced the walls of her home because "I can’t bear to be confronted with my art.... Why is it like that? I don’t know exactly, but ... when I look at my paintings, I have the feeling to look directly into my past, and it is something like “dead” for me. I have no emotional connection to it."

This is, I should add, not how I feel about my own work, but it posed some interesting questions, which lay there, fermenting in my brain. And then in his November 20 post Cornelis offered this quotation:

“The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.”

- Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

Reading his thoughts about this, and about Art, it felt like what was being said is that Art is about the creative process: it has life, and movement; it is a verb. And the result of that process is a noun: once complete, it is unchanging, stagnant -- in Miki's words, dead.

But, having seen Miki's work, I don't find it dead at all, and I think perhaps good art, even though it may be unchanging, will continue to evoke life, and thought, and response in those who look at it. So then I thought perhaps the created work, the painting or photograph, is an icon for the creative process as it is lived out in that particular artist.

Which of course took me back into my post from yesterday: the painting is the icon of the creative process in the artist, and yet the artist (in yesterday's language) is an icon of Jesus. But isn't Jesus -- Divine in human form -- an icon of the Divine? And isn't it possible that one way of looking at the Divine is as this intense, creative, compassionate, driving impulse of creation and love that serves as the spark that ignites all living things?

So then, this morning, I was reading about the importance of questions, particularly about the open questions that continue inspiring us to search for answers. And it occurred to me that at its best ART is a question: How do I see this? Or how can I express this? What choices will I make as I create this? It works almost like a zen koan: at some level it is unanswerable, but at another level there can be an answer that may work in that one moment, in that one person. And I think if we see art as a question, we will always be exploring new ways of answering the question; that would be an integral part of the creative process.

And if an answer is like closing a door, then of course, once Miki has finished a painting, it may no longer hold interest for her. Which doesn't mean that her work, as an icon of her creative process for that one piece of time, doesn't pose additional questions for those who view it.

"When we stop questioning," says Freeman, "We die. We only stop asking questions when we have despaired of life or when delusion or pride have mastered us. All the same," he goes on, "we hardly ever give up dreaming that a single definitive formula could solve all of life's problems... But the right questions constantly refresh our awareness that life is not fundamentally a secular problem but a sacred mystery."

Questioning is about openness; about remaining open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers, that there may be something else for us to learn, to experience, or to express. It's about not closing down, even in the midst of intense pain, or anger; frustration or loss... It's about listening, about waiting, and about vulnerability; about keeping the heart and mind open so that we may listen for what each moment has to teach us.

Which is why this image was the one that leaped out at me today: she is a reliquary, of a saint (I don't know which one) and I found her in a gallery in Naples, tucked away with lots of other reliquaries. I love that she is so open, and yet her pen is poised to write, or to draw, the insights she gains as she listens.

She, too, is an icon, and she speaks to the fact that each of us is an artist, creating a life, making choices, engaging in that iconic dance of exploration, listening for the promptings of the divine and expressing that divine light within us.

And what I love is that all of this possibility has been triggered by that one question: who do you say that I am?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Image, Imagination, and Icon

Yesterday evening, in response to Stacey's comment on yesterday's blog, I decided to try that photoshop technique on my own self-portrait, to see what would emerge. This is my first attempt, and I'm not too happy with it: it looks a bit like some sort of swamp monster!

But it was an intriguing exercise, because instead of just using layers of images chosen for their texture and dynamic range I found myself considering content: what is this a picture OF, and is that subject an important part of who I am? Things got pretty complicated at that point -- I even tried to see if I could somehow work in a buddha face -- and when I finally decided to stop "fiddling" with the image, I was tired, stiff, and discouraged -- which doesn't mean it wasn't an interesting exercise, or that I won't attempt it again at some point.

But then, this morning, reading again in The Cloud of Unknowing (which I have not quite finished yet) I saw this:

"Imagination is a power by means of which we make all our images of things...[and] Unless it is restrained by the light of grace in reason, the imagination never ceases, whether we are asleep or awake, to present various unseemly images of bodily creatures or else some fanciful picture that is either a bodily representation of a spiritual thing or else a spritual representation of a bodily thing. Such representations are always false, deceptive, and compounded with error."

Hmm, I thought, reading this, perhaps all this work with faces is not a good thing? Certainly my back is suffering this morning; could this be why? Is it a mistake to wander down this particular path, to invite my imagination to engage with my spiritual life?

And then, in Jesus the Teacher Within, Laurence Freeman talks about the question, "Who do you say that I am?"

"Every culture has its own images of Jesus and so no response can ever be the final answer...We can only imagine Jesus with the means provided by our cultural and personal imagination...Once we have pictured Jesus in our magination, it is tempting to enroll him in support of our opinions and prejudices...Because of the distance between the historical and the imagined Jesus, Christians often seem more concerned about promoting their Jesus in support of their moral or social opinions than in discovering who he really is...[but] According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. How can this timeless identity be described?"

So here's the dilemma: how are we to understand Jesus without visualizing Him? And how can the Jesus we visualize ever begin to be anything more than a reflection of our own imperfect imaginations and egoic desires?

Fortunately I had time yesterday to flip over to the Oriental Orthodox blog (the one at the bottom of my blogroll to the left of this post) and happened upon this entry from Lynn Bauman:

Iconic Life

As pilgrims across the horizontal landscape of space-time, we are being summoned to an "iconic life"--to live as icons, not as egos. Egoic life is the polar opposite of iconic life, for an icon and an ego stand at opposite ends of the human spectrum.

An icon, as we know, manifests in visual form the essence of a person. Whereas an icon shines with it own unique inner light, which is the non-constructed and eternal nature that was present from its eternal origins, the ego is merely an externally constructed form made up out of the stuff of human society and manifest as the "mask" of its deepest nature.

To discover the icon in ourselves is the inner work required of us. It is our highest vocation to ourselves, but also the greatest gift we can ever give to one another.

... which somehow, for me, pulls it all together. Instead of visualizing or imagining a Jesus who is separate from ourselves -- which must inevitably mean constructing a Jesus who supports our own cultural perspectives -- we can visualize ourselves as icons of Jesus, which allows for the timeless perfection that is Jesus to shine through our own imperfect egoic selves.

If we look at it that way, then those cultural differences which lead to different imaginings of Jesus (which can then be manipulated to support our own selfish aims) are instead transformed into unique individual iconic manifestations of one whole, complete, creative and timeless truth. So then imagination, rather than constructing a Jesus who will bend to our whims, becomes a way of understanding and expressing the unique way that Jesus is working for transformation within each one of us.

It is in that context that we can begin to explore that important question: Who do you say that I am? And that, I suspect, will prove to be an amazing journey.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The encouragement of light

For some reason, this week I seem to be fixated on faces.

It began, I think, with a comment my daughter made on my blog around the time I discovered Anita Feng's raku buddhas: she suggested that perhaps I needed to make some buddhas of my own.

When in art class last week we learned a deliciously simple way to make prints from sheets of styrofoam, I realized I'd found a perfect vehicle for making buddha faces. So I began attempting to draw them -- they always seem so simple -- but they weren't quite coming out right, and I decided I might need to be more intentional about it, to draw while in a meditative state, drawing more out of my own understanding of what Buddha is rather than copying other people's renditions.

On my last morning in Portland I was awakened at 4 a.m., and for the next two hours, my dreams were haunted by Photoshop, of all things: I had an idea for playing with portraits that insisted on replaying itself over and over in my head. So when I got home I began working with this technique, trying to achieve the images that seemed so clear in my dreams.

And then yesterday, in my study group on Jesus, the Teacher Within, we were given this assignment: to take time to look in the mirror and gaze into our own eyes and ask – “Who am I?” “Who do I say I am?”

Looking obediently at my face in the mirror this morning, I realized, all of this activity is revolving around faces. And as a photographer, wouldn't it make more sense to use what I KNOW to create the face of Buddha, rather than to leap into another field where I have so little expertise? Perhaps I need to combine the desire to create Buddha faces with the Photoshop technique I dreamed up, and somehow know that I am coming to understand my own face and the face of Jesus in the process.

So before blogging I sat down at my computer, planning to try this new technique on a buddha face. But when I went to my file of statues to seek out a buddha face to work with, I realized I wasn't quite ready to tackle a buddha, and I chose instead to work with a statue I had photographed at my friend Carole's house up on Shaw Island. And this is the result.

I have not given up on the idea of making prints of Buddha faces: I think it's important to stretch myself, and any activity that involves drawing is a stretch for me! Plus I suspect that the act of concentrating on the face of Buddha is a valuable kind of active meditation.

But I also realize that in creating this particular image I am also answering -- for today, at least -- the question of who I am. I am reflective. I am woman. I am more comfortable with a camera than with a pen. And I am drawn to and bathed in light. Which brings me to the Hafiz poem with which we began our meditation session yesterday:

“How did the rose ever open its heart
and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being:
Otherwise we all remain too frightened.”

It takes courage to look in the mirror and truly see our selves. And it takes courage to open to new ideas, to learn new skills, to see familiar objects in new ways. But I feel the encouragement of light, and will press on.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A moment of color

My time in Portland was lovely, and I came back overflowing with ideas for creative expression, a reflection of the joy and love I felt being with my daughter; of the time alone, which often results in the springing forth of new ideas; and of the glories of autumn in Portland.

While many of the larger trees in Portland have already shed their leaves, others, like this one tucked against the side of my daughter's dormitory, have just begun to turn. And there's something about that rich blend of colors that just fills my soul.

This morning I will be embarking on a new study group, reading Laurence Freeman's "Jesus, the Teacher Within." The book arrived while I was away, but I had time to read the foreword -- by the Dalai Lama (!) -- while sipping my coffee this morning. He had some wonderful things to say about "the enormous potential for mutual enrichment in the dialogue between Buddhist and Christian traditions," and it feels a bit to me like what happens when so many colors meet in a single tree.

I like to think that in remaining open to the brightness of the different traditions, holding them all loosely within our branches, we can still remain uniquely ourselves, producing our own characteristic leaves, growing at our own unique pace, and yet serving as a beacon of creativity for all whose lives touch ours.

But maybe it's more than just the colors of the different traditions. Perhaps what the tree is really telling us is that it is the blending of all of our life's experiences, of all the different colors and flavors, the dark and the light, the passionate reds and the soothing greens, the joys and the sorrows, that together have the potential to inspire and enrich the world.

Or maybe this is nothing more than a beautiful tree, and it needs no words of explanation. Wherever the truth lies, I just wanted to share the colors with you.

Have a lovely, color-filled day!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Harbingers of Advent

Most of us think of angels as sweet-faced creatures, singing in choirs, hovering over the stable in Bethlehem, or clustering about to catch us when we fall, protecting us from auto accidents and the like.

But there is also that concept of the avenging angel, like this one, who dispenses justice from the hall of the Doges Palace in Venice. You get the distinct sense, looking at this angel, that whatever vengeance it hurls down will be well deserved; it reminds me a bit of a mother who has lost patience with her child and is about to strike him or her, the implication being that whatever pain results from that is fully deserved, and the poor being who suffers brought it on himself by his own actions.

It reminds me a bit of a line from an old movie from the Eighties called Semi-Tough, a ridiculous Burt Reynolds/Kris Kristofferson spoof of EST and the other self-help mentalities that were so popular back in those days. Both are football players, and Burt Reynolds seems to have lost his playing edge, so someone talks him into trying rolfing. When next you see him he is lying on a massage table on his stomach, covered only by a towel, and a woman who bears a terrifying resemblance to one of the evil Russian spies in the James Bond movies of the time (you know, the one with the knives that shoot out of the tips of her shoes?) is digging her fingers into his back while he screams in pain.

And her reassuring words to him as he begs to escape the agony of her brutally probing fingers are, "This is not me hurting you; this is you hurting yourself!" (said, of course, in a thick and menacing Russian accent).

... which is not unlike what my cheating ex-husband used to say to me when I was crying desperately over his latest infidelity. "I'm not hurting you; you are hurting yourself by dwelling on it like this."

... which is, in turn, not unlike what the Republicans sometimes say when the Democrats get too protective and concerned about the poor: "they brought their suffering on themselves with their laziness, and with the bad choices they made."

...which is, in turn, not unlike the underlying statement of Buddhism: that there will always be pain, but it is you who create your own suffering, by the way you react to, think about, obsess about and avoid your pain.

Hmm. Does that mean Buddhists are Republicans? Or Republicans are Buddhists?

I stopped here after writing this post this morning, as I had to leave to take my daughter to a doctor's appointment. I elected not to publish it at the time, as it seemed unfinished, or at least to be moving in a rather disturbing direction. Which is not surprising, because I wrote it after a rather disturbing meditation -- one in which I found myself revisiting a long-forgotten moment in my childhood.

I was probably 7 or 8 at the time, and my neighbor's daughter had taken me up to the hayloft in her father's barn to visit a new litter of kittens. I don't actually know if this activity had been forbidden, but I do remember I fell out of the hayloft and knocked the wind out of myself (I suspect I didn't injure anything else).

But I also suspect my mother must have yelled at me, because there is this confusing sense that I did something I didn't know was wrong, and I got hurt AND I got yelled at. Which, I suspect, is how some of the people who are beginning to feel the hideous pinch of this economic crisis must feel.

I also suspect this combination of feelings flavored much of my childhood, which probably explains why I still struggle with insecurity, and why my automatic response to difficult situations is always to appease and apologize. There's always this sense that there are rules I don't know or understand, but might inadvertently have broken, and I'm always worried someone will be yelling at me about that. But hey, I'm working on it: it's all grist for the mill.

I'm not quite sure why reading about Buddhism triggered this progression of memories in me. But watching them all line up in a row like dominoes, ready to tip me over to the bleak darkness that is shame, helps me understand why I keep running back to the middle of that bridge between Christianity and Buddhism. I'm not saying it's the right thing to do, only that it's my inclination.

Because I want the forgiveness.

And I want the hope.

And I still believe those are the gifts that Jesus brings -- and I can't tell you how grateful I still am for those gifts, all these many years later.

Something tells me we must be moving into Advent...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The music in the moment

Yesterday I decided to take advantage of a free weekend and drive down to Portland to visit my daughter. We had a delightful afternoon and evening together, and now, this morning, I find myself in a hotel room, drinking a double short Starbucks breve and reading a book my friend Joanna recommended, entitled "Nothing Special: Living Zen" by Charlotte Joko Beck.

Beck begins by saying that we spend much of our lives trying to protect ourselves from the inevitable realities of loss, change and death, desperately trying to create the illusion of safety and security. She goes on to describe some of the ways we do this, and I found myself really appreciating the originality and insight of her observations about some of the particular paths we choose in our avoidance efforts:

"We have many ways to cope with life...all based on the fear of encountering any kind of unpleasantness. If we must have absolute order and control...if we can have things our way and get angry if they're not...if we can please everyone...if we can be the star of the show, shining, wonderful and efficient...if we can withdraw from the world...if we can figure everything out, if we can be so smart that we can fit everything into some sort of plan or order...if we can submit to an authority, have it tell us what to do...if we can pursue life madly, going after any pleasant sensation...if we can tell others what to do... if we can be a mindless buddha... " surely one of these paths will protect us, so that no unpleasantness will enter our lives.

But of course it doesn't work that way. And yet, after reading this, I sat down to meditate and the usual thoughts were crowding into my head, both thoughts of how to "fix" my children's lives and sadness about my contribution to their brokenness (though at the moment both are doing well, I hasten to add); thoughts about how I pursue some of the above-mentioned avoidance mechanisms and then I could see myself slipping into those exact behaviors; thoughts about the changes in my life lately, and thoughts about how defended I still am against the vicissitudes of life.

Beck talks about the Myth of Sisyphus and what it tells us about life, and I could see both how it was true for me and how I was resisting the ordinariness and the inevitableness of it all. She talks also about the joy we find in the moment when we release needing it to be other than it is, but I didn't seem to be getting to that part.

My meditation ended with a peremptory beep from my cellphone; a text message from a friend acknowledging that I'd be unable to meet with her at church this morning (this trip was a bit of a last-minute decision). And then I sat down to my computer and, before embarking on the blog, checked my email. And for some reason my husband had sent me a pointer to a youtube video in which Big Bird comes to grips with the loss of his friend Mr. Hooper. It takes a while for Big Bird to understand that being dead means Mr. Hooper will not be coming back, that Big Bird will never see him again. "Why does it have to be this way?" he mourns. And the adult characters all look at each other, and then one comes over and puts his hand on Big Bird's shoulder.

"Just Because," he says. "Just Because."

"Oh," says Big Bird. And for some reason, maybe because one of the grownups says it, or maybe because when you are young you still know that some things in life are unexplainable, Big Bird accepts the explanation.

So here it is, death,one of those things we try hardest to protect ourselves from, and we are confronted again with the inevitablity of that. There is, after all, no way to avoid it. So I thought, if I'm going to be writing about this, what image will I find to illustrate it?

So, again, I went to my images from Italy, thinking a statue of some sort might work, and this is the one that jumped out at me. Of course! I thought. All this talk of death, of inevitablility, springs from the fact that I'm still grieving for Pippa. It takes a different form now, it's less obvious, but the fact is that her death has opened up that chasm again, and though I've walked away from the edge of the abyss, I can still see it looming.

But of course the hardest part of death is that emptiness we survivors are left with: we all find relief, I think, in the thought that our loved ones are no longer suffering. What if that's not all there is to it? What if they're not just "not suffering," but in fact have found a whole new life, somewhere away from us, a life filled with joy and laughter, color and music and delight? Would that make it easier for us here? Would the empty holes they've left behind, the dish that no longer needs to be set out, the place in the window seat that is now empty, be easier to bear if we could somehow know that somewhere they are rejoicing with new life?

I'm not sure. But I like this photo nonetheless, and I like the idea that it sort of leaped out of the computer into this blog. It's very NOT Pippa -- she was extremely shy and reserved and self-contained, not at all like this very male, very outgoing creature. But it's like the Ohio state motto says: "With God all things are possible."

The fact is that my grieving is really about me; it's not about Pippa. And the fact is that I will grieve until I am not grieving. It is what it is, and my task is probably just to accept that that is a part of my life, still coloring my thoughts and feelings and reactions. And there is a blessing, and a release, in just accepting that. It's all part of the music that is this moment.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Distracted by a taste of the future

Yesterday I had to run some errands in town. I went in around noon, which meant that parking would be tight, so I took the first parking spot I saw and then went about my business, which included visits to an art supply store and a bookstore and various other stops.

Coming back down the street after my errands had been completed (I had even found a couple of Christmas presents, so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself) I passed the mini-mall that houses the art store and caught a whiff from the pizza place. These folks make fabulous pizza, and it WAS lunch time, so I got distracted and began wondering if I should grab lunch while I was in the area. The bag I carried was heavy, so I thought I'd drop it in the car before heading upstairs, so I went to the car and pressed the unlock button on my key.

Nothing happened, no little click. I tried again, no click. Maybe I had left the car unlocked? I tried the door but it was locked. Maybe the key battery was dead? And then I looked in the car and realized it was a dark green Honda Pilot, but not MY dark green Honda pilot.


That's right, I had the wrong car. I ought to have remembered that I hadn't gotten a place that close to the art shop. So I walked further down the block, passing several other cars... ah, there it is, I thought, still thinking about that delicious pizza, and I pushed the unlock button, reaching impatiently for the door as I did so.

Again, no response. I tried the door, no luck. And then I looked in and there was a bright blue jacket in the front seat. Hmm, I thought, I don't remember leaving that there... and then: Ouch, and double ouch; I'd done it not just once but TWICE! Because this dark green Pilot wasn't mine either. I don't even OWN anything in that shade of blue!

Now thoroughly embarrassed I stopped thinking about pizza and began to hunt for my car in earnest. And when I finally found it, before I pressed the unlock button, I looked inside to be sure it was mine, and, yes, there was the Jerusalem cross a friend gave me years ago, hanging from the rear view mirror.

Having so successfully shifted my focus from pizza to car, I threw the bag in the back seat and climbed in, starting the engine in case anyone might be watching, to show that I wasn't just randomly trying to break into cars but had indeed found my own. I backed out of the space and drove away, and got down to the end of the block before realizing that I had just cheated myself out of that pizza.

Ah, no, I should go home, I can eat there, I thought, but the pizza was still calling me (Sausage! Pepperoni! Cheese!) so I circled the rotary and headed back into town. There were no longer any parking places to be had on the street, so I wandered into the alley, and someone was just pulling out, so I pulled in to the newly vacated spot and went up for my pizza.

When I came back, pizza in hand, the car beside me had left, and there was a red VW bug in its place. And hanging from its rear view mirror (we were parked behind a Mexican restaurant, so this might explain it) was this rosary, sparkling in the sunlight. I fired up my car and started to back out, then thought, okay, I'm just going to photograph this; maybe this is the reason I ended up in this spot; who knows! At any rate, if I photograph it I'll be forced to confess my foolishness in the morning.

So I did, and I have confessed, and here she is, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to brighten your day as she brightened mine. Maybe she's there to say, however foolishly we may behave, the Divine is still with us. Or perhaps she's just here to remind us of the importance of being present in the moment. Because if we allow something to tempt us, however briefly, into tasting the future, it's possible we might miss something really important right here in front of us!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lessons in the bark

I first found this reclining buddha in a storefront on Capri. I thought she was enchanting, but the photo I took really didn't do her justice. She was lying on a black background, behind a glass window, quite low to the ground, so the photo included reflections of my feet (in green crocs) and my husband's feet as well (in flip-flops); very distracting.

This morning, as I began my photo-browse in search of today's post, I knew I wanted a statue of some sort, so I went to the file of photos I had taken in Naples. But what I found there was a photo of the colorful bark of a sycamore tree; I had taken several shots of this one tree while waiting for a bus on a busy street corner.

I loved the color and texture of the bark, so I settled on that, rotated it to make it more stable, and then realized that the swirling movement of it reminded me of the buddha from Capri. OOH! a possible way to use her! So I went back to the Capri file and realized that, despite the foot reflections, the background was so dark that I could use the select tool to separate out the figure from the rest of the picture.

I then added her to the sycamore tree and softened her edges, fading her a bit and shifting her colors to make her blend better with the bark. Once they became an inseparable unit, I realized that together they would look better standing than lying down, so I flipped the bark back into its original vertical position.

To complete the image, I found a bright red blackberry leaf from an excursion to Poulsbo's Fish Park and stretched it to cover a distractingly sensual scar in the bark, then softened the leaf color to bring out the blues in the bark, and Voila!

I don't quite know (though obviously I can trace my steps) how or why these images seem to want to compile themselves. Nor am I certain that this is the final evolution of this particular compilation. But here are some lessons I learned from this work:

1. You don't always have to keep the bathwater just to get the baby. And what I mean by that is this: Life is like an image: we are exposed (like film!) to new ideas and new thinking all the time -- in books, in articles, in images, in meetings, in churches, in study groups -- but we don't have to take it all in total. Sometimes I have to give myself permission to just hold on to what is meaningful for me, to remind myself that it's okay, even good, to pick and choose bits of what we hear and see. We can select out what is buddha, for us, and toss the feet and shoes.

Which is why I can continue reading The Cloud of Unknowing even though I object to some of its underlying theology. The author has a great deal to say, some of it very pertinent, and I have to trust that I will "hear" whatever I am meant to hear, and it is okay, for now, to discard the other.

2. You don't have to remain upright all the time; sometimes it's good to lie down. The sycamore tree grows up -- that is its job. But it wasn't until I let it rest on its side that I could see the Buddha in it. It feels to me like this is a reminder that we need to rest, we need to stop doing once in a while and just be -- and sometimes that choice will bring us new insights we might not have had otherwise.

3. By letting go, relaxing, and softening the boundaries between what is me and what is other, I can form a bond that is stronger than each of us -- and the resulting energy from that connection allows me to resume the tasks I am born to do. The tree had to lie down to connect with the Buddha, but once united they needed to stand -- and the Buddha was actually lifted out of her lethargy by that.

So what about the leaf, you ask, why the leaf? I think it's there for the same reason Adam and Eve grabbed the fig leaves in the Garden of Eden. Because once we are no longer innocent, sex can get really distracting from the task at hand! And you'll just have to trust me, the scar looked exactly like a vagina. Since clearly the Buddha is covering that part of herself, I have echoed and honored that impulse by doing the same for the sycamore tree. The subtlety of the resulting image, I think, is far more sensual than either the buddha alone in the window or the scar alone in the tree. Perhaps there's a lesson in that as well!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Staying attuned to Hope

Last night we joined some friends for dinner, and it was a lovely evening with delicious food and lively conversation. But the subjects -- which revolved largely around corporate and global greed, the effects of rampant individualism, and the challenges our new president will face when he takes office -- were so disturbing that I've been finding it very hard to stay focused this morning.

All these random images -- of containers full of discarded cellphones and computers being shipped to China; of Chinese women and children in small villages taking them apart and being exposed to all the toxicity; of marine mammals being damaged by underwater testing; of Indian farmers committing suicide because they can't afford to feed their families due to the high cost of seeds; of the Kuwaiti diplomats who repeatedly break our parking laws yet never pay their tickets; of our own little sandspit being underwater in 15 years thanks to global warming -- are haunting me today, competing for shelf space in my head.

If it's difficult for me to see through them to the purity and hope that must surely also exist in both present and future, what must it be like for Obama, who knows so much more and actually has a responsibility to do something about it?

As I slowly release these thoughts and settle back into my normal routine, I always wonder: am I doing the right thing? Is it okay to "just be a photographer"? Instead of focusing on hope and beauty, should I be focusing on the impact of greed and corruption? It's hard to justify staying disengaged from those issues; to give myself permission to continue on my present path and assume that somehow this work of prayer is enough.

But I also wonder how people who do not have a spiritual connection of some sort can bear to live in this world we have created? For me, there is a trust that somehow God is working through all things -- even man's greed and profligacy -- for good, though it's hard to see how that will play out in my lifetime, or for my children. But if I did not have that faith, I think I would feel completely overwhelmed, depressed, and discouraged about what we humans have done to this precious world of ours.

In this picture there is a kingfisher, and in the original image on the right he is much more difficult to see. Which is why I chose this today: my thoughts and distractions felt like weeds, hiding the subject of the picture, hiding the reason I took it at all. But to make certain you would be able to see him, I cropped the picture and heightened the contrast around the bird, highlighting his bright spots, darkening his crest and wing so he would stand out from his surroundings.

I actually like the photo on the right better, the big picture. But I think it's the picture on the left that helps you spot the bird in the picture on the right. If you're not the photographer, it's hard to know what the subject of the picture is: you need to be exposed to the pattern, to have it pointed out, before you can observe it for yourself.

I suppose, in a way, that is my role in other ways as well: to spot the hope when it flies by, to focus in on it, to somehow be there to capture those rare moments when it lands, and to highlight it in ways that will allow others to catch sight of it as well. If I can do that, I have a chance to shift their focus, however briefly, from the weeds of life to the bright promise that lies hidden beyond them.

And I think that's a good thing; how can we ever keep going if we don't believe there IS life, and hope, and color, and beauty out there? But some days it's pretty hard to spot, and very hard to stay attuned to it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Becoming Kwan Yin

Despite my coughing fit the other day I am still reading The Cloud of Unknowing. And this morning it occurred to me that, actually, the coughing fit was perfectly in keeping with what that text has to say about meditation; about the striving for connection with the Divine.

Because the clouds, the cloud of unknowing and the cloud of forgetting, are all about that which comes between me and God; about all the petty concerns, and the ignorance, and the wasted time, and the self-absorption. In short, anything that prohibits that flow of grace in and through me can be defined by one or the other of those clouds.

So of course, if I focus on them, I have trouble breathing in the grace and clarity for which I hunger. Which is why the monk tells us we are to throw those constant darts of love THROUGH the cloud to That Which Lies Beyond.

In becoming aware of the cloud in this way, and in thinking of that image I posted, of the ship’s mast, and the faint clouds drifting across it, I began to see that even if I could release all the thoughts that were occluding the connection, there was still a thin membrane blocking the flow; still a part of me resisting the ultimate flow of grace and spirit between Creator and Creation.

It was then that I realized it was time to let go, to unlink my fingers, to open my hands and place them on my lap; to stop protecting myself as I sat. And the beauty of that choice, in that moment, was that I felt both open and safe, despite all prior resistance to this posture.

And in that moment I could begin to comprehend the appeal of this lovely little figure, one of the Buddhas I brought home with me from Issaquah the other day. This photograph does not begin to capture her iridescent glow (this is raku pottery), but you can at least see the tenderness, openness, and compassion which Anita has captured in her clay.

She is, Anita tells me, Kwan Yin, known as the bodhisattva of compassion. Her name means “one who perceives the cries of the world” -- which is why Anita depicts her with a slightly tilted head, as if she is listening -- and she responds with compassionate aid to those in need.

I cannot promise that I will always be able to meditate with open hands. But at least now I see that if and when I can do so I will have removed yet another layer of the cloud that keeps me separate from the divine connection for which I hunger. This sculpture is, in fact, like a visual representation of the practice of tonglen, only at the deeper level of image: in removing – or at least parting – that curtain or membrane which keeps me separate; in opening to the rest of creation, I can more effectively breathe in the pain of of the world and breathe out the divine joy of connection.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Roots of Compassion

One of the conditions of our trip to Italy was that my husband's brother was determined to visit Pompeii. I can't say I had his passion for this excursion, but I did remember reading about the story of Pompeii as a child, and I thought it might prove interesting.

I'm not sure what I expected, now that I look back on it. Perhaps I thought there might be little tableaux, like the ones you sometimes see in museums, of people frozen in the midst of simple household tasks? Or perhaps it was just that that's what the illustrations were in the book I'd read so long ago.

What I didn't expect was a dead dog, perfectly preserved in ash, contorted in agony; what I didn't expect was this person, also preserved, in a final act of prayer. There is something about the posture of prayer that is so universal, so recognizable, that despite the fact that there were hundreds of tourists passing by this, one of the few human figures at the site, there was virtual silence at this point in the journey. We could all identify, and I suspect we were all humbled by the sight.

I visited a meditation gathering of local Buddhists last night, and when the evening was done the conversation turned -- not surprisingly -- to our recent election. And each person in the room spoke of tears they had shed, relief they had felt, hope that had begun to rise again. "I had no idea how depressed and discouraged I was," said one woman, "until it was over, and I realized I was actually proud again to be an American."

Everyone also had stories to tell of friends they knew in other parts of the world -- in Denmark, in France, in Canada, in Taiwan who had told them there was dancing in the streets in all these faraway places when Obama won.

"Yes," said one, "But there is so much work to be done."

"Ah," said another, "But he won't be doing it alone!" and they all began to discuss ways they could help, volunteer opportunities, contribution opportunities...

There are moments -- rare, to be sure, but they do exist -- when the barrier that separates us as individuals from the rest of humanity becomes highly permeable, if not invisible. And at those times, however brief, there is a universal empathy that arises; a sharing in the feeling, and a longing to reach out and help.

The root words for compassion, this universal empathy, have to do with "feeling with;" and I remember reading somewhere that the word shares its root with the word for womb. Which means compassion holds within in it the tenderness a mother feels, sharing life with and caring for her unborn child, still so much a part of herself; another way of looking at the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

So I think of those silent tourists, stopping to gaze at this poor soul huddled in the fetal position, awash in prayer, and I feel hope: that the compassionate response is innate, and automatic -- ingrained in us from birth -- and that now, perhaps, we have another chance to get it right, to build bridges across the chasms that have split our country apart and have isolated us from the rest of our human family.

I pray, with all my heart, that this might come to pass. And yet, at the same time, I look at this figure and wonder: can there be any hope? Or have we let it go too long, so that we are now doomed to be buried under a mountain of our own making; a mountain of debt, a mountain of trash and plastic, an environmental holocaust... We have screwed up on so many levels. Will we be able to hold back the lava of it all? I just don't know.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The clear teal knowing that is God

For the past few weeks I've been reading The Cloud of Unknowing; partly because I missed a retreat on it due to my surgery, and partly because it felt like it was time to immerse myself in it -- it kept coming up in conversations with friends.

My initial response to the book was fairly negative: I found I resented the language which set God "outside" -- above, separate, something to strive toward which might or might not reach back -- but it clearly had other aspects which had much to teach me. So, since I was reading it, I thought I should endeavor to practice it as well.

And this morning, imagining again the cloud of unknowing that hides the face of God, and imagining again the cloud of forgetting, beneath which I resolutely thrust all other thoughts of people,places, things and activities which distract me from this brief time spent focusing on God, I found I was overcome by a coughing fit.

At this point I would like to step away from this subject for a moment to mention that my older daughter and I are both synaesthetes. Synaesthesia is a non-threatening neurological condition that lowers the barriers between the senses – causing concepts to have, say, colour or taste. We know for sure that both of us are subject to grapheme-color synaesthesia, which is to say that, for both of us, letters, words and numbers have characteristic colors. We haven't spent a lot of time exploring it, but we do both dream in color, and we both have other ways in which the physical senses cross over: tastes have color, or colors have characteristic sounds or scents.

I mention this because it is the most probable explanation for what happened next. Because, when I began coughing, I felt it was the clouds of unknowing and forgetting that were creating the tickle in my throat; it felt very much like the feeling I get in our local theater when they turn on the fog machine. Exploring this feeling, I realized that, for me, clouds have a beige-y gray sort of color; they are more opaque than translucent, and in mentally surrounding myself with these clouds I was not, in fact, reaching out for divinity, but instead cutting myself off from divinity.

So I mentally blew away the clouds, and returned to a previous mental image. (I know, I'm supposed to be completely empty in meditation. But as a highly visual person I find that to be virtually impossible; the cloud (and this is one reason I was pursuing it) was the closest I've come to successfully clearing out any other images that might surface or absorb me when I sit.)

Immediately, as soon as I restored my former image, I could feel my breathing passages open up. I am not sure I can describe how this image works, but somehow there is a clear deep blue-green color, like the Puget Sound on a still clear day, that is God above and around me. And with every breath I take, that color fills me, to become God within me.

Which is a miracle in itself -- and one I celebrate at some level every time I sit. Because I can still remember a time not all that long ago when "within" was a mass of snakes, or ropes, or dust, or mud, or tangled detritus, with no room for the clear teal awareness that is God. (Thank you, Bev Gaines, for helping me discover that and do the appropriate housecleaning!)

Which is to say, I guess, that the Cloud of Unknowing just doesn't work for me. I will continue reading the book, and draw from it what I can. But clearly I need to breathe. And the Divine is as essential to me as life and breath; I can no longer function in an environment where God is perceived as totally Other, apart, remote, unreachable, and unknowable.

Which probably explains why some traditional religious language and customs make me want to run screaming from the church. Sometimes, in some churches, listening to some liturgies or some preachers -- sometimes I just can't breathe.

So yes, I will continue to strive, to reach out, or up, or down -- and sometimes, as in this image, it's not quite clear which direction that is -- to the clear teal knowing that is God. And if there are clouds drifting across that picture, that's okay, too. My job is just to continue breathing it all in.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hymn to Creativity

Heard in church this morning:

Moved by the Gospel, let us move with every gift and art.
The image of creative love indwells each human heart.
The Maker calls creation good, so let us now express
with sound and color, stone and wood,
the shape of holiness.

Let weavers form from broken strands a tapestry of prayer.
Let artists paint with skillful hands their joy in lament and care,
Then mime the story: Christ has come;
With reverence dance the Word.
With flute and organ, chime and drum, God’s praise be ever heard.

O Spirit, breathe among us here, inspire the work we do.
May hands and voices, eye and ear attest to life made new.
In worship and in daily strife create among us still.
Great Artist form our common life according to Your will.

Dying to live

We've all heard it, and said it: I'm dying to do that, or I'm dying to see that, or I'm dying to get that -- all ways of saying "I'd be willing to give up a lot for this opportunity."

But at the same time there is a passiveness to this phrase; a sense that despite the longing and the intent it's unlikely the desired event will actually come to pass. Because the fact is that most of us tend to be unwilling to give up what is for what might be. And yet we have models for this all around us: the plants that die off every fall, giving away their fruit and seeds in hope of an unknown future; the salmon, swimming desperately upstream at the close of life to give birth to the new; all the plants and animals we kill off daily to keep ourselves alive.

It's not surprising, I suppose: we all know the phrase "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Common sense tells us to hold on to what we have rather than risking it for something we might not get. Which is why the last line in the Prayer of St. Francis -- "For it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life" -- is both difficult to hear and full of hope.

It's difficult to hear because we don't, any of us, want to die; we don't, any of us, want to give up anything that is dear to us, and life, for many of us, is the most precious of all.

But it's full of hope, because the fact is that death and loss are inevitable, and St. Francis is letting us know that whatever we lose, we will gain something infinitely more dear. Which is good to know, because what we can't bring ourselves to let go of may, in the end, be taken from us.

I am thinking of this now in the context of Logion 60 in the Gospel of Thomas, which I read this morning. It's a rather disturbing parable, about eating and being eaten, but I think its point is this: We need to be willing to die a little bit in this life -- to take time away from all the things and people and thoughts that occupy our minds and hearts -- in order to bring awareness of the eternal into the now.

For some reason it feels to me like the difference between fast food and savoring a home-cooked meal. A home-cooked meal takes time: time to grow the food, time to prepare it, time to savor every bite, and to savor the conversation around the table. Imagine a single delicious bite in your mouth. Is it just something to give your body protein? Do you just wolf it down and keep going? How much better to eat as the Italians do, relishing the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of the food, nourishing your soul as well as your body!

The difference lies in the space we create around the act of eating. And I'm thinking that today's Gospel suggests we need to create space around the act of living as well; that if we take, from the time we spend actively thinking and getting and doing, moments to assess, evaluate, and savor the choices we've been making, we won't feel, as some of my stressed-out friends do, that we are being eaten alive by life.

When we take -- or, more accurately, when we MAKE -- time to meditate, or to sit, or to walk without a destination (or a cellphone plastered to an ear), we create a space in which to savor what is. And in so doing, in dying, however briefly, to the pressures of this life, we are given the opportunity to release the divine flavor of eternity which lies nestled like a seed in every moment.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Listening for the Flavor

"Now, what shall we call this new sort of gazing-house?" asks the poet Rumi in my readings this morning.

"Now, what shall we call this new sort of gazing-house
that has opened in our town,
where people sit quietly
and pour out their glancing
like light,
like answering?"

Pondering this poem, I found myself thinking of a man I knew many years ago, at a time when I was newly divorced and not yet remarried. He was all the obvious things that make a man appealing to a woman -- tall, dark and handsome, athletic, intelligent, a great dancer, with beautiful bone structure and a warm voice that always had a hint of laughter in it.

But what I remember most about this man was his quality of attentiveness: when you were with him, you felt he only had eyes for you; that your words, your thoughts, your feelings were more important to him in that moment than anything else in the world. That attentiveness poured out of his eyes "like light, like answering," and when I had the opportunity to bask in that glow I DID feel bathed in light.

The very fact that I remember that quality so clearly -- though I haven't seen, heard from, or even thought of this man in probably 20 years -- tells us how rare that quality can be. Most of us, I think, are more like this sunflower -- always turning our backs on the moment, looking back to what was, forward to what will be, or over our shoulders to see who is following. How often do we really listen to our mates, our children, our friends, our co-workers? How often do we give them every ounce of our attention, with every fiber of our being?

But perhaps the more important question here is this: how often do we attend to the Living Presence with that kind of focused concentration? How often, in savoring the colors of the moment, do we listen with our tongues for the delicious flavor of the Divine?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Buddha blessings

About a week ago I went in for a haircut with a new hairdresser. It had been several years since I'd had it cut professionally (I've been doing it myself) and I hadn't been allowed to cut it at ALL for several months due to the various plays I've been in.

Now that I have resigned from my current play, it seemed like a good time to get my hair back to a more flattering length, but the special cut I had done for a role back in March was growing out rather oddly so I decided to ask for help, and a dear friend recommended this man, Todd.

When I arrived at the salon, Todd walked in to greet me wearing a Little Richard wig, a flashing red nose, and an orange jumpsuit -- did I mention it was Halloween? -- and there appeared to be rather significant tattoos on whatever body surfaces were exposed.

He was definitely NOT what I had expected, and I have to admit I wondered if this was really the person my friend said he was; I confess my heart was beating a little faster, the way it does when you're not sure what you've gotten yourself into? But I sat back in my chair, reassured slightly by the pile of business cards that said he was, indeed Todd -- or at least using Todd's chair! Eventually I realized, as I relaxed further, that his work station was surrounded by little Buddha statues; also reassuring. What the heck, I thought: it's only hair. If it's bad, it'll grow out.

But the cut turned out great -- possibly the best cut I've ever had -- and he was really a lovely man. So when we were done, I asked about the buddhas. He said yes, they were his, and he and his wife, who does color work at the same salon, had lots more of them at home. I was particularly taken with one, which he said he'd found at Target (!) and so the next day (since my husband was out of town) I decided to go on an expedition to Target.

Not surprisingly, Target no longer carried this particular buddha, but for some reason I couldn't let go of this longing for a small buddha statue, so I began prowling the internet. All the statues I found were sort of busy, and shiny -- or huge, heavy garden buddhas. I couldn't say exactly what I was looking for -- or why I was so determined -- but I definitely wasn't finding it.

Eventually it occurred to me to look on Etsy -- if you haven't already discovered it -- is a wonderful site where artists and craftsmen can sell their creations; if you are a person who is nurtured by seeing the creativity of others it's a wonderful site to browse.

So I went to Etsy and typed in "Buddha" and this is the first image I found. Isn't she lovely? And when I decided to order her, I discovered her sculptor, Anita Feng, lives just on the other side of Seattle, in the town I used to live in when our children were little. So yesterday I went to meet Anita and see her studio, and it was THE MOST AMAZING EXPERIENCE! Her buddhas are just miraculously gorgeous (I'm embarrassed to admit I came home with FOUR of them!) and we discovered we had a great deal in common, too much to go into here.

But I loved that her gorgeous raku buddha statues were contemporary, rich with color, and endowed with a strong feminine energy. I loved even more that they flowed out of both her years as a potter and her years as a Buddhist; a melding of faith and work. Each one has a different face, all tenderly created as she listens and watches for what they might become. And I firmly believe our relationship will not stop here.

Thinking about it now, I find it so curious that the extraordinary gifts of yesterday all began with a visit to a hairdresser, a moment of fear, and an impulse to shop. All these things -- concern about appearances, my fearfulness, and the urge to retail therapy -- tend to be sources of shame for me. How astonishing it is -- though of course it shouldn't astonish me at all! -- that the divine can work through the dark side of me as well as the light.

And then, this morning, I encountered this marvelous poem from Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness
comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

So I set this poem here as a thank you: to Todd, for the best haircut ever; to Catherine, for recommending him; and to Anita, for her grace, her creativity, and her hospitality.

But I absolutely must dedicate it to my dear friend Nan Cobbey, whose house almost burned down yesterday, in hopes that the clearing out that has now begun will indeed bring in some new delight.

And to Duley, the Waldo fireman/angel who was first to arrive on the scene and stopped the flames from spreading to Nan's attic, I send piles of Buddha blessings: Thanks so much for saving Nan's lovely new home!

And a special thank you goes out for Clare's amazingly speedy recovery from brain surgery, and to her mother, Cathy, for her courage and equanimity in the face of terror.

And finally, I must express my gratitude for the divine blessings which can flow through everything -- through both joys and sorrows, large and small.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Something about Mary

In my reading this morning, the 14th century monk who authored The Cloud of Unknowing addresses the tension between action and contemplation, between doing and being, between Martha -- taking care of the business of life -- and Mary -- sitting at the foot of the divine in worship and waiting.

In looking for an image that might illustrate this tension, I realized that most of us define who we are by what we do -- I am a hairdresser, or a fireman, or both; I am a gondolier, or a housewife; I am a writer, or a photographer, or an actor; a butcher, baker, candlestick maker, doctor, lawyer, or indian chief.

So to have defined myself as a contemplative photographer -- at least according to this monk -- is pretty much a contradiction in terms: a true contemplative would be immersed in contemplation, not out taking pictures. A true contemplative would be in prayer 24/7 (or "31", as they say in one popular TV show!) rather than attempting to eke out 20 minutes a day for contemplation.

And the fact is, I am -- despite this contemplative streak -- more active than contemplative. It's a struggle, always, to get myself to "just sit." That's one reason I do it first thing in the morning: I try to sneak in the time before the active me wakes up and gets going.

(and, just so you know, I failed this morning; the active me was fully awake by the time I went downstairs, thanks primarily to the time change and the end of daylight savings time.)

All of which may explain why I look at this Mary image, the blind, open-mouthed adoration, and the empty cup, and the Martha in me gets a little snarly; wants her to open her eyes, close her mouth, and get a life. There's just something about Mary that irritates me. It's odd: I know the contemplation feeds me, makes me healthier, and stronger; equips me to do whatever the day brings. Why then is it so hard to give myself permission to do that?

Perhaps the answer is that it is in the tension between the two impulses that growth happens: the one informs the other, and vice versa. And if the contemplative impulse to connect with the divine within and without forms the vertical axis in my life, and the compulsion to engage with the world forms the horizontal axis, then my job is to try not to stray too far from the intersection of the two.

Which, of course, is the lesson I had to learn all over again when my cat got sick last week: I had to give up both some contemplative time -- walking away from the retreat -- and some active time -- resigning from the play I was in -- in order to be fully present in the moment for Pippa. Which is to say, I guess -- it's all good; all part of the process.