Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the altar of dawn

This morning I got to sleep in an extra two hours -- thanks to my husband, who stayed home and is taking over the responsibility of rising early to inoculate our diabetic dog. It was lovely to awaken slowly, to lie there and listen to the waves lapping at the pilings below my bed; like God lapping at the edges of my soul.

I drove out to my favorite coffee shop, a little country store always full of old men arguing, its shelves teeming with exotic foreign and local specialties, but the store is closed now, the windows boarded up, a for sale sign posted prominently in front. So I went back to my little cottage, found the coffee and made myself a pot, then settled down for my morning read.

Before I left for the weekend, I'd had coffee with a friend who suggested I bring my driftwood goddess with me for the weekend (I'll have to give you a picture of her later; I don't have one on my laptop). She also thought the goddess might want to get wet again, so I took this little round piece of driftwood with its pendulous breasts and open womb for a walk on the beach yesterday afternoon and set her in a little stream so the salt waves could wash over her. And while she rested there, lapping up the water, I found a sort of throne for her, made up of oyster shells all stuck together.

Returning from the walk, I brought the goddess and her throne into the house and set them up on a placemat in the middle of my table, so this morning when I sat down to drink my coffee she was there, watching me. I had brought a number of books with me, not sure which I would be reading while I was here, and they were scattered about on the table. But the one that lay between me and the driftwood goddess was John O'Donohue's To Bless the Space Between Us, which seemed very appropriate. So I blessed that space, between me and the goddess, and opened the book to this prayer, which I decided to read aloud.


A Morning Offering
by John O'Donohue

I bless the night that nourished my heart
to set the ghosts of longing free

into the flow and figure of dream

that went to harvest from the dark

bread for the hunger no one sees.

All that is eternal in me

welcomes the wonder of this day,

the field of brightness it creates

offering time for each thing

to arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
the quiet loyalty of breath,

the tent of thought where I shelter,

waves of desire I am shore to

and all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today

to the invisible geography

that invites me to new frontiers,

to break the dead shell of yesterdays,
to risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
to live the life that I would love,
to postpone my dream no longer
but do at last what I came here for

and waste my heart on fear no more.

And I say, Amen to that!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Remembering a walk on the beach

This morning I was awakened by the sound of a vase rattling on my dresser, a picture shifting on the wall, and my first thought, which I spoke aloud, was "Earthquake?"

A second later, when the movement stopped, I realized, no, it was just the dog scratching as he often does when he thinks it's time for us to wake up and feed him; he just happened to be leaning against the dresser. Phew!

So many things are in flux right now, it's probably not surprising that I assumed the worst. But as my brain did its womanly trick of running through all the possible disasters that might face us, I found myself thinking, well, if we lose everything we could always go back to Shaw. It was a very comforting thought, but when I realized it was just the dog my heart and brain slowed to their normal pace and I set that thought aside and returned to my normal morning routine.

But then, when I came to my computer after meditation, it was open to a folder full of photographs of Shaw, and I found myself reminiscing about my time on that little island. It was in the early 90's; I had been working for the church and had grown thoroughly disillusioned, and, encouraged (thankfully) by my husband, I had quit my job, bundled up our daughters, then 7 and 9, and moved us up to a little cabin on the waterfront.

My husband became a weekend dad, the girls got to go to Shaw's two-room schoolhouse with 10 kids, 2 teachers, and a computer for every child, and I spent my days reading, writing, walking the beaches, and trying to make sense of what had happened to my job and my church.

It was a challenging time: in the space of a year I had lost three friends and a mother-in-law to cancer, had stepped away from a lifetime of employment (and what I had thought would be the job of a lifetime), and, to add to the mix, my own mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack shortly after we moved to the island. I, who rarely cooked, struggled with the task of providing three meals a day for myself and two picky eaters, and I, who had entrusted the care of my children to others for most of their lives, was responsible for keeping two bright little girls busy and occupied, entertained and educated in a rental home with a bare minimum of toys, no computer, and no television. And all this on an island with only one part-time little grocery store, a part-time library, a part-time museum, 150 residents and no gas station or other stores.

It was, of course, totally magical, and despite the challenges and adjustments still stands as one of the key transformational periods in all three of our lives. And at times like this, when everything seems to be shifting, Shaw holds a special place in my heart as an enduring reminder of the soul's ability to survive and of the capacity of peace, nature, patience and time to heal the deepest wounds.

This afternoon I will head off to one of my other favorite places in the northwest, a little cottage that sits on stilts over the Hood Canal. I've decided to take along my journals from my time on Shaw, and perhaps some photo albums from there as well, to see if it might be time to sit down and re-examine the blessings of that period in our lives; to take another look at that walk on the beach, from the distance that time and space provide.

I'm looking forward to it!

PS: My husband just emailed me: it WAS an earthquake, after all -- in nearby Kingston, a 4.5! If you felt it, too, you can report what you experienced here:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why women need retreats after Christmas

Yesterday a friend of mine suggested I publish this note, written recently in response to a query from one of my daughters. She had asked, not entirely in jest, why I was always retreating; shouldn't I be advancing?

If I had my druthers, like most housewives and mothers I know, I would go on two retreats a year: one in January, and one in September. There are several reasons for this:

1. I find, over the years, that though I am more outgoing and more comfortable with myself, I have also become more of an introvert and less of an extrovert. I tend to need more alone time now, something I don't get too much of at Christmas time or at the end of the summer.

2. The nature of life for a housewife and mother is that those are times of high demand -- particularly Christmas, with activities and orchestration of the shopping and the decoration and the cooking and doing dishes and whatever entertaining that happens, not to mention those seasonal emotional challenges -- and we spend so much time ministering to the needs of our families that we tend to lose track of ourselves.

3. It takes a lot of time and energy to get the house back in order after those high use periods - partly because it gets more messed up than usual, and partly because I haven't had time to tend to it regularly because I'm so busy doing all the other stuff. Though that heavy post-holiday or post-summer cleanup is not a task I particularly enjoy, I do it because I function better when things are tidy around me, the bills are paid, the tax stuff is gathered up, etc.

4. I am still, despite all my experience, a bit of a novice at faith. My faith feeds me, but I'm still not that great at sensing God while I'm doing the dishes; I kind of need to pay specific attention to God to tap into that well of divine resource. When I am meditating I can return to that rich open space inside, but short periods of meditation once a day are not as likely to enrich and deepen that connection as a whole week of meditating 8 hours a day -- or even a weekend of doing that. I count on that internal well to feed all the things that are important to me: my writing, my photography, and my ministry to household, family, friends, animals, community, etc., and if there are lots of demands on my time and energy the well can start to, if not run dry, at least plug up. It takes conscious attention to get the energy flowing again.

5. I want a break at the end of those high-demand periods, want not to have to wait on or feed anyone or walk the dog or shop or listen to anyone or take anyone anywhere. As I believe you've noticed over time, we moms don't get much in the way of Christmas presents, and sometimes birthdays (and of course mine is in the summer) can be a bit of a let-down as well. Retreats are my Christmas and birthday presents to myself: On a retreat someone else usually provides food for me at regular intervals, and I don't have to worry about shopping, or cooking, or cleaning up. If there's any talking or discussion, it's about faith, or God or callings and stirrings, not computer programming or politics or clothes or drama or who's taking out the garbage or who's walking or feeding the dog.

I love being a wife and mother, love my girls and my husband, love the cats and the dog, love my home... but all of those things and relationships take energy to maintain. I learned from the priest who counseled me during my divorce all those years ago that you can't pour out of an empty cup, so retreats are my way of refilling my internal cup so I can achieve a better balance in those external parts of my life for the rest of the year. That over-squeeziness you mentioned in your recent note may well come out of the fact that I am so un-centered right now.

Thank you for listening to this ramble; hope it all makes sense. Retreats, despite the sound of the word, are not about internalizing or running away: between the blog and my friendships and the novels and the poetry and the emails and theater experiences and photo assignments and art classes and dance classes and coffee dates etc. I get plenty of opportunities to be out there advancing and articulating. They're more about running back to the source to be fed: I lead a pretty active life, and keeping myself centered is what allows me to keep all that energized.

... and I love you! Thanks for your patience with my mothering; it's a constantly changing job and there are always new dancesteps to learn.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What bubbles up

This was a window we passed in downtown Seattle while driving through around Christmas time. I loved the inventiveness of the bubbles, though I'm not exactly clear what relationship they have to the purses. Is our economy going under? (Well, duh!) And if so, wouldn't we be keeping the old purses instead of buying new ones?

But perhaps these bubbles are not meant to imply that we're under water, money-wise, but rather that new possibilities are bubbling up which will bring new riches!

All of which goes to show -- as we discussed at length in my spirituality group yesterday -- that curious differential between suffering and pain, and its dependence on attitude. Stuff happens, and life can be a beach (as all those bumper stickers say). But what really affects us most, ties our stomachs up in knots or awakens new creativity in us, is how we choose to handle it. And I'm thinking that maybe what fuels our ability to respond with generativity rather than depression is our capacity to hope: as long as we have hope that things can change, and/or that we can make a difference, then it does seem possible to rise above our surface difficulties.

Which is why, despite all the bad news (I mean, 50,000 people were laid off yesterday? Imagine all those sinking hearts!) people still believe it will be possible to turn this around. We know it will be hard work -- there can be no denying that. But I think Obama has given us hope, a very specific kind of hope, a hope that WORKING TOGETHER (something we haven't done in a long time) we might be able to even things out, reduce the excesses and care for the needy, restore the values lost over the last 8 years of privilege and depradation.

Something's bubbling up here. And I think it's hope. But I'm not sure I'm gonna buy a new purse anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

That urge to hunker down

This morning I revisited a passage in the second chapter of Laurence Freeman's Jesus the Teacher Within. It has to do with guilt and repentance, with self-recognition, false identities, fear of emptiness -- all the things that an Enneagram 4 struggles with. And there is a line in it that reads: The desperate need for identity can be so great that mere self-expression or an egocentric search for self-fulfilment can get enshrined as the ruling value of life.

As artists, writers, musicians, prophets, what are we to do with a phrase like this? For those of us who are born to sing, called to write, blessed with vision, driven to speak or preach there will always be a tension entangled in the need to express. How can we know when we are expressing the divine and when we are expressing the false self? How can we know when the artist's desire for recognition stems from a god-driven need to be heard or from a selfish need for approval? After all, Freeman himself is a writer. How did he know when it was time to write; how did he know it was important to seek out a publisher?

As I struggled to meditate this morning -- and it was definitely a struggle: though I understand that if I am in touch with the divine center these issues should become moot, I can't seem to get there -- I realized I felt a bit like a ferry, bleating its way across the sound in fog; slowly churning my way across the water, blindly following the compass and sounding my horn in protection and warning.

But when I went to find an image of a ferry in fog, it was this one that popped out at me -- and this ferry isn't going ANYwhere. So what does this say, and where am I in this image? Am I feeling old and worn out? Is it time to pull into the dock for repair? Is this old identity reduced to a useless shell? Or is it time to jump ship: should I hop into that red inflatable and speed off through the fog to some other destination?

Or perhaps I am already home, and this sense of blindly feeling my way is just a recurring nightmare, like the old dog, sleeping on the floor by the fireplace, its legs churning in a momentary remembrance of the chase...

Hmm. I think what I want, this morning, is to tidy up the boat. Perhaps this is because my 60th birthday is looming, but I think it's okay that the boat's engine is dead. She still floats, and would make, with a little work, a wonderful houseboat. I think I'll leave it to the young'uns to flit off into the unknown; I'll just stay here and make this space habitable... or am I just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chasing the golden ball

This is our dog, Nemo (short for Captain Mnemonic); he's a Polish Lowland Sheepdog (also known as PON, an abbreviation of the actual Polish name). Nemo dislikes snow, cold weather, darkness, and rain, so winter is NOT his favorite season. And this couch is where he sits every morning after breakfast, waiting for me to finish meditating and blogging.

It is Nemo's fondest hope that I will then take him upstairs and encourage him to run laps up and down the hallway by throwing his favorite squeaky yellow tennis ball. He invites me to do that by following me around the house, once I emerge from my office, with said ball in his mouth, chewing it in such a way that a rhythmic squeaking emerges at regular intervals to remind me he is awaiting his morning exercise...

I caught a glimpse of spring this morning: though our temperatures are still unseasonably low, the sun is out and there is color in the air. And it occurs to me that I -- like most humans, I think -- have a lot in common with Nemo: I grow tired of the cold and dark, the forced inactivity -- both of real winter and of those internal winters that so often coincide with the seasons. And in some ways these prayers for illumination, this longing to step over the change process, to avoid mud season and skip back into the light, are not so different from Nemo with his squeaky ball. I am chasing that elusive Divine, squeaking, hoping for attention, something to exercise these stiffening spiritual muscles.

When there is a response I am just as delighted as Nemo. And yet, like Nemo, I am rarely satisfied, and long for an extended engagement in this play. It feels like a Rumi poem, you know?

God threw the ball for me today!
Inside me a hundred puppies
are leaping to their feet in pursuit of the golden prize,
their tiny lopped-off tails
wiggling so hard it throws them off the track.
What is better?
The rush of wind in my fur,
the thrill of pursuit,
the taste of yellow?

it's that moment,
that split second,
when I capture the ball in my mouth and look back at you;
that smile of complicity:

We both know I will never drop it at your feet.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seeking integration

This morning I have finished Cynthia Bourgeault's seminal book, The Wisdom Jesus, which ends with a chapter that examines the Eucharist from a wisdom perspective. In that chapter, she tells of her first accidental experience of communion: she was in her 20's, had gone to a Catholic church to hear a London boys choir, and, not having paid much attention to the stream of language surrounding the music, suddenly found herself being ushered forward to the communion rail.

Despite her lack of preparation or even understanding of the event, she nonetheless experienced the act as a direct encounter with Jesus, and still sees that it always contains within it that potential.

After finishing my reading, I meditated as usual, then came to my computer to check email and blog, and I found myself explaining that although my husband sees me primarily as a writer, I still prefer photography because it has been for me a more direct experience of the divine. Perhaps because I am less trained in photography, and because it tends to be more of a response to a stimulus than a conscious effort on my part, it often surprises -- and feeds -- me.

Writing, on the other hand, is something I have been trained to do, have done for a living, and do all too easily. Words spill out too readily for me, and frequently in established patterns with seductive rhythms that can sometimes keep me from writing thoughtfully and honestly. In fact, one of the reasons I began my poetry blog is to force me to choose my words more carefully; it's an attempt to make my writing more centered and less facile.

And now that I am writing this, I see that the difference between writing and photography, for me, is not dissimilar from the difference between Eucharist and "church."

Communion, for me, is like photography; a way of tapping into Spirit. And though, in church, there is language around communion, to me it is pure poetry and -- perhaps more importantly -- a constant, predictable flow of words enriched by centuries of use in communities around the world. But "church," with its messy mix of politics, power, money, hidden agendas, factions, asumptions, pre-conceived notions, pat responses ... I find it very difficult to be in that space. Precisely because I have been trained in church, have done it for a living, have been "good" at it, successful at it, because I know how it works and how to use its language and patterns to appear religious without really tapping into the heart of faith.

So why this image? I think because it captures the tension I'm feeling right now between the call to be and do what I was, and was good at -- to return to the land where my gifts and experience are clear and have clear use and value -- and the longing to stay in this quiet thoughtful resting space that has grown so comfortable these last few years. The image is about integration, an attempt to find new ways to connect my past self -- a quilter, a teacher of quilting -- with my current self, the photographer. There are many layers of self and life here, interiors and exteriors, sea and forest, sunrises and sunsets. And it contains, at its heart, an image of spirit, which, whatever the surface may appear to be, must be integral to whatever new life is emerging here, whatever path comes next.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Welcoming Prayer

Yesterday I wrote about the welcoming prayer as a way of coping, and yet, when a friend called in crisis and I went to visit, I didn't offer it to her.

I felt bad about it at the time -- where was my faith? -- but I just couldn't see how it would make any sense to welcome this particular difficulty. And then, this morning, I continued on in my reading, and now I see I was missing a key ingredient in my understanding, and it's just as well I didn't offer her the prayer before fully understanding how it works.

The key, I see this morning as I read the rest of Cynthia Bourgeault's chapter on the subject, is this:

"What you are welcoming is never an outer situation, only the feelings and sensations working within you in the moment...Once we have endured and integrated what is on our plate internally, then what we do with the outer situation is for us to decide."

It's not that we are called to welcome the cancer, the incest, the back pain, the abusive ex-husband, the loss of income, or whatever else of that nature falls into our path. Instead, we sink into our bodies and feel our responses to those challenges making themselves manifest within us: a tightness in the chest, a sinking feeling in the stomach, a pounding heart.. whatever we are feeling. Once we are consciously present to those sensations, then we can choose to welcome the feelings that are being made manifest in those physical sensations -- the fear, the anger, the shame; whatever it is that is rising up within us.

To welcome those emotions, says Cynthia, "is to wrap your deeper self around them through the power of your compassionate attention. And here she quotes Rainer Maria Rilke's wonderful lines in Letters to a Young Poet: "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in the deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Once we bring our deeper attention to the dragon, surround it with the welcoming power of love, its energy can begin to wane. And then, after you have acknowledged it, befriended it, and watched its energy begin to ebb, you can say, "I let go of this anger (or fear, or pain, or whatever it is)." Or you can recite this litany, coined by Mary Mrozowski, the founder of the welcoming prayer:

I let go my desire for security and survival.
I let go my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go my desire for power and control.
I let go my desire to change the situation.

And this works because, at its heart, the welcoming prayer is not about giving up things we want or rolling over and playing dead. It is, says Cynthia, "about connecting with an energy of sustenance so powerful and vibrant as it flows through our being from the infinite that all else pales in comparison. It not only flows through our being; it is our being."

Think about that: that there is something within us so bright and joyous that, when we can be in touch with it, all else fades into insignificance. It is that bright and joyous source that we can bring into awareness when we endeavor to welcome our inner demons. And it is that bright and joyous source that will fuel us as we step back into life and begin to cope with whatever situation we've been given. And the blessing in it all is this: that if we can stay awake, and remember, when things get rough, to tap into that source, then we come to see that the tough times actually gift us, by bringing us closer to that bright joyous inner presence that is the divine connection.

Friday, January 23, 2009

When fog closes in...

We've been buried in fog for almost a week now: not the pretty photogenic kind, though occasionally that crops up. And not the London Pea Soup kind that makes it impossible to drive, just a kind of dull haze that thickens occasionally but mostly just saps the color from life.

It's a bit like living with depression, I think -- this strange overlay of enervating grayness -- and I'm certain it's what drove yesterday's desperate longing for color.

One of our daughters is in Southern California this month, and she called yesterday to say their skies had been overcast for two days and she was thrilled: she hadn't realized how much she missed the gray and the rain. As she is the only member of our immediate family to have been born and raised in the Northwest, I am not surprised to hear her express this preference -- and for the most part, it's a good foil for her sunny personality.

But we all have our gray days, and we all have those foggy periods when we feel trapped and restless with no clarity about the best way to proceed. It's easy in such times to get overwhelmed with a sense of failure, to feel there's no way out and the fog will never lift. Presumably this explains the popularity of, the website which displays examples of the failure of others.

But it's also a perfect time to practice what Cynthia Bourgeault calls "The Welcoming Prayer."

"Can you feel yourself inwardly tightening and bracing? Stay with that sensation for a minute or two, exploring how it actually feels in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Is your breathing fast and shallow? Your stomach churning? See if you can even deliberately intensify these sensations.

"After a minute or so, consciously move in the opposite direction, still working directly with sensation. Un-brace, take a deep breath, and come down into your being. Soften inwardly. Open to the sensation of your own presence, and try to stay with that presence no matter what racket is going on in your mind. Keep returning consciously to that sensation of inner openness until you can feel a calmness beginning to return. if you are patient and firm, it eventually will. The aliveness of your "I AM" presence, sensed directly in this way, will eventually trump any mental or emotional trumoil that temporarily preempts it. Calm will return."

Watching Barack Obama, and knowing what is on his plate, I suspect he must have somehow incorporated a practice like this into his life. How else could he be so calm and warm and thoughtful when the job that faces him is so fraught with difficulty?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fiddling while Rome burns

I've had these colors -- yellowy greens and purples (more vibrant than this photo conveys) -- stuck in my head for several weeks now, ever since I saw a friend's painting hanging in one of our island coffee shops.

This morning I had to make a run to the post office, to mail off a package one of our daughters forgot, and the postmaster mentioned that the news this morning said there would be layoffs at my husband's company.

I called and emailed him as soon as I got home (forgetting that he had a dentist appointment before work), and when I didn't hear back I grew increasingly restless as the morning wore on; tried out several photos for this blog but none of them worked...

Finally I decided to go to the yarn shop and see if they had any yarns in these colors; maybe I could do a second pass at THE SCARF in sizes and colors that would work better for me. And while I was at the yarn shop, waiting for the proprietor to get off the phone and take my money, my husband called to say there didn't seem to be any layoffs in his division.


Of course rumor has it there may be more in the offing... But sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; we'll cross that bridge if we need to when we get to it. For now the news is good. And as I drove home, I thought a lot about how it might have felt if the news had been different, and offered up prayers for all the others who are in this boat: waiting to hear, or just learning they've lost their jobs, or who are trying to cope -- and have been for some time -- with a drastic loss in income.

We've been through layoffs before, he and I, and though we didn't lose our jobs then, we know the scars the layoff leaves on those who are left behind, who continue to slog away, doing more work, sometimes for less pay... And, like many people our age, we've certainly lost jobs in other situations, and know the disorientation you feel when your primary source of identity is stripped away.

So why did I buy this yarn? Maybe I'm a bit like Frederick, Lio Lionni's enchanting mouse, who stores up color and song and light for the winter while other mice store up food. Because when the food runs out -- and I've been in that situation, too, though not for long -- sometimes color and song and light are all you have.

I left the yarn shop and headed for lunch with two dear friends - an actress and a director - from my "other life" (the theater). And we found ourselves wondering: how will the new economy affect the creative impulse? We already know (oh, how I know!) that people are buying less art. But are they -- or will they be -- making more? Deprived of their day jobs, unable to find work, will they give their creative selves free rein?

The yarn proprietor certainly hopes so: and so far it's been true. She apparently did a land-office business over Christmas, where other stores on her street failed. "People are starting to make things again," she said, "because they have more time, and because they want to save money."

How about you? Have you begun storing up color in your life? My friend Karen (see pointer to her blog at left) and I have joined the Creative Every Day initiative (see, an inspiring way to explore ways to bring creativity to everyday life. Sometimes it's as simple as taking your child on a field trip, or finding a new recipe. And you don't have to join the website, you can just start thinking about it. Just ask yourself: what can I bring fresh to this day?

Try it; you'll like it!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bishop Robinson's Inaugural Prayer

Opening Inaugural Event
Lincoln Memorial, Washington , DC
January 18, 2009

Delivered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson

"Welcome to Washington! The fun is about to begin, but first, please join me in pausing for a moment, to ask God's blessing upon our nation and our next president.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will...

Bless us with tears - for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger - at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort - at the easy, simplistic "answers" we've preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience - and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be "fixed" anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility - open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance - replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity - remembering that every religion's God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States .

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln 's reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy's ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King's dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States .

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand - that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


May we be made strong

This is the view from my hotel room in Portland, on the morning of Martin Luther King Day, and these are the colors I love most in the world, in what seems to me like perfect balance -- which goes a long way toward explaining why that scarf could never have worked for me!

A colorful dawn seems an appropriate image to bring forth as we embark on this new chapter in our country's life. And I have to say, listening to our 44th president's inaugural speech yesterday -- the consistency of the ideals and values expressed, the complexity of the sentences, the confidence of the assertions, the respect for all races, religions, and nationalities and the determination to accept responsibility and move forward -- I feel, for the first time in an unconscionably long time, proud to be an American and filled with a sense that I am no longer alone in my beliefs.

As I pondered the inaugural address, and looked at this image, I could hear a voice in my head saying "May we be made strong;" a line from my CD of the Bainbridge women's compline choir. It kept repeating, so I googled it (isn't google amazing?) and found a pointer to a Lichfield Cathedral Festival Sermon, written by Catherine Fox for Sunday, 15 July 2007. The quote (I learned from the googling) is from Paul's letter to the Colossians, but what I loved was this penultimate paragraph of Catherine's sermon:

I’m thinking of the lowest ebb of the year, the end of January, dark at 4 in the afternoon, still dark at 8 in the morning, but then one day you hear it – the first stealthy tuning up of a blackbird on a rooftop, and you think Ah! Spring will come. It will come. And from then on part of you is always listening out for the song until finally it breaks forth in all its fullness.

Until that day comes, May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from this glorious power.

As we watched the parades continuing on into the cold January darkness of late afternoon, and as we watched the inauguration balls continue on into the evening, I know our new president and his wife must have been exhausted. But it seemed to me that their smiles of greeting never faltered; were always fresh and new and full of a joy that appeared to well up in them like "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:14)

There are surely more dark days ahead; we have not yet heard the blackbird's call. But those smiles remind me that the song is there, waiting to break forth. I pray that they and we can stay attuned to its promise, and remain tapped in to that source from which all blessings pour.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The scarf...

You asked for it, you got it!

Looks like I'm being strangled by a multicolored centipede...

In confidence and hope

I happened to look up while waiting at a stoplight yesterday as I was leaving Portland, and there was this giant goddess atop an adjacent building, kneeling above me with her hand outstretched. I'm not quite sure who she is, or why she holds a trident in her other hand, but I definitely got the feeling that together we could conquer the world.

Which is exactly the feeling I got listening to Obama's inaugural speech this morning -- and the feeling I got from reading today's post on the storycatcher's blog ( The link to her blog was sent to me this morning by a dear friend, and I was most impressed with the storycatcher's prayer for the inauguration; a prayer which, though written before the inauguration occurred, sidestepped all the anxiety I was feeling -- for Obama and his family, so exposed, and for all those crowds of people gathered in DC for this historic occasion -- and moved boldly into the future that lies before us.

So that you, too, may begin to feel the confidence in our future that emanates, both from Obama's speech and from this prayer, I pass it on to you:

"Thank you for protecting President Obama and all around him. Thank you for their wise and courageous decisions today. Thank you for bringing the American people into readiness for this leadership, and for our willingness to face a future that needs to be different. Thank you for making me ready. Thank you for imbuing me with courage to step into the unknown, to let go of old forms of security and reach boldly for that which is coming into being.”

And I say: amen to that!... or perhaps just this: Yes We Can!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Glimpsing those inner demons

Last night at dinner, as we were waiting for our food, my daughter said she felt restless. "Do you want to go outside and walk it off?" I asked.

"Not that kind of restless," she replied. "I'm just itching to make something." Ah, I thought -- I know that feeling well. And, in fact, I have just spent the better part of a week "making something."

It was supposed to be a scarf; I'd seen it in a workshop and came home determined to see if I could duplicate it. But last night, having finally put it all together, my first reaction was "you failed!" And inside a little voice immediately chimed in in parentheses ("again.") So I stuffed the scarf away, tidied up all the little bits of yarn trimmed off from the knots I'd made to stitch it all together, crawled into bed and read myself to sleep.

This morning I decided to give it another chance: so what if it's not the tastefully exuberant charmer its model was; perhaps I could wear it outside my coat -- at least it might keep me warm in the Portland wind. So I wrapped the scarf around my neck and headed out to Starbucks for my morning coffee.

So I'll backtrack a minute here, and explain that the scarf is made up of lots of crocheted circles, many of which are one or the other of the two colors in this image, turquoise and a sort of orangey red. There's also black, a light greenish-gray, and a gorgeous multicolored yarn which contributes not only to the circles but also was used to create random explosions of fringe down the whole length of the scarf. As the woman who took my order at Starbucks said, "Wow! I love your scarf -- it has a LOT of personality!"

And, as I replied, I'm afraid the scarf has more personality than I have!

The problem with it is exactly that: it's just too big a statement. The circles are way too large (something which, because of the way it's constructed, I couldn't really know until it was all put together); the colors are just too strong; the yarns are too thick, the fringe is too stiff... and, when you put it all together, it's really too big and bulky to wear (as was originally intended) as just an indoor decoration, tastefully draped over a turtleneck. And, frankly, it takes courage to wear this scarf because... well... it's just not easy to ignore!

So then, returning to my hotel, dressed in my bright green jacket and multi-colored scarf, passing all the black-garbed folk who walk the city streets on their way to work, I asked myself the question my husband always asks the kids when they've gotten themselves into trouble: "So what have you learned from this?" There are LOTS of answers to that question at a lot of different levels; I will list as many of them here as I can remember -- they went by pretty fast -- and just note that these are more for my edification than for yours. Something tells me I need to think about this one a bit, because something about this was actually scary; even guilty. So odd.

1. The only should about buying yarn (or fabric) for something you're making for yourself is this: if you don't like the color in the shop, don't buy it just because "it's supposed to be that color." Because the fact is, if you don't like it in the shop, you probably won't like it on your body, either! (duh)

2. If you see something you like and think you'd like to make it, take time to measure it and write down the measurements. Apparently eyeballing it (for me, at least) no longer provides an accurate assessment (if it ever did). (aside to my husband -- too many years of seeing 6 inches as 9!)

3. I LOVE color -- I always have. But loving to look at it is not the same as loving to wear it.

And 4: this project reveals all sorts of inner demons and messages (which is why this image is so perfect). Here are some of the things they say when I take the time to listen:

a. Something about you is just always determined to be larger than life: when will you ever master subtlety?

b. You never do it right.

c. Every time you try to be or do something attractive or tasteful you fail. You're always overdone or underdone; you never fit in. (hey, these are just the voices; I didn't say they were true! But you have to ask, why does it matter so much?)

d. Hmm. There seems to be a conflict here between your love of color and your deep-seated desire to fit in and be invisible. Not the first time THAT's proved a problem! Something about my strong left-brain has always been a bit embarrassed by my strong right-brain. Perhaps I am mirroring a lifetime of tensions between my stoic engineer father and my embarrassingly emotional artist/musician mother?

e. Clearly this is part of who you are. Why can't you just wear it with panache and accept it? Why are you so conscious (and afraid) of what others might think? At your age you should be totally at peace with that stuff (should, should, should)

f. Quite literally, F. for FAILED. You failed. Again. And, OMG, look: there's a side order of shame with that, a voice squeaking, "see, you were too lazy to do it right, you rushed into it and screwed it up again -- and wasted money in the bargain. This is what you get for coveting something." Whoa. Where is THAT coming from?

And if, since I'm not quite sure I will wear it again (though I should probably wear it every day for a week and just get used to it, see if it brings me more insights, takes me to another bolder place) I were to drape it on my wall as a reminder, what would it be a reminder OF? Would it tell me not to take risks? Or just not to copy other people's work? Would it tell me to listen to my instincts? Or would it keep those inner demons dancing out where I can see them, so maybe I can learn to live with them -- or even dance with them? And what about this: what if I might actually learn to LIKE it!

And, the most important question: would I try this again, learn from my mistakes, create something quieter, smaller, lighter, simpler? Or just give up? Maybe I'm just supposed to do what I do well, stick to writing and photography; leave the rest to others who do it better?

It's a conundrum. And an adventure. Or maybe it's just a scarf. As one of my friends is fond of saying, "it is what it is." Part of the perils of living the creative life...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dancing with the flow

My husband and I have begun taking a dance class. Nothing too tricky -- we selected Slow Dance/Blues as a way to ease these elderly bodies back into a motion they haven't indulged in probably 20 years. One of the nice things about getting older is that we don't embarrass as easily, and are less concerned about appearances -- which is a good thing, as we are pretty awkward and clumsy at this point in the learning cycle!

What I find -- and I suspect he finds as well -- is that it is surprisingly hard to mirror the teacher's movements and gestures. I vaguely remember this difficulty from the aerobics class I took when pregnant with my first child (again, we're talking 20+ years ago!), but then, at least, there was a mirrored wall to help us. Now we rehearse in what appears to be an old grange hall, and there is nothing to reflect our movements back at us other than our own body awareness.

This morning I was reading -- in my hotel room in Portland, where I am taking a refresher day after dropping off the kids at college -- Cynthia Bourgeault's Wisdom Jesus again, and today she is talking about Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. There are four of them: to Mary, to the disciples and Thomas at dinner, to the two on the road to Emmaeus, and the last by a lake in Galilee as he catches fish with the disciples and eats with them. In each case he is unrecognizable at first, and Cynthia suggests that that might be because initially "Jesus is in fact holding a mirror before his friends to show them what stands in their way, what they will have to look at and work through in themselves in order to be able to see him through the light of their own hearts."

It is as if the disciples, too, are learning to dance: they have been watching Jesus' steps for quite a while now, but once he is out of the room, they're getting tangled in their own feet. They need this mirror to see what's getting in the way -- a lover's grief for the lost physicality of the body (in Mary's case); self-doubt and self-pity (in the case of the disciples); an inability to step out of our own challenges and concerns to care for those around us (in the case of Peter, who can't figure out what Jesus means by the phrase "feed my sheep.")

I remember once, on a centering prayer retreat, Cynthia was describing kenotic self-emptying with this repeated gesture, in which she would open both hands downward from her chest, as if a flower were opening and spilling out its seeds. In a moment of frustration, thinking if I could just mirror that image with my own hands I could somehow implant the spiritual concept in myself at a more physical level, I asked if she would demonstrate the movement again and allow us to echo it. I was having the same trouble mirroring her movements that I now have in the dance class mirroring the teacher's movements.

But she refused to do that, saying that our job was not to imitate her but to find within ourselves the Christ-like gesture of self-emptying, which might be different for each of us.

Our dance teacher advised us, as our first class was ending, to practice dancing at home. So two nights ago, while the kids were upstairs watching TV, my husband and I put on some slow dance music in the living room and, stepping into each other's arms, began the slow task of remembering the steps from class and pacing awkwardly around the room. It wasn't perfect, but I think we did manage to improve. Because it was dark outside, and because the room has windows on three sides, I could watch our reflections in the mirror, and see a bit better what wasn't working, make the subtle shifts of pace and angle that would allow the dance to flow more smoothly.

Because, in the end, that's the way you know it's working, when it flows smoothly. I think that's true of kenotic self-emptying as well, that compassionate response Jesus was trying to call forth from Peter by that lake in Galilee. It's not a kind of martyrdom, where your pour yourself out for everyone who needs you and end up feeling spent and exhausted, wondering when someone will take care of YOU.

It's more an act of releasing those things which come between us and the person we were born to be, the person Christ calls us to be; of emptying out the self-centeredness that gets in the way and blocks the flow. When we remove those obstacles, even a bit, I imagine the flow of compassion can begin in earnest, both into and out of us, a never-ending outpouring that has an unquenchable divine source and spills over into all aspects of our lives, graceful and lush and rewarding as this waterfall.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Breaking down the walls

We've all seen them: these barns and old cabins that are slowly being reclaimed by nature; stone walls being returned to earth by weeds and ivy; asphalt and cement walks and roads pierced by a blade of grass...

Robert Frost has a poem about it -- Something there is, that doesn't love a wall -- and in it he asks, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out." We humans have a way of setting up everything we do to include or exclude: as Heidi Klum says on Project Runway -- "You're either in, or you're out." But as Frost notes in his poem, nature has a way of determinedly breaking down those differences, of dissolving boundaries. Even the shadows move as the light changes and the earth continues its daily and yearly rotations.

I have been reading Cynthia Bourgeault's book, The Wisdom Jesus, and have come to a piece that helps me understand that the wall we create between what is dark and what is light is another division that needs, ultimately, to be dissolved:

"We wish God could be only light. We wish this world could be only light. We wish that darkness and evil and cruelty would vanish, and we keep trying to work our way back up the great chain of being by rejecting the darkness and cleaving to the light.

But darkness goes right on being dark and the moral compass we use to navigate in some ways only makes the situation worse. For if God is light and only light, does that mean there are human states so dark, and so dismal, so desolate and crazy, that they are literally "Godforsaken:" outside of God altogether, completely beyond anything that the Divine can know or touch?

... the fatal trap in the "God is light" roadmap, the orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow...only winds up empowering the shadow and deepening it. The resolution doesn't lie in collapsing the tension of opposites by canceling one of them out. Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both...allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which the opposites arise and holding that to the light..."

She goes on to explain that Jesus, and his "descending into hell" offers "a quiet harmonizing love infiltrating even the deepest places of darkness and blackness, in a way that didn't override them or cancel them, but gently reconnects them to the hold all the boundary conditions of this realm (time, change, and circumstance) "in and to love's embrace" and in such a way release them from the grip of duality."

What walls shall we tear down today?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shadows of love

My daughter, who hates endings and separations, has a habit of insisting that "I love you" must be exchanged before any parting. Over time this has developed into a little game: one of us says "I love you" and the other responds, "I love you more!"

But it doesn't stop there: sometimes the first responds, triumphantly, "I love you MOST!" as if love were quantifiable, a contest one might win or lose. For a while that finished the exchange, but then, at some point, she took it one step further, with one last retort that definitively ends the game: "I love you MORE than most!"

At first glance that last statement looks like it trumps the previous one -- a joyful cannonball, a running leap off the diving board of love. But on closer examination it can also be interpreted as a step back from the precipice, a reluctance to go the distance and match the other's exuberant commitment: "that's nice, dear, that you love me so intensely -- um... I guess I love you more than most people do, or more than I love most of the rest of the people I know..." It's a classic approach/avoidance statement, as if, in the dance of love, someone got cold feet.

It seems to me that statement could easily capture what we know to be one of the tragedies of age and experience: the older we get and the more experience we have, the warier we become; the more we hold in reserve -- not just at the relationship level, but with regard to jobs, hobbies, exercise, our spiritual life -- we become less and less capable of whole-hearted commitment. Because we learn, over time, that the things of this life are rarely as good as they might seem to be at first glance; that everything, everyone, every experience is a mix of light and shadow. And that knowledge, in a way, becomes a major component of our own shadow.

Which for some reason takes me back to a song we used to sing in chapel: "In him there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike." I used to think that meant that if I had God, that meant that God's light was so strong it could overpower the dark. But now I am coming to believe that if I am truly at one with the divine, in God as God is in me, that I will come to understand that it's not a matter of light taking away dark but of understanding that "nothing there is that is not God" -- that the dark is as much a part of God as the light, that it's all good.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard says this:

"That something is everywhere and always amiss is part of the very stuff of creation, It is as though each clay form had baked into it, fired into it, a blue streak of non-being, a shaded emptiness like a bubble that not only shapes its very structure but that also causes it to list and ultimately explode."

The beautiful Islamic saint, Rabia, calls us to embrace that imperfection:

"My body is covered with wounds this world made,
but I still longed to kiss Him,
even when God said,
"Could you also kiss the hand
that caused each scar?

For you will not find me until you do."

Ultimately we are called to embrace it all, both the darkness and the light.
Not surprisingly, most of us find it very hard to take that leap.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Night shot

I love the theatricality of this image: the set has this marvelous looming quality; the lighting -- especially the color -- so atmospheric; the players all in place for whatever the next act might be; the production manager watching from his console above the stage; the flamboyance and frustration of the lead player's gesture... even the sign makes me think of the lights that go out to signal the beginning of the play.

This particular drama plays out every 40 minutes or so, for all but three or four hours a day, every day of the year, with thousands of participants. For those of us who live on the island, it's just a part of life. For those who commute daily, like my husband, it lost its drama long ago and has become merely a necessary evil. And for others, who live on the mainland, it can be an overwhelming obstacle, a means to an end or the beginning of a new adventure -- and that doesn't even include the folks who work on or for the ferry system itself.

I'm sure this could be a metaphor for all kinds of things: I could talk about the importance of attitude, or the journey, or the complexities of life. I could ask where you are in this picture (my younger daughter is probably the one making the grand gesture center stage) or just make a clever pun ("we're all on the same boat" springs to mind) but in fact... well, I just like the picture. Maybe it doesn't need to be any more than that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Only One, Only Now

My daughter and her boyfriend spent their previous school year in Taiwan, studying Mandarin, and we had visited them over Christmas (can that be only a year ago?). So yesterday I invited Martin, who is staying with us this week, to browse among my photos from that trip.

Which means that when I opened my PhotoShop browser this morning, the Taiwan photos all reappeared on my screen. This one, of the Taipei MRT, really called out to me: is it because the perspective has such a strong pull?

There is a curious rushing feeling to this image which feels very harried, bringing back the tension of working in an urban environment, always in a hurry, always pushing toward the next new thing. And yet, at the same time, it's reminiscent of that sort of downward slope, the bottomless plummet to the center you can get sometimes in meditation.

How is it that both these feelings, so opposite one another, can exist in the same image; that we can be propelled both away from self and into deepest self at the same time? Perhaps it is because the rush of time, like the boundary between self and other, is simply an illusion... There is only Now, which somehow includes where we've been and where we're going; there is only One, which somehow includes me with my camera, the woman whose shoes and skirt are reflected in the glass barrier, the people behind me, and the people on the train that's speeding out of the station.

Only One.
Only Now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's singing in the shadows

Some days there are phrases that leap into my head while I sit in meditation: one of the challenges of that activity is to keep my brain from running after them, chasing them down, trying to attach significance or images instead of staying centered in the now.

In one of those flights of fancy this morning I was chasing after the phrase "knife-sharp edge" and briefly considered looking through my files of boats. I have even more boat pictures than I have driftwood pictures, and yet I rarely use them here, so part of me, that part that wants to find a use for everything, that sort of "busy-mother-in-law" wanted to run to the closet and flip through all the images, looking for something that might fit you, that I could give away.

I realized later that the phrase was taking me somewhere else altogether, and wrote a poem that followed that direction, but the mother-in-law was still whispering in my ear, so I went to the boat closet and pulled out this rather drab offering. I hear her whispering, depression-child that she was, "don't ever give away your best things, dear" and pushing this gray, moth-eaten thing at me.

Okay, I get it: it's a metaphor! The function of the shadow is to illuminate the messy stuff on the surface, to help us see both where our facade is starting to peel and what free-floating garbage is starting to collect around us, the oil slick from leaking emotions, the drifting detritus of outmoded assumptions.

I ran out of time this morning and had to take a break here to take my dog to the groomers. As a result, my train of thought has been derailed and I'm sortof stuck on the sidelines, chugging away but not moving anywhere. At times like this (my family will be happy to confirm this) the drawers in my head have this odd tendency to pop open and spill out old song lyrics. So here's what's playing now, taking me back to high school dances and the Standells:

I'm gonna tell you a story
I'm gonna tell you about my town
I'm gonna tell you a big bad story, baby
Aww, it's all about my town

Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles (aw, that's what's happenin' baby)
That's where you'll find me
Along with lovers, fuggers, and thieves (aw, but they're cool people)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you're my home.

I love that dirty water...
Love that dirty water...
Love that dirty water...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Greeting the darkness

I passed this fearsome creature on the way to the ferry dock a day or two ago. I was going the back way, down a road I rarely travel, but surely I have seen this gorilla before -- or is he meant to be Darth Vader? Nonetheless he was so arresting that I stopped and backed up to take a photograph.

It's obvious that he stands out more in snow -- and surely his eyes are much more noticeable. But it seems to me this would be a menacing figure no matter what environment surrounded him. Something about the thrust of the shoulders, the threat of a forward step...

Isn't it interesting, the conclusions that we draw about a person's state of mind from looking at the posture of his body? That makes me wonder again about that study cited in Blink, where the scientists discovered that curving facial muscles into frowns made them feel irritable and angry. And yet when we try to cover our anger with false smiles, it rarely seems to work: the anger not only remains but leaks out.

To see what was more threatening about this guy -- the darkness or the posture -- I decided to use PhotoShop to dress him in pink. At first it seemed to make little difference: that thrust of menace was still there. And I thought, this creature's dark surface is a given, part of the metal of which he is made. But actually it is how he carries himself that makes him scary.

Which for some reason makes me think of a conversation I had last night with a friend about that Buddhist take on the difference between pain and suffering. Pain and darkness are inevitable in life: it is what it is, and often hard to bear. But it's really our attitude toward it, how we deal with it, how we carry our darkness into the world, that creates our suffering and influences those around us.

But as I continue to look at these two images, the pink one is becoming less threatening. And, interestingly enough, the more I stare at the pink, the less threatening the dark one becomes as well. So now I'm wondering if our task is really to reach out past our fear of the dark, to embrace it, to make the effort to befriend it, to choose to mentally clothe it in light. Perhaps the menace wasn't captured in the form at all, but merely a projection of my own fears and shadows.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Napkin of Enlightenment

It all began this morning, when I looked for a photo to blog about. Instead I was given a photo for my new poetry blog, and a chance to articulate thoughts that had circled, unspoken, in my head during yesterday's workshop.

We'd been shown a circle with a line through it, that one which is drawn on the lower left quadrant of the napkin. And the question was raised: if the line is life, from birth on the left to death on the right, and if all that white space above the line is the overworld, then is the space below the underworld? And does that mean, in fact, that life is hell?

Much debate and discussion ensued, and I found myself thinking "but what is outside the circle?" and "what if you rotated the circle clockwise a quarter turn: wouldn't the dark and light then lose the perceived power of their division, and become just passing shadows playing across a surface?"

So then this morning my image appeared, of a beautiful wall in Verona, partially enshadowed, dramatically colored, dominated by a diagonal shadow and an elaborate (and very closed) door. For some reason this image needed a poem, not one of these meditations, so I worked on that til it was time to go to church.

After church I went to coffee with a friend, and found myself explaining and drawing it all out -- the circle in the lower left, the underworld; the wall on the lower right, the facade -- and then, for good measure, I drew out another image from Lynn's workshop. It's the circle in the upper left quadrant of the napkin, meant to trace the movement of the solar calendar as light plays over the surface of our spiritual lives; a movement from the Summer Solstice of naive belief at the top to the dark night of despair in the winter solstice at the bottom.

When I then explained that when you hit rock bottom, the light finally shines through the darkness, like a single ray, we realized it was time for the circle to break open, to unfold into spring like a flower into bloom, like an orange cut open for all to eat; that it was time for all separation between in and out, us and them, dark and light, God and not-God to cease, and for openness to be the order of the day.

The sweetness of that discovery was as pure and delicious as the cinnamon twist we shared (to offset the extra cups of coffee that led to our conclusions); as full of delight as this poem by Rumi:

I know there is a gold mine in you.
When you find it,
the wonderment of the earth's gifts
you will lay aside
as naturally as does a child a doll.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Letting go -- again

Of all the madonna images I captured while in Italy, this one -- which may not technically be a madonna at all -- was one of the most moving. It's particularly moving this morning, as my younger daughter's Christmas break ends today, and she will be driving through the mountains in winter to the next chapter of her life, which will play out in southern California.

We had to say our goodbyes last night, because I'm off to a workshop (Lynn Bauman, on the Psalms) this morning and will only wake her for a quick hug. For me there's something timeless about hugging my daughters, as if I am instantly transported to all the other hugs, all the other goodbyes, all the other tender moments in our lives together, and in that moment all the maturity and responsibility they've developed in their 20 years of growing seems to fade into the mutual vulnerability and affection that is captured here.

Lynn was explaining, in our opening session last night, about the Helikos Tropon, the spiraling process of our growth in faith from the conventional understanding of our childhood (if you "do the right thing" God will take care of you and nothing bad will happen) through pain, darkness, and awakening to the post-conventional, more mystical understanding of the divine that characterizes enlightenment.

And as I listened I realized that I am no longer naive enough to automatically believe that because I am a good and faithful person God will protect my daughter as she travels. So I can't blindly assume that her journey will be a safe one: I can only know that she is a good driver, pray that she will be safe, hope she will make good decisions on the road, and trust that there will be gifts and learnings for both of us in this latest in a lifelong series of separations.

I wish you safe travels, little one, and pray for all the parents and children of the world as we all practice the letting go that growth requires.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Responsibility? Or blame...

I remember once, long ago, a statement made by the priest who counseled me through my divorce. He said, quoting a psalm (which one, I no longer remember) that the fact is we can trust no one but God; that it is the fundamental nature of the human condition that each of us is primarily self-absorbed.

I wonder, now, some 28 years later, if he still believes that to be true. I wonder, too, if that message to me was a gift or a curse. The gift in it, of course -- and I very much took his statement to heart -- is that I learned to turn my need for support inward and upward; to rely primarily upon myself and God.

But this morning I find myself wondering if, in internalizing that statement as "gospel truth," I may have done myself a disfavor. Have I somehow, in assuming that I alone -- in company with the divine -- am responsible for my own emotional health, have I cut myself off, created a wall, ceased to seek out people and circumstances which would provide vital connections and support? Is it just a matter of lowered expectations?

Does that sense -- that I am the only one I can count on -- come from that statement he made, or from a damaged childhood? And have I, in operating out of that space, in some way harmed my own children; lowered THEIR expectations?

At the root of all these questions lies a new betrayal, a small one; a friend who failed to answer a cry for help. It wasn't even help for me, it was help for one of my daughters. But it does make me question my judgment, and leaves me spinning in a sea of unpleasant choices which circle primarily around questions of responsibility -- always a challenge for a parent.

And, curiously enough, a dear friend xeroxed a page for me just a day or so ago which speaks exactly to this question (I'm sorry; I can't tell you where this is from):

"This word responsibility and your concept of it can be frightening, because you are afraid that things you have done will end up hurting other people...[but] That is not the kind of responsibility that I am talking about. I will tell you again that you do not move in random patterns. You move in a cohesive, beautiful, exciting, extending pattern of power. The responsibility of which I speak is the realization that, if you observe the movement of your life and do not like what you see, it is YOU that must make the changes in it. Growth comes through change; exciting growth comes through responsible change...

How do you know when you need to make new choices? When you look at your life and see parts of it that are not rewarding to you or to others. Then YOU have to be responsible for becoming aware of what new choices would restore that balance again."

So there it is. Something appears to be out of balance, and it is my job to sit with that, in what seems for now to be a cold and lonely place, and assess my contribution to the problem; to see what change might need to be made.

In the seasons of life, another winter has arrived. The blessing in that is knowing spring cannot be far behind.

An addendum: I have, since writing this, learned that what felt like a betrayal was in fact a completely predictable and entirely understandable oversight, compounded into what looked like betrayal by my assumptions, my lack of trust, and my lack of persistence. I am SO GRATEFUL that I took the time to sit with it, and took the risk of believing... and now I get to look at what thought patterns I have that are getting in the way for me; now I get to decide how I might begin to make different choices.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Struggling with the impulse to buy

I rose early this morning, awakened by concerns for my younger daughter, who is stranded in Portland because flooding and mudslides have blocked the roads and train tracks between that city and Seattle. And when I went looking for images for today's post, it was this one -- of a necklace she fell in love with in Venice two years ago -- which popped out at me.

The necklace sat in a store window facing the Piazza San Marco, so we saw it almost every day as we walked by. It was ridiculously expensive -- thousands of dollars -- so there was no chance of our ever purchasing it. But that didn't change her reaction to it; she actually mentioned it again a few days ago, it was such a memorable experience.

Though I see the magnificence of the work, the piece doesn't call to me, but I certainly know how it feels to be drawn to something in that way. It is often true that this tendency is particularly strong just after Christmas -- a sort of residue of the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, I suppose. And in fact, just yesterday I went to visit a friend's art exhibit and that acquisitional lust hit me: I fell madly, desperately in love with one of her paintings. Unfortunately she doesn't want to sell this piece so she has set the price ridiculously high. I told her I'd buy it anyway, or work out some sort of co-ownership deal with her, but she's still not sure she can bear to part with it.

I don't think this is some sort of delayed manifestation of the Christmas buying frenzy, but the price is roughly equivalent to a Buddha statue I've been trying to talk myself out of purchasing for almost two years now -- and seriously considered suggesting as a Christmas present for myself -- so maybe it's connected. But the whole thing -- both the Buddha statue and my friend's painting -- seems pretty irrational: these are NOT things I need (I have other, smaller buddha statues, and no real place to put this one; I also have a house full of artwork, though there's a space on my office wall that would be a perfect fit for my friend's painting). What is it, this odd longing that comes over us sometimes, for things we can neither use nor afford?

I'm not quite sure I understand the allure of my buddha statue or my friend's painting. I could intellectualize it -- the buddha displays a calm that I find inspirational; the painting represents the moment after her divorce when my friend rediscovered hope and joy -- but the call to purchase seems to go deeper than that. The last time I felt it that strongly was five years ago, the FIRST time I went to Venice, and the piece I fell in love with and brought home still serves as a focus for my meditation practice, so I have no regrets about its purchase.

I guess what I struggle with here is another should: we should not "buy stuff;" any extra money we have should go to charity, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, provide rest for the weary. So it's hard to believe that God could have any part in a message that says "buy this." Although in cases like this -- one-of-a-kind works of art -- perhaps the point is to support the artist in her attempts to manifest the Creative Spirit in her life.

Maybe I'll just go back and photograph that picture -- as I did this necklace -- she'll probably want me to do that anyway. And then, at the very least, I can show it here: it really is a triumphant declaration that God can move us through pain and suffering and into a hope so suffused with joy that it sings right off the canvas.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

At the intersection of language and art

I've been wondering for some time now if I needed to get back into writing poetry. The fact that Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas have both walked onto the page in these last few days intrigues me...

And then, last night, I was invited to write something to accompany an image I had shared with a friend. For some reason, I interpreted that to mean I should come up with a poem.

Although what I wrote surprised me, I came to realize that the results of my labors were expressing a sense of profound identification with the haunting sadness of dualism, as if some unseen observer could see all the ways we create our own misery; our own battlefields, both internal and external; our own sense of separation and devastation; our resentment of life's cycles and our constant longing to be other than we are.

What intrigues me more is that the words were written from the egoic point of view, whining, entitled, self-absorbed, ignorant. But the image I was writing about, like this one, spoke of another vision entirely; could step back from the ego to see both the truth of connectedness and the foolish illusions we create to keep us feeling separate and alone; the way a simple shift in perspective can reveal the tenderness and beauty that enfold us even as we weep or fight.

Does this mean that words will always keep us mired in thought -- futile, self-centered, comparing and defining -- and that it is only art that frees us to see the wholeness and connectedness of life? Then poetry would sit, like Jesus, in that in-between space, being both God and man, both connected and separate, both whole and divided, both language and art. And perhaps that's why we poets feel so stretched when we write: because we are bound to earthly images, yet always reaching for the stars...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Those post-Christmas blahs

Every year when the Christmas decorations go up I find myself shaking my head -- they look so... tacky! We've never been very conscious about acquiring "a look" for Christmas, so almost everything has been given to us by friends, family, or our children. And of course that red and green color scheme is totally at odds with our muted northwest style, sticking out like a sore thumb against the subtle grays, greens and blues that echo the sky and sea outside the windows.

But over the course of the season we grow accustomed to the bright colors, the lights on the tree, the silly dolls and garish stockings. And when they all come down, as they did, finally, yesterday (though the tree is still dripping needles in the corner of the living room), the room looks painfully dull and empty. That dull emptiness took over my meditation this morning. And so many responses sprang to mind:

1. I should buy something more colorful that could hang right there, where the stockings were, to liven up that dull stoniness.
2. Oh, God. It's like this empty colorless room mirrors the empty dullness that is winter, that lives in my heart right now.
3. If I were to take a chisel, and chip away at the sand-colored stone wall around my heart, would color emerge, like flowers in spring? Or would it all just turn to dust?
4. How did I ever think these dull colors were beautiful? Have I somehow deliberately damped down my natural exuberance, settled for less?
5. This morning I was reading about the extravagant generosity of Jesus' self-emptying. Is this what it is like, when all passion has been spent?
6. Or is that crazy brief flare of color at Christmas time like fireworks, or whistling in the dark: a last attempt to deny the cross that lies ahead?

Wherever the truth may lie, it seems that -- just as all that garish color has a way of clarifying the gap between the joy we're supposed to feel at Christmas and the sense of emptiness that so often rises to the surface in this season of light -- the stripping of the room symbolizes the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and the necessity of learning to live with the rock-hard reality that lives below the surface.

It makes me think of that Dylan Thomas poem. Not A Child's Christmas in Wales, the one we most often think of in this season; the other famous one:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night...

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Monday, January 5, 2009

These woods are lovely, dark and deep

Yesterday my daughter suggested we make an excursion together to a bookstore so she could buy the sequel to the book she had just finished. She already knew the sequel wasn't available at our local bookstore, so this trip would necessitate, at the very least, a drive over the bridge to the next town, and, more likely, a trip to the Barnes and Noble at the mall in Silverdale -- a good half hour to 40 minutes away.

It had begun snowing -- just flurries, nothing sticking -- so I checked the weather report. It all looked good -- temperatures were expected to hover around 36 -- so we headed out. We got to the Poulsbo bookstore just as it closed (at 4 on Sundays, apparently) so we decided to keep going to Silverdale.

By this time the temperature had dropped to 32 (so much for weather reports), and just as we were climbing onto the highway I noticed the snow was starting to stick and the lawns were turning gray. Oh, well, I thought: it's only 10 minutes away; I can deal.

Though I spent the first half of my life dealing with winter snows in Chicago and New England, it rarely snows in the Pacific Northwest. I've managed to avoid driving in snow for many years now, and though I have front-wheel drive, I'm definitely out of practice. But I could see that the snow on the road was starting to thicken and the cars were beginning to slow down and move into single file. All the signs pointed to what was sure to be a challenging ride back, and I could feel myself grow increasingly tense as I drove.

To release some of the tightness that was beginning to tie me in knots, I decided to try driving from that calm space within me. But what emerged, when I sank into that space, was not calm, but instead an almost blinding awareness of what was making me so tense. I realized that as I was driving I kept imagining either other cars spinning out (and into me) or my own car spinning out and into a ditch.

And from that calm space within, I could see that some part of me had been anxiously looking at those recurring images as harbingers of the future (which was terrifying me) when actually they were flashbacks to the two worst accidents I've been in, both of which occurred in snow -- a sort of Post-Traumatic-Stress syndrome.

We arrived safely at the bookstore, found Ali's book, and headed home, and, indeed the roads had gotten really bad in the interim. But now, having, as Pema Chodron says, leaned into my fears, I could see those images for what they were, and the tension had gone. I found I was able to trust my driving and the driving of those around me, and, though progress was extremely slow, we returned home without incident. Best of all, when I stepped out of the car I felt none of the stiffness that comes when driving with all my muscles clenched.

There is a part of me that loves the peace I find in meditation and longs to stay there, to avoid engaging with the hard stuff of life. But as Robert Frost says in his poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening":

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The fact is that the promise of faith is not that life will be pretty, or easy. The gifts of life are rarely handed to us on a silver platter, and we rarely get to just sit still and appreciate them. It's not that they come with strings, in the now-you-owe-me sense. But they do seem to emerge only in the context of living, of engaging with our challenges; when, in going those unavoidable miles, we stop to look at what we ourselves -- our brains, our assumptions, our egos -- are bringing to a situation, what our unacknowledged issues are contributing to our suffering.

The snow didn't go away. But my reaction to it shifted. And that, as Frost says in another poem, has made all the difference.