Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Moving from transition to threshold

So much of the time -- especially during this Lenten season -- we feel we are living our lives in some sort of transitional state; waiting for change, not quite attuned to where we are, not quite certain where we're headed.

One of the pieces in my Contemplative Alphabet (now called Yearning) was originally entitled "Liminal Space." I had printed up the first half of the alphabet for an exhibit, but the rest of it was still evolving, and by the time I was asked to print the second half, I had come up with the piece called Labyrinth.

Because I couldn't have two L pieces and I had nothing for Y, I renamed Liminal Space to be Yearning and reprinted it with the new title. Which meant I had an extra print called Liminal Space, which, unlike the rest of my alphabet, hasn't been circulating around the country, but instead lives on the wall behind my computer monitor; I look up at it often.

It's not here right now though, because I've loaned it out again. I have several friends who are in liminal spaces right now, and when they come into my office they see the print and identify with it. I don't know if this is just how life IS right now, or this is just the sort of friends I connect with, but clearly that sense of being stalled, between, in-waiting, expectant, anxious... however each person characterizes it, it's there; it's a fact of life -- and that seems particularly true during Lent.

This morning, reading John O'Donohue, I learned a slightly different take on this idea of liminal space. What if we don't see it as a place we're stuck and waiting, but rather as a threshold?

"It remains the dream of every life to realize itself, to reach out and lift oneself up to greater heights. A life that continues to remain on the safe side of its own habits and repetitions, that never engages with the risk of its own posibility, remains an unlived life. There is within each heart a hidden voice that calls out for freedom and creativity. We often linger for years in spaces that are too small and shabby for the grandeur of our spirit...

Looking back along a life's journey, you come to see how each of the central phases of your life began at a decisive threshold where you left one way of being and entered another. A threshold is not simply an accidental line that happens to separate one region from another. It is an intense frontier that divides a world of feeling from another. Often a threshold becomes clearly visible only once you have crossed it. Crossing can often mean the total loss of all you enjoyed while on the other side; it becomes a dividing line between the past and the future...It is interesting that when Jesus cured the blind man, he instructed him not to go back into the village. Having crossed the threshold into vision, his life was no longer to be lived in the constricted mode of blindness; new vision meant new pastures.

Today many people describe themselves as "being in transition."...yet the word transition seems to be pale... inadequate and impersonal, and does not bear the same intensity or psychic weight as perhaps the word threshold evokes. The word threshold was related to the word thresh, which was the separation of the grain from the husk or straw when oats were flailied. It also includes the notions of entrance, crossing, border and beginning. To cross a threshold is to leave behind the husk and arrive at the grain."

If you, too, find yourself in transition, and chafing with the waiting, what happens if you shift your focus a bit and see this point in your life as a threshold? What is the husk you need to leave behind? What is the grain of your new life, and what steps will you need to cross the threshold into your next germination?

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Monday, March 30, 2009

More than the Hokey Pokey

This morning I was reading again in John O'Donohue's wonderful book, To Bless the Space Between Us, and came upon this amazing passage:

"We live in this world as if it had always been our reality and will continue to be. When we think about it, we recognize that invisible light does accompany a new infant into the world... Yet in our day-to-day lives, we continually fail to recognize the invisible light that renders the whole visible world luminous. This light casts no shadow; or perhaps we could invert the usual priority we give to the visible and say that the actual fabric and substance of the visible world is in fact the shadow that this invisible light casts."

I can't decide which part of that I like more -- that the divine light casts no shadow, or that the world as we know it is just the shadows cast by the invisible luminous. For the sake of this post, I decided to go with the second half, mostly because it reminded me of CS Lewis's wonderful book, The Great Divorce: A Fantastic Bus Ride from Hell to Heaven. That book made a HUGE impression on me, but today I am specifically reminded of what happens when they step out of the bus onto the grassy fields of heaven, and and are so unnerved to discover that the grass is so much more substantial than they are. Though they are told that time in heaven will render them more and more substantive, they cannot seem to make that mental shift, and one by one return to the familiarity and isolation that is hell.

We grow so accustomed to the reality we see and touch that we forget how much deeper, richer, stronger the underlying source must be. In some ways (though I really wanted the grassiness of the willow photo above) this old favorite photo of mine is a better illustration of this idea: it is as if we are just the reflection in the water: there is some color, a sense of sky, and cloud, of shadows cast, but it's just two-dimensional compared with the depth of true reality.

Which may be taking me back to the first part of the O'Donohue quote, that the true light (or is that the light of truth?) casts no shadows. Perhaps the only reason we see shadows and darkness at all is because we are so caught up in this earthly world in which we float for the moment; perhaps this is how it is that God can hold together those opposites I mentioned yesterday -- peace and righteousness, mercy and truth. Somehow, in a way I cannot begin to comprehend, the old hymn comes true:

In him there is no darkness at all:
the night and the day are both alike...


And no, for those of you who can hear that playing in your head, I am not going to post the rest of that verse: the last two lines are just too hokey for me. Makes me think of that bumper sticker: what if the hokey pokey is all there is?

Hey, what if it isn't!

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Sunday, March 29, 2009

In mercy and in truth

I was a little late to church this morning. It's a sunny day, our first in a while (and particularly welcome after a long stormy night) and there was so much beauty along the road that I kept stopping to take pictures.

If you've been to the Northwest, you know that our trees are WAY taller than the trees out east. And what that means on a day like today is that the shadows stay dark that much longer, and the rising sun is slow to touch the ground, only occasionally brushing the tips of the smaller trees with light and color when there's a break in the cedars. So this morning, even though the sun had been up for an hour or two, everywhere I looked there were wonderful patches of light framed in darkness.

Though the artist in me revels in stark contrasts, I'm not actually comfortable in that sort of life -- one with lots of bright highs and dark lows. And though I do spend time on the stage occasionally, I'm not fond of my inner drama queen and prefer a steadier emotional diet of gray to stark blacks and whites -- which is probably why I love the Northwest so, with its temperate climate and gray skies. It's also part of why I'm so fond of my husband: he's a very steady eddy; far less susceptible to mood swings than I am. And yet he (though we've lived out here for 20 years) is the one who still misses New England, the bright sun, hot summers, cold winters, starkly changing seasons.

This morning in church the priest mentioned a favorite psalm of his, Psalm 85, in which it says "In God's person and in God's perfect revelation, mercy and truth meet; righteousness and peace kiss." At first I thought that was an odd verse to pick to illustrate a sermon on the passion of Christ, but as he spoke I realized that, in fact, in certain situations a passion for mercy and a passion for truth can feel seriously at odds with each other, and so can a passion for righteousness and a passion for peace.

For example: I feel called to mercy and compassion, but it can sometimes be very hard to feel that for someone when you know the truth about what they have done, or said, or are capable of. But in fact, the more unpleasant the truth, the more difficult -- and necessary -- mercy becomes. That really difficult section of the Lord's Prayer -- forgive us AS we forgive others -- is really all about pairing mercy and truth; expressing and feeling compassion despite what you know to be true. I'd never really seen that before, but from this perspective this psalm then is very reassuring, saying that God can always pull off that particular reconciliation of opposites that I find so difficult to master. The good news is that God can always hold those two things in creative tension; can step in and forgive through us.

It's the same with righteousness and peace: when we're battling with someone, or something, or some system of thought, it is often because we are caught up in righteousness, in the absolute certainty that we are right. The more certain we become that we are right, the less peace there tends to be in our lives. Somehow God's wholeness can reconcile those opposites as well; balancing them both in a tender and all-encompassing love.

So perhaps each of us -- my steady husband with his longing for a more dramatic environment, and me with my inner drama queen and my love of the subtleties of Northwest weather -- are embodying in our own ways that godly striving for balance, seeking our own particular blend of dark and light. And when I think about how curious it is that when my heart is reveling in the quiet foggy grays my eyes rejoice so in the intensity of dark and light, I find myself wondering if this isn't another way of seeing what O'Donohue talks about in that passage I quoted yesterday:

The faces of the calling change; what at the beginning seemed simple and clear can become ambivalent and complex as it unfolds. To develop a heart that is generous and equal to this complexity is the continual challenge of growth.

Perhaps what it means to be an artist, and human, and present, and called, is to be flexible enough to keep seeking balance in new ways: to understand that because my inner landscape is always shifting, on some days I will want to photograph light and contrast, and on other days what calls to me is the soft layers of gray in the morning fog. Maybe one of the greatest gifts of being a creative person, in whatever ways we are called to creativity, is that we can use our creativity to provide a balance for those inner fluctuations, rather than expecting spouses, friends or family to provide the sole antidote to our internal weather patterns.

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Where will you be when the lights go out?

video

Before I begin today, I want to remind you that tonight at 8:30 is Earth Hour, so remember to turn out your lights for an hour. My husband and I are already discussing what might be the best way to spend that time (I said going out to a movie was not an option!) so I look forward to hearing about the creative ways you find to spend an hour with the lights out. (Plus, given what I know about blackouts, I do have to wonder how many babies will be born 9 months from now!) For more about Earth Hour visit www.EarthHourUS.org -- and while you're surfing for green ideas, check out my cousin Debbie's blog.

Second of all (also old business) -- for those of you who responded so kindly to my Thursday whine about the Unexpected Dog exhibit -- you'll be amused to hear that I chose option 2 (God is everywhere, just follow the path) and spent the rest of Thursday playing with dog images. The results are pretty funny: I've posted them on my Picasa site for your amusement. But what is even funnier is that I met with my friend the curator for coffee yesterday and showed him my images, fully expecting him to agree that I didn't need to be in this show, and he actually LIKED them! And how bizarre is that? He did not, however, like the image I used for that post, which my friend Robin has so cleverly titled "Downward Facing Dog." Too cute!

Third of all -- also old business -- in Wednesday's post I included a link to my friend Karen's website so you could hear Eva Cassidy's incredible rendition of Over the Rainbow. If you read my comment on her post you will know after my father's death I listened repeatedly to Cassidy's recording of Fields of Gold; for over a year, every time I heard it I was moved to tears. So I went looking for a youtube video of that song, but there wasn't one of Cassidy singing it, and the others, well, the combination of those videos and that new Microsoft commercial where the little boy creates his own movie inspired me to create the video you see posted above. Because I associate the song with my father, and because my cat Pippa's recent death created an opportunity to forgive him, I have dedicated the video to her. So, YAY! I have created my first movie!

And because you have been so patient with all the business, I offer you this gift: I was reading John O'Donohue's words about calling this morning, and they were so wonderful I want to share them with you:

"The shape of each soul is different. No one else feels your life the way you do. No one else sees or hears the world as you do. The creation of the individual is a divine masterpiece. We were dreamed for a long time before we were born, our souls, minds and hearts fashioned in the divine imagination...Given the uniqueness of each of us, it should not be surprising that one of the greatest challenges is to inhabit our own individuality and to discover which life-form best expresses it.

The great law of life is: Be yourself - often a difficult task. To be yourself, you have to learn how to become who you were dreamed to be. Each person has a unique destiny. To be born is to be chosen. There is something special that each of us has to do in the world... What is it you were called to do?

...The nature of your calling can change over time, taking a person down pathways never anticipated. The calling opens new territories within the heart; this in turn deepens the calling itself. The faces of the calling change; what at the beginning seemed simple and clear can become ambivalent and complex as it unfolds. To develop a heart that is generous and equal to this complexity is the continual challenge of growth. This is the creative tension that dwells at the heart of vocation. One is urged and coaxed beyond the pale regions into rich territories of risk and promise.

...It is such a relief and joy to find the calling that expresses and incarnates your spirit. When you find that you are doing what you love, what you were brought here to do, it makes for a rich and contented life. You have come into rhthm with your longing. Your work and action emerge naturally; you don't have to force yourself. Your energy is immediate. Your passion is clear and creative. A new calling can open the door into the house of vision and belonging. You feel at home in your life, heart and hearth at one."

Interestingly enough, he begins this meditation on calling by saying "As we get older, time seems to speed up. The sense of transience haunts nearly every heart. You feel that you could suddenly arrive at your last day incredulous that that was it; it was all over."

So in effect, he was asking the same question they're asking at EarthHour.org, and so, I ask it again of you:

Where will you be when the lights go out?

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Friday, March 27, 2009

Glimmers of springtime

I was out on the beach yesterday, talking with my dear friend and neighbor Joanna. She's been back from her latest visit with her grandchildren for a week now, but she's been down with a cold so this was the first I'd seen her in almost a month.

So we were discussing the transition places in our lives, those shifts that begin inevitably to occur - like spring colds - as we move into this new season. There's something about the challenges of winter that has made both of us appreciate our mates more than usual -- always a good thing -- and at the same time we each feel something in the wings, waiting to bloom.

But the waiting isn't always easy: as John O'Donohue says in his blessing "For Loneliness":

"The light lessens,
Causing colors to lose their courage,
And your eyes fix on the empty distance
That can open on either side
Of the surest line
To make all that is
Familiar and near
Seem suddenly foreign."

As the poem went on, it seemed clear that it was speaking to some of the anxiety and confusion of yesterday's post:

"When the old ghosts come back
To feed on everywhere you felt sure,
Do not strengthen their hunger
By choosing to fear;
Rather, decide to call on your heart
That it may grow clear and free
To welcome home your emptiness
That it may cleanse you
Like the clearest air
You could ever breathe."

And then, as the poem ends, I can hear Kim's voice from her comment on yesterday's post:

"Cradle yourself like a child
Learning to trust what emerges,
So that gradually
You may come to know
That deep in that black hole
You will find the blue flower
That holds the mystical light
Which will illuminate in you
The glimmer of springtime."

So here, for you -- if you, too, are finding this waiting for resurrection tiresome, or fearful, or just plain lonely -- here, for you, is the blue flower: may its mystical light illuminate the glimmer of springtime in your soul.

And thanks for listening!

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What would the Dalai Lama do?

A couple of months ago my gallery invited me to be part of an exhibit called "The Unexpected Dog." I'm not quite sure why they invited me -- though I suppose it could be because my dog is really very cute; maybe they had even seen the youtube video I made of him drinking coffee.

At any rate, I said yes, because I'm always up for a challenge, and so for the last few months it's been lurking in the back of my mind (the exhibit will be held in June, so they've given me plenty of notice). But I'm running into all kinds of roadblocks, and I realized last week in talking with a friend that I really can't seem to get psyched for this one, and, in fact, that when I talked about it I was starting to sound a little snippy about the gallery.

My personal rule about such things is that if I have a beef it's always better to talk to the person I have the beef with than to run around sniping behind their backs. So I've made an appointment to talk with David, the gallery's curator (whom I adore).

My initial intent was just to back out of the exhibit, but my husband is encouraging me to stick with it and push my limits, play with it a bit. Two friends have said the only image they can imagine working with that title is a shoe, slightly tilted, with dog poop on it. And my friend Mary, the art teacher, said I sounded just like all her students who whine about their assignments, and I should just do what I'm passionate about and somehow include a dog in it.

What is particularly LENTEN about this challenge is that it bumps right up against my "stuff." So here's the deal: I have all these conflicting voices clamoring in me, and I can't figure out what path would be the most respectful to take. Here's all the thoughts that are bumping around in my head.

1. The truth is, I am NOT a student; I am a grownup, a professional, and for several years now I have been shooting in response to what feels like a call. And, quite frankly, the unexpected dog just doesn't call to me. So there's a part of me that thinks this is a waste of time and I would rather spend my time working on what calls to me.

2. But another part of me says that God is in everything, even dogs (sometimes especially dogs) and I should honor that by following this path wherever it leads me.

3. Another part of me says I am behaving like a spoiled brat: "what are you, too good, too important, for this simple task? Put your big girl pants on and deal with it."

4. Another part of me resents -- and feels a little hurt by -- the fact that the gallery doesn't "get" me, doesn't offer me a chance to be in shows that are more in keeping with my body of work.

5. Another related part of me wants to speak for all the artists who feel this way about their system; to use this as a teaching moment and ask if they might give us a list of upcoming shows and either allow us to choose between 3 topics or let us pick 3 possible topics and they could choose which of the three to put us in.

6. As a photographer I know the likelihood of anyone buying a photograph of someone else's dog is fairly slim.

7. I suspect that no matter what I do it's unlikely to sell, and even if it did I would make no profit from it, so I'm not sure it's worth the time it will take to figure out something worthy of hanging on the gallery walls, or the money it costs to print and frame it.

8. I have a sense of failure around the fact that I can't seem to come up with anything reasonable. I mean, yes, I can do dog shots. But are they unexpected? And if they are unexpected, are they art? And what is the point?

I can't seem to decide between door number 1 (am I taking myself too seriously?) and door number 3 (just do it). And I can't figure out what is self-respect and what is just my ego whining - because I do have issues around people (my husband in particular) taking my work seriously. And yes, I get that this is all pretty small potatoes in the general scheme of things. But it does make me want to ask: what would the Dalai Lama do?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Somewhere out there

I posted this image on my poetry blog yesterday, and though I dashed off a poem, I remember thinking later that it ended too abruptly; that something was missing.

This morning I went back to John O'Donohue's book of blessings, and the one that seemed to call to me was one that clearly described what I think of as liminal space, that space between:

"You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;
the way forward is still concealed from you.

The old is not old enough to have died away;
the new is still too young to be born...

Your eyes are blurred
and there is no mirror..."

and then he goes on to say:

"As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn."

What I read has a way of lurking in the background while I meditate -- which is why I am very careful about what I read in the morning -- and so this sat there, percolating, while I resisted and my mind continued to protest and distract me. And then I realized why this image had had such a pull for me, and what my poem missed: it's that this place (which I feel certain must be Vermont; probably along the Connecticut River, looking across at New Hampshire) is SO BEAUTIFUL and yet I don't seem to be able to step over the fence. I'm stuck in the road; I'm not even sure there's room for me to stand safely on the other side of the fence without falling in.

And then, because the last thing I did before going to bed last night was listen to this beautiful Eva Cassidy rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that my friend Karen posted on her blog yesterday, I remembered the OTHER Somewhere song, the one from West Side Story:

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Somewhere.

I remembered singing that with longing as a teenager, feeling that sense of somehow being in the wrong place and time. But then, when I looked up the lyrics for this post, I happened upon a third Somewhere Song, quite possibly my favorite of the three: the one Feivel Mouse sings so adorably in An American Tale when he is separated from his family:

Somewhere out there,
beneath the pale moonlight,
someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight.

Somewhere out there,
someone's saying a prayer,
that we'll find one another in that big somewhere out there.

And even though I know how very far apart we are,
it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star.

And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby,
it helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky.

Somewhere out there,
if love can see us through,
then we'll be together, somewhere out there,
out where dreams come true.

... and through the magic of music I see that this malaise I feel is just that sense of separation, of otherness, that is always so much a part of the Lenten journey; a mourning for all the distractions that keep me from really feeling connected to whatever it is we call it: God, Divine, Source, True Self, Christ...

I see that the fence separating us is very low; quite manageable really. And that the glory on the other side longs for me as intensely as I long for it. But I just can't seem to step over into the soft green grass.

NOTE: All John O'Donohue quotations are from his wonderful book of blessings, To Bless the Space Between Us (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website: www.johnodonohue.com

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Listen for the song


My cousin Debbie, who is also a blogger, sent me an email today about earth hour (8:30pm Mar 28) and included this lovely quote from Wallace Stegner:

"The brook would lose its song if we removed the rocks."

I don't seem to have a lot to say today, except maybe that for some reason life is looking a little gray at the moment, so I think I'll let Mr. Stegner and this photo do my speaking for me.

What I do know is that there's music in the falling, in the rushing, and the obstacles. Listen for it, and follow the song to its Source...

Monday, March 23, 2009

A call to solitude

If it weren't for the pact I made with my daughters -- to stop apologizing except in situations where it is unquestionably appropriate to do so -- I would apologize, not just for yesterday's post, but for the last few days' posts. It's not that they are bad, exactly, but they've been coming more from my head than from my heart. And when that happens, it feels a bit like this photograph -- like I'm attempting to make stuff pretty in arbitrary ways that are not consistent with nature, or grounded.

Part of the problem is that my back has been out for the last several days, which always tends to make me cranky and unfocused (pain and sickness manifest for lots of people that way, I think) but also my meditations have been less than satisfying, caught up in business and details and monkey mind stuff, so I've been feeling out of touch with what Freeman calls solitude.

"Merely withdrawing to a desolate or secluded place does not guarantee solitude. Physical or psychological isolation no more creates solitude than candles and incense make prayer. The need for solitude means more than the psychological need for space and time alone. Solitude is much more than being alone. It is the discovery, the recognition and the acceptance of one's uniqueness.

This uniqueness should not be confused with what the ego thingks of as its specialness at the centre of the universe. All the ego's claims for special treatment are only a pale reflection of the radiant uniqueness inherent in the Self...it can only be experienced when the separateness of the individual has been dissolved and given way to indivisibility, in the non-duality of the Spirit. The true nature of solitude, according to Ramana Maharshi, is not determined by where you live or what you do, but by the absence of thought. Solitude is realised by stilling the surface levels of consciousness."

It's that stillness I've been missing -- for whatever reason -- both from my meditations and from my photos, and if that's what you come here to touch into, then I thank you for your patience with its absence. Life works that way sometimes, as if we've just drunk too many cups of coffee or had too much sugar: everything seems to have this vibratory unsettled quality. Which is why true solitude and the peace that rises with it are so important.

Something tells me we'll all need to work a little harder to cultivate that for a while. It's easy to get caught up in the "stuff" of life, and to forget that a calm centeredness may be the best way we can give back to the world. But if we can do it, create these calm pools of peace around us, even if only for a few moments a day, I do believe that we are not the only ones who will benefit.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In spirit and in truth

In Spirit and In Truth.

Freeman is writing about these words quite a bit in the chapter I'm reading this week, and I like a lot of what he says. The truth, he says, is what is; everything that is is the truth. "Truth includes all falsehood and illusion; truth ultimately absorbs and makes even wasted time and absurdity meaningful."

So, for example, in this picture, it is true that there is an ugly corrugated boathouse outside Shelton. It is also true that somehow, paired with a boat and a reflection, I found it beautiful.

It is false that there are mountains behind the trees; they are actually over to the left: west, not north. But it IS true that the cloud formations behind the trees LOOKED like mountains to me, and inspired me to create this photo. It is true that this photo is an illusion, and a false image, and that I may have wasted time putting these two images together. But it is also true that, at some level, truth somehow redeems that wasted time -- perhaps by making the image serve as an illustration, or perhaps by my telling you the truth about the image.

What I loved, reading the section on truth and spirit this morning, after writing last night's post, is that what Freeman says next feels a lot like what I was trying to say in that post, about being gentler with one another during these stressful times. Because a lot of us will begin searching for answers again, after a very long time of thinking we had them all. We may be very impatient with our failures, and we may not always agree with the answers others find: their truths may not, at the time, feel like truth to us.

"Aware that this Spirit of truth is with us as a friend, we are better able to tolerate in others and in ourselves what has not yet reached fullness of being and become fully truthful. Truth is tolerant because the Spirit is forgiving love. It allows the untrue to survive for the time being as a loving parent allows a child to make mistakes. Truth embraces rather than excommunicates its enemies. It is made manifest after much distillation of experience... When there is no ego through which the truth has to pass, communication becomes communion."

I am thinking, as I read this, of the times I have sat and listened to my children and my friends, and I can see and hear things in what they say that I suspect are underlying truths, things they don't want to hear or are not yet ready to face. It used to be that I would take that as an opportunity to argue, lecture, or advise. But now, reading this, I see that there is a lot of ego in that choice -- "I know something you don't know." And though what I know may be true, it may NOT be true for them, or it may just not be true for them NOW.

Reading Freeman, I see that if I trust the spirit of truth to move in their lives as surely -- though often slowly -- as it moves in mine, then I understand that my truth may not be their truth, but that both are somehow true. It allows me to accept and forgive myself for the truths I can't yet see, or missed, and it allows me to forgive and accept them as well. It seems like this acceptance of the shifts in truth, even as they are all truth, is the compassionate stance that will allow us to embrace ubuntu, to move past the barriers that separate us into the truth that unifies us; from the frustrations of communication (and its failures) to the loving acceptance that is communion.

It is, in a way, moving out of time; moving away from the differences we sense now to the oneness that is to come, to that one day -- which is also now -- when we will all be held --or finally know ourselves to be held -- in that same loving embrace. If we trust that that will hold true, then we can let go of our egoic need to correct, or to rescue, and choose rather to say (as I am learning to say to my daughters) "and how are you planning to work with this? Please let me know if I can help" and just leave it at that.

And what about the creepily untrue people and situations that wreak havoc in our lives? Perhaps a variation of that stance, of throwing their versions of the truth back into their laps without correcting or arguing, of saying, "I see that's true for you but it's your problem to solve, not mine," will free them to disengage from our lives -- or at least free us to disengage from theirs. I'm frankly not sure that will work, but I already know correcting and arguing and fighting don't seem to solve anything, so I'm willing to try: It's always a hope...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

When the world turns upside down

I was at a gathering of women this evening, and we discovered that almost all of us, though this gathering was on our west coast island, were originally from "the other coast" -- mostly from New England, New York, and New Jersey.

One of the women had been back visiting recently, and was remarking upon how much harder the East Coast has been hit by the current economic crisis, and we got to talking about how the loss of a job can give you an opportunity to re-invent yourself, something most of us transplants know a lot about, as most of us came out here because we were looking for work. Several of us had been through periods of unemployment and had found quite a bit of fulfillment in developing new roles for ourselves.

But then, inevitably, one woman chimed in to say that her husband had just lost his job, and that it's much harder to reinvent yourself at 60 than it was at 30. She is an event manager, and one of her tasks over the years has been managing job fairs. She told us of one she put on just last week, where in past years 60 to 70 employers showed up looking for employees. They had to seriously redesign the exhibit space this year, because only 30 employers planned to come... and on the day of the job fair, only 14 actually showed up. For men like her husband, who arrived in suits looking for work, there was nothing -- and in Washington state 1000 people are losing their jobs each week.

For many if not most of us it's clear the world is going to be turning upside down -- if it hasn't already begun to flip. And, as with this image, that's going to change the way we look at everything. Something as simple as an image of the sun reflected in a parking lot puddle can take on a pretty ominous cast when the world has been turned upside down. And here's what worries me: I think this could easily begin to make communications more difficult. We will need to be conscious about being less prickly and sensitive about what others say to us -- to try not to get upset or blow things out of proportion; to understand both that we are edgy and that others are edgy, and that can make communications flow less smoothly.

And at the same time we will need to make an effort to be a bit more kind and tender with one another, more sensitive to each other's needs, more helpful and encouraging. I suspect this will prove challenging -- it is always more difficult to be sensitive to others' stress when we are stressed ourselves -- but at times like these we are going to need to rely on one another and look out for each other more than we have in the past; to help keep each other going and pick each other up when we fall. I don't think it will be enough any more for each of us to sit and stew in our own little puddles: the water is rising, and it will soon become obvious we're all in this together. I do feel incredibly hopeful about our future together, but it's clear we'll need to find -- or rediscover -- new ways to share each other's burdens. And some days a listening ear may be all we have to offer.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Igniting the air with the music of blessing

Today I am reading Lawrence Freeman's thoughts on Spirit. And in talking about the passage (John 6:63) where Jesus says "The words which I have spoken to you are both spirit and life," Freeman says this:

"By saying that his words were spirit and life, Jesus opens a new way of understanding both his identity and the nature of spirit. In the theology of the Trinity the Holy Spirit means primal communication. She is the love exchanged between Father and Son in that communion which is Being itself and which we call God. Spirit is not only the bond of the Trinitarian communion but its very oneness....All relationship, sentient and insentient, is an expression of this primal relationship. The structure of all existence is thus essentially Trinitarian, dynamic and fluent. The Spirit is the relationship subsisting between all that exists and so holds all in being...Spirit is not only the I-Thou of relationship but the we as well."

I love this idea of Spirit as relationship, that space between; more than breath and air but the charge that sparkles between individuals, between individuals and nature, between individuals and God, between everything that is; that space between all particles that vibrates with such energy. And for some reason it feels like the sound of this lone trumpeter: the intention of her music informing the breath she blows through her instrument, that emerges as pure clear notes of song that then echo across the valleys and bounce off the hills and trees, igniting all the air around us with beauty, light and sound; connecting all that listens in a moment of oneness.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Subliminal messages

Today I find myself thinking again about that phrase "we become disciples of what we pay attention to."

A couple of days ago I took my daughter over to Bellevue to visit old friends of hers from her days in junior high. After dropping her off, I came back to Seattle and got into line for the 10 pm ferry, and decided to amuse myself by playing with the nightlights and my camera.

This morning I was looking over the images and was particularly struck with this one, with the way the camera obviously moved to get the swirls, but also stayed in place long enought to get the two neon signs. These night images tend to be a sort of boring yellowish color, so I began playing with the colors to see if I could make the image more appealing.

I've learned over the years that however irritating the original color set may be, it usually has more depth and richness than any of the alternatives you can get by uniformly shifting the hues. So I got the overall look of the image to where I wanted it, and then restored parts of it to their original color to get the color balance I wanted.

When I finished, it was time to name it and save it -- an important operation when you have as many images as I do. If you ever hope to find the image again, you need to name it something memorable and file it with other like images. I had already decided it would go in my "Playing With Light" folder. But what to name it? When in doubt, I name batches of pictures by subject and date -- seattle ferry dock lights March 09, for example -- but when I looked at this one the title was suddenly far more obvious than that: Pabst Blue Ribbons.

Now I just want to say that I rarely watch TV, and it's even rarer that I drink beer. And I haven't seen a Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer commercial since, well, probably high school. Which was a VERY long time ago! I'm not sure they even call it that any more; the sign in the picture just says Pabst, as far as I can tell. It wasn't until I had been working on the image for almost half an hour, had completed my work, and was ready to name it, that the blue ribbon connection leaped to mind. But what are the chances that it wasn't already there, informing my choices in some subconscious way? And how often do we operate at that subconscious level, making choices that are informed by something something we saw or heard long ago without even knowing it?

I am reminded of that Adele Davis phrase from the sixties: "You are what you eat." Our minds are huge repositories of information, constantly taking in data, drawing connections and making assumptions, often without our conscious assistance. We see this most clearly in our dreams, the way pieces of our days separate out and reform themselves into odd fantasies, some warm and fuzzy, some intriguing, some scary. (I still remember a dream I had long ago, from which I awakened knowing that the word "vanchocstraw" was the key to the universe. It was only days later that I realized that it was actually just the label on the side of a box of Neapolitan (vanilla/chocolate/strawberry) ice cream in our freezer.)

Clearly these subconscious connections happen far more than we realize. Which means that everything we see and hear has an opportunity to plant itself and grow in our brains. Remember how upset we got when it was announced that some advertisers were paying TV and movie producers to plant subliminal advertising in their productions? Why, then, would we consciously choose to expose our brains -- or those of our children -- to the constant violence and materialism of bad television, gossip magazines and the like? Aren't those messages just as powerful as the subliminal ones? (I say this while at the same time admitting that I have been reading my daughter's Twilight books. So do as I say, don't do as I do!)

I doubt most of you who read this blog spend much time watching violent TV shows or reading The National Enquirer; I even suspect that some of you choose not to read newspapers, watch the news, or listen to NPR for these same reasons. But the fact remains that whatever we pay attention to; whatever we choose to occupy our minds with, leaves its imprint. And until we become FULLY conscious -- which I'm beginning to suspect is a highly unlikely prospect -- our actions will continue to be formed at some level by those unconscious imprints.

The obvious moral of the story is this: Choose wisely. Surely the good things we see and hear and watch leave their own subconscious imprint as well. But perhaps there is a subsidiary moral as well: that those of us who are artists have an opportunity and a responsibility to impact those subconscious choices with our art. And if we work to enhance the impact of what we create, and we allow it to be informed by what we know of Divine Presence, then perhaps our work can in turn inspire subconscious awareness of the Divine in others. As Eckhart Tolle says, that is the function of all great art: to serve as a portal to the Sacred.

Hmm. Does that mean I shouldn't post this image?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Three Stooges of Guilt

It being Lent and all, it's inevitable that at some point the three stooges -- Woulda, Coulda, and Shoulda -- are going to pop on stage and start performing tricks for you.

Today was apparently scheduled for their big show in my part of the world, and they crashed onto my set with a bang, letting my old friend Shoulda take the major role. In case you haven't met Shoulda before (though most everyone has), she likes to begin every sentence -- no matter how farfetched -- with her eponymous phrase "Ya Shoulda," as in "ya shoulda been tougher on your kids" or "ya shoulda ignored the whiny boyfriend and gone to Cambridge your junior year."

Shoulda is a hard act to forget; it feels like she's always dancing around backstage in my brain, and she loves to do those little impromptu appearances that make you want to get out the hook. But today someone had obviously given her permission to take out all the stops and let her rip, and she sang an aria so impressive that the encores are still echoing.

The problem is that, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, for my Lenten discipline, I signed up for a Joan Chittister course called "The Cry of the Prophet" through the Spirituality and Practice website. In this morning's readings for that course we were given a set of quotations from women prophets, and this one, from noted suffragette Jane Adams, really struck me:

"Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world."

You would think I might have learned this lesson from my first marriage: In that case I was extremely careful NOT to leave until I felt I had done ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to make it work -- which meant that, once gone, I never revisited that decision. Unfortunately, subsequent events convinced that I had perhaps been a bit too assiduous about staying til the bitter end, and so I became a little gun-shy, leaving bad situations, if not at the first sign of trouble, at least before my self-esteem got worn down to the nub. As a friend said recently at breakfast, discussing things he had learned from HIS first marriage, "I may have let the pendulum swing too far."

So, reading this, I found myself wondering yet again if I had made a mistake in leaving my last job: surely, if I had stayed in place, I would have had additional opportunities to make a significant difference in the world (there's Woulda, stepping onto the stage). I try to be an appreciative audience when these ladies take the stage, to stay in my seat and pay attention rather than walking out in a huff. But then, having put down the prophecy text, sitting there wondering why I had even bothered to sign up for that course, I picked up my daughter's Farid Ud-Din Attar poem and up cropped Shoulda, blazing forth like Ethel Merman in an even louder version of the same message.

"Weak woman in your faith... you should be there...
Is this devoted love? Shame on you all,
fair-weather friends who run when great men fall...
This was no friendship, to forsake your friend
To promise your support and at the end
Abandon him...
However hard the fight,
You should have fought for what was clearly right."

Ouch!

So I slammed that book shut as well and went to meditation wondering if I should consider going back to the old job now that I have more of the spiritual grounding it would take to do it right. And sitting there, thinking about what life might have been like had I stayed on the hard path, had I not stepped off into motherhood and island time, had I not discovered the joys of the contemplative life, I found myself thinking about Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken.

I soon realized, having chosen the road MORE traveled by, that it would be intriguing to go back and revisit the poem in reverse, from that perspective. And what I learned (as you can see from the resulting poem, which I published on my poetry site,) is that both roads still end in the same place, and together they inscribe the heart of the challenge so many women face, the duality of outside the home and inside the home that makes us wonder why it is so hard to serve both the world and our families.

I am grateful now to have been able to travel both those roads, and grateful for the choices I made, because going out there and wrestling with the demons is not the only way to make the world a better place. At some point, standing in the darkness that had begun to dominate my life in that job, I chose to take that long walk down the ramp to the ferry; chose instead of work to move into Island Time; to devote my life to kids and contemplation. And whether it was a more or less traveled road, it has certainly made a difference.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Disciples of the struggle

This morning, in Jesus the Teacher Within, I read this curious statement: "We are disciples of what we pay attention to." I just had to go back and reread that in order to type it in, because for some reason I keep thinking the quotation is "We ARE what we pay attention to" or maybe "We BELIEVE what we pay attention to." But to say that we are DISCIPLES of what we pay attention makes much more sense -- and is, at the same time, a scarier thought.

A dear friend called a day or two ago to say she was thinking of getting married -- for purely practical reasons -- to her long-term live-in boyfriend. "The problem is," she said, somewhat apologetically, "that I read all these romance novels, and I get how unrealistic they are, but still... I want more. I want this to be romantic, not just practical; I don't want to just go down to city hall and get it over with." And then, because I read those novels, too (though I usually give them up for Lent) we talked about why we read them, and how they skew our thinking.

And, of course, that's exactly why I give them up for Lent: it's because they create lots of charming illusions in my susceptible heart, about what a marriage can be like, and how a husband should act, about the sort of world we live in... and cultivate, though they are supposed to serve as an escape, a sense of longing for more, a sense of not enough. As with any other item or activity that we over-indulge as a way of coping with the various kinds of emptiness we struggle with -- over-eating, smoking, our children, drinking, shopping, television reality shows, working out, computer addiction, drugs, sex, gambling -- they create more problems than they solve and end up exacerbating the very emptiness we were trying to erase.

And part of the reason is that, in paying attention to these things, we become their disciples; we learn their false lessons, and they become our false gods. Some are obviously more harmful than others, but the fact remains that we do become disciples of whatever we pay attention to. But what if we are paying attention to things that are obviously connected to our faith? What if all our time is consumed by "good stuff" -- working on behalf of the environment, or volunteering in a homeless shelter, or working for the church, or, in my case, photographing and writing? Well then, we become disciples there, too. And sometimes the lessons we learn can be good ones.

But the trick about discipleship lies in the fact that it is more than just learning: it is spreading what we learn -- what the dictionary calls "spreading the doctrine of another." We get caught up in whatever it is that takes our attention, and it becomes the subject of our lives and conversations. We believe in it, we talk about it, we share it, and we get so caught up in it that we forget to listen to anything or anyone else. It begins to define us, and as it becomes inextricably linked with our ego we become increasingly inflexible, less and less open to whatever might call to us that doesn't fit into this definition we create for ourselves.

And that's the heart of it: it's a definition WE create, it's ego. It does not evolve naturally out of an ongoing, attentive, relationship with the divine, it is something WE have chosen. God may have put us there in the first place, but as soon as we begin to feel a sense of ownership and try to make it our own, it becomes... well... an idol. And whenever we find ourselves stuck worshiping something that is not God things can begin to go a little haywire. We stop listening, we start arguing with anything that pulls us away from the idol, whatever it may be, and we lose our sense of balance.

Which is why this whole tradition has grown up around giving things up for Lent. We are not giving them up because we are bad people. We are giving them up as a way of moving our attention back to the Source, as a way of removing the obstacles that distract us from a constant, ongoing relationship the divine, as a way of revealing the extent to which we have been pulled out into the ego and away from the true Self.

We are none of us perfect, and we are rarely as balanced and attuned as we would like to be. But if we understand the need to return to the Source, then we will make a continual effort to draw our attention back to Center. And in the friction of that constant struggle to resist those other pulls and respond to the Divine, there can be much growth and learning -- because, if that is where we put our attention, we will become, if not disciples of the Divine, at least disciples of the struggle to return to the Divine. And that has a great deal to teach us.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The slippery slope

On our drive (and ferry ride) home from the airport yesterday, my daughter and I were discussing the challenges of being a religion major in times of economic strife. Four years into a five-year college experience (she spent last year learning Mandarin in Taiwan), she's growing understandably impatient with her studies, and wonders what the point is of a college education, citing story after story of folks who, by her age, have "done something" without benefit of degree.

And, of course, she wonders what a degree in religion can possibly bring in the way of employment. But then she told me of a lecture she'd attended, in which the expert had spoken of the importance of cross-cultural understandings. Her generation, of course, is growing up in a completely different world from mine, and though they are less likely to memorize history dates and poems because the internet is becoming their external memory drive, they are also less restricted in terms of cultural identity and information and can choose to bury -- and surround -- themselves in specific interest areas.

But those whose backgrounds and interests diverge -- say, for example, a middle-class American with an interest in Japanese and Chinese language, religion, and culture -- have a unique opportunity to build bridges between what they are born to and what they have come to love. Like Karen Armstrong, Thomas Merton, Cynthia Bourgeault and the growing numbers of wise ones who see beyond the barriers of individual cultures and religions, they can bring their awareness of our underlying connectedness across the borders that separate us while still holding an understanding of the unique and separate value of each cultural and personal identity.

To hold those two together -- uniqueness and oneness -- is every bit as challenging as continuing to slog through the academic muck when it appears the world is winning a race you haven't even had time to enter yet. To stay the course always grows hard as you near the end of the tunnel, but she's tough; I know she'll see it through. For some reason Rudyard Kipling's poem, If , comes into my head, and now I find myself wondering: if our children never memorize poems like these, what will remind them that such poems even exist, that others who have gone before have grappled with similar challenges and pressed forward?

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Creation

It was raining when I left for church this morning, but by the time I arrived at Grace the flakes of snow were thick and fat, sticking to the ground and covering the road with slush.

It was hard to stay focused on the service today; the back wall of the church is essentially a wall of glass looking out over the woods, and as I watched the steady fall of snow I kept thinking, "This is my body, broken for you" and seeing the blessings piling up.

Waiting to shake Bill's hand on the way out, I caught sight of two deer, eyeing us all from the wide circle of grass and trees that defines the inner center of the parking spaces. We called a greeting, and they leaped off to the left, but when I went to my car they were standing there, waiting for me. I greeted them again; they turned and strolled into the woods.

This morning's psalm seemed to describe the starquilt image I'd created last night for today's poetry blog, and the Gospel lesson was one I'd remembered discussing earlier in the week -- was that a dream? The song Ann played during communion also had echoes of an earlier encounter; everything was feeling connected, as if I were floating in a lacy web.

I'd overheard my husband last night saying how much he missed New England, so after driving home through the snow (which turned to rain again before I reached my house) I insisted he come out with me for coffee, so he could have a taste of the New England beauty that surrounds us here today. (This local landmark, Frog Rock, sits right at the corner where the rain began to turn to snow). And he said our girls had called again, on their way to the airport in Vermont, and that there it is sunny and warm; quite the contrast.

And now, as I settle back down at my computer to work on a series of fog images for an upcoming show, I hear the foghorns blowing across the sound; outside my window there is only white, as far as I can see. On the way out of church I chose at random a word for my week from the collection of folded papers in the Lenten wordbasket. And this week's word is what it's all about:

Creation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

This is what happens

This odd conglomeration of images is what happens when I attempt to respond to something extraordinarily complex from an uncentered state.

After yesterday's post about the Farid poem that distracted my daughter from her intended flight, my friend Robin sent me a larger section of the poem, saying she would like to publish it on the ECVA Image and Spirit blog, and was looking for an image.


Here's that expanded version:

All who, reflecting as reflected see
Themselves in Me, and Me in them; not Me,
But all of Me that of contracted Eye
Is comprehensive of Infinity;
Nor yet Themselves: no Selves, but of The All
Fractions, from which they split and wither fall.
As Water lifted from the Deep, again
Falls back in individual Drops of Rain,
Then melts into the Universal Main.
All you have been, and seen, and done, and thought,
Not You but I, have seen and been and wrought:
I was the Sin that from Myself rebell'd;
I the Remorse that tow'rd Myself compell'd;
I was the Tajidar who led the Track;
I was the little Briar that pull'd you back:
Sin and Contrition -- Retribution owed,
And cancell'd -- Pilgrim, Pilgrimage, and Road,
Was but Myself toward Myself; and Your
Arrival but Myself at my own Door;
Who in your Fraction of Myself behold
Myself within the Mirror Myself hold
To see Myself in, and each part of Me
That sees himself, though drown'd, shall ever see.
Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.'

My first response to her determination to find an appropriate image was (typically) "Me, PICK ME" and I began a hurried search through my collection of reflection and mirror images -- that being a favorite subject of mine. But I was rushing, and everytime I came back to the poem, I saw that there was more, that in fact not only did every line suggest a host of images, but that every photograph I've ever taken or created out of my own sense of Divine connection could conceivably resonate with some piece of this poem.

So, in the end, my attempts (this is not the only one) to embark on a visual interpretation of this amazing poem (imagine what the other 249 pages must be like!) are drowning in a sea of images. It appears we have here another example of what my friends know I call "The Broccoli Theory:" that thing that happens when you pay attention, the way a single thread or moment seems to have contained within it an infinite number of related connections, the way a stalk of broccoli seems to explode out of itself and at the same time be so rich with flowering that it almost seems to curve back in on itself.

And of course, that's what the poem is addressing, so it should come as no surprise that an imaginal response would be subject to the same quality of infinite reflection and replication. So perhaps I've been too hard on myself. It's not that I wasn't centered when I started (though in fact I wasn't) -- it's just that I got distracted by my own responses and went the wrong direction: I followed my personal connections out to the edges, to where their connectedness seems less and less obvious, instead of tracking them back to the Source that lies at the heart of the poem, and of faith and life itself.

... hmm. A familiar mistake, I'm afraid...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Family Resemblances


Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:

Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide

Return and back into your Sun subside

My Oregon daughter, pictured here photographing the two of us reflected in a mirror at a hotel on one of our annual Thanksgiving trips, will be on spring break this week, so she made plans to visit her sister in Vermont. Originally her intent was to take a series of redeye flights, leaving out of Portland last night, but she called shortly after her plane was scheduled to leave to tell us she had missed her flight.

The problem was not that she was late getting to the airport; she had actually arrived early. But seeing there was no one at the gate, she decided to get something to drink and settle down to read for a while, got totally engrossed in the text, and only came to to discover the plane had left without her.

I was frantic when she called -- partly because an old friend of ours who had probably gone to bed hours ago (he's on East Coast time) was scheduled to pick her up in the morning. But mostly because her plan was to spend the night in the airport, which didn't seem particularly safe or wise. I passed the phone to her father -- who is a very clear thinker in a crisis, unlike me -- and I went downstairs to meditate and calm myself so she wouldn't have to deal with my anxiety on top of her own.

Fortunately he convinced her to check into a hotel for the night, so when she called again to tell us which hotel she was heading for I was able to be cheerful and encouraging. For those of you who think I should have yelled and screamed at her for being so stupid, I can only say that I had just finished reading a passage in Jesus the Teacher Within (I may have even written about this last week) which pointed out quite clearly that sin pretty much always carries its own karma and punishment with it and that guilt, whether applied from outside or rising up within, is fairly pointless. Clearly this was one mistake she would suffer from, and remember the rest of her life; there was no point in my adding to her pain.

So we were chatting fairly calmly at this point, and then she happened to mention that the book that had engrossed her so completely is a 250-page Sufi poem by Farid ud-Din Attar called "Conference of the Birds." Apparently she's reading it for a course in Islamic religion, but she was fascinated by it, and was writing notes all over the margins -- which was apparently why she missed the plane. I had to laugh -- this is clearly a case of the apple not falling far from the tree!

I've not heard of this poem, but I looked it up on the Internet, and Wikipedia tells me the verse quoted above is its most famous verse. I love it: it perfectly captures that longing to return to Source, which is also Light.

And now it is morning, and she's made it past the first standby barrier; she's on a flight to Chicago and hopefully will make the flight from there to Albany. Her time with her sister will be shorter, but at least they'll have a chance to connect. She'll write her essay on the plane, or sleep, and in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well
and all shall be well
and all manner of thing shall be well.

Time for Mom to go take a nap: it's been a long night!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What rough beast?

Remember that old phrase: "We interrupt this program to bring you this special announcement"? The Divine breaks into our lives in surprising ways sometimes, interrupting our busy schedules with gifts of love, or light, or self-awareness, or humor -- and sometimes terror, horror, or deep deep sadness.

So I know I'm "supposed" to be writing about Lent these days, and the slow process of self-discovery and healing that always occurs during this season, but I really wanted to share this interruption we received yesterday.

I had taken our dog, Nemo, for his customary walk, and he turned right off the boardwalk instead of left as he usually does. Okay, I thought, no problem, I can be flexible about this. But when we were in the middle of our neighbor's portion of the beach this lovely lady lumbered out from behind the giant driftwood stump that sits about a hundred yards down from our house.

Though you can't tell from this photo, she was close to seven feet long, and almost four feet high standing up (if you can call it that). What amused me was that Nemo -- who believes he owns the beach, and exerts his authority by barking and chasing anything else that dares to step on it, whether human, bird or dog -- was struck speechless. He stopped dead in his tracks, planted his butt firmly in the sand and just stared -- and mama lion stared right back.

Eventually I was able to drag him away, but he kept looking back as we headed home. You could almost see his doggie wheels turning: What WAS that thing? Should I be defending my beach? Is it coming after me? He was so stunned he forgot to pee, and we had to go out again later.

I remember the day the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. I was standing in the doorway of my daughter's bedroom and staring at the radio, and one part of me was attempting to process the horror of the news while another part of me was shaking her head because the announcers on this college rock station were young and inexperienced, and they were relaying the story in a very unprofessional manner, repeating with trembling voices what they were hearing on NPR, which you could hear playing in the background.

I think at times like these a separation happens -- or perhaps we become more aware of the separation within us that already exists. Perhaps one part of us is always present in the moment, feeling whatever voltage is there, while another part of us is always distancing itself, busily churning away with critical observations or hastily mounted survival plans.

And what does this have to do with Lent, and the Divine breaking in? Maybe it's just that by taking on the disciplines of Lent -- whatever they may be -- we invite a deeper awareness of all those things: the Divine interventions, the sense of separation, the way our brains churn and churn under stress. I've always had those mixed feelings this time of year, even when I wasn't consciously observing Lent. And now I wonder if maybe it's a response to the call of spring, and new growth; the sort of churning feeling in the legs I used to get as a child trying to fall asleep. My mom always reassured me, telling me they were growing pains.

I hope that's still true, that this churning is growing pains, and that something new will emerge from it. And suddenly, as I write, The Second Coming, that Yeats poem, rears its head again:

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Tuscan Welcome

Last night my husband and I went to see "Summertime," a David Lean movie, made in 1955 starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi (a favorite star of mine from childhood) and set in (be still my heart) Venice.

There were several moments in the course of the film where I felt compelled to whisper "I'm sorry" in my husband's ear: he hates "chick flicks" and this was one of the worst examples of the breed. Though the movie was beautifully filmed, the plot was thin and I found the characters neither likeable nor believable. Worst of all, the writing was weak and so was the ending.

"So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" All I can say is, thank God for Venice and Burano; they were the stars of the show -- and so, of course, I had to go back to my images of Italy for this morning's post. This one is not really my photograph: it's my photograph of a photo in a real estate office in Orvieto. I don't usually bother looking in real estate office windows -- I'm quite happy where I am -- but this particular property really pulled at me.

I think I like it because it says more about how I want to BE in life than it says about where I want to live. I did not want to be any of the characters in last night's movie, or even to be friends with them. But I would love to be the person who lives like this, who offers the sort of spiritual sustenance conveyed by the existence of this labyrinth; who offers the warm hospitality suggested by this simple Tuscan villa; who lives surrounded by green and by light, open and unguarded. Perhaps a little remote, but once they find this haven people are free to come and go, secure in the knowledge they will be welcomed and fed.

Maybe that's the function of this blog, to welcome and to feed; to say you are loved, you are not alone. And maybe that's the kind of church we long for as well.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Reconciliation of Opposites

I opened my email this morning to find an incredible gift: this image, sent to me by my friend Robin. It is (if you don't follow both my blogs) a combination of Sunday's image of tormented longing from this blog and Saturday's image of loving acceptance from the poetry blog. I find it so amazing that she saw how they fit together; I only had this sense that each of them was incomplete.

As I wrestle with my own longing for church to "be all that it can be" -- and my distaste for how often it fails in that attempt -- I've been trying to figure out why that issue triggers me so. I mean, we all know that we dislike most in others the shadows that loom so large in ourselves, so can I reduce it to that: just a distaste for my own hypocrisy, for the ways I don't live up to my own ideals?

A week or so ago I reconnected (through Facebook) with the woman who was my best friend in high school. Amazingly enough, she now lives less than four hours away, so we have plans to visit when I take my daughter back to school after her spring break. We parted badly, all those years ago, separated by my jealous boyfriend (who resented the time I spent with her) and so this feels like yet another redemption in a long string of recent redemptions...

I mention this because she sent me, on Facebook, two photos she had of the two of us back in high school. So last night I was going through MY old photos to find the two I had of her. And in doing that I found the picture of me drinking champagne with the Archbishop of Canterbury back in 1992.

That picture was taken my first year in the job, and I see in that young face all the idealism I brought to that position. It feels so sad to me now, I can hardly bear to look. And it reminds me that my distaste for the church isn't just a projection of my own failures: it's a deep abiding sadness at all the disillusionments over the years, all the times I thought I had found "my people" -- people who believed as I did, and who would act out of those beliefs to bring the peace and joy and inspiration those beliefs brought us to other troubled souls.

I was thinking also, this morning, of my daughters and their longing for a community of like-minded souls -- particularly my younger daughter, who really struggles with her classmates' needs for drama, sex, drugs and alcohol. As a mother, I wish I could wave a magic wand, say "go to church, and there you will find others who believe as you do." But sadly now I doubt that that would be true, and I know for a fact that the word Jesus -- because their formative years were spent watching me struggle with the church -- frankly gives them, the younger one at least, the creeps.

That said, I really liked the Archbishop of Canterbury (or the ABC, as we called him). He seemed to me to be a good and forthright man who wasn't afraid to "tell it like it is." And over the years I have encountered other good and forthright people in the church -- two of them, in fact, the priest and his wife who served the church I helped found when our kids were little, still serve as my younger daughter's godparents.

But the fact is that most of those good and forthright people were sitting in the pews, not standing in the pulpits, though if I am honest the percentages may well be the same. And I was repeatedly dismayed to see how the trust of the folks in the pews was destroyed by those who claimed to lead them.

So yes, Robin: this image captures it perfectly. It contains both the deep love I have for all those who worship and trust, and the deep sadness I feel for not just my betrayals but ALL the betrayals over the years, even for Jesus on the cross. It is at the intersection of those two conflicting emotions that my questions and issues around prophecy fall. And it is also at that point of intersection that the potential for growth must lie -- as it always does -- in the reconciliation of opposites.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Cry of the Prophet

For the last few days I've been finding it difficult to write in this blog. The poetry blog has been flowing freely, but this one has definitely been struggling.

I wasn't quite sure why this was happening: was it because I haven't been out with my camera lately, and so I wasn't finding appropriate photos to write about? Was it because I've been working a lot with poetry this last week, and just couldn't quite wrap my mind around prose? Was it because what I've been reading hasn't been stimulating thought in the right way? Or is the constant bad news about our economy distracting me?

And then, this morning, after reading and meditating, I just gave up and went back to bed. Because I realized the real problem is that I'm wrestling with the thoughts being raised by my Lenten discipline, and I'm not quite certain how to deal with them or where they're taking me. So I've been wrestling here in a sort of general way with Lent and its challenges, but I haven't gotten really specific. And this morning it became obvious that I needed to do so.

So here's the rub: for some reason I wandered onto the Spirituality and Practice website a while back, and I saw they were offering several online courses for Lent. I haven't done something like that before, but I was intrigued, especially when I saw that one of the courses was being offered by Sister Joan Chittister (whom I have long admired), and it was called The Cry of the Prophet.

Years ago, when I was working as communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, I was really struggling with my job. And a dear friend, the Rev. Linda Strohmier, who was then canon to our cathedral, told me that my struggles could be traced to the fact that I was essentially serving in a prophetic role -- never a comfortable place to be. I eventually left that job -- and the church I served -- and spent several years wandering in a theological wilderness. And though I am back worshiping again, I am still quite skittish about this whole entity we call "church" and very wary of involvement.

At the same time I have (and I'm not quite sure how to say this without sounding like I'm (as my father used to say) "tooting my own horn") a broad range of skills, gifts and experience accumulated over a lifetime of serving the church, most of which are going completely unused except as voiced in this blog. Most of the time that's okay; I just figure I've moved on. But when I saw this course about prophets, I thought: well, okay, if that was the heart of the struggle, then maybe now -- 13 years after I left that job -- it might be good to walk through this fire and see if there's something I can learn from it.

Now I will add that, having lived through the 80's, I confess it: I read The Celestine Prophecy. And though whatever else I may have learned from that book is now pretty much forgotten, what resonated with me at the time was his theory that there are no coincidences. So I have to assume that it is also not a coincidence that though I am reading two completely different books this morning for two completely different courses (I am still reading Freeman's Jesus the Teacher Within) they are both speaking to the woman I once was, the woman who left the church because she could no longer serve it with pride, and because she no longer had the courage or energy to continue challenging its flaws from within.

I will stop here, before this post gets outrageously long. But here are two quotations that might give you a flavor of what I am wrestling with. At the very least, you might see where the challenge lies.

"Christianity is one of the mysterious religious institutions of the human family that, for all its failings, has the role of a teacher of wisdom...Those who love their church do so because they see in this humanly impossible task an extraordinary potential for serving and uniting humanity. One loves the church then even for its failures, when these are humbly confessed. Yet in the end, we cannot be united to Jesus and at the same time belong to a church that lovelessly excludes or condemns anyone." (Jesus the Teacher Within)

"There is a major difference between a critic and a prophet. Critics stand outside a system and mock it. Prophets remain clear-eyed and conscientious inside a sinful system and love it anyway. It is easy to condemn the country, for instance. It is possible to criticize the church. But it is prophetic to love both church and country enough to want them to be everything they claim to be -- just, honest, free, equal -- and then to stay with them in their faltering attempts to do so even if it is you yourself against whom both church and state turn in their attempts to evade the prophetic truth of the time...

Criticize we must, but we cannot criticize what we do not love... The function of the prophet is not to destroy. The function of the prophet is to expose whatever cancers fester beneath the surface so what is loved can be saved while there is yet time...The horrible truth is that prophecy is not a harsh and heartless thing at all. Prophecy is unrequited love gone mad with hope." (The Cry of the Prophet)