Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Each heart is a window

One of the challenges I face doing Centering Prayer (which is the only form of meditation that has ever "worked" for me) has been that the artistic visual side of me tends to fixate on images: though it's difficult enough to empty my mind, it seems virtually impossible to empty my inner sense of vision.

I've learned to be gracious with myself about this, and over the years I've settled on one image or another and allowed that to serve as a sort of visual word to bring me back to center. But they do have a way of evolving when I am not strict with them.

This morning, still under the influence of yesterday's celtic cross, I decided to allow that to occupy my visual space. But to my surprise, the circle shifted to become a heart, lying on its side, and the cross was suddenly occupied by Jesus, leaning out of the heart as if it were a window with this benevolent expression on his face.

And then there was a phrase to go with the image, which I will share with you:

"Each heart is a window,
from which Jesus lovingly
watches the world."

So that "bright unquenchable flame of God-ness" within each of us that I spoke of two days ago, is really Christ within us. And now I see that when we can clear our way through to it, it allows each of us to see all that surrounds us -- and one another -- with compassion and love.

Having put all that together, I found myself thinking of that great old hymn, St. Patrick's Breastplate, with its curious middle section:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort
and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of
all that love me,
Christ in mouth of
friend and stranger.

So I wandered off to the internet to listen to it (which you can do here) and particularly loved these two verses:

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun's life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken, to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

Perhaps -- once we all come to understand that Christ resides within each of us -- it will become possible to act with God's grace and blessing; to know when to hold back or lead forward; to know when to watch and listen, when to teach and guide, and how to speak with wisdom in total trust and safety.

I look forward to that day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Breathing in Cosmic Elegance

Later this morning I'll be meeting with some folks at our local congregational church to discuss an upcoming retreat on the topic of practicing faith in the midst of our often chaotic lives.

I've been thinking a lot about this subject over the last few days, trying to be attentive to my own efforts in this area and wondering what could be said in three hours that could help make a difference in someone else's life.

And at the same time I have embarked on this Miksang adventure with my Miksang classmate, Joyce; taking on a new element of photography each week and pursuing it as a concentration. This week our subject is "Line," and yesterday afternoon I spent some time wandering around my immediate neighborhood in search of Line.

I wasn't particularly encouraged by the images I was collecting, but fortunately my new (used) copy of Chogyam Trungpa's book, Dharma Art, arrived in the mail yesterday, so I was reading it this morning to see what new insights it had to offer. What I am learning from my initial reading is the importance of approaching my art with confidence, wakefulness, and an awareness of cosmic elegance, of the rightness of things.

I took that awareness -- both of the challenges of maintaining a spiritual life in the midst of chaos, and of dharma art -- with me into my meditation practice this morning, and for some reason found myself mentally contemplating the image of a celtic cross. Suddenly it all came together in a flash of insight: The cross -- without the circle -- represents all the directions we feel stretched in our chaotic lives: there is the pull of the past and the worry of the future on the horizontal axis, and there is the tension between staying connected to spirit and yet fully grounded in our daily lives on the vertical axis. The circle is all that surrounds us in the moment, the stresses, the to-do lists, the people and activities that create that sense of swirling chaos.

But the way to stay centered -- to rest comfortably and productively at the intersection of the two crossbars and the center of that swirling circle -- is the way of dharma art: to stay confident that whatever we are doing will be the best we can do; to remain fully awake and aware, present in the moment, so we can act wisely; and to know beyond all shadow of doubt the cosmic elegance and rightness of whatever situation we are experiencing; to see that each moment is bringing us exactly what we need, and to accept the goodness and beauty of that.

It's a tall order, of course, and one I rarely fill. But somehow combining the understanding of the cross and the attitude of dharma art I began to see both how this retreat might begin to take shape. It also helped me understand how the images I collected yesterday -- like this one, of the side of my neighbor's boat -- might have intrinsic value. It doesn't matter if they are good or bad, better or worse than someone else's images. What matters is that they are reflections, taken attentively, of particular times and places that have a unique beauty all their own. And that's a good thing.

And so I stand at the center of the cross, watchful, confident, and rejoicing in the beauty of the moment, and just breathe.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Kiss of the Divine

On our way back from the coast last week we took a little detour in Port Angeles to visit a wonderful marina full of old fishing boats. I had discovered the marina years ago, and had been looking forward to a return visit, since my last had been in 2002.

But alas, the town and the marina had gone upscale: the docks were no longer accessible to the public, but had locked gates; the gravel parking lot now had an asphalt surface; and the beautiful elderly trawlers had been replaced by shiny new pleasure yachts.

But it was a beautiful day with a deep clear blue sky, the boats were brightly colored, and there were parking places along the road beside the marina, so we stopped to photograph anyway -- only to discover that bright colors and blue sky were just not enough. "It's pretty, but it doesn't SAY anything," my friend exclaimed, and I had to agree. Our eyes were being fed, but not our souls.

Which makes me think of something I heard in a sermon yesterday. We had a guest preacher, and she happened to mention that she thought the soul was some empty place inside us that we spend our lives filling up with God.

Hmmm, I thought. That's not how it feels to me -- but of course everyone sees it differently. It seems to me that there's a bright unquenchable flame of God-ness already there, deep within me, and I spend my life trying to open myself to it so that the spirit flows unimpeded between the God-ness without and the God-ness within. I am not hollow -- if anything, I am too full of thoughts and plans and worries and memories, and it gets kind of stuffy in there if I don't keep clearing a path through...

It's a bit like the rule I had for my daughters when they were still living here: there always had to be a path from the door to the bed of their rooms, so I could safely come in to kiss them goodnight without tripping over or crushing something. My life, my brain, and my soul get pretty cluttered sometimes, but I need to keep a clear path so God can flow freely in and out, and glide in for a kiss from time to time.

This is one of the three images I saved from that somewhat aborted marina visit: it was the only old boat I could see from the road, and I loved the bright red smile of it. Perhaps today it serves as a reminder: we need to keep ourselves open for that kiss of God-ness, that moment of divine love that feeds us. You never know when it might appear!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

When you shoot, what do you shoot?

On our way out to the coast last week we stopped off at the Crescent Lake Lodge for lunch. (It was delicious, by the way, and very reasonably priced.) Initially we left our cameras in the car, but as we headed for the lodge we kept seeing beautiful sights like this one, and eventually we gave up and went back for our cameras.

I love the light in this image; it's so inviting. And though you could claim that this is a photograph of a rocking chair on a porch, for me it's a photograph of the invitation claimed by morning light. It's not as reductionist as the work I was shooting with Miksang, of course; a little busier, a lot of identifiable "things" in the picture. And I don't think of it as saleable really -- I just like it.

Which is one of the advantages of having this blog: I always know there's a place I can show the work that I like. It's not a place where I can sell my work, but I can at least put it out there so others can enjoy it. That's probably a good thing, because if I were only shooting what I know would sell, I'm not sure I'd be shooting very much, nor would I necessarily be shooting what I love.

It's tricky, being an artist, because almost by definition you live in a semi-permeable membrane. By which I mean you need to be very open to the world around you in order to be able to take it in, notice it, and reproduce it. But when you are that consciously open, you are also more vulnerable -- not just to hurt, but also to suggestion. Which means -- for me, at least -- that when I'm shooting knowing I have a show coming up, my work is influenced by my awareness of the gallery's expectations, and by a perceived responsibility to set myself apart from the other artists in the show. And when that happens, my work has a tendency to become less an expression of me and more an expression of my perception of what someone else wants.

Sigh. I love knowing that all my dark shadowy sides actually have a positive role to play in my life; that's been a very heartening revelation. What's less easy to deal with is the fact that all the good things, the things I like about myself, like openness, have these rather shadowy aspects that I have to deal with. Guess it means I have no choice but to stay as conscious as possible, alert to possibilities, aware of weaknesses and of the ways I may not be being true to myself.

Frankly, some days that's just exhausting.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Listening and seeing with humility

About a week ago I discovered something called The Little Book of Contemplative Photography, by a passionate advocate for justice named Howard Zehr.

The book is part of a series Zehr has written called "The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding," and was included in the series because Zehr, who is also an avid photographer, wanted people to understand that traditional photography -- which is often rather aggressive in nature (i.e. we speak of "taking" or "shooting" photographs) could also be approached from a more peaceful stance.

The subtitle of the book is "Seeing with wonder, respect, and humility," and in the final chapter he offers this wonderful observation about humility:

"In the word 'humility' I include its common usage, the idea of not taking undue credit. But by humility I also mean something more basic and more difficult: a profound recognition of the limits of what we 'know.' Such humility requires a real caution about generalizing what we think we know of others' situations. Such humility also requires a deep awareness of how our biographies affect our knowledge and biases.

Our gender, culture, ethnicity, and personal and collective histories all profoundly shape how we know and what we know, and in ways that are often difficult to bring to consciousness. Humility calls us, then, to a deep appreciation for and openness to others' realities and to new revelations."

It seems to me that Zehr has captured in this statement both what I love about photography and what drives me crazy about religions. I love that my camera has a way of seeing without preconceived notions about what is right, or beautiful, or important. My camera sees things as they are at a particular moment in time without concern for what they might actually be or do. And in looking at what my camera sees, I, too, am momentarily transported into a very clear and simple present; in this case, to a brief moment when the shadows of a dock ramp on pilings, combined with their reflections, create the illusion of ancient totems with unseeing eyes.

Photography has a wonderful way of reminding us that there can be a large gap between what we see or believe we know and what actually IS in any given moment; it teaches us not to get too caught up in our assumptions and generalizations. My children play a similar role in my life, though their reminders about my inappropriate assumptions tend to be rather less gentle than the camera's...

What drives me crazy about religions and often well-meaning religious people -- whatever their belief systems -- is their frequent lack of openness to others' realities, and often to the infinite collection of possibilities that is God, or whatever universal spirit it is that they worship and celebrate. Evangelists -- whatever they are evangelizing -- can be particularly guilty of assuming and generalizing without thought for the other; even the so-called "software evangelists" that Apple's Guy Kawasaki defined back in the early 90's. And though when we think of evangelism we think of Billy Graham and Christian Fundamentalism, there are evangelists in every faith community.

I still remember standing outside the library where I worked, sometime back in the late 70's, talking with the man who was my then-husband's Transcendental Meditation teacher. I was asking for his help, hoping he could convince my husband to treat me better, value me more, stop sleeping with other women. And his response was that I needed to take up transcendental meditation. Taken aback by his rather orthogonal response, I tried to play along, mentioning that I had been following some Zen meditation techniques. But he pooh-poohed that, saying that was all well and good but HE could LEVITATE, and had had several out-of-body experiences -- as if, were I to do that, all my marital challenges would somehow disappear.

The problem with being in sales mode -- no matter what we are selling -- is that sales mode is all about talking, and not about listening. And whenever we are talking we are making one very important key assumption: that the other person wants or needs to hear what we are saying. We talk because we believe we know what they might want to hear -- which, as anyone who is married or has children or parents or works or has any relationships at all with any other human beings knows is not always true. How many times have you been "talked at" by someone? And are you aware of the number of times you have "talked at" others? For that matter, how much of your prayer time is spent talking at God, and how much of it is spent listening?

Humility, I believe, is a critical ingredient, not just in photography, but also in relationships and in faith. It involves a willingness to be silent, and to see; not just an openness to the other-- whether the other be a photographic subject; a friend, relative, acquaintance, client, fellow worker, boss, or enemy; or a spiritual entity -- but an appreciation and respect for the ways in which they may differ from what we assume to be true.

All of which reminds me of this fun poem, called The Cookie Thief:

A woman was waiting at the airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see,
That the man beside her, as bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene

She read, munched cookies, and watched the clock,
As the gutsy "cookie thief" diminished her stock
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, "If I wasn't so nice, I'd blacken his eye!"

With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left, she wondered what he'd do.
with a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, and he ate the other.
She snatched it from him and thought, "Oh brother,
This guy has some nerve, and he's also so rude,
Why, he didn't even show any gratitude!"

She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at the "thieving ingrate".

She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise.
There lay her bag of cookies in front of her eyes!

"If mine are here," she moaned with despair.
"Then the others were his and he tried to share!"
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief!!!!

Been there, done that (if not in that exact configuration).
I still have a lot to learn: I'm grateful to my camera, my family, my world and my God for their continuing willingness to teach me!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Coping with winter

This morning in Anam Cara I am reading about the seasons of the heart. John O'Donohue begins this section of the book with some wonderful advice about winter:

"When it is wintertime in your life, you are going through pain, difficulty, or turbulence. At such times it is wise to follow the instinct of nature and withdraw into yourself. When it is winter in your soul, it is unwise to pursue any new endeavors. You have to lie low and shelter until this bleak, emptying time passes on. This is nature's remedy. It minds itself in hibernation. When there is great pain in your life, you, too, need sanctuary in the shelter of your own soul."*

So when this image -- of an elderly couple helping each other up the last few steps from the beach at Kalaloch -- sang to me this morning, I wasn't quite sure why. The colors are a bit wintry, but the light toward which they climb is clear and inviting. It's a bit of a lonely landscape, and surely winter is a lonely time in the life of any soul, but these people are clearly not alone: they have each other.

And then I realized it was making me think of what has long been my favorite Shakespeare sonnet -- or at least, the only one I ever partly memorized:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I don't happen to believe that old age necessarily needs to equate with winter, though I agree with Shakespeare that that's what other people see when they look upon heads that are gray, or bald; see shaking hands, or hear a quavering voice. I think, instead, of glowing fires, and light: both the light within that still ignites our eyes with that spark of life, and the light beyond toward which we climb, assisted by what love we've found, in whatever form it takes.

And perhaps that's the message of winter -- that dark night of the soul -- and of this poem as well: that the way to move toward spring is the way of love. It's a call to be gentle and tender with yourself when the road gets rough or the climb gets steep. It's a call to celebrate what love you've found, even if it's no longer here; to rejoice in and re-awaken the memories of what went before, and, if you're lucky enough to have love in your life in this wintry period, to love it well, knowing it -- or you -- may soon be passing on.

I think winter has a way of reducing us to the bare essentials. And I believe that one of those essentials is love -- even if the lack or loss of it is what triggered the winter in the first place. So if we cannot have or achieve the love we've longed for or once had, how much more we need to learn to give that love to ourselves, to be compassionate and understanding with ourselves as we struggle through the dark seasons; to allow the hurt and anger to speak out, if only within us, and then to love and hold, cherish and reassure that which speaks, and help it climb out into the light.

*This quotation is from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O'Donohue. For more about John O'Donohue and his work, visit

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Life's not what it's not

Good Morning! -- and thank you for your patience during my absence. Tuesday was my husband's birthday, and we had planned to go to the Washington Coast for two days to celebrate, but at the last minute he got a consulting job and so I ended up going with a photographer friend to celebrate.

It was fun: we spent a lot of time on the beach with our cameras, the weather was perfect, the cabin and the food at the Kalaloch Lodge (a place I'd always wanted to stay) were wonderful, and my friend was a perfect traveling companion.

But when I saw this scrawled on a log at Rialto Beach, I had to photograph it. Because the whole time I was there, I was thinking of my husband and wishing he were with me. And thinking of my daughter in Vermont, who turns 21 today without me there to give her a hug and offer a celebratory bottle of champagne. And thinking of you, my companions on the blog road, and feeling sad that there was no wireless at the lodge, so I couldn't share some of the wonderful images from the trip with you.

But, as I realized in my meditation this morning -- and told my daughter, who called in the middle of my sit to thank me for her presents and share some tearful concerns about the young man who's visiting her this week -- Life's not what it's not: it just is what it is. We can spend our time worrying about what it's not; we can even view everything through that lens of disappointment. Or we can accept that what's happening is what's happening; even begin to believe that what's happening is what's supposed to happen -- that all of what challenges us now is a way of preparing us and bringing us to what awaits us next.

In Anam Cara this morning, I was reading (and I apologize if I've stated this here before, but I think it bears repeating) a quotation O'Donohue cites from Paul Valery: "A difficulty is a light; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun." O'Donohue uses this as a way of explaining his own thinking on this tendency we have to get caught up in what is not. Perception, he says, "is crucial to understanding. How you see, and what you see, determine how you will be. Your perception, or your view of reality, is the lens through which you see things. Your perception detemines the way things will behave for you and toward you...

Deep within us, there is a terrible impulse and drive toward perfection. We want everything flattened into the one shape. We do not like unexpected shapes. One of the essential aspects of beginning to re-imagine [life] is to awaken the ability to welcome that which is difficult and awkward. Frequently... it is our IMAGE of it that makes it appear difficult and awkward.... The image is not merely a surface; it also becomes a lens through which we behold a thing. We are partly responsible for the construction of our own images, and completely responsible for how we use them. To recognize that the image is not the person or the thing is liberating."

If we persist in looking at our lives through the lens of what is missing, we run the very serious risk of never seeing what IS; the incredible gifts that surround us even in the challenges we face or the times when life doesn't go the way we planned. Which doesn't mean we don't notice or think about what might be missing from time to time. But to focus on it to the exclusion of all else might mean we miss some amazing gifts and opportunities -- like these beautiful scenes, which were what I saw when I turned away from this log and began to appreciate my surroundings.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Painting with light

I remember -- back when my children were little -- going into the Ben Franklin store (which was roughly equivalent to the five and dime store I grew up with in Cincinnati). I was there to pick up something for the kids, but my attention was captured on the way out by a painting of a lighthouse.

The painting was matted in navy blue with a gold edge, and sat in a simple gold frame; the whole thing -- though it was probably 16" x 20" -- was only $25. And I remember being really torn about it: I loved the image, and loved the price, but I knew my mother (an artist in her own right, and a terrible art snob) would be horrified to see it in my home, because... well, frankly, it was kind of tacky.

In the end I bought it anyway (and for a while I retired it from the wall of my bedroom every time my mother came to visit). Eventually I came to know that the artist, Thomas Kincaid, was known as the Painter of Light. He's still incredibly popular, of course; there are even Thomas Kincaid stores in malls. But at the time he was just starting out, and though I never was drawn to any of his other work, that painting hung in a succession of our houses until it suffered water damage from a broken water heater.

The reason I mention it here is that the word photograph comes from the Greek: Photo means light, and graph means to write or draw. Which means that all of use who are photographers are, like Thomas Kincaid, painters of light. Every photograph is a painting of light: without light, there would be no way for whatever it is we are photographing to make its way through the lens and onto the film or sensor.

As I think I mentioned earlier, my (somewhat arbitrary) Miksang assignment this week has been to photograph light. And thinking about that this morning I realized I haven't been photographing light, exactly; I've been photographing LIGHTS -- which is not the same thing at all. It's a simple enough mistake, and certainly the work I did falls into the category of light. But at the same time it shows how much a part of the process light has become, that I don't even see any more that I am painting with light; that all the qualities of light -- color, intensity, direction, etc. -- play a major role in any photograph I take.

So I decided to go back to square one, and select a photograph that's really just about light. And as I look at it -- at the soft patterns cast by the shadows of the nearby tree; at the highlight that emphasizes the sleek satin shine of the knob; at the cyan streak of refracted light that slices across the image; at the black shadow carved by the edge of the door and the bright invitation of that upper keyhole -- I can begin to see the power of light; that it is everywhere, and defines everything.

Light, then, must be the photographic or visual equivalent of spirit, or of love; surrounding us, coloring and defining everything we see, though we have as little awareness of it as I had before attempting to be conscious about taking it in. My mistaking lights for light is as foolish as our society's frequent tendency to assume that spiritual life only happens in churches, that the only spiritual people are nuns, monks and clergy, or that Jesus and God reside only in heaven, or in a statue.

And as I write, I see, reflected in the framed photograph above my computer, that the morning light is streaming through a window outside my office, and igniting the faces of the angels who lie on the shelf behind me. Yes, they seems to say: spirit, like light, is everywhere: we only need to open our eyes to see.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reflections on reflections

The word reflection comes from the Latin: from re, meaning back, and flectere, to bend; literally, a bending or turning back, whether of thoughts, images, or light rays.

My fellow photographer friend Barbara came to spend a day with me on Friday, and happened to mention how much she loved photographing reflections.

I happen to know that both Barbara and I are Cancers, water signs; our birthdays are only three days apart. And so my first thought was, well, of course we both love reflections -- it's all part of our mutual love for water -- and I promptly forgot her remark.

But as I was wandering through my images from the midwest trip this morning (I'm still trying to throw out all the ones I'll never use) I came upon this one, and I liked it SO much more than the other ones around it that Barbara's remark floated back into my head, and I found myself wondering why reflections are so important to me -- especially since I had finally gotten out with my camera yesterday on my quest to photograph light, and much of the light I photographed was really reflections of light (in windows, car doors, floors and the like).

Is it just that, like my daughter, I really really like shiny surfaces? I suspect there's some of that in there. But I also think that objects become more abstract, less categorizable, less readily identifiable when they are reflected. And I realize that's one of the things we talked about and worked on during the Miksang workshop: the importance of seeing -- however briefly -- without immediately labeling; the importance of staying open to the whole of what's calling you.

For me, the reflection serves as a way to draw me in to that open space, where I can begin to wonder. A reflection like this one doesn't quite fall into that category, of course: you can clearly see that these are trees, clouds and sky. But there is some part of me that sees that row of trees on the right, complete with their reflections, as a single unit; sort of like a row of barbells, or a ladder on its side. And that hint of otherness pulls me into another more open space where I begin to wonder: what would this image look like on its side? What are those stripes across the reflections -- is that fog? Or some kind of algae in the water?

There's not a lot of confusion here -- not like some of the reflections I found in the store windows of Boulder, where I would spot a reflection and not be able to tell what it was or where it was coming from -- but it's enough to hold my attention. And I'm thinking that mental reflections -- which I also (obviously) enjoy -- work the same way. When I am reflecting, I am looking back over something readily identifiable, already seen, and exploring it from a slightly different angle. I may be seeing the way its patterns reappear in the mirror of more recent events, or I may be responding to a hint of past that has cropped up in something more current; a trigger of light, or color, or thought that has sparked some resonance I want to explore. Or I may just be playing with old thoughts, turning them upside down or sideways or backwards to see what new patterns might emerge.

Perhaps it's just about a kind of playful curiosity; a willingness to explore -- and of course, that means it's about flexibility, which comes from that same Latin root word. So it's also about bending; about not being rigid. Which brings me back to these lovely trees, all obviously deeply rooted and grounded, strong and firm -- and yet we know that when the winds come sweeping across this reservoir their flexible strength will allow them to bend without breaking.

So perhaps that is also the purpose of thoughtful reflection: it's a way of not getting stuck in pre-conceived notions; of being open to other possible conclusions. And now I remember that the total joy I found when I was involved in EFM -- the Education for Ministry program that comes out of Sewanee -- was all tied up in the act they called Theological Reflection: looking at Biblical passages through the lens of contemporary experiences, dreams, movies, TV shows... it absolutely fascinated me, and was always a process guaranteed to offer new revelations.

Hmm: something more to reflect upon!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

You just keep me hangin' on...

My husband and I used to chuckle at our parents -- his mother in particular -- and their inability to throw anything away. She saved EVERYTHING for a rainy day -- plastic wrap, rubber bands, string... there were cubby holes all over the house, neatly labeled, with "things" in them -- lost, pre-used, abandoned -- that for the most part just gathered dust. We called it "that depression mentality" and attributed it to the shortages she had experienced as a child.

But now, as we age and attempt to pare down our lives, I see that we are not much better than she was. We may not save string or plastic wrap, but we do save plastic bags and cardboard boxes. And, like his mother, my husband still has clothes left over from what I suspect were his high school years -- at least, they definitely pre-date the time I've known him; he hasn't even been able to FIT in them in all the time I've known him. But he also hasn't been able to throw them away -- or even to give them to Goodwill.

I tease him about this from time to time, and every year or so I make him go through his closet to cull out the things too worn or too tight to wear; this year I've been trying to get him to cull his book collection, with about the same amount of limited success: he finds it very hard to let things go.

I'm better at that -- with books and clothes, anyway -- but just as bad or worse when it comes to throwing away photographs; something I'm painfully aware of at the moment, after a summer of traveling and a hard drive that's continually grinding to a halt with an overload. I'm good at asking my husband to toss duplicate copies of books. I'm good at asking him why he needs so many blue oxford-cloth shirts. I'm not so good at explaining why it is that I cannot bear to throw away a single picture of a red barn in a green field -- even though I may have 20 or 30 that are similar.

It can't be that I am saving for a rainy day. Nor can it be that I am attempting to single-handedly conserve the image of our vanishing farmlands. It's just that if the photo has anything remotely redemptive about it I just can't seem to part with it. I can organize them, and sort them, and label them -- just as my husband can sort and organize his burgeoning book collection. But I am no better than he at throwing out the stuff I know I will never use. There is this what-if factor -- a remnant, perhaps, of my parents' depression era challenges, passed on to me? -- that has trouble getting rid of a photograph that has even the tiniest promise of potential.

But I'm working on it. Since I last emptied my computer's trash can, I've apparently discarded over 700 photographs -- which sounds really good, eh? But I suspect that many of that number still exist somewhere on my computer in duplicate form. And I've barely made a dent in those farm photos -- most of which were shot from a moving car or train during our sojourn in the midwest. Clearly I have more work to do!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The ebb and flow of presence

While studying at the Miksang Workshop in Boulder, I made a new friend (Joyce, whose blog and photos you can find here), and we have agreed to continue our Miksang practice into the forseeable future.

We've agreed that this week's assignment will be to focus on light, but I confess I've been too busy catching up since I returned home to spend much time with my camera. I'll be making up for that over the next few days, but in the meantime I wanted to share the light in this image, which I photographed last weekend.

The curious thing about this shot is that I don't remember taking it. I can sort of tell what it is -- I seem to be looking through some sort of plastic cup or bowl at brick pavement and a wall -- but perhaps those are reflections, since they're upside down. And I'm not quite certain how the bubbles got there...

So immediately my judging monkey mind kicks in and asks: Is my lack of memory about this shot a good thing or a bad thing? If I had just been on auto pilot -- as I am sometimes when I'm driving familiar roads or dealing with rote challenges -- I don't think it could be a good thing. I hate it when I am not being present to the moment, when I am so lost in my head that I am not paying attention to what is happening around me, when I am not noticing the magic of "the church of what's happening now."

But it could also be that I was so totally "in the zone" when I took this picture, so totally grounded in intention (this was shot when we were watching for texture) that I lost sight of even the most immediate context and saw only the texture I was seeking. And that, I presume, would be good.

I am still reading the copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea that I borrowed from my chiropractor's office, and this morning she talks about this tricky balance between seeing the big picture and living in the moment as a kind of dance:

"One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next, but poised directly on the present step as it comes. Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal. It is what Blake was speaking of when he wrote:

He who bends to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.

...But how does one learn this technique of the dance? Why is it so difficult? What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next."

And then she goes on to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "The life of the spirit, the veritable life, is intermittent and only the life of the mind is constant...The spirit...alternates between total vision and absolute blindness..."

Security in a relationship (and for my purposes I think I will include my own relationship with myself), Lindbergh concludes, "lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now... one must accept the security of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency... that each cycle of a wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid...that the sea recedes and returns eternally."

I suspect the key word there is accept. Because in relationships as in life we will inevitably swing back and forth between past, present, and future; have times when we are focused and close and others when we are unfocused and distant, too lost in memory or anticipation and worry to see clearly that which lies before us. It's important to allow for that, to get more comfortable with that dance, to give ourselves and our relationships and feelings permission to move forward and back, in and out like the tides and the waves.

Perhaps my travels with my camera are a microcosm of that ebb and flow; it may even be that in the case of this particular image I, in my eagerness to please, allowed the shoulds of the day ("Go out and shoot textures") to totally overtake my own needs, awareness, and perceptions. In that case, rather than worrying if this was a good or a bad thing, I can just accept that I do sometimes get lost in shoulds and lose sight of myself and my reality. Just being aware of that is a good reminder, and accepting it allows me to sigh gently, give myself a quick understanding hug, and move on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The flash of perception

In the Miksang workshop I attended last weekend we spent a lot of time exploring the concept of "flash of perception" -- that moment when something calls out to you to be photographed.

We were usually working from a basis of intention, i.e., "Today I am looking for color" and then watching to see what flashed at us. But inevitably there were moments when something other than color would call; this was one of those moments.

I can't claim it's a great photograph -- that's one of the problems when you're catching something on the fly: your camera doesn't always see what you see. But it does seem to capture that sense of "outsider-ness" that so often plagues us humans -- especially the artsy ones.

The two girls in the restaurant -- young, beautiful, being fed, sharing friendship, attractively dressed -- provide an intriguing contrast to the street person who is watching them. But as I look at the photograph, and the slope of his shoulders, I don't feel anything other than observation emanating from him: not jealousy, or hunger, or lust, or despair. The girls, on the other hand, show a little wariness, a hint of unease.

It would be easy to jump to some pat conclusions; to suggest that the homeless man is more comfortable with himself because he is unencumbered by possessions or the need to impress, or to suggest that the girls are somehow handicapped by their relative success in the world. But I think instead I just want to stay where I am, looking over his shoulder; to remind myself that when I feel most like an outsider it's not always bad or uncomfortable, nor does it always mean I want to be other than who and what I am. Sometimes it just is what it is: a moment of observation, of seeing self and other and knowing we are different without judging or making pronouncements.

Which is what the flash of perception is about: it's that moment when you just see, and take in what you see; the moment before the monkey mind kicks in and starts talking about the picture. It's all about being present to what is, without trying to draw conclusions or make judgments or frame what you see in a way that makes you look good, or feel good about yourself. Which is really the heart of being present, resting in the now -- a way of being I am still working to cultivate. So far my camera -- and this homeless man -- are better at it than I am. But that's okay, too; one step at a time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A richness in simplicity

I remember learning as a child that white light is actually a combination of all the colors. It was something I learned; something I got intellectually, but never quite understood.

So as I spent time with this image this morning I realized that I have come to understand that aspect of white-as-multi-colored at a sort of subconscious level as a photographer. Because what I photographed in this lovely Boulder restaurant on Pearl Street was fairly stark and simple: just white umbrellas and white bamboo against a mirror framed by a white wall. What I saw, when I walked in that evening, was white on white with touches of black for some intriguing contrasts

But what I got, especially after enriching the saturation just a bit, were all these lovely blues and yellows, with just a hint of magenta, lime and cyan around the edges to enliven the image. The camera was able to see what my eye could not, because my eyes have been conditioned to see only what was actually, originally, created to be a white on white environment.

Which is real, I wonder? The white on white you see in "real life" -- and in the photo on the Kasa restaurant website -- or the rich depth of color you see here? And does it matter? Do I need to know that white is actually rich with color? Or do I just need to trust that some color will always emerge with a little coaxing?

I think this is another case where we get in the habit of seeing what we expect to see -- whether in life, or in a restaurant, or in a spouse or parents or children or friends or situations... We are primed to some extent by pre-existing conditions or experiences to see certain things in a certain way. It can take a bit of a jolt sometimes -- a move, a shift, a sudden shock -- to help us see in a different way, or to see the richness that may lie beneath a relatively monotonic or bland surface. And I do believe that the more we pare down our lives, removing the unnecessary possessions and activities -- the simpler those lives begin to appear from the outside -- the richer the textures and colors are that will emerge as we pay more attention to that which remains.

It reminds me of a story I used to read aloud to children back when I was a librarian, about a farmer who went to a rabbi to complain that his wife and children were too noisy, and he needed peace and quiet. The rabbi suggested he bring his cows into the house. And when the man complained again, the rabbi suggested he bring in his goats. When the main complained again, the rabbi suggested adding the chickens. And when at last the man was tearing his hair out, the rabbi had him remove the chickens, goats and cows -- and then the man was thrilled with all the peace and quiet.

For some reason this makes me think of that Shakespeare quotation from Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it." So what have you been adding over these last few years? And what might you take away? And would might be more appealing in its absence than its presence?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Accepting your own imperfections

I am a worrier. I come from a long line of worriers, and one of my daughters also got the worry gene. This came up again yesterday because I was traveling -- always a time for the worrier to come leaping to the fore -- and as I left my hotel in Boulder to drive to the Denver airport the worrier was in full force. Did I have everything? Had I left anything behind? Would I remember to gas up before I returned the rental car? Had I left myself enough time to get to the airport? Would they charge me for the old scratch on the left fender that I failed to write down because I was in such a hurry to leave the airport after I picked up the car?

You get the gist: round and round and round she goes, and where she stops -- well, she never seems to stop! And listening to myself chanting this anxious litany, I heard another voice -- one I thought was my own -- telling her it was silly to worry about ANY of those things, as the die was already cast.

But at some point during the drive I remembered a conversation I'd had with my neighbor before I left, about listening to the voices in your head and figuring out what their jobs are. And I realized that my worrier does have a role to play: she's the one who makes sure I leave on time, makes sure I take everything with me, makes sure I am the responsible person I like to think I am.

The problem is, she needed to be thanked and acknowledged for that; she needed reassurance that she had done her job well -- and I was just shouting her down and telling her she was foolish, so she couldn't be sure she'd been heard or successful. So I brought in my loving mother voice (yes, I'm doing all this as I'm driving to the airport) and patted her on the shoulder, gave her a big hug, thanked her for making all those arrangements for me and doing such a good job keeping me responsible and timely, and explained that her job was done: that she could take a nap now; it was my turn to drive.

This morning I was reading in Anam Cara, and I stumbled upon a passage I've probably quoted here before, but it definitely bears repeating:

"Nietzche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. In this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. This is the slow and difficult work of self-retrieval. Every person has certain qualities or presences in their heart that are awkward, disturbing, and negative. One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities. Your kindness will slowly poultice their negativity, alleviate their fear, and help them to see that your soul is a home where there is no judgment or febrile hunger for a fixed and limited identity."

How perfect is that? We all have those parts of us we struggle with. But if we understand that each has a positive role to play; if, instead of hiding them or battling with them, we acknowledge their innate goodness, and if, instead of mourning the holes in our heart we can instead see that those are the places where the divine light pours in, we can achieve that inner peace and touch into the ground of love.

Musing on this later during meditation, I found music from the Phantom of the Opera soaring into my inner ear, but the only lyric I could remember was "Say you love me." So when I came to my computer, I looked up the lyrics, and now I see that this song articulates those deep cries of the soul: both the longing of the damaged parts, and the tenderness of the one deep whole love that lies beneath.

"No more talk of darkness,
forget these wide-eyed fears;
I'm here, nothing can harm you,
my words will warm and calm you.
Let me be your freedom,
let daylight dry your tears;
I'm here, with you, beside you,
to guard you and to guide you.

Say you'll love me every waking moment;
turn my head with talk of summertime.
Say you need me with you now and always;
promise me that all you say is true,
that's all I ask of you.

Let me be your shelter,
let me be your light;
you're safe, no one will find you,
your fears are far behind you.

All I want is freedom,
a world with no more night;
and you, always beside me,
to hold me and to hide me.

Then say you'll share with me one love, one lifetime;
let me lead you from your solitude.
Say you need me with you, here beside you,
anywhere you go, let me go too,
that's all I ask of you.

Say you'll share with me one love, one lifetime.
Say the word and I will follow you.
Share each day with me, each night, each morning.
Say you love me ...
You know I do.

Love me, that's all I ask of you ...
Love me, that's all I ask of you."

To listen to the soaring music that accompanies these glorious lyrics, click here.

For more of John O'Donohue's wisdom, visit his website by clicking here.

I found the wonderful Buddha pictured here, so at peace with the hole in his heart, at DecorAsian in Boulder, CO. To see more of their beautiful Buddhas and other Asian artifacts , click here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wisdom from a picnic table

I found this on a cement picnic table in a back alley in downtown Boulder, and tried to post it from the airport this morning but the airport wifi didn't seem to want me to send out the photo.

It's too late now to do a real blog entry, but I was determined to share this. The phrase used most often in my workshop this weekend was "a flash of perception." I think this definitely qualifies -- on any number of levels!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Does acceptance preclude forward movement?

Our task for today in our Miksang Photography class is to shoot textures. My new friend Joyce and I took our cameras with us to dinner last night and did a few advance forays into the texture zone; this was the wall of one of the shops near our restaurant. Cool, eh?

It makes me think of my meditation this morning, which was dominated by waves of thought associated with conversations I've been having, preparation for leaving, dinner plans for this evening... I kept trying to stay focused and centered, but the thought waves just kept streaming in, floating me back up to the surface.

Ah well, some days are just like that. I am learning to be patient with myself, but then (being me) I worry that perhaps I am TOO patient, that by offering acceptance to myself when I'm struggling to stay on task I am being too lenient, and possibly allowing myself to avoid something to which I should really be paying closer, conscious attention.

It's a bit like childrearing, I think -- we used to always debate this very issue: if you praise the child when they're doing well, and make it clear you still love them when they screw up, will they have any incentive to push through, to develop self-discipline? It was my job to answer yes to this question, and my husband's stance was always to make it clear there were higher peaks to strive for; he needed them to have some drive forward, and wasn't sure self-acceptance would accomplish any important goals.

But I'm thinking we aren't very good at tackling the hard stuff if we're wallowing in insecurity; that we can't pour out of an empty cup, and that more energy comes from a healthy awareness of strengths than from a sense that nothing we do is ever quite good enough.

So I guess I'll continue being patient with myself -- after all, it's what I would do for my children, so why not love myself with the same gentle tenderness. I just have to trust that the desire for deepening is enough, and I'll step down into it when I'm ready.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A walk through the waterfall

Good morning!

I am writing again from my hotel lobby (they have a call in to their internet provider to ask why the internet has been so flaky the last two days; even here the reception is kind of intermittent. But it's nonexistent in my room.)

Don't you just love this gorgeous green dress? I'm not a particular fan of either butterflies or sparkly clothing, but it certainly makes for a great photograph -- and I love the way the layers of the dress work; it makes me think of walking through a waterfall and finding a beautiful cave of treasures behind it.

This morning in Anam Cara John O'Donohue talked about how many people are frightened by the idea of meditation, or going deeper into the soul, because they figure there are all kinds of creepy ugly things waiting in there to ambush them. I remember a time when I believed that, too -- and I also remember the first couple of times I wandered into that space it was pretty scary.

But the good news is that I got past the scary bits really quickly, and once I walked through them (thank heavens I had a hand to hold) they were gone for good, and what lay beyond that first journey, as O'Donohue is quick to tell us, is a pure, deep, abiding love and a strong sense of self that are as refreshing and healing as the waterfall that this dress suggests.

It turns out that if you can have the courage to brave your own demons there is a kind of heaven that lies beyond them that you don't have to die to find -- or maybe it is a kind of death, a death to your deepest fears, so they no longer hold you hostage. And once you're free of those fears and demons you can be completely open to the riches and treasures a deeply connected life can offer.

Not to say I'm there -- but I do get glimpses from time to time. And it looks like a wonderful way to live!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Challenging assumptions

Tonight, after a day of photographing in downtown Boulder, my head is full of colors -- not unlike this man here!

Our job today was to notice color -- strong color -- and I'm loving the images I was getting as I wandered. They are not so different from my usual work, but they are simpler, pared down; stripped of extraneous material, and closer, somehow to who I am and what I see, less what I've been taught to see. (This was probably the most complex image I shot).

But now it's late, and I am sitting in the fairly busy lobby of a distinctly grade B hotel (the wireless doesn't seem to work in my room), so I don't think I'll attempt to do my usual sort of blog entry -- it's just too distracting -- so I'll just say that it's been very good to be reminded that we often see only what we expect to see, and life can be greatly enriched if we approach new situations with a more open frame of mind.

It seems particularly appropriate to say that now, because I just had dinner with a friend whose family has a tendency to only see what they expect to see, what they've been conditioned to see. I suspect that it is a natural tendency for all of us to make assumptions and generalizations and stick to them; after all, it does make life simple if we can just put things in the been-there-done-that category so we don't have to think quite so hard or often. But as my younger daughter is fond of telling me, "Don't assume: it makes an ass of you and me."

Maybe if she had added that it also makes you less creative I might have listened better!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In a mirror, darkly

A friend wrote yesterday to ask if I knew of any wedding photographers on Orcas Island; her daughter will be marrying there next summer. I had to say no; it's been a long time since I knew any photographers there.

But it did get me to thinking about weddings. I haven't been to a wedding in years, but back when we were going to lots of them there was always a good chance that someone would read that passage from I Corinthians:13 -- you know, the one about love: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud..."

So when I pulled up this image today I thought immediately about another line from that passage: "For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I am fully known."

I always found that passage confusing and obscure. Because it's hard to know exactly what it's saying, just as it's hard to know exactly what this image is, because the reflection is always moving and hard to pin down. In the same way it's hard to really know ourselves, because the mind on which the soul is reflected is always moving.

I'd always thought that line about the mirror meant we wouldn't understand anything clearly until we die. But what if it means -- as so many other biblical passages now seem to mean -- that eternity, God, the soul could all be here and now if we could just learn to be both still and fully present?

God already fully knows us, but we just get glimpses of ourselves between the thought waves. But perhaps as those waves subside the reflection of the soul, of God within us, will become increasingly clear?

Who knows; it's certainly a possibility...

Oh, well, gotta run: I have another plane to catch!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Power without wisdom or love

Back in the 90's there was a Rich Mullins song I used to love singing along with in the car, and the refrain went like this:

Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love
Our God is an awesome God.

Religion was easier in those days: I was working for the church -- a hierarchical church at that -- and the God I worshiped and celebrated was primarily male and all powerful. Yes, there was wisdom and love in the picture, but mostly the deal was that he was in control: that if my own life appeared to be spinning out of control, I could rest assured that HE was IN control, and all would turn out for the best.

Years later I find I still have remnants of that old belief system in me that surface from time to time. It's not that I still believe it, it's just that it's planted so deeply it's hard to shake. And no matter what I know or believe at this point in my life, there is still a part of me that longs for the innocent sense of safety and assurance that old understanding brought.

For some reason that makes me think of the current debate on health care, because in a lot of ways it seems entangled with that same old belief system. There was an innocence to those old beliefs, that if we set aside some money for the insurance gods every month, our needs would be taken care of. That if we went to a doctor, our illness would be cured. That if we needed drugs or surgery as part of that cure, they would be paid for.

But of course there's that key word, money, in that picture, and somehow whenever money gets involved, human greed has a way of messing up the system -- whether it's a religious system or an insurance system. Processes and procedures originally designed to protect and serve become rigid and expensive, and soon the whole business becomes centered on getting more money for the few rather than providing solace for the many. Wisdom and love take a back seat, and power reigns unchecked.

This downward spiral is allowed to continue primarily because we who could work for change still carry this implanted longing for the good old days: for the good old God who would watch over us and take care of us; and for the good old insurance companies that were made up of folks like us who had our own best interests at heart. We who grew up in that world have trouble accepting that decades of unchecked greed have corrupted the system, and turn a blind eye to those millions whom the system no longer serves.

Desperate to believe the stories we are fed by corrupt media and false advertising, we refuse to accept responsibility, either for ourselves or for each other, and linger instead in this imaginary world, hoping things will get back to normal and blaming the messengers who tell us it's time for change. And the angry vehemence with which so many cling to those old ways seems reminiscent to me of the fury with which the South once clung to slavery and prejudice.

It feels odd to write about this here, in a place where I am more often speaking of peace and love; of presence, wisdom and compassion. But what is wise or loving about allowing a system to continue that gives the wealthy free viagra and a choice of doctors and allows the rest of the nation -- and I am thinking, not just of the indigent poor, but of the newly unemployed, and our young people; of our artists and our laborers; of all the hardworking people who toil on our farms, in our grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants, who fix our streets and plumbing, who build our homes and collect our garbage -- that allows them to suffer and die because they cannot afford healthcare; that allows them to lose all their savings because one family member gets sick, or to be stuck in dead-end jobs because of pre-existing conditions?

There's nothing wise or loving about the insurance gods. And with only power left to claim, they are definitely not awesome.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I passed this lovely scene on my way back to the Albany airport from Vermont last weekend. The moon had been breathtakingly beautiful all week, and was riding low in the sky to the west as I left the week behind me and began heading home, so it was always before me during that final drive, mysterious and evocative.

What is it about the moon that we find so alluring? Is it just the idea of a light in the darkness? Or is it the quality of that light? Is it the reminder that there is another world somewhere beyond our own petty concerns? Or is it just the sheer beauty of it, the tenderness, the gentleness of those benevolent reflected beams?

Whatever the answer may be, this morning I love it for the peacefulness it brings. Looking at this image, at the pink glow of sunrise and the aqua fluff of the morning fog, brings my soul, still quivering with anxious dreams, to a sense of restful radiance.

And so I rest in the image, which brings me peace. A peace I share with you now.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Time to rattle the cage...

Yesterday my daughter sent me a link to a goofy youtube video of old people in choir robes singing rap songs. It was funnier to her than to me, I suspect, because with one exception they were songs I hadn't heard before, so I couldn't really understand how incredibly far their renditions were from the original tunes.

But of course whenever you're on youtube, you are offered other videos that might have some vague connection to the one you're watching. So I clicked on one of those offerings -- some sort of high school drumming performance -- and, well, I loved it. I remember loving those drumlines in high school, too, and, a few years ago, thrilling to the beat of the Seattle Kokon Taiko drummers; there's a sort of guilty primal pleasure in being swept up in those rhythms.

So it was with some amusement this morning that I read (again, in John O'Donohue's Anam Cara) that "The sound of the drum brings us consolation because it brings us back to that time when we were at one with the mother's heartbeat. That was a time of complete belonging." Ah, I thought, we're back to that hunger for belonging again. That's certainly a theme that's been playing a lot in my life lately.

Later in the day yesterday, after a somewhat abortive conversation with my husband about what might be next in our lives -- who gets a job? who might go to school? -- I got tangled up with some inner voices and had to check in with a friend to get them sorted out. Good soul that she is, she helped me retire a couple of battling personas to separate rooms in my head so I could get some peace and listen for the deep call of the one true voice of the self.

And then this morning, as I was nearing the end of my meditation period, I found myself remembering a song I had loved back in the 70's: Jungle Man, by a New Orleans funk group called The Meters. I was initially recollecting the song's opening -- a really primal thumping drumbeat -- but then the lyrics jumped out at me:

I'm the Jungle Man
That's what I am...
got my home,
don't need to roam --
the jungle is where I live.
Peace and love and harmony
is what I have to give.
I'm friends with the monkey,
I'm friends with the bird,
I'm close with the lion:
They all got the word...
In the jungle,
I'm the king
of love.

(Note: if you want to hear this, go to this Youtube video; the song starts 2 1/2 minutes into it)

Thinking about these lyrics, I found myself hearing the voice of that primal self that lives at the heart of each of us; the king of love who can befriend all those other voices in us -- the monkey, the bird, and the lion -- and pull them all back into peace and harmony.

Which somehow took me back to that quote from Sogyal Rinpoche in Offerings that I mentioned back on August 20th: "Confined in the dark, narrow cage of our own making which we take for the whole universe, very few of us can even begin to imagine another dimension of reality."

We humans do have a way of building arbitrary cages for ourselves: of removing ourselves from that primal, harmonious jungle and getting trapped in places and situations that are really not where we were born to live. We endeavor to hide the fact that they are cages by doing a pretty amazing decorating job, making the cage so attractive that we don't want to leave it. But the fact is that the cage -- whatever it may be: a difficult job, a challenging relationship, a role we no longer want to play, a task we've taken on that keeps us stuck -- is almost always of our own making.

While we're inside that cage it becomes very difficult to imagine a way to step outside, or to even remember the jungle from which we came. What it takes to escape is a distinct and determined effort to set aside all the chattering voices -- the monkeys, birds and roaring lions -- that keep us there (you'll recognize them: all their sentences seem to begin with the words "You should..."); to listen for the self, that king of love who is still quietly chanting his primal song of harmony beneath the turmoil.

If I'm feeling caged or trapped, my head seems to get caught up in lots of repetitive words and phrases -- not unlike the "you're an idiot" that kept tripping me up in the airport the other day. Somehow I have to sink down below my head into my heart; to get back in touch with that deeper voice of unity, of true self. If I can listen to that deep mysterious song of the eternal, feel again that drumbeat of belonging, I can begin to reclaim the sense of strength and purpose which will allow me to step outside my cage and rediscover the universe of possibility.

So what song is playing in your head today? And who's rattling your cage?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A colorful footprint

I spent some time in Chicago's O'Hare airport yesterday, and got to take a couple of pictures of something I've always loved: the underground passage between Concourse B and Concourse C in Terminal One. Officially called "The Sky's the Limit," it's a 744' long kinetic neon sculpture designed by artist Michael Hayden, and it's fabulous.

Not only are the colors in the neon tubes overhead always changing as you stand or stroll on the moving walkways; there's also music, sort of like bells, playing an accompaniment to the shifting colors.

To me it's always seemed a monument to creativity: I love that someone put this much thought into a transition; that someone understood how stressed people feel in airports as they rush from gate to gate; that someone took the time to imagine a world of color, light and sound that would both soothe and encourage thousands of travelers a day.

I met a wonderful woman on the plane yesterday. We weren't seatmates, but we met when we had to grab all our gear and leave one plane, walk from the C to the B concourse, and re-embark onto another plane. She, too, lives on Bainbridge Island, and she, too, was returning from having dropped a child off at college. Later, riding the ferry together, she talked about the importance of leaving a positive footprint.

Both of us -- though we had done other things -- felt that raising children had been our most significant contribution to date, but that the time had come to make some other contribution to the amazing world in which we have been privileged to live. Not everyone can do something as significant as "The Sky's the Limit", of course, and not everyone has the opportunity to affect as many lives as the artist who designed this colorful transition.

But as I read John O'Donohue's words in Anam Cara this morning, about the many ways we humans have of seeing -- with fearful eye, or greedy eye, or judgmental eye; with resentful eye, or indifferent eye, or inferior eye -- I really want to thank Michael Hayden, and the folks at O'Hare who had the vision to hire him. Because I think they saw all those of us passengers who are rushing or struggling through the airport -- many of whom may well be in the throes of significant emotion because of what they are leaving behind or traveling to -- with the eyes of love, and gave us a significant gift.

Even though we are in the passageway for only a minute or three, it's like walking through a fountain, or a waterfall, and endlessly refreshing. I am always inspired by this work, and hope that someday something I do will prove to leave a footprint that has similarly restorative qualities.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Willow, weep for me

When I was in high school there was a Chad and Jeremy song I loved called "Willow, weep for me." It went something like this:

Willow weep for me
Willow weep for me
Bend your branches green
Along the stream that runs to sea
Listen to my plea
Listen willow and weep for me

Murmur to the night
To hide the starry light
So none will find me sighing
And crying all alone

Weepin' willow tree
Weep in sympathy
Bend your branches down
Along the ground and cover me

When the shadows fall
Bend oh willow and weep for me

When this image called to me this morning, I thought it was lovely -- it reminded me of that song -- but I wasn’t sure what story it had to tell. And then I realized it was all about hiding -- "bend your branches down... and cover me"; that the willow branches resemble long hair, the kind of hair teenage girls often tend to hide behind. My hair may only be shoulder-length these days, but I’m still occasionally tempted to hide behind it, and this was definitely one of those mornings.

It all began because my husband really really wanted me to bring back maple syrup from Vermont, so I bought some. But it was heavy, and I didn’t want my bag to go overweight, so I (cleverly, I thought) decided to stuff it in my carry-on, because that’s small and they don’t weigh it.

Well, duh! You can’t take that much liquid on a plane! What was I thinking? Well, the truth is, I guess I wasn’t thinking. So when the security folks dug it out of my bag I felt terribly stupid and embarrassed. I didn’t want to ship the carry-on as baggage – it had my laptop and camera in it, and wasn’t particularly well packed, so I opted to mail the syrup back. But of course at 7:00 in the morning the mailing station at the Albany airport isn’t manned, so eventually I just gave up and threw the syrup away.

As I walked back through security, re-greeting all my sympathetic TSA friends at the checkpoint, a voice in my head kept smacking me and saying, “you’re such an idiot; you’re such a stupid bozo.” And of course I was sad not to be bringing my husband his syrup, which he dearly loves. Sigh.

It’s not the end of the world; it’s just a mistake. I am not so much an idiot as just forgetful. But it’s hard to forgive the waste of money, and disheartening to think that the forgetfulness could be yet another sign that I am over 60, and will become increasingly prone to such foolishness. How will I compensate for these challenges, and, more importantly, will I ever learn to forgive myself for such lapses?

If it had happened to anyone else I would surely reassure them and let them know I still love them. But the fact is that even after all this work, I still find it very hard to forgive myself.

Guess I’ll just have to work on that! Yet again, my weakness will be my whetstone...


Friday, September 4, 2009

On being different

This guy's a bit of a fish out of water: If you just see him as a statue, it feels a bit like he belongs on a busy street in Rome. And surely if he were real he would be near an ocean, perhaps even luring unwary sailors to their deaths.

And yet he's a charming addition to this Vermont landscape, which I found hidden at the end of a road after crossing a little bridge which seemed to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday talking with a dear friend who feels herself to be a fish out of water in her own family; I know my daughter has felt that way from time to time as well. And it seems to me that if we can step back from those situations -- however lonely it may feel to us when we're in them -- we can begin to see that we often provide, by virtue of our unbelonging, an important addition to the landscape.

I find myself thinking of a wedding I attended back in the 80's, held at a very swanky hotel in New York City. I lived in Vermont at the time, so I had no "city clothes" but I had acquired what I thought was a perfectly beautiful dark green satin ensemble; high neck, pleated skirt... and I felt very elegant until I arrived and saw that every other woman in the room was dressed in a wool gabardine coatdress in either black or red (except the bride, of course).

I shrank into myself, trying to remain least-in-sight, invisible (impossible, of course, given my green satin) and felt those horrible "you're such an idiot, you'll never get it right" voices chanting sneeringly in my ears. Fortunately it was a fairly brief wedding, and we adjourned to the reception fairly quickly to enjoy a lovely meal and a particularly memorable wedding cake (chocolate, many-layered, with marzipan between the layers and raspberry syrup dribbled over the top).

I was seated at a table with some extraordinarily elegant and important people, all strangers considerably older than I was, and had resigned myself to being excluded from conversation when the man next to me offered me the bread tray to capture my attention and then said, "I have to tell you, that shade of green is just magnificent with your eyes -- and so refreshing in a room full of red and black."

He turned out to be a lovely person, as was his wife, and we spent a delightful meal conversing among the three of us about the newspaper and publishing industries, in which all three of us were active at the time. And it was, of course, both amazingly thoughtful of him to have made that observation, and incredibly reassuring to me to be reminded that it isn't necessarily bad to stand out in a crowd.

It's possible, of course, that he was just being kind. But it's also possible that if you can stand back a bit and get the big picture it may actually be true that that which makes you feel so painfully different and excluded may be a deliciously refreshing -- and much needed -- ingredient in an otherwise bleak or monotonous landscape.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This wild and precious life

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver

As I watch the morning sun pour through the curtains of my room in this beautiful Vermont farmhouse this morning, this phrase from Mary Oliver keeps haunting me.

I suspect my senses are colored by today's readings in John O'Donohue's Anam Cara, which resonate with wonderful sentences like "the body is suffused with wild and vital divinity" and "We are no longer in exile from the wonderful harvest of divinity that is always secretly gathering within us."

I have loved living in the Pacific Northwest these last twenty years, but there is a golden quality to the light here that seems to suffuse the landscape with a depth and vitality that I've been missing. But then, there's also a magical quality to this house that lends its own energy to the experience.

It's a traditional New England home, rambling and gracious, with hardwood floors and painted moldings, wallpapered walls and curtained windows, glass doorknobs, beadboard wainscoting, throw rugs and multi-paned windows and stone lions at the gates. The rolling lawns are dappled with sunshine and red barns, and ancient maple trees frame the views from almost every window.

Add to that a delightful sprinkling of buddha statues and angels and you have a delicious environment that thrills and stimulates the senses and would make an ideal retreat center: it just hums with creativity. So I have to say that my soul is being wonderfully fed by the light here; I hope I can pass that sense of delight and wonder and possibility on to you!