Monday, November 30, 2009

Finding Balance

Ok -- here's a trick question: where was this photograph taken?

Nope, not Venice, though certainly a lot of photos of Venice have appeared in this blog over the years. It's Florida whose cloudy skies and ruined glory you see here; an estate called Vizcaya, built by International Harvester Vice President James Deering around 1916 and designed specifically "to appear as an Italian estate that had stood for 400 years and had been occupied and renovated by several generations of a family."

We only spent a couple of hours at the estate -- it was lunchtime, and Grampa was getting hungry -- but it was in its own way a photographer's paradise; I'd love to have had more time to explore. And I wish my daughters -- one of whom is majoring in photography -- could have been with us that day; I feel certain they, too, would have been intrigued by the building and grounds.

Although... we've learned over the years that my daughters and I tend to photograph very different things. I was thinking about that this morning: I've started reading Ralph Hattersley's book, Discover Your Self Through Photography, and in the opening chapter it offers "60 time-tested ideas for photographs." Reading through that section I was actually somewhat startled to realize -- having been photographing most of my life, and professionally for around 15 years now -- how few of those ideas I had actually explored.

I've certainly SEEN photos in most of the categories he mentioned; I just haven't SHOT them. Which interests me, because according to Hattersley, photographers -- especially beginning ones -- are always looking for ideas of what to shoot. I suppose it could be my faulty 60-year-old memory, but I don't actually remember a time when I worried about that: it always seemed to me that there were subjects ASKING to be shot; my only job was to hear the question and then figure out what the best angle and lighting might be.

... which may explain any number of things, both about me and about my work... and may well hark back to my mother's voice, telling me I'm lazy. But I don't see it that way: to me it's more about the permeability of the boundaries between me and not-me. I suspect that the personality characteristics which make me choose carefully what books I read and which movies I see are the same characteristics which allow my environment to influence me and call to me. Which just goes to prove -- yet again -- that our weaknesses are almost always our strengths as well.

So if there's some aspect of your personality that's really bugging you this week, I invite you to take a moment and sit with it. Name it, claim it, try to love yourself in spite of it -- and then think about its opposite, and explore how much a part of you that opposite is, as well. It is in consciously working to strike a balance between those powerful strengths and weaknesses at the outer edges of our personalities, I suspect, that we can come to love ourselves, come closer to the Divine Connection we crave, and find our true calling.

But that's just a guess...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Below the surface

Though on the surface Florida seems to have a lot of glitz and glamor, this sense of waste and ruin seems to lie not far beneath the surface -- particularly after the state's most recent boom and bust.

But I suspect this picture appealed to me for other reasons this morning as well; that it's not just Florida but the whole country that is finding itself cursed with an unsupportable standard of living.

It's as if we as a society have some insidious form of ADD -- the kind where you're very good at starting up new ideas, but haven't the -- what my mother used to call -- "stick-to-it-iveness" to maintain what we started, to stick it out for the long haul.

And on a personal level, that could be resonating because I couldn't find a way to meditate during my week away from home -- or perhaps I just couldn't summon up the courage to claim that 20 minutes a day as my own. I had hoped that this morning's return to that space would be blessed with the lovely deep sinking I've been missing so, but instead my thoughts were dancing around all the family issues that emerged over the course of the week.

Meditation practice takes maintenance and commitment, just as building a life, a business, a family or a responsible society takes commitment, vigilance, attention. And when we slack off, well... it shows.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Gilded Cage

There's an old song my father used to sing as a joke when I was a little girl -- "She's only a bird, in a gilded cage..."

"She's only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see.
You may think she's happy and free from care,
She's not, though she seems to be."

I thought of that yesterday, as I stared through one of the windows of one of the two bird habitats that live in the main lobby of our hotel. The birds in there (you can sort of see them on the branch in this picture; they're fluffy and gray with bright orange beaks) have lots of charming little homes to choose from, and a beautiful plate of cucumbers and strawberries every morning, all carefully arranged arranged in a circle.

But in the end, safe though it may be, this is the only world they know, and it seems somehow wrong that they never get to fly further than a foot or two. There are lots of us, I'm sure -- especially in times like these -- who would love the safety and security of such a life, of a tidy home with a daily cleaning and delicious food, provided free of charge.

But such coddling always comes with a price; a loss of freedom. We Americans get so hooked on creature comforts, but -- at what cost? In order to support our families and our wealthy lifestyles, we work long hours at jobs we don't enjoy, or perhaps, in order to continue in the lifestyle we've chosen, we stay in unfortunate marriages or other unpleasant situations...

Last night we were treated to a long presentation from our younger daughter on the subject of "why I shouldn't go back to college next term." And though I remember well saying that to my parents, and remember equally well being told that leaving would not be an option for me, I was pleased to see that both my husband and I chose to be a different sort of parent. We don't want our children to be birds in gilded cages, and we both understand college can feel like a gilded cage. We are encouraging her to explore her options -- within some fairly strict parameters (including a promise to finish her degree within the next year or two) -- because there will be time enough later on for her options to narrow down.

Now is her chance to fly away from the safety of her familiar nest, to go up and away and get the big picture. What other nests might be out there, and which might prove to be the most rewarding? Or might she prefer a different environment altogether -- perhaps she's not the flighty little bird we thought she was, but rather a lion, or a puppy, or an elephant. Each has his unique abode; what would be the best for her?

It's a little scary for all of us, I suspect. But a little experience of living hand-to-mouth can go a long way toward clarifying our values -- and the gilded cage might eventually seem a lot less trapped if she knows what lies beyond it. Or perhaps she'll build her own unique nest in someplace completely different; who knows. But we've decided to encourage her to explore and trust she'll make good choices. It's a risk, to be sure. But we'd like the choice to be hers.

Perhaps that's how Free Will works: God knows what's best for us, but prefers for us to choose -- and hopes we make good choices. It's in the act of choosing, I suspect, that we become most aware of who it is we were born to be.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey

After yesterday's rain there are puddles everywhere; I had the luxury of spending a little alone time out on a neglected patio above the pool with my camera, and loved what I found there.

We are all here now, all three generations, and all the relationships are shifting and renewing as they do every year. I am an only child, so it's particularly intriguing to me to watch my husband and his siblings cope with each other's successes and failures, and with their aging father -- and their own aging, as well.

It's fun, also, to see their family traits echoed in my daughters and my nephew; to see all the ways they cope with their genetic predispositions. So many bits and pieces of personalities have a way of reflecting in other family members, modified always by their own unique internal surfaces...

But mostly I am aware today of how grateful I am to have been moving in this particular family circle for all these years. Our mothers died within nine months of each other, in '96 and '97, and we've been gathering, the 12 or so of us, every Thanksgiving ever since, through divorces and deaths and marriages and engagements and illnesses and operations, always coming back together to re-establish those ties. It hasn't always been easy, but we persist. As my newest brother-in-law (we like to call ourselves the "outlaws") said last night, Thanksgiving, this way, with these people and the way we all spend our time drifting in and out of conversations together over the course of these few days, is a lovely alternative to the often challenging rituals of Christmas.

I'm grateful for lots of other things today as well: for Dana's repeal from surgery, and for the end of his treatments; for Nan's successful surgery; for Connie and Mike who are watching over our animals on the other side of the country; for J&J, the best neighbors we've ever had; and for all the blessings of friendship and faith that have carried us safely through another year. I thank you all for staying with me in the blogosphere, and wish you a joyous Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Flash in Time...

So here I am, cavorting around Sunny Florida (NOT: we were awakened by thunderstorms this morning and its been pouring cats and dogs most of the day), mostly making trips back and forth to the airport to pick up late arriving family members while my dear friend Robin slaves away in the chilly midwest attempting to overcome the Flash-related challenges of the exhibit we are trying to mount online.

AND IT'S HER BIRTHDAY TODAY.

Even though this is what our hotel phones look like, there IS Wi-Fi here, but since I did NOT get to meditate today and have been on the run since I crawled out of bed at 8 this morning (you do realize that's 5AM west coast time) and the TV is going in our hotel room, I cannot even begin to promise a thoughtful and introspective blog, or any words of wisdom.

I am therefore dedicating today's blog entry to Robin, in support of her Herculean efforts and in enormous gratitude to her because she listened to my whining last night when my daughter threatened not to get on a plane because of the imminent thunderstorms. In the midst of her Flash struggles Robin took the time to send prayers and encouragement our way, and I am very grateful. It amazes me, these friends of mine in the blogosphere; women I have never met -- Robin, Maureen, Kim, and Joyce, who I only knew for two days -- who always seem to know exactly what I need to hear... I have been very blessed in my family and friends.

So THANK YOU -- and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ROBIN!!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A visit with a gargoyle

I found this little gargoyle while wandering around our hotel this morning; isn't he interesting? And don't you wonder why anyone would create something like this and build it into a hotel? He makes me think of ego, forever trapped inside whatever body he was given -- and not very happy about it!

But we, free spirits that we are, can bring light into his existence; we also have the luxury of climbing the stairs and leaving him behind; he becomes just a sort of stationary guardian on a much more interesting path.

Hmm. Something to think about. But not right now; gotta run. Enjoy your day!













Monday, November 23, 2009

Oh, goody.

I realized this morning that my negative focus this week (which is apparently why I chose this picture, another imperfect attempt to capture the beautiful umbrellas of San Antonio) may well be due to something someone said to me a week ago. I had made a flippant remark about my mom, and a friend suggested I might need to let go of my anger.

My immediate thoughts were all defensive: What anger? I let go of that a long time ago! And I THOUGHT I had let go of her remark, but in reality it planted itself inside me as a sort of niggling guilt that my shadow was showing and I had failed again; so all this negativity began leaking out in other ways.

With all this self-criticism, I must have been aware at some sub-surface level all week that there had to be some truth in her remark, or I wouldn't have felt so defensive. So reading David Richo's chapter called "People are Not Loving and Loyal All the Time" really rang a whole bunch of bells with me this morning. On the off chance that they might be helpful for you as well, I'm going to share some of his observations here.

The first is about the FACE of ego -- I mentioned this earlier, but here's more on how it affects our relationships:

Fear: I am afraid that I will not survive if everyone does not love me, and this is how I am a source of suffering to myself.
Attachment: I am attached to a very specific version of what I am owed, and this is how I am a source of suffering to myself.
Control: I need to control others' reactions to me, and this is how I am a source of suffering to myself.
Entitlement: I believe I am entitled to love and loyalty from everyone, and insist on it, an this is how I am a source of suffering to myself.

(Note: in this case, fear and control seem to have been my major issues). Thankfully he goes on to tell us how we can work with this stuff:

I am letting go of fear by showing more love and finding excitement in life's challenges.
I am letting go of attachment to my version of how others should act, and I accept the given of life that not everyone will be loving, truthful, honest, caring, or loyal to me all the time.
I am letting go of control and let others love or dislike me as they choose.
I am letting go of my insistence that I be loved and respected by everyone, and I choose to focus instead on being loving and respectful toward everyone I meet.

Here's what Richo has to say about acceptance:

It is a given of relationships that the five A's (attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, allowing) may not consistently come our way and certainly not to the extent we would wish. An unconditional yes to this fact about our partner upgrades us from a fairy-tale mentality to adult realization. As we kindly accept the reality of others' inadequacy, our own needs begin to change. We no longer need what cannot be had: "I let go of wanting what isn't here now." We align our needs with the available resources in our partner. Paradoxically, as we reduce our unrealistic expectations, our partner feels less pressured and actually stretches so that more need fulfillment comes our way after all--sometimes the acceptance of reality can help reality to change.

And here's a random observation -- one of the "givens of adult relating" that Richo lists over several pages -- that really struck home for me:

If you are sensitive to abandonment, it is natural to become terrified when you are criticized or when someone shows disappointment in you. This may be because it feels like a serious or permanent rejection, a severing of a desperately needed bond: "This criticism means she doesn't like me, wants to leave me, and won't love me anymore. When people don't like me, it is my fault."

Or, in the immortal words of Liza, the Darling children's maid, whom I play in our upcoming production of Peter Pan, "I suppose you are mad at me. I suppose I should be leavin' 'ere now. I suppose it's all my fault." (at which point she bursts into tears).

It was that last one that helped me see why I reacted so intensely to that chance remark I mentioned above. Hmm -- I thought I had laid all those old rejection issues to rest, and, damn, here they are, surfacing again in another guise. As Captain Hook says sarcastically to me (in Peter Pan, when, in my other role as Gabby, the pirates' cook, I sidle up to him and say "I've made a SPECIAL dessert fa YOU")

"Oh, GOODY."

Hear the disdain in his voice.

Hear the resignation in mine. Okay, I guess it's time to go back and revisit this one. Again.

Oh, goody.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You don't know what love is

I grew up in a musical family: my mother was a classical pianist, and my father was an active member and sometime president of both the Swedish Glee Club in Chicago and the German equivalent group in Austin, Texas. My earliest memories of church all revolve around choir practice, and at the age of eight I served as page turner (with my own special choir robe) for the organist in our church.

I, too, sang; I also played the piano, though not particularly well. I learned clarinet in grade school and was asked to play bassoon in high school (primarily because I was the tallest clarinetist). I met my first husband in the pit band for Music Man -- he played saxophone, and quietly covered for me for that opening bassoon line (boomp - ta - doodly, boomp - ta - doodly) in the song "Marian the Librarian" -- and for a long time we thought it was fate that we ended up together, because for all the years of our marriage I was a librarian and he was (and still is) a jazz musician.

I spent most of my spare time outside the library, from the time I was 20 until I was 31 and we divorced, lugging musical instruments around and sitting in bars and rehearsal halls listening to music -- an interesting challenge, since I didn't (and still don't) drink much. But when I got divorced, I pretty much quit cold turkey. I continued singing in choirs and small groups, but I rarely went to concerts and never to bars.

Last night, however, was an exception: my friend Anne (and isn't it curious that two of my closest friends on this island are extraordinarily gifted jazz musicians) gave a concert in our Grace Church sanctuary to raise money for our local food bank, which is really stretched this year. So because it was Anne, and a good cause, I went.

The music -- much of which she wrote and arranged -- was absolutely heavenly, and the performances of all five of the musicians were just flawless (and trust me, after all those years surrounded by musicians I am VERY picky about this). And yet at first I found myself thinking, I hope this doesn't go on too long, I don't know how long I can sit here: I was definitely out of practice for listening. But as the evening wore on, I was gradually transported into another space, filled with joy and gratitude -- for the music, the musicians, the composers, for my community, for that particular sanctuary... and ultimately for life itself; eventually it was as if the room and the audience and the musicians and the music and I were all one.

Near the end of the concert they did a wonderful rendition of that old Billie Holiday tune, "You don't know what love is" -- a tune that also happened to be on the CD my ex-husband sent of his music after he and his wife visited us this past summer. I remember being very moved by his performance of the tune, and was moved again by Anne's; her style is actually quite similar to his, though she has a lighter, more feminine touch.

The song -- even if you don't know the lyrics -- is just achingly beautiful. And the theme of it is that you can't really understand love until you know the pain of loss. I thought of that, sitting there, in that room, with those people, and that music, and realized that the love I was feeling for the whole experience was enriched and deepened by the intensity of the losses that brought me to this place -- the loss of my parents, the loss of that ex-husband and the community of musician friends we shared, the loss of that music (I rarely if ever listen to jazz these days) -- even the loss of faith and church, though all have been returned to me in some new form: I have a different husband now, a random collection of "parents" to advise and love me, a new community of friends, a new and different faith and a renewed connection (if much more tenuous) to church.

It was yet another reminder that there are seasons in life, seasons of love and loss, and that spring and summer will inevitably return, bringing with them a deepened awareness of the blessed treasure that is love.

It's all good.

You don't know what love is
Until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues
Until you’ve loved a love you've had to lose
You don't know what love is.

You don't know how lips hurt
Until you've kissed and had to pay the cost
Until you've flipped your heart and you have lost
You don't know what love is

Do you know how a lost heart fears
The thought of reminiscing
And how lips that taste of tears
Lose their taste for kissing

You don't know how hearts burn
For love that cannot live yet never dies
Until you've faced each dawn with sleepless eyes
You don't know what love is

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When the table is set...

I realized this morning that if I do end up going back to work some of my book projects will probably fall by the wayside. So I decided to turn the project that is most important to me -- my illustrated guide to The Gospel of Thomas -- into a blog. (I've written to Lynn Bauman, whose translation of Thomas I am using; he approved the book project so I'm hoping he'll be okay with the idea of the blog.)

Because most of the work on this project has already been done, it should be a simple matter of a few minutes to mount one of the Logia each day. Of course, the nature of these blogs is that they'll be mounted in reverse order, with the first at the bottom, but I think that will be okay. So I set it up this morning; you'll be able to access it from the link on the left of this blog.

So why this image? I came across it this morning; it's from a set I did for a local store. The owner was a friend, and she wanted my photographs to put on her website. But it actually turned into a rather awkward situation: the website designer was himself a photographer, and wasn't happy with any of the images I shot, so in the end none of my work was used.

She did, however, pay me for my time, which was very sweet. And, sadly, the store eventually closed. So in a way this photo could be a symbol of failure. But mostly when I looked at it I heard the words of the 23rd psalm: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. It seems to me to be a picture full of blessings: the peace, the colors, the light...

And I loved the sort of tippiness of the perspective (this is actually two images combined; same scene shot from two different angles): it made me feel that, even though my table isn't overwhelmingly full at the moment, there's a sense that there's a lot of stuff getting ready to land on it. So I like the thought of enjoying the rich blue peace of that interim period, for as long as it lasts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

An immature faith?

This image was taken on the beach at LaPush during last summer's excursion with my daughter to Forks, Washington, so of course -- given the current media frenzy over New Moon -- it was the first thing that jumped out at me this morning.

I may have confessed this here before, but I'll do it again -- I read all four Twilight books. I couldn't put them down. I don't agree it was good writing; I'm not even sure I liked the plot all that much -- and I have no more intention of going to this Twilight movie than I did to the last one, particularly since I found this, the second book in the series, to be a very disturbing read.

I'm even worried about my daughter going to see the movie: the whole idea of spending two hours watching a girl for whom life has lost all meaning because her boyfriend has gone... what sort of mood will that leave you in, even if he does come back in the end?

But then, there are LOTS of movies and TV shows I refuse to watch because of their potential to leave behind emotional residue. Perhaps it's because I'm a visual person, but such things definitely leave their mark, and it takes work and time to shed that mark. Perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree, but it seems to me I'm already carrying enough sadness and shadows, and I'd rather spend my time and energy dealing with the shadows I already carry, unraveling THEM, learning what I need to learn and letting THEM go, rather than wasting time trying to shed stuff that isn't even mine.

Which brings me to this morning's readings -- which was not really where I wanted to go when I started this post, but... oh, well. I'm at the "Pain is Part of Life" chapter in the Richo book, and I'm finding it very hard to read. Not just because it talks about the inevitability -- and growth potential -- of pain, though that's difficult enough to read. But what I find even more challenging is Richo's essentially Buddhist perspective.

I'm not struggling so much with the part about the First Noble Truth that Life is Suffering. I'm struggling with his -- very Buddhist -- contention that "It is said of pain that we will never be given more than we can bear. An adult has accepted the given that no one is up there making sure of this... When God is seen as a rescuer or parent in the sky, we may depend on him for protection and lose our faith if he does not come through. When we give up the childhood version of life, we stand on our own... with no "parent" on the lookout, we notice that we sometimes have to bear more than we can handle."

This paragraph definitely touches a nerve for me, as it has a way of making me feel that my particular brand of faith is very immature. Call me a child, but I DON'T accept it as given that no one is up there making sure of this. Because I DO believe we are not given more than we can bear, and though God is within and around me as well as "in the sky" my particular experience has been one of love and grace, both in difficult times and in the smooth parts of life. This sense of God as a loving parent is very much a part of what keeps me aware that when push comes to shove I am not Buddhist but Christian, and lots of emotional responses emerge when that belief is challenged -- not least of which is fear: I want to believe, and seem to NEED to believe -- and it's certainly been my experience so far -- that I won't be given more than can be handled, if not by me, than by some combination of me and my community, co-workers, friends and family.

And yet Richo says that, too -- you can see it in this quote I posted from his book last Sunday:

"As of now, I affirm that I am able to handle whatever may happen for the rest of my life. I have handled so much so far, I know I will be able to face whatever is left. And if I need reinforcements, I will find them. Nothing will turn my life so upside down that I will collapse under it."

So why IS it I was so drawn to the Twilight books, if I find it so hard to imagine a pain-filled world with no God to save it? And why is it that so many people will have lined up at midnight to see the latest Twilight movie? Is it because they have no pain of their own and need to experience someone else's? Or could it be because they need to believe they are not alone in their pain, and that somewhere, someone gets a chance to triumph over pain and evil, and that gives them hope?

I guess for me that someone was Jesus. And yes, however foolish it may be, that still seems to give me hope. And if that marks me as immature, well -- so be it. Maybe that explains why I read those silly books: I just haven't quite managed to grow up yet!

PS: as you can see, with all the rain we had an even higher tide this morning. So does that mean that I can choose to live here because I have faith? Is living in this place an ACT of faith? Or is it because I live here that I so desperately need to trust that there is a parent God?

Hmmm.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The many FACEs of Ego

I've always figured -- or maybe hoped -- that I'd never be in danger of getting too cocky about anything, because there's always been something in me that seems to rush forward and derail me if I get too close to success or perfection.

My mom used to have a phrase for this: "From the sublime to the ridiculous" -- a phrase usually attributed to Napoleon apparently, but actually it comes from our own Thomas Paine: "The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again."

I'm thinking of this partly because this was the image that jumped out for me this morning -- shot when I was working on my miksang project, had run down to a deadline, and was out in the yard looking for anything, ANYTHING, that could be remotely described by the concept of LINE. And frankly, I don't think this image has much to say for it: some intriguing lines and textures, that curious imprint of the spider... And I think the part of me that selected it this morning just wanted to say "Wait. Too many good things happened yesterday. Time to step back and remind yourself that you're not perfect."

I'm reading in Richo's book this morning a chapter called "Life is not always fair," and he has a section on "The art of taming ego" in which he says, "The neurotic ego is not an identity but a set of encrustations: Fear, Attachment, Control, Entitlement. This is the FACE we keep trying to save and will do anything not to lose... but the FACE of ego can be transformed with spiritual commitment. Fear can be replaced with love. Attachment can turn into letting go. Control can soften into allowing. And Entitlement can become working for justice without hate or retaliation."

Now I know I'm not the only one who has one of these internal derailment systems. And I suspect those of us who are aware of them might tend to assume they are what keeps us from getting too caught up in ego, and that they're therefore a good thing. But reading this, I found myself wondering: what if that internal derailleur isn't anti-ego at all, but actually ego? It could come from fear -- fear that people will expect too much of me, and I'll fall flat on my face if they do, so let's lower expectations.

It could also come from control -- a sort of "you can't fire me I quit" phenomenon. I remember learning from a dear friend who struggled with her weight that one reason she stayed fat was to protect herself from disapproval: as long as she was fat, if people didn't like her she could say it was because she was fat, and it wouldn't have to touch or damage her internal sense of self.

If I were a different sort of person, it could come from entitlement: "I have a right to put anything I want out there and call it good" -- like one of those Preference by L'Oreal commercials: "I'm Worth It!"

Which means it could probably come from attachment as well -- I could be very attached to my image of myself as a humble person, and so I put this out there as proof that I'm willing to fail -- at everything except being humble: God forbid someone might discover my pride!

As Elizabeth Lesser says in The Seeker's Guide (which my spirituality group is still reading; we're up to Chapter Four), "Unhealthy ego converts spirituality to its own misguided uses in tricky ways....As soon as its territory is seriously threatened, ego will appear, hungry and determined."

Which then reminds me of something once said to me by the priest who counseled me through my divorce, years ago. "You can't trust anyone, not even me. The only One you can trust is God."

Unfortunately I took that saying to heart, having learned in several hard ways the truth of his statement. So perhaps the task of what Richo calls "spiritual commitment" is to accept that truth -- to know that so much of what we do and say stems from ego, even when we think it doesn't -- and then to work to move past that, to accept that life is what it is, and people are what they are, and that the miracle is that the Divine can still speak through all of it: we just need to choose to listen; to learn to love one another anyway, to let go of our grandiose visions of ourselves and our purpose, to allow ourselves and others to be as they are, and to work together to bring about more of that level of tolerance. It's all about losing FACE.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lost in color: the sequel (part II)

video

Woo-Hoo! I was able to figure out the iMovie software and managed to create a video of these and other images, importing music from a concert in which I sang a few years back (an idea which came to me as I was driving the dog to the groomer's) as well as my voice reading today's poem (which I had to record on a separate computer and email to myself). It's definitely not perfect (now that I know I can record my voice and import it I need to get better at that process) but I'm excited. A third image evolved during the process (see the poem image at left). And while I was working on all this 2 emails arrived, one announcing that one of my entries has been selected to appear in an as yet unnamed exhibit (more on that later) and one from a local clinic wondering if I would like to display my work on their premises.

There are complications with both of these options, which I won't go into here, but... still. They were pleasant messages to receive. And I think, because it sat quietly in the background and informed all my work this morning, I will offer you this quotation from David Richo's The Five Things We Cannot Change:

"The balance of nature is not always harmonious. It includes room for occasional confusion and disorder. We notice that same chaos in our own lives, no matter how devoted we are to spiritual practices and how earnestly we do our psychological work. Yet there is something in us, too, something that is never spent and that irrepressibly survives the tumult of life. This something is the energy that contains us and the universe. This life force, the most reassuring given, is something that endures in us, through us, and beyond us, undamaged and integral, no matter what may have happened to us in the course of our lives."

Lost in color

This morning I had the same dream, 3 times in a row. I was in some sort of electronics superstore -- quite possibly Fry's, in Seattle -- and there were rows of software, all in shades of viridian (a sort of yellow green; for more about shades of green visit here), and two poles in a sort of heliotrope color with metal triangles on them.

After the third time through, I woke up and lay there for a while, thinking about how to paint the dream: which part to paint first, how to get the triangles to look metallic, which to mask first... and finally I gave up and went downstairs, got my coffee, and started painting a mini version, just with watercolor pencils.

It was an interesting exercise; I was using contac paper as a mask and it was not quite as effective as I'd have liked, but I was soon done. I read a couple of pages in the David Richo book, and then went to meditate, wondering in the back of my head what the point of all this was. And several things happened in the meditation...

1. I realized that the yellow-green color was all the parts of me that are feeling anxious and in flux lately, and that the magenta/heliotrope parts are still there, solid, grounded, connected, holding me together and guiding me forward.

2. I realized I could take it to the computer and fix the smudgy places. (My inner perfectionist at work).

3. I realized I could recreate the image with pieces of photographs, and that would be fun.

4. I realized that if I wrote a poem about it, I could read the poem aloud and create a video that would slowly evolve from the original to the photographed version and back again.

5. I realized that all this creativity could take up an entire day (what fun!).

6. I realized that if were to start working at a "real" job -- I applied for one this week, because my husband is still unemployed -- I wouldn't get to do this stuff, either the spiritual parts OR the creative parts (assuming those two things are separate, which they aren't, really).

and 7. I realized that it was the sense of loss around that that was making up all the slimy green stuff that was swirling around.

and 8. I was transported into this lovely open connected place where the purple and green and inside and outside were all one, and all filled with joy.

And then, suddenly, the clock chimed and I realized I'd been sitting, lost in color, for about 25 minutes.

So I went to the computer, fixed the painting, and created the photographic version you see here. And now I have to take my dog to the groomers. But I'm going to come back and make the video; I am determined. So stay tuned: if I can pull this off, I'll post it here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Welcoming the tides

Though it wasn't raining this morning, and there's nothing resting on our windowsills today, this was pretty much the view that greeted me when I sat down to meditate today. It's high tide season again, and it's been raining a lot, so the water that usually keeps a respectful distance from the house has a way of creeping up under the deck.

But we were lucky: the winds were light, and they were coming from the south, not the north (which is off to the right in this picture) so we weren't being hammered by the waves. Nonetheless, I found the sound of logs bumping against the deck supports distracting during my morning meditation, and I didn't quite make it the whole 20 minutes; I was too curious to see where the bumping noise was coming from.

Which means, of course, that I was thinking more than I was meditating, though you could claim I was completely in the present, attuned to the sounds around me. And I did realize -- or remember, or rediscover -- one good thing: I'm actually, in some part of my being, a person who embraces and welcomes risk and change; I even look forward to having my mettle tested -- else why would I choose to live in a place like this?

And I do actually believe that God works through all things for good for those who believe. I'm realizing the anxiety I've been feeling isn't about whatever is going to be thrown in my path. It's more about worrying I'm not doing my part; that there's something I've missed, some road unexplored, some job forgotten and left undone, some unintentional slight that's wounded someone else or failed to preserve and honor the gifts we do have here in this amazing place. And it's somehow connected to a message I got from my mom as a kid: she was always accusing me of being lazy. So if I'm not busy and productive every moment, there's a guilt and anxiety that set in.

Hmm. Good to know, I guess -- and certainly something to ponder.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The heart-mind connection

Yesterday my daughter sent me a video of brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor talking about her experience of a massive stroke to the left side of her brain. Having just returned from a contemplative worship service, I was extremely interested in what Dr. Taylor had to say, because it seems to provide such an intriguing explanation for my own internal struggles to quiet the brain and sense the oneness of things.

Dr. Taylor's left brain didn't stop functioning all at once, but rather gradually, moving in and out of consciousness as it lost functionality, so she was able to experience both the left brain's attempts to control the situation and, when the left side receded from consciousness, she could experience the right brain's sense of mystical oneness with all of life, and was in fact unable to feel her own boundaries.

Somehow thinking about this brought to mind a conversation I'd had before the worship service with my old friend Max. I happened to mention to him that my husband and I had been speculating that, since the nervous system is all about synapses, making connections, perhaps the more intelligent or sophisticated a brain is the more it delights in uncovering connections. But Max reminded me that it is really the heart that lies at the root of knowing.

And so, having seen Dr. Taylor hold out an actual human brain to us, and having seen that brain flop dramatically open to display how completely distinct its two halves are, I began to wonder if the function of meditation might be to strengthen the connection between our left and right hemispheres, so that the left brain decisions might be more informed by the right brain's understanding of wholeness and unity -- and if the way to connect the two -- at least at this point in our evolution -- is through the heart.

So I created this image as a way of exploring that heart/brain connection, and I am intrigued, both by the organic quality of that portion at the bottom of the heart, and by the sense that the division appears to come from above, and looks almost like divine hands reaching down through the two halves of the brain and in to the heart, both splitting the brain and, at the same time, a sort of inverse gesture of namaste.

I think I'll stop here; too much to think about! And I think it may be time to look more closely at Daniel Siegel's work on interpersonal neurobiology. But I did also want to share this wonderful quotation from George Bernard Shaw, found in the Richo book I've been reading:

"This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

Yup. That's where I want to be. I suspect that's where all of us want to be. Now if we could only figure out how to get there!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Embracing change

This morning I finished reading "Everything Changes and Ends," the first (and incredibly compelling) chapter of David Richo's The Five Things We Cannot Change, sat down to meditate, then came to my computer, checked my email, and began browsing through my images.

This is the one that called to me, and so I posted it, thinking all the while, "what on earth am I going to say about THIS one?"

Well, duh! Off the top of my head I can't think of anything (it is morning after all, and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet) that says MORE about change than shifting sands! We know the sand stays -- that it remains the same -- and yet the shape we see is shifting all the time (say that sentence three times fast, I dare you).

Isn't that a perfect symbol of our own existence? Our own lives are changing all the time -- our own SHAPES are changing all the time -- and yet even Einstein tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Something in all this is constant. But because we have trouble accepting that, we get caught up in the shape of things and cling to what appears to exist rather than simply saying yes to existence.

"The opposite of yes," says Richo, "is not no; it is control. Behind that controlling impulse is fear, the fear that we will have to feel something painful.... We can learn to accept the fact that we are sometimes helpless to stop an unwelcome change in our lives. That acceptance, paradoxically, ushers in serenity."

"Worry," he goes on to say, "is directly related to control. It seems that we worry about the future, finances, relationships, jobs, and all the other unpredictables in our lives. Actually, there is only one worry: that of not being in full control of what will happen." And then he says something that really resonates with me: "We worry because we do not trust ourselves to handle what happens to us...We do not control because we are selfish or demanding. We control because we are afraid of grief."

I know. It seems perfectly obvious. But for some reason I find it helps enormously to get and keep that perspective when the worrying begins; to remind myself that the worrying is really because I don't quite trust that I'll be able to deal with whatever comes. For some reason, understanding that enables me to step past the worry, and returns my focus away from the future and back to the moment at hand.

Once I am back, centered in the here and now, it makes it easier to remember this affirmation Richo offers:

"As of now, I affirm that I am able to handle whatever may happen for the rest of my life. I have handled so much so far, I know I will be able to face whatever is left. And if I need reinforcements, I will find them. Nothing will turn my life so upside down that I will collapse under it."

We are, each of us, so much stronger than we know. Yes, the tides will come; yes, the shape of things as we know them will change. But there is that within us that will not change, that is steady, strong and grounded.

And as I look at this image, I see that it contains within it a figure, reaching toward the blue with arms outstretched as if to welcome the next rush of tide. I can't say I'm there yet. But it does give me something to work toward.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Keeping the channel open

This week, in addition to reading David Ricoh's book, The Five Things We Cannot Change (which is turning out to be EXACTLY the book I should be reading right now, for any number of reasons), I am finally going through the July-August issue of Lenswork magazine, which is a tribute to writer-photographer Bill Jay.

The entire issue is a compendium of some of Bill's best writing over the course of his (sadly, now ended) lifetime, and it's deliciously perceptive and often incredibly funny; pure delight to read, perhaps even if you're not a photographer. But yesterday he quoted from this note which Martha Graham apparently wrote to Agnes de Mille, and I just have to share it with you. If there were one message I most wanted to hear, and one message I most wanted to share with my children, and with you, I think this might just be it:

"There is a vitality, a life force...that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

This week I went with a friend to see the Michael Jackson movie, This is It. And whatever I might think of the man and his lifestyle, I can't help but be impressed by his clarity and humility as much as by his gifts for music, dance, and showmanship. In his own way, the man was a genius -- primarily in that he allowed all that talent to flow through him and out to us. It is, perhaps, not surprising that in the end he couldn't support the voltage. But I'm grateful he was willing to remain open and to share. I hope you and I can do the same.

Friday, November 13, 2009

When to hold, when to fold

I seem to be spending a lot of time lately with friends who are feeling trapped by circumstances, who can only see what's fencing them in, and how green the grass looks on the other side -- which probably means they are reflecting some of my own feelings; I'm spending some energy looking at that.

So it's not all that surprising that when looking for something to read this morning (now that I've finished with Shambhala) I ended up selecting David Ricoh's book, The Five Things We Cannot Change -- which of course begins with a chapter on the inevitability of change.

We humans are such interesting creatures: We hate feeling trapped, but at the same time we resent the very changes that might free us from our traps. You know the old phrase -- "better the devil you know than the devil you don't." And many of us operate at that level, staying in work, relationship, or school situations that no longer feed us for fear the alternatives out there might be even worse. The appropriate choice might be to leave, but we're not willing to take the risk.

But of course, there are others of us who have a tendency to become obsessed with the negative aspects of a situation, and that negative obsession itself is what keeps us from being fed. In this case the appropriate choice would be to let go of the negativity and develop a more positive attitude; to learn to see the gifts in the present moment.

And then there are those of us who, at the first (or maybe the second) sign of difficulty, decide to cut our losses and run to something new. For those folks -- and I confess that at times in my life I've fallen into each of these three traps -- the challenge is to stay and face the music; to learn to see what it is in us that is being triggered by the situation, and to stay until we learn whatever life lessons need to be learned.

The question, of course, is this: how do we know which response is appropriate to a given situation? How do we " know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run?" According to that old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, the answer is this:

"Ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

I like the idea that every hand has both winning and losing potential. But the fact that I'm the one responsible for making the winning and losing choices can be scary at times. What do I need to throw away today? And what's worth keeping? It seems to me that the only way we can really know the answers to those questions is through prayer and meditation. And I don't mean the kind where you talk to God about all your problems. I mean the kind where you ask for help and guidance and then shut up and listen.

I don't know about you, but for me that's the hardest job of all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Work in Progress

When I first discovered the joys of Photoshop, I took pride in only altering my images when the prints I had gotten from my local developer didn't seem to be true to what I had seen. But then, as I grew more proficient with the software, I began "removing unsightly blemishes" -- telephone wires and the like -- things that seemed to interfere with the overall impact of the work.

Other artists helped me begin to see the artistic potential in my basic images. My friend Ann Jones taught me to crop "for the good parts." My friend David Warren patiently explained layers to me, and I began, first to see how basic flaws in contrast and color could be overcome, and then how double exposures could be intentionally created.

But the tipping point came when my gallery invited me to be part of a Manipulated Image show. I confess I didn't do much for the show; mostly submitted things I had played around with in earlier days when I was still experimenting. But the idea of the show planted a seed, and eventually -- just about the time when cellphones with cameras were starting to proliferate and EVERYBODY was doing photography, I came to see that the original image could itself be a seed; that I could play with it and tweak it until it said something about my own vision of the world and what I see.

It's a bit like a sculptor with a stone; paring away what is unnecessary to reveal what lies beneath. Which is how a picture like the one shown above can be created out of the original image shown at left: some cropping, a little stretching, a heightening of color, lights and darks...

Perhaps we, too, are works in progress. Perhaps, even as a potter works with clay or a photographer works with a basic image, our Creator works with us, over the course of a lifetime -- sometimes adding layers of meaning and experience; contrast and intensity; color, dark and light; sometimes stretching us, or pruning us -- working with and through us to express some Larger Vision.

Somehow that makes it easier to handle the inevitability of change and this constantly evolving existence. And I'm realizing as I write that this whole idea is something I learned as a child in the Presbyterian Church; something about God as a weaver, life as a giant tapestry, predestination... I'm not always sure I believe that. But I do know there are times when I find the concept comforting.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When Advent feels a bit like Lent...

Yesterday this eagle decided to perch on one of our pilings during the high tide. Though I was on the phone with my daughter, I handed the phone to my husband for a bit just so I could take this picture.

Eagles -- once endangered -- are now quite common (we have a nest of them just across the lagoon), but they don't tend to come this close to the house (I shot from my living room window) so this was "an event."

My cat Sophie, on the other hand, is NOT an event: she is a familiar irritation. I am reasonably fond of her -- though not nearly as fond of her as I am of Alex, our other cat -- but in the morning she consistently interrupts my concentration. She cries constantly until I feed her (which I have to do behind a closed door so Alex won't get her special diet) and then she cries constantly until I let her out, at which point she runs for Alex's food, so I need to put it away because it's bad for her.

Once those precautions are taken I have to either close the door to my office (and put up with her crying to be let in) or I leave the door open and try to type this blog with her lying on my wrists (and, as you might imagine from a cat this food-obsessed, she weighs a ton.)

It's all good, I suppose: she serves as a constant reminder of how selfish and irritable and occasionally thoughtless I can be. She definitely represents -- and triggers -- a part of me I don't appreciate all that much. I'd love to be the eagle -- rare, special, handsome, powerful, someone everyone would be delighted to have as a visitor. And there's some of that in me. But there's also a lot of Sophie in there, and those are the parts... well, I'm grateful my husband and children and friends put up with them, and even more grateful God loves them, but frankly I don't find them too appealing. And lately... well, if I didn't know Advent was coming, I'd think we were rolling into Lent: I'm WAY too aware of my shortcomings.

So in my head this morning I kept hearing this old song by the Animals: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good -- Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." So I looked it up, and really, the lyrics of the song serve as a perfect prayer for today:

"Baby, do you understand me now?
Sometimes I feel a little mad
,
But don't you know that no one alive

Can always be an angel
?
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
--
But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

Baby, sometimes I'm so carefree

With a joy that's hard to hide
,
And sometimes it seems that all I have do is worry

Then you're bound to see my other side:

But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood


If I seem edgy I want you to know

That I never mean to take it out on you
.
Life has it's problems and I get my share,

And that's one thing I never meant to do

Because I love you!


Oh, Oh baby don't you know I'm human

Have thoughts like any other one.

Sometimes I find myself long regretting

Some foolish thing, some little simple thing I've done.

But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Still unenlightened...

I still seem to be on my blue and yellow kick; this was the image that called to me this morning. I miss the days when this sort of thing was pretty much all I shot -- I loved spending time down at waterfront park in the early morning, and loved the wonderful colors in the old boats.

But -- however lovely they might be -- there are only so many dinghies that tie up there, and only so many different ways you can shoot them. Lots of other people started taking shots like this, and they were showing up in stores and catalogs everywhere. The Gallery stopped holding its annual Art of the Boat show, and eventually I just... moved on.

I was thinking about this last night, when Robin Williams and John Travolta appeared on the TV screen with a series of chatty little commercials to introduce their new movie, "Old Dogs." Some part of me was a little put off by what they were doing (wouldn't it be enough to just run the previews?) and I found myself wondering why they felt they had to sell themselves in that particular way.

And then there was Jay Leno -- a multi-millionaire in his own right -- making jokes about the number of millionaires in congress and then waiting/hoping for the laughter to follow. Can you spell awkward? Isn't that sort of desperate need for approval kind of embarrassing?

I could see that some part of these men must still be hungry for accolades and recognition. Wouldn't you think that by their age, with their level of success, they'd be past that? Ah, no, I thought, with my own embarrassing flash of insight: of course not, no more than I am, at my age. We all continue being hungry for that, but the hunger comes from somewhere else altogether, that egoic place where we continue to feel that we are somehow not enough, or not getting enough, or not having enough.

This is fresh in my mind this morning because yesterday I decided -- having seen something similar on someone else's blog -- to put a list of current exhibits on my blog. And when I first posted it I also noted that I'd recently won a prize for a short story I had written, and had recently led a workshop on "Finding God in Chaos." I put those two things on there because I was really excited about them and wanted to share my excitement. But it sat funny -- sort of the way those commercials sat funny -- and eventually I realized there was some extra intensity to those two entries that made me uncomfortable, and I pulled them off.

And that extra intensity, I think, came from this sort of icky space that wanted to say, "See? You think I'm just a photographer, but I can do these other things, too." It felt like it was more about selling and promoting than just about providing information. The other entries in that column have no surprises in them; they're all just "if you want to see more click here or go there" kinds of things. But these two felt pushy, so I pulled them.

I think it's all part of this same segment - a very Enneagram-Four-ish sort of segment -- of my personality that wants attention, that wants to be unique. Some part of me is always wanting to say, "See, I'm special, I'm different, I'm cool." And so I stopped shooting boats because lots of other people were doing that (although it's also true that I was running out of boats to shoot). And I started finding other places where I could excel.

But the fact is that what's here, what's now, is really all there is and all there needs to be. Everything I need is already available to me. So why do I keep thinking I need more? Why am I not content with what is? What is that drive that's always pushing forward, thinking, "Maybe THIS will bring me ... (whatever -- happiness, recognition, fulfillment, a sense of stasis)? Why am I not serenely content with what IS?

So that's the state I was in when I went to sleep last night. And I woke up this morning at 5 from a dream in which I had found enlightenment. It was so freeing and beautiful, with this periwinkle light that seemed to glow from everything, and, reveling in that, I fell back asleep only to wake up at 6 with all of whatever I had learned in the dream erased from memory. All that's left is the knowing that it's possible, the knowing of what enlightenment might feel like. I guess that will have to be enough.

For now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Under God's thumb

Way back in 1966, when I was a junior in high school, I spent a summer taking courses at Dartmouth College. There were only a few of us high school kids there -- mostly girls -- and lots of college men (it seemed an ideal ratio at the time!) and I got involved with a perfectly lovely boy, a junior from Stanford.

As a sweet midwestern girl, dressed in those little flowered and madras Villager outfits with the round collars and the circle pins, I was enchanted with this California dreamer: he was on the wrestling team (gorgeous pecs)! His hair was long enough to touch his shirt collar (all the boys I knew had crewcuts) and he played guitar in a rock band! He smoked (and not just cigarettes)! He drank! He was actually really sweet and gentle and bright. And he listened -- for hours on end, it seemed -- to bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones.

Which I why I thought of him this morning, when this image came forward: there was a song on his Rolling Stones album called "Under My Thumb," and I could suddenly hear the lyrics -- and Mick Jagger's snarl -- as I looked at this photo. I looked up those lyrics, just out of curiosity -- I vaguely remembered they were pretty macho -- and realized they were really about the power struggles we so often see in relationships. Jagger was crowing about the fact that some girl who had "done him wrong" (the lyrics are rougher than that, trust me!) was now dancing to his tune.

And then I remembered a friend named Marco Selvaggio, a trumpet player old enough to be my father. Marco was upset because his son had become involved with a radical fundamentalist Christian group (a group in which I too worshiped for a brief period). Marco's objection wasn't to faith -- he was, himself, a lapsed Catholic -- but to the potential loss of independence and identity: "I wouldn't want no God leadin' ME around by da nose." He didn't want his son to be "under God's thumb."

Which is the problem MANY of us have with religion -- so often it seems to leave people "under God's thumb." But that's not really God's thumb, it's a human thumb, and belongs to authority figures who are often motivated by the all too human emotions around money, power and ego. God's thumb, I think, is far more grounded and steady -- more about what is than what should be -- a gentle touch, a firm presence around which our lives eddy and swirl and shape themselves; a touch by which we are marked as God's own.

And so I look at this image, and I am warmed by its simplicity, amused by these odd reminders of people and songs and feelings long forgotten. And I am grateful once again for God's serene and calming presence in my life.

It's all good.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Looking for the light

Friday night was the opening for the Gallery's November show, Women Behind the Lens, and I decided I wanted to wear a touch of schoolbus yellow (also known as Mimosa, which Pantone experts have apparently decided is this year's color of the year) because it appears in almost all the works I submitted for the exhibit.

What I REALLY wanted was a yellow scarf to wear over my blue jacket, but I wasn't able to find one in the right shade in any of the local stores, so I decided instead to invent the pin shown at left. I printed a 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch version of one of the images in the show and taped it to an existing pin, and then took some of the leftover jawbreakers from Halloween and glued them to yellow and blue buttons (having run thread through the buttons first). I taped the thread to the bottom of the pin and Voila! -- a decorative and dangly (though quite possibly short-lived) device announcing my connection to my work.

So this morning -- since I promised my incredible poet friend Maureen I would share -- I photographed the pin against yesterday's paper, which happened to be lying on the counter under the brightest light in the kitchen... a goofy accident, but it works. I confess I had a blast with this little project, and it did turn out to be a perfect channel for that restless energy I spoke of earlier in the week. And the good news is that someone bought FIVE of my pieces at the show -- apparently he's a regular ferry commuter (they're all images of the floor of the ferry, like the one featured here) and just enjoyed the idea that there can be beauty in that daily chore. What intrigued me most was that he, the buyer, was wearing a dark blue jacket lined with -- you guessed it, mimosa!

Driving down the road to church this morning, still in my yellow-seeking mood, I could see that our deciduous trees (always gravely outnumbered by our cedars and firs) have lost a lot of their leaves in the last two days of heavy rain; almost all the red leaves are gone now. But those bright school-bus yellows are still out there, and provide a bright and lovely accent to the dark evergreens. And on a dark gray day, with those bright yellow leaves as illumination, even a yellow warning sign can have artistic appeal. So there IS light, even in the darkness. But sometimes you have to be very conscious about looking for it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Light of Christ

Though I am still reading Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala and Elizabeth Lesser's The Seekers' Guide, I've been realizing for the last few days that I'm hungering for something else, and I've even been toying with the idea of just reading the lectionary passages for the day.

And as I struggled to stay centered in meditation this morning, I realized that it was last year about this time that I made a decision to stop doing these meditations for the Season of Advent; to just post images and a brief Bible passage for each day.

I shouldn't be surprised: I remember noticing back in the 90's, when I was editing our diocesan paper, that each issue seemed to have its own theme without my ever imposing one, and that those themes seemed to naturally evolve with the liturgical seasons.

What I've been sensing these last few mornings is really an annual occurrence: the stirrings of longing for Christ to be born yet again in me -- which is, of course, what Advent is all about; it's that hunger, and that waiting, and that stillness within us that prepares our souls to realize anew the presence of Christ within us. So I went looking through all those images I brought back from our trip to Italy last year, looking for a picture of the Jesus I'm hungering for.

And the one I found I wanted wasn't the crucified Jesus, the one displayed in most of those Catholic churches we visited. What I wanted was this Jesus, the Jesus who lights our way, who -- though the cross surely looms in the picture -- is more about holding us tenderly in the heart of divine love. This is the longing we feel as we march steadily forward into this season of hibernation, hope and rebirth, and this is the stillness and lethargy that slows our limbs, that helps us realize yet again that our fuel is running low and the time has come to await, invite, and welcome that which truly feeds us and lights our way.

It's really a hunger for that Light. And now that I say that I can see that it was the light that I so appreciated in Kay Walsh's wonderful images at our gallery last night. I particularly noticed that light because I had spent some time earlier this week creating a video accompaniment to "Come Harvest Time" (I had been reminded of the song by one of my posts a week or so ago) and as I went through my files looking for pictures to put to the video (which you can now find here), I was looking for pictures with that same inner light Kay's work has -- and there were all too few that had it (another reminder that I need to do some ruthless purging of my photo files.)

As our days darken, we begin once again to hunger for the light. Not just any light, but the Light of Christ, that divine spark that feeds us and makes us whole so that we can carry it out to feed the World. It's not that it's not always there; it's just that it's burning low and needs to be awakened and reborn in us.

Hmm. I guess Advent is blooming early for me this year. I will press on, but I'm thinking that when it officially arrives I will again pull back from my writing and allow the Bible to speak for itself for a bit.

It's all good.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Eye of the Beholder

As I think I mentioned before, I've been taking a watercolor class from Jeannie Grisham, and yesterday we were invited to slap paint on a page and then to go over the work with a sort of cropping tool to see what ideas for paintings might be hiding in the mess.

Jeannie helped us by going around the room and peering over each artist's work, sliding her little squares around and exclaiming over the delightful possibilities she found. We would get all excited, thinking about our potential paintings, but then when we went back -- well, it was very hard to see what she saw.

I did manage to find this one, buried in the layers of paint, so I thought I'd photograph it to see how it might render. But of course once it's photographed it needs a name. And that's when I realized again how much of what we see is colored by our moods -- because all I could think of to call it was "hurling" or "flailing."

Tells you something about how I feel at the moment, doesn't it. But I've decided to do what I often do at such times: I'm going to channel all this restless energy into some creativity. I have an opening tonight at the Gallery, for our Women Behind the Lens show, so I've decided to make myself a pin -- or maybe a scarf clip -- out of one of the images I submitted. Plus I have a friend coming over this afternoon to help me learn cockney for my role in Peter Pan. Before you know it my husband will be walking through the door and I'll be able to get down to the real work of the day: helping my daughter walk through her grief.

Til then -- well, I think it's time to play!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gray thoughts on gray days

Our neighbors have a friend visiting, a woman from Florida who's thinking of moving out here, so I brought her to a coffee date this morning with a friend who I thought might have some employment ideas for her.

But after a long and lovely Indian Summer, today is definitely a typical Northwest November day, cold and rainy, and the conversation over coffee was not all that encouraging.

It can be hard -- and many of us who live here know this first hand -- to transition to the weather here, and those who hate it will gladly tell you -- and your friend from Florida or California -- that a wet day at 40 degrees is considerably more uncomfortable than a dry snowy day at 10 degrees. It's true: that wet cold definitely bites, and we all know people who've tried to move here and left after a year or two because they can't stand the gray.

But one of the things I've noticed about these gray days is that my own foibles, troubles and challenges seem highlighted in contrast -- like splashes of color on a dark background. Perhaps it is because our world gets so much smaller when the great outdoors is so unpleasant, but I do find that days like this have a way of bringing to light unpleasant truths about ourselves and our behaviors -- -- and, sadly, today was no exception.

Suffice it to say that for a variety of reasons I am very aware today of how much of the time I spend in a sort of forward-leaning posture, impatient for whatever is to come next instead of being consciously attuned to what is happening right now. Whether it's driving a car, or waiting for the cat to finish breakfast so I can put him outside and meditate; whether I'm playing bridge -- even for the first time after a 20-year hiatus -- or engaging in conversation, some part of me often seems to be off and running to the next event.

It's good to get these insights about ourselves, of course, but also a bit painful and embarrassing -- especially if, like me, you're always talking about how important it is to be fully present. I suppose it's just a reminder that we are none of us perfect, and those old adages about teaching what we most need to learn all hold true. Luckily some other part of me can step back and see the larger picture; can smile and say "It's okay; it's good you noticed -- you can't fix it if you don't realize it's broken" and then pat me on the back encouragingly.

Yup. These gray days do give us ample opportunity to check in with our own inconsistencies; it may be why some folks find them so hard to take. But if I can just sit with that level of awareness, it's not too long before that inner divine wells up with a sort of indulgent chuckle and a sense of peace rolls over me like the waves on our beach. My job is not to be perfect; my job is just to keep working towards being a more thoughtful and compassionate being. Some days that's harder than others, and other days I have to face how far I fall short of my own ideals. And some days -- especially these gray ones -- I just have to start by being thoughtful and compassionate with myself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A healing light

My daughter called just before midnight, a couple of nights ago. We were sound asleep, still adjusting to the loss of Daylight Savings Time, and it took me a couple of sentences to realize I wasn't talking to my younger daughter, the one who is most likely to call in tears at that time of night.

But eventually I woke up enough to realize that it was my older daughter, and that she was calling to tell me that two of her closest friends had been hit by a car while in a pedestrian crosswalk; that one was killed instantly, and the other was in a hospital, in critical condition.

The news was shocking: death, especially sudden death, that close to home, is always shocking. And as a mother, I ache for her loss, for the parents of the two girls, for all those friends whose lives are forever altered by this one event, and for the driver, apparently not drunk, who just didn't see them in the poorly lit street -- where other similar accidents have happened before.

I realized, looking out the window this morning, that since that phone call I've been carrying -- or perhaps just trying to help carry -- this great purple weight of grief that extends beyond this loss to a lot of other losses in the lives surrounding mine and beyond. So it was heartening to see that purple laced with a bit of light; to feel the smoothness of the water before the morning breeze ruffles the lagoon; to see the streak of black balanced by the caress of silver.

I don't understand how it works, but sometimes what my eyes see has a way of healing the dark spots in my heart. It may not make it all better -- perhaps nothing can -- but it does provide at least a momentary release.

And for that, I will always be grateful.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wounded yet whole

Those of you who are fans of The New Yorker may remember a time when the Talk of the Town section's entries often began with the words, "A friend writes..."

Well, today, that's pretty much how this blog began. A dear old friend, whom I met in a wonderful Episcopal community back in 1981 (and rediscovered in the world of Facebook), is now a devout and much-knighted Catholic, and this morning I found this question from him in my email:

"I resonate with your desire for a more compassionate, mindful, gentle life, one that brings healing, peace, and hope to others. I resonate with what you see in the Tibetan practices. The piece I don't get is the claim that there is nothing wrong with us, fundamentally, which seems to point in the direction that acceptance of this truth becomes the bedrock upon which all else is built. Yet I come back to the wound of original sin: we are fundamentally good, because created by God, yet each of us flawed in a way that renders it impossible to heal ourselves, save by the acceptance of grace and the conversion of life that such acceptance entails. How does one compaginate these two religious truth claims?"

Since I spent what would normally be my blog time composing my response, I've decided to share it here. It's a bit long-winded, so I hope you'll bear with me...



Thank you, David, for posing the question; it is a variant on a question I pose for myself all the time. How on earth do we — do I -- reconcile a belief in basic goodness with (and I don’t even have to step into Christianity to say this) the understanding that, as the Dalai Lama says, “Human emotions have no limits, and the strength of negative emotions is infinite.”

Let me begin by saying that no matter how many times I wander down the Buddhist path I always come back to Christ. Just so you know, that is where I stand; I cannot imagine a life without Christ at its center. Whether or not Christ is a myth, it is a myth that works for me and for my particular world view; it is a myth I believe. And I think the reason I keep coming back to Christianity is that Buddhism is not a theism; they have no God, no one to save or watch over or rescue or prod — all those things I confess I think God does. You could make a case for their having a view of the universe — that Basic Goodness they speak of — that performs the same function; I think their understanding is that that goodness calls all things back to itself just as God does. And perhaps that’s how I can stay in that space as easily and as long as I do, by performing a sort of translation between Basic Goodness and God.

That said, I think a lot of the myths that have grown up AROUND the core myth of Christianity over the years are flawed, and it is those accretions which keep turning my footsteps back into the mountains of Tibetan thinking. I really struggled with all of this apparently irreconcilable stuff until I encountered Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault, her concept of The Wisdom Jesus, Brother Laurence Freeman’s Jesus the Teacher Within, and, most importantly, the Gospel of Thomas.

I cannot pretend to have fully synthesized all I’ve learned from those sources, nor would I presume to summarize their teachings here. But what I can say is that I believe that rather simplistic statement that “Sin is separation from God.” I believe we are meant to be one with God, that we come from God, go to God, and carry God (you could call it “Basic Godness”) within us. And that all the bad that we do and are capable of doing — and I agree with the Dalai Lama, especially after that gang rape in California, that our capacity for bad behavior does indeed seem to be infinite — emerges out of that separation; that if we were able to be fully conscious at all times of God’s presence in our selves and in our lives, those bad behaviors would diminish considerably, if not into nothingness.

And I guess I should say that a subset of that belief is my conviction that, as it says in Romans 8: 28, “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him;” by which I mean the difficult things that happen in our lives, whether or not they were specifically created by God to challenge us, are always opportunities for us to move back toward God, to reduce that critical separation between us and God.

Okay. Having said that, how do I translate it into your language? Perhaps what you call the wound of original sin is the result of having been embodied, incarnated, created as beings separate from God. The fundamental goodness is in our having been part of God. The inability to heal ourselves is because we will always, for the duration of our physical lifetime, remain separate and therefore vulnerable to that illusion, that there is some good to be had apart from God.

Which is not to say flesh is bad — that’s one of those accretions I abhor — only to say that in becoming flesh we are automatically prey to that illusion. Our en-fleshed-ness is God-given, too, and it, too, can be "worked through for good." Perhaps what you call grace, in my world view, is those moments when I come back into awareness of God/Godness within/Goodness and am able to act out of that understanding. And for me, conversion — and please do remember I consider myself to be a born-again Christian, with a specific (if long-ago) moment of conversion, tied absolutely and irrevocably to my understanding in that moment of the magnitude of Jesus’ death on the cross — is a constant, ongoing process of determining to return to God, of daily, even moment-by-moment, determination to do my best to restore my awareness of connection to the Holy.

Note that I say restore my AWARENESS of connection. As you say, I cannot restore the connection: that’s because I believe it already exists. And I think the grace in my life expresses itself in my longing for that connection, since that longing fuels the determination to work hard on my end to restore it. I also believe that it's grace that — for whatever reason — I continue to make this effort to honor what I know of the connection, to even seek to honor it. And my all-too-human flaws, which result from my having been created separate and human, also serve as motivators (and that is grace, as well) to bring me repeatedly back to the place where I try to ascertain God’s will, “do the right thing,” the peaceful, mindful, gentle, just, healing, hopeful, compassionate thing.

Sorry -- I just have to say this: "Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home." It's grace that keeps me out of trouble, that helps me keep striving for God; and it is grace that will ultimately guide me back into that (now temporarily hidden) wholeness with God from which each of us first emerged.

I’m sure there are all sorts of flaws to be found in the logic of this, and probably there is some heresy as well. But on a gray Tuesday morning in November, this is the answer I seem to be writing.