Monday, October 31, 2011

Talk about scary

It's Halloween, and the stores and streets are littered with skulls, ghosts, pumpkins, black cats, witches, and endless variations of black and orange.  It's all about what scares us, and of course a lot of what scares us is death.

But lately I've been listening to CDs of a Pema Chodron talk called "Getting Unstuck," and I have to say -- coming up against your own "stuff" can be every bit as scary as one of those Halloween symbols.  And -- wouldn't you know it -- as soon as I hear about it, there it is, staring me in the face!

So she talks about "shenpa," a word that means stuck, attached, caught, trapped; those thought patterns that keep you going round and round... And this morning I found myself thinking "I'm stuck on a shenpa merry-go-round: I keep going up and down and round and round and I can't seem to get off the track, out of the rut."

It's a simple thing, really: I tried out for a play last week. I made callbacks, they gave me three scenes to study, different roles to prepare for, and I showed up excited about the parts.  Only I didn't get to read for any of them (though other people did). I only got to cold-read something I hadn't prepared for; something someone else had clearly already prepared for and done better.

And it threw me onto that merry-go-round, I'm embarrassed to say: I kept going round and round.  Why didn't I get to read?  Had I offended someone?  Did the perfect people for those roles show up after my audition? Or are they so familiar with my work they don't need to see me act?

I could say they screwed up, but really -- they only have 3 hours for callbacks and a lot of roles to fill.  If there are things they already know, they just confuse the issue and waste time running scenes they've already secured.

It's not them, it's me.  So I get to watch myself on the merry-go-round, watch where I go, watch myself get totally stuck, completely debilitated by my desperate urge to please, my fear of conflict, my projections of authority, my insecurities -- you name it, all the haunts and shadows that plague me are dancing on that revolving platform, personal skeletons clattering out there in plain sight while I hold onto that little wooden pony, thrust helplessly up and down and around...

I'm better now: Pema Chodron at least helps me understand what's going on -- which allows some wiser part of me to step off onto solid ground and watch the rest of my brain spin out of control.  With time and a little distance it even becomes amusing -- and of course, it helps that I got the part I cold-read for.  But it's always amusing, when we think we're finally getting it together, to see how easily we can be derailed; how easily the demons can be unleashed.

But, oh, boy.  Talk about scary!  The mind is an amazing thing...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

All in how you look at it...

While we were in New England last month we stopped off in Middlebury, VT, to visit a gallery that sometimes carries my work.  The waters around the state were still pretty high from Hurricane Irene, so this waterfall in the center of town was definitely roiling.  Not dangerous at all, but the way the picture looks kind of suggests it might be...

We also passed through Hanover, NH, and stopped off to pay a brief visit to my ex-husband, who teaches music at Dartmouth.  He mentioned he'd played in a benefit for Hurricane Irene victims with Aerosmith guitar great Joe Perry, so when his sister posted clips of the concert on Facebook I decided to check it out -- after all, I haven't seen the man play in probably 30 years.

That's one of the odd things about a divorce, isn't it -- that some parts of your life just disappear?  I used to be a total jazz groupie, and spent most of my spare time listening to him play music in all the various venues -- with local bands, with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, with Ray Charles and Stan Kenton...  But these days I rarely listen to live music; the jazz concert we went to Friday night (a performance by the daughter of a dear friend whose husband often played bass with my ex) was the first live jazz I've heard in years...

Anyway (get to the point, girl!) I listened to these clips, which included Joe Perry singing Bob Dylan's Man of Peace, and realized I was pretty hard on myself (and, indirectly, my Baptist grandmother) for that poem I wrote yesterday (I'm leaving it in the sidebar on the left in case you don't remember it).  Because when I went back and read it after listening to the Dylan song, it could just have easily been a blues tune as a hymn.  Maybe it's time to stop flagellating myself for the way rhythm tends to take over my poetry, and think of the poems as songs, instead... After all, with a musician mom and a musician ex-husband, it shouldn't be surprising that the music still hums in me.

Speaking of Facebook, I posted a picture this morning of my daughters, and the younger one untagged herself because she hated how her face looked.  Which is weird, because I LOVE that photo, and love her energy in it.  I guess -- like the suggestion of floodwaters in the above photo, and the is-it-a-hymn-or-the-blues of that poem -- it's all in how you look at it.

Here, by the way, is the Dylan/Joe Perry clip; that's my ex on the sax:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Old-time truths

While we were out to dinner with friends last night, the conversation naturally fell to the current state of the world, our country, our city, our street -- all of them troubled by political battles between rich and poor.

What can we do? How can we help? And how can we keep from becoming discouraged as we watch events apparently careening out of control?

There are two passages in my current reading -- Beginning to Pray, by Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom -- that speak to this challenge:

"In a world of competition, in a world of predatory animals, in a world of cruelty and heartlessness, the only hope one can have is an act of mercy, an act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships, which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent, heartless world in which we live."

"I never ask myself what the result of any action will be -- that is God's concern.  The only question I keep asking myself in life is: what should I do at this particular moment?  What should I say?  All you can do is to be at every single moment as true as you can with all the power in your being -- and then leave it to God to use you, even despite yourself."

It seems to me that, as people of faith, we are invited to be -- in whatever way seems to come to us in the moment -- lights in the darkness, to be the yellow tulips that brighten these dark stairs, to stand as beacons of faith in whatever way feels appropriate in the moment, even when the picture we're seeing at the time seems plagued, even overwhelmed, with darkness.

... which makes me think of this hymn they used to sing in my grandmother's Baptist church.  I thought it was terribly hokey at the time; it had a way of raising my feminist hackles -- sort of "don't you worry about the troubles of the world little girly, you just keep the front steps clean, the kids quiet, and food on the table" -- but it does (perhaps because I'm older now and not out saving the world) seem to speak some important -- or perhaps just reassuring -- truth:

Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar,
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.

Refrain: Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

Just above are clouded skies that you may help to clear,
Let not narrow self your way debar;
Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer,
Brighten the corner where you are.


Here for all your talent you may surely find a need,
Here reflect the bright and Morning Star;
Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed,
Brighten the corner where you are.


Friday, October 28, 2011

God at the Breaking Point

"God helps us when there is no one else to help.  God is there at the point of greatest tension, at the breaking point, at the center of the storm.  In a way despair is at the center of things -- if only we are prepared to go through it. 

We must be prepared for a period when God is not there for us:  The day when God is absent, when He is silent -- that is the beginning of prayer.  Not when we have a lot to say, but when we say to God, 'I can't live without You, why are You so cruel, so silent?'  This knowledge that we must find or die -- that makes us break through to the place where we are in the Presence.  If we listen to what our hearts know of love and longing and are never afraid of despair, we find that victory is always there the other side of it."

-- Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where is love; where love is

"So often when we say 'I love you' we say it with a huge 'I' and a small 'you.'  We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action.  It's no good just gazing out into open space hoping to see the Lord; instead we have to look closely at our neighbor, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone whom God has died for.

Everyone we meet has a right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this.  The acceptance of otherness is a danger to us, it threatens us.  To recognize the other's right to be himself might mean recognizing his right to kill me.  But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it's no right at all... If we turn to God and come face to face with Him, we must be prepared to pay the cost.  If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay.  But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast, and immensely worth living."

--Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, in Beginning to Pray

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rumi: Out in Empty Sky

"Any beauty the world has,
any desire,
will easily be yours.

As you live deeper in the heart,
the mirror gets clearer
and cleaner...

Interpretations come,
from all the religious symbols
and parables
and prayers.

You know
what they mean
when the presence lives through you."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Glimpses of God

When I was a child, living in a small suburb outside Cincinnati, my parents used to take me with them to choir practice every Wednesday night. (I was an only child, so they found it easy to drag me along on their social life; cheaper than hiring a sitter). 

What made it worth my while to go along was that we'd always stop at the library on the way, and I would exchange the five books I'd taken out the week before for five new books, thus giving myself something to read while they rehearsed.

And what REALLY added a little zing to the trip was the chance that I might encounter one of the two brothers I had a crush on at the library -- because whenever that happened, my heart would give this delightful little leap of surprise.  Which felt good.  In fact, I grew addicted to that little leap, and in my late 20's for a while I could get the same little leap reading Barbara Cartland novels (ah, youth...).

These days the leap tends to come primarily either in the course of meditation (in which case it's more a surge than a leap) or through my eyes, when something surprises me with beauty -- as did this little scene I spotted while turning around in a side road on the island in order to return to a scene I wanted to photograph.  The leap always seems to be about color: I get it sometimes while browsing in art galleries and museums, as well; something will just sing to me.

Even though the source/inspiration of the leap is different now, it still seems to me to be -- perhaps because it's centered in the heart, even if it's a response to something seen by my eyes -- about love; about the gift of attention, of noticing, that allows us to sense, however briefly, the larger, divine, love that surrounds us all.

I know.  It sounds a bit far-fetched; it's just my interpretation.  But when I catch sight of something like this brief explosion of light and color, I feel a wonderful sense of blessing washing over me...  And now, as I look at this image one last time, I see Moses' burning bush.  Perhaps this is, indeed, a glimpse of God.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A better perspective

Wandering through my images this morning, I came across this one, which reminded me of that Henri Nouwen quote I posted two days ago, the one about small slights and kindnesses looming larger than world catastrophes.

So what is it people say to us when we get unduly caught by the trials and tribulations of ordinary human interactions (caught in the sense of attachment; what Pema Chodron calls "shenpa")?  "Get over it!" "Rise above it!" "Look at it this way:" or, as they were fond of saying in my classes at Antioch, "Get on the balcony."

All of which comes to me because there are three photos in this series, taken from the dock at Waterfront Park on Bainbridge Island; each taken from a different perspective.  For this one I squatted low and shot across the bow of the dinghy.  For a second shot I stood but held the camera low, and for the third I held the camera high.

The higher the camera, the more the two boats come into balance; the more accurate the perspective.  And clearly, dropped to its lowest point, the shadow cast by the dinghy looms even larger than the dinghy itself.  So it's not just a matter of distancing ourselves from our challenges -- it really is a matter of rising above them -- not in a snooty, sort of "I'm more important than this" way, but rather learning to see as God sees, from a higher plane.

And I think the only way we can do that is to devote a certain amount of time to getting to know God better -- however you define God, and however you practice: meditation, awareness practice, prayer, mindfulness... all those things can help give us a better perspective.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Be still and know

I've been listening a lot lately to the chants of Ana Hernandez, curator of ECVA's upcoming exhibit, Imaging the Sacred Art of Chant.

The song that seems to keep resonating in my heart is one that riffs on the theme, "Be the Peace that you wish to see in the world."  So when I opened my eyes this morning after meditation, and this was the sight that greeted me, I had to go for my camera -- which made me think of a discussion I had yesterday with a couple of artist friends.

We were talking about the importance of home to each of us.  Where do we work?  Where do we feel most at home?  How often do we leave home, and how is that related to our art?

Mulling our words over later, I realize I've been sticking close to home for a long time now.  Of course, the ten speed bumps I have to cross every time I leave or return are a factor in that decision!  But I think I've been unduly hard on myself for not wanting to go out more.  There is a peace here that feeds my soul, and it's part both of what keeps me here and what allows me to do what I do and be who I am.

... but I think it's also that peace that helps me to be more aware of the compulsion that lies behind it to be and do MORE than I am being and doing.  There's always this drive; always this question, "What should I be doing now," or "what have I done today," or "How can I make this better?"

Not this is new, for me, or for anyone else who is drawn to the contemplative practice; it's the age-old tension between Action and Contemplation, and the reason Richard Rohr's organization is called the Center for Action and Contemplation.

But as you're taking a moment today to process your week and prepare for the week ahead, I invite you to think about how that tension manifests itself in your life.  And, while you're doing that, take another moment, and breathe out all those shoulds that are driving you.  See if you can get back into that space where there is no "more," where you can accept that who you are, and what you're doing now, is enough.

As one of Cynthia Bourgeault's chants tells us:

Be Still and Know that I Am.

Be Still and Know.

Be Still.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

In pursuit of color

I had some free time yesterday, and there were errands to run, so I set out in my car.  But after getting a mile or two from the house, three things were clear: the autumn colors were at their peak, the sky was lightly cloudy (a perfect foil for the brightly colored leaves), and the weather was about to shift; within a day or two the wind and rain will have reduced most of our deciduous trees to bare branches. So I drove back to the house to get my camera, and set out again.

The most gorgeous trees were often in rather ugly locations; mostly shopping malls.  Do developers plant them in rows around the malls to disguise the ugliness of commerce?  I found this one, for example, behind a video store that had gone out of business.  But it was fun to drive with this as a side objective, noticing where the colors shone the brightest. 

In the end, my errands were completely unsuccessful (though I did find a particular brand of tea I was looking for, and I got some chocolate-covered marzipan (a favorite treat)).  But my eyes came home greatly refreshed, and my camera came home full of color and joy.  Despite the rain and wind, it was a lovely afternoon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Small disturbances

"Small signs of friendliness can create much joy and small disturbances between people much sadness, while the "great events" of the day often do not touch us so deeply.  An unexpected note from a friend or the passing remark from a neighbor can make or break my day emotionally, while inflation and recession, war and oppression do not touch my emotions directly.  A distant catastrophe has less effect than a nearby mishap, and an interpersonal tiff raises more hackles than a world-wide calamity."

--Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

I think we're all aware of this phenomenon: it seems particularly prevalent during the teenage years, although I remember coming back from my freshman year in college all distraught about the Viet Nam War, and being furious with my mother because she was only interested in something that happened at choir practice that week...

I don't know about you, but I do feel a little guilty about not being more easily disturbed about the plight of the world.  On the other hand, I am all TOO easily disturbed by that, and over the years I've decided to save my energy for the places I can make a difference.  It's not that I don't give thought to war, famine, or injustice, but it's more that I try to draw parallels through tonglen. 

If I am distraught, I hold space in my heart for others who are distraught; if the sky looks like some air battle is taking place above the clouds, I try to hold space in my heart for those for whom this is actually occurring.  If I am hungry, I try to hold space in my heart for the world's hungry... and do what I can to make a difference here on the island.  It's a matter of staying conscious, I think -- and a way of ensuring we don't get too caught up in our own challenges and ignore those of others.

That said, it's been a rough couple of days, and I found myself snapping at my husband last night when he came to me with another major project he needs me to take on.  We are not usually snappers, he and I, and I notice both of us have been a little frayed lately.  I'm looking forward to the weekend, and the chance to sleep in, unwind, and restore the gentleness in the house.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Under a lowering sky

We received the sad news yesterday that a friend of ours who has been struggling with a recent divorce and his daughters' decisions to move away, put an end to his life this week.

There's so much I could say, but I actually think my husband said it best: "Sad, sad, sad." It is a terribly sad thing, and I worry greatly about his decision's impact on their daughters.  And of course, as is always true in cases like this, those of us who cared for him can't help wondering if there might have been something more we could have done to avert this tragedy.

I'm certain -- wherever he is -- that he's making beautiful music.   I'm hoping that he finds the peace that eluded him in this life.  And I'm praying really hard for those two lovely girls...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A lesson in love

This handsome boy is Alex.  His fur is ridiculously thick and soft, and he is (we are fond of saying) a dog in a cat suit.  He goes for walks with us when we walk the dog, he comes when he is called, he loves to play with the tennis ball, and he adores me; in fact, he adores most everybody.

Alex will wrap his arms around the neck of a complete stranger and lick their cheeks and hands until they cry for mercy: he's just one amazing bundle of unconditional love.  I've had cats all my life, too many to count, but I was never really a cat person until I met Alex -- the best, most intelligent and affectionate cat it's ever been my privilege to know.

... But in a late night run to the emergency vet last night -- our only choice after multiple attacks of wheezing -- he was diagnosed with heart disease.

Bad prognosis.  Many tears.

Fortunately, 2 x-rays, a night of oxygen, and $800 later we are thrilled to learn it was just an asthma attack, probably brought on by a change in cat litter.  (They stopped carrying our old stuff, so we had switched.)  But what a lesson, to go through that.  Now I get another chance to give some of that love back.  I plan to make time to do more of that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Expanding our sense of community

We humans are so interesting.  We crave companionship, and yet we crave alone time, too.  My friends who live alone do their best to arrange social time on the weekends, while friends who are in relationship confide they are desperate for time apart; time to get centered and pull themselves together.

Henri Nouwen talks about these conflicting pulls as well -- he goes to a monastery to get some alone time with God, but then gets distressed when the monks don't converse with him, or he doesn't get mail from his friends.

... and of course some of us need more -- or less -- social time than others.  For myself -- perhaps because my husband is around most of the time -- alone time looks particularly appealing.  But I know from experience that when I do get it I like seeing that light in someone else's window across the water in the morning; like knowing there are folks nearby I can visit if I'm in the mood -- or call upon in case of emergency. 

But ours is also a pretty close neighborhood: because our environment is so unique, and occasionally challenging, we keep track of one another, know each other's names and phone numbers, and watch out for each other's homes.  It's a community: we know that what happens to one of us happens -- at some level -- to all of us, and that's important to me. 

My job is to get better at feeling that way about the larger world out there.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Life is good

With my husband sleeping upstairs, I elected not to play chant while meditating this morning.  But I could still hear Ana Hernandez singing "Om Namah Shivaya" in my head, and my sit time was immeasurably enriched and cooled by that.

In the end, today's meditation felt the way this photo makes me feel: calm, clear, directed, steady, and very present.  It helps that I woke up this morning with a new idea for a creative project in my head; helps also that, as he continues writing during his time at the monastery, Henri Nouwen's words in Genesee Diary are becoming more spacious and self-accepting; more open to the connectedness of life.  And it also helps that we had a truly marvelous dinner with friends last night, all food fresh from their garden and cooked to perfection.

Life is good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Imaging the sacred art of chant

Since I wrote about ekphrasis yesterday and included a pointer to the ECVA Exhibition call for Imaging the Sacred Art of Chant, I thought I'd try my hand at "painting" to music; specifically, the chant music of Ana Hernandez and Ruth Cunningham (HARC).

The music is simply gorgeous (easy to find on itunes), and it led me to create a new madonna, seen here.  She's actually a compilation of three different statues -- a Buddha, a Mary, and a Mother Earth -- and the background is a mix of photos and paintings I've done over the years.

It was a wonderful, meditative experience, creating to Ana and Ruth's glorious music, and there was a glorious sense of rightness and fulfillment around what emerged for me.  I'm not sure I could write to this music; words and rhythms don't flow as well for me if I'm hearing words and rhythms outside my head.  But I could imagine that meditation would be greatly enhanced with this musical accompaniment; think I'll try it sometime!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tripping the light ekphrastic

Call me Ekphrastic.

Or (my husband's suggestion for the opening lines of today's blog)  Can you be arrested for Ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis (I am learning about this because of a presentation being given for a writers' group here on the island) is all about art in one medium being composed in response to art in another medium.  Which means that when I pull up an image and write in response to it, I am practicing Ekphrasis.  Especially if my writing serves to describe the image itself.

Plus it can get even more complicated -- for example, what if, inspired by a poem, I take a photograph of a sculpture, post it here, write about it, and then choose another photo for the poetry blog -- inspired by what I wrote here -- and then write a poem about it? That's all ekphrasis.

Or, what if ECVA, the arts organization whose exhibitions I direct, were to feature a call to artists to create images in response to chant? Oh, wait, we're DOING that (note: submissions are due October 24th...)

There's actually a quarterly online journal, The Light Ekphrastic, dedicated to the creation of new written and visual artworks through collaboration between artists. "For each issue, writers and artists will be paired, each creating a new poem, story, photograph, painting or other piece of artwork inspired by work previously created by their partner artist."

Who knew what I do here had a name?  And now the challenge is, what on earth should I say about THIS image, which demanded to be placed here this morning?

I think I'll just say this is what my brain feels like after all the craziness of yesterday.  The day began with that curious poetic coincidence I wrote about in yesterday's blog, and then, when I was walking the dog before catching the ferry, I found ELEVEN dead Murres on the beach. (Murres are large birds, sort of a cross between Loons and penguins, with tuxedo coloring.) It was very sad, and a little scary...

So I delayed my ferry ride by an hour to deal with the Wildlife Rescue people (who were very helpful and concerned, and collected all the carcasses so as to assess why they died and to avoid possibly poisoning other local predators) and then I headed into the city (without my GPS, unfortunately) to meet my daughter to celebrate her last day of work at her heinous job -- and promptly got lost.

Eventually I found her, but our celebration was short-lived because I was meeting my husband and a friend of his for dinner -- a friend who turned out to have some delightful and fascinating observations and philosophies about meditation and how we choose to be in the world -- but then we had to rush to catch a ferry in order to get home in time to feed and inoculate our diabetic dog, and then we ran into friends on the ferry who'd been drinking and needed a ride home...  My head was positively swimming by the time we pulled into the driveway.

And so, thinking ekphrastically, I see in that lead image the complexity of the day and the confusion in my brain, the possibility of enlightenment and the bubbling up of ideas -- or is that from that little glass of prosecco we shared with dinner? -- and the gray and confusing streets of Seattle and the delighted sparkle in my daughter's eyes now that she is free of work and the exact shade of blue in the new jacket I wore to celebrate the occasion (corduroy, with velvet cuffs)... 

Clearly ekphrasis isn't all it's cut out to be...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Coincidences... again

I've probably mentioned this before, but the one thing I remember about reading The Celestine Prophecy all those years ago, in one of the reading groups we started to build community in our start-up Episcopal Church, was that there's no such thing as coincidence.

So when I began going on retreats with Cynthia Bourgeault and Lynn Bauman, and met a man named Max, and he turned out to have gone to school with my daughter's godfather -- who was the priest of that little start-up Episcopal Church -- I never thought it was just a coincidence.  I thought it was simply wonderful; a way to connect my past faith with my present.

And so, years later, when I go to our contemplative worship services (which only happen every three months) I look forward to seeing Max, who comes up from Olympia for the occasions.  We always have extraordinary discussions; it's as if we are -- and were -- friends on some other plane, apart from time and space.

The retreat that really cemented our friendship happened back in 2007; it was a week long Wisdom retreat with Lynn Bauman, in which we studied Daniel Ladinsky's amazing compilation, Love Poems from God.  At the time of that retreat, I hadn't written a poem in years, and by the end of the retreat poems were just pouring out of me -- that's at least partly what triggered my determination to begin the poetry blog.

So now here I am, several years later, and my poems have hit the sort of plateau Atul Gawande describes in his recent New Yorker article, "Personal Best:"  "For the past couple of years, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau.  I'd like to think it's a good thing -- I've arrived at my professional peak.  But mainly it seems as if I've just stopped getting started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one." 

In his article, Gawande concludes that it could be an opportunity for coaching , and I had come to the same conclusion (another coincidence?), so I was thinking of applying to a program.  But of course, to get a chance to improve my poetry I would have to submit my poetry.  And I've been so discouraged about my work lately that the thought of culling through it for any gems among the muck was daunting, to say the least.

So yesterday I began seriously considering just bagging the idea.

And wouldn't you know it, there's an email from Max in my inbox this morning.

"Dear Diane, Do you remember way, way back, when we went to the Wisdom School based on Daniel Ladinski's book, Love Poems to God, there was a point, toward the end of the session, when we were all encouraged to try our hand.

Do you remember  --  can you pull up  -- the poem you wrote and read to us on that occasion?  If you can find it, and if you have time, could you send it (email or regular mail) to me? Reason I'm asking is a couple of us are re-looking at the "Love Poems ..." book, and are getting re-inspired, and I wanted to show your poem (with full credit to you, of course) as an example

Okay.  I get it.  However painful it may be, I should still apply to this program.  Who knows, I might get in, and it might give my poetry just the boost it needs.  I won't know unless I try.

So thanks, Max.  Good timing -- again!

(PS: I sent him 8 poems I'd written that week, not quite knowing which one he was thinking of.  But it might be the one I've posted on today's blog -- you'll see it here, off to the right.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's not mine

We had a high tide and a bit of a storm a few weeks back, and this pretty little red metal canoe floated up onto our neighbor's bank. 

They're weekenders and live elsewhere, so their neighbor on the other side and I pulled the canoe up onto their grass and tied it down.  We're pretty certain it's a renegade from across the water somewhere, but maybe leaving it out in the open will invite someone to come and reclaim it.

Sometimes you have to do that with thoughts, too -- one of the things I learned in therapy.  Sometimes the stuff that drifts into my brain isn't really mine.  Most often it's stuff I picked up from my mother, but there are other sources out there -- husband, father, kids, community, books I'm reading (Henri Nouwen is definitely triggering some of this in me).  The important thing is to notice it's not mine and resist the temptation to claim it.  Tie it up somewhere off my mental property, admire it if necessary, but let it be. 

Speaking of which, I need to go clean out my physical closets as well as my mental one!  Anyone want a stack of size 10 shoes?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Looking for Balance: finding Mary

For the last four years, every time I've gone to visit my daughter in Vermont, I've also visited a remote little antique store in the tiny town of Medburyville.  There's been one piece there -- too expensive to purchase -- that kept calling me back, and each time I went I'd find it, wherever it was in the store, and let it speak to me again.  In fact, when I heard about the floods, that was one of the concerns that leapt to mind: would the store be okay?  Would this piece be okay?

And so, when I went back last month, it was on my agenda to pay another visit.  Happily the store was untouched and so was the object of my affections.  Even more happily (probably for reasons I only discovered later) the piece had been marked way down.   And so, however goofy it may be, I bought it.  And here, $45 and a trip in a suitcase later, she is. 

I know.  It's a little crazy -- and very out of character for someone who was raised Presbyterian.  But the sense that she needed to come home with me was just too strong to ignore, so now she hangs on the wall of my office above my computer.  Or at least she will for a while.  I may need to move her to the wall behind me; we'll see.  But for whatever reason, Mary and her son and the candles (ancient) and candleholders (one broken) and the little (empty) bottle of holy water that lives behind the picture of the Last Supper are here with me now.  I showed her to a Catholic friend yesterday and I think she was a little appalled; apparently this little icon exists as preparation for Extreme Unction; for the blessing given at the time of death...

So why Mary?  And why now?  My reading in Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary this morning may have given me a clue.  I think it has something to do with a need for balance.

We who sit at the liberal end of the Christian spectrum understand God to be both masculine and feminine, but as Westerners we are easily caught in the more masculine aspects of emotional life, the competition and rivalry, the urge to impress and dominate. 

While in the monastery, Nouwen found himself increasingly drawn to Mary, and finally came to realize that Mary "helps me to come in touch again with my receptive, contemplative side and to counterbalance my one-sided aggressive, hostile, domineering competitive side."  In fact, his spiritual director said to him, "It is not so surprising that you are easily depressed and tired... Much of your energy is invested in keeping your hostilities and aggressions under control and in working on your appearance of gentleness and kindness."

Having noticed an undercurrent of anger, depression and exhaustion in my own soul of late, I found this made me sit up and take notice.

Nouwen's response is this: "I hope and pray that through a renewed devotion to Our Lady, the Blessed Mother of God, I can allow my other side to grow to maturity and to become less self-conscious, less suspicious, less angry, and more able to receive God's gift, more able to become a contemplative, more able to let the Glory of God dwell in me as it dwelled so intimately in Mary."

And so I look at this curious little icon which has been so determined to enter my life, and I smile and say, "Amen to that."

Amen, indeed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Glory of God

I came downstairs this morning to find the full moon looking particularly glorious, beaming across the water through a haze of clouds into my living room.  What is it that makes the heart leap at such a sight?

And then, in his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen told of an interaction with his spiritual director who explained that he didn't need to get all tangled up trying to work for the glory of God; in fact -- each of us IS the glory of God.  Our job is only to open to that, to allow it to reveal itself in and through us.

It's a very freeing concept, isn't it?  Now if I could only loosen up enough and relax enough to allow that to happen, instead of always worrying about how to MAKE it happen...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chafing and flailing

"We live not just in an age of anxiety, but also in an age of shame. I find very few people who do not feel inadequate, stupid, dirty, or unworthy. Guilt is about things we have done or not done, but our shame is about the primal emptiness of our very being, an ontological question. It is not resolved by changing behavior as much as by changing our very self-image, our alignment in the universe."
-- Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety

I've been reading Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary this morning, and identifying all too closely with the ego struggles he's uncovering as he learns to live in a more stripped-down environment.  Thinking about it later, as I attempted to meditate with a very knead-y cat on my lap, I realize that he was considerably younger than I am when he wrote the book, and had yet to learn some of the things that inevitably emerge with age.  

But then this quote from Richard Rohr showed up in this morning's email, and I see I must confront again the awareness that the root of the struggle seems always to be that sense of emptiness at the heart of being.  My own struggles of late -- like Nouwen's at the monastery -- seem to be a mix of wanting more (attention, recognition, approval) and anger/irritability with the demands and restrictions placed on me by others -- which chafing tends to result in bitchiness with my loved ones and an intense longing for solitude and isolation.

But when I finally get that solitude I chafe and flail there as well, and can't seem to calm enough to allow the balm of love to fill my soul.  And so I grow increasingly self-critical as the emptiness looms, rather like the dark hole at the center of all those lovely leaves in this picture.

What age teaches me is that this is all part of what has become a familiar cycle, and "this, too, shall pass."  Which doesn't mean it isn't real, or that I shouldn't stay with it, sink into it, explore it, and learn from it.  I just have to remember that this isn't a permanent state; that this sort of childish snarkiness isn't all there is to me. I am capable of generosity of spirit, just not right now.

And that's okay.  I will, I think, be kind to myself today.  I'll listen to what my sad parts have to say, do what I can to honor their concerns, allow the mood to teach me whatever it is I can take in, and try not to get mired in it all.  In the past I've found that tidying up my outer environment can help clear out the moss and cobwebs that litter that inner environment, so I think I'll try that as well.

It's all good...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When life is unfair

I've been corresponding these last few days with a dear friend I haven't seen in years.  We are both struggling with the fact that a mutual friend, a very dear and good soul, a hospice nurse, has been diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer.

My friend, who is herself a doctor, writes, "Sigh. Life (and death) always seems a bit unfair. Does religion take the edge off this? I don't know."

These are really hard questions, and lie, I suspect, at the root of what brings people to religion and faith as well as at the root of what drives them away. And I don't have any answers. But I thought I'd share a bit of what I wrote back, because ... well... that's where my head is today.
* * *
As I used to say to my kids ALL the time — who ever said life was fair? ... which doesn’t stop ANY of us from railing at the unfairness of it all. And who ever said life (at least, life as we know it) didn’t inevitably end in death? We all know it does, but we rage against it anyway — no matter WHEN it happens, although we tend to be more accepting if people get 80 or 90 years before it happens.

Of course, there’s always the chance of a miracle, but miracles rarely take the form we expect. Sigh. And I’m not sure religion offers any answers — at least, not the religion I have now, at this point in my life. When I was younger, maybe, and believed in a God who controlled according to my specifications. Now I see it more as solace, hope, a hand to hold, a light to follow when things get really dark, a sense that we are never totally alone and abandoned... But not a “fixer.”

Some things just get to be broken — in the long run we all get to be broken — and somehow those of us who still have some sort of hardscrabble faith learn to trust that someday somewhere something good comes out of what we do or how we live or how we handle the brokenness.

I keep thinking of the mothers I know who have lost their children. The one who lost her 12-year-old to cancer facilitates fundraising for Children’s Hospital and runs a quilt and hat-making enterprise for young cancer patients on the side. The one who lost her son to suicide at 16 is active in a national teen-suicide-prevention enterprise. The one who lost her son to Lyme Disease at 20 completely renovated her home and turned it into a relatively toxin-free hospice space for people to live in while they are receiving treatment for Lyme Disease, cancer and other treatments that weaken the immune system. Does any of this activity make up for those losses? No, of course not. But the gift they bring to others who are struggling is a way of honoring what has been lost... and hopefully makes life easier for those who come along later.

It’s probably not our job to say what’s just or fair; we never know the whole story as God knows it. We may, like this dog, have illusions that we're sitting in the driver's seat.  But we're really not in control; we can only watch where life takes us, long for the driver who seems at times to have abandoned us, and continue in the meantime to do our part to bring our own gifts into the world; doing our best to leave it a little better than we found it.

But just as no one said it would be fair, no one said it would be easy, either.  It just is what it is. And as my brassy new york sister-in-law used to say, “so live with it, already!”

Sorry to be so preachy. It must be Sunday morning!

PS: (A note to readers who have attempted to comment here without success) I've changed the comment interface, hoping to get around the blocks for you.  Could you try again and see if it works for you?  Try commenting as anonymous if all else fails...)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

That space between

This morning, having finished Befriending Life, I sat down with a stack of books, planning to read a bit from each to see what called to me.  (And the winner is...) Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary hooked me from its first paragraphs; clearly I am hungering (again) for a taste of the monastic life. After having read the first chapter or so, I sat down to meditate and found my time absorbed in questions around simplicity -- how can I achieve a more satisfyingly monastic lifestyle -- but heavily leavened with "what am I supposed to be doing here?"

Part of that is because the other three books were about linking contemplation and art; I found myself asking, "Why are you not publishing books?  Why are you not out speaking and giving workshops?"  And I'm asking because I just applied last night for another marketing job.  I'm sure the appeal of the monastic life, for me, at this point in my own life, is the thought that, supported in a monastery, I wouldn't feel this pressure to earn money; I could just be a blogger and photographer and spend my spare time in prayer and reading...

Part of the appeal of Henri Nouwen's work, of course, is that, like Thomas Merton, he, too struggled mightily with the tension between his longing for silence, solitude, and contemplation and the conflicting longing for attention and self-expression.  I think I have to just trust that it's that tension that feeds my writing and my art, and learn to live in that space between.  It's a bit like this picture, I think: all the juiciness lives in the space between, at the intersection between the earthiness of the fields and the airiness of the sky.

Speaking of such things, I loved these charming words from Nouwen, written at the end of his first week in the monastery:

"I'd better start thinking a little more about my attitude toward work.  If I have learned anything this week, it is that there is a contemplative way of working that is more important for me than praying, reading, or singing.  Most people think that you go to the monastery to pray.  Well, I prayed more this week than before, but also discovered that I have not learned yet to make the work of my hands into a prayer."

That's the challenge of living the contemplative life, isn't it: how can we become more conscious while walking through our daily tasks?  How can we make the work of our hands a prayer?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Keepers of possibility

Well, the one thing we all know is this: just because WE go away, doesn't mean our TO-DO list goes away.  So after a restful alone time I am back in the thick of things; prepping for exhibits-to-come and working on a number of projects for my husband. 

Meditation time this morning -- already delayed because he awoke when I did, and we had a lot of catching up to do related to these projects -- was twice interrupted after he left, so I decided it just wasn't going to happen today, although I did at least get to finish the Henri Nouwen book I've been reading, Befriending Life.

So then when I sat down to blog, the images that arose all had this rushing quality -- lots of lights disappearing into the distance, things flashing by, disappearing perspectives...  I finally settled on this one, which, though it has similar qualities, is at least about fields instead of traffic.

What's throwing me off a bit, I think, is that with this new technique the original image doesn't actually need to be in focus any more.  Which means I can't do the automatic discard of un-focused images I used to do: if I'm trying to cull through a set of new images, I have to be aware that (thanks to the wizardry of Photoshop) weak compositions can be strengthened, low contrast can be heightened, dull colors can be sharpened, sloping horizons can be straightened, and now even focus can be repaired.  So all these decisions have become much harder to make, and require a certain amount of experimentation to investigate.

It's a bit like the difference between the harsh fundamentalism of my youth and the broad ecumenism I now espouse, or like the development of compassion and tolerance: it's no longer clear what has the potential for value -- everything has possibilities.  But that's so time-consuming, to pay that kind of attention to what's going on around us -- especially when there's so much information out there. Which, I suspect, is why corporations let computers do the initial culling-through and rejecting of resumes: every employee has potential, but there are so many applicants that it's just too much trouble to take the time to explore the possibilities, so they automatically drop them from the pile of possibles if the experience isn't an exact match, or the age is too young, or too old.

Maybe (she said, upon hearing that yet another organization was curtailing its art/communications budget) that's the function of art and artists: perhaps we artists exist to bring awareness to the forgotten, the ordinary, the less-than-perfect aspects of existence; to remind people of all the other possibilities in the world.  And if we are disappearing from the corporate or community landscape, what else, what other potential is being lost?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On prayer and brokenness

The thing prayer has taught me is that I’m loved. Even though sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that, I’ve found that there is a place where it’s really, really safe and welcoming, and I can really be my broken self. There is a safe place, and that’s in prayer. I can’t bring all of my brokenness to any one place in this physical world, but I can bring it to prayer. And I can let go, and still know that I’m loved. And that, I think, is the essence of what Henri tried to teach me.” -- Lorenzo Sforza-Cesarini, speaking of Henri Nouwen in Befriending Life

After Henri met Anton Boisen, founder of the clinical pastoral counseling movement, he wrote of how Boisen’s ‘deep wound had become a source of beauty in which even the weaknesses seem to give light.’ … The wounded healer becomes a transparent icon, a window through which we can see who we are and why we are.” -- George Strohmeyer, in Befriending Life

I’m up on Shaw, just for a day, and went out this morning with my camera; somehow the beauty here never ceases to amaze me. For some reason I find this shot of the ferry leaving the island very moving, but I think it’s because I’ve been spending my time here carrying my goodbyes and losses and other broken bits into prayer.

I’ve been listening to a series of lectures by Pema Chodron on getting unstuck, and one thing she said particularly resonated: it’s that everything that arises during meditation is fresh, and the essence of realization. As a regular practitioner of Centering Prayer, I have this tendency to believe I need to step away from what arises and go back to center. So to honor what arises in this way is quite lovely.

Making a decision to accept and honor what arises somehow makes meditation feel closer to prayer; somehow makes it more acceptable to be me, to carry all that I am into that meditation space and lay it before God. So then, reading the first quote above, I found myself thinking, Oh, I could bring that broken part of me into meditation? I don’t have to leave it behind or shut it down when it speaks up?

And of course the second quotation confirms and expands that, saying that our wounded and broken places have value, and have a gift to offer the rest of the world; that they allow us to become another window into divine truth.

And so I can look at the ferry, leaving, and allow it to be a symbol without asking any more or less of either myself or the image. I can just feel, let the feelings arise, and that’s okay. And I can share it with you without shame, just allow it to be what it is for you – which might be something completely different than what it brings up for me.

I’m liking the openness in that.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Making space, making time

This charming winged foot was created by Michael Alfano; it was another of the treasures we found in the sculpture garden at the Millbrook Gallery in Concord, NH.

It seems an appropriate symbol for the sort of rushing around phenomenon, that restless busy-ness that gets in the way of our spiritual lives.  As I wrestled this morning with some decisions around that conflict -- whether to take off for 24 hours of alone time or to get caught up in the growing pile of to-dos here, I appreciated these words from Henri Nouwen:

"The spiritual life demands a discipline of the heart.  Discipline is the mark of a disciple of Jesus.  That doesn't mean, however, making things difficult for yourself, but making available the inner space where God can touch you with an all-transforming love.  We human beings are so faint-hearted that we have a lot of trouble leaving an empty space empty.  We like to fill it all up with ideas, plans, duties, tasks, and activities.

It strikes me increasingly just how hard-pressed people are nowadays.  It's as though they're tearing about from one emergency to another.  Never solitary, never still, never really free but always busy about something that just can't wait.  ...The more agitated we are, and the more compacted our lives become, the more difficult it is to keep a space where God can let something truly new take place.

The discipline of the heart helps us to let God into our hearts so that God can become known to us there, in the deepest recesses of our own being.  This is not so easy to do; we like to be master in our own house and don't want to admit that our house is God's house too." (from Letters to Mark about Jesus)

I've decided to set the to-do's aside and re-schedule a few appointments.  It's time to create a little space in my heart...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hope in a stone

While sitting in the coffee shop of a bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, I decided to check my email and found there an announcement of great import regarding my former bishop.

The announcement was shocking, not because of what it said about my bishop ("a credible allegation of recurrent marital infidelity") -- I'd been aware of his activities for some time -- but because the church had actually moved to discipline him.

Part of my disaffection with the church over these last 15 years or so has been the sense that the hierarchy has a tendency to protect its own; that the clergy are not always held to standards that reflect what I believe to be the values Christ espoused.  And of course my views on my bishop's behaviors -- and his tendency to protect other clergy behaviors in the diocese -- were significantly less tolerant due to my own experiences of recurrent marital infidelity (in a former marriage, not this one); I know first-hand what that feels like to a wife, and have perhaps less sympathy for those of God's creatures who venture into this realm, and for those who close ranks to protect them.

So it was curious, indeed, to walk out of the coffee shop with this new information and see before me in the walkway the words on this granite slab.  I have for some time known that marriage vows do not appear to be written in stone, that the 10 commandments do not appear to have been written in stone, and that the laws of our country and community are not written in stone: in most of these cases the rules seem to become more flexible for those who have power and money.

Knowing such things can make you cynical; it sometimes takes considerable effort to remain upbeat and optimistic about faith and the human condition.  I am thankful that, over the years, I have found great solace in meditation and study, but I have consciously held myself somewhat apart from faith communities for fear my cynicism might leak.  And that has been challenging:  I've missed the connection and innocent optimism inherent in church community involvement.

But it was surprising to note that I had assumed "the church hierarchy protects its own" was pretty much written in stone.  And, understanding that, I am intrigued to see that, for me, this message has shifted from one of discouragement to one of hope.  Perhaps things are not, as so many people tell me, "going to hell in a handbasket."  I'm not certain where this takes me, or if, in fact, it will have any lasting effect on me.  But I am determined to pay attention to my responses; to remain conscious and alert to any shifts that may occur in my faith as a result.  Because a little glimmer of hope would be lovely.

Monday, October 3, 2011

When Calling includes Entertainment

"I travel here and there giving talks, make people feel safe or excited, and help them come to terms with their feelings of loss, failure, and anguish, as well as their feelings of growth, success, and joy. Am I -- like circus people -- an entertainer?  Do I try to hold people up in between the many fragmented moments of their lives and give them a glimpse of "the beyond?"  

It fascinates me that the word entertainment comes from the latin words inter (between) and tenere (to hold.)  What's wrong with being an entertainer?  Isn't Jesus the greatest of all entertainers?  Isn't he holding people up in a life that constantly wants to go flat?  Didn't Jesus come from another world and travel from place to place to let people look up for a moment and relize that there is more to life than they might have thought?"
 -- Henri Nouwen, in the New Oxford Review, June 1993

I suspect that the edginess I get around the possibility of entertainment has to do with the fine line between entertainment and marketing, and the other, even finer, line between marketing and selling.  Yes, the great televangelists have been consummate entertainers.  But where that goes wrong is when they use that charisma to get money for themselves.  Politicians must also be entertainers, aware of how they present, aware of what their audience wants and needs to hear.  But where that goes wrong is when they use that charisma to put money or favors into the hands of special interests -- including their own. 

And yet the circus performer, the spiritual director, the council candidate, the artist and the farmer all need to draw attention to themselves if they are to support themselves and succeed at what they do.  So doesn't that mean they need, at some level, to be entertainers; to promote their work and draw attention to it; to spell out the essence of what they offer? 

It's a conundrum.  I'm thinking the only way we can stay on the right side of those fine lines is to be intentionally, constantly, present and conscious; always asking for discernment: Is this right?  Is this good?  What is my goal; what am I attempting to achieve?  Who benefits?  How could I strive for a better balance here?  What am I really offering?  And how am I being called to utilize my existing gifts and resources?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Isn't this a glorious sculpture?  Her name is Grace; she was sculpted by an artist named Liz Fletcher, and we found her at the Millbrook Gallery in Concord, NH, on our way down to visit friends in Boston.

I think we all know what grace feels like in our lives, but I've rarely seen it as beautifully captured as it is here.  And if I am -- now back in the Northwest -- to look back over my time in New England, it seems clear (despite occasional torrential rains and other minor challenges) it was a time infused with grace.

The beauty of the landscapes, the serendipity of finding dear friends available when stopping by unannounced, of beautiful works of art and unexpectedly moving times with family, of delicious dinners and rich conversations with both friends and strangers... everywhere we looked, there was grace, and I feel incredibly blessed to have had such a wonderful time.