Sunday, September 30, 2007

Drinking in the light

I shot this image about a month ago at a restaurant in the little town of Point Reyes Station in California, and for some reason it continues to call to me.

I could attribute it to the colors (I'm partial to blues and greens, and the little touch of orange definitely perks it up) or the memories it evokes (which are pleasant) or to the intriguingly similar textures of the dry glass tabletop and the wet glasses. But I think the real reason is just because it looks so refreshing. Clarity, color and subject all speak to the pleasure of a cool drink of water on a hot day, and there's something very pleasing about that.

I think it may be the clarity that I find particularly appealing. There's so much about life that's muddy and confusing; so many decisions to be made where the choice isn't that clear; so many people we meet that we'd like to welcome into or reject from our lives and always one factor that doesn't quite go with the rest of the data. I think, as humans, we long for clarity; long to have someone tell us the answers so we don't have to make these difficult choices. Not just the little ones -- should I go right or left at the light -- but the big ones as well: should we try another round of chemo? Should we pack up and leave? Should I tell someone about this discrepancy I found in the books?

Dostoevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov, has this intriguing chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor" which fantasizes a meeting between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor. Christ doesn't speak, but the Grand Inquisitor more than makes up for that by rambling on and on about how Christ screwed up by only leaving us with one rule -- Love God, love your neighbor. That's too much freedom, says the inquisitor: people want rules, people want to be told what to do.

And yet it is often around the muddiness and the confusion that life becomes richest. I remember vividly sitting in the Sanctuary of St. Joe's, Seattle while on a prayer break from an Ignatian retreat, and looking at an absolutely glorious image in stained glass. There was one piece of glass in the image that really stood out for me: like the image above, it had blues, greens, a trace of purple, a dash of brown to set it off... and I remember staring at that piece of glass and longing -- praying-- desperately for some clarity, and, more specifically, for the innocence and purity of spirit that had been mine before I began working for the church, for a release from the muddiness; from the sense of having been soiled that permeated my job.

When the break was over I went over to take a closer look at the window. And I realized, looking at it, that actually it was a clear piece of glass: the artist had covered the clear glass with a sort of muddy glaze, and it was only when the light shone through the mud that the glass began to glow with the rich colors that I had found so appealing.

So maybe that's the key to this image. It's not the color, or the texture, or the composition, or the promise of refreshment. It's really the light that draws us; the light, that shines so particularly on the one glass; the one glass, standing so strong and proud and ready, the chosen glass, crying, "here am I; drink me!"

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Longing in their Hearts

When my daughters were little I used to listen to a lot of Bonnie Raitt songs, and there was one entitled "A longing in their hearts." I don't remember much about the song, but as I wander through my days I still think of the title from time to time. It seems to me that much of the good -- and the bad -- that we do as human beings stems from that "longing in our hearts." The longing may manifest itself in different ways -- for a child, it could be a longing for a bike, or a gold star from the teacher; for a true friend, for a square meal... and for an adult there are equivalent longings -- for a new car, a raise, a loving mate, a square meal -- or at least the chance to provide one for your family.
But how do we play out these longings? Do we ask, or manipulate; work harder or cheat; offer or demand or complain -- or just plain struggle? The choices we make often depend on how desperate we are, and the levels of desperation can vary considerably with economic circumstances, childhood upbringing, social connections, personal or parental expectations...

But at the heart of all those longings and the behaviors they drive, for me, is just the desire to be heard, to be seen, to be valued -- and, really, to be special.

A friend once told me she was often perceived at work as very difficult and demanding. And one day in a staff meeting, she was being stubborn and the other members of the staff were growing increasingly angry, and her boss called a timeout. "Listen," he said, you need to understand. Lena does not need to have everything done her way. She JUST NEEDS TO BE HEARD! You can choose to go down this path; Lena just needs to know that you made the choice having actually HEARD the data she has to share that contradicts the choice." Listening to him, Lena realized he was right. She didn't NEED them to do things a certain way, she just hated to be ignored when she had important information to share.

In another example, there was a recent article in the New Yorker about the rise in malpractice suits, and, in his interviews with the plaintiffs, the author of the article learned that in many cases all the patient really wanted was an apology. Again, they just needed to be heard. But because of litigation fears and insurance costs, the doctors no longer felt they could admit that something might have gone wrong. As a result, accusations of malpractice continue to rise, insurance rates are skyrocketing, and doctors become less and less able to admit their weaknesses and failures.

I suspect that as Americans we are particularly vulnerable to this need to feel special; honored, or recognized. Our capitalist society has always had a bit of "every man for himself" at its heart, and we tend to be stubbornly competitive as a result. At the same time our families and communities are often fragmented, so the traditional channels for appreciation and affection may be blocked, through no fault of our own. Some say religion should help, but does it really help to know that we are special to God if EVERYONE is special to God?

Only if we understand that we are all inextricably linked together, sharing together in the building of our common future; that if one child is hungry, all feel the pangs in some way; that if one soldier is wounded the wounds in all of us will ache in sympathy; that each person's success or failure can bring joy or sadness to all. And, in that way, each of us IS special, and each of us not only longs to be heard and seen but DESERVES to be heard and seen, because we are all participants together in the divine experiment we know as life.

As my husband and I adjust to our newly emptied nest, we are finding that we need to brush up our communications skills a bit. One way this problem manifests itself is when he raises his head from his computer and realizes I am not in the house and he has no clue where I am. Worse still, he'll call my cell and I won't answer. So by the time I come home he's a little grumpy about my perceived disappearance "off the grid." And usually I say, "But I told you I was leaving" or "you know there's no reception on that part of the island." He's developed the perfect response: "Did you have eye contact when you said that?"

Which is really an important point. How we learn that we are special, both as children and as adults, is when people look at us, look us in the eye, and listen to what we have to say. It's very easy to just go charging (or drifting, whatever your personal style may be) through life without actually stepping outside your own concerns and agendas to see and hear those around you. Instead of going through your days consumed by your own thoughts and to-do lists, take time to pay attention -- not just to your family and friends, but to your surroundings as well. Because I think the way this linked universe works is that if we pay attention to it, it pays attention to us.

This morning, while sipping my coffee, I looked out the window and saw a pair of loons paddling just off our beach. Though we've seen loons before, this is the first time I've seen a pair. But to see them I had to look. I had to take my eyes away from my food, from the mess in the kitchen, from the book I was reading. And this is my point: when I did that, when I looked up and paid attention, I got to see the loons. And you know what? It made my day -- and made me feel -- special.

Yup: in the words of the immortal David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame), this post is truly a "Celebration of Special-NESS."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I think that I shall never see...

In March of this year I decided to begin an intensive study of the Gospel of Thomas. With the help of Lynn Bauman's study guide, "In Trouble and In Wonder", I explore a logion a day; sitting down with it over breakfast and then meditating after reading. Today's Logion was the familiar Mustard Seed Parable (Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, which, despite its size, grows into a huge bush that provides shade and shelter for so many.)

I wonder if each moment in the present is like a mustard seed, ready to burst into a whole tree, rooted deep, touching the sky, providing shelter for the winged ones and fruit for the footed ones. Or what if each choice we make is another mustard seed, ready to explode into a whole decision tree, full of ramifications for all of creation? It all becomes so multi-dimensional that it is unfathomable, but if I sit with the analogy it helps me to see that everything is linked together.

Which could mean that we don't have to become a politician or travel to third-world countries to make a difference: it's possible that every little positive act could have an enormous effect on the world. Or, as my friend Anne says, just by telling one of her piano students that they may not speak to her in a contemptuous tone of voice, she could be averting a major war sometime in the future.

But what strikes me most today is that each of us can be a tree (how hokey does that sound!) -- rooted and grounded in the earth, always reaching and growing upward, changing with the seasons, offering shelter, bearing fruit: a noble aspiration.

I think there are far too many days when I am just the squirrel in the tree, hoarding nuts and chittering away in my own little space...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Begin as you mean to continue






I am a photographer; have been for a little over 10 years now, after some 30 years of thinking I was a writer. The photography came as a surprise, but I am loving it: something happens when I look through my viewfinder that helps me be in touch with the Infinite.

Earlier this year I discovered that what sets my photography apart is its contemplative quality, and I began a daily practice of pairing photos with brief meditations. The meditations, or reflections, were small, by necessity, so they could be typed directly onto the photo, and most people saw them as poems. I like the idea of being a poet/photographer, but wonder if it may not be time to expand beyond poetry -- or maybe just write longer poems!

At any rate, this blog gives me an opportunity to choose; to post a photo and write whatever I feel called to write without size restrictions. I suspect I may be a better writer on a small scale, but the only way to confirm that is to test it.

So it is my intention here to share a photo from time to time -- I can't do this daily yet, because I'm going out of town for a bit -- but I aspire to sharing a daily photo, and writing about it. The photo may have been taken the day it's posted, but may also be something I've already shot; I'll just see what calls to me. I expect the reflections will emerge out of my daily meditation practice, but I don't want to load that expectation onto the practice; my life is pretty full (a dear friend refers to it as a vortex) so I'm sure subjects will emerge when they're meant to!

This first photo was shot this evening. It's not necessarily a very significant photo, but I do feel like I've been waiting for years for the moon to rise while there was still light AND (and this is the important part) FOR ME TO NOTICE.

If there's going to be a theme to this blog, I suspect it will have to do with the importance of noticing; of being present to the world around us instead of buried in our thoughts of past and future. Other themes will emerge, I'm sure, but this one seems pretty basic. I feel very fortunate that finally, tonight, I happened to look out the window at the right moment. And I do sincerely believe that that's one of the most rewarding things we can do -- just be aware of what's going on around us. Because it's always changing: that's one of the first things you learn as a photographer -- if you see a shot, take it, because in a minute the light will change, the child will fall, the farmer will turn off his irrigation system or a truck will drive by and block the shot... and I dearly wish I were capable of following my own advice, listening to my intuition; I am usually rushing off into the future and either haven't the time to take the shot, haven't the courage to block traffic to get it, or don't feel I deserve to ask whoever's driving to turn around so I can take it -- I mean, what if there IS no shot?

So maybe what I'm saying -- I guess this isn't just an introduction; it's also a reflection -- is that it's important, not just to notice, but to respond.

In closing, I want to express my incredible gratitude to my friend Karen, who lost her beautiful daughter Katie to cancer this year. She inspires me more than I can say, and it is her decision to blog about her experience that has encouraged me to embark upon this path. So Karen, though I may never mention either you or Katie again, this blog is dedicated to you.