Friday, November 30, 2007

Under the Influence

My reading this morning in the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 56, concerns the whole dilemma of being in the world but not of the world; in fact the world is described as a corpse. In pondering this, I realized that my quip in yesterday's post about the irreverence of my recent blogs being influenced by the irreverence of my characters was actually false.

I didn't do any blog entries while we were in St. Petersburg, and it's actually just the ones I've done since I got back that felt off, uninspired, contrived... It didn't feel like they were flowing from that inner well of consciousness from which these things usually bubble up. And thinking about that this morning, in the context of today's logion, I realized (duh) of course! They're disconnected because I'm disconnected. While I was in Florida I was NOT meditating, I was NOT reading the Gospel of Thomas. And even though I was only gone a week, I am feeling the effects of that.

It's not unlike the effects of breaking my diet. I have gone back onto the low carb diet I used to drop 30 pounds three years ago, as my weight began creeping up a bit this year, and yesterday I had a burger for lunch and decided to go ahead and eat the bun as well. And sure enough, by mid afternoon the munchies had kicked in: I found myself craving sweets, snacking on a piece of toast, chewing gum... because eating carbs for some reason makes me crave more carbs.

Maybe the world works the same way, and meditation serves as a sort of diet from it, a chance to cut back the cravings. If we don't take a break from the world's enchantments, we get caught up in them and it becomes harder to stay in touch with the source, the aliveness and creativity within us that is NOT entangled with the world.

So why these photographs? Initially I just planned to post the one on the left, of the sunset, though I wasn't sure why it was relevant to the subject. But now, having written about this, I realize that this photograph was taken my first night in Florida, and though there was not actually a cross on the building in the distance, I thought there was, and I was surprised when I got home to see it wasn't there.

In contrast, there is another photograph I took at the end of my visit, the one on the right; a lovely picture of a little fake gingerbread chapel which sat on a barge across from our hotel, designed to be towed out to the middle of the bay for weddings. And my question is this: Which is the real church? The one I saw at the beginning, still under the influence of meditation? Or the false one I photographed at the end of the week, the world's image of a chapel; the one not anchored, merely floating; not used for worship, only as a stage set? It's almost as if by the end of the week I no longer saw with my heart, but only with my head.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

Yesterday I passed the 50,000 word mark on my Nanowrimo novel! Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month,began with 21 people in 1999; this year there were 90,000 participants, including my neighbor here, my friend Sue in Vermont (who told me about the project in the first place), her daughter, and my daughter. The deal is, you sign up to begin writing November 1, and your goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. Along the way you get encouraging emails from famous authors and repeated warnings NOT to get hung up on little things like plot, editing or characters; the goal is just to let it flow and save all the editing until December.

As a lifelong editor by nature and often by trade, I found this whole concept incredibly freeing. We were admonished NOT to worry about plot or characters before November 1, just to start typing on that day and see what happened. When I sat down November 1 (I went up to Shaw Island for a couple of days to get off to a good start) I had decided on a title, but was otherwise flying blind. And now that the 50,000 words are up, I see that the title has very little to do with the plot (it was to be called Gap Year but the action takes place over about a month) and that where I ended up (with all four of my major characters speeding to a clinic after having been a)shot, b)hit on the head, c)bound and gagged and left in a van overnight and d)knocked out) is a LONG way away from where I started (an Episcopal priest taking on an interim parish assignment on a small island in the San Juans after the priest runs off with one of his parishioners).

Obviously I have a lot of loose ends to tie up! But the important thing is that, for the first time, I was actually able to churn out an entire novel -- roughly 1700 words a day for 30 days! Whether I ever tidy this one up so it's actually readable (which I hope to do, if it's possible) or I never write another one (as if! I can't wait til NEXT November to do it again!) I'm just pleased that I did it, pleased that I stuck with it. And, frankly, it was a LOT of fun watching the characters spring to life and take me to such interesting places.

So now you know why this blog slowed down so much this month -- my writing energies were going elsewhere. And the growing irreverence of my entries is probably a result of hanging out with my irreverent characters -- clearly they were a bad influence on me!

I think I'll stop here and go tackle those loose ends -- I'm sure it's going to take another chapter or two to get everyone stabilized and back on track.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


You may remember this guy from the Tom Hanks movie, Big; he's all about granting wishes, offering all those things we long for on the worldly plane. I mean, just look at him! He's a symbol of wealth, health, power, romance and virility -- and check out the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil dudes at his fingertips. Plus he knows the future; what more could you want?

But my reading for today is this: "You poor are blessed, for the realm of heaven is already yours." What? Heaven isn't off in the future, some place where we have riches and romance and power?

I'm thinking that as long as we're caught up in chasing all of Zoltar's promises we're probably not really appreciating the gifts we have right here, right now. But it's more than that. Pema Chodron, in Comfortable with Uncertainty, tells us that the most promise we have is in the poverty we feel right now; that those places where we feel raw, or empty, or bruised are the openings where the riches pour in.

Our job, she says, is to breathe out the moments of joy that we feel, to send those blessings out into the world to comfort those who do not have what we have at this time. When we breathe in, and feel our poverty, or pain, hunger or loss, we share in the poverty, pain, hunger and loss of others. And somehow, in that space between the breathing out and the breathing in, there is that stillness, the peaceful quiet place of completion, where we know that all we have in that moment is exactly enough.

See how arrested Zoltar looks? I think he's caught in exactly that moment. And that flash/reflection over his head, the one that looks like a lightbulb? By george, I think he's got it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dancing Outside the Boxes

I passed this intriguing image -- a life-size painting installed on the side of a bungalow -- in Ybor City, Florida last week. I'm not sure you can find Ybor City on a map; the little Garmin GPS we had rented for the trip couldn't seem to recognize the name, and she insisted (in her endlessly pleasing little voice) that the address we sought was in Tampa.

But the people of Ybor City -- once the cigar-rolling capital of the United States -- clearly do NOT believe they live in Tampa. The public buildings all proclaim Ybor City, and the docents who give you a tour of the town make it clear that although during the city's heyday they might have been under the jurisdiction of the Tampa police, at the end of the day those police went BACK to Tampa, and the residents of Ybor City were free to follow their own rules.

Which rules, we were told, included a nightly conga line from the Tampa-enforced WHITE Cuban social club to the Tampa- enforced BLACK Cuban social club, where the black cubans were invited to join the dance back to the white club for an all-night dance party. Apparently the Cubans didn't hold with segregation and liked to mix things up a bit.

So here we have one kind of rule -- thou shalt have separate establishments for different colors -- and another sort of rule altogether: thou shalt either wear or be a work of art. It seems clear to me, even though I was actually raised in the south, that the second sort of rule is more godly than the first. Not just because the lady in question bears a strong resemblance to our popular conception of Eve. But also because art is all about creativity -- as is God. And I would claim that the nightly conga line was a deliciously creative solution to a challenging situation.

The Tampa police wanted to put the black Cubans in a box, and in so doing boxed in the white Cubans as well. But neither group thought of themselves as white or black; they thought of themselves as Cuban, and danced right out of those boxes.

I think this may be where religious traditions often fail us: they begin as pointers to God, as reminders of God, but somehow over time they become boxes, and we find ourselves feeling separated from other equally spiritual individuals who are trapped in other boxes. I think those of us with a strong ecumenical bent are like the Cubans -- we are being called by God to dance outside the box, to be art -- signs and symbols of God's infinite creativity, dancing an invitation, seeking ways to reunite the human community.

Which doesn't mean the box is bad; it's okay to go back in there from time to time. We just need to remember that we are one with the folks who are in the other boxes. We need to consciously step outside from time to time and extend that invitation to dance; to think and dream together of what our world could be without these arbitrary restrictions.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Worshipping Through the Lens

We returned late last night from our Thanksgiving adventure, then rose early this morning to find banks of fog rolling in under a full moon. I rose and dressed with every intention of going to church, but found myself stopping frequently along the way to take pictures. I finally gave up and decided to worship through the lens this morning...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Listening to your inner voice

An artist friend called today to say she'd been invited to a critique group but didn't want to go. "I've spent my whole life learning to trust my OWN voice," she said. "Why would I want other people telling me what to do with my art?"

I told her about an article I had read just this morning, in Shutterbug Magazine, about how, if you are a successful photographer, you get more and more people -- agents, editors, gallery owners, art directors, family members, friends -- all telling you what to shoot, what works. But since it's the little voice inside you, telling you what to shoot, that got you to this point, you need to keep listening to that little voice.

I read another article today in another magazine (I'm working through a pile of old ones before we go away for Thanksgiving, saving my books for the plane) that said the biggest difference between unsuccessful and successful people is that successful people fail more, and learn from their failures.

So I told my friend about that article as well -- after all, if you listen to your own voice, you'll probably try a few things that don't work. And she said she'd been reading a book about success that offered a simple formula: E+R=O. Sounds kind of simplistic, I thought, but I waited for her explanation. "It IS simple," she said. "Event plus Response equals Outcome."

Our conversation meandered on a while, and then I got off the phone and took the dog for a walk -- which was hard, because my knee had been bothering me all day. But I realized on the walk that the important thing is not that my knee is bothering me, and therefore life is a drag. That would just be E = O. I forget that there's an opportunity to effect a change in the O with my Response.

I can't make the pain go away. But I can stop thinking I must have done something stupid for it to hurt, or that the rest of my life I'll be in pain, or that it's terrible it's a weekend and I can't see a doctor. I can just stay with the feeling of soreness, maybe take some ibuprofen, and see what I learn about myself, about the world, about pain from paying attention. Maybe there's a message there? That R, my response, is a chance to make a difference.

So then I thought I wanted to blog about it. What would the right photo be? Something, I thought, that I had taken for fun, prompted by the small voice within. And here's what came up.

It's not a great photo, by any stretch of the imagination. It would totally fail a critique. And who but other people who live nearby and see this thing -- Frog Rock, it's called; no surprise there -- every day would realize how funny it is that someone put fangs on the frog for Halloween?

But when I looked at it again, I realized the stop sign almost looks like a mirror. And there seems to be a leaf attached to the post, that's sort of waving at the frog. And somehow the picture becomes very sweet, as if even a scary ugly frog wants a little reassurance. And the mirror senses that and wants to acknowledge the frog's concerns.

I know it's all a little silly. And I didn't see any of those things when I took the picture; they only emerge now when I look at it after the fact. And at the time a voice said "this is just a record shot, it has no use, why are you taking this?"

But maybe even this little "record shot" has a message, and maybe that's why the inner voice encouraged me to take the picture. Maybe it's a way of saying that if you sit with the scary things that come along in life, they become less scary... even, sometimes, endearing. It may take a while -- a long while. Or, like the pain in my knee, once you pay attention, it may just go away. And then you find yourself almost missing it.

But not very much.

And PS: don't you love that this scary old frog has a heart? I didn't even see that when I took the picture.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Breath of Lavender

Last week I left some samples of my work at a gallery up in Edmonds, and a day or two later I heard from the owner, who loved my work but needed to know if any of it had been "in any way digitally enhanced," because the gallery had a rule against showing anything that had been digitally altered.

In response I went through all of the images I had left for her, explaining what had been done with each. Most had been lightened in order for my printer to produce what I saw on the screen; some had been desaturated to black and white because my camera only shoots color; for some I'd applied the equivalent of a digital polarizing filter because I don't have one that fits my digital lens.

I did none of those things for this image, which is probably my favorite of all the boat photos I've taken over the years. But what drew me to take the shot in the first place was the faint purplish tinge on the sides that heralds the imminence of dawn, and that tinge was missing when the photo left the camera and entered my computer.

So I put it back in; just a breath of palest lavender on the right side, right where the sun was beginning to hit.

Is that faint brushing -- or are any of the other techniques I mentioned -- digital alteration? You bet. Do traditional film photographers try similar tricks in the darkroom? You bet. Is this post another entry into the ongoing battle between film and digital aficionadoes?

Nope. No way.

Because whether this is digital or not, or altered or not; whether I get into that gallery or not... these are all questions whose answers might be completely different or even irrelevant in another time and place. I want to ask instead, what are the timeless, eternal questions which arise as a result of this image? What does it say about the journey, about dawn or beginnings, about dusk and endings, about age and beauty, about hope, hard work, or rest; about color and form?

And perhaps most importantly, what does this image say about light? Because this boat, in full daylight, is just a white boat sitting in a gray bay. How is it that at times of transition the colors are so much richer? And why is that color, just the faint wisp of it, so inviting, so... tender?

I'm sure the physics of it could provide a useful answer, but for now I say with John Mayer in his song, Gravity --

Just keep me in the light,
keep me in the light,
keep me in the light.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Here the Light is Mingled with Shadows

This morning I read an excerpt from a Rumi poem, from Light Upon Light, which contained this line: "here the light is mingled with shadows." There is a music and a rhythm to that line that I find very satisfying, but there is, of course, truth as well.

The light in our lives, that light in which we revel, is often mixed with shadows. Most times, I think, the shadows create a pleasing contrast; sometimes they are even alluring. And it certainly seems that shadows can be our surest guarantee that somewhere there must be light.

But at other times the shadows, whether from our own darker sides or from those cast by catastrophic events, can be overwhelming. We get lost in them, and it becomes very difficult to find our way back to the light, or even to remember or believe that it exists.

My friend Karen sent me a wonderful piece about being in this space from a column by Ron Rolheiser (

"When we are in the middle of a storm we shouldn’t pretend that the sun is shining or, indeed, that there is anything we can do to stop the storm. The task is to wait it out, together, hand in hand, offering each the assurance that we aren’t alone.

"Waiting it out is precisely what is required. The Book of Lamentations tells us that there are times and seasons when all you can do is "put your mouth to the dust and wait." That’s bitter, stoic advice, but it imparts real hope rather than false optimism. What it tells us and draws us to is the fact that, right now, for this immediate time, this pain must be borne, however crushing. There is nothing to be done. Consolation will come eventually, but it must be waited for and, in the meantime, we need to keep "vigil". And that is why we call the service before funeral a "vigil". We gather not just to celebrate the deceased life, but to, together, "put our mouths to the dust and wait."

"And that waiting can be very painful, a time when we see everything through the dark prism of our loss and where for awhile we sincerely believe that we will never find joy again. This kind of waiting brings to the surface a frightening kind of loneliness that reveals to us how fragile and vulnerable it all is.

"But that is exactly what we need to accept and process. And so we shouldn’t be afraid to feel afraid, nor despair about feeling despair. Neither negates courage or faith. As Kierkegaard put it, "courage isn’t the absence of despair and fear but the capacity to move ahead in spite of them."

Yesterday I received an email from Charles Radican about my recent post on Qoheleth and his search for wisdom. It was a wonderful response, moving beyond the questions I was asking to some of the deeper questions that arise when we begin to explore the nature of suffering. And Charles shared a poem he had written, about what can happen when we move into that shadow space, "seeing everything through the dark prism of loss." He has kindly given me permission to share his poem with you, which I do here because it serves as an exhilarating reminder of that clear pure celestial light beyond the shadows:

Sometime When you Realize
(by Charles Radican)

Sometime, when you realize
in your deep despair
how used to the stagnant waters
of this normal madness
you have become,
you may descend
into a deeper cellar
and drink from the dangerous liquor
of your own most ancient vintage.

Head bursting from that pure proof,
you must find the heart
to throw the thick log
of whom you thought you were
onto the living flame
that you truly are.

And you will be in wonder
Amid all the escaping light, amid
the scattering embers,
stampeding like wild horses
into the edgeless dark of heaven,

where you may take your place
among the constellations of the gods,
and finally realize
you are on a journey
you have no power to stop.

Monday, November 5, 2007

What goes around...

About three and a half years ago my husband and I went back to New England to celebrate our 20th anniversary. While there, we shared a pancake breakfast with my old friends David and Susan, who live in a beautifully restored white clapboard home in Vermont overlooking one of the prettiest covered bridges in the state.

While in their home, I kept being drawn to this one corner, and finally I got out my camera and photographed it. Something about the light and the emptiness of it appealed to me, and I've kept the photo all these years since, not knowing exactly what to do with it but loving it too much to discard it.

Two days ago while waiting in the ferry line after a long day of driving home from the San Juan's, I got a phone call from my husband asking me to "call this number." I called the number and it turned out to be a cellphone belonging to Elizabeth, the now-29-year-old daughter of my friends David and Susan in Vermont. Elizabeth, who is now a jazz trombonist and vocalist, was in Seattle (she actually lives in NYC now) and was calling to invite me to a concert the next evening at the loft apartment of a friend of hers. And, coincidentally, it would be her 29th birthday party, so we would be served birthday cake after the concert.

Now that our girls are off and away, we can DO exciting things like going to Seattle on the spur of the moment to hear a friend's daughter play jazz, so we did. And just before we left, I thought, I should take her a birthday present.

Well, you can see where this is going, of course: remembering this photograph, I decided to print it off and matt it for her; wrapped it up in birthday paper, and handed it to her at the beginning of the evening. I titled it "Remembrance," and said nothing to explain; she set the wrapped present aside and continued to greet her other guests.

While Chris and I were setting up our chairs, a man reached out his hand to me and said, "Diane?" And to my surprise and joy, it was an old and dear friend who, like Elizabeth's father, had been a bass player in my ex-husband's jazz band, some 30 years ago. I was delighted to see him again after so many years, and even more delighted to be introduced to his lovely wife, Diane, who, as it turns out, would be playing piano for Elizabeth's concert.

Elizabeth sang and played beautifully, some old standards and some new compositions of her own, and one song written by a guitar player friend of hers, to which she had written the words. The words spoke of that moment in a relationship when two begin to consider becoming three, and I thought back to the time when her parents were contemplating that decision -- and she, of course, had been the result.

Elizabeth looks a lot like her mother did at the same age, all those years ago, and I could see her mother in her face and form, but I could also see her mother's gift for mothering: raised by Susan, Elizabeth had grown to be an open, confident and engaging woman with a clear sense of her own gifts and passion and calling, but not in a superior or managing sense, just an acceptance.

Her last song of the evening was Bye, Bye, Blackbird, and after she sang the chorus she played a solo on the trombone, and I could suddenly see her father soloing on trombone on the same tune, all those years ago. So it was a wonderful evening of circles, of re-connecting with the past and seeing the promise of the future.

On the ferry on the way home my cell phone rang again, and it was Elizabeth. She had just opened my present, and was astonished. "When did you take this? she cried, "this is SO COOL!" And I thought, yes, that the evening and I had been able to give a connection to her past just as she and the evening had given me a connection to mine. There is a strong sense of joy now welling up in both of us, expressed by her in her beautiful music, and by me in my photo, and in being able to share this story with you. However far we each have traveled, that connection to joy remains nourishing to us both. And for that, I am most grateful.