Sunday, December 23, 2007


Though I am a Northwesterner now, I spent my first 7 years in the South, and my mother's people were all Southerners. So when I saw this hotel verandah in St.Petersburg, Florida, it spoke to me immediately of Southern Hospitality. My Nanny K in Suffolk, Virginia, had a similar verandah (though smaller, of course) with the same green wicker chairs and glass topped tables; the same broad columns and slow-turning fans.

But there's more to Southern Hospitality than wicker chairs and mint juleps. I think it has to do with a slower pace of life, a willingness to "stop and set a while," something we Northerners do rarely, if at all. And in the Northwest (as we discovered when we moved here from Vermont almost 20 years ago), it not only happens rarely, but you also need two weeks notice!

So you can imagine how delighted we were, as former East Coast folk, to move into our new home and discover our neighbors were the sort that were not only inclined to "stop and set a while," but also to do so on a moment's notice. This morning we got a call to say our neighbors had put up some soup and would be delighted to share with us, so this evening we enjoyed, not only their soup, but also their wine, and their stories of their recent visit East.

We showed up armed with a good old-fashioned lemon meringue pie, like the kind my mama used to make, and a few stories of our own, and shared a lovely time with these dear friends. And over the course of the evening other neighbors stopped by, and good friends called, and everyone listened to one another's stories. Stories of plane rides included thoughts on which airlines were more hospitable. Stories of families included discussions of which kinds of families and family constellations were more hospitable. Stories of movies included opinions on which movies were more hospitable to men and which were more hospitable to women.

It was as if hospitality, like Plato's concepts of Truth and Beauty, has some absolute form that we all understand; a form that includes, not just openness and invitation, but also such essentials as humor, and paying attention, and sharing something that will feed, either our bodies or our souls. Hospitality involves a willingness to set aside our own concerns and listen to those of others. And with that comes an acceptance that though we may dress differently or think differently we each have value that extends beyond what we say or do. And, above all, there's a reciprocity, an exchange: I listen to you, and you listen to me; I feed you, and you feed me. It's not a score card; it just ... is.

As I began writing this, I was thinking that meditation is like making time to sit on the verandah, to "stop and set a spell" with God, something I tried to do every morning we were at the hotel in this picture. We make time for God by stepping apart from our everyday concerns, and God makes time for us as well, paying attention to our stories and showering us with acceptance.

But what I find is that when I'm in the steady habit of doing that, it frees me to notice all the other times when God offers to feed us, to fill our souls with signs and stories. And then I am reminded of Henri Nouwen's thoughts on Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing." In Clowning in Rome, Nouwen says "To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God..."

Perhaps that is the essence of hospitality: that somehow this conscious effort to make time to sit with others is unspoken acknowledgement that each of us is a sign and symbol of God; and that God, the love of God, the message and story of God, moves in and through each moment, and each person -- if only we stop and take the time to pay attention.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Feeding our Roots

It's a truism to say that a lot of people find Christmas to be a very difficult season. I think particularly of my friend who lost her daughter this year; of another 12-year-old who lost her mother to cancer a year ago; and of a friend of my own daughter whose father won't live til next Christmas.

It's a hard season for those of us who are survivors: we find it difficult to be conscious of anything beyond the losses. Like the grapevines at the vineyard nearby, life seems barren: where are the leaves, so colorful in the fall? Where is the fruit, so juicy and sweet? But winter is often barren -- a fact we can sometimes forget in the Northwest, where winter is so often our greenest time of year.

I recieved a note today reminding me "that these very trees that appear dead and lifeless are growing and nourishing their roots so as to be able to spring forth with life when the light returns. Something an old gardener once told me has become a spiritual metaphor for my work; 'don't forget to feed your roots in the winter'."

How do we do that? At first I just thought it meant we must continue to nurture those deepest parts of ourselves, to curl up around the spark of light within us and blow it back into flame. But on a simpler level it's just another reason why Christmas traditions are so important to us -- they, too, reconnect us with our roots.

Last night my daughter (just home from college) and I put up and decorated the Christmas tree, and it was an evening full of memories. We played the traditional Bing Crosby CD; put the crumpled foil star that she made in pre-school on top of the tree; argued over which lights to use and where to put them; broke out the tacky little angel dolls my now-deceased mother-in-law made to represent us for our first Christmas; set up the painted plaster-of-paris creche figures my husband made in Sunday School at the ripe age of 6; and hung the stockings, including the very ratty-looking felt one that was made for me by my FIRST mother-in-law for my first Christmas with my FIRST husband.

And through it all we had my oldest daughter listening in on the speaker phone from Taiwan, laughing and teasing and crying a little because she couldn't be with us this year. Where, she wondered, was the wonderful book we used to read aloud every Christmas Eve, about the birth of the Baby Jesus? I'm sure it's in a box somewhere; we've moved a few times since the last time the girls were willing to sit still for that.

But someday, I promised, when she has children of her own, I'll find it and send it off to her. Because that story, and that book with its lovely soft brushed pictures, are a part of HER roots. And as we all sit here, steeped in darkness, watching the lights on the tree, that story, even unread, works its magic still, filling us with the promise of spring to come.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ka-Ching, Ka-Ching!

Years ago, when we lived on a tiny little island with little or no mercantile distractions, we were adopted by an abandoned gosling. The rumor was that an Osprey had abducted him from his family and then dropped him by the side of the road; after several visits from his parents he was rejected, so we took him in.

I mention this because Kiwi (as the girls named him) taught me about imprinting. He learned very quickly that I was the one responsible for meeting his basic needs: for feeding him, for providing water, and for the warmth of a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. And he became imprinted on me. I was mama; he had a special cry that would only be satisfied if I came to him, and he followed me everywhere. He would even go for walks down to the beach with me, following me in a line as we walked while our springer spaniel, Sockeye, trailed along, barking at the eagles who circled looking for a fresh bite of gosling.

My reading this morning was the parable about the man who prepares a feast and invites his friends to dinner but they're all too busy to come: one has some business to transact; another has a new house to furnish; a third needs to pay his taxes... so instead the man opens his home to anyone he finds on the street.

So I read this, thought on it a bit, drew some obvious conclusions, and then went upstairs to check my email. I played a couple of rounds of my current favorite video game, which involves sliding pieces on a board to complete a row of three or more like pieces, in which case you get a satisfying "Ka-Ching!", the board changes color, and the pieces disappear. After the second round I remembered I hadn't yet done my meditation, so I went downstairs to sit in my favorite chair and closed my eyes.

Kaching! Kaching! Everytime I tried to move into that quiet space inside, it was like I'd moved a piece into place, and everything would click and slide away. My brain had imprinted on the video game, which has a timer built in to increase the pressure a bit, and I had a terrible time stepping out of that rush, rush, rush.

I think the businessman and the homeowner and the taxpayer in the parable were in the same difficulty. I think that the challenge we face, living in the world we do, is that the pressures of our lives get terribly addictive, and we get imprinted on whatever we do most. We work all day at the computer, and then come home and retire to compute some more instead of interacting with the family. We go on vacation and spend the first few days checking the cellphone constantly for business messages.

Or like the woman in CS Lewis's the Great Divorce, we get so caught up in our children's lives that we forget that we have lives of our own, or that time with our spouses could keep us sane and centered. Or we get so used to building our lives around a mate that we can no longer make space for other friendships. Or we get so caught up in building our wine collection, or being on church or PTA committees, or getting the house decorated for Christmas, or planning our next vacation, that we forget about all those who struggle just to feed their children.

Though it may affect each of us in different ways, the world is a most addictive presence. Add to that the holes, the hunger in each of our lives, and we are very easily imprinted. Think how simple it is to fill those holes with the worldly addictions. Aha, we think. A drink, a drug, another round of roulette. Another website, another email, another video game to play; another item checked off the Christmas to-do list; another pair of shoes, another bite of chocolate, another tchotke for the windowsill... Kaching, Kaching; it's a match, something slid into place and now that particular pressure goes away.

There's always another hole to fill; always another reason to put off the meditation, or the family time; always something else to capture our interest and lure us away from that still center. We are imprinted on the world, and it becomes a very hard cycle to break.

I think if I had been living then where I live now, I might never have noticed that gosling by the side of the road. I would have been too busy with my important errands; too intent on rushing to "the next thing." Had we not noticed that little abandoned goose, our family might never have experienced the joy we found caring for Kiwi, and I might never have known how it feels to hold a grown goose in my arms and have him kiss me goodbye.

The blessing of that life was its lack of worldly distraction, and perhaps it was the years of being imprinted on that environment that makes meditation, my contemplative photography, and this blog possible.

Whatever the reason, I now understand -- at least intellectually, though I do not always pay attention -- that there always exists that invitation to the greater feast; to that deeper joy that comes with silence, with listening, with attending to the compassionate voice that calls to us.

I'm not sure about this, and I certainly haven't mastered the problem. But I think that if we do our best to stay centered in the present, it becomes easier to understand that every present moment carries with it a choice. If we understand that we are making millions of tiny choices every day AND if we can begin to listen before we make those choices, then perhaps we can do a better job of staying in touch with that deeper joy; of staying aware of the consequences of our actions; of staying in tune with the needs of those around us. Perhaps then our hunger will be quenched by the great feast that lies always before us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

This I Believe

I was talking with a dear friend yesterday about the healing power of meditation. And then, with the synchronicity that seems to occur so often these days, my Thomas reading this morning closed with the following admonition: "seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a corpse and be eaten."

It's a bit dramatic, but I realized, thinking about it, that it vividly captures my feelings about meditation. The world, lovely though it may be, is a very demanding and stressful place: when I am sitting in meditation and I begin to be distracted by the concerns of my daily life, my first clue that I have left the meditative space is the way my body tenses, curls in upon itself, as if in defense -- even if I am doing something as simple as thinking about Christmas presents.

When I return to my inner core, I feel my head lift, my shoulders relax, my hips settle into place... So thinking about that, this morning, I realized that one reason meditation is so important for me is that, for some brief period in my day, I am relaxed and open, listening, absorbing; all of the body's defense systems are at rest.

So then I thought, of course meditation has healing properties. But why, and how does that work? This is what I believe: the world, our daily life, however beautiful it may be, is filled with stress and challenges, people and events, situations and responses that can be all-consuming. We can be eaten up with fear, or guilt, or jealousy; at the mercy of shoulds and to-do lists; taken over by our hunger for more, or better, or bigger.

But I also believe that at the core of each of us, however frenetic or disturbed our lives or personalities may be, there lies a still center, a wholeness, a rootedness, a connectedness that continues to exist despite all the layers above it. We can call it heart, or soul; God, or bodhichitta, or simply a place of rest. For me, it contains the stillness of the water in this picture; for my daughter I suspect it is the rich quiet of the forest; for you it may be something else altogether.

But it is always there, however buried it may be. And if we can return to that space, however briefly, it means an interrupt in all those other pressures that weigh us down and eat us up; the things that deaden us and suck the joy out of our lives.

So, yes, for me, meditation is healing. Every time I practice, I am acknowledging that that space exists within me. Every time I practice, I am clarifying that I am more than the pain, more than the stress and tension; that there is some richness in me that exists apart from all that.

Every time I practice, if that is God, then I am saying God, I want to hear your voice; I want to pay attention to you. Every time I practice, if I remember that this space within me is somehow the heart of life, and is mysteriously linked to a similar space in you, in my friends; in my family or my neighbor; in my co-worker or my boss or my enemy -- even in the tree outside my window, in my dog and my cats and the fish that swim in the sea -- every time I touch into that space I grow in respect and compassion for the world around me.

Every time I breathe, I can breathe in the distractions of my world, my pain, or my fear, or my stress. I can also choose to breathe that in with a conscious awareness that others are breathing in the same thing, whatever it might be. And then, if I can touch into that space of rest, I can breathe out the peace I find there, breathe it out into the world, to soften the tensions that bind and entangle, not just my own life, but also the lives around me.

So, yes. However difficult it may be to get past all the petty concerns that rise up as I sit (and, yes, some mornings I just give up and keep a pad of paper and a pen beside my chair to release some of those things), it's still important to take the time to sit. It's a statement, and a healing one: an affirmation that there is more to life than what I see or feel; more than the constant stream of messages my mind and nervous system send me. I choose to tap into that more, as best I can, and trust that with time I will become more attuned to the peace I find there.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ain't gonna study war no more

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I braved the cold and snow to venture out this morning to my favorite 8 am service.

The first lesson of the morning was the familiar passage about beating swords into plowshares and ceasing to learn about war, and on hearing those words I was instantly transported back in time to third grade. In those days, my father was in a singing group called "The Rumrunners" and he played a gut-bucket: a simple bass made out of a washtub, a long 2 x 4, and a single string of catgut.

I found myself looking up at the ceiling of the church and at the same time sitting in my old living room with my dad strumming the gutbucket with his friends in rehearsal, singing "ain't gonna study war no more, ain't gonna study war no more, ain't gonna stu-dy, war, no, more, no more..."

While we were in Ybor City over Thanksgiving week, we passed this statue, and that voice in my head kept insisting I photograph it, so I left our tour group briefly and walked across the street to take its picture, then scurried back across without ever reading the inscription below the statue.

Now, looking at it today, having come home from church with my father's song in my head, I see what I didn't see then: the strong resemblance between the statue and a photo in my family album of my father, his brother, and his parents coming over on the boat from Sweden. The hats and clothing are very similar, as are the ages of the children.

And now, looking at the inscription, I see that the statue was "Dedicated May 31, 1992, to those courageous men and women who came to this country in search of personal freedom, economic opportunity, and a future of hope."

I suppose I could say two out of three ain't bad. Certainly my father's family found personal freedom here. And, after growing up in the tenements of Hoboken, my father closed out his days as a retired IBM exec in a good-sized house in Austin Texas with a swimming pool.

But what about the future of hope? Have we sacrificed that in our efforts to protect our personal freedom, and, probably more critical to many of us, our economic opportunities? Because we clearly have NOT beaten our swords into plowshares; we have instead sacrificed those same plowshares to build more swords. And we still seem intent on studying, both military war and economic war.

Advent is the season of hope, of waiting, of listening. But I sat in an audience last night which was invited to shout out words having to do with the holidays, and the words shouted were "santa" and "presents" and "shopping" and "cookies"; there was nothing of faith, or angels, or Jesus, or hope, or waiting, or advent, or listening, or even carols.

Maybe this is just sour grapes -- I have to confess I haven't yet purchased a single Christmas present, and it is already December 2. And I am frankly dreading what could easily be dubbed "the shopping wars," getting out there and fighting for parking places, squabbling over finite merchandise, fighting to hold a place in line. Even getting a latte becomes a trial in shopping season.

When I look again at this picture, I see hope most clearly in the face of the little girl. But it doesn't look like the hope we see mirrored in our children's faces on Sunday morning. It looks more like the hope we and our wars and our economic lusts have been destroying for children all over the world -- a hope for a warm home, and good food, clothes that fit and a place to play safely without fear.

Is that asking so much? Even the baby Jesus found that in his stable, yet we persist in denying those rights to the children of our enemies. Where, I ask, in this advent season, where is their future of hope?