Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Communication as a form of shepherding

We've all heard the story of the shepherd who leaves his flock and goes searching for that one lost sheep. And it's easy to imagine when your mental image of a sheep looks something like this lamb. The innocence and trust on the lamb's face are hard to resist, and arouse an unconscious urge to protect and defend.

But not all sheep are this adorable: like cats and people (I think dogs remain puppies for life; it's what's so irritating and endearing about them) sheep change as they age. They get more stubborn, more suspicious, and often less adorable, although, presumably, the shepherd must appreciate them anyway, as they are his chosen flock and livelihood.

My husband called and woke me this morning with a suggestion that we start a community blog. The purpose of the blog would be primarily to share information about a proposed sewer sytem, because he sits on the sewer committee and frequently needs to disseminate information. Since I have been producing community calendars for the last 5 years he thought we could also use the site to post recent photos. It all sounds very reasonable.

The idea came to him because he ran into a couple of part-time residents on the ferry; they were heading for the airport to fly back to Florida, but had been on hand for a recent sewer information meeting at our house. This particular couple have been embroiled in a neighborly dispute for the last year or so, and I had been pleased to see them at the meeting because, in some ways and for a variety of reasons they are often our community's lost sheep (we have several lost sheep; trust me!) (and note that I don't say black sheep).

So then, when my Thomas reading for today was the lost sheep passage, it occurred to me that our society loses sheep all the time, and that communication often serves as a way to bring them back into the fold. I am thinking specifically of teenagers, and remembering a brochure about drug and alcohol use that the school sent home when our daughters entered middle school.

What I remember about the brochure is that it specifically said that studies had shown the single most important indicator for kids who were likely to go off the deep end in these areas was parental communication. If, it said, we could stay in touch with our kids, listen when they spoke, eat with them regularly, be clear about our expectations and equally clear about our support, our children would be significantly less likely to get in over their heads with illegal substances.

It's easy to love our kids when they are little, just like it's easy to love this little lamb. But it can get harder when they get older, more distinct from us, less innocent, sometimes a bit spotty-looking, and often very opinionated. It's particularly difficult when one of their opinions is that their parents are clueless bozos!

But we did take on the job of parenting (however little we may have understood what that entailed) and so we do our best to continue through the tricky phases. We hear on the grapevine that it does get better over time, and that at some points we'll all be civil to one another again, if not bosom buddies. Certainly that has proven true with our own kids, though I'm sure there will still be challenges to face.

I'm thinking that when we choose to live in a community, especially a small one, where the houses are pretty close together and many resources are shared, it can be the same kind of commitment, with the same kinds of challenges and the same sort of ebb and flow over time. The trick is, we're all grownups here, with lots of demands on our time, and we can't use the parental role to dictate appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

But we can use communications to explain where we come from, to air hopes, concerns and expectations, to share pleasure and hear grievances -- all hopefully from an equal plane, without judgment or condemnation. It would, I think, be sort of like shepherding one another -- or maybe a bit like herding cats! But certainly worth a try.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Conscious of the Godness within us

They said to Jesus : "Come, let us pray and fast." Jesus said : "What then is the sin that I have committed, or wherein have I been at fault ? But when the bridegroom leaves the bridal chamber, then let us fast and pray."

At first, like many of Jesus' sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, this was total Greek (or should I say Coptic?) to me. But then I stopped to think about the presumed state of mind in the bridal chamber. And wouldn't it be that you cannot think of anything outside the chamber, that all of your attention is focused on your mate?

At such times the travails of the world outside your room might register, but they are unlikely to distract you from the task at hand. Could that be what God asks of us? That we remain fully conscious of God's presence within us, always aware that we are fully united with our inner divine? If, to remember the issues explored in the two previous posts, people are throwing stones at us, would we not feel far less vulnerable if we were absolutely convinced that we were at one with Divinity?

Which Jesus is. Which is probably why he rejects the disciples' offer to fast and pray: these are techniques for bringing the soul and heart back into godly alignment when we get separated from God and from the path. Separation may bring sin and fault, but as long as we are at One, could there be little need for fasting and praying?

For me it's probably a moot point: I'm still working toward that sense of oneness. But I do like that image of the bridegroom in the bridal chamber, that sense of total absorption; of a constant awareness of the Godness within.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The challenges of leadership

Yesterday I wrote about feeling under attack, so I was amused to see that my Thomas Gospel for this morning said the following: Jesus said, "Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. [They] can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive."

What if the good judgment that comes from this experience of feeling attacked is simply to know that it happens, that whenever you take on a position of authority there will be landmines? Perhaps the lesson to be learned is not to avoid positions of authority, but rather to know that they come with challenges like these, and to know that it is important to shore up your internal resources in anticipation.

Yesterday, in a discussion about this, our democratic and republican presidential candidates came up, and I found myself thinking about what kind of person chooses to risk attack for the privilege of leadership. And what I would hope is that they would operate from the principles raised by Donna Zajonc in her January edition of Politics of Hope. In an article (which I may have mentioned before) entitled "Is Your Desire to Serve a Calling or a Craving?" she says very clearly that "A calling is a desire to give. A craving is a desire to get."

The problem is that those of us who lead because we are called to do so may be more easily derailed by attack (don't you find yourself thinking "I don't NEED this"?) than those who lead because they crave the power; they DO "need this." But I also suspect that folks in the latter category may develop some rather bizarre coping mechanisms so that their needs will continue to be met under fire, whereas folks in the former category who have strong internal resources may be better at staying centered.

For some reason I am reminded of something my father said to me when I was in my early 20s, newly aware of population growth, and determined not to have children. "Great," he said. "You're smart, you know the world is a scary place to bring up kids, you know the population statistics, and you decide not to have kids. But if all the smart people decide not to have kids we'll be populating the world with stupid people."

Yeah, I know, this one is wrong on so many levels. But it stuck with me anyway. And it seems to apply here. If all smart, committed leaders back off from the pressures, then we'll be left with stupid greedy leaders. Perhaps today's lesson is that our response to attack should not be to cave, but rather to use the resources available to us -- prayer, meditation, friendship, retreats, study, eating well, exercising, etc. -- to beef up our "homeland security", our internal resources, our ability to rely upon self and God rather than craving constantly positive feedback from outside ourselves. Something to think about...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Judge not...

There's an old saying: Where there's smoke, there's fire, which most folks interpret to mean "If it looks fishy and it smells fishy, it's probably fish." In some ways this is an important part of the human learning process: the ability to generalize from experience enables us to avoid repeat mistakes.

Two more sayings that my husband uses frequently in dealing with our children immediately come to mind: when they get into trouble, he always asks "So what did you learn from this?" And, to reassure them that whatever mistakes they make contribute to their overall growth, he reminds them that "Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment."

The problem with generalizations leading to judgment comes when we make assumptions from what we believe to be a moral high ground. Because human beings are very complex creatures, with very complex motivations, we cannot always be sure why someone is doing something we see as wrong, any more than we can always understand our own motivations for thinking something is wrong. But we all know what moral indignation, and the righteous anger that so often accompanies it, feels like.

There was a fascinating cover article in a recent New York Times Magazine on morality which described that moment of indignation perfectly, and then talked about the kinds of beliefs and convictions that, when broken, ignite that spark of anger. But I don't want to get into things like moral relativism or situational ethics. I just want to say that what may look like smoke is sometimes just steam, or fog.

I say this because I spent much of yesterday observing a series of extremely self-righteous emails being sent by someone who clearly thought he had gotten a very strong whiff of fish. When someone called him on it, suggesting quite graciously that he might not have all the facts of the situation, he responded, "Don't shoot the messenger." From my perspective it looked like a man who'd been firing a machine gun all morning was objecting to someone else's nerf balls.

My own response, as an objective observer, was mixed. I was embarrassed and a bit shocked by the venom of the machine gunner. But there was a part of me that was also frightened; a small child in me that wanted to curl into the fetal position in response to the volley of emails. Another part of me leaped into appeasement mode, wanting to explain what was really going on in the situation, so he would back down. But all of it was way more emotional than I was comfortable with, so it seemed important to explore that.

And I realized that I, too, was judging: I was judging HIM for throwing his thoughtless flameballs. And is that any better? Just because experience has taught me that almost any time I express righteous indignation it's going to come back to haunt me does not actually mean I am humble. It might only mean I am careful not to go out on a limb for fear it will break off. It probably means I do not feel safe expressing anger. And it definitely explains why I rarely lust after leadership positions these days: they make me feel WAY too vulnerable.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Echoes of love

A single act of compassion sends echoes of love radiating outward; each has the power to nourish and refresh all of creation.

Inner radiance

The pockmarked side of an aging building in Taipei, a Vermont friend's garden Buddha, and a chicadee from my own back porch combine to speak softly of the tenderness that can be borne in every breath, the peace that may be found in the most unlikely places; the light that radiates from the deepest heart of being.

Friday, January 18, 2008


For years I have been taking photos of statues and photos of textures, never quite understanding why each appealed, but I try to make it a habit to go where I am led.

Today a chance email from a friend led me to a website I hadn't seen before of artwork by a man named Glenn Mitsui. Seeing his work totally inspired me, and I began combining my texture photos with my statue photos to see where that might lead me.

I should add that I just this morning finished reading a wonderful book called Breakfast with Buddha, a fictional account by Roland Merullo of a publishing executive's surprising cross-country drive to the Dakotas in the company of a Buddhist monk. It left me (and the executive in the book) feeling very centered, aware of the love that bathes us all but at the same time saddened by the hate and the tragedies that lurk around every corner and plaster the front pages of our newspapers.

So over the next few posts I will offer the results of the last few hours of inspiration and let them speak for themselves.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One of those days...

We all have them -- those days when, even if it's sunny, it feels like there's a black cloud over your head; when you feel (and look) like you've been through a wringer.

Well, today was just one of those days; a time for getting in touch with the dark side of the soul, with the longings and the losses and the fears that lurk in all of us beneath the determined attempts to look on the bright side, make the best of things, develop "an attitude of gratitude."

I can't say I welcomed it, though I'm pretty sure that at some level I invited it: something about that brown thing I wrote about in the last post, that sense that I was walking around trying to make lemonade out of some lemons that were really jackfruit -- you know, the stinky stuff?

You see, I kept looking at the mask I'd made. And, lovely though I suppose you could say it is, today those wide strips of bark looked like they were hiding more than they revealed. I felt like what it was REALLY saying was not that brown can be beautiful (although, of course, it can) but that I felt trapped, wrapped in duct tape, unable to express either my voice or my vision.

So I decided to sit with that, and the tears began to flow. Hey, I'm a woman: sometimes that just needs to happen; a necessary release, a bending back of the bars so the inner crow can fly. And I'm lucky: I have a family that knows my tears rarely come with anger or blame attached. They tiptoe, offer hugs, and accept, knowing it's a storm, not a climate change -- something it can be hard for me to remember when I'm still in the midst of the cloudburst.

I picked up this doll at a roadside sale in Vermont. It was a beautiful sunny day, a location we had visited many times before, and she just called to me. Maybe she's that wounded soul that lives inside us all, or maybe she's just a doll, a dim reminder of the Connie I used to play with all those years ago. But in the tradition of tonglen, I breathe her in, make her pain, abuse, or betrayal my own, and breathe out the blue skies and sunshine for all the other souls who currently live in that dark cage I visited today.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A brown study

Yesterday I went to a mask-making workshop. I've loved masks for years, and have several of them in my house, but I had never made one before so I thought this might be fun.

We spent our morning in reflection, and were offered various poems and quotations to help us assess our current state of mind and rediscover who we are beneath the pressures of job, life and family. A tasty lunch of black bean soup and caesar salad and an all-too-short walk in the woods revived our bodies, and then the afternoon was ours to create as we wished.

There were tables of craft options set up in three different rooms, and the beads, paint and feathers looked very promising.

But another option was offered -- that of learning to make masks from found items outdoors -- and I chose that instead. And though I had realized over the course of the morning that I've been in a rather brown period lately, and am really missing color, I ended up making this almost completely brown mask.

Thinking about the mask this morning, I wonder if the browns in my life are not symbolic of the grounding that has been taking place in my life. Now, when I meditate, my feet are planted firmly on the floor. The pictures I've been taking have been stripped down to sepia, as I find the forms more intriguing than the color. Sitting in the morning portion of the workshop, I felt the balance of space and creativity in my life to be very comfortable for me.

And then, in church yesterday, our sermon was about New Year's Resolutions, and I realized that for the first time I hadn't made any. It wasn't that I didn't think about it. It was that the ones I would make would all be for paths I was already consciously traveling: losing weight, walking more, making time for study, contemplation, and creativity -- these have been resolutions for years, and now they are firmly part of my life.

But the sermon reminded me that all of those things are really steps to prepare me for a larger purpose. My browns are a sign of me watching my feet, stepping along in this path. And the longing for colors -- blues and teals, specifically -- is a reminder that it's time once again to look up and out; to see the sky, and its reflection in the water before me; to keep my eye on the larger goal.

And what might that be? The sermon suggested a possibility that resonates beautifully and fills me with hope: a quote from Micah, actually:

And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Yes, we are on a path. But we are not alone. We have a job to do and a way to travel, and it's good to stay in touch with what's under foot, to stay grounded and aware. But let's not get too caught up in how good we are at following the signs along the way, but rather use the tools we are given to serve the larger good.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lessons in the tide

It occurred to me this morning, as my husband's departure for work was delayed for the third day in a row by high tide over the road, that it would be wonderful if I could live my life with the same insouciance that I view the tides.

I remember the first REALLY REALLY high tide we experienced in our island home, which sits a mere 15 feet above sea level (tides here range from -3 feet to a little over 13 feet). The tides here are highest in deep winter, which is also when we get extreme barometric low pressures, which in turn make for higher tides than normal.

So on the morning in question, I woke at around 5:30, and when I looked out the window the tide had completely inundated our driveway. We had moved a lot of boxes full of books and magazines into the garage the previous day, and when I went out to the garage to check, the tide, already under all of our cars, had begun to seep under the garage door.

I woke my husband and daughter, who began moving the boxes into the house, and for some reason I went into the laundry room and lifted the opening that goes down into our crawlspace, hoping, I think, to be reassured that the tide would not be coming up and warping our floors.

I remember being horrified to discover that the stool we used to step down into the crawlspace was floating only inches from floor level, and I remember creeping into the living room and sitting down, trembling with fear that the house would be swept away. When the critical boxes had been moved, by which time the tide had already begun to recede, my husband came in and sat across from me.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

I explained my fear, and he in turn explained that the house was designed for the tide to rise and fall beneath it, adding two important features that I hadn't really understood before. The tide, he reminded me, is always coming or going; it never stays at its highest point for more than a few minutes before it begins to recede.

And the tide is not a flood, passing through, sweeping all before it: it is simply a rising and a falling. And indeed, later in the day when I discovered my keys were missing, I tracked them down into the crawlspace. They had fallen out of my chest pocket when I peered over the edge, but had simply dropped through the water to the sand below and were easily retrieved.

Our emotions, thoughts and feelings, and the events that can trigger them, are really very much like the tide: much as I want to hold onto the good ones, and shrink back from the bad ones, each, like the tide, only holds for a moment or two and then recedes. Where I get into trouble is when I try to hold on; how much better it would be if I could view their passing with the same equanimity with which I now view the tide.

Oh, I think, it's here again; time to accomodate or celebrate or photograph as the moment suggests, for surely, like a patch of sun or the shadow cast by the light of a passing car, everything will shift in a moment or two. I've learned as a photographer that the perfect moment of light will shift and the time to capture it is now. And I've learned as a shore-dweller that the tide will subside, and with it the fear of loss and change.

And now, if only I could integrate that knowledge across the spectrum of my life, how much more attuned I could be to the lessons of the moment!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

On softening our focus

This image is from the Vancouver Airport in Vancouver, BC -- definitely the most beautiful airport I've ever been in. Whoever designed it seems to have understood that travel can be stressful, and therefore created one of the most deliberately calming environments I've ever encountered. Water, fish, trees, statues, artwork, decor -- all with a sort of delicious undersea feel, lots of soothing blues and greens.

But I bring you this image because of what I learned in its post-processing. It was, like many of the photos I took on my recent trip, slightly out of focus. My new camera does low light extremely well, so I have a tendency to push it even farther than it can reasonably go. At midnight, in an airport which clearly relies heavily on natural lighting, things were fairly dark and soothing, with lots of blue in the spectrum.

Normally with a shot that's out of focus I try to sharpen it, either with Photoshop's sharpen filter or by darkening the tones in the middle of the light spectrum. Neither process works particularly well; I hear Nikon is coming out with some software that will allow you to improve focus in post processing and I'm looking forward to testing that.

But with this image I decided to reduce the noise levels, to essentially blur rather than focus. And I think the results are very satisfying. I'm wondering if choosing to blur rather than sharpen is a bit like choosing to step back from our problems rather than focusing in on them. Perhaps if we are not quite so caught up in the moment, in the struggle, but relax, take the slightly removed view, the larger picture will be more effectively revealed? The forest, not the trees; the shape of our lives and directions, rather than the distracting individual textures.

Which can also be very calming. I remember, as a child, riding in my parents' car in the night, in the rain, and being frightened. If I took off my glasses (I am very nearsighted) all the drops on the windshield became pleasant blurs of light, making patterns against the darkness. It was very soothing, and then I would find it easier to sleep as they drove.

The curse of intelligence is that relentless voice in the head, always analyzing and processing, checking for the edges between dark and light, comparing, contrasting. And certainly one meaning of the verb "to contemplate" is to consider, to focus in on something. But perhaps contemplation is also the relaxing of our mental vision, a way of looking at things without choosing to look at them, by staying focused on the emptiness, the negative space that surrounds that which absorbs and distracts us.

We are always so intrigued by coincidences, connections, things that touch unexpectedly. But perhaps the best way to see them is to step back, to soften, to let our attention drift into the space around the people and events that capture us. And the truth of the matter is that for me it is there, in that space, in that moment of suspension, that I most feel the presence of God.

Monday, January 7, 2008

An icon of sympathy

I've been thinking about the sadness of my last post. And I think it may be connected with what Pema Chodron says about the heart of sadness. She describes that as an aspect of bodhichitta, a result of practicing compassion: a tenderness for all mankind, an awareness that whatever hurt we may feel has been or is or will be felt by others as well.

I took this photo in Taipei because there was something so incongruous about this larger-than-life inflated figure. Taipei seemed to me to be littered with icons of cuteness, so to have one such icon with its welcoming upswept arms and yet a tear in its eye was very odd. I was doubly intrigued to open the photo when I got home and discover that the figure seems so connected to the obvious distress of the man on the left side.

And then, today, I read in the Gospel of Thomas, "How miserable is the body that depends on a body, and how miserable is the soul that depends on these two." Where does the pain and sadness come from? So often they are entangled with our bodies – our physical manifestation in this world. Either the pain is specifically in the body, i.e., physical, or it’s related to our interactions on the physical level with other bodies, or our longings on the physical level for other bodies, or our failed attempts to meet soul needs with body foods and actions.

I suspect that as long as we stay tangled up in the physical, thinking it's the only plane of existence, the pain will continue. But I think it's also true that that pain doesn't go all the way through to the soul. For me that seems to be one function of meditation: to remember that whatever sadness or hurt or confusion I feel at the moment is really just in that moment, and just in the body.

If I take the time to tap into the me that is more than that moment and that body, then I can find whatever reserves of joy or pleasure are stored within me. And then, restored to that awareness, I can take the time to practice tonglen. Like the figure in the photo, I can be larger than my own life: I can breathe in my own distress and pray in sympathy for all those who feel the same, and I can breathe out my awareness of pleasure, of the life that resonates beyond the petty concerns, and imagine holding that out as a gift to others who suffer.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The loneliness of Christmas

This blog has been silent for a bit because we've been out of the country, visiting our daughter in Taiwan. As I began sorting through the photos from our trip, I found this one and wanted to share it.

I shot this picture before I met the woman and her dog; we were all waiting in the Vancouver BC airport on Christmas Day for trips to visit family. Her story, I thought, was particularly poignant.

She was from South Carolina, with a VERY intense southern accent, and she had come to Vancouver to visit her 3 grandchildren (first time in a year) on December 22. But on Christmas morning she received a call from the care facility where her mother resides in Carolina, leaving word that her mom, who suffers from advanced Alzheimers, had fallen and broken her hip.

She had left immediately for the airport, and had been on the phone most of the day, either to the doctors caring for her mother or to the airlines, attempting to book a flight out. But the best she could do was a morning flight on the 26th, so she was stuck in the airport all day Christmas Day, worried about her mom and missing her daughter and grandchildren, comforted by her little dog, who was very well-behaved.

Christmas is so difficult, for so many people. Whether you're with your family and you wish you weren't, or you're missing family members, or your family doesn't live up to the Donna Reed/Father Knows Best illusions you grew up with, or you aren't with family, or you have no family -- whatever your particular challenge is, Christmas seems to force us into awareness of our failure to connect.

It's like that Bing Crosby classic: "I'll be home for Christmas." I keep picturing the soldiers in Iraq singing that one and dreaming of whatever families and traditions they left behind in the states. And I picture my daughter in Taiwan, in her chilly little unheated apartment, kneeling at the base of the tiny fake tree we sent her, breathing in the scent of Chinese cooking that permeates her neighborhood and remembering Christmas in the Northwest, where the air is so rich with the aroma of evergreens.

Maybe it's just the jetlag. I understand that Christmas is about rebirth, and new life, and hope, and light in the darkness; it's a time for hope and for promises, for re-uniting and re-membering.

But soon we'll all be taking down the trees, packing up ornaments and stockings, returning to our normal busy lives. And what lingers, I think; is not the hope, but rather sadness: a sadness for all the separations, all the losses, all the broken families in the world.