Monday, June 30, 2008

Light overpowers dark

These lovely iris were glowing in the sunlight as we waited in the ferry line to leave Shaw last week. I tend not to photograph subjects whose light and shadow areas are this pronounced: for some reason I am rarely comfortable with high contrast work -- plus this is a definite weak spot for digital cameras.

But I was so enchanted by the light of the iris against the dark fence that I couldn't resist. And of course, that's one of the advantages of digital cameras -- you can take those risky shots without using up precious film or paying for a useless print.

... and sometimes you get lucky, making it worth the risk. Even though there is so little light in this picture its strength overpowers the dark with an exuberance that is hard to resist.

I'd like to think that life works that way, too: that when the dark spots get darker and larger, the light spots take on extra power and illumination -- kind of like the wattage of Katie's smile, which seems to linger on still in spite of losing her.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Missing connections

These charming flowers live on a fence beside the Shaw Island General Store, and for some reason I find them incredibly appealing.

Part of their charm, of course, is their location. But the contrasts, both in light and in color, are delicious, and the quaint sign pretty much makes it. I tried photographing the image so that you could read the whole sign, but it threw the balance off, and I didn't like that version nearly as much.

Perhaps we NEED the sign to be incomplete; we need the thrill of being able to guess the rest of the context. Yesterday I read yet another intriguing Atul Gawande article in the New Yorker -- this one on itching -- and learned something I've been aware of at a subterranean level for some time now: that when we see something that is partially obscured -- say, by a fence, or a tree -- the brain automatically fills in the missing pieces.

"Tracking a dog as it runs behind a picket fence, all that your eyes receive is separated vertical images of the dog, with large slices missing. Yet somehow you perceive the mutt to be whole...The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor -- a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture."

It turns out our receptors -- in this case, the eyes -- are not getting adequate information, but our PERceptive brain has enough information stored in it to fill in the blanks. I know this to be true because of the number of times I have passed something truly beautiful, stopped, backed up, and tried to photograph what I saw. About 30% of the time it's not possible: what I saw as a whole, complete, and lovely image was actually occluded by trees, a fence, a car, telephone poles... and I am always surprised... and frustrated, of course, because the camera -- which ONLY has receptors, no perceptive memory -- will not be able to capture what I saw.

These days that feels like the name of the game -- my camera never seems to be able to get it right any more. My old cameras, a Nikon D70 (and the N70 before I went digital) always seemed to get the colors and the light balance exactly as I saw them. Since my D70 died I've tried 4 other cameras, including the D80 (supposedly a new improved model) and none of them even begin to emulate the clarity and precision of light and color the D70 used to give me.

For the most part this has been okay; I've just beefed up my Photoshop skills to the point where I can get an end result that is roughly equivalent to what I saw when I shot the image.

But it's been discouraging. Because the camera, for me, has always been an instrument of mindfulness; a way to be totally in the moment. I could be fully attentive to what I was seeing, and the camera was almost like my brain; I could trust it to fill in the gaps between what I saw and what was actually there.

Now it's as if the synapses are failing, the connections are gone. It's almost like telling a joke where you have to explain the punchline: the thrill, the impact of the moment, is just lost. Atul Gawande talks about the phenomenon of the phantom limb, and I can almost see my dead camera -- and the photographic impulse it so consistently rewarded -- as a phantom limb, still itching, but with no way to give it a really good scratch. And I'm torn, because there are so many ways to interpret this ongoing failure.

Am I still supposed to be a photographer, or must I just accept that that part of my life has begun to subside? Is it really my fault, not the camera's? Is it okay to use Photoshop to compensate for what my camera and I can no longer seem to accomplish without it? And are those resulting images --heavily doctored as they are -- really fair to sell or display?

Should I buy a new camera? I've tried several Nikons now, always with mixed to poor results; will I have to give up all my wonderful Nikon lenses and try some other brand?

It's been over a year and a half now since my D70 died, and I am still grieving on Lao Tzu's river bank, waiting impatiently "till the mud settles and the water is clear... till the right action arises by itself." Until then I guess I'll just keep doing what back specialists call "working through the pain" -- continuing a careful manipulation of PERceptions, since my current REceptive device isn't functioning properly.

Life: such an interesting adventure!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Just Too Much

This morning at 8 am, thousands of people surged through the gates of our island's annual Rotary Auction, clutching their wallets in one hand and latte's in the other, prepared to fight the crowds and engage in occasional hand-to-hand combat in order to acquire the juiciest plums of so many other people's hand-me-downs that they fill an entire school, a gym, a cafeteria, a basketball court and two parking lots.

The auction is always an amazing sight; I shot this gorgeous clothesline-full of personal flotation devices at last year's extravaganza; that was the year we bought the little boat we never use. To our credit, though, we did get 4 terrific mismatched chairs which look great grouped around our elderly neighbor's kitchen table -- and they're WAY sturdier than the table is.

That was also the year our daughter fell in love with the hideous chartreuse velvet recliner with the broken leg-rest; it lived on our deck all summer long and was a great party prop.

But somehow this year wasn't as fun. Perhaps it was because, having been sick off and on all week, I just couldn't bring myself to participate in the 8 am madness, and didn't actually drag myself over there until after 11. Maybe all the good stuff was gone by then?

Perhaps it was because, in the absence of that same daughter, who is off at camp for the summer, I was under strict instructions to "find something cool," even though my record of successfully accomplishing cool by her exacting standards is somewhat less than 50/50.

Since she loves sweaters I was gamely sorting through the sweater piles once the dollar-a-bag rule kicked in. But they were heavy, and they were piled 8 or 9 sweaters high, and probably at least three deep to the back of the table; I never did make it all the way to the bottom of the section I was in. And all I could think of was the ridiculous excess of it all -- so many sweaters we can't even look at them all -- when children the world over are hungry and cold.

But I think the hardest moment was at the auction preview the night before, which I faithfully attended, having driven most of the day to get back from the San Juans in time for the show.

I was walking back from the front parking lot (loaded with rows upon rows of exercise equipment, furniture, garden paraphernalia and the infamous Treasure Tent) to the back parking lot (cars, beds, boats, toilets, water heaters, doors, windows, tools and equipment) and passing through the marshy no-man's land along the side of the school building.

And there, along the path, there were at least ten boxes-- probably more --, each roughly 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep, and each filled with old useless computer hardware. Mice, keyboards, printers, CPU towers, monitors, hard drives, scanners -- boxes and boxes and boxes filled with all that stuff we keep setting aside for something newer or faster or more fully featured, or just because the old stuff broke.

I'm sorry I didn't have a camera with me at the time; words don't really convey the impact of those huge boxes piled with useless grey metal. But here's what that part of the auction looked like last year, and, believe me, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

I can't help but wonder at the conspicuous excess of that -- all the work and materials that went into creating what so quickly becomes useless. Where does it go? Can someone else use it? Are we dumping it into oceans, or paying third-world citizens ridiculously small wages to dismantle it for us?

The auction is a wonderful institution, allowing all of us to feel good about recycling the things we don't want any more while raising thousands of dollars for our schools and local charities.

But it's also a painful reminder of our wretched acquisitiveness. When will we reach the tipping point, when all that stuff takes up so much of the planet there's no room left for us? And what will happen then?

Friday, June 27, 2008

An antidote to worry

You know, when it comes to making changes in our lives, most of us are a bunch of chickens.

The chickens you see here live in one of the prettiest henhouses in the world, built by my good friends Brud and Carole after their old henhouse burned down a few years back. You think this is pretty? This is only the chickens' side yard!

I remember Brud was really discouraged when that old one burned down: he'd spent a lot of years perfecting its quirkiness, and he wasn't all that sure he wanted to invest that much all over again. But he did, and he completely outdid himself this time: it's magnificent.

I ran into Brud and Carole in the ferry line this week; I was heading up to their little island for an all-too-brief visit before my busy rehearsal schedule kicks in. I sauntered over to their car, and Carole rolled down her window, put her hand on my arm and gave me one of her incredibly dreamy smiles.

"How long are you up for?" she asked.

"Only a couple of days," I replied, "but we'd like to come to that girl party you're throwing on Thursday if you'll have us."

"Of COURSE!" she said, "We'll be thrilled to have you there!" ... and then she added, somewhat shyly, "you'll have to forgive me if I seem a little groggy; I just had this procedure done."

She was so light about it I decided it wasn't too important and didn't ask, just thanked her for the warm welcome and left to give her a chance to rest. Later I looked up at my rearview mirror from the book I was reading and sure enough, she was out cold in the passenger seat of their little van.

On the afternoon of the party we pulled in and parked next to her fence, pushed open the gate and wandered through their spectacular garden to the back deck, where Carole stood with a phone to her ear, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She welcomed us both with hugs and apologized for being a little distracted. "I just got some really good news," she said, wiping her eyes. "I'll be fine in a minute."

We busied ourselves putting out the food, drinks, and napkins we'd brought, and when we looked up she was on the phone again in the kitchen. We chatted with some old friends, and then she came out to tell us what was going on.

"For the last three weeks they thought I might have metastasized liver cancer," she said. "But that test they did on Tuesday? I wasn't supposed to get the results til tomorrow, but I decided to have the party anyway. And the doctor just called -- a day early -- to tell me it's not cancer at all; I don't even need any treatment for what it is."

We were all glad to be there to celebrate with her, and all shocked that she'd carried the scariness of it so quietly for so long.

And when, after driving all day and showing up at a friend's Post-Rotary- Auction-Preview party this evening, I was asked how my time in the islands went, I had to say that the best thing that happened was Carole's good news.

Later I was chatting with my friend Suzanne, describing conversations with both my daughters in which they were worried about life changes facing them, and Suzanne put her hand up.

"Stop!" she said. "I have discovered the perfect phrase for these situations! Listen carefully," she added. "This is really good. The phrase is this: 'It might not be that hard.'"

Wow. I thought of all the times I've sat on my duff, or avoided change, because I was worrying, afraid I might not have what it takes to pull it off. And then I thought of Brud, rebuilding his hen house, and Carole, throwing her party, playing through her anxiety. I thought of just putting one foot in front of the other, stepping out in faith, doing what you need to do to get where you might later decide you really didn't want to go after all.

And I thought, what the heck? You never know. It might not be that hard.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A visit to Brigadoon

Back in 1998 I spent a week in Port Townsend at a photography workshop. It was an amazing time: I made some wonderful friends, learned (and incredibly enough internalized) much of what I now know about photography, and explored this charming town in depth, discovering facets I continue to explore years later.

One of the places we photographed during that week was a lovely park that was sort of a cross between a park and a public garden, and ever since then I have tried to find it again with no luck. But when I was in Port Townsend last weekend, killing time waiting for the sky to clear so I could photograph those banks, this park reappeared, like Brigadoon, out of the morning mists.

It's called Chetzemoka Park, and it was right where I remembered it being, though I could swear I've driven by it many times without being able to find it. And it was just as lovely as I remembered it -- moreso, in fact, because the last time I saw it was in August, and this time, it being June, the rhododendrons were in bloom.

This has been an odd year that way. Lots of things that seemed to have gone missing in my life have begun to reappear: old friends, lost places, old affections buried by time and anger. The fearful part of me worries that this is "the beginning of the end," a process of reconciliation that must happen because I am about to die of some hideous disease. So I have to spend time with that fearful one, and listen to her, and take her with me into the fear, so she can remember it won't be so bad, whatever happens.

But the rest of me rejoices in all these little resurrections, and gives full credit to the increased habits of mindfulness. Perhaps, at last, I am becoming more aware of my surroundings; perhaps, at last, I will be able to see, not only these missing pieces, but that larger truth that waits always before me, eager for the final wholeness that comes with recognition that when we can step outside the demands of time all blends together in a rich and color-saturated oneness, like my friend Gillian's wonderful new paintings.

Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm not sure exactly how we got into this habit, but my younger daughter and I have begun using this phrase -- Oh-well -- when a situation is irritating but not necessarily fixable in any obvious way.

I suppose it's the equivalent of any number of French phrases (please pardon my spelling): Comme ci, Comme ca; que sera, sera; c'est la vie... It means we're giving up, for now: that's life, this is how it is. "Oh-well!" -- accompanied always with a rather philosophical Gallic shrug -- Basically, what can I do about it?

So it was amusing to find myself parked behind this license plate in the ferry line not too long ago. And it seemed not unreasonable to consider the phrase and what lies behind it. Is this acceptance? Or is it resignation? Is it a reasonable response, or a lazy one?

What if we look at it in the context of the serenity prayer? You know: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference? In some situations, "Oh-well" could be considered a serene, centered response to the unchangeable in life.

But what about those other situations, the changeable ones? Couldn't "Oh-well" be roughly equivalent to that annoying "whatever" this same daughter used to spout whenever she was corrected or challenged in her younger years; a kind of yeah-and-whaddaya-expect-ME-to-do-about-it" response that implies complete disconnection.

You know: messy room? Oh-well. Global warming? Oh-well. It's the heart song of the me generation -- your problem is not my problem -- and the exact opposite of what Dan Siegel calls "Transpirational Integration," where becoming centered in our own lives makes us more attuned to the challenges facing other lives, communities, and the planet, and we begin to respond on behalf of others.

My guess is that the "wisdom to know the difference" in this case is pretty situational: oh-well could mean any number of things, depending on what's going on and who's talking. If I call QWEST today to express concern about our flaky modem, and the customer service personnel says, "Oh-well," I will probably be pretty annoyed: having paid my money, I have a right to expect better service than that.

But if my daughter calls today to say she has decided NOT to go back to Bennington in the fall, my husband and I will look at each other, shrug, and say "Oh-well!" We have an old Mark Twain hotel quote we refer to in situations like these: "the walls were so thin you could hear the women next door changing their minds." We just smile and say the walls are getting pretty thin, and don't attach to her statement, as she's changed her mind several times already on this issue.

She knows the deadline for the final decision, and she knows what her options are: if she takes a term off from school, she needs to be either working, studying, or volunteering somewhere else. It's not our job to control her, but to trust that by the time she needs to decide she will have done so -- it's her decision (within the parameters we set), not ours. So our job is to wait, like Lao-Tzu, on the bank of the river, for whatever right action may be.

And if her decision isn't exactly what we would have hoped?


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hot tomato

We always hear about that light at the end of the tunnel. But we don't talk much about the light that's actually IN the tunnel -- maybe because it's artificial, not real or true?

But the fact is that these days tunnels are no longer dark and scary. We no longer have to feel our way along by touching the walls, nor must we bring our own light to illumine the darkness. So there isn't quite the same sense of relief when we come back out into the light.

Last night I attended a gathering of our monthly conversation group, and our topic for the evening was this: What items or attitudes do you miss most from the past; what new inventions or attitudes do you love most about the present; and what inventions or attitudes would you most like to see in the future?

What interested me about the conversation is that so many of the things that were good also had a downside. Cars, for example, are more reliable, faster, more comfortable, and tend to get better gas mileage. And unlike Henry Ford's early models, today's beauties come in bright colors like this gorgeous tomato red. On the other hand, you can't fix them yourself anymore: there are too many electronics; too many specialized tools required.

Computers have dropped in price and offer immediate access to information, shopping and people that would have been hard to duplicate in our childhood. Blogging, email photographs of grandchildren, Skype, the ease of bill-paying or finding used books or special interest groups were all cited.

But we mourned the loss of personal contact; that sense of community that arises when you have reason to keep venturing into town for goods and services. And there were concerns about the accuracy of information you find on the net, and about the vulnerability of children who get deep into things like Myspace.

What made me think of the tunnel was a discussion we had about fruit. One friend said he loved knowing he could go to the grocery store any time, day or night, and always be able to find all the ingredients he needed for a recipe.

But another mourned the loss of seasonal fruit. "Back in New Jersey we would eat a ripe beefsteak tomato as if it were an apple: it was just as juicy and sweet! And I always looked forward to the first fruit of a season; a fresh ripe strawberry tastes so good after a winter without them!"

There's a wonderful song about Homegrown Tomatoes recorded by Misty River, a group of women singers from Oregon:

Plant 'em in the spring, eat 'em in the summer.
All winter without 'em is a culinary bummer.
I forget all about sweatin' and diggin'
every time I go out and pick me a big one.
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes,
what would life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy
and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.

There's so much fruit in the store these days, all year round, that we barely notice when the seasons pass or start up -- Just as there's so much light in the tunnel that we barely notice when we emerge back into the sunlight. But the light in the tunnel is artificial, and doesn't offer any of the benefits of natural sunlight, just as the non-seasonal fruit that comes in from points abroad -- picked before ripe, packed, and shipped for days before it actually arrives on our table -- has nothing like the nutrient value of seasonal local produce.

But it is convenient. And the availability of fresh fruit in all seasons means people whose diets might once have been sorely limited in winter time no longer need to go without fresh fruits and veggies.

One of the things we learned in our workshop yesterday is that goodness and health generally flow in the direction of integration and openness, and that the direction away from goodness and health usually leads into either rigidity or chaos.

As I think over last night's discussion, and the pros and cons of all the inventions and attitudes that were discussed, it seems to bear out that truth. I suspect that any time we espouse one way of looking at things at the expense of the alternate view we may be risking rigidity: better, I think, to be open to possibility, and aware of potential drawbacks of any choice we make.

Because we do have to make choices: we cannot sit forever on the fence, unable to decide whether to eat a hothouse tomato or grow our own. If we don't actually go to the store or plant the seed we could die of starvation.

Perhaps what matters in the end is not the choices we make but the way we make them. It doesn't matter so much whether the light is real or artificial; what's important is to keep moving, and to continue to do our best, trusting that, though we may be stuck in tunnels from time to time, there will be light for the journey as well as the full sun that emerges at its conclusion.

When I die, don't bury me
in a box in a cemetery.
Out in the garden would be much better
'cause I could be pushing up homegrown tomatoes.
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes,
what would life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy
and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The healing power of mindfulness

Ah, the thrill of escaping a controlling parent! But what if the controlling parent lives inside your own head?

I just spent the last two days in a workshop with interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel Siegel and Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield. The two men were discussing the value of mindfulness meditation from their two perspectives: the workings of the brain, and the psychological effects and possibilities.

While Kornfield listed the main principles of Buddhist psychology, Siegel drew parallels between those principles and the workings of the human brain. The results were mind-boggling.

I haven't even begun to process everything I learned yet -- in fact, I left the workshop a little over an hour early because I was beginning to suffer a serious information overload (not to mention being worried about catching a ferry in time for dinner, given there was to be both a solstice parade and a walk for suicide prevention happening in the general area).

But it does seem clear, even in my exhausted state, that much of what we believe to be fixed in stone about ourselves can in fact be altered. Brain cells can be redirected, added, or replaced; new patterns of behavior, thought and emotion can be developed. It is possible for us to escape the rigid limitations we are inclined to impose opon ourselves and, by being open and present to the moment, to ourselves, and to those around us we can actually move the entire universe closer to healthy integration.

I left the room -- as did the other 1,000 people who attended, I'm sure -- with an incredible sense of hope for our future, both as individuals and as a planet. Perhaps now that science has confirmed what wise men have been trying to tell us for centuries we may begin to understand as an entire culture what was once only clear to a select few: that presence, mindfulness, and attention in the moment have the possibility to heal, not just individuals, but also our relationships, our communities, and our world.

Good stuff!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The man in black

This image was shot out a hotel room window in Charleston, South Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend about 4 years ago.

I've never quite understood why I kept it, but it haunts me. And it woke me up this morning, so I decided to feature it here and see if moving it into a different context gives me any clarity around it.

I know that part of what draws me is the man in black with the cigarette, though I don't know him or anyone like him. I suspect he reminds me of my childhood, and televised appearances of Frank Sinatra, his trenchcoat thrown carelessly over his shoulder, cigarette in hand, singing his heart out.

Frank Sinatra went to the same school in Hoboken as my dad, though he was a little younger, and my father always talked about him with a proprietorial air. He'd sit there with his head cocked slightly, listening to Frank sing "Night and Day" and he'd always say, "Frank never could get that interval right; this is definitely not one of his best songs."

So maybe this photograph is about nostalgia; a longing for the good old days when Father Knew Best and people like Frank Sinatra made mystique seem more accessible. There's always been a part of me that longed to be mysterious, obscure, tantalizing. But as the marriage test we found in a file the other day says, it is my nature to be natural and forthright -- mysterious has never been an option for me.

Of course, that same test said my chances of a successful marriage were about 2.3 out of 10: apparently that natural and forthright nature precludes an understanding or acceptance of other people's less obvious motives and agendas, which can lead to serious relationship problems. Given that I am still married now, 24 years after having taken that test, their premise may have been wrong. But my guess is my husband should get a lot of the credit for making the marriage work: his chances, after all, were 6.4!

It seems odd to me that being natural and forthright would hurt your chances for a successful relationship. But perhaps truth, that inner reality I sought so punnily in yesterday's post, is not always a bonding element. On the other hand, maybe I mourn truth decay precisely because I am natural and forthright: it has nothing to do with what is right, and much more to do with thinking everyone should be like me -- that would be a typical human response.

I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, studying the answers, and learning that one of the biggest challenges in the workplace is learning to work with people who are not like you: coping with introverts when you're an extrovert, making decisions when you're surrounded with a whole staff of relentless data-gatherers, articulating feelings and their value in a strongly intellectual environment dominated by thinking types.

Maybe the appeal of this picture lies in its loneliness: that man with the cigarette is clearly set apart from the barflies lined up at the door. And no matter what our Myers Briggs "sign" is, there will always be times for each of us when we feel very much alone. This image says that's okay: it's okay to be different -- it might even be COOL to be different. You don't have to hang with the flock; it's okay to separate yourself from the crowd.

...which is a message we contemplative types need to be reminded of from time to time, because spirituality is an individual and often lonely process of discovery. The great theologian and author CS Lewis once said that the spiritual path was rather like a tree: as we continue to grow closer to God, we get farther and farther from the other leaves and branches until at the end we're pretty much out on a limb.

And face it: we're spending most of our lives in the tree. We're not in that nice safe trunk with everybody else all that long, and no matter who we are or how advanced we never quite make it all the way to the all-encompassing serenity, compassion and acceptance that is God.

So we stand suspended between the two images at the top of this page, striving toward the Buddha-nature on the left while at the same time caught in the worldliness that is Hank's Raw Bar.

For some reason this makes me think of my favorite commercial on TV right now. Oddly enough, it's an ad for the Washington lottery, but it features several flightless birds, each strapped to a human who has taken off in a glider. It starts with a penguin eagerly climbing a hill and trying to flap its "wings" as it glides through the air, and the last scene shows a huge emu suspended between two men in gliders, experiencing flight for the first time.

The tag line of the commercial (which you can watch here if you don't happen to live in Washington State: is this:

Every bird should get to fly. Washington's Lottery: Whose world could you change?

Yes, that feeling of being suspended between two worlds can be frustrating and terrifying at times. But I have this sense that there are angels carrying us as we, flightless creatures that we are, soar through our time here. Or maybe that's not angels, it's just love. And every bird WILL get to fly.

Help fight truth decay

In my reading this morning I stumbled across the phrase "truth decay," and my husband and I began discussing what it might mean in different contexts.

I thought first of Rumors, that old party game where everyone stands in a circle, one person whispers something to the person next to them, and in passing the phrase around the circle it evolves into something completely different.

He saw truth decay as a function of time, in the context of technology, while I visualized it as a function of hierarchical distance in organizations. But the original context of the phrase, in Essential Spirituality, was describing what happens when religions move from compassionate ethics and transformational practices into conventional moralism and mindless ritual.

In the Tao Te Ching the process is explained this way:

When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith...
Therefore the masters concern themselves
with the depths and not the surface.

Cynthia Bourgeault illustrates this principle with an Isak Dinesen story. Walking in the bush, Dinesen spotted a beautiful snake, its skin glistening with color. She raved about it so much to her servants that one of them killed the snake, skinned it, and made the skin into a belt for her. But of course the once glistening skin was now just dull and gray, "for all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin but in the quality of its aliveness." How could they not have noticed that?

I think we as a whole society are suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. We don't notice the truth of things but only the surfaces. We don't pay attention. Instead of being conscious of our immediate surroundings; instead of focusing on the task at hand, we allow ourselves to be seduced by an endless parade of distractions. Remember those "labor-saving devices" of the Fifties, that whole concept that began with the industrial revolution, and was supposed to free us up both to be more productive and to have more "leisure time?"

Well, now we all have them: microwaves to cook our fast food, cars and planes to speed us to our destinations; computers and telephones to speed our computations and communications. And what do we do with all that leisure time? We watch reality TV, soap operas and talk shows, or play video games; we're hooked on the appearance of reality, not reality itself. What news we get is tainted by the media's desperate competition to provide more stories, more lurid, more quickly; what exercise we get happens in a mindless cocoon, accompanied by the TV we watch in the gym or the Ipod we listen to as we walk or run.

In our rush to acquire the latest news, the latest technology, the coolest new thing, we have become obsessed with the glitter of appearances and lost sight of the reality that lies beneath. And it's a relentless cycle: the more obsessed we become with the sparkling illusions, the deader they seem when they are in our hands; like the toy endlessly promoted in the commercials that loses its luster almost immediately when unwrapped from under the Christmas tree. It just leaves us dissatisfied, wanting more.

We have gone from mindfulness to mindlessness, and the result, sadly, is a serious case of truth decay. Just as tooth decay happens when we get hooked on sweets and don't pay attention to that which allows us to savor them, truth decay happens when we get hooked on appearances and don't pay attention to what actually feeds us, the innermost aliveness and quality of life.

And then, as I said yesterday in that quote from Cynthia Bourgeault, we keep trying to fill the hunger in our hearts with our own needs, not with the divine need, and creation itself is paying the price: global warming, crime, drug addiction, environmental pollution, war -- all can be traced to our relentless quest for more and our reluctance to focus on the truth that is here and now.

What can we do to stop the inexorable course of truth decay? It would be impractical for most of us to completely abandon our present lifestyles: to grow our own food and cook it over a fire; to travel everywhere on foot or by self-powered vehicles; to communicate only in person. But we could, I think, make a significant difference if we paid attention to what we are doing, saying, eating and hearing when we are doing, saying, eating or hearing it; if we paid attention to what comes into our lives, our heads, our hearts and our mouths, and to what flows out of our lives, heads, hearts and mouths.

Okay: I'm just gonna go there. The punster in me just has to say it:

You know the drill!

The most effective way to fight truth decay is by BRUSHING UP on your spiritual practices. And if, like me, you grew up watching TV commercials, this final observation should sound pretty familiar:

Meditation has been shown to be an effective decay-preventive practice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of spiritual hygiene and regular professional care.

As my dear mother-in-law used to say, many a truth is said in jest...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The patience to wait

Over the last couple of days I've had several conversations about shortsightedness and self-absorption, and their negative impact on communities. It seems to me that this natural human tendency to get caught up in our own needs and desires rather than attending to the larger good is the opposite of mindfulness and compassion, and lies at the root of many of the challenges facing our society today.

This morning I was reading Cynthia Bourgeault's wonderful little book, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, and came across this quote:

"As we wander in perpetual spiritual adolescence, attempting to fill the hunger in our hearts with our needs rather than the divine need, creation itself pays the price."

These thoughts are on my mind right now because our little community is still reeling from a recent incident in which two or three teenagers -- probably under the influence of drugs and alcohol -- took what is affectionately known as "Paint Night" (in which members of our high school's current graduating class point out the driveways of their classmates with painted slogans on the adjacent roads) a bit too far.

These teens painted several police cars -- both at the local police station and at the police chief's home -- and slashed their tires as well, and now everyone is up in arms. The police, already defensive because many of them can't afford to live in the community they are charged to protect, are whining about spoiled teens and negligent parents. Horrified school officials are back-pedaling, parents are denying, historians are spouting precedent, kids are whispering (only one of the perpetrators has been arrested to date) and lots of people are using the incident as an excuse to promote whatever agenda they have already espoused.

Compared to what transpires in other, more urban communities, this is a relatively minor incident. But the implied violence of those slashed tires, and the fact that a portion of it was particularly targeted at the chief, has disturbed us all, and feels to many like a symptom of the larger woes currently facing the community: disorganized and/or incompetent leadership, an overspent budget, and numerous formerly-wealthy families in financially precarious straits.

Still small potatoes, compared to the larger challenges being faced elsewhere in the world. But at the heart of everything, both on the island and beyond, I hear the adolescent whine: "I'm not getting what I need/deserve."

So why this photograph? I guess I am struck initially by the apparent contrast between the silent isolationism of the cabin and the furious warmongering on the opposite shore. The cabin, built on stilts, is separate from land as well as water, and virtually inaccessible. Yes, there is a ladder, but it's not clear it goes all the way up. And there doesn't appear to be any door, only a window. It seems completely isolated.

And there, in the background, though it's not clear in this photo, they're building warships, readying to attack or defend. It's as if to say, when we get caught up in ourselves, life becomes all about protecting and defending the status quo, about keeping "us" in and the other out, and huge disconnects begin to emerge.

And yet, there is a peacefulness on this side of the water. The weeds are colorful, the water is still and blue... But then, I am not the one who built this cabin. I am the watcher, standing on this bank, not resolutely alone in the cabin, not out building warships. And this morning someone sent me the rest of a Lao Tzu poem I quoted in an earlier post. The full quote goes like this:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?"

Perhaps if we stay on this side of the water a little longer, feel the peace, examine the choices, and do not rush to defend or protect, deny or accuse, then the right action, the compassionate response which takes into account the needs of the whole community and of all creation, will emerge.

Do you have the patience to wait? To be still, to listen, to be aware? I don't always. But I'm willing to try.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rohrshach Blots for the Soul

Yesterday I was off photographing banks again, but this time, though I rose early, the weather refused to cooperate. The sun was out, but so was the fog, so I found myself over an hour away from home waiting for the fog to lift.

It wasn't one of those photogenic fogs, either; just a low hovering of gray and gloom, obscuring the light and dulling colors everywhere -- a perfect day to photograph flowers, actually, so I did a little of that (as you can see).

But the highlight of my morning was the time I spent at Fort Worden photographing the bunkers. I always love these cement monstrosities, though I'm not sure quite why I find them so appealing. But this time I focused solely on the ceilings, which have these really intriguing patterns of cracks and leakage. Something about the blueness of the foggy light threw the patterns into bolder relief than usual, and I came home with a crick in my neck from all those upward shots.

Looking at them now, though it's a bit like lying on your back and seeing pictures in the clouds, I think the images have a very strong mythical/religious quality to them; sort of Rohrshach blots for the soul...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This is the Day

A month or two ago I was given an assignment to photograph some 25 or so branches of a local bank. I knew, for a variety of reasons, that there would be no time to undertake the assignment during the month of May, but June, as far as I could see, would be totally clear.

There was one caveat: they wanted the banks to be photographed on sunny days. Well, if you live anywhere near Seattle, you know we haven't had a single day of sunshine since the last weekend in May. Oh, and there was another catch: some of the buildings would be covered with banners starting June 16th, and needed to be photographed before that date.

So you can imagine how delighted I was to wake up this morning at 5 am (to see my daughter and her friends off to camp for the summer) and discover a sunny day at last. Because whether it was sunny or not, today was my last chance to photograph the branches that would be draped in banners.

My daughter and her friends left for the Anacortes ferry at 5:45 and I followed close behind, having decided to tackle Poulsbo, Silverdale, Port Orchard, Bremerton, Belfair and Allyn in today's wanderings. And this turned out to be one of those days every adult dreams of having; the days when you say to yourself "I can't believe someone is paying me to do something I love this much!"

The weather was absolutely perfect, the sky a deep blue, the scotch bloom an almost iridescent yellow, the mountains were still snow-capped and there were patches of fog along the water: a photographer's dream -- especially if the photographer is also working on a "Places I love that are unique to Washington" project on the side.

Even more importantly, the bank branches, all helpfully marked on a Google map, were easy to find, clearly labeled, and all on main thoroughfares. I kept thinking -- the bankers did a much better job of placing their branches than the Episcopalians did with their churches!

So where's the catch, you ask? There isn't one. Every once in a while you get a day that is a total gift from start to finish. This was my day; I hope it was yours as well, and that you, too, had an opportunity to welcome the sunshine.

This is the day that the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Discovering Spirit

Here's another one that pretty much speaks for itself...

Amazing, how the universe has a way of speaking to us if we just keep our eyes open!

Where have YOU discovered spirit today?

Friday, June 13, 2008

The thought that counts

A couple of posts back, I mentioned the curious fact that curving your lips into a smile can actually lift your mood. And this morning I read this interesting observation in Essential Spirituality:

"We tend to forget how very different the laws that govern the mind are from the laws that operate in the physical world. In the world, if we give a physical thing to another person, whether it be a toy or a diamond, we lose it.

Yet in the mind, the opposite is true. Whatever we intend for another person we experience ourselves. Whatever we give we gain, whatever we offer flowers in our own minds If you feel hatred toward someone, that hate boomerangs back and scorches your own mind. On the other hand, if you offer love to someone, that love first fills and heals your mind."

Based on that premise, it seems clear that if you were to choose to extend love and forgiveness toward another person -- even if they had hurt you and your initial instinct was fear and loathing -- that love and forgiveness would bloom within your own heart and make the relationship easier to bear; even offer healing.

In the "Real World" a boat is only a boat if it floats -- or was at least intended to float. This lovely floral creation we spotted in a park in Taipei may LOOK like a boat, but it was clearly never intended to float, only to suggest the possibility of flotation -- and, more likely, to suggest the possibility of pirates lurking either behind the next bush or in the nearby halls of capitalism.

We who see this picture understand from the first glance that this is merely the suggestion of a boat. We also, as humans, learn pretty early in life to detect the difference between the curved lips that signal an apparent smile and the actual curve of a real smile. And, in fact, my children learned early to detect their father's smiles even when there was no obvious curving of the lips: something in the twinkling of his eyes was always a dead givaway.

So how is it that appearance can lead to reality; that the appearance of a smile, the appearance of love, can actually eventually manifest as positive emotion? I think the trick here is that the effect is inward, not outward. It is not the appearance of someone else's fake smile that will uplift you; it is the act of generating your own. It is not the possibly hollow suggestion of someone else's love that fills your heart, but the effort YOU make to love that heals.

At times, when we have been wounded by the emptiness that lay unexpectedly behind the appearance of love and affection others project, it may be particularly difficult to smile or to love. But how interesting it is, that our efforts to smile through those situations, to love in spite of the wounding, are the surest ways to appease our own soul's longing.

And, in fact, those of us who walk through the park take delight from this charming boat: we don't actually need it to float. What enchants us is the vision -- a boat made of flowers -- and the time and work that its creators invested to offer that enchantment to those of us who pass by. That effort, on our behalf, pleases as surely as the effort we exert to share a smile or project love. It is the appearance of buoyancy that matters; the thought that counts.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Saying Grace

Back a few years ago, before Katie got sick, her mother invited me over to their home in Poulsbo for a walk on the beach at low tide.

I was weaker in those days, still recovering from a several-year bout with something that looked a lot like immune-deficiency issues. And Karen's beach, already rocky, was covered with a slick coating of seaweed which made walking -- already a bit of a challenge -- quite treacherous for my weak legs. I remember feeling embarrassed, and old, for being so shaky on my feet; wondering if she would still want to be friends with someone so out of shape.

There were numerous blessings in that morning; almost too many to count. But one of them lay in the discovery of a whole bed of starfish, lying in the seaweed and decorated with every color of the rainbow. I had my camera with me and took tons of photographs; we turned them into cards (the start of a whole new dimension to our friendship) and laughed over what the various starfish posturings meant.

This morning I have been thinking about gratitude, and I was looking for a photograph to share that would speak to that. This one, which seemed to leap off the screen, is from that long-ago walk with Karen, and appears to have been entitled "I am strong." So what does strength have to do with gratitude?

Like many adults I know, my faith life seems to have been cyclic over the years: I was active in the church all through grade school, born again in high school, and then lost my Christianity in college though my faith in God never wavered. My belief in Christ resurfaced as I struggled through a divorce, waned again during my career of working for the church, and resurfaced again after the death of my parents.

Looking back over those ups and downs, I think that one signal characteristic of my Christian periods is what my born-again friends tend to call "An Attitude of Gratitude;" an overwhelming sense that everything in my life is a precious gift, both what I have and appreciate now, and what has come into my life and gone.

And what I see now, looking at this image, which seems to me so full of joy, is that strength and joy are somehow side-effects of gratitude.

I don't know about you, but I grew up saying grace before every meal. It seemed rather automatic -- and therefore rather empty -- so, in the throes of my non-Christian first marriage, I got out of the habit of grace and never reclaimed it. I am sad to confess that my children did not grow up saying grace, though they did spend their early years in church. And it seems clear to me, in recent conversations with two dear friends of mine who are teachers, that most of the children currently coming through our school systems did not grow up saying grace.

Because what I see and hear about these kids, and the kids who pour paint over police cars and slash their tires, the kids my daughters have encountered at college, and, in fact, many of the adults whose giant SUVs clog our parking lots and ferries, and in fact much of America (and certainly its leadership) -- which may be a key reason why Al-qaeda felt perfectly within their rights destroying the world trade center back on 9/11 -- is that they -- we -- have entitlement issues.

We, as a culture, have lost that attitude of gratitude: we have all forgotten to say grace. All this richness with which we Americans and our precious children have been so blessed? We think we DESERVE it! And that sense of entitlement doesn't just make us pushy and rude; it also ultimately weakens us. Because entitlement, righteousness, and pride -- whether in accomplishment or possessions -- inevitably precede a fall.

When I first labeled this starfish, I saw those upraised arms and thought of a strong man flexing his muscles. Today those upraised arms remind me of the way -- in my born-again days -- we used to raise our arms in song, a sign of our gratitude to the Lord for all the blessings of this life. Today I also see that curled right leg, as if the starfish is about to turn a few cartwheels.

Yes, that could mean a fall is coming. But clearly this starfish is prepared to roll with the punches. And when I think of the cartwheels my daughter turned as child, I remember the sheer joy on her face as she launched herself into the fall, fully confident that she would soon be standing on her own two feet again. Those raised arms are a critical part of what keeps the momentum moving forward into renewed stability.

For some reason the lyrics of that old song, I Am Woman, are playing in my head right now. But I want to change them just a bit:

I am strong;
I am invincible --

Thanks again for the starfish, Karen!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A girl can dream

When my girls were little, they would come upon a display like this one and feel that one particular doll was calling out to them. "This one, Mama, isn't she pretty?" But in reality, of course, all the dolls were identical, distinguished only by their clothing and hairstyles or the pursing of their lips.

I was discussing feminism with a friend the other day; a friend who, like me, really liked the idea of Hilary for president, but eventually couldn't buy into the reality of it, and found she preferred Obama. As veterans of the 70's we thought it would be great to have a woman president, but this particular woman just came with too much baggage, too much looking back, not enough looking forward.

But like many women of our generation, we're sad that it just couldn't have been. Could it be, as some have said, that America is more chauvinist than racist? Today's girls mock the feminism of our youth -- it seems, I think, pointless to them: after all, women have way more opportunities now than we had growing up.

Yet in some ways things don't seem to me to have changed much. When I was in college, at an all girls school, we would go off on buses to "mixers" at nearby all boy schools. And the boys would form a gauntlet, two rows of young men stretching from the door of the bus all the way down the street to where the dance was being held. As we stepped out in single file the guys would grab the pretty ones and snake them off to their respective fraternities. If you made it all the way to the dance hall, you knew you were the dregs, though there still might be a chance you could hook up for the evening.

Now, of course, that tradition seems almost barbaric. But isn't it still true at some level? Isn't that what makeup, and fashion, and hair dye, and 3-inch heels, and all the other trappings of femininity are all about? "Pick me," our daughters cry, as if they are all essentially identical dolls, stacked on a shelf, waiting for Mr. Right to come along and choose one to take home. And if you are not chosen, or if you are returned, somewhat shop-worn, to the shelf; what then?

It's discouraging, for sure. But wait: isn't the reason we decided Hilary wouldn't suit because her game was all about the image and the posturing; illusion and positioning? And if we are drawn to Obama, isn't it at least partly because he seems real, honest, direct, willing to confront the truth?

Yes, we decided to put this particular doll back on the shelf. But I'm hoping that the doll we chose instead will end up taking out the shelf altogether; end the pretense that says some dolls are prettier than others, or that it's all about appearances, and focus instead on the fact that we are all unique and each uniquely valuable, individuals linked by a common commitment to all humanity and a respect and appreciation for our differences.

Wouldn't it be great if each of us could be educated and encouraged with respect for that individuality, and could then step confidently off the shelf into a brighter future? I know. It's silly, 70's idealism. But a girl can dream, can't she?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

It takes a village...

I'm not sure this one requires any explanation... especially since in the last post I wrote enough for two!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Photographer as Seer

Though the sun is out now, it's been a classic misty gray Northwest day today; perfect for sitting indoors, curled up in front of a fire and reading; perfect for photographing damp driftwood (when all the colors come out) or looking for beach glass. When I first moved to Shaw Island, fresh from a more than full-time job, I had lots of time on my hands, and did all these things.

I found my beach glass collection recently when we cleaned out the garage; I had so much time back in those days I had it all sorted by color. And I still love to read, though I rarely take time to do it except at bedtime. And it was those photographs of driftwood that launched me on my career as a photographer. Though I rarely sold those pictures, they were always my foot in the door at the galleries because they were so deliciously artistic... and then, inevitably, the gallery would begin to ask for more sale-able art: sunsets, boats, local scenery.

It wasn't until years later that I learned that Thomas Merton also photographed these bizarre wood formations, and there was this wonderful sense of recognition when I saw those images of his. Now I have two books of Merton's driftwood pictures, and still the galleries ask me to shoot something else.

There's a part of me that grumbles about that. I suspect the artist in me, that doesn't want to photograph on command, is not so different from the former CEO who would rather starve than work at MacDonalds. Is it a matter of ego? Or is it a matter of conviction: this is what I was born to do; why should I have to do THAT?

If I were completely zen, I would do whatever it is I need to do to survive, and pour my whole being and energy into whatever task was given me. But I am not completely zen; I have this quirky individualism, so common among those of us raised in the Christian faith, this sense that I was born to something else.

Which is probably okay, as long as I don't demand to be rewarded for that. Because doing what I was born to do --my avocation -- is really its own reward, and that needs to be enough. It is only when I want to be paid -- my vocation -- that I need to do what others ask of me. And it seems to me that I always get into trouble when I try to mix the two, because inevitably my ego kicks in and I start resenting the gap between what I love and what I have to do to get paid.

Perhaps that's why I love blogging so much. It's my opportunity to display exactly what I want to display; to show off the images I love that will probably never sell. And, of course, to talk about them; to explain what I see, and why they mean so much to me.

This image is NOT one of the ones in the three albums full of driftwood pictures I collected over those years on Shaw; it was actually only shot a little over a year ago. I don't even remember where I was when I took this picture, which is odd, because I could tell you exactly which beach I was on for almost all of the 900 plus images in those albums. This one has just been lurking quietly on my computer, forgotten in a file. I found it almost by accident this morning.

It's here, now, because, just for a minute, looking at it, I was reminded of a very snowy day in Cincinnati, when I was barely 11, and a truck full of pigs skidded and rolled on the icy road below our house. I remember standing, looking out the three staggered porthole windows in our front door, me, my mom, and my dad, watching as the driver, several policemen, and a bunch of other passers-by tried desperately to round up all those loose pigs before dark.

For whatever reason -- and I don't expect you to see it -- this picture reminds me of the closeness of that evening, the three of us all standing at the door, arm in arm, giggling at the cold spectacle that lay at the foot of the very long hill that was our lawn. It was, quite possibly, the last time our family felt whole and safe, the last time we were all totally in agreement, the last time my place and role in life seemed perfectly clear, totally natural, and fully ordained.

I think that was always why I liked those driftwood pictures. I -- and everyone else who looked at them -- could see whatever I needed to see; they were like a crystal ball or a Rorschach inkblot, speaking like a seer, an oracle, or a psychotherapist,not of what is outside, but of what lies within and beyond. If, indeed, I am a contemplative photographer, then it's no wonder this is where it all started.

But NOW the trick is to photograph that which is familiar, predictable, and purchasable, but from that same perspective. So that even if it is a sunset over Point White, or Frog Rock, or Waterfront Park, there will still be something in the image that speaks of more, that serves as a reminder that life is so much deeper and richer than what appears on the surface.

And if I can bring that kind of energy to the work I am PAID to do as well as the work I LONG to do, THAT would be the best of all possible worlds -- and very Zen, of course. Hmm. Perhaps I should worry about that. After all, Thomas Merton died just as he was working to bring about a connection between Christian monasticism and Zen monasticism...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Only hope

There's a phrase I've seen several times lately: "Don't believe everything you think." It always throws me a bit; takes a minute or two to parse through and figure out what it means, and whether or not I think it's good advice.

I suppose it should be more obvious than that: as a person who endeavors to meditate regularly, I am very aware that my "monkey-mind" is always busy, always churning through what's been done and what's to come. What I hadn't realized, which was pointed out to me in some text recently, is that most of those thoughts have been "thunk" before, and a high percentage of them are apparently negative for most people.

So what does that mean? I guess if most of those negative thoughts are about things done and yet to do, then that would mean the thoughts of the past involve regrets and anger, guilt and loss, and that the thoughts of the future have to do with fear and worry. It seems to me that if our minds are busily rehearsing all those same thoughts over and over again, it's no wonder so much of our time is spent either feeling lonely or busily self-medicating with whatever helps us bury, escape, or quiet those restless negative thoughts.

It sounds awfully discouraging. Maybe that's why depression and addiction, cancer and heart disease are the hallmarks of our society. How is it that some of us manage to escape this cycle of thinkings and feelings?

Last year I read Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book, The Tipping Point, and I remember one study he cited in there that clearly indicated that forming our face into a frown makes us feel negative, and forming our face into a smile can actually elevate a mood. I've also been reading another book called Social Intelligence, in which the author talks about the human tendency to reflect -- with our facial expressions -- the facial expressions of those around us.

So given all this information, you could imagine that getting caught up in our own relentless progression of negative thoughts would then reflect in our faces, and that negativity would in turn be reflected in the faces of others, which would then influence their moods: sort of a depressive domino effect -- ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

What can we do to reverse the momentum? I have two daughters at home now, recovering from difficult years away from home; both in the throes of transition. And I found myself telling one of them yesterday that she needs to channel her energy into something creative, or something physical. Perhaps what I need to also point out is that all her negative thoughts have to do with past and future, and that maybe the best way out of the cycle is to (thank you, Baba Ram Dass) Be Here Now.

Let the negative thoughts go, don't get caught up in the regrets, angers and fears. Focus on what is happening around you right now, on what might give you pleasure right now, right here, with what you have in this moment. Because this moment will be gone soon, and you'll never have this particular set of opportunities again.

I mean, seriously: where would you rather be? Sitting alone in a bar, drowning your sorrows in alcohol? Or out walking the beach with your face turned to the rain; out in the forest drinking in the lush greenness of spring; out in the garden, tilling the rich earth; out walking the city streets, watching the play of light and shadow reflected in the store windows; down at the club, pushing your limits on the weight machine, the stationery bikes or the treadmill?

What would pull you out of yourself more: playing a video game, reading a book, watching TV, writing a poem, taking a photograph, organizing a closet? Or do you want to be pulled INTO yourself? Take the time to look at your thoughts, watch their progression, let them go, see where they take you, and choose whether or not you want to go there.

All of the possibilities have value; it's all about the choices we make, how we spend our time, and what benefits our activities will reap for us in the long run. Surely there is a balance that can be struck, a way of choosing what is right for us at any given time. The trick there is that we have to be conscious in our choices, aware of what the moment offers in the way of challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities.

Maybe, for this particular daughter, now is a time when her job is simply to manage transition: to watch her thoughts and reactions, to sit with and comfort her old self, to welcome and encourage the self that is becoming. Instead of mourning the losses and the missing friends, to befriend herself and rejoice in the moment.

Ah, but that would be me giving advice. And now that she's almost 20, advice from Mom is pretty much the last thing she wants to hear. So my job is to give this advice to myself, rejoice in the opportunities of MY moments, to hug her when I can, listen when I can, and stay in touch with my own joy. Maybe some of the joy in me will form itself into a smile, reflect itself in her beautiful face, and result in a little mood elevation for her.

I can only hope!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Follow Your Bliss

I remember the day I shot this photograph. I was staying with a dear friend on Orcas Island, and rose early in the morning to wander the docks at a nearby marina with my camera.

This boat was tied up right next to the little marina shop there in Deer Harbor, and was just breathtakingly beautiful; I shot it from every angle I could imagine, trying to capture both the beauty of the boat and the reflections of the clouds in the perfect blue sky.

But when I shot this particular image -- even though I shot several before it and several more after it -- there was almost an explosion of joy in my heart; an overwhelming sense that "this was the one" -- rather like the feeling people describe when they experience love at first sight.

After shooting, I went into town to get some coffee, and by the time I was back in Deer Harbor my host was awake, so I began reviewing the images to see what I might share with her. When I came to this one there was a sense of recognition, an overwhelming "YES!."

I don't remember now how she reacted to the image, though she must have liked it because she later bought a print of it. But shortly afterward I was invited to participate in a boat show at a local gallery, and this image won pride of place: I blew it up really large, and it was both hung behind the gallery checkout counter and featured in the promotional materials for the show. I titled it "Follow Your Bliss", and it sold the day the exhibit opened; my first really big sale.

What's odd is that I remember the title seemed so obvious to me at the time as to be downright hokey -- a sort of embarrassing throwback to the excesses of the 70's and the Me Generation. And the gallery, which is very uncomfortable with anything that smacks of spirituality, kind of pooh-poohed the title.

So this morning, reading again in Essential Spirituality, I learned that "Follow Your Bliss" is attributed to the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell. But apparently it doesn't mean what popular understanding has attached to it over the years -- doing what feels good, pursuing fleeting pleasures and sensations.

"Bliss is infinitely more than the feeling of pleasure. Bliss is a taste of our spiritual nature. To follow our bliss is therefore to do what best expresses and opens us to our true nature and its source...All of us face the pleasant challenge of finding out what gives us most profound satisfaction and making this a larger part of our lives."

Bliss, therefore, is probably that amazing explosion of joy I felt when I shot this image in the first place; that awesome sense of rightness -- that right here, right now, I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing exactly what I was born to do. And I think when we have to opportunity to be in that space, the bliss we feel is the sense that the source is flowing through us unobstructed into the world; that all our channels are open and we are vessels for that energy, purified and made whole by the experience of that bliss.

So I guess that was the right title after all; that this image really was about bliss, though at the time I had no particular attachment to the title; it just seemed right. Where is bliss for you? I hope it doesn't take a lifetime to find the answer to that question; that it will appear sooner rather than later, and you'll get a chance to follow it all the way to the source. Surely a life spent in pursuit of that particular bliss would be truly blessed. Or should I say -- blissed?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A sad political commentary

I had to go to Kingston to photograph a bank a few days ago; I caught this dazed and bemused couple standing at a gas station on the way back. They look a bit like I feel right now when I have to pay $4.21 a gallon at the pump: sad, appalled, skeptical, thinking of hitchhiking, resigned... It's that helpless feeling you get when you realize that even with the primaries over we still have MANY more months under the current administration.

I got an email today with a statement from Jay Leno about what whiners we Americans are: we have so much, and the rest of the world has so little; why are we complaining about our current president when life is so good?

I got very discouraged reading that note; felt, again, like the people in this picture. Yeah, sure, we have more than we could ever need, and certainly more than so many other nations in the world. Is that supposed to make it better? So what if I can actually AFFORD to pay $4.21 a gallon and could even keep driving as much as I used to have to drive before my daughter got her license; does that make it better?

I don't think so. Because my objection to this administration is not about the quality of my life. It's about the quality of my grandchildren's lives -- those grandchildren who aren't even born yet, the ones who may not have food because the bees are dying; the ones whose inherited home may be underwater because of global warming; the ones who may not be able to breathe; the ones who will have forgotten how to knit -- if they ever learned -- because it's so hot no one wears sweaters anymore.

It's about the quality of life in places like Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Darfur, and New Orleans, and all the other places that have been damaged by "things done and left undone."

I'm sorry. I try not to go political here; to stay within the scope of contemplative spirituality. But I looked at these faces, and it just felt that they were contemplating, too, and just couldn't like what they saw. I think these are the faces of ordinary people, and I think these are faces capable -- as we all are -- of wisdom and compassion.

I think these eyes are seeing what we see, and feeling what we feel, and knowing what we know; I think it saddens them, and they feel helpless.

But what do I know. I'm not the artist; I'm just the photographer. And obviously I am projecting. There is, after all, something of the artist/photographer in everything she shoots.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lazy Day

My daughter is home, trying desperately to re-acclimate to Pacific Time after 9 months spent living on the opposite side of the globe.

As she dozes peacefully on the couch, I alternate between sitting in my favorite chair (so the cats will sleep on me and not on her); looking out the window at the geese and herons fishing in the tide flats; wandering into the kitchen to snack; and drifting into my office to check email. We're stuck at home, waiting for the vet to call and say the cat survived her surgery, and watching, first, as low pressure made the low tide even lower, and now, as the heavy rains make an already high tide higher.

It's hard to give myself permission to spend a day this loosely; to let go of my need to DO SOMETHING. So I started a load of laundry, cleaned out some more drawers, packed up some more stuff for the garage sale this weekend. But it's a lazy day, and every time I go to my favorite chair I realize this may be the closest I get to active meditation. I didn't get the alone time I usually get, so there was no lighting of the candle, no ringing of the bowl, no Centering Prayer to speak of.

But there is a peace here: in the typing of my husband's keyboard (he's home today, as well), the soft breathing of my daughter, the pounding of the rain from the clogged gutter, the purring of the cat on my lap. It's good to stop sometimes and just enjoy what is.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The mask of jeweled addictions

One of the treasures uncovered in the process of emptying out our closets was an old carry-on bag of my mother's, stuffed with the jewelry she collected over the years. So now that my older daughter is home, we spent the morning at the dining room table sorting through the piles and boxes and bags of mom's old jewelry.

Though it was fun to be looking at the stuff with her, the pieces themselves just made me feel sad. Most of it was pretty cheap and tasteless, but even the things that must not have been cheap, that were stored in little felt bags in special jeweler's boxes, still seemed tasteless to me: chunky, garish, and gaudy, as if she were trying to compensate for some inner lack.

But I could just be projecting. Because I've been reading the section in Essential Spirituality about reducing cravings. And there's a wonderful quote at the beginning of the section from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a 20th century Hindu sage:

All you want is to be happy. All your desires, whatever they may be, are of longing for happiness...Desire by itself is not wrong. Desire is life itself, the urge to grow in knowledge and experience. It is the choices you make that are wrong. To imagine that some little thing -- food, sex, power, fame -- will make you happy is to deceive oneself. Only something as vast and deep as your real self can make you truly and lastingly happy.

Desire is not the problem. It's when we get hooked on something other than that vast deep Source within us; when we expect worldly things -- like jewelry, or junk food, or new cars; power, sex, drugs or fame -- to make us happy, to compensate for the emptiness within, that we run into trouble. Because they can't help, not really.

About three years ago I went on one of those no-carb diets. And what I remember from that experience is that before the diet I would get a terrible case of "the munchies" in the late afternoon and evening, craving all kinds of junk foods, eating them, and finding the craving still there.

When I stopped the carbs, I learned that it was the junk foods themselves that were creating that late afternoon craving for more junk foods. And now, three years later, I still know that if I find myself hovering in the kitchen in the late afternoon, what my husband calls "Miss Vaguely Dissatisfied," it's probably because my carb intake has grown out of balance again.

When we get out of balance, when we get too much of something we don't need or can't use, it seems to create this weird craving for more of the same -- or at least, for something else equally unsatisfying. I remember noticing this the day after The Secret Garden closed: I kept finding myself in the kitchen, staring at the cupboards, beset with a hunger I couldn't seem to assuage. I think I may have been missing the role, the sense of purpose, or perhaps just the applause.

Ignored, or catered to, these cravings quickly grow into attachments, and we find ourselves thinking I HAVE to have chocolate, or I MUST have the latest Prada bag, or Porsche, or Manolo Blahnik shoes, or a part in the next play. When NOT getting these things triggers fear, anger, jealousy or depression, we know two things: we're attached, and we're in trouble.

Roger Walsh, the author of Essential Spirituality, says the first step in dealing with a craving like this (once you've recognized its irrationality) is to sit with it, see what it feels like, bring awareness to it.

Once we recognize the craving and take the time to acknowledge it, explore its roots and consequences, we are on the road to redirecting that longing to its rightful source. What makes me sad, looking at my mother's jewelry and knowing what I now know about her relationship with my father, is that she could never allow herself to sit in that space. Because to notice the craving would have been to notice what was missing. And to notice what was missing would have been to open up what I'm sure must have felt like a bottomless pit of misery.

So I look at the gaudy rings, the fake diamonds, all the ridiculous trinkets, and I ache for the love she never got, either from her parents or from my dad. Because she masked that so successfully with all her tasteless little addictions, I found her very hard to love, and aligned with my father; sad but true. I suspect she was a very lonely woman. Now I look at the jewels and sigh, and I try to send a little belated love her way, wherever she may be.

With any luck, Heaven is not a place where the streets are lined with gold and she can have all the jewels she wants, but rather a place where she can be so filled with love that she no longer needs them.