Thursday, July 31, 2008

Finding your voice

This week I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's exposition on different approaches to meditation: mountain meditation, lake meditation, walking meditation... There are lots of alternatives to the way I currently engage in my daily practice.

At the same time I am struggling with this warrior queen, Hippolyta. Final dress rehearsal is tomorrow night, and she seems to be having problems finding her voice. So I look at each of these ways of meditating, and wonder if there might be something I could do from a meditative perspective that would put a little more oomph into my characterization of Hippolyta.

Because -- as you might imagine, given that I am a rather contemplative soul -- I am pretty soft-spoken. It hasn't been an issue on stage before (I now realize) because always before I was playing character parts with strong accents -- New Jersey or British for the most part -- and for some reason it's easier to raise the volume when the voice is not my own.

But Hippolyta's voice, as a gym teacher in the 50s (and I picture her as a midwesterner, for some reason) is not that far from mine, and is thus harder to project.

Working through this problem this morning, I found myself thinking of a bumper sticker I saw when I was wrestling with the worst parts of my last job. It read "Silence is the Voice of Complicity." After seeing that bumper sticker, I realized that if I didn't speak up about all the hypocrisy that was going on around me at work then it could appear I was condoning it, and so I began finding what one friend referred to as my "prophetic voice." But of course, prophets are never very popular folk, so, though I felt better about myself, I found myself in a rather unpleasant role I hadn't actually auditioned for.

Perhaps the lesson here it is not that I can't find my voice, but that I am only capable of being loud on behalf of others. But maybe it's only that it is hard for me to be loud in one aspect of this particular role. Like the child in this picture I have no trouble being loudly angry or upset, which Hippolyta can be sometimes without uttering a word. But to be loudly romantic is a new challenge for me, and I obviously haven't mastered that one yet.

I will work on thinking of myself as a lake or a mountain, tapping into all the strength and resources that lie beneath the surface of my character. And maybe if I breathe in for all the women who have trouble finding their voices, I will breathe out the voice I find within on behalf of them all.

Yet another opportunity for learning!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feeling a little prickly

We all have those days when normally small irritations loom larger than usual, when we're out of sorts, not on our game. For a variety of reasons this seems to be one of those days for me, and I'm trying to follow Pema Chodron's advice, to "lean into" the prickly bits, to see if I can learn from them.

In my reading this morning Kabat-Zinn points out that one important function of a regular meditation practice is that you can begin to develop an awareness of your thinking processes, so you don't get quite so caught up in what your restless brain is trying to tell you.

My brain was sending me a bunch of shaming thoughts today -- it does that sometimes, especially when I'm tired or attempting something a little out of my normal range of expertise -- so it was actually a relief to step away from that, if only for a few minutes, and say, "Hmm. Interesting. Where are these thoughts coming from?"

My first response, unfortunately, is to start coming up with excuses -- to try to fend off the blaming voices -- rather than to figure out where those voices are coming from. Frankly it's hard to stay focused on those originating thought processes, because the unconscious can get very slippery.

So, to be more specific, let's say you (or I) did or said something that didn't meet my standards for appropriate behavior. For example: In the dress rehearsal last night I forgot a prop and flubbed a few lines. I COULD get caught up in explaining that -- we were rehearsing in a new space, I had to change in a hurry, I was feeding lines and didn't have time to get into character -- lots of reasons.

But instead of excusing I should be asking: Why does this bug me so much? Why do I need to be perfect? Whom am I trying to please? What echoes of past experiences are being amplified so uncomfortably here? And what can I learn from this?

Dear earnest Theseus, in Midsummer Night's Dream, puts it beautifully: "Take time to pause," he says to Hermia. "Question your desires; know of your youth, examine well your blood."

Before you get caught up in shaming, blaming, and excusing, just stop a minute. Step outside the moment and take a look at what you're thinking and feeling. What is it that you are longing for, that you fear your actions may be preventing? What's happened before in your life, that may be triggering either your behavior or your responses? Where do the critical voices come from? What is it that flows through you, that feeds you and centers you, and how can you be more in touch with that? Where is your true path, what pulled you away (or did something pull you away?) and how can you return to it?

And if, like Demetrius returning to Helena, you realize you have drifted off compass, what will it take to come back; to be able to say:

"But, like in sickness, did I loathe this food;
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And will for evermore be true to it."

I'm reminded a bit of the behavioral psychology I took in college. It's a fairly simple matter to modify behavior; to -- in this case -- put the prop where I will remember it, to write reminder notes to myself, to rehearse my lines again.

But how much richer my performance will be if I also take time to explore the ways in which I resonate with my character, to tune in with the concerns we share, to find her mantle of power and take it for my own. Because if I can be more integrated, more conscious of my connectedness to my character, and to the other actors and characters, the lines and props will no longer be just "things I have to remember" but will emerge naturally out of my being in that attentive space.

Hmm. Could this be art imitating life?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wrestling with the fog

There is a lovely fog outside my window this morning, thickening even as I write. The house finches are silent now, and the shrill cry of the gulls echoing down my chimney reminds me again of how much I love living on an island.

The fog without echoes a bit of fog within: I am now officially in what is called "hell week" (the last week before a play opens) and I am doing some serious wrestling with my role; things are not at all clear.

I play Hippolyta, the amazon queen who is to marry her Greek conqueror, Theseus, but I am playing her as a high school gym teacher in the 50's. There is a tension emerging between the warrior she should be and the beloved she longs to be -- a tension which is at the heart of her role -- but at the moment my acting of it seems as foggy as the view from my window.

It's not an unfamiliar tension; I've struggled with it before in plays, at work, and even at home, where my children are currently waging a campaign to get me to stop using the word "sorry." But this morning I was reading in Kabat-Zinn's book about the mythic quality of fairy tales, and one phrase particularly struck me:

"Fairy tales are ancient guidance, containing a wisdom, distilled through millennia of telling, for our instinctual survival, growth, and integration in the face of inner and outer demons and dragons, dark woods and wastelands. These stories remind us that it is worth seeking the altar where our own fragmented and isolated being-strands can find each other and marry, bringing new levels of harmony and understanding to our lives."

I think it is this search for integration that drives all the characters and stories in the play, most of which takes place in a dark wood and involves finding both our true mates and our selves. It's all pretty foggy and confusing, and my character is repeatedly drawn to the boundaries between truth and fantasy, finding her beloved Duke's relentless practicality irritatingly short-sighted.

By the end, of course, all the lovers will be united, just as my confused sliding up and down the scale of distance and approachability will settle down by opening night. In the meantime I just need to enjoy the fog, remember that I love it, and know that it is all part of the process.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The best things in life...

You know, there are icons, and there are icons. I picked this one up on a photo shoot for the local paper this evening. It's a bit fuzzy, so I had to submit one of the other shots I took, but this one was my favorite because the stance is so perfect.

So what exactly IS an icon? Webster's online dictionary offers several meanings:

1. An image or representation; a portrait or pretended portrait.

2. A sacred picture representing the Virgin Mary, Christ, a saint, or a martyr, and having the same function as an image of such a person in the Latin Church.

3. A symbol, especially a symbol whose form suggests its meaning or the object it represents.

4. (Computers) A graphical symbol for a data object whose form suggests the nature or function of the object; especially, such a symbol as viewed on the computer screen.

5. Any object of uncritical devotion.

6. An outstanding example of something which has come to represent the class of things to which it belongs; a paragon; used of persons as well as objects.

My guess is, Elvis (or in this case, Danny Vernon as Elvis) is an icon by at least 4 of these definitions. This is certainly Danny's portrait of Elvis -- and a very effective one (Danny sings well, too). He's definitely a symbol -- of any number of things, but certainly of the 50's.

I could see from the number of groupies who showed up for this that he seems to be an object of uncritical devotion, even if he is not the real thing. And he appeared to be an outstanding example of an Elvis impersonator.

So if we agree that this person is an icon, can other people be icons? Is Barack Obama an icon? I think so. Is Hilary an icon? Probably yes, though perhaps not of the same "class of things." Can you and I be icons? I'm not sure. Because that first definition is critical: you need to portray an image, so I suspect the image must therefore be immediately recognizable.

A friend recently confided to me that she was the iconic Bainbridge Islander: a 40-something blonde driving a Prius. But then doesn't that mean that icons require some sort of generalization? And does that then tend to dehumanize the icon? Doesn't my friend become more of an object than a being if we project all that onto her? And isn't that a little bit of what happened to Elvis, and still happens to so many of our popular culture icons?

Perhaps the danger of icons is that we tend to confuse the form with the substance; maybe that's why one of the Ten Commandments specifically states:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.

The problem, of course, is not so much in the making of the images, but in the bowing down and the service. Something about us human beings is not content to worship an invisible God, no matter how almighty or omnipotent, and we keep getting side-tracked into worshiping and serving things that are not God at all.

Some of them are silly -- like Elvis and his impersonators -- but many of them are considerably more serious and can actually be destructive. But we keep getting off the track, caught up in things that are more manmade than godly -- countries, bible translations, religions, cultures, activities, drugs, gadgets, styles... there are lots of things out there battling for our worship and service.

The problem is, as the bumper sticker I saw last week says, "The best things in life aren't things." And sometimes that's just difficult to remember.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"O Dainty Duck, O Dear"

The water on the Sound side of the house was incredibly smooth this morning, and the slight summer haze was giving the reflections of mountains and trees a soft green that reminded me of Vermont in the summertime.

We lived in Vermont for twenty years before moving to the Northwest, and though I love it here (no mosquitoes! no black flies! no deer flies! no screens! no sub-zero winters! no brown winters!) I do miss the gentler colors and shapes of New England landscapes -- which is one reason I'm so pleased my daughter elected to go to college there, so I have an excuse to visit in the fall.

I picked up my camera before I had finished my morning coffee and headed out to the deck to see if I could capture the subtleties of the landscape, but a gaggle of geese who had been foraging in the tide flats at the end of the point chose that moment to take off and fly over to the lagoon side of the house. So instead of capturing the soft blues of the mountain and the smooth surface of the water I ended up photographing the geese in flight -- not something either my early-morning uncoffeed self OR my camera was really prepared to do.

When I came back to my computer to load the shots in, to see if I could use anything for today's post, there were NO photographs of the mountains and water, just seven uselessly blurry shots of geese in flight, and this one, which for some reason appeals to me.

Actually, I know the reason it appeals to me. I like the balance of light and dark, the rich colors of the trees in the background, the suggestion of geese in the foreground, but that's not why I like the image. I like the image because it reminds me of my next-door neighbor Colleen's photography.

Though Colleen and I are both photographers I doubt we have ever shot pictures that look at all the same. She does amazing black and white -- and sometimes sepia -- floral studies for which I could never have the patience. And her landscapes have a simplicity that simply eludes me; my photographs always seem much busier than hers.

But the reason this picture reminds me of Colleen is that last year she initiated a new series that captures colorful skies in motion above a still horizon, a sort of sweep of subtle color that, in its blurriness, seems more a painting than a photograph. These studies have been hugely successful --deservedly so -- in a time when people do not, for the most part, seem very inclined to buy art -- particularly photography. And I suspect they require a great deal of patience to shoot, and a definite understanding of the digital camera and its workings.

The accidental blur you see here may well be the closest I'll ever come to creating something similar to Colleen's beautiful horizons, and it has none of the pastel sweetness of those pieces. But it makes me think of her, and that's a good thing. Because normally I would have been seeing a lot of Colleen this summer -- she lives over on the Seattle side, but likes to summer in her little cottage next door. But this summer she has other, more difficult things on her plate, which keep her busy on the other side of the water; things I suspect she'd rather I not discuss online.

I don't know how she's doing; I haven't heard from her in a bit and it worries me. But I miss her; she is in my prayers, and I am grateful that the geese took off when they did and that my camera and I were too sleepy to respond in any other way. It seems to me that this image is a perfect example of the gifts that can be given if we choose to live completely in the moment -- even if, for this particular moment, I was actually incapable of living any other way.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Something to chew on

A few months back my daughter talked me into joining Facebook. I was active on it for a bit, but most of my contacts were her friends, and they've been off doing other things this summer, so I hadn't been on in a while.

But I got a couple of notifications yesterday, so I went online and spent some time exploring the various links that had surfaced in my absence. And I noticed that one of my daughter's friends had joined a group called "I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who just want peace." When I went to the group site I found this mission statement:

"*OUR MISSION*- Spend ten minutes a day doing something nice for someone. It doesn't have to be anything big, just do something to help them out or make them happy. Then, maybe they will take the initiative and do something nice for someone else. Start a chain reaction and make this world a more peaceful place!"

I like this idea -- that doing something nice for someone creates a chain reaction -- but I think that if that were all it took peace wouldn't be such a rare commodity. Which is not to say that this approach wouldn't be helpful: in order to do something nice, we must first be mindful enough to notice what someone else might need, and that's a good thing, to step outside our own longings to attend to others.

But I'm thinking that true peace requires a more deeply rooted change than just 10 minutes of niceness a day. I'm not sure I can articulate this very well, so I'll quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn:

"Things happen because other things happen. Nothing is separate and isolated. There is no absolute, end-of-the-line, the-buck-stops-here root cause. If someone hits you with a stick, you don't get angry at the stick or at the arm that swung it; you get angry at the person attached to the arm. But if you look a little deeper, you can't find a satisfactory root cause or place for your anger even in the person, who literally doesn't know what he is doing and is therefore out of his mind at the moment.

Where should the blame lie, or the punishment? Maybe we should be angry at the parents for the abuse they may have showered on a defenseless child. Or maybe at the world for its lack of compassion. But what is the world? Are you not a part of that world? Do not you yourself have angry impulses and under some conditions find yourself in touch with violent, even murderous impulses?"

Peace, concludes Kabat-Zinn, can only come about through the inner cultivation of compassion, "a compassion that is not limited to friends, but is felt equally for those who, out of ignorance and often seen as evil, may cause you and those you love to suffer."

There is a lovely poem called "It Acts Like Love" from the Islamic saint Rabia of Basra which beautifully captures this thought:

"My body is covered with wounds this world made,
but I still longed to kiss Him,
even when God said,
"Could you also kiss the hand that caused each scar,
for you will not find me until you do."

Peace will not come for us -- as individuals, as a culture, or as a world -- until we can so develop our compassion that we come to see that we and our enemies are one; that we are capable of as much evil as they, that what we perceive as their evil could be rooted in our own, and that everyone -- both us and them, whoever "them" is in your world -- is both deeply wounded and deserving of love.

That place, that compassionate space, is MUCH easier to describe than to enter; getting there will be, I think, the work of a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The pause that refreshes

I've just spent another weekend at the Kitsap Forest Theater, rehearsing for a 50's Rock 'n' Roll version of Midsummer Night's Dream. The theater sits at the bottom of a steep hill in the middle of a rhododendron preserve, and is absolutely beautiful -- not to mention the PERFECT setting for this particular play.

But the walk back up the hill to the parking lot at the end of the day can be challenging -- they work us hard, I'm not that fit, and the weather's been very hot -- so I'm always grateful for all the benches the Seattle Mountaineers have kindly built at various points along the path. It's lovely to sit a bit; to watch the play of sunlight and shadow amid the ferns, rhodies, and giant maples and cedars. The sky is blue, the leaves are green, the shadows are crisp and the air is sweet with the smell of crushed needles underfoot.

So it's okay that I have to stop and rest a time or two in the climb: I take a sip from my water bottle and spend a minute looking around, up and down; there's always something beautiful nearby. It calls to mind that first great advertising slogan for Coca Cola, from 1929: “The pause that refreshes.”

But perhaps I would be wiser to use a line from "Midsummer:"

"Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood...
Take time to pause."

See? Even Shakespeare knew it was important to stop from time to time, to re-evaluate what drives you, what might be the deepest longings of your heart.

For me, one of those longings has always been for the leafy greens of the forest. As my girls used to say whenever they came into a forest clearing, "Mommy, this is God's place!."

It is, indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Double your pleasure

When I was in college I was totally captivated by Thoreau's essays on Walden Pond, so I was delighted to find them cited in the Kabat-Zinn book I am reading on mindfulness. I'd heard the phrase "time is but the stream I go fishing in" before, of course, but I didn't get the full impact of it til this morning, when I read its full context:

"Time is but the stream I go fishing in. I drink at it, but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. It's thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

And here's a second Thoreau quote, just in case you didn't get the message:

"In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages."

Everything we need is right here in the present moment; all eternity is captured here, if only we stop to notice. And, since you've been given two quotes for the price of one, I also offer two starry bottoms to brighten your day! Enjoy...


I had a conversation with my daughter last night when I picked her up at the ferry, not long before midnight, after she'd spent a week couch-surfing with friends in Portland. We were discussing her sister (my other daughter), who was in a relationship last year that seems to have pulled her away from herself.

What emerged from this conversation was a reminder that a good relationship -- like a good religion, or a good meditation practice -- allows you to reveal and accept more and more parts of yourself, to become more centered, more in tune with and accepting of who you are.

And I realized that if I took that thought and applied it as a lens through which to watch my reactions to the new camera I picked up this week, and to the conversation I had about it, cameras, and photography last night, that I have (once again) been getting caught up in "shoulds": I SHOULD sell my work, I SHOULD use a sophisticated camera, I SHOULD be in complete control of every aspect of the images I collect.

But the fact is that what I love is the act of seeing, and being able to share what I see. I don't love cameras, fiddling with lenses and dials and buttons and Photoshop; I just want to get the picture that I saw. AND THAT'S OKAY! There are plenty of cameras out there -- really nice point and shoot cameras -- that will give me the convenience and practicality I need AND the images I want; I don't need to get all caught up in the technical details. And there is no shame in that.

So I offer this image, taken on my birthday with the little point and shoot I like to keep around for fun. I love it, it was easy to shoot, I didn't have to Photoshop it, and it says all it needs to say. No, this camera is not a professional model. But maybe I never needed it to be one.

And if God can speak as clearly through a child, or a tax collector, as God speaks through a priest, then maybe God's images can be seen through the lens of a point and shoot as readily as through a $5000 full-frame SLR with an expensive lens and the latest photo software.

No, I didn't spend that kind of money on my new Costco SLR. But I'm still going to take it back. It just isn't me.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sacred heart

This weekend marks the annual Sequim Lavender Festival, which I am missing because I'm in rehearsals all day. But I was there a week or two ago, in the restful quiet that precedes the annual influx of tourists, and had a chance to visit a lavender farm or two.

I have lots of shots of the graceful rolling curves of lavender, but I prefer this one, sprinkled with the occasional volunteer poppies. For some reason this reminds me of a cartoon I read about this morning in Kabat-Zinn's book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

The cartoon shows two Zen monks sitting cross-legged, one young, one old. The younger one is looking inquisitively at the older one, who is saying "Nothing comes next. This is it."

For me -- and I think this probably reveals how relatively young I am at this practice -- the "this is it" aspect of meditation is rather like staying focused on the lavender; very even and soothing, but a little boring, like the soft waves of the lavender. Maybe it's because I am a Christian, not a Buddhist, but what I love about meditation is being surprised by the occasional colorful burst of the sacred breaking in. It's like encountering poppies in a lavender field, these divine interventions: moments of pure joy that open me up to larger, more creative possibilities.

I'm not there for the poppies; I'm there for the lavender, and I love the settling in and the mindfulness and soothing peace of watching the breaths roll in and out. But the poppies are a wonderful, delicious side effect; a reminder that when I let go of all the petty things that occupy my mind and sink into the moment, the divine can break in like a spark of illumination and color my awareness of its universal presence; of the sacred that lies at the heart of the picture.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Library as metaphor

Once upon a time, way back in the 70's, a friend of mine who was trying to survive the harrowing demands of an open marriage said to me, "Now I know what Hell is: it's living inside my own head."

Somehow I've carried that image around with me for years; it lives in the same drawer with that line from Buckaroo Bonsai -- "No matter where you go, there you are" -- and the image of Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost, carrying his own hell around with him.

So when a friend said to me recently that she's always hated it here on our little island, and that her divorce will free her -- once her last child graduates from high school -- to move somewhere more congenial, my first thought was, "but wherever you go, your private hell will still be with you."

So, having finished Essential Spirituality, this morning I began reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, "Wherever you go, there you are." And as I sat in meditation after reading the intro and first chapter, the image that came to me was this one, shot on one of the private floors of the Seattle Public Library. I was astonished, when I accidentally wandered onto this floor, by how disorienting it can be when walls, floor and ceiling are all painted the same color -- especially when that color is a high-gloss fire-engine red that belongs on a set of toenails in peep-toe shoes!

Now, looking at the image, I see that this is what the hell inside a head must look like: you know there's a life beyond this, but you can't see any way to get to it, or any way to get out of where you are. All the doors are closed and locked and the stairs lead nowhere; there's no way out.

I could imagine getting increasingly frantic, like the turtle we once caught and brought back to our dorm room: he spent the entire night walking the perimeter of the room and banging against the walls, looking for a way out. And I know that for some people, the act of sitting still, even for a moment, can propel them into this place. Which is why they don't sit: it's not a way to peace; it's only a quick way to submerge yourself again in hell.

What I know now, having been there, is that there is a way out. But it's hard to find if you're just a drop-in. If you visit regularly, take time to know this place, the walls will become more familiar, and the way out more obvious. If you're willing to sit with it a bit, you'll see it's not a permanent destination, just a part of the journey. Eventually, with time and experience, paying attention and being willing to record familiar landmarks, you'll come to know that this is only one floor of many, and that in many of the others those cells of yours will be filled with light.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Time to recalibrate

One of the joys of living on an island (though I know there are many daily commuters who don't see it this way) is the thrill of riding the ferry. Perhaps because I don't actually go into the city that often, I view the ferry ride as a major treat and the ferries themselves as... well, friends.

We know many of them by name, after all these years, and definitely prefer some to others. The Sealth, for example, which used to be primarily responsible for the Sidney BC and Friday Harbor runs, has very uncomfortable seats. The Elwha has an unfortunate tendency to rock and roll rather alarmingly in a high wind. The Illahee, with her round windows, etched glass and oak pillars, is utterly charming; the tiny Hiyu a sturdy perennial favorite, now retired. The Tacoma, for all her size, still manages to have quite a bit of character.

The one pictured here, I believe, is the Wenatchee; she looks particularly charming against the sunset with the Olympics in the background -- but then, so do they all.

Given that we distinguish easily among ferries, it's not surprising that we distinguish also among friends: this one is not always comfortable to be around, this one is a little unstable, this one is charming, this one is solid, this one is a character... But these are all judgments, and can change as the people change or as our moods or circumstances change: what we think of someone depends a lot on the lens through which we are viewing them.

I am contemplating buying a new camera, giving up on my Nikons and moving to another brand. So I am spending time with a wonderful site called the Comparometer, which allows me to compare images produced by the various cameras I'm considering. But here, too, my judgment is not necessarily reliable.

It turns out that my monitor wasn't properly calibrated when I first began viewing the images, so the Canon that had looked good in the reviews didn't seem to produce very good photos and I had decided to choose another brand. Once I re-calibrated my monitor, however, the Canon images appeared superior to those of the other camera I had selected, and I decided to go back to my original plan.

I think our brains work a bit like a monitor in our decision processes, and can easily get out of calibration due to various kinds of stress and confusion in our lives. Taking the time to meditate, to be quiet, to clarify our thoughts is a bit like re-calibrating; it's a way to return to center, to establish a baseline from which our judgements can be more accurate.

So if a former friend's behavior suddenly begins to offend you, or if you find yourself being extremely critical of large numbers of people, it may be there's nothing wrong with them at all; it's your own mental calibration that's a bit off. It may be that you need to take some quiet time; to consciously remove some of the negative filters you may have inadvertently installed; to stabilize and balance your inner vision; to recalibrate.

Just a thought...

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Here's my birthday gift to you: may your day be filled with joy and beauty, and may the air you breathe be as fresh and sweetly scented as the air around this stargazer lily.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Life's Persistent Questions

Last night we got out of rehearsal about five minutes too late to catch the 9 pm ferry, so my 17-year-old co-actor and I were "stuck" sitting in the ferry line for an hour, waiting for the 10:05 departure.

Luc had a book to read for school, so he grabbed the pillow I keep in the car, put his seat all the way back and settled in for an hour of reading. But I had already finished the book I had brought, so I decided to take a walk with my camera.

It was late, and the light was fading fast. I got a few shots of the ferry we had missed as it headed off into the sunset, and took a picture of that statue of the old captain feeding the birds outside of Ivars. There was a very intriguing-looking violinist playing outside the Olde Curiosity Shoppe, with two bulldogs seated on a blanket behind him, but it didn't seem right to take his picture without dropping some change into his violin case, and I had brought no money with me, so I headed back to the car.

In the car I began just fiddling with the camera -- a little Canon point-n-shoot I keep around for random photos -- and I discovered how much fun it can be to play with light. Like the violinist down the street, I began improvising: I'd focus on something with strong color and light, press the shutter and move the camera, allowing it to record whatever it saw. Every so often I would stop and review the images, deleting any that didn't appeal -- and trying, as always, to assess what it is that appeals or does not.

Because for almost any image I shoot I can imagine SOME photographer SOMEwhere saying, "Yes, that's IT!!!" It's not that they're all great; it's more that I've noticed over the years that a) what other photographers choose to exhibit may just as easily be an image I've shot and thrown away -- or if I shot it, I WOULD throw it away! And b) people's tastes are very different, and it seems like for everything there is there is someone who will love it.

...which, for some reason, reminds me of the time when I was pregnant with my second child and confided in tears to my husband that I loved our first child so intensely that I couldn't imagine I would have enough love left to give the new baby.

My husband, who is very wise about such things, just laughed. "I'm sure there'll be enough to go around," he said, and of course he was right -- love seems to be an infinite resource: the more you give, the more there is to give.

So, anyway, this morning I loaded all those playing-with-light images onto my computer, planning to write this blog about one that I could only shoot by very carefully focusing on something else, because there was a windshield in the way and the camera kept getting distracted by the patterns of light on the windshield.

That could have made a great blog topic -- and maybe I'll write on it tomorrow. But when I saw this image I decided to post it instead. Because it reminds me of the introduction they always do on Prairie Home Companion to the Guy Noir skits:

"A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But on the 12th Floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions: Guy Noir, Private eye."

That's me, shooting away in the dark, still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions -- and that's my camera: my private eye. And that's the title of this image: Life's Persistent Questions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Enjoying the weeds

These "weeds" have taken over our entire entranceway: they share the big stone planters with the lilac and the dwarf maple and cluster flagrantly (and I don't mean fragrantly; they don't seem to have any aroma) around the driftwood, mingling with the lavender and the rosemary and the california poppies, making us look like the gardeners we definitely are not!

Who decides what flowers are weeds? And why would we ever yank them out? They add color and charm and a kind of random lushness I find totally endearing.

It's our anniversary today, and over lunch at the pub (we don't get an anniversary dinner because I have rehearsal) we were wondering: how much of our behavior and decisions comes as a result of societal training and dictates? How much of what we suppress -- behavioral weeds -- is really an integral part of what makes us unique and fun to be around? How much of what we were taught before we were aware we were capable of judging -- like, for example, that early edict: Big Boys Don't Cry -- is really crippling us?

Just a thought -- some "weeds" can be awfully appealing. Another opportunity for mindfulness, I think: pay attention to what behaviors, thoughts, words you suppress. What if they actually need to be seen or heard; what if they would liven up the world in a good way?

Just wondering...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Beauty in our brokenness

There are times when it's easy to get caught up in the brokenness of our lives; to become obsessed with and distracted by all the things that need fixing, all the might-have-beens, all the wanna-be's.

I used to wonder, back in the day when almost everything I photographed was a boat, why I was always so much more drawn to photograph the old ones: broken, or sinking; scarred or flaked with layers of paint.

I am still drawn to photograph old and broken things, and now I realize that the message has been consistent throughout: there is beauty in our brokenness.

“Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears," says Frederick Buechner in his book, Whistling in the Dark,

"it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling the secret
of who you are, but more often than not of the mystery of where you have come from and are summoning you to where you should go next.”

I went last night with my daughter and husband to see "WALL-E" and found myself close to tears for several hours afterward, filled with a sense of loss for our fragile earth and what it might become if we cannot learn to curb our relentless consumerism and be better stewards of our environment.

Later that evening I got a call from my other daughter, who was in tears because of some struggles she is encountering in her summer job. I did my best to counsel her, but it was difficult, as her voice kept breaking and the cellphone reception kept breaking up as well.

Over the years it has become apparent that, like many mothers, I have an almost psychic connection with both my girls. So after I hung up I found myself wondering if my sadness about the environment was just mirroring her sadness about her job, or vice versa. But in truth, it doesn't matter; it probably doesn't even matter too much that I couldn't quite pick up every word she was saying. What was important was that I was there, that she felt she could call, and that she knew I would listen and care.

And my hope, as a parent, is that, whatever is driving her anguish, she might somehow grow from the experience; that whatever piece of her life or her world view or her psyche is broken right now may open a space for another bit of divine light to shine through; that from her brokenness joy and growth and new vision might emerge.

Perhaps that is my hope -- and my function -- as a photographer as well; that the images may serve, as Eckhart Tolle says all great art must serve, as a portal to the sacred. In that sense, I hope, the photography is an act of love. As Henri Nouwen says,

"Real caring
is the willingness
to help each other
in making our brokenness
into the gateway to joy."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Tao of Pooh

How is it that we came to characterize the owl as a wise old bird? I think we have been misled by appearances. Those gray tufts in his brow give the impression of age (which we associate with wisdom). But above all I suspect it is the haughty disapproval of his stare, the apparent skepticism with which he views us.

But is skepticism wisdom? Like many people in my generation, I grew up reading Winnie-the-Pooh, and sometimes I wonder if my world view may not be slightly warped as a result. Certainly one of the messages A.A. Milne left his readers was that it is wise to be skeptical.

Pooh, of course, is a delightful character -- not especially bright, but charmingly earnest and self-effacing. And Christopher Robin, with his wisdom and thoughtfulness, his willingness to come to the rescue, and most especially his genuine love for Pooh, has some very God-like qualities.

But the rest of the animals in the forest are quite obviously flawed and often rather self-absorbed. Piglet has a serious Napoleon complex; Eeyore is a relentlessly negative martyr; Rabbit is terribly officious and fussy; and OWL, who is supposed to be so wise, is pretty out of touch with reality.

Looking back on it now, it seems to me that the Pooh tales serve as a gentle reminder that it may never be a great idea to assume that someone else has all the answers. In fact, if we listen to Milne and learn to love Pooh as he did, I think we also come to realize that true wisdom has a gentleness to it that looks a lot like love, which, as it says in I Corinthians 13 (that passage that so often appears in wedding ceremonies) "is patient, is kind, envieth not, vaunteth not itself, and is not puffed up."

Last night I watched "What Would Jesus Buy," a sort of bizarre documentary about the relentless consumerism of Christmas, done by the man who did Supersize Me. The film is a cross between David Byrne's True Stories, Monty Python, and Supersize Me, and its characters -- especially "Reverend Billy" of the "Church of Stop Shopping" with his visions of the "Shopocalypse" -- are pretty strange. But the messages are sound and clear, and I felt -- as we used to say in the radical evangelical church I belonged to briefly in my late 20's -- "convicted:" which is to say, guilty as charged.

I spent some time this morning in meditation this morning getting caught up in those feelings of guilt: I don't always buy local goods, nor do I pay enough attention to where things are made; I did actually darken the door of Walmart a time or two; I am despite my efforts more of a consumer than a producer; I do own too many pairs of shoes.

But I think true wisdom would be to accept that the temptations are always there and to work tenderly with that; to continue to love myself in spite of that; to gently probe the empty spots that prompt gratuitous shopping and to work consciously to find a more loving way to fill those holes.

And God, to me, with all her wise awareness of my flaws, looks less like Owl, with his fierce disapproval, and more like Christopher Robin, whose voice I can still hear saying, at the end of the record I had of "Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalump",

"Oh, Bear, how I do love you!"

"Heh, Heh," said Pooh. "So do I... So do I."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Just a hobby...

This morning, while sipping my coffee, I looked out the window and spotted this great study in contrasts: the bright verticals of the dune grass, glowing orange in the sunrise, and the horizontal ripples in the still teal water.

So I grabbed my camera, found a memory card, and stepped out on the deck to capture the moment. There was only one image left to shoot on the card, but how hard could this be? I focused, allowing the camera to do that work for me as I was still barely awake, and pressed the shutter. But when the image appeared on the screen, the camera had focused on the waves, and the grasses were all blurry.

After several tries, with the camera whirring confusedly while trying to find the grass, I gave up and put it into manual focus, lined up the grasses and shot -- but, of course, there was no response: the memory card was full. So then I needed to go back and delete some images -- which involved using a brain that had not quite kicked in yet to remember which of those images had been transferred to my computer.

Eventually I had cleared out a few, was able to focus, and managed to get the shot. But it had turned out to be definitely more complicated than my early morning self could handle with any speed, and the ripples --crisp and strong when I first spotted them -- had almost disappeared.

I once had a photo instructor whose favorite mantra was this: a good photographer does not TAKE pictures. A good photographer MAKES pictures. Clearly this was one of those days when I had to MAKE the picture.

Which, I have to say, is not my preference. I am particularly aware of this right now, as I begin preparing for an October invitational exhibit whose theme is WORD. Somehow, without allowing any spiritual content to creep into my images, I am supposed to generate photos which have words as graphic elements whose actual meaning is irrelevant. And the more I wrestle with this challenge, the more I realize that if I were a GOOD photographer I would be out there MAKING these images happen.

But for me (and I have to say that I am desperately trying to ignore my mother's voice in my head, repeating as always that I am a LAZY child) photography is a sort of mystical process: I pick up the camera in response to some faintly heard prompting from within; I compose the shot in whatever way seems to ring the strongest chord within me; and I allow the camera to drink in the scene as it will.

That, I think, would be TAKING a photo. To actually MAKE a photo, I would have to be considerably more conscious about the process. I would choose where to stand or squat, rather than returning to the space where I stood when the prompting occurred. I would place or remove elements of the photo to make some sort of conscious statement rather than allowing its message to emerge from the IS-ness of the moment. And I would control all aspects of the camera manually, rather than allowing the camera to make its best guess on lighting and exposure and then adjusting a bit to get what I believe I was meant to see.

I have a couple of great books on the Tao of photography, and they both recommend finding a balance between the masculine, controlling, equipment-centered approach to photography and the feminine, responsive, composition-centered approach. Clearly I err on the feminine side here. Is that lazy? I think it's best not to listen to that chiding voice, and to accept that, for me, photography is one of those places where I do NOT have to be in control, and that that is, in fact, a therapeutic and restorative process.

Which is not to say that I can't or won't ever strive for more of a balance in this area. But perhaps it is to say that this is not a vocation for me, a determined striving for excellence in a chosen field, but rather an avocation, a calling, completely apart from the world of jobs and making money.

But ouch. If I look at the dictionary definition of avocation, that means my husband is right: this is not my job, this passion which consumes so many hours of my day as I prepare for shows and other assignments. It's just a hobby, on a par with collecting beanie babies or building model trains; just a way for an elderly housewife with artistic pretensions to amuse herself and pass the time.

Sigh. I know better, but that's another voice that's pretty hard to ignore.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sometimes the way ahead is foggy

Earlier this week I drove to Sequim for a lunch meeting. I have fond memories of a weekend spent in Sequim when our girls were little, with some great photographs of them playing on the Dungeness spit (long before we lived on a spit of our own!) so I went early and drove out to the Dungeness park to see what there might be to see.

As I approached the shore I could see the fog getting thicker and thicker. When I finally parked and left my car it was so thick I could barely see in front of me, and could only see a tiny edge of the surf below, so I took a quick shot of the path along the cliff, jumped back in the car and headed back into town.

In their conference on the Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain, both Jack Kornfield and Daniel Siegel remarked upon the fact that one clear sign of neurological and psychological health is flexibility; the ability to make rapid course correction when necessary. So a case could certainly be made for the possibility that I was being very flexible: having single-mindedly pursued the opportunity to recreate a moment in the past, I was able to change my plans when it was clear that wouldn't work.

But is it possible I scrapped this opportunity too quickly; was too caught up in making sure I was on time for my lunch meeting (and used the time before that to best advantage) to allow myself to sink into this new experience?

Many of us have a tendency to second-guess our opinions; to wonder if we made the right decisions, to question our wisdom, to wish we'd taken a bit more time to evaluate. I met with a friend yesterday who is newly divorced and regretting what now looks like a decision made in haste.

And, yes, the decision itself was made quickly, and in anger. But it had been building for at least 20 years of difficult situations, unacceptable and hurtful behaviors and embarrassing incidents: there was a part of her that had been longing to escape for years, and was grateful to the anger for setting her free at last.

Now, of course, she is having to deal with the reality of raising alone a family of dogs, cats, pigs and children, and it can look pretty overwhelming -- rather like the view that greeted me when I left my car to stand on the Dungeness overlook. The path ahead is obscure, there's no way of knowing what's around the corner, the beautiful open views I had expected to see are blocked, and retracing my steps just seemed the sensible thing to do.

But of course, you can't really go back -- any more than I could go back in time to that sunny day when my girls were little and the beach was a miracle of unfamiliarity, covered with exciting shells, sticks, and stones and sparkling with the fun of wading into the light, safe, surf.

This morning I read that when Buddhist monks go on a three-year retreat they begin by meditating on the following four precepts:

1. Life is precious.
2. Life is short, and death inevitable.
3. Difficulties are inevitable.
4. Our ethical choices mold our lives.

So, yes, difficulties are inevitable, and, yes, our choices -- whether ethical or otherwise, do mold our lives. And to my friend, should she read this, I will say that I believe with all my heart that hers was the ethical choice: a choice that declares she has value; a choice that declares to her children that they, too, have value and that some sins are unacceptable; a choice that, while it leaves her vulnerable and alone, will also firmly say that there is a limit to what humans can or are willing to tolerate, and that we have a right to set that limit for ourselves.

But the way ahead may be foggy for a while. Don't turn back: just keep walking. The fog will lift eventually and I suspect that when it does the view will absolutely astound you.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Clarifying your self-image

Last night I wasn't feeling well, so curled into bed early with a good book while my daughter took over the dog-walking chores. She came back to me to unleash the dog (she can't touch him due to allergies) then curled up beside me for a chat.

I remember visiting a friend who had a seven-year-old daughter when my girls were still toddlers. My friend's daughter crawled into her lap during our conversation, and I was enchanted: "Oh, wow! You mean they could still be doing that when they get older?" I asked -- at the time her seven-year-old seemed huge to me.

Yes, my girls still curl into my lap, all these years later, (they are almost 20, and 21) and it still feels wonderful to hold them; a special connection.

So this one curled into me, and, for a joke, put on my glasses. "Mom, how can you see out of these? They're so dirty!" And somehow my mind leaped to this picture, and to what I've been reading recently in Essential Spirituality about self-knowledge.

For many of us -- particularly as we age -- the idea of self-knowledge gets tangled up with the face we see in the mirror; a face some of us find increasingly difficult to look at. Self-knowledge, of course, goes deeper than that, but many of us find that deeper self -- with her mistakes, her questionable motives, her secret longings and shames -- even more painful to examine.

All those negatives become like dirt on the glasses of introspection: we can't seem to see past them, and don't really want to look for fear that's all there is.

But (as my bishop used to say) "the reality is" that as long as those flaws remain an obstacle, and unacceptable; as long as we refuse to examine and forgive ourselves, then we remain prisoners of our own imperfection, trapped in a cycle of fear and self-condemnation that muddies our vision, both of others and of the Divine self that lies deeper within us.

Psychotherapist Carl Jung puts it this way:

"Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses, and so acceptance of one's the acid test of one's whole outlook on life."

Roger Walsh, author of Essential Spirituality, sees it this way:

"Certainly we have all made foolish mistakes. However, mistakes are far better used as an opportunity for learning than for self-loathing, which can be a terrible barrier to well-being and growth...Simply to see ourselves as we are, without exaggerating either our virtues or our failings -- simple self-acceptance -- does NOT mean denying our shortcomings or giving up our efforts to heal them. It does mean recognizing and working on our shortcomings without attacking and belittling ourselves for having them."

If your introspective lenses are smeared with past mistakes and failures, do for yourself what my daughter did for me: tenderly remove the glasses and wipe them clean, learning from and forgiving those mistakes and failures while knowing they'll happen again.

And while you're there, take a hard look, in the all-too-brief moment of clarity that follows, and see the true Self that lies beneath, the imago dei that opens the door to the Sacred within. That is your deepest mystery: rejoice and be glad in it!

Monday, July 7, 2008

All shall be well

Remember the wonder and astonishment you used to feel as a child? How long has it been since you felt that sense of awe -- or is it even still possible to feel that any more, jaded adults that we are?

I think, like my daughter, I may have been a bit slow to become aware of social cues when I was younger. I wasn't exactly clueless, but somehow I missed picking up the subtle behavioral nuances that might have made me fit in better as an adolescent. Or maybe all of us feel a little bit that way?

At any rate, I remember a friend telling me, my freshman year in college, "Diane, you'd be so beautiful if you just didn't SMILE so much!" I just never quite mastered that jaded sophistication so critical to a successful adolescence -- and that's probably still true as I move inexorably toward my 60's. I guess I still have that toddler's capacity for awe and excitement -- and sometimes at the smallest things.

According to Wikipedia, the word passion "often applies to lively or eager interest in or admiration for a proposal, cause, or activity or love." So maybe I'm just passionate about stuff.

A fountain, for example, and the sight of children playing in it. The feel of grass or wet sand between my toes. A really good sunset, or a hug. A bouncy rock or blues tune, heard outdoors on a sunny afternoon. A kind word, a delicious meal or the joy of spending a day with old friends. The thrill of sorting through the most recent photos on my memory card and finding one that gives me the peace I found in yesterday's image...

Simple pleasures, really. And feeling them, I become giddy all over again, like a little girl in a new polka dot swimsuit, or with new pink sunglasses. At times like this, I am reminded of a quote from Saint Julian of Norwich, which someone once gave me to tape to my computer:

"All shall be well,
and all shall be well, and
all manner of thing shall be well."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A moment of peace

A moment of peace for a busy weekend.

You can click on it to get more detail... Enjoy!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lessons from our friends

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, and every year this means making a choice: do we attend the parade on our own street, or do we go to the all-island parade (so masterfully em-ceed by my friend Mark).

This year, however, the choice was clear: we felt we had to do our street's parade, because this would be the first year it would NOT be led by our beloved Dick Cole.

Dick, who died earlier this year, was one of those rare individuals who always had a grin on his face and a kind or joking word for anyone who passed by. He seemed to genuinely enjoy life, and his contribution to the annual Sandspit parade was HUGE.

Now you need to understand that there are only 50 homes on our street, but this parade is really something. It begins with a 21 gun salute fired across the lagoon by our next-door-neighbor's cannon; involves an appropriately costumed march down the length of the sandspit; and ends at the park with a patriotic singalong. But Dick was the heart and soul of the parade.

He had a fabulous pair of stars and stripes pants, held up by stars and stripes suspenders; he wore stars and stripes shoes, a wig, and a revolutionary war hat that looked like it might actually have been authentic. And he beat this ancient bass drum as he walked, a drum that apparently once belonged to the original owners of our property.

Steve K, the young man to whom Dick bequeathed the pants, suspenders, and drum last year, claims that since the drum is more related to our property than to his, we need to get more involved next year, perhaps with a snare drum or tambourine? This suggestion, we told him, will go under advisement...

At any rate, there were very few participants in the parade yesterday who weren't thinking of Dick as we walked -- and of all the others who, for a variety of reasons, couldn't be with us that day.

But I would like to think we were celebrating FOR Dick, and somehow with him as well, and that the occasion was actually richer for it because we were united in the sense of loss and eager to "do it right for Dick." And I think that each of us now feels a responsibility to carry on his legacy of kindness and generosity, where before we just let him do it. It even occurred to me we might want to set up some sort of fund in his name that would support our work for a "kinder, gentler" community -- maybe a mediation fund? A parade fund? I'm not sure what it would look like.

But this morning I read the following quote from Confucius:

"When walking in the company of two other men I am bound to be able to learn from them. The good points of the one I copy; the bad points of the other I correct in myself."

And it certainly seems to me that Dick gave us lots of good points to copy: he had lessons to teach us all.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Seeking Sacred Space

Recently I had a delicious lunch with my friend Anne, and she invited me to visit her garden, which is in peak season right now.

It was glorious, aglow with color and promise, ripening fruits, veggies and flowers. And there at the back of the garden, this bench and tree: an invitation to sit and revel in the glory of it.

There are sacred spaces all around us: some we create, some created by others for us, and some which just seem to emerge on their own. But it's easy, especially on days like today, with so much going on -- parades, bake sales, fireworks, car shows, house guests -- to forget or ignore the sacred space in our lives; to be just too busy to appreciate.

But I find it's really only by taking the time to stop -- if only for a few minutes -- and allow that peace to seep into our souls -- that we have the energy and patience to get through the rest of the time.

Yesterday a friend complained he'd gone home for lunch to accomplish work around the house, and when he got there he couldn't figure out where to start and wasted all the break running around in circles.

"But didn't you plan out what you would do on your drive home?" I asked.

"Oh, no, I was busy returning all these calls on my cell phone," he replied.

So when I saw in yesterday's mail, later in the day, that a new ruling in Washington State makes it illegal to drive while talking or texting on a cell, I had to smile: a government mandate to rest!

I keep hearing my friends say, "Yeah, meditation is great, but I don't have time for that." Yet these are the same friends who complain that they just can't seem to get organized; can't seem to stay on top of things.

Sound familiar? If so, it may be that you, too, need to take time to sit. Set aside your cell phone and your to-do list, make yourself comfortable someplace where you might not be interrupted, and allow your mind to wander. Don't worry about meditating, just let it wander -- but don't get to caught up in what appears.

Breathe in what sounds and scents surround you; breathe out whatever peace rises up from within you, feel your body settle into the moment of freedom, and rest. There will be plenty of time to accomplish all you need to accomplish, and your brain will be better able to wrap itself around those tasks when you are done.

... and remember: don't text and drive!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Opening the door to compassion

This morning, still reading in Essential Spirituality, I encountered a passage explaining the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness Meditation.

I was enormously intrigued: I've been meditating off and on for years, using a variety of different techniques, but it never really "took" until I discovered Centering Prayer. Somehow that process, which is one of allowing thoughts and sensations to rise and just letting them go, returning always to the peaceful center, is one that works for me.

But Mindfulness Meditation seems to consist, not of letting go of the thoughts that arise, but rather paying attention to them; paying uncritical, accepting attention to the birdsongs, the dog scratching, the rise and fall of my belly, the hum of the refrigerator, and the random reflections that pop into my head and then float away.

Not that I am now going to drop my Centering Prayer practice and become a Buddhist or anything, but I do have to say that the thought of allowing and even encouraging myself to notice that which passes through my head when I sit seems kinder, somehow; less fraught with those protestant "shoulds" that have haunted me for so much of my life.

Now perhaps it is the very familiarity of those "shoulds" that has made Centering Prayer such a good choice for me; it's quite possible that I am more comfortable in a process where there is a goal, a clearly delineated way to know whether you are "getting it" or not.

But, speaking theoretically, the Mindfulness meditation sounds more compassionate -- and more compassion-producing -- to me. How much gentler and less divisive to allow everything in with equal attention and interest. And wouldn't that practice of paying attention while still translate more readily into paying attention while in motion -- i.e., into more mindfulness?

We'll see. It's possible that by accepting instead of emptying I will no longer be creating room for increased awareness of the Divine. But I won't know til I explore the possibility.

Door number 1: self-emptying.
Door number 2: self-awareness.
Is there a door number 3?

And what's the prize? Mindfulness? Compassion? A taste of the Divine? All of the above?

I don't think it's possible to lose!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Not that easy, being green

When I was growing up my parents were full of all sorts of odd bits of wit, wisdom and poetry. And my mother occasionally spouted a verse to me that went something like this:

When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

It seemed to me then that this poem, since it ultimately ends with a spanking, was meant as a cautionary tale to keep me in line, behavior-wise. It worked, for the most part: I may have been an irritatingly stubborn child, but I was never evil or purposefully destructive -- always too afraid of the punishment that might follow.

But it seems to me now more like a commentary on relationships -- not just with spouses and family, but also with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. I'm lucky -- I have lots of even-tempered folk in my life. But there do seem to be certain relationships that, for whatever reason, never seem to have that middle ground: they're either very very good or they're horrid.

My solution over time has simply been to extricate myself from the worst of those, the most extreme cases. There's just too much drama for my sanity. I know that for some that drama looks like passion, but for me it becomes a distraction, a way of keeping me caught up in the mechanics of things, lost in a relentless cycle of people-pleasing and tiptoeing when things are good and blame, guilt, anger, resentment and whining when things fall with the inevitable gravitational pull into the horrid spectrum.

...and as I type this, I realize that pretty much describes my relationship with my mother, which is probably why I always tended to align myself with my more sanguine father.

So why this photo? For some reason, when I looked at it I was reminded of some only children I know -- little ones, not grown. There is an innocence to this young leaf, a certainty that of course it deserves center stage, a confidence as it shows off its pretty skirts, surrounded and protected as it is by all the mature, slightly damaged leaves around it. It is good, very good, and certainly entitled to its feature story.

But life doesn't stop here, at the young and perfect stage, the coddled you-are-the-center-of-our-universe stage. Eventually these perfect children go off to school and find themselves surrounded by lots of other equally perfect and equally doted-upon children, and suddenly center stage is no longer a given. What happens then?

If they - and we, the parents and friends and society that surrounds them - are lucky, they become what my mother-in-law called "civilized:" i.e., responsible, contributing, sharing, forgiving, compassionate members of their community and society. They learn to relinquish center stage, to work with others for the common good, to brighten the little corner where they are with whatever gifts and talents they have without becoming drama queens: sweet when they get their way and horrid when they don't, always demanding constant feedback and attention or the biggest slice of the pie.

But they don't do that alone -- none of us do. We come into that maturity with the assistance of the constant, thoughtful and intentional feedback -- correction, applause, and forgiveness -- we get from those around us. And if we're lucky, we come to find that the pleasures of occupying center stage are fleeting, and that there is a deeper joy to be found in the productive, cooperative, supportive and compassionate connection with friends, family and community.

Once part of that larger connection, we, too, must learn the skills of correction, applause and forgiveness. I still struggle with that. Though I, too, am an only child, I mastered applause early -- I had to, in self-defense. This year I am doing a lot of work with forgiveness, and I find it immensely satisfying. As Samuel Johnson said in a quote my husband sent me just this morning,

A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the true value of time, and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain.

But correction is trickier, for me, at least: easier when my children were young, but harder as they age, and incredibly difficult with friends and neighbors -- partly because I hate to set myself up as a judge and partly because I hate the potential repercussions that can follow. Hmm. I guess that's a part of me that hasn't quite grown up yet, the part that still avoids making waves or rocking the boat for fear of the punishment that may follow.

It's good, of course, to be careful about claiming that right is on your side. But if we step TOO softly, we can end up rather like much of the Democratic party over this last decade or so, too awash in confusion and self-recrimination to stop the horrid -- war, greed, environmental rape and pillaging -- from taking center stage. Hopefully with this election America will come of age.

But it will take work. Or should I say, "It's not that easy, being green."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stop and Look

Last night my husband printed off a wonderful photo-journalism blog for me called "No Caption Needed: Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy."

The bloggers, Hariman and Lucaites, were looking at some photographs (from the Boston Globe site) of divers spinning through space on their way from the diving board to the water, and I loved what they had to say. In this particular post, Hariman quoted Yeats' line:

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

and then said "Well, this is how: stop time and take a look."

Maybe that's why shooting photographs has become such a wonderful introduction to mindfulness for me -- because that's what it's all about: stopping time, and taking a look. Mindfulness is about letting go of all the time-based preoccupations around past and future that occupy us and just focusing on the moment. And how better to capture those "Kodak Moments" than with a camera?

Isn't that what we who seek are looking for, to know the dancer from the dance? And does that differ from the photographer's quest to capture a whole story in a moment? How is it that we can begin to distinguish that essence that both makes each of us unique and ties us together? By stopping and looking; by stepping out of our preoccupation with the world around us and the distraction of time-based ruminations to actually notice what is right at our feet?

As far as I could tell from continued exploration, the no-caption blog was quite a bit more political than mine tends to be. But I decided to drop them a note to say how much I liked their blog, and thought I'd include a photo. Of all my photos, this one seemed most likely to reach across the divide between contemplation and politics -- and to speak (iconically, of course!) about public culture.

Because, from his haircut and his clothes, I have assumed (though I do not know) that this young man in the wheelchair has been a soldier. I see him stopping and looking at the ridiculous and superficial gaiety that is this amusement park, and noticing that it is shut down, under wraps -- a symbol for all he has lost.

And then I see the title in the sign: Altered States of Funk, and I wonder, who is the dancer, and who is the dance? Is what I see only a projection of my own altered state? What if he were an employee in the park, reveling in the quiet before he opens up, removes the covers, and lets the squealing children in? What if the wheelchair isn't his?

When we are caught up in our lives and our stories, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions that may have little to do with others and everything to do with our own "altered states." Because this world, and time, and the pressures of past losses and future expectations all take us away from what is true, what is real, what is the dance we were born to do.

And if we don't stop and take a look at who we really are and what's really happening, now, in this moment, we're allowing those altered states to govern us; to keep us wheelchair-bound til we forget we ever even knew how to dance.

But if I choose to stop and pay attention, there is a chance that I might see myself in this young man; a chance that I might gain both connection and insight. As it says earlier in that same Yeats poem, "Among School Children",

"a tale she told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age -
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage -
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child."

I believe that it is this kind of awareness, the sense of connection and understanding that grows in that brief moment of attention, that allows us to tap into the heart of compassion. We just have to stop and look.