Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mystical Hope

As I begin to wander through my images of Italy, I see that there are numerous shots like this one, the camera pointing up or down a tiny alley, with something delicious off in the distance. I also noticed that I was not alone in taking these pictures; that there were always other photographers enticed by the same basic shot.

So what is it in these little alleys that is so appealing? Perhaps it is because of a conversation I had with one of the other people on the trip, but I think the allure of these alleys has something to do with hope.

It was one of those serendipitous conversations; we happened to be across from one another at dinner, and I learned that she was a coloratura soprano in the choir of a California church also attended by the woman who house-sat for us while we were in Italy. So the conversation -- unlike most of the other conversations on the trip -- took a bit of a spiritual bent, and she said at one point that she didn't think she could live without hope.

Which made me remember the very first time I heard Cynthia Bourgeault speak: it was an appearance at our local bookstore, to which I had been dragged (mildly against my will) by a dear friend who had lost her son to suicide the previous year. Cynthia was promoting her latest book, Mystical Hope, and one of the members of the audience asked her during the question and answer period what the difference was between Buddhism and Christianity.

Because I have drifted in and out of both these camps with some frequency over the years, I paid particular attention to her answer, so I remember even now, several years later, that she replied at the time that the difference was that Christianity holds out hope.

In the years since then I have occasionally noticed that some Buddhist writers express a distinct skepticism about hope, and see it as a foolish way of avoiding the realities of existence. But, more importantly, I have come to see that, for me, hope is inextricably entangled with my constant underlying awareness of the Divine. It may be childish of me, but there is always, even in my darkest moments, a sense that -- as they sing in Music Man -- "The Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin... and it could be, something special, just for me."

So I look down or up all the tiny little alleys in these beautiful hilltowns of Italy, and rejoice again in the way the darkness around the doorway serves to set off the light and color that calls to me from the distance. And I am thankful, once again, for this curious blessing I have been given; for the constant underlying awareness that somewhere, just around the corner, something special awaits me. I don't think I dwell on that, or get caught up in it; it's more that the anticipation of the future somehow serves as an antidote to worry, so that I can stay more in the moment and thoughts of the future just become like a spice for the present.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Madonnas of Italy

Greetings, fellow travelers!

I am back from Italy, my brain and camera filled with images of statues and shrines, Tuscan hillsides, Tintoretto paintings, flying buttresses and a thousand shades of marble. I'm sure it will take weeks to process everything, both the experience and the images, but what I do feel this morning as I begin trying to label the pictures (Honey, was this Lucca or San Gimignano?) is a deep well of love: for my husband, who proved to be the perfect traveling companion; for Italy, so incredibly beautiful; and for the Divine Spirit which inspired so many amazing works of art.

There are a jumble of impressions to sort out, but what rises to the surface first this morning are two pictures I didn't take. The first was of the thousands of steps that stretched before me when we got off the funicular one stop too early in Naples, and had to climb (and climb, and climb, and climb, and climb) to get the ancient monastery at the top of the hill overlooking the city.

This was at the very beginning of the trip, when I was still recovering from surgery and easily overwhelmed; I was terrified, jet-lagged and exhausted, and almost in tears as the stairs continued up beyond my vision no matter how many steps I climbed. But my dear sweet husband was amazingly patient with me, and ultimately the monastery proved to be more than worth the trip. It housed room upon room upon room of incredible art and statuary; inlaid cupboards that my brother-in-law swore were paintings until he pulled his ever-present flashlight from his pocket and we realized each brushstroke was a separate piece of wood; and a gloriously beautiful courtyard that took on an extra radiance in the late afternoon as the sun began to set.

The second photo I didn't take was of the tomb of Saint Francis, in his basilica in the town of Assisi. As was often true, photos were forbidden inside the church (I confess I didn't always adhere to those rules!) but it was easy to set the camera aside in this instance. There was something about going down to that lower basilica (one is built atop the other) and then walking down the stairs with the monks chanting their evening prayers in the background, kneeling before St. Francis' tomb, which was lit by candles and surrounded by the delicate aroma of incense, and feeling the overwhelming aura of peace and love that emanates from this holy space.

Today, back on my island, after a night in my own bed (thank God, no more twin beds!) and a good NORTHWEST cup of coffee (large and strong), I returned to the reading I had begun before I left of Jack Kornfield's book, The Wise Heart. Today's chapters are all about desire and the transformation of desire; a perfect sequel to my recent travels.

Because, though I did little to no formal meditation on the trip, I was often aware of the pricklings of desire: the desire for connection with my fellow travelers, or their approval; the occasional grass-is-always-greener desire to be sitting "on the other side of the bus, where the GOOD views are"; the desire for something other than pasta for dinner; the desire to fill my camera with inspiring photos... lots of desires kept percolating in me.

But the strongest wish, for reasons I can only begin to understand, was to capture all the lovely images we passed of the Virgin Mary and her beloved child. I loved them all, and loved watching for them.Whether tucked into corners and niches on buildings or larger than life on the walls of cathedrals, the Madonnas of Italy, like this one spotted on a random building as we walked down to our bus the morning we left Assisi, never failed to fill me with joy.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Decisions, decisions

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks, so I feel like it should be a good one, leaving all of us with something important to think about. But my brain is in its usual pre-travel state, anxious and indecisive, and my body is sending lots of little frantic messages, trying to get me to stay home and not risk the unknown.

This morning, in Kornfield's The Wise Heart, I read that Buddhist psychology claims there are three basic temperaments: grasping, aversion, and delusion. After reading the descriptions, I suspect I fall into the grasping category: it has more to do with wanting beautiful things around you, and clinging to things, and less to do with rejecting and judging (aversion) or waffling and confusion (delusion).

Which means that packing for a trip can be challenging, as I worry that I won't have what I need when I need it. It's hard to reject things, to choose NOT to take them. And where the rubber hits the road this morning is, of course, on the question of cameras. Do I take the high-end one? It's heavy, and bulky, and will always have to be hanging off my shoulder as it won't fit in a purse or pocket. Nothing says "tourist" like a big camera! But it shoots great pictures, in rapid fire.

Originally I had thought to take both that one and the smaller one, which is a slower camera but fits in a purse and gives great color. But the brochure for the tour says never to leave a camera in your hotel room, and I am reluctant to carry both of them with me everywhere I go: I'm already concerned about the physical toll this trip will take on my still-recovering-from-surgery body. So this morning I took my grasping self by the hand and told it "you can't have everything. Go (as the old Bonnie Raitt song, "Let me be your blender, baby" says) for the one that's "built for comfort, not for speed!" This is, of course, a familiar choice for me...

It's not that any of these temperaments are bad, Kornfield goes on to say. But you need to understand what lies at the base of your thinking processes if you are to successfully transform into your best and truest self. It's not that we need to eradicate the tendencies, but it helps to know what you're working with.

So when I saw this window in Venice a few years back, my first thought was, "Ooh! Colored gloves! Wouldn't it be fun to own a pair! But how would you choose?" And then, luckily, the photographer in me kicked in and realized that what I would always love -- way more than the gloves -- is the color: the way they all look together in the window. "The grasping temperament, when transformed," says Kornfield, "gives rise to beauty and abundance."

And, just in case you fall into one of the other categories, he goes on to say that the aversive, fault-finding, negative temperament transforms into discriminating wisdom, non-contentiousness, and loving kindness; and that the deluded, confused, "spacy" temperament gives rise to spaciousness, equanimity and understanding, what he calls "the wisdom of great questioning" or "beginner's mind."

So see? It's all good -- we just have to work with what we have; to grow into what we were born to be. This reminds me of the enneagram classes I have taken: it's very hard, initially, not only to decide which number you are on the scale, but then to deal with the characteristics that define that number: they all seem so negative! But the fact is, you can't fix things until you understand what is broken; in order to embark on transformation it's important to understand what is being transformed, and to have a glimpse of what it has the potential to become.

I am reminded again of that wonderful image of the oak tree in Eat Pray Love. Perhaps the temperament, in this case, is the acorn we work with. And the mature tree, longing itself into glorious existence, is all that wonderful potential that lies within each of us, waiting to be born into holiness.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the politics of exclusion

Four years ago, when my oldest daughter was still in high school, she decided that for Halloween she would dress as the antithesis of herself. Since her self at that time dressed almost exclusively in black and was a devout -- almost rabid -- democrat, she went on a pretext to the republican headquarters in town and availed herself of several Bush bumper-stickers and a Bush placard (for planting in a lawn).

On Halloween morning, she dressed in a pink evening gown, plastered the bumper stickers on her notebook and backpack, and left for her day at school carrying the placard as well. It was, of course, terribly amusing to her classmates and teachers, who knew her well and saw the irony of the disguise. The tricky part came after school, when she was scheduled to meet a friend at the nearby grocery store to get a ride home.

To do so, my daughter had to leave the high school -- still dressed in pink and carrying her Bush paraphenalia -- and walk two blocks down a busy road to the store. And, because our island (despite the existence of a Republican headquarters) is primarily Democratic in its political persuasions, she found herself subjected to all kinds of hoots and jeering and general nastiness during the course of that two-block walk. She was appalled at this behavior -- she had thought Democrats were above that sort of thing -- and since that time has adamantly refused to listen to or read any of the negative remarks published by members of either party about their opponents. Bush, she concluded, was doing the best he can with what he knew, and while she remained a democrat she became intolerant of intolerance.

As now, four years later, the glass houses again begin throwing stones, I find that I, too have developed a severe aversion to this behavior. She was home when Obama gave his acceptance speech, but as soon as his sentences began with "McCain didn't" and "The Republicans" she left the room. I stayed a bit longer, but then I, too, walked away. I stopped supporting Move-on.org and the Obama campaign when they began sending out messages attacking their opponents, and I am resisting all the anti-Sarah Palin propaganda that has come flying into my emailbox.

Which is not to say that I am not still a Democrat: I am, and passionately so. But what drew me to Obama initially was his promise of change, and one of the changes I had hoped to see was an end to the mudslinging. But as time passes and he falls more and more into the hands of "seasoned" campaign advisors, I see more of the same-old, same-old retaliatory tactics.

And who among us, under attack, can resist the urge to fight back, to whine, to pace in fury, looking for revenge? Not I, said the Little Red Hen, Not I. So how can we expect our political candidates to do otherwise?

I heard a piece on NPR the other day, about a democrat who had been invited by a friend to attend the Republican National Convention. And he talked about a psychological phenomenon: that we who believe tend to surround ourselves with like-minded believers and become steeped in those beliefs and the language around them, to the point where we can no longer hear or understand the arguments raised on the other side.

Contrast this with this quote from Aleksandr Solzheitsyn which I read this morning:

"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere indsidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?"

Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Unfortunately, I think we sense that dividing line within ourselves and project it outward onto others, loving those who we perceive to be echoing the best within us and hating those who echo that which we find unlovable within ourselves. We project our own internal polarization onto the world around us, and fail to have compassion both inwardly and outwardly for that which we falsely, self-protectively designate as "other."

I had hoped, with many others, that this election would bring an end to that sort of objectification. But Obama and his camp are only human. Perhaps it is only Jesus who can stand on the cross and proclaim "Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Drawn to St. Francis

For some reason I have always been drawn to statues of St. Francis. Perhaps it is because my mom had one in her garden in Texas, or maybe it's because I learned to sing the prayer of St. Francis back in 3rd grade, and have always been guided by its principles.

But I suspect it is nothing so obvious or noble as that: it's probably just the tenderness of these statues -- the austerity of the monk in his robes, the sweetness of his expression for the tiny bird that rests in his hand or on his shoulder.

And what I have just realized this morning is that in two weeks I will actually be in Assisi! This is the part of the trip that someone else planned, so I haven't paid much attention to where it will take us, other than to make sure it includes Venice! So it was a delight to discover -- though I knew that I'd be bringing back lots of photos of statues -- that I'd actually be going to the motherlode of St. Francis.

A few months back I fell in love with a handcarved and painted wooden statue of Francis from Mexico. (You need to understand -- I don't actually OWN any St. Francis statues) and I seriously thought of buying it. But something kept stopping me, even though his glass eyes seemed to follow me around the store. I assumed at the time that it was just a reluctance to spend the money (it was pretty pricey, like much of what you find in the stores on our island).

Now I wonder if the connection wasn't about the statue at all, but rather just to raise awareness. Because I went home and discovered I'd been collecting St. Francis photos since the first year I began photographing professionally. Hmmm. Looks like there will be more of those images in my future: what fun!

... and since I was just discussing this with someone who loves St. Francis but couldn't remember his wonderful prayer, here it is (thank you, Wikipedia!)

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Just about perfect

Yesterday my husband and I took the train down to Portland -- something I've wanted to do for several years now -- and drove back the elderly VW van my daughter and her boyfriend borrowed to take all their stuff off to school.

The ride down was almost all I'd hoped it would be -- the only thing missing was lunch in the dining car, which didn't happen because by the time they got to our car the only lunch reservations left would have happened after we had gotten off the train. But the seats were comfy and the views were fun; we watched the views, dozed, and read, and I shot lots of photos of the greenery speeding by.

The visit with our daughter, though brief, was full of love and joy, and our other daughter happened to call while we were there so we did a family hug with the cell on speakerphone in the middle. We were able to drop off all of the things our daughter had left behind -- mostly bedding -- and then we were off again.

The ride back was pretty silly: it was unbearably hot -- for me, anyway; high 80's -- and the van has no air conditioning and no windows other than the two on the front seat. Elderly VW, road trip, Bob Marley blaring -- it was something straight out of the 70's. So I asked my husband if he ever thought -- back in the 70's before he knew me -- he'd find himself enjoying one of these rides with an almost 60-year-old woman. He just grinned, but the grin was pretty huge.

When he came in to say goodbye this morning -- they moved his office yesterday, so he's heading in to unpack -- I mentioned I was writing about the road trip. "Why?" he asked. "We didn't even do anything. We didn't even TALK!" The train space had felt like the quiet room upstairs on the ferry, so we had just sat and read and looked out the windows. And the ride back had been so noisy, between the open windows, the fans, and the music, that I couldn't even hear the cellphone when our daughter called to see how the trip was going.

Yes, it would have been nice to be able to talk -- even after 24 years of marriage we never seem to run out of things to say to one another. But it was also nice just being together, doing something different, sharing the sweetness of the day.

Afterwards I went through all the photos I shot from the train, and most of them would have been a waste of film (thank God for digital!). There were a few good ones of bridges, but my favorite from the trip is this one, shot from the car on the way home.

Like the trip, it's pretty ordinary, just the back of a truck. But, also like the trip, there's a warmth to it, and color, and lots of opportunity for quiet reflections. And it seems to me that any day -- or photo -- that offers all that is, well, just about perfect.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Just a thought

Sometime shortly after the demise of my first marriage, back in the early 80's, I met a woman at a church supper. Maggie, a devout Episcopalian with aspirations to the diaconate, was 60-something at the time, newly abandoned by a husband who had run off to Florida with a young man, embarrassing their four children and leaving Maggie somewhat of a pariah in the small New England town where we both lived.

Maggie was an amazing woman with a strong sense of humor and a profound love of God, and we discovered at that church supper that we had gone to the same high school in Illinois and could both still sing that school's alma mater. For whatever reason, we became fast friends, and I began spending a lot of time at her little red house on the edge of the Connecticut River.

Prior to her husband's abdication, Maggie had been heavily involved with a women's bridge group in town, and they used to go off together in the summer to spend time at a small cottage on an island off the coast of Boston. No longer invited on these mini-vacations, she still had access to the cottage, so she invited me down for a weekend, a trip which initiated my lifelong love of islands.

Baker's Island was tiny, only a mile long, accessible by two mailboats a day. While there we walked the perimeter of the island -- which didn't take us very long -- and I discovered cranberry bogs and another lifelong obsession: beach glass, worn smooth by the pounding of the surf. We sat on her porch and played cards, watched the sun set over the nearby lighthouse, and Maggie sang old sailor's hymns from the community church hymnal accompanied by the harmonica I had brought with me.

There was only one bedroom, but there were wide window seats around the perimeter of the living room, which looked out across the Atlantic Ocean to a horizon unbroken by any other land. So I slept there, and on Friday night I was awakened at some point by what looked like it might be a nuclear explosion somewhere across the sea -- maybe in England? I stared, transfixed and horrified, as the huge ball of light began rising slowly over the sea, sending a bright ribbon across the water straight into my living room.

I thought about waking Maggie to tell her the end of the world had come, but I was too terrified to move, and it seemed to be happening rather slowly... and then I realized it wasn't an explosion at all, but simply the full moon coming up on the horizon. I had never seen such a thing before -- never having lived on the water -- and an enormous sense of peace and connectedness stole over me: the power of that first ocean moonrise is something that lives with me still.

This morning I sat in meditation, resting in one of the visual images that often accompanies me in these quiet times: a distant horizon that somehow represents the passage of time, with a vertical line connecting the divine light above with the divine light within me, below that horizon.

And as I sat, breathing deeply at the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, I thought of that long ago night on Baker's Island; of Maggie, who later became my daughter's godmother, and still later passed away. And it seemed that God was that immense moon, and I, made in God's image, could be that ribbon of light, the reflection of that divinity reaching across the surface of life and into the deepest heart of being.

Just a thought. But pleasant, nonetheless.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Small miracles

Years ago I spent a week in Port Townsend taking a photography class. My husband was working, my daughters were off at camp, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.

I was encouraged to go by the then manager of the photo development shop in Anacortes. He had been developing my images for a year or two at that point, and thought I had a lot of potential, so he set it up, took my money and sent it in, and drove me down for the week. I had a wonderful roommate, a terrific woman from Vancouver BC whose name I no longer remember, and the three of us spent a terrific week, getting up at 4 in the morning to photograph lighthouses and gardens; going to those fabulous bunkers they have at Fort Worden, photographing boats, and enjoying wonderful meals at the local cafes.

Now that I live closer to Port Townsend, I try to get over there every few months or so to recapture some of the joy I found in that long-ago week -- it's still one of the prettiest towns in the state of Washington, and I love to poke around the back roads and see what new surprises await my camera.

This statue stands at the end of a side road in the middle of town, and I have fond memories of a late-night exercise where we put our cameras on tripods, set the exposures to be really long, and sort of danced around the fountain with flashlights. What I also remember about the pictures that came out of that exercise is that the part of the fountain most successfully highlighted by all those flashlights was this HUGE white glob of bird poop sitting on the statue's left breast. And since, in those days, we didn't have PhotoShop, we couldn't remove it from the images, and none of them were really saleable.

Somehow humans seem to have been designed to spot flaws rather than to enjoy the other 95% of things that's pretty near perfect. We don't see the loveliness of the statue but rather the white spot on her boob. We lose sight of the overall health of our bodies and are consumed with agony over a sore toe. We forget how thoughtful and generous our mates are but can't forgive one thoughtless comment or mistake.

I'm sure this feature had some genetic purpose when it was engineered into us -- and the ability to find flaws has certainly proven a boon to my husband in his work. But at some point I believe we each have a choice: we can hang on, cling to our sense of pain or sadness or injustice, or we can set it aside and rejoice in all that's right in our lives.

I'm not saying we should ignore -- or even put up with -- the bad stuff when it truly is the dominant aspect of our situation. In such cases it is important to admit that life at this point is truly flawed and do our best to cope with or rectify the problem.

But I'm thinking now of the time the women's choir sang Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols from the loft of the Howe Library in Hanover, NH, and there was one woman whose voice was consistently "off." At first, listening from the desk below the loft where I served as circulation manager, I found the wrong notes incredibly irritating. But as the songs continued I came to realize that the slight (and it was actually slight) imperfection made the music breathtakingly real and human.

Sometimes I think that those occasional wrong notes in life may be just the spice we need to appreciate the incredible beauty and tenderness of life. All us humans, all struggling to make our way in the world despite the sore toes and bad haircuts and faulty paint jobs and leaky tires and dysfunctional families and learning disabilities and all the other things that make life challenging for us -- it's really very dear. And the fact that the music is still so lovely in spite of those wrong notes? Nothing short of a miracle!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Healing with Color

After the revelations I learned about how other photographers cull through their work (see the August blog entry "to toss or not to toss"), I decided to make another pass through some of my fatter folders; to apply some of what I learned to the elimination process.

The first place to go was clearly my boat folders. And I do mean folders. I don't just have one folder labeled "Boats." Within that folder there are actually 23 sub-folders -- kayaks and canoes, sailboats, wooden boats, boat parts, prow reflections, tugboats... and lots more. And all of them are chock to the gills with photographs.

I love boats of all kinds, though I spend little to no time in them (although I did get married in a canoe!). I have a suspicion this affection for marine transport is something genetic -- my Swedish grandfather (on my father's side) was a sailor, and there's a great grandfather somewhere way back on my mother's side who was a steamboat captain on the Mississippi.

But my deepest affection is reserved for old painted dinghies, preferably floating on a still sea, shot in the early morning light with maybe a little fog for atmosphere. And much as I love the other work that I do -- and seldom as I go out to shoot boats these days -- most of my all-time favorite images fall into this category. Which means I find it hard to throw any of these away.

So, in my personal tradition of facing into a challenge -- did I ever mention that the first thing I ever made on my sewing machine was my first wedding dress? -- I decided to start with the ones that would be hardest to discard.

Fortunately my new understanding of the process stood me in good stead, and over the last two days I've been able to toss a lot of images, either because they really didn't have staying power, or because others that were similar were better. And part of the joy of that exercise, of course, was revisiting all those lovely photos.

This one, for example, which should have been in the boat parts folder, had been misfiled in the dinghies folder. When I looked at it I just got this wonderful clear warm settled feeling, and thought to myself, "This, THIS, is why I love to photograph boats."

I understand that it may not affect you in the same way. The composition is very staid and simple. But I ADORE the colors -- I love to mix shades of blue with a slight touch of yellowish or reddish orange. And when I let my eyes glaze over a bit the whole silverish lower portion of the image could become a forest, or a pattern of waves, or a mountain range. To me the mystery of that just enhances the work.

So nope, I have no brilliant observations to share with you this morning. Today, now that my body seems to be returning to health and regaining its strength, I am just reveling in the simple sensual pleasure of a single image, noticing my joyful response to its colors and forms. All part of the healing process, I'm sure!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Looks like Mindfulness

Late last spring my local gallery contacted me and asked if I would participate in a show they were planning for October. The subject of the show would be something to do with words, or the graphic power of words, and they were particularly interested in four-letter words.

I agreed to participate -- I always do, no matter what the subject, because it's always fun to explore their themes, and I always learn from them. I began thinking about four-letter words, and this image, the base of which has appeared before in this blog, came to mind. I learned a lot about the layers feature in PhotoShop while putting this together, but by the time I submitted it as a possible candidate for the show, they had moved beyond four-letter words and this one only merited a passing glance.

I had chalked it up to a learning experience and pretty much forgotten it until this morning, when I read in The Wise Heart Jack Kornfield's explication of the Four Principles for Mindful Transformation.

"In many Western mindfulness retreats,"
writes Kornfield, "the four principles for mindful transformation are taught with the acronym RAIN: recognition, acceptance, investigation, and non-identification. The Zen poets tell us that "the rain falls equally on all things," and like the nourishment of outer rain, the inner principles of RAIN can transform our difficulties."

Recognition, he goes on to say, is the act of acknowledging what is actually taking place in the particular moment. Think of it as the opposite of Denial.

Acceptance -- not to be confused with passivity -- "allows us to relax and open to the facts before us."

Investigation is a determination to explore the situation more fully, to pay attention to what is being expressed or felt in our body, mind, and feelings, and to assess the nature of the experience.

And Non-identification is to begin to realize that there exists an awareness within us that is not overwhelmed by the situation or experience; that we are not wholly consumed by or identified with whatever is happening to or within us at the moment.

"Without identification," says Kornfield, "we can respectfully care for ourselves and others, yet we are no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self.... When we meet the world with recognition, acceptance, investigation and non-identification, we discover that wherever we are, freedom is possible, just as the rain falls on and nurtures all things equally."

Reading this, I remembered this image: both the sensations of peace I felt when I shot the original photograph, looking out the window of my friends' home in Vermont on a quiet rainy morning, and the challenges I faced as I explored ways of integrating the word and the image. And now I see that the effort wasn't wasted after all: I can offer it to you as a simple visual reminder of the principles of mindfulness.

Last night we decided to watch a movie my husband had collected on a whim from a local video store. When we turned on the TV, it was set to the local public TV station, and they were showing "The Last Lecture," the one given by the MIT professor who died of cancer this past summer.

It was near the end of the program, so we decided to watch the movie, but before we changed the channel the lecturer said something like this: if someone is driving you crazy, just give it time, and you'll see there's a gift, a redemption in the situation somewhere.

Sounds like mindfulness, to me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Life beyond the mirror

Raised as an only child by a neurotic, controlling mother and a largely absentee father, I grew up with a self that performed largely as a mirror, reflecting whatever those around me needed me to be: a set of expectations that often included invisibility.

As a result, when I hit my 20's, I realized to my horror that I had no clue who I was or what I wanted out of life. Married at 21, I simply transferred my reflecting abilities into yet another relationship, but functioned in many ways as a cipher. Those were the early days of feminism, so I began to explore myself from that perspective, but the more defined I became the weaker the fabric of the marriage appeared.

It wasn't until I began clambering out of that marriage that I began to pay attention to who I was and what I wanted out of life. And the gift given by my second husband, who loved me unconditionally, was the opportunity to make choices, to get angry, to argue and discuss without fear of accusation or retribution; a first for me.

So when we had children, I knew I had two goals for myself as a mother: to give them a grounding in unconditional love and acceptance, and to help them understand themselves as beings separate from their father and me. As they were growing up, we tried to help them observe their own behaviors and ours, to see how they were like each of us, and how they differed; which of their parents' characteristics were reflected in them, like the clouds on the water, and which, like the waves, were unique to them.

We learned to laugh together and celebrate our complexities and our differences. We tried to point out their strengths and weaknesses so that they could better understand the particular challenges they faced. And we did our best to help them understand that even when we disagreed with their choices we loved them. In the words of my favorite child-rearing book of the time: "I love you, but I don't like it when you do that."

And then, last night, as I was showering, it occurred to me that much of my reading and understanding these last few years has been about the difference between the egoic self that lies at the surface of consciousness and the universal self that lies deep within us; about learning to set aside the notions -- particularly in this american culture -- of uniqueness and individuality, in order to understand and feel compassion for our connectedness to all of creation.

I found myself wondering if the reason I am so drawn to this way of thinking is precisely because of my own early LACK of self-definition; is it easier to comprehend that universal connectedness because my own self-image was weak for so long? Had I done my children a disservice by encouraging them to develop an awareness of their own unique individuality?

I raised the issue with my husband, and he pointed out that this self-determination thing is a rather uniquely American phenomenon; in many other cultures people are far more identified with their family units, and are far less likely to define themselves as separate from that.

But then this morning, in Jack Kornfield's book, The Wise Heart, I read that we cannot cultivate the universal self at the expense of the personal self any more than we should cultivate the personal self at the expense of the universal. In order to fully realize either, we need to balance both.

I confess I feel greatly reassured by this. On a personal level, I suspect that the gift of faith that has accompanied me since childhood may well have been triggered by a desperate need to believe that someone or something out there saw me as unique and precious. But the time it took to begin to comprehend exactly who and what I am and have to offer seems rather unnecessarily long, though all the struggles to get to this place inform who I am and how I give back.

As a parent, I see that my children are slower than I was to become aware of the Divine connection within and around them, though I see that awareness emerging as a result of the challenges they've had to face. But it is my hope that they will become aware of their gifts and passions, their call in life, whatever that may be, BEFORE the ripe old age of 50.

In the end, it is what it is; we each travel our own paths, struggle with our own issues, suffer our own setbacks and hopefully find our own true callings. And I have to believe that everything we experience, good parenting and bad, opportunities, gifts and losses -- all contribute to the journey.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Color of Love

This image is from one of my absolutely favorite places in Venice -- which is to say, it's not really Venice at all, but a little island off the coast of Venice, called Burano.

And in fact, the reason I decided, several years ago, that the ONE PLACE IN THE WORLD I had to see before I die was Venice can all be traced to a photograph I saw in a friend's album of her own trip to Venice. I was unmoved by all the traditional shots -- the canals, the gondoliers, the bridges, the glorious architecture, the piazzas and palazzos -- but when I caught sight of this multi-hued village I was enchanted, and made a vow to go.

I've now been twice to Burano -- once with each daughter -- and each time the daughter was ready to leave long before I had even begun to drink my fill of the glorious colors there. For me, addicted to color as I am, Burano is like a taste of Heaven; a dream come true; the delicious beginning of a love affair or a perfect Italian meal. I barely even see all the storekeepers hawking their lace -- except for the one or two stores that show their wares arranged by color -- because I am so thrilled by the striped awnings, the bright hues of laundry, the hand-painted boats, and the little icons that nestle in hidden niches everywhere.

What's interesting is that I don't believe I've ever sold any of my Burano pictures, except this one, which a friend requested. In the Bainbridge gallery where I sell most of my work there's a wall of small photos of windows and doorways, many of which come from Burano, and they apparently sell like hotcakes -- but I didn't shoot them! So why is that?

I'm thinking it's almost like a pair of young lovers, so caught up in each other that everyone else is excluded. My images of Burano have all been taken in the early phase of our relationship, and are almost embarrassingly caught up in mutual self-discovery. I am worshiping at the altar of her colors, totally absorbed in her beauty, and everything which seems miraculous and new to me seems trite and hackneyed to the outside observer. There is no room for another presence in our relationship, and so the divine spirit that speaks through and permeates the best of my work has no presence here; the images are totally self-absorbed. Even I don't spend much time looking at them; they are almost embarrassingly lush and unfocused.

Those images which DO work for me tend to be much more austere and restrained. I usually know as I'm shooting that there is something miraculous taking place, and there is a definite awareness of the Other, a component of awe and wonder intrinsic to the particular moment that has little to do with the Obvious and everything to do with being grounded in earth, water, air and sky and fully aware of the transitory nature of light.

There's a book that came out back in the late eighties called "Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow." I remember liking the premise -- that if you follow your passion, the rewards of your career will be greater -- but I'm thinking now that the real key is not to DO what you love, but rather to ALIGN yourself with Love, so that you become a clear channel through which love can flow uninterrupted.

And much as I love Burano and hope to go back some day, I know the thrill of all that color pales in comparison to that serene sensation of being wholly aligned with the passion of the universe for itself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Angels in my garden

Yesterday I decided to go out for a short walk -- just up to our neighbors' home and back -- and when I came back to my front door I discovered that sometime in the last week or so some kind soul has added a pair of angels to my garden table.

I use the word "garden" loosely here, as the several attempts we've made over the years to create a garden in this sandy yard of ours have always been overcome by the combined evils of high tides and my laziness. I had hoped that the green thumb I had before my daughters were born would return after they left for college, but so far there has been no sign of it. I am therefore totally humbled by the pictures sent to me recently by a friend who moved to Maine a year ago and in so short a space of time has created a garden wondrous enough to be included on her local garden tour.

Suffice it to say that the dune grass and fennel have won yet again this year, and it was easier to add a fountain than it was to get anything else to grow. There's a little wrought-iron table and chairs outside our kitchen window, just to break up the monotony of it, and it was there that these two angels stood, masked from the kitchen view by the terracotta head that sits on the tabletop.

Inspired by a letter announcing I had won awards for some of the manipulated images I've been developing this year, I spent some time yesterday creating this new image from several layers: the base is a stream inside the Vancouver airport, and over it lie grasses from a retreat center on the Hood Canal, a moonrise shot from my front deck, part of a palm from a Florida garden, and a sunset over St. Petersburg.

It's possible the angel doesn't belong in this image, but I'm leaving her there for now as a way of sharing -- remember the old Doublemint commercial? -- "Two, Two, Two gifts in one!" Somehow, at least for now, the gift of the angels is inseparable from the healing process, which is inseparable from the joy of exploring a new image: it's all a rich tapestry of gratitude.

So tell me, Gentle Reader: Which of you left me these lovely gifts? I treasure them, and thank you from the bottom of my heart!