Friday, October 31, 2008

A Halloween Gift

I spent most of yesterday afternoon hanging a new exhibit at our local theater. They've just finished a run of Macbeth, and next month's program features an orchestra performance called The Music of Shakespeare and a play called Saving Juliet (about a teen playing in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway), so my exhibit is appropriately entitled Shakespeare's Italy, and each image is accompanied by a quote from one of Shakespeare's plays.

We've had a spectacularly gorgeous fall on Bainbridge this year, and I keep meaning to take pictures but Pippa's death has left me feeling rather out-of-sorts and it's been difficult to feel much enthusiasm for my camera. When I left the house shortly after noon to take the photos in to hang, I thought about bringing the camera, but the only memory card with any space on it was still plugged in to my computer, and I was running late, so I just left without it.

As is usual when I leave my camera behind, there were some beautiful scenes just begging to be photographed as I drove into town, but I was so tired by the time I finished hanging the show that I just wanted to go home and collapse. So I went home and had an orange, sat and read for a while, and kept thinking about the images I wanted to shoot. The sky was darkening, both preparing for the rain we have this morning and moving in to evening, but eventually I gave in to the impulse, put the memory card and a new battery into the camera, and went back into town.

After shooting the specific things I'd seen -- a stand of brightly colored trees beside the fire station; some late-blooming cosmos against the gray wall of the shoe repair shop; the bright red maples of the Safeway parking lot -- I decided to pop down to Waterfront Park for old times' sake.

For the first few years I lived on the island, I did most of my shooting at Waterfront Park. There's a public dock there, and the folks who live on boats in the bay or in the marinas across from the park tend to row into town to pick up supplies and leave their boats tethered at the dock.

The boats come in all shapes and sizes, but are mostly working dinghies, canoes and kayaks, and I love to photograph their sturdy practical shapes reflected in the calm waters of early morning.

There's often a lot of activity at the dock in the evening (which is why I tend not to shoot then), and yesterday was no exception. But the water was calm, the rain was still only intermittent, and to my delight there was an unfamiliar boat there: a bright orange canoe.

It was a perfect Halloween gift, all black and orange -- the bright canoe with its woven seat and wooden paddles; the water, darkly reflecting the looming clouds and littered with orange maple leaves; the mysterious black shadows cast by the boats and their masts and lines, wavering as the big weekender boats from Seattle made their way into the marinas -- and so I share it with you this morning, along with a reminder that we're really celebrating All Saints Day. So think of the loved ones you have lost, hold them in your prayers, and don't forget to pick up some candy for your trick-or-treaters.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2008


I know; I already blogged today. But I wanted to share something I realized in a conversation this morning; a conversation that turns out to be directly related to yesterday's blog.

I was sharing coffee with a friend who pokes around in the stock market (he's been, not surprisingly, pretty depressed lately) and he said he thought the prime motivators in that environment were fear and greed. "That's what I'm feeling all day," he said, and he pantomimed typing in stock sales and purchases. "Fear, greed, fear, greed, greed, greed, fear, fear..."

"But aren't those ALWAYS prime motivators?" I asked.

He paused, then started to disagree, so I leaped in again and said "... for all our bad behaviors?" And that's when the revelation (and yes, I get that this is ridiculously simplified, BUT) kicked in. Isn't it possible that our bad behaviors can almost always be tied to the movement of grasping, holding, clinging, attachment, being closed, pulling in, gathering to the chest? (As a mother, and as a photographer with folders newly full of images of madonnas clasping babies to their chests, and Jesus hugging sheep, I HAVE to say almost, not always).

And isn't it equally possible, she says, having just left a retreat focused on Kenosis, the act of letting go, that almost all good behaviors are about releasing, not clinging, being open; about generosity and acceptance and non-attachment?

That said, I believe I may have found the stimulus for the dream of the open-handed monk the other day: this is a statue of Mary that stands at the entrance to the retreat center I stayed in last week. She is Mary, female, and white, not a monk, male, or gray, but the open-handed gesture of welcome is the same.

And if it is indeed that gesture of openness, of release and acceptance that is under consideration, then to make the wall art that wraps around and hugs the viewer is not quite saying the same thing. At all. It's all about opening, not about enclosing.

Playing by the Rules

The other day, while returning home from the vet's office, I found myself behind this truck. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see that there are signs on the back of the truck. The one on the left points left, and says "passing side;" the one on the right points right and says "suicide."

I found it amusing, felt a connection with the author of the signs, and decided to photograph it. But now it falls to me to explore what might be the larger implications of this message, and I confess I'm a bit reluctant, because it smacks of absolutism, and fundamentalism: Do it the right way, and you'll get ahead in life; do it the wrong way and you DIE. Thinking of that immediately raises the spectre of sin, and Puritanism, and (as Halloween approaches) all the devils and goblins -- and police -- that'll come after you if you stray from the pre-assigned path.

It reminds me of the constant admonitions of our younger daughter, whom we often teased for being a "rule-based automaton." Though she was always a bit that way, it became most obvious when she took driver ed: she became fiercely critical of her parents' driving. A constant stream of criticism would flow from the backseat whenever she was in the car: "Dad, you're driving over the speed limit!" "Mom, turn your blinker on!" "Nice parking job - NOT!" "Nice stop -- NOT!"

Yes, though I am a law-abiding citizen, I do occasionally bend the rules. And though I doubt I'd ever do so with a truck like this -- too risky! -- I have been known to pass on the right, especially when a slow-moving citizen has the audacity to drive well under the speed limit in the HOV lane. And I have to confess that the part of me that believes in patient, attentive mindfulness has frequently had to take a back seat to the part of me that always seems to want to get where I'm going a bit faster than the stated speed limit allows.

I could launch into some tirade about following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, but face it: I would just be rounding up excuses. Because the fact is, sometimes I screw up. And while in some areas of my life I am a model of propriety, there are other areas where I fail to live up to my own standards of behavior, whether or not they are in sync with society's standards.

A friend of mine mentioned guilt the other night. "I'm not even Catholic," she moaned, "why do I feel so GUILTY all the time?"

"Ah," I replied, "Let me guess: were you raised a Presbyterian?"

"Why, yes, what does that have to do with it?"

"I think Presbyterians struggle with guilt WAY more than Catholics do," I replied. For one thing, we don't get to go to confession and release the guilt by saying Hail Mary's and Our Fathers. But we also don't get given quite such clear rules. And the fact is that it's way easier to live with clear rules than the sort of situation ethics embodied in Jesus' commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." Because to do that right, we have to always be THINKING about what would be right; we have to stay conscious, and most of us find that exhausting; it becomes simpler just to slip back into old patterns and habitual behaviors, or take the easy way out, and then guilt rears its ugly head again.

So this morning I embarked upon my new reading adventure, into The Cloud of Unknowing. And the first thing that 14th-century monk had to say that really leaped out at me was this:

"Look ahead now and never mind what is behind; see what you still need, and not what you have, for this is how meekness is most quickly won and defended."

And though I've never "had much truck" (as they say) with the notion of original sin, or the emphasis some denominations place on reminding us of our sinfulness, it is nonetheless true that when I embark upon a lengthy meditation session or period I am often beset with reminders of my weak spots; the areas where I fail to live up to my own values and beliefs, where I still need work and guidance. At such times those areas seem far more obvious than the things I have managed to do well, and I can't help but question what right I have to call myself a contemplative, or to continue writing this blog.

So I have to thank this monk for reminding me that "this is how meekness is most quickly won and defended." I don't believe we are expected to wallow in our sinfulness -- there are as many traps for the unwary in the wallowing as there are in the sins themselves. But it doesn't hurt to have occasional reminders that we are not perfect; they keep us from getting too full of ourselves. And if we are too full of our SELVES, as this truck is so full of rocks and dirt, there will be no room for God.

In the end, that meekness that Jesus claimed was so blessed isn't cowardice, or wussiness, though it is often confused with that. Meekness is more about humility; knowing we are not perfect, and not always deserving. And sometimes it is just about patience, about being willing to wait through the parts when the road is narrow and we can't see around the bend.

It is, I think, the delusion that we and our goals and our lives are so much more important that drives us, against both logic and rules, to push ahead thoughtlessly. And sometimes it's just frustration -- at not being able to see beyond the obstacles in our immediate future to what lies ahead -- that drives us to pass on the right rather than wait for an appropriate opening on the approved and safe side.

And yes, the truck is right: sometimes that thoughtless drive to push ahead, to step out of line, to put ourselves out in front can be suicide. As the old quote says, discretion is the better part of valor. Or, to put it more succinctly, in the words of my kindergarten teacher, sometimes it's best to be patient, and "Wait your turn!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

With Open Hands

Sleep has been a bit elusive this last week. I had hoped that would change once I was no longer feeling the impulse to wake up and check on Pippa, but the night after she died was no better.

It took forever to fall asleep, and I kept waking up. At 4:30 am I awakened again and thought about giving up and going downstairs, but decided I really needed more sleep. And as I lay there, drifting off again, I saw in my mind's eye a statue, gray, of a monk, his arms outstretched, palms up, in welcome. Ah, I thought, it must be Saint Francis, welcoming Pippa.

I woke again at 5:30, realized I was still too tired to get out of bed (though this is my usual wake-up time) so I rolled over, and again, there he was, draped in monk's robes, welcoming; accepting.

I saw the statue again at 6:30, and finally at 7:20 rolled out of bed and embarked on the day. My breakfast reading wasn't working for me, and when I tried to meditate thoughts of what to blog about kept intruding. So when I finally sat down at the computer I decided it was time to admit I was in mourning, so I put up that last Pippa photo and kept it brief. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about St. Francis, and knew I wanted to publish him today.

The odd thing is, I never found him. I've looked through all my Italy pictures, both from this trip and the two excursions to Venice, and I've looked through the other file folders that have statues and art in them. And this image I saw so clearly doesn't exist.

I only found four images with arms extended in that welcoming posture: one of God, seated; one of Mary, in full color; one of a goddess (could it be Anubis?) with lots and lots of breasts; and this one of Jesus, seated. None of the saints, popes, monks, nuns and bishops were making this welcoming gesture.

So where did my statue come from? And why is this gesture so rare, when seeing it brings such peace? Surely if humans long so much for acceptance and connection -- to feel forgiven and welcomed into a body of love -- they would paint and sculpt a representation of that?

Writing this, I remember, back in the day when I was doing a lot of fabric art, a vision I had of a work of wall art which I never created. It was to be a head shot -- face, neck, and shoulders -- with stuffed arms that extended out of the picture, and velcro on the fingertips, so you could step into it, wrap the arms around you, and clasp the hands together. Perhaps it's time to execute that in a full-body standing version.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008


This is my last picture of Pippa; taken Friday afternoon after her last determined beach walk.

After insisting on one last evening walk with the dog Sunday night, she died peacefully at home yesterday morning, purring softly and kneading to the end.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Practice, practice

In my reading of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever you go there you are this morning, I have come to the section with the specific instructions on meditation practice.

I got hung up here the last time I tried to read this book -- my form of meditation, Centering Prayer, is considerably less rule-based than the Buddhist meditation he describes -- but this time I'm going to try to plow through.

And there were a couple of things I read this morning that resonated with me. The first is that meditation is a way of practicing mindfulness. Well, duh... Isn't that rather stating the obvious?

But what he points out is that:

"Although it is tempting to do so, you can't just think that you understand how to be mindful, and save using it for only those moments when the big events hit. They contain so much power they will overwhelm you instantly, along with all your romantic ideas about equanimity and knowing how to be mindful."

Reading that was a bit of an epiphany, I confess. For me -- possibly because I do Centering Prayer -- my time sitting has been about getting to the still center within. I've heard Cynthia tell the story many times about the Centering Prayer practitioner who complained to Father Thomas Keating that she'd had a terrible sit, her mind going in 10,000 different different directions. Father Keating's response was apparently something like "Ah, how fortunate! 10,000 opportunities to practice letting go!"

I keep forgetting that the practice of letting go is every bit as important as the experience of the still center within. But somehow reading that same thought from this slightly different perspective helps me to realize that there really is a specific value in sitting even if I can't get to that quiet place of knowing.

It also helps to explain why, at times like last week, when I was on the retreat, I am so much more conscious of the strange (and occasionally disheartening) paths my mind wanders down in the course of a day. It isn't a bad thing, and it isn't that I am a terrible human being; it's that I am more mindful, more aware. That stuff was always there, and it's really SO much better to be aware of it than to be living unconsciously. If you don't know it's broke, it's not likely you can fix it -- even if the fixing just involves noticing, acknowledging, and accepting.

Yes, I get that this is all obvious. But the other aspect of meditating regularly is that with luck some of the stuff that seems obvious to your brain might actually plant itself in your heart...

Anyway, the other piece that struck me in my reading this morning was a little lecture on hand positions. Now, I understand -- and can see for myself if I look around the room at other meditators while on retreat -- that many people meditate with their hands resting, whether palms up or palms down, on their knees. I've tried that, and see it as a goal, but for whatever reason I begin to feel uncomfortable if I do that, so I allow myself to sit with fingers interlaced on my lap.

It turns out the Buddhists, who seem to have something to say about everything, have definitions for hand placements -- which he calls "hand mudras" -- as well. And Kabat-Zinn specifically invites you to explore the mental states that arise when you hold your hands in the various ways.

His observations reminded me of something I read in Malcolm Gladwell's amazing book, Blink, which I may have mentioned here before. A scientist who was categorizing the movements of facial muscles observed that when practicing the movements surrounding frowning he became angry and depressed, and he concluded that how we hold our bodies can actually affect our moods.

Apparently the Buddhists have known this for centuries. I was particularly struck by this passage from Kabat-Zinn's discussion of hand mudras, about the fist:

"Take the energy of the fist, for instance. When we get angry, our hands tend to close into fists. Some people unknowingly practice this mudra a lot in their lives. It waters the seeds of anger and violence within you every time you do it, and they respond by sprouting and growing stronger.

The next time you find yourself making fists out of anger, try to bring mindfulness to the inner attitude embodied in a fist. Feel the tension, the hatred, the anger, the aggression, and the fear which it an experiment...try opening your fists and placing the palms together over your heart in the prayer position... notice what happens to the anger and hurt as you hold this position for even a few moments."

This passage reminded me of this poster, which was plastered on walls everywhere in Naples. I don't know what it means, but it definitely contributed to the discomfort I felt in that town. Clearly fists --for me, at least -- serve as an expression or symbol of anger; which has never been a comfortable emotion for me, whether its my own anger or that of others.

The passage also reminded me of something my husband mentioned recently; that new tests are being devised that are apparently supposed to detect terrorists by measuring some of those facial muscle movements described in Blink. Though I get the universality of these notions, it's hard not to be concerned that such movements might not necessarily reflect the same emotions in all circumstances. Just as a fist might in some cases be more about fear than about anger, I could imagine that people accustomed to living in police states might exhibit more fear or anger (and how easy is it to distinguish between these two?) when being questioned than someone from whose idea of a policeman is Andy in Mayberry RFD.

Discussing this over dinner last night, we found ourselves (inevitable, of course, as the election draws near) discussing what impressions we take of our political candidates and whether those are conscious or unconscious responses. The subject of President Bush and his infamous smirk arose: does that smirk denote a sly attempt to get away with something, or just a lack of brainpower? And how can we ever really know?

Another reason to cultivate mindfulness, I suspect; it's terribly easy to let our unconscious minds make snap judgments that may just be completely off the mark. And now I understand that it's not enough to know that, any more than it's enough to know how a middle C sounds. If I am going to hit the note successfully, right on pitch -- and if I'm going to accurately assess what is going on around me -- I need to plant what I know in my brain in my heart, and I need to bring the things I unconsciously think or know in my heart up to awareness. And that will take practice, practice, practice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where is the cross?

Growing up in the Presbyterian church, I never saw crucifixes: our crosses were always empty. I was told this was because the emphasis of our faith was on Jesus' resurrection and our opportunity to be born again -- that through him we would have eternal life -- and that the Catholic fixation on crucifixes was because they wished to emphasize that Jesus died for us and our sins.

I don't actually know if this is the reasoning -- feel free to tell me if I'm wrong -- but, whatever the theology, Italian churches are full of crucifixes. Sometimes, if cameras were allowed, I photographed them; sometimes I didn't and I'm not sure why I did or didn't. I do know they had an iconic quality that resonated with me far more than the empty crosses do. But that could be because, as an artist, I am always intrigued by the human figure.

At this point in my life as a Christian, I can look back and see that there have been times when both concepts -- the hope of eternal life, and the death for our sins -- have been a very important part of my faith. But in extreme conversion moments (I confess I have had at least three of those) it was the image of Christ on the cross that impacted me most intensely.

I am still reviewing my notes from my brief time on retreat last week, and I noticed yesterday that I had written down this interesting and probably controversial remark: "Christ's mission was not to die for our sins, but to restore God consciousness." Speculating on that statement this morning, I decided to go back and look through my crucifixion images from Italy, and I found this one.

I don't believe I realized when I shot this (painted on the wall of a cloister in Naples) that it isn't actually a crucifix. It's a very unusual (to me, anyway) image of God holding the crucified Jesus on his lap; the cross is just a decoration on God's gown.

Which creates an interesting tension for me. On the one hand, God is tenderly supporting Christ. But at the same time, he is not hugging, protecting or cradling him, but rather holding him in this exceedingly vulnerable position. It's almost as if the artist is saying, not just that God sent his son to die for us, but that all the pain that happens to us is acceptable to God, a part of the fabric of life, even as he supports us through it.

The Presbyterian in me -- having grown up with the idea of predestination -- is actually quite comfortable with that thought, though the image itself is very different from the empty crosses of my youth. But the person I am now, at this point in my spiritual life, is trying to reconcile that concept with my learnings from Jesus' sayings in the Gospel of Thomas; the sayings which are so much more about how we can choose to live our lives than they are about our sinfulness.

But of course, the more aware we become of what we could be, and are called to be, and what a godly life might look like, the more aware we become of the ways we fail to live up to that -- which can make us feel extremely vulnerable and exposed.

It is at those moments that it seems to be most important to understand God's intense love for us, and God's acceptance of us, so that instead of running and hiding, curling up in a ball, masking, developing addictive behaviors -- all the ways we try to protect ourselves from awareness of our weaknesses -- we might stay with the pain of self-awareness and love ourselves through to the other side, where we, too, can develop a Christlike compassion for the rest of God's creation, and say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It's almost as if that statement that Jesus made from the cross is saying that it's not the sin that's the problem; it's the not-knowing that is really the issue. And doesn't the knowing emerge as we become more God-conscious? So perhaps Christ was attempting to save us from sin BY raising our God-consciousness. But of course having to face the knowing is so terrifying that people... well.. the phrase "shoot the messenger" comes to mind.

And maybe the artist's point is to remind us that it is WE who construct the actual cross and engineer the crucifixion? But that would be almost a Buddhist remark -- rather like the statement that pain is inevitable, but suffering is not; it is we and our thought patterns and behaviors that generate suffering.

Hmm. I think there are more questions than answers here. What an intriguing image this is...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Storyteller

In packing last week for my Centering Prayer retreat, I elected to bring along my most comfy clothes -- jeans, turtlenecks, and favorite sweatshirts for the long hours spent in meditation.

The sweatshirt I wore the first day of the retreat is an old favorite of mine, given to me by Ian MacKenzie probably 15 years ago, back in the day when he and I served on the board of Ecunet together.

At the time I met him, the Venerable Dr. John A. (Ian) MacKenzie was serving as an archdeacon somewhere in the northernmost hinterlands of western Canada, running a native ministries program through the Vancouver School of Theology, and serving as the titular head of the Nisga'a Tribal Council, busily negotiating the first modern First Nations Treaty in British Columbia -- and that's all I can remember off the top of my head; I know there was more.

Ian was a delight, a stocky square-headed Scotsman with a magnificent mane of white hair, a rebellious spirit and a delicious sense of humor, and we got on famously for some reason -- maybe because we were both Anglicans? At any rate, Ian came to visit me and my family at our home in the suburbs of Issaquah, before I left Ecunet and my position at the Diocese of Olympia and began my island odyssey. And he brought with him this sweatshirt, as a thank-you present for me.

I loved it: it was a sort of mottled purple and blue color -- something my older daughter likes to call "blurple" -- and was covered with Canadian native designs delicately rendered in a sort of lacy black overlay. But best of all the theme of the designs was explained at the bottom, which featured the word "Storyteller," centered, also in black.

Oddly enough, I hadn't thought of myself as a storyteller before, and I remember being surprised and infinitely pleased that Ian had observed that potential in me. I was, and still am, deeply moved by the attentiveness evidenced in that simple gift. Amazing. Somebody "got" me.

These days that sweatshirt is pretty ragged. The waistband is so frayed it has come apart, and there's a good-sized hole developing on the seam on the left side. I don't wear it much any more, partly because I weigh less now than I did then so it rather hangs on me, and partly (I confess) because it doesn't quite meet the dress standards of our current island. We may dress very informally here, but we are rarely if ever shabby.

Plus this sweatshirt, with my long straight hair, would firmly relegate me to the "hippie" category. Which is not to say I don't approve of hippies, or would mind being thought to be one (though I'm not), only that I never want to fit in a box. You see, we have a saying in our family: you can't put Walkers in a box. We, all four of us, tend to resist being categorized or predictable, and we get very restless and even irritable when people make assumptions about us.

But I did take the shirt to the retreat, because no matter how shabby it is, I still love it: it's my favorite color, it has the comfort of an old teddy bear, it came from Canada (and the retreat was in Canada) and it feels like a special gift from God -- totally appropriate to the occasion. And then, as I sat in the circle on that first day, I found myself (one's mind does wander at times, sadly) looking at the shirt's ragged edges -- surely it was in worse shape than when I had worn it last? -- and wondering what conclusions this roomful of strangers would draw about me from my ragged storyteller sweatshirt -- what box they would draw around me.

And I was startled into attentiveness in the middle of those thoughts by something Cynthia said that was totally relevant to my mind's meanderings. Her observation was this: Any time we define our self by our unique characteristics, we limit ourselves to the finite world. Aha! I thought: that's why we hate being put in a box!

We humans spend so much energy trying to figure out and establish ourselves as unique individuals: I am tall, or short; blonde or brunette; fat or thin; conservative or liberal; democrat or republican; Christian or Jew... the list of ways we try to separate ourselves out from the herd goes on ad infinitum, and is, of course, an important part of the process of self-differentiation.

But at the same time, our core hunger is for CONNECTION -- both with creation and with the infinite -- and any sense of vulnerability or insecurity we have often stems from a sense that we are different: better than, less than, separate from the whole. So that egoic being, trying so hard to establish itself, protect itself, defend itself, does so at the expense of the very sense of wholeness that would alleviate our fears and concerns.

The good news -- for those of us who suspect, as Cynthia says, "that we were out of the washroom when God was handing out brains, or beauty, or whatever" -- is that our opportunity to grow into spiritual consciousness -- connectedness -- arises exactly out of that place where we feel most inadequate. Which takes me back to that Cynthia statement I quoted a couple of blogs back, which bears repeating:

"What you've been given is perfect for you to manifest the exquisite savor of divine reality that is to come forth from your being."

The very things that challenge us most are the things most likely to bring us closer to God; closer to what we are called to manifest in this life. But she didn't just say "the tough stuff you've been given"; she said "What you've been given." Which means everything we've been given -- good and bad, hard and easy, fun and painful -- EVERYTHING, even a dying cat and a now raggedy sweatshirt, can bring us closer to the clear spiritual consciousness that is our destiny.

So thanks, Ian, for identifying that part of me and handing it to me in a colorful, wearable form. As you can see, I am still a storyteller!

Friday, October 24, 2008


Though I was only in Canada from Sunday night to Tuesday noon, I have six pages of notes from Cynthia's talks, with several sections circled and starred. One of those comments that particularly resonated with me was this: "Enlightenment has to do with consistency."

At first glance that seems very confusing; it reminds me a bit of the man at the retreat who admitted that he had read the Gospel of Thomas twice through and didn't see that it had any redeeming features. That made perfect sense to me; I reacted the same way the first time through Thomas. ...And would have continued to do so had Cynthia and Lynn Bauman not helped to unpack this amazing gospel for me.

There will always be things out there that do not reveal themselves to a cursory glance; learnings that do not come easily to the untutored mind. It's one reason we need teachers -- and I've always been sad that this society places so little value on its teachers. Sometimes we just need experienced guides to help open our eyes to the wonder around us.

Thankfully, Cynthia didn't just leave that cryptic remark out there, she explained it -- and once explained, I realized it was perfectly obvious. The question here is, how does your theology play out at a personal level? How does that which emerges in the meditation process play out in your daily life? If we were truly enlightened, our behavior would consistently reflect the values we claim to hold.

There's a song we used to sing when I was young that became, sadly, somewhat of a joke as I grew older: "You will know we are Christians by our Love." Yes, if we were truly Christians, enlightened to the core of our being by the words and principles Jesus taught, all of our actions would be guided by Love. But none of us is perfect -- at least, not yet -- and these days the word Christian seems to have more to do with hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness than with love.

This morning I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinn again, and he came at this issue from another angle, saying that we need a vision; that without a vision, goal, or objective, it is very hard to stay committed to a meditation practice. Having read that, I found it particularly hard to stay centered when I sat this morning: where is this taking me? Why do I do this? And is it enough to be meditating; shouldn't I be DOING something to make the world a better place?

Just as I was ready to give up in disgust, the clock chimed, my time was up, and I remembered Cynthia's comment about consistency. And it seemed to me that that's really all there is to the vision: I have a fairly simple mental construct about how I want to BE in the world: open, mindful, loving, compassionate, thoughtful, present -- all admirable goals, and common across the base of most religions, including Christianity.

And the vision that keeps me going back to my chair every morning is that I believe the time I spend there in the silence will help me to be more consistently true to those values, that what I know with my mind will become more deeply rooted in my heart; that what I DO would then fall naturally out of those entrenched values as I make choices along the way.

Because as long as those values are just floating in my brain, not grounded in the fiber of my being, I can't seem to rely on myself to be that consistent. I have lots of other less admirable passions, thoughts, actions and responses going on in my head which get in the way of being the person I long to be. The apostle Paul said it beautifully for all of us in Romans 7:19-20:

I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (The Message version of the Bible)

Again -- it's the issue of consistency: I know who I want to be, but I can't seem to sustain that very effectively. Which is why I meditate; it seems to make that more possible.

Now it seems inevitable that someone, reading this, will remember that famous Emerson quote from his essay on self-reliance: "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Ah, but this is the value of education! What I learned in college is that the ACTUAL quotation is "A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

So how would we define a foolish consistency? My guess, whatever smaller definitions or examples we might come up with, is that ultimately a foolish consistency would be the opposite of openness and mindfulness: I did it this way once, so I will do it that way again. When I eat chocolate I feel better, so I should eat chocolate all the time. I like it, therefore I'll ignore other foods that have beneficial effects at other levels; I won't pay attention to or be mindful of the needs of my bones or muscles or digestive system for protein, fruit, vegetables, etc.

Another kind of foolish consistency is to make broad assumptions based on small data points: some Muslim people destroyed the World Trade Center therefore all Muslims are bad. Some Christians declared war on Iraq therefore all Christians are warmongers. Christians say Jesus is about love but then there are horrors like the Inquisition and the Holocaust, so all Christians are hypocrites. Or, to put it on a smaller, more personal level, this person did a bad thing, therefore he or she is a bad person.

In choosing to stick with my meditation practice, even when days or weeks go by where I am twitchy and restless the whole time, I am working on a different kind of assumption: that by continually, determinedly, consciously working to connect with that part of me that is inseparable from both the Divine and all creation, that eventually that awareness will manifest itself more effectively in my daily life. I will make better choices, react with more compassion, listen carefully to those inner voices, and act in ways that are more consistent with my stated beliefs.

Now you could say that consistency is boring, predictable; like the arches in this image, a set of identical instances repeated ad infinitum over time. It makes me think of a youtube video my husband shared with me; a Chris Rock routine (distastefully littered with F-words) about how marriage is boring.

But I think that just as the sameness of the arches repeating across this image serves to set off the glory of the sky above, there is still another value to consistency; that by adhering to consistency at the personal level, our vision can be more open to the infinite majesty, variety, and possibility of the divine creation which surrounds us. Though marriage may seem boring from the outside, the fact is that the reliability and steadiness that partnership provides can, at its best, free us to pursue the larger, more creative purposes life has to offer.

And though it may sound like a week spent meditating in silence would also be incredibly boring, the fact is that I was looking forward to it, to the way I knew it would open my heart and reveal the Divine within. Instead my heart is being opened another way, here at home, as I wait with Pippa to see what our day will bring.

This can be boring, too, sitting around the house watching a cat. But she has things to teach me, I'm sure, just as Cynthia did. And I won't learn unless I pay close attention. Think of it as another kind of mindfulness practice.

It's all good.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Divine Exchange

The candle I burn while meditating is lightly scented, something I only notice -- and then only fleetingly -- when I blow it out at the end of the meditation period.

Today, as that faint scent wafted upward, I was reminded of something Cynthia Bourgeault said during my brief time at the retreat: "What you've been given is exactly what you need to manifest the exquisite savor of divine reality that is to come forth from your being."

I like that phrase -- "the exquisite savor of divine reality." It gives me something I always seem to long for, a feeling of being special, unique. Which gets a little tricky, as she also pointed out that any attempt we make to define ourselves by our unique characteristics keeps us finite and separate -- a sad thing, when we hunger for connection and the infinite.

Perhaps it's not the sense of being special that makes this concept appealing, but rather the hope it offers, that somehow, in the challenges we face, some unique flavor of God is being made manifest; that in continuing to walk through our struggles we are serving some higher purpose.

Which is not to elevate the struggle, but rather to remove the apparent pointlessness of what can often prove to be incredibly difficult. I am reminded a bit of my husband's response to our daughters when they get into difficulties: "And what did you learn from this?" And though I suspect that the divine savor is far more complex than simply a lesson to be learned and/or shared, that can certainly be a place to start.

That said, I spent yesterday attempting to adjust my time to the needs of my dying cat. It was definitely a humbling experience: I was constantly misjudging her needs and capacities, making assumptions and mis-interpreting her responses. She, on the other hand, seemed infinitely wise and extraordinarily patient. In the end we gave up trying to put her where we thought she needed to be -- on a soft pillow, near water, near a cat box, indoors, away from the dog -- and learned to trust her to make her own decisions.

Because she is so young -- barely 4 years old -- and because this has been so sudden, I also decided to follow her around with a camera so that I might have some visible evidence of her presence in our lives up til now. I have mixed feelings about this, as I know the camera can be a way to insulate me from experience.

But in this case I think the camera functioned as way to keep me from drifting away, to keep me focused on her rather than tied to my computer or lost in a book. It gave me a chance to reflect on our life together; to see that her wise presence has been intricately woven into the fabric of our lives in this place, and to regret that I have not been more mindful of that, and of her.

It is at times like this, when the Christian concept of heaven has little to offer me in the way of comfort and reassurance, that I draw strength from the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. Because I know that I am not alone: not only do most people get subjected to the experience of losing a beloved pet, but I actually have a dear friend who is going through end-stages with her own cat, who is 17.

So with tonglen, I breathe in the pain of all who deal with imminent loss. And, having found some peace in the day, through the images of my camera and through Pippa's patience with my need to inappropriately control her environment, and, above all, through her determination to sleep with me last night, I breathe out that experience of peace, patient acceptance, and love, on behalf of all who suffer.

And as those breaths mingle, Pippa's and mine, the breath in and the breath out, it feels a bit like what Cynthia calls "The Divine Exchange", the relational energy out of which being arises; the ineffably creative lifelong process of giving and receiving in which we are called to engage. And through that exchange, like the faint scent of my candle, I imagine the exquisite savor of the Divine seeping into the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Swamps of Home

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.

It is the morning of the first full day of my Centering Prayer retreat, and Cynthia, our instructor, begins with this simple monotonic chant. The sound builds as the rest of us chime in; harmonies begin to resonate, and the last single note is followed by the chime of a Tibetan bowl; together the sounds echo softly in the room as we settle down to begin our week of silence.

As is usual on these retreats (this is my fifth or sixth, I think) I began the week wrestling with the twin demons of resistance and self-loathing. My mind comes up with all kinds of excuses to stay at the surface -- there's no coffee, I have a headache, the room is too hot, this seat is lumpy, now I can't get that stupid chant out of my head -- and my inner witness lists critical observations on those thoughts, my reactions to my surroundings, and my interactions with these fellow retreatants with the running commentary of a sportscaster.

It's all a familiar part of the settling in period -- it's almost as if I have to sift through all that mud to get to the gold beneath -- and I was looking forward to the deeper riches that would inevitably emerge as the week wore on.

Unfortunately it didn't play out that way. One of our cats has been losing weight, so I took her in the Friday before I left to see if she had some sort of intestinal bug. And when I called home Monday at the mid-day break to see if the results had arrived from the testing, it was to discover that her kidneys were shutting down and she might not last out the week. She's only 5 years old, so they suspect this was a congenital defect that's been building for some time (she's always been thin), but it did come as a shock.

By Tuesday afternoon it became apparent that my husband would be forced to make a superhuman effort to keep her alive until my return, and that such efforts would take a considerable toll on both him and the cat, so yesterday afternoon I drove home in time to meet him at the vet's office and bring the cat home after a day of artificial hydration.

I spent the evening watching TV with Pippa curled on my chest, and awakened, restless, from a cat dream this morning at 4 am, so went to snuggle again with her in the bathroom that has become her temporary home. So it's not surprising that my meditation period (which I initially tried to do with her on my lap, but she headed back to her little nest in the bathroom) was pretty unfocused.

Only this time the distracting music in my head was a song from the play I'm rehearsing for these days. The play is Once Upon a Mattress (I play a kitchen wench, a very tiny non-speaking role, but I do a lot of singing). The song is "The Swamps of Home," and the line that keeps passing through my head is this:

The swamps of home
Are lovely to behold --
From far away
(from far away).

The connection seems pretty obvious: while in Canada I couldn't wait to get back. I had this lovely image of holding Pippa on my chest (one of her favorite places these last few weeks), taking her to bed with me and snuggling her through the night. But now that I'm home, the reality is pretty overwhelming.

She's really not comfortable snuggling, or even moving, and she can't bear to be far from the water bowl or the litter box. I lay on the floor beside her for a while, stroking her and hearing her purr (now very faint) but that was too uncomfortable a position to maintain for long.

And when I close my eyes, I'm swamped with thoughts: how much pain is she in? How long do I let her suffer? What decision will my daughter make -- will she take the train home to say goodbye to the cat? Should I let the dog play with Pippa (they were always close) or is he too rough? Would the other cats be a comfort or just an irritation? Did I do the right thing? Should we just have let the vet put her down yesterday afternoon instead of bringing her home?

And how can I hope to give her some peace with this if I can't get peace with it?

But I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, this morning. And I had come to a section labeled Generosity. It seemed an appropriate subject, as we had been discussing giving, receiving, and abundance before I left the retreat. And he writes:

"You might experiment with using the cultivation of generosity as a vehicle for deep self-observation and inquiry as well as an exercise in giving. A good place to start is with yourself. See if you can give yourself gifts that may be true blessings, such as self-acceptance, or some time each day with no purpose. Practice feeling deserving enough to accept these gifts without obligation -- to simply receive from yourself, and from the universe."

So that's my job today, here, as I sit wallowing in the swamps of home: to accept that this will not be easy; to do my best to stay mindful -- aware of and tender with my own sadness while remaining attuned to my husband, daughter, and Pippa; and to trust that together we will be doing the right thing, whatever that might be.

Acceptance, and trust: huge gifts; the gold that lies beneath all those muddy thoughts. I know it's there, I just need the patience to sit with the mud and keep sifting.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The layers of existence

This morning, as I prepare to leave for a weeklong retreat, my life feels pretty scattered. I'm working my way down two lists -- the packing list and the things-to-do-before-I-go list -- and wondering when I need to leave to make the 4:30 deadline at the other end of the trip.

I had planned to go to church this morning, but then I remembered an email that arrived recently -- wasn't this the weekend everyone was off at the all-church retreat? -- so I re-read that and decided not to go. I was feeling a little overwhelmed (too much thinking, so early in the morning) so I decided to go back to bed and snuggle my sleeping husband.

But he woke up just as I was thinking of heading upstairs, and suddenly he was dressed and running in and out of the house, filling the kitchen with the spoils of his visit to Costco yesterday (I should never let him go alone!) and expecting me to put everything away while he went off to the coffeeshop to get our morning treats.

Before I gave up and decided to go upstairs I had started poring through the Italy pictures wondering what should go on the blog today. I had a wonderful image of an angel from a wall in Venice; rather boring at first glance until you realized there was a lovely painted madonna over his head. But it didn't seem to fit with all the chaos.

So then I found this image, shot yesterday on my way home from picking up new tires (I'd put it off for long enough; the old ones had 75,000 miles on them) at Poulsbo's new Fish Park. There's a pond there, surrounded by a stand of poplars, and the multiple layers of the image seemed to reflect a bit of the confusion in my life this morning.

There are the poplars behind me, not even in the picture save for the lone branch curling off to the right, but they cast their long shadows across the surface of green. There's the surface of the water, almost totally hidden by the green plant life that covers it. There are the leaves and branches that sit on top of that green. There are bare patches where the surface of the water is exposed, but they don't look like water because they are busy mirroring the sky, the clouds, and the trees on the opposite bank. And there's whatever is below the surface of the water, unseen except for the occasional ripples when it rises to the surface.

It all makes for a pretty busy image, not unlike my life. There, too, there are people and events casting shadows across the surface. There's the sort of litter, organic to existence, sitting on the surface -- to-do lists and costco purchases to be dealt with. There are moments that are free of that clutter -- like the time I spend in reflection and meditation -- and there's the memories and wishes and concerns below the surface that occasionally rise to the top, sending ripples out that gradually subside.

So my daughter just called, my husband is back with the coffee, and he has just reminded me that I need to cut his hair before I leave for Canada. And now he's standing over my shoulder asking me to scan the ferry ticket so I can use it on my trip and he'll still have it for his daily commute. I'm thinking it's time to stop typing; it was perhaps foolish to think I could squeeze this in with everything else that's going on.

Thanks for your patience; I'll be back next Saturday. Have a safe and peaceful week!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stepping toward peace

This morning in my reading, as I near the end of The Wise Heart, Kornfield is writing again about the loving-kindness meditation: visualizing and offering love, first to ourselves, then our benefactors, then loved ones, friends, neutral people, and eventually difficult people, even our enemies.

Kornfield is a wonderful story-teller, and he illustrates this practice with numerous tales, but the one I loved best this morning was a story of an old Hasidic rabbi.

"He asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and day begun, for daybreak is the time for certain holy prayers. "Is it," proposed one student, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Is it when you can clearly see the lines on your own palm?" "Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell if it is a fig or a pear tree?" "No," answered the rabbi each time. "Then what is it?" the pupils demanded. "It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that they are your sister or brother. Until then it is still night."

I smiled, finished my reading, closed the book, rinsed out my coffee cup, and went into my dark living room. Lighting the candle on the lap of my little buddha, I sat down to practice the loving kindness meditation.

It wasn't easy; I couldn't seem to get past the part where you extend the loving kindness to yourself: lots of parts of me seemed to be blocked. I think I fell asleep at least once in the dark, then lost track of time, checked the clock, closed my eyes again... it wasn't one of my more "successful" meditations.

But at the end I bowed my head briefly, took a deep breath, and began to fold my blanket. And when I opened my eyes and looked out my window, I saw that the sky was beginning to lighten, and two men I'd never seen before were fly-fishing off my beach. "Welcome, my brothers," I thought. "Welcome, day." And, blowing out the candle, I went and got my camera.

It wasn't a perfect shot, and it wasn't a perfect meditation -- it never is. But when the intent is there; when we make the effort and stay the path, there's still a chance for the spirit of compassion to emerge. Though we may not have mastered the challenges set before us, we've at least taken one more step toward peace.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Remembrance of Things Past

When I first began to explore the healing possibilities of photography, I was living on a very small island up in the San Juans. There were only 160 year-round residents, the store was a general store run by Franciscan nuns and closed on Sundays, and the only other facilities on the island were a pool, a school with 10 students between kindergarten and eighth grade, a library, a museum, and a community center.

Not a lot to work with, you might say. But, oh, the beaches! There were beaches all the way around the island, most everything accessible to the general population (since we all knew one another), and on the south side they were covered with amazing driftwood.

My mother died very suddenly in January of 1997, less than a year after we moved to the island, after a routine operation to replace a defective heart valve. And as I walked the beaches afterwards, in the fog and rain and mist that dominated those winter days, trying to cope with the mixed feelings of grief, hurt, rage and guilt that were pouring through me, every contorted piece of driftwood looked like a heart; every branch an artery or vein through which life no longer coursed.

I began bringing my camera along on these walks, and soon realized that when the driftwood was wet -- which at that time of year it usually was -- it would display a surprising range of color. I was photographing only for myself at that point, and began to look forward with great anticipation, not just to taking closeup shots of the contorted wood formations, but to getting the prints back later and seeing the sort of Rorshach images that emerged.

It was at this point that the men who developed my work for me (I always had to go off-island to get prints) began suggesting I explore the possibility of selling at galleries, and when a neighbor suggested a particular gallery in Friday Harbor, I took over the driftwood photos and they immediately invited me to show my work.

But by then I was taking more traditional shots as well: images of beautiful sunsets, ferries passing by, and the elderly dinghies and sailboats that are so much a part of island life, and eventually the gallery realized that it was those images that sold. Soon the driftwood pictures began to take a back seat to the more commercially appealing work, and then we moved to other islands with considerably less beach access and the driftwood photos, which by then filled three albums (there are almost a thousand of them!) became just a part of my past.

When we moved to Bainbridge, I discovered Waterfront Park with its apparently unlimited collection of small wooden working dinghies, and the dinghies became the obsession for me that the driftwood had been before. For several years I would rise with the dawn -- whenever it fell -- and if there was fog, or no wind, I would head for the dock with my camera and capture the boats of the day.

The boat pictures sold beautifully. But like the driftwood, they were often gray or brown and I began longing for more color. So my subject matter began to expand and eventually I stopped going to the docks in the morning.

Fast forward now to Capri, which we visited on a day trip from Naples with my husband and brother-in-law on our third day in Italy. And you can imagine my delight when we pulled into the harbor of that beautiful island and there were these spectacular dinghies stretched out as far as the eye could see! In some ways this photo has everything: the boats, the colors, the amazing light, the water, the beach... but of course, this was not what the rest of the tour had come to see, so instead of lingering at the waterfront I found myself on a bus heading up the steep winding roads to the villages and shops above.

So where am I going with this? Perhaps what I want to say is that life is full of losses, both great and small; it doesn't always take us where we want to go. Or maybe it's that life has different seasons, and the things which we are passionate about in one season will fade in the next, though the memory of them will continue to pluck at our heartstrings.

And though the huge losses we experience will mark us forever, with the smaller ones -- whether losses of our health, our interests, or our surroundings -- we always have a choice. We can choose to spend our days mourning the change, complaining relentlessly about not having access to that which we loved, or basking determinedly in the memory of what was.

Or we can get on the bus and climb to the top of the next hill to see what awaits us next. Surely there will be something there for us to celebrate. It won't be the same; it won't stimulate us in the same way. But perhaps it will awaken some other part of us; perhaps a new vision, or skill, or path, or love will emerge. And that can only happen if we can make the choice to be present to what IS; to what is happening now, in this moment, separate from the relentless churning of our past- and future- obsessed minds.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A glimpse of the divine

We arrived in Assisi in the late afternoon, and were given a tour guide to escort us through Santa Chiara and the St. Francis basilica. Unlike our other guides, she couldn't seem to talk and walk at the same time, so we'd go a few feet and then stop for a lecture; go a few more feet and stop for another lecture.

The end result was that by the time the tour ended it was well after 6pm, and we were informed that the stores -- many of which we had passed while wending our way down the street between the two churches -- would be closing at 7. Since we were to leave early the next morning and my husband needed to find an ATM, we elected to go back up through the town in the little time remaining before dinner to see what we could find. I was particularly interested in seeing if there might be any mementoes of a wonderful statue we had seen in the basilica of St. Francis kneeling at the foot of the cross.

In our rush through town (which turned out to be singularly unrewarding) we passed this mime, and after we passed him my husband turned to me and said he'd found that mannequin to be particularly lifelike: at first he had thought it was a real person.

"But it IS a real person," I replied; "look at his eyes."

"Why would someone do that?" he asked, "It's sort of a weird job."

"It's not a job," I said, "it's a calling."

My husband was not convinced, but on the way back he looked more closely, then dropped some coins in the man's bag. I looked into the monk's eyes, and as he looked back I found myself wondering if he had overheard our conversation: I felt acknowledged, somehow. And then he tried to hand me something -- I think it might have been a small cross -- but we were scurrying on, so I thanked him, shook my head, and blew him a kiss as we rushed back for dinner.

It was an odd response -- who would blow a kiss to a monk? -- but it felt right, somehow; as if he were a bodhisattva rather than a mime, a compassionate being working for the well-being of all creation rather than just an actor dressing up to make a quick buck off the gullible tourists.

But maybe that's the point: it doesn't matter who he was, or why he was doing it. What is holy is the moment of connection, the sense of compassionate affection conveyed in a single glance, which became, for just that moment, a taste of the divine. I'm glad I was awake for it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Returning to the Center

I found this little doorbell angel in Venice. Though I grew up with images of singing angels holding hymnals, their mouths formed in perfect O's, I'm not sure I've ever seen one suggesting that I read a book before.

As I was meditating this morning, it came to me that it has been quite some time since I tackled In Trouble and In Wonder, Lynn Bauman's inspiring study guide on the Gospel of Thomas -- the guide that started me on this amazing path as a contemplative photographer -- and, much as I am enjoying my readings in Buddhist Psychology, it feels like it may be time again to get back to my Christian roots.

The good news is that I will be off on a retreat next week, and we've been told to bring three texts: the Bible, Cynthia Bourgeault's The Wisdom Way of Knowing, and Bauman's Gospel of Thomas: the Wisdom of the Twin. So I know I will have that opportunity to further explore the same faith that inspired so many of the wonderful images I brought home from Italy.

Seeing this image this morning confirms my sense that it's time to get back into the Book of Thomas, my copy of which, interestingly enough, has two angels on its cover. It's clear I'm ready to further explore the wisdom, comfort, and challenges offered in that text. Which seems entirely appropriate, both because I am nearing the end of The Wise Heart, and because I have been feeling a bit odd lately about this blog.

The posts since I have returned from Italy have been increasingly challenging to write, and as I think about that, I realize that it's been feeling a bit like standing on a dock while stepping into a boat -- as if the boat has not been secured to the dock but is rather drifting slowly away.

Between the words and images, my story-telling feet seem to be getting farther and farther apart, so, though I continue to remain fairly centered, it feels like that's taking more and more effort. And I'm wondering if that has something to do the stretch I'm feeling as I try to connect the essentially Christian nature of my Italian images with the Buddhist principles I've been exploring.

To put it another way, this is a bridge I've been standing on for many years -- or perhaps it's a see-saw (or, as we called it growing up, a teeter-totter) -- and for years I've been strolling up and down, drifting toward one end or the other and then heading back to center when the tipping gets a bit uncomfortable. I firmly believe there is -- and should be -- a connection here, but clearly I am ready again to wander to the Christian end of things.

So perhaps before I leave for Canada I will finish the Kornfield book, which, as we move closer and closer to Election Day seems to tie in very closely with my thoughts about the imminent future of our country. In fact, today's reading included an inspirational quote from that quintessential Republican, Dwight Eisenhower:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

It sounds to me like Eisenhower was finding himself equally stressed between two points -- in his case, between his lifelong career as a military man and his commitment to the future of humanity. I am encouraged to read that in taking a stand he moved in a very visible way toward the greater good, and find myself hoping that our political candidates would do the same.

Both McCain and Obama seem, as the campaign draws near its climax, to be drifting away from principle into the murky world of whatever-I-have-to-do-to-win. I'm hoping they, like Eisenhower, will step back from whatever personal goals they may have and examine their motives, return to their roots, and embrace again a commitment to what they believe to be the needs of this country, its people, and the world.

I say this because I watched a really excellent piece on the two men and their backgrounds on PBS last night (, and while I found it encouraging to see what they're really about, I think that from this perspective, at this point in time, both their platforms are looking a little tippy...

All of which reminds me of this wonderful poem by William Butler Yeats, called "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of "Spiritus Mundi"
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Coping with dirty laundry

There's a phrase that crops up from time to time in election campaigns: "Hanging out the dirty laundry." The presumption is that someone has exposed something someone else would rather have left unseen, or would have cleaned up quite a bit before letting it hit the public eye.

But you know, we all have dirty laundry, so there's an extra implication here; that the person whose dirty laundry is out there has been pretending they didn't have it, or that that part of their lives was squeaky clean when in fact, just like the rest of us, they've been mucking about in it. It's not the bad behavior itself that gets them into trouble. It's trying to look like they were above that sort of thing, or even attacking others for behaviors they themselves secretly exhibit.

So the issue isn't really about shameful behaviors; it's about masking them, or pretending they don't exist, and then getting caught in the act. It's not fallibility that's the issue; it's the holier-than-thou stance -- which is one reason so many of us are at odds with organized religion and the church.

More often than any of us care to relate, the very organizations that tout Christian values are the ones that make them a travesty -- and then pretend it never happened. Which may be the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when he said "the last will be first, and the first will be last, because many are called, but few are chosen."

There may be lots of people out there who are qualified to be president, or vice president; to be governor, priest, or bishop. But whether they make it to the top -- or stay there when they get there -- has a lot to do with admitting weaknesses, not expecting special treatment, staying in touch with humility and fallibility.

Because those positions that sit at the top of the pyramid are pretty exposed, and there are always folks out there eager to root around in your laundry, looking for any discrepancies between who and what you SAY you are, and who and what you REALLY are.

Living in a democracy, where free speech is a right and a privilege, means that some of those folks will be willing and eager to hang it right out there for the rest of the world to see. Unfortunately the church is not always a democracy, and sometimes it takes incredible courage to point out behaviors that would be obviously unacceptable elsewhere.

And why is that? Wouldn't God want the truth to be known? Is it that we confuse our leaders with the God they claim to represent? Is it that we fear the loss of connection to the community that means so much to us? Or is it just that we worry that the worlds of good that churches can and often do carry out would be horribly undermined by whatever scandals might be revealed; that we weigh the alternatives and reluctantly choose silence?

The question is how best to serve the greater good. And that is not always an easy question to answer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Images of God

I don't know about you, but this is pretty much the God I grew up with -- maybe not the triangular halo, and maybe mine had a fuller mane of hair, but otherwise... this is pretty much it.

And despite any efforts on my part to talk about the feminine aspects of God, or the Inner Divine, the fact is that when I'm thinking of God, or talking about God, this is most likely the image that really lies behind the words.

Which may be why I don't talk about God much in this blog -- even if I do self-identify as an Episcopalian. Because the word God seems to be very hard to separate from this picture, taken in Naples, of an old, white-haired, white guy peering benevolently down at us from some window up in the heavens.

Which is NOT the politically correct picture of God. And why is that? Hmm; sounds like an essay question on a contemporary theology exam: name ten reasons why this traditional image of God limits our understanding of faith. I could approach that as an intellectual exercise and get all preachy on you, or I could wander down the psychological road and talk about the issues with my own father that make the concept of "God the Father" pretty hard to find appealing.

But I suspect the more important question to ask, or to try to answer, is why would I take this picture? Why would I respond to this image by attempting to capture it, and why, this morning, does it seem to want to be in my blog?

And I suspect, if I am to be honest about it, that there is something inside me that leaps forth in joyous recognition at the familiar. It could, of course, just be nostalgia, a longing for the good old days when I believed He was out there, watching me, looking after me, loving me in His fatherly way, believing in me, my potential, and my motives when the circumstances and people around me seemed to question that.

Because somehow, from the time I was about 2, I had this sense that that loving presence was out there; a tender observer, aching with me when my heart was broken, rejoicing with me in my successes, holding my hand when I was hurt or scared, teasing me out of my fears and chuckling with me at my occasional foolishness. In a lot of ways God was a safe lap to crawl into when life was overwhelming.

And now, as a grownup, while I understand all the ways that this concept is both limited and limiting, I sense also that it wasn't a bad thing to grow up steeped in this particular world view, and that in some ways it comforts me still. It is, after all, easier to grasp than the more nebulous concepts I tried to instill in my own children; the God who is somehow both male and female; who is somehow both within us and around us; protective of our own good while still looking out for the larger good of society as a whole.

As I write this some words come back to me from Compline -- my favorite Episcopal service -- and I can hear them sung as they were nightly in the little chapel at the Episcopal Student Center at Dartmouth College, back in the years between my marriages when I was finding soul sustenance there. It's called the Song of Simeon, and the antiphon, sung at the beginning and end of the song, goes like this:

Guide us waking, O Lord,
And guard us sleeping;
That awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep we may rest in peace.

This morning I was reading about the importance of forgiveness, and there was a lovely meditation practice offered for forgiving, not just forgiving others for the wrongs done to us, but for forgiving ourselves, both for the wrongs we do others and for the wrongs we do ourselves.

So maybe I should forgive myself, even if it is politically incorrect, for occasionally returning to that image of the Father God -- understanding, of course, that it is one of many ways to understand the concept of the Divine. And maybe it's not a bad thing to ask that He guide us and guard us, that when we are moving consciously through our days we may see as Christ sees, loving as best we can. And that when we are asleep, or just on autopilot, not fully conscious, that we may spread peace as well as rest in it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Waves of Love

One of the songs I grew up with in church was called "You will know they are Christians by their love." Certainly Jesus' primary message was about love, but I think the problem a lot of people have with Christians and their religion as it is expressed over the centuries has to do with the disparity between what Christ preached and what Christians do.

And though I find some people very easy to love, I have to say that I, too, have my faults in this area, and definitely find some people very difficult to love (Dick Cheney comes to mind...).

Kornfield's book this morning was describing a particular loving-kindness meditation, in which you visualize love spreading to an ever widening circle of people, so I decided to try that this morning. And doing so, I realized that while I was in Italy I was often resentful of the hordes of tourists that came between me and the things I had come to Italy to see.

Which is pretty silly, since they had come to Italy for the same reason! And as I meditated, I found myself wishing I had included those hordes more in my pictures, instead of trying to shoot above and around them, because they really were part of the experience.

So here's the one shot I have that really gives a sense of the masses of humanity that decided to visit Rome this September. And I invite you to join me in sending out love to each of them; to visualize a wave of love that overflows from this fountain and washes all down that street to fill each of those beings with light.

Yes, it's an exercise, and somewhat mechanical. But the interesting thing is that loving that mass of humanity, or even just trying to imagine loving them, seems to result in my own heart opening and filling with love. And as they used to say in that silly cereal commercial I grew up with --

"Try it! You'll like it!"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Stepping out of the comfort zone

Last night, while watching "The Office" (what can I say, I'm addicted), we saw an ad for yet another violent movie that I would never watch in a million years. My husband likes to tease me about my reluctance to watch such movies; he actually enjoys the adrenaline rush, and likes that there are problems to solve, bad guys to defeat, and that the good guys always win in the end.

But for me, any adrenaline rush triggers old memories of panic attacks (not fun). And I KNOW there are bad guys; I don't need to see them on screen. And I also know that in real life the good guys do NOT always win -- and that real live bad guys are occasionally inspired by TV and movie violence to new heights of cruelty. So I just don't see the point.

But down below that essentially intellectual politically correct rationalization, the real reason I don't like those movies is that they remind me the world is not safe. And though, as a female and particularly as a mother, I know that with every fiber of my being, I don't want to think about it unnecessarily, and certainly don't want to dwell on it for 2 hours of my life that I could spend doing other more productive or relaxing things.

The other reason, I suspect, is that I am a very visual person, and images of violence -- like the images of Italy I've been sorting through -- have a way of planting themselves in my brain and filling my dreams long after the first viewing. And frankly, I'd rather be dreaming of Italy than of violence.

Thinking of our discussion last night about violent movies, I find myself wondering this morning why safety is so important to me. Because my photography seems pretty safe, too. My images tend to be balanced, peaceful, often "pretty," rather like the movies I prefer to watch. And they are certainly so in comparison to those my photographer daughter shoots -- she likes to use black and white film, and shoots gritty urban scenes, frequently at unusual angles.

And while I get that that's a style, and certainly more in the current fashion than my feel-good stuff, I also suspect -- since she watches programs like CSI in SPITE of the fact that they disturb her dreams -- that she is more comfortable with -- and intrigued by -- the less safe side of life than I am.

This morning I was reading again in The Wise Heart, but today it ventured into what, for me, also feels like unsafe territory: the visions and mystical experiences that can come with extensive meditation -- and occasional drug use. I do understand that such things happen, and I could claim a mystical experience or two for myself. But I am wary of any practice for which that becomes the goal or the defining moment.

Part of me knows that the wariness comes from having lived with my first husband's relentless and often marijuana-fueled search for those experiences. And another part of me wonders (probably hearing his voice from all those years ago) if I am just too contained, too boring, too tightly wrapped; too desperate for safety.

Which is why today I show this image from Capri. I took several pictures of this little shop because the colors pleased me. But I really wanted it to rest on the hats, so I decided to do "an Ali shot." After all, as my friend at the gallery likes to say, "An amateur borrows good ideas; a professional steals them." Surely theft from a daughter isn't theft but rather a matter of inspiration?

The good news is that I like this angled shot the best of the ones I took of the scene. The bad news is that I initially decided not to put it on the web because, like the Burano shot I shared a few posts back, it breaks some rules.

But now, thinking of my husband and his movies, and of Kornfield and his ecstatic experiences, I feel a little foolish for even thinking that posting this poses any kind of risk. Yes, it's a step out of my comfort zone. But a very small one. And maybe it's important to do that once in a while; to take little risks, to try something new. It's a way of saying I'm alive, I'm still growing, I'm still open.

So I've taken mine. What tiny step will you take today?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Appeal of the Dungeon

This photo is from San Gimignano -- an unbearably lovely little Tuscan village, which for some unaccountable reason offers tourists a Museum of Torture, to which this is the entrance. And even before you realize that those are skulls on the ceiling, you have to admit it's tempting: there's something in us -- the same something that slows down on a highway to look at an accident on the other side -- that just wants to go down there.

Now I wasn't even remotely interested in this museum. But that doesn't mean that I don't occasionally find myself drawn to torturous thoughts. Not literally thoughts of torturing other people, but thoughts that torture ME, thoughts of not being good enough, of loss, of failure, of loneliness. And they have the same sort of allure this picture has: sometimes, for whatever reason, I just seem to want to go down there.

The fact is that sometimes the sad and depressive thoughts can be very appealing -- rather like soap operas, and tragic movies, and the endless drama with which some teens surround themselves. I don't know why it is but sometimes there is an unmistakeably alluring quality to lowering thoughts; sometimes it feels like a luxury to just get right down there and wail.

I wish I understood that temptation better: maybe it's a familiar place? Maybe if I get caught up in "poor me" I can feel like the center of attention? Maybe there's value, somehow, in that temporary victim status? Maybe, like this image, there's an illusion of color in that place, color that may be lacking if I stay up here on the surface of things?

But maybe the fact is that sometimes we just need to go there to process through unfinished business. I remember, years ago, a friend telling me she had called her sister for comfort after getting a bad mammogram, and her sister had responded, "Oh, you're such a drama queen!"

No, I replied. Not true. There's a BIG difference between a DQ (drama queen) and a VP (verbal processor). A DQ needs drama to feel alive and creates it if there isn't any. A VP, on the other hand, does not create or repress drama: they talk about it in order to deal with it; they talk when their peace is disrupted, visiting the dark dungeon if necessary, in hopes that it will facilitate a timely return to peace.

Because the fact is that sometimes you have to go into that space, if only to get in touch with the thoughts and behaviors that need to be addressed. The trick is to remember we are just visiting, and not to set up camp down there. Because sometimes we’re not sure we WANT to replace those thoughts: aren’t they part of what make us unique? Wouldn’t I be less myself, even disloyal to the me-that-has-always-been if I left those sad thoughts behind?

In my reading this morning I have learned that the Buddhists have long been practitioners of what is now called cognitive behavioral therapy: believers that the compassionate response to suffering may be choosing to replace, not only bad behaviors with good ones, but bad THOUGHTS with good ones.

The theory is that we can actually create new thought patterns by becoming conscious of the old ones and consciously challenging them -- a theory now thoroughly borne out by recent discoveries in brain science about neuroplasticity: the ability of nerve pathways to reform and redirect themselves. It seems to me that these discoveries and practice could be an enormous gift of hope.

Yes, sometimes we have to go into the dark dungeons of the mind. But there is a way out. We can visit those dark patterns of thought, acknowledge them, feel compassion for the self that is thinking them. But then we have a choice to come back up into joy. We can choose to offer positive alternatives; choose to acknowledge the dark thoughts, let them go, and feed ourselves on a healthier more positive diet of mind.

"Out of compassion," says Jack Kornfield, "we change what is in our minds. We transform our thoughts as a loving protection of ourselves and of others. This is a nineteenth principle of Buddhist psychology: What we repeatedly think shapes our world. Out of compassion, substitute healthy thoughts for unhealthy ones."

Hmm. Easier said than done, I suspect. But certainly worth a try -- the trick is getting yourself to WANT to do it.