Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Come in from the cold

There stands, on my mantle, a lovely wooden angel with wire wings, her head tilted slightly up, her hands outstretched, not in supplication but in receptivity. She is often the last thing I see before I close my eyes in meditation, and I've often imagined myself in the same posture as I move into that receptive space.

But this morning I realized that yet another piece of what I know in my head has not yet planted itself in my heart. Because that receptive posture, charming and humble though it may be, still implies that the Divine is something that exists outside and above me. I have been, for these last few months, trudging through the cold, watching my breath, breathing in the divine spirit as if furnishing an empty cabin: I never stopped to notice the light within, never really internalized at the heart level what my head has known for some time to be true, that this space is already occupied.

Perhaps it was only this wintry darkness, this sense of having been out in the cold, that has finally allowed me to see at a deeper level that the light and peace, warmth and hope I've been longing for is already there waiting for me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reaching for the color

Several years ago a friend whose son is rather a handful told us he'd taken the boy to stay at a farm for the weekend.

The boy, who was in his early teens at the time, had grown up surrounded by electronic gadgets and video games, and had a great deal of trouble adapting to an environment which had none of those attractions, no TV's, and no computers.

After a time the increasingly frustrated teen apparently threw a tantrum, and the phrase he kept screaming over and over was this: "I am not in my happy place! I am not in my happy place!"

Remembering that incident, I am struck again by the aching poignancy of that cry. There is a self-awareness in it, an attempt to articulate a frustration that remains wordless in many of us.

But what makes it particularly sad is our understanding that his awareness of self is clearly not yet balanced with an awareness of reality, of other, of place, culture, or responsibility; with the discovery that not only do we not always get to live in our "happy place," but that for the most part society doesn't really care if we're not in that space.

My mother-in-law once informed me that the job of a parent is to civilize her children. The dictionary defines civilize as "to cause to develop out of a primitive state," but for her that meant raising children to be responsible, cooperative, productive, contributing members of society. The primitive state, as she defined it, was self-centered; the civilized state would be other-centered. And the sad thing is that many of us civilized folk are as out of touch with our self centers as that young boy was with the realities of civilization.

I got lucky this morning. I began reading Cynthia Bourgeault's book, The Wisdom Jesus, and for some reason my meditation period this morning was clearer, less cluttered, more like a "happy place." And for me that means that there were moments in the time that were filled with color.

Color has always been a key indicator for me: as I have mentioned before in this column, I am a synaesthete, so in my world words and letters and thoughts and dreams all have characteristic colors. Which means that when I am making decisions, I have learned over time to select the choice which comes draped in color; to walk away from the browns and the grays. And meditation lately has been definitely mired in browns and grays, so it was a delight to find the rainbow again, if only for a moment.

The trick is to understand that sometimes the only way to the color is THROUGH the browns and grays. And how can we ever know when to leave and when to play through; which colors are false and which colors are true? As I watch my marriage and my meditation practice both cycling through their seasons of dark and light, dullness and color, I also watch my friends as they progress through jobs and relationships, and I find myself aching both for those who leave too soon, always drawn to the appearance of color elsewhere, and for those who stay too long and forget there even IS color.

Somehow we need to find the balance -- between dark and light, between colors and grays, between self and other -- because I think it may be in that balance that the truest, richest, deepest, most saturated colors live. And I suspect that working to achieve that balance is not just the work of a parent -- it's the work of a lifetime.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When restlessness seeps in...

Here, resting on a sand bar in the part of Shaw Island known as Squaw Bay, sits a decrepit old boat whose name declares her to be The Bedouin.

She is indeed a wanderer: she was a British boat, built in the 60's if memory serves, and had a lot of ocean sailing under her twin keels when we bought her in 1987 with the proceeds from an unexpected inheritance.

We kept her on Lake Champlain in Burlington Vermont for a year or so, and then trailered her out to Seattle when we moved out here in 1988, sleeping in her along the way to save hotel bills, then installed her at a somewhat disreputable marina on Seattle's Duwamish River.

After moving out west, we had a few exciting adventures with her, ending in a rather spectacular engine failure that resulted in an attempt to sail through the Ballard Locks and under the 520 bridge. But by then both of us were working and raising kids and it soon became clear that we had neither the time nor the energy to maintain or sail her, and eventually we sold her to a friend on Shaw for a dollar.

My guess is she had a few more adventures before she finally came home to roost in Squaw Bay, where she now sits, balanced slightly tipsily on those same two ocean-loving keels that once kept her steady in the storms, and adds her own unique charm to the view. I suspect, though I can't know for sure, that her fate will parallel that of other similar elderly boats that dot the shoreline around the island: she's in for the long haul, decorating the landscape until old age or fierce storms carry her away.

Like the Bedouin, most of us have weathered lots of seas and storms before we go into that final settling down. And far from offending, the scars of all those travels give us character, evoking memories of a life well lived and a purpose served. But those of us who are built to sail will inevitably find the transition to the more sedentary role a challenge. How gracefully do we negotiate that passage from functional to symbolic, from torchbearer to beacon, from sailor to old salt?

And writing this now, in the season of Christmas, I can't help thinking of Irving Berlin's classic White Christmas, which we watched again as a family on Christmas Eve. There are always teary moments, but this year they came in two places: first with the words of a song:

"What do you do with a general
when he stops being a general,
Oh, what do you do with a general who retires?"

and then, as always, at the moment when the general marches down the stairs of the inn. Everyone stands and salutes, and he plays his old role, marching down the ranks and chewing them out; then stops, turns, and says with tears in his eyes that they are the most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

Perhaps this is the root of that post-Christmas malaise: it's all tangled up with the fact that another year is over and a new one is about to begin, and will bring with it changes, shifts, losses, gains, and inevitably new roles to play. We sit, waiting tipsily on the cusp of the year, hoping to draw on and realize old skills while knowing new things will be required of us as we learn to cope with whatever is to come.

No wonder restlessness seeps in...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spiritual greed

I don't remember filing this image in my folder of contemplative images, but when I found it this morning it resonated with this poem I read today in Joyce Rupp's Prayers to Sophia:

Stream of Enduring Love,
I yearn to have a feeling of oneness with you.
I wish I felt a driving passion, an insatiable thirst.
Instead, there's just this steady hum of fidelity,
with an occasional flicker of intense longing.

Each day I deliberately place myself
in the midst of your stream of enduring love.
I want so much to feel spiritual refreshment,
to have your divine passion sweep over me
with the power of an energizing waterfall.

Stream of Enduring Love,
I must let go of my desire to desire.
You provide for what I need.
You keep my heart alive in your love.
More than this I do not need,
but my ego clamors greedily for more.

I will rest in the stream of your goodness,
let your enduring love quietly wash over me,
be grateful for all that I have.
I will quiet that incessant voice in me
that whines for something more.

Rupp refers to the emotion expressed in this poem as "spiritual greed," which seems a perfect way to describe this restless longing for peace. I know there is a lovely pure flower of serenity in there somewhere, but I just can't seem to fight my way through the weeds right now.

The blessing of memory is that I know this feeling well, and know it always arises at this time of year: it's one reason I have for so many years planned a retreat for January. And I find, as I sit in the midst of all these mental weeds, that the memories of all those past retreats sparkle like glimpses of refreshing water. I know the peace will come again, and must be content for now with the memory of that.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Housebound and restless

Lovely as all this snow has been, I don't seem to take much pleasure in it as a photographer. It's odd, because I do love other people's photos of the snow. And I do appreciate -- very much -- black and white photography, which is essentially what snow pictures seem to become.

It may be the lack of mobility: because snow is so rare here, our roads are never adequately plowed. And because our half of the sandspit has 10 speedbumps in the space of as many houses, it never gets plowed at all.

One neighbor who attempted to drive out got stuck almost immediately and had to be pushed back home; another slipped on the ice leaving work last week and broke his hip. So I haven't been out since the first day of the storm, and most of my photos have been taken through kitchen or living room windows.

All of which, despite the rush of creative juices that were flowing just before Christmas, now seems to leave me feeling restless and unfocused, longing for the peace and the color I normally find in meditation, but unable to reach that objective. Perhaps it's just the post-Christmas letdown, or maybe it's the relentlessly negative news pouring into my ears from the radio that's almost always on when my husband is home.

But what I actually suspect is that Cynthia Bourgeault and the Benedictine monks are right: we need to balance the meditative exercise with physical exercise; to stimulate the body, bones and muscles as well as the heart and mind. Which may be borne out by the fact that the best snow pictures I've taken since this storm hit were the ones I took while out walking. Observing from a safe perspective can be good, but, for me at least, it's the actual engagement with life that seems to produce the more cogent insights.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Helpless, helpless, he-elpless

Years ago we had a contractor working for us who had a sticker on the back of his truck which read "Lord, let me be half the man my dog thinks I am."

I suppose there are lots of ways one could interpret this bumper sticker, but for the moment I'll just concentrate on one. It seemed to me yesterday, as I photographed this look on the face of my Polish sheepdog, that there were lots of people -- and animals -- needing things from me.

The hard part was not that I didn't want to give it; what really was disturbing was that I didn't seem to be able to know what it was they wanted or needed. Or in some cases I knew but just wasn't capable of providing it.

I feel particularly helpless at times like this. I can guess what might be needed -- and in Nemo's case, I suspect he was desperate for a walk -- but what he really wanted was for the street to be clear and easy to walk, so he could indulge himself, sniffing all the bushes along the way. And the fact is that all those bushes were covered with snow, and neither of us could get more than a few feet before giving up and going back home.

Christmas often leaves me feeling this way: I long to be able to give the gifts my loved ones need and deserve, but I can't always know what that might be, and sometimes circumstances -- like our inability to leave the house for the last few shopping days before Christmas -- prohibit my being able to follow through.

This morning I read that "there is no way to the true Self except the narrow way of renouncing all the false selves of the ego-system. What is left when I have let go everything that I am not is who I truly am."

So perhaps this sense of failure, of not being able to live up to my expectations of myself, is a good thing, another step along the road to oneness with the Divine. If I could accept that I cannot be half the man my dog -- or anyone else -- thinks I am, perhaps I might come closer to being more me and less a reflection of what my ego thinks all those external forces need me to be.

That's the hope, anyway. But for some reason an old book title comes to mind: "I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip." I guess that's my resistance speaking...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Day: Still, Still, Still

I would like to dedicate today's post to all those for whom stillness means the manger is still empty; for all who woke this morning to find that the child or spouse is still gone, the job is still tenuous or terminated, the money for the next house or car payment or grocery bill still hasn't appeared, the illness is still there, the stockings are still empty, the snow still blocks the exit, or the hurt and pain of life still loom large despite all the promises this season appears to make. I pray the light will shine anyway, somehow, somewhere, and you will find some peace and hope in this day.

Readings for today:
Psalms 96, 97
Psalm 98
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Advent: Christmas Eve

Readings for today:

Psalms 45, 46
Psalm 89:1-29
Isaiah 35:1-10
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 1:67-80

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advent: Tuesday, Week 4

Readings for today:

Psalms 66, 67
Psalms 116, 117
Isaiah 11:10-16
Revelations 20:11-21:8
Luke 1:5-25

Advent: Monday, Week 4

Readings for today:

Psalms 61,62
Psalms 112, 115
Isaiah 11:1-9
Revelations 20:1-10
John 5:30-47

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent: Sunday, Week 4

Readings for today:

Psalms 24, 29
Psalms 8, 84
Isaiah 42:1-12
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 3:16-21

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Advent: Saturday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalm 55
Psalms 138, 139:1-17
Isaiah 10:20-27
Jude 17-25
Luke 3:1-9

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent: Friday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalms 40, 54
Psalm 51
Isaiah 10:5-19
2Peter 2:17-22
Matthew 11:2-15

Advent: Thursday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalm 50
Psalm 33
Isaiah 9:18 - 10:4
2Peter 2:10-16
Matthew 3:1-12

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent: Wednesday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalm 119:49-72
Psalm 49
Isaiah 9:8-17
2Peter 2:1-10a
Mark 1:1-8

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent: Tuesday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalm 45
Psalms 47,48
Isaiah 9:1-7
2Peter 1:12-21
Luke 22:54-69

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Advent: Monday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalms 41, 52
Psalm 44
Isaiah 8:16 - 9:1
2Peter 1:1-11
Luke 22:39-53

Advent: Sunday, Week 3

Readings for today:

Psalms 63:1-8 (9-11), 98
Psalm 103
Isaiah 13:6-13
Hebrews 12:18-29
John 3:22-30

Friday, December 12, 2008

Advent: Saturday, Week 2

Readings for today:

Psalms 30, 32
Psalms 42, 43
Isaiah 8:1-15
2Thessalonians 3:6-18
Luke 22:31-38

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent: Friday, Week 2

Readings for Today:

Psalm 31
Psalm 35
Isaiah 7:10-25
2Thessalonians 2:13 - 3:5
Luke 22:14-30

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Advent: Thursday, Week 2

Readings for Thursday, Week 2 of Advent:
Psalm 37:1-18
Psalm 37:19-42
Isaiah 7:1-9
2Thessalonians 2:1-12
Luke 22:1-13

Monday, December 8, 2008

Advent: Wednesday, Week 2

Readings for today:

Psalm 38
Psalms 119:25-48
Isaiah 6:1-13
2Thessalonians 1:1-12
John 7:53 - 8:11

Advent: Tuesday, Week 2

Readings for today:

Psalm 26,28
Psalms 36,39
Isaiah 5:13-17,24-25
1Thessalonians 5:12-28
Luke 21:29-38

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent: Monday, Week 2

Show me your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

Psalm 25:3

Readings for Today:
Psalm 25
Psalms 9,15
Isaiah 5:8-12,18-23
1Thessalonians 5:1-11
Luke 21:20-28

Head of the Year

by Marge Piercy

The moon is dark tonight, a new
moon for a new year. It is
hollow and hungers to be full.
It is the black zero of beginning.

Now you must void yourself
of injuries, insults, incursions.
Go with empty hands to those
you have hurt and make amends.

It is not too late. It is early
and about to grow. Now
is the time to do what you
know you must and have feared
to begin. Your face is dark
too as you turn inward to face
yourself, the hidden twin of
all you must grow to be.

Forgive the dead year. Forgive
yourself. What will be wants
to push through your fingers.
The light you seek hides
in your belly. The light you
crave longs to stream from
your eyes. You are the moon
that will wax in new goodness.

Advent: Sunday, Week 2

Readings for today:

Psalm 148,149,150
Psalms 114,115
Isaiah 5:1-7
2Peter 3:11-18
Luke 7:28-35

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Advent: Saturday, Week 1

Readings for today:

Psalm 20,21:1-7 (8-14)
Psalms 110:1-5 (6-7), 116, 117
Isaiah 4:2-6
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Luke 21:5-19

Friday, December 5, 2008

Advent: Friday, Week 1

This morning's readings brought this picture to mind, though I have used it here before. Here are three different ways of looking at it: In the first, we are one with the woman, knowing God's care for us through her sorrow. In the second, we see a crushing indictment of the practices that brought her to this place. And in the third we see the redemptive nobility in her suffering.

For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them;
but when they cry to him he hears them.

Psalm 22:23

O my people, your leaders mislead you,
and confuse the course of your paths.
The Lord...stands to judge his people.
the Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people:
"It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?"
says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 3:12-15

He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had."
Luke 21:1-4

Readings for today:

Psalm 16,17
Psalms 22
Isaiah 3:8-15
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Luke 20:41-21:4

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent: Thursday, Week 1

Readings for today:

Psalm 18:1-20
Psalms 18: 21-50
Isaiah 2:12-22
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
Luke 20: 27-40

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Advent: Wednesday, Week 1

Readings for today:

Psalm 119:1 - 24
Psalms 12,13 and 14
Isaiah 2:1 - 11
1 Thessalonians 2:13 - 20
Luke 20: 19-26

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Advent: Tuesday, Week 1

Readings for Today:

Psalms 5 and 6
Psalms 10 and 11
Isaiah 1:21 - 31
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Luke 20: 9-18

Advent: Monday, Week 1

Readings for today:

Psalms 1,2 and 3
Psalms 4 and 7
Isaiah 1:10 - 20
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Luke 20: 1-8

Advent begins: Sunday, Week 1

One challenge I face in writing this blog is that my morning meditation sometimes gets consumed by thoughts of "What shall I write today?"

I see that, on the first Saturday of Advent, there is a clear response to this in Luke, chapter 21, verses 14-15:

Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom.

In order to spend some time honoring questions rather than answers, I have decided that for the next 4 weeks I will take on the daily readings for Advent, selecting a verse for each day and pairing a photo with it. I hope to keep my own observations to a minimum, so that the blog may take its shape from the readings for the season.

So today I begin with the readings for Sunday, the First Day of Advent, from the Daily Office Year One in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

The Morning Psalms for today are 146 and 147.
The Evening Psalms are 111, 112, and 113.
The Old Testament Lesson Is Isaiah 1:1-9
The Epistle is 2 Peter 3:1-10
The Gospel is Matthew 25: 1-13

Unexpected shoals

For whatever reason, I woke up feeling vulnerable this morning: unfocused, unsure, undefended, anxious... It was more a body feeling than a mind feeling; as if I hadn't gotten enough sleep, or if my body chemistry was off in some way. But it was interesting to watch where my mind went with these feelings -- definitely off into some old tapes; definitely some replay action.

And then, in my study group this morning, it became apparent that several of us were left with some unresolved "stuff" from Thanksgiving. Discussing some of the difficult interactions various folks had experienced, one wise friend said something that jolted me back awake: "I figure, if I ask if there's something I did that upset them, and they say no, then I did my part and I can let it go." Hearing that, I realized I had asked the same question -- did I do something wrong? -- and had gotten the same response -- no, I'm fine, it's all okay -- but for some reason I was stuck in the second-guessing, worrying zone: did she mean it? Will this come back to bite me? Why didn't I handle that differently? Was I being manipulated?

So I asked my wise friend: how do you get to the point where you let go, and the woman said, "Oh, I study a lot of Buddhism, and I understand that we create our own suffering; I just choose not to play those tapes."

Oh, right. Duh. That's exactly what I was doing, allowing my own insecurities to tie me up in knots. I know better, or at least I thought I did, but I got so caught up in the drama that I didn't even notice -- which is the other bad part about those vulnerable days: it's like I forget everything I know about how to deal. It's pretty humbling, actually.

Sigh. More grist for the mill.

So why this picture?

Because it looks so safe and solid: the boat is home, tied up, resting. But that's not what the boat was made to do: it may be safe, sitting on land, but it's tipping, unsteady; it's not in its native element. No wonder I was feeling off-balance: I'd somehow gone aground, tripped up on what one skipper calls "a nasty bit of underwater topography." Because the real problem here was not whether or not the other person in this interaction was okay. The real problem is my own need to "do it right", to be loved, and my own sense that if I do it wrong all hell will break loose.

Hmm. I'd forgotten I was still carrying those treacherous subliminal shoals... or perhaps I just hadn't noticed the tide was running low.

Good to know, I guess. But now what? Do I just wait till the tide rises again so I can float off this little sandbar? Or should I untie the boat and wade right out into the depths?

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Space Within

While in Arizona we visited Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school, set in the desert hills outside of Phoenix. This quote from Laotse, inscribed in brass on the wall of a small theater in the Taliesin complex, reads: "The Reality of the building does not consist in roof and walls but in the space within to be lived in."

I am reading Charlotte Joko Beck again this morning, and she talks about how we allow our thirsts to define us: our thirst for a mate, or for perfect children, or for a bigger home or a better job; our thirst for fame, or fortune, for beauty or even for enlightenment -- all these thirsts get in the way of happiness and freedom.

And it seems to me that these thirsts, like Lao-Tse's walls and roof, like the body itself, do not make up the reality of life. What is truly real, what truly defines our sense of well-being, is not that which is exterior to us but rather the life we live in the space within.

If all our thoughts and energies are focused on anger, or revenge -- on getting, or acquiring, or achieving; on worrying, or longing, or hurting -- the space within will be cluttered and claustrophobic, forcing us to depend more and more on what is outside of us. It is only when we stop to breathe, when we step into the silence and release our obsessive thoughts of past and future hurts and hopes, that we are able to open up the space within -- allowing it to breathe, allowing freedom and movement of thought without getting stuck or attached in a single pattern -- that we find the peace, joy, and acceptance that bring true happiness.