Saturday, February 28, 2009

When fat cats want more

Jesus said, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, "I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing." These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!
(Thomas, Logion 63)

My meditation period was punctuated repeatedly this morning by the cries of our tubby tabby, Sophie, who has a bladder infection and has been isolated in the downstairs bathroom to keep her from peeing all over the house. And when I rose from my chair it was to find our other big guy, Alex, studiously watching the fish in their newly protected tanks.

So this morning's readings and experiences seem to be all about our unfortunate tendency to want what we can't have -- and clearly we humans are not the only ones subject to that sort of longing. Alex has food in his dish, so it's not that he's hungry. But there is a determination in his gaze that leads me to believe he's not just playing with those fish, he WANTS them.

And Sophie has been provided with food (usually a prime motivator for her, now standing in her dish uneaten) and water, a comfy bed and a catbox, and still she cries to come out. It's not that she's desperate to be with us: she spends most of her days in hiding from Alex and the dog, who both adore her and seem to want to lick her incessantly. And she's terrified of us right now, because when we do manage to find her we're always stuffing her full of medications (she has an ear infection, too). So you would think she'd be grateful for her protected surroundings. But of course, they are unfamiliar, and she has no control over them, so she's not thrilled. And yet I'm not sure she'd be all that contented anywhere else, either -- and, of course, her illness is also making her uncomfortable.

But most everyone I know is pretty uncomfortable right now. We mostly all have what we need, for the moment, but no one is quite sure how long that will be true, or what sort of additional losses lie around the corner. We've been doing what that rich man in the gospel is planning for quite a while now, we Americans, but somehow all the produce in our storehouses seems to have dwindled in spite of our efforts -- or perhaps we've been so busy building those storehouses we've forgotten to fill them? And there is that scary thought, that without any financial cushion to speak of, a single natural disaster could blow over those storehouses, and there we would stand, exposed, hungry, and bereft of all our clever defenses and acquisitions.

So what will be left for us at that point? What will be left for you? Will there be family, friends, neighbors -- relationships in which we might find shelter? Will there be hope, or faith, or courage -- those elements that can keep us going when times are tough, which often flow out of a relationship with God? Or will we discover that our nest-building efforts have isolated us; that when the nest is gone there will be nothing left?

And, as my husband is fond of saying to our kids when they screw up, what have we learned from this?

Friday, February 27, 2009

To Fold or not to Fold

The day we shipped our daughter back to snowy Vermont I got a note from a friend saying the crocuses were up on Bainbridge. I confess I felt a little guilty (people raised in the Presbyterian tradition seem to be VERY gifted in the guilt arena) knowing spring was almost here while she would be, like the groundhog, stuck in winter for many more weeks.

And then of course we got our late season snow, and all those poor crocuses were forced to fold in on themselves to wait out the cold. Which for some reason reminds me of a wonderful Rilke poem I read yesterday:

I want to unfold.
I don't want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded,
there I am untrue.

And that, in turn, reminds me of the moment in my spirituality class on Tuesday when the leader noticed me sitting with my arms tightly folded across my chest, and said, "So! What's going on for you? What is that body language saying?"

Funny, how you don't notice these things when you're doing them. My arms were crossed because I was trying to keep something in that wanted to come out. So not all of us are eager to unfold. Blooming isn't always easy or fun -- and sometimes the snows come when you least expect it and you find yourself closing up again. But, oh, look at the color we can bring into the world when we finally open up!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

True confessions

"For this reason I say, if one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is fragmented, one will be filled with darkness." Thomas: 61

Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday; my friend Mary and I attended the evening service at Grace. It was much easier to walk through the litany of penitence this year, easier to accept the truth of failures and the possibility of redemption; a relatively peaceful time, in fact, despite the inevitable coming to grips with our own shortcomings that happens in that service.

But just at the end, before the final prayer, a pack of coyotes somewhere out in the field beyond the church began to howl. And though our priest laughed and said they were singing, what I heard sounded more like the agonies of the damned in Hell.

It was definitely eerie, and I wondered as I drove home why I heard it that way. Probably just the language of that service; you can't help but feel a sense of condemnation as you listen to all the ways you have failed to serve humanity with honesty and compassion. And then this morning we woke to a huge shift in the weather -- cold wind out of the north, several inches of snow -- very unseasonable. And I thought, oh, that's why the coyotes were crying; they could feel the weather coming.

And then, this morning, I embarked again on my reading in the Gospel of Thomas to find the words quoted above. What does that mean, to be fragmented? I found one possible answer (and there are many; this is just the one that resonated for me today) in my reading of Laurence Freeman this morning. Freeman writes:

"Early in life the gap begins to widen between experience and concept as we think about what we are learning. Under the pressure of social conformity, feeling and thought lose their spontaneous and natural correspondence. We pretend to feel what we do not feel but what we think we should. We say what we don't mean. Even beliefs we may vigorously defend or promote may never have been felt to be true. Religious emotions such as gratitude and joy can be faked or formalised. For many people today, as the gap between the idea and the experience of God yawns wider, their sense of alienation from institutional religion increases also."

Reading this, I see that, for me, fragmentation occurs when I am in a space where I must either deny what I know to be true, or declare something to be true that I don't actually feel. It's a bit like this picture, taken on our excursion into the land of Twilight (and how appropriate is that?), in which my daughter appears to be in two places at once. The juxtaposition of the figures is jarring, and once you realize that one bit of untruth, you begin to question whether she was actually there at all.

And so, in the spirit of Lent, I need to look at the places in my life where I feel fragmented, and see if I can assess where the truth lies and be honest about what I see. The first and most obvious place, I think, is this whole issue of unity. I do honestly believe that we are all one, that God is One and we are One in God. But I don't see that belief being FELT in me yet, in my whole being. Because, whatever I believe, the fact remains that I still have my prejudices, I still do the tribal thing, I still judge, and compete, and envy, and resent, and all those other sinful thoughts and feelings that spring from a sense of otherness and separation.

I'm working on it, and it's getting better, but that's partly because meditation makes me more aware of all the ways I fail to live up to my professed ideals. And, inevitably, Lent has a way of reminding me I still have a long way to go. It's one of those "the more you know, the more you know you don't know" situations; I guess I'll have to trust that there is some progress and keep working toward that unitive state of mind/being.

Psychology tells us we often hate most in others what we like least -- or find most shameful -- in ourselves. So it makes sense that the hypocrisy of organized religion -- that disconnect between professed and felt belief that Freeman articulates above -- would drive me crazy, even drive me out of the church at times. Because, of course, it's my own sore spot, a wound that, like my dog, I keep licking noisily, but it never quite seems to heal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Practice Ubuntu

A couple of days ago my daughter, who has moved to a different dorm, called to say that she and her roommate had been awakened by the silence after a loud party across the hall, only to hear two people standing outside their door looking at their sign and saying in a rather contemptuous tone of voice, "Who ARE this Alison and Kaitlyn, ANYWAY?"

She was feeling hurt and alienated by their tone of voice, and when I mentioned this to my husband on our nightly walk, he said, "People are so tribal."

It was an aha moment for me -- which I immediately went back and communicated to our daughter: she is, after all, an anthropology major. Why not (I suggested) see her move as an opportunity for an experiment? Assess the ways the new tribe differs from the old, find a way to bridge the gap.

And then, last night, a friend introduced me to Ubuntu, the theme for this year's General Convention in the Episcopal Church. Ubuntu, according to the description she found on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's website (on which Cynthia Bourgeault occasionally writes columns! I love it!), Ubuntu is an African term that means what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It’s a worldview that sees humanity as a web of family rather than a mass of individuals. When you relate in this way, you feel connected, energized and have a sense of abundance.

Ubuntu, then, is a way of taking that sense of connection and caring we feel within whatever tribes we share and extending it to include those beyond our tribal borders, so that those borders disappear. It's the work Obama was doing in his speech last night, building unity between the parties, building a sense of oneness and pride in America, and extending the concern we feel for one another to reach out across our borders to the world beyond: the ultimate in unitive thinking.

And it's work we need to do across family boundaries, neighborhood boundaries, ecumenical boundaries -- anywhere we feel a sense of separation, and anywhere that sense of separation contributes to a sense of entitlement. If, as Freeman says in Jesus the Teacher Within, sin is a consequence of separation, and at the same time the punishment for sin lies in that same sense of separation, then the heart of the life we are called to live is to reach out across the separation, to tear down that which separates us and work for inclusion.

So how would this translate into dorm life? Freeman says the duality of action and reaction is transcended in God, and I think it's that duality that fuels tribal behavior. If you think of that contemptuous remark (which may not actually have been contemptuous at all, but merely curious) as a ball thrown at my daughter's door, then if she stays in reactive mode, stiff, the ball will bounce back and hit the two questioners. But if she softens, relaxes, the ball will just drop to the ground, neither party will be injured, and it will become just a moment to be observed.

Perhaps that softening, the willingness to let it go, is the first step in Ubuntu. Because we can certainly THINK all the world is family, and pay lip-service to that concept. But until we act upon it, both in reaching out and accepting, it will become just another noble concept, gradually emptying of meaning even as it is popularized.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Prayer for Forgiveness

Yesterday I'd been looking at boat pictures from Capri, and there was one that had a little water in the bottom, and somehow there was a face in the water, so I began to play with that image, thinking it would appear here today.

But then, this morning, I was reading the chapter on Forgiveness in Jesus, the Teacher Within, and I realized somewhere toward the end of my meditation period that it was more important to write about the experience of forgiveness: Lent and Ash Wednesday are approaching, after all.

What I remember, about this one particular experience of forgiveness, was the sense of suddenly standing under a waterfall, of all my thirsts being quenched at once in this huge delicious rush of water, so I went looking for a photo of a waterfall.

I like this one, but I didn't use it for the poem I wrote because, refreshing as it looks, it seems somehow outside me; I am just an observer. I wanted the image to make the viewer feel as if they were standing IN the waterfall, and this one, well, it's obviously too small to stand in, unless those clovers are actually some new rainforest umbrella tree.

Because forgiveness is all too often just some little thing we think OTHER people can (or should) do. Forgiveness for ourselves -- either forgiving ourselves, or forgiving those who hurt us -- is an incredibly daunting task, and I for one -- at the time of this particular experience -- did NOT believe I had it in me.

Unfortunately I had no choice but to say the words: it was the passing of the peace, and we were all to say "You are forgiven, be at peace." And so I begged and pleaded for help, screaming inside my head I CAN'T DO THIS YOU HAVE TO HELP ME. And in one of the most amazing experiences of my life it was there, this healing power, this... this THING, that makes the difference between being in the Kingdom of God and being anywhere else, according to Lawrence Freeman. And it really was like a rush of healing water. And the person who stood before me, whom I'd avoided for years, now looks like a dear friend. I see with new eyes, and with a warmth that often yearns for, even claims, a hug.

As a writer, I hope you'll forgive me for all those sentences that begin with AND. As a woman whose entire family is very wary of "the Christian thing" I hope you'll forgive me for the sort of witnessy sound of this post. As a music lover, I have to say that standing there in that rush was not unlike the first time I heard Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion hit those soaring harmonies at the end of The Prayer (and yes, I know it's hokey, but I still loved it).

And as a child of God, I just have to declare: the water is FINE! Stop standing on the edge of the pool -- take the leap: you won't regret it.

Let this be our prayer,
Just like every child.

We ask that life be kind
And watch us from above.
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.
Let this be our prayer,
Just like every child.

Needs to find a place,
guide us with your grace

Give us faith so we'll be safe.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Promptings of the spirit

Now that my daughter is back in the land of snow and ice, the skies here, which have been unseasonably clear for most of the winter, have begun to cloud over -- which means the weather is about 20 degrees warmer, and the crocuses have begun to bloom.

Having spent much of my adult life in New England, I have very much enjoyed this cold, clear, snowy winter we've had, and though I love the early signs of spring I confess the returning clouds made me long for sunshine.

Which might explain why this image appeared in my head at some point during my meditation this morning. It's the harbor of Capri, full of light and color. I loved these beautiful little dinghies, their blues painted to match the hues of the infamous Blue Lagoon, and I found I resented the demands of the tour guide who brought us there: I didn't want to go up the hill to Anacapri, I just wanted to stay by the water, photographing these beautiful boats.But of course there were wonderful things to photograph in Anacapri as well, and now I'm glad I made the trip -- and I did get a little more time with these boats at the end of our visit.

When you are attempting to live an intuitive life, to listen to the promptings of the soul, it is difficult sometimes to know where those promptings really come from. It could be I wanted to stay here because it was calling to me, because there was something here I needed to see and share, and that I should have listened to that and told the tour folks I'd meet them on their way back down. Because the fact is I'm not very good at resisting authority and making choices for my art, so it could be that hopping on the bus was just the safe and lazy way out.

But I also have a long and successful history photographing old painted dinghies, and it could just be that my photographer's eye was longing for a break, a chance to stop WORKING to see what might be seen elsewhere, a chance to relax and take the safe familiar shots.

I'm sure both sides of this decision were operating, at least at some level. And what I see as I write about it is that there is a judgmental me in there, criticizing both possibilities, and that it comes from my mother's assessment of me: she always thought I was lazy, that I always took the lazy way out, and that assessment seems not only to have stuck with me but to continue driving me. Not surprising, under the circumstances, that I married a husband who is always challenging me to push my limits, to try new things and explore new possibilities.

I think this is one of the major benefits of regular meditation. Though I sit there longing to feel God's presence, the reality is that the voices I most often hear are my own, the voices of all the different messages I got growing up, all clamoring for attention. Until I listen to them and identify them, it will always be tricky to distinguish the call of the Divine -- which means every decision will have this unresolved quality, and I'll always be wondering: did I do the right thing? And why DID I make that choice?

It's only a tiny step from those questions to What-if land, and I already know I don't want to go there! So this is good: I think I'll stop and listen to that voice in me that says I'm lazy, maybe dialog with her a bit. Maybe if I get to know her better, I'll know when to listen and when to tell her to hush up. Hey, sweetie, I love you, but don't bug me: I'm busy collecting sunshine and color and stories!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Some days ya just gotta play!

Because we got up so early yesterday morning -- to take the 5:20 am ferry to the airport and put our daughter on the plane to New England -- I overslept a bit this morning. I still managed to get a cup of coffee and some reading and meditation in before church, but the poetry blog was a quick rendition of my experience meditating, and the prose blog -- well, it's after 4 and I'm just beginning.

But that's partly because on Sunday mornings I go to the 8 am service with my artist friend, Mary, and after church we go out for coffee and talk about the sermon and about our week, our art, our kids -- whatever comes up. Today Mary mentioned a problem she was having with the edges of a picture she was working on, and I just had to tell her about aluminum tape, which I found at the hardware store yesterday.

And I, in turn, have been taking a collage class, and had just gone out to buy some gel medium and gesso, some stamps and fluid acrylics, though I've not had a chance to work with them yet. So we agreed I'd come by her house with all my goodies -- her kids were away for the afternoon -- and we would play with art.

So we did: my aluminum tape made a great border for her painting, especially after she painted it with some iridescent green and copper paints. And I practiced with all my new toys, including that aluminum tape, and created the sort of odd creation you see here.

I'm not sure it has anything to say about anything; I just let it take me where it wanted. You can see that I'm a bit timid; I played it safe in a lot of ways. But it was a great way to spend the afternoon, I learned a lot, the conversation was lively, and now, tonight, I get to sit down with my husband and watch the Oscars.

It was a delightful way to get through my first big empty day -- which turned out to be a wonderful, full day. And I was pleased to see how just playing, working with art and light and color, feeds my soul.

So, what are you made of? What feeds your soul? What does a play day look like for you -- and when's the last time you set aside all your shoulds and just played? I hope you'll take the time -- a bit of a sabbath, actually -- and say yes to what calls you. Who knows where it might take you!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hangin' out the dark stuff

I just tried hanging some dirty laundry out to dry here and it just didn't work. I was trying to talk about what it feels like to not get paid, or to get paid less, for the work I do, and it just sounded like whining. I mean, there are so many other more important issues out there. I should just be grateful that I've had the opportunity to do this for so long.

But right now I suspect any post I write will sound like a whine. Because the truth of the matter is that I just put my daughter on a plane to the east coast, and I won't be seeing her again for several months, so I'm sad. And when I'm sad, the droop shows as clearly as the laundry hanging from this woman's windows; I've never had much of a poker face. I might try to brighten things up -- you have to admit these colors are pretty much pure pleasure -- but you'll still know.

And you know, as I do, that the sadness will pass, the hole she leaves in my life will fill with other things (my husband thinks a "real job" would be an excellent candidate for that) and I'll see her again when summer comes around. But right now all I have to hang out here is the dark stuff. And even puttin' that out there is a bit of a stretch today.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Holding it together

This lovely ceramic statue sits in the yard beside the Orcas Island Pottery, and teaches me what I need to know about projection.

On my bad days she looks tense and anxious, like she's clutching herself, or protecting herself; barely holding it all together. I detect a frown betwen her eyebrows, and the carvings on her cheek look like cat scratches.

But on a good day, I look at her and see a tender maternal figure, serenely embracing the child within, humming a lullaby under her breath as she quietly imagines their future together.

This Rilke poem is for her, and for you:

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth --
it's she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration

where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it's you she receives.

You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Illusions of darkness, illusions of light

When I was in college one of my closest friends had a well-thumbed copy of Rilke's famous Letters to a Young Poet. She quoted from it frequently -- probably as frequently as I recited to her from my own well-thumbed copy of Thoreau's Walden and so, for some reason, I have resisted acquiring ANYTHING by Rilke all these years. Silly, isn't it, how we allow these early prejudices to block whole realms of experience from us...

Anyway, for some reason -- I can't remember now why -- I recently acquired a copy of Rilke's Book of Hours, and this morning I opened it for the first time. What a marvel it is; the poetry is just wonderful, fresh and lively and full of surprises. My favorite surprise was this poem -- so refreshing, after all I've been reading and writing and hearing lately about darkness:

You, darkness, of whom I am born --

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations -- just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

We forget, sometimes, that we are born of the dark; that all creatures need the dark to refresh and renew. We get so caught up in looking for the light that we forget that the dark is always with us; that instead of being threatening and scary it could also be warm and nurturing and filled with love. We forget also that the light can create its own illusions, masking truth just as effectively as the night.

I thank Rilke for this lovely reminder that -- as the hymn says -- "the night and the day are both alike."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Suscipe me

"Suscipe me" -- "Accept me" -- these are the words a novice says upon entering a Benedictine community: "Accept me O Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live." That is part of the allure of faith, that somehow in the process of connecting with the divine we will find acceptance, and perhaps, having found divine acceptance, we will have the courage to accept ourselves.

Because many of us are like this lovely house on the canal in Burano: we've spent a fair amount of effort on our exterior, surrounded and decorated ourselves with beauty, but we only open ourselves enough to see out. We display to maximum advantage and create an illusion of openness, but never really let anyone see in for fear of what they might expect or find.

Suscipe me. Esther deWaal tells us that the Latin word comes from the verb sub-capere, to take underneath with the idea of supporting and raising; that in Roman usage it was the word for a father taking up a newborn infant from the ground, thus recognizing it as his own.

"Suscipe me conveys the full depth and warmth of that word. Accept me, receive me, support me, raise me up -- wonderful singing words that say everything that I want to say as a prayer for myself."

But it's not just a prayer, it's a promise. If I am to invite divine acceptance, I must also open myself to the divine presence. It will no longer be enough to just peer through the cracks: Suscipe me is a promise that I will throw open the shutters, raise the blinds, open the curtains, throw wide the doors and let the divine light shine within. Which means those things I've tucked away in the dark corners will be exposed to ME as well as to the divine. Though that may be awkward and painful at times, it does mean I'll have an opportunity for a good, thorough spring cleaning. And the good news is, I won't be working alone!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thoughts on an empty cross

Growing up in the Presbyterian church, I was accustomed to rather simple liturgical surroundings. The pastor's black robe was like those worn by my parents in the choir; the panes of the stained glass windows were large and rectangular, often in pastel colors, rarely depicting anything. Communion was dried bread cut in stale squares and served with grape juice 4 times a year, and there was only one cross, usually behind the altar, and always empty.

Which meant that when, at the urging of the Episcopal priest who counseled me through my divorce, I finally agreed to try worshiping at an Episcopal church, the whole experience seemed garish, popish even, and very overwhelming. We were expected to juggle three books -- hymnal, bible, and prayerbook -- plus the bulletin and the leaflet of service music. Communion was served every Sunday, and included Real Alcohol (tasty! I'd never had port before) and a lot of unexplained kneeling and standing.

There were liturgical colors, which changed mysteriously with the seasons, and there were crosses everywhere -- in the stained glass windows, on the altar, carved into the pulpit -- and many of them had Jesus' body on them. It seemed almost vulgar, this emphasis on a dying man, depicted always as muscular, white, and brunette though surely no one could have known what he actually looked like.

But by that time I'd had not one but two conversion experiences, both of them specifically triggered by the disturbing fact of Jesus' death, so I could see that this sort of art might in fact serve as a grounding, an embodiment of faith, and a reminder that life isn't always smooth and pretty but can sometimes get quite edgy and painful. I was still uncomfortable with what looked like the glorification of death, but my own faith at that point was still fueled primarily by the fact that Jesus died for my sins, so it seemed appropriate to remind myself of that on a regular basis.

So it is amusing to realize that now, years later, though I still worship in an Episcopal Church, it has no stained glass and no crucifix. And though there are many crosses, both placed about and embedded into the church's architecture, they speak more to the resurrection, to that moment when human and divine reunite rather than to the moment of painful separation. And as I prepare for my spirituality class this morning by re-reading Freeman's take on the Resurrection in Jesus the Teacher Within, I see that these more austere surroundings are a good match for the faith I am carrying into the autumn of my life.

Because my faith itself has died and been resurrected. And it is no longer Jesus' death on the cross or my awareness of my own undeserving sinfulness that lies at the root of my belief system, but rather a sense of a loving divine presence in my life, a presence best symbolized by the intersection between horizontal and vertical that lies at the center of the cross. As the hymn composed by St. Patrick puts it:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When we shift our focus from the man on the cross to the resurrected Christ, we are no longer isolated and alone, wallowing in our sinfulness and dependent upon this single horrific event for redemption. We are instead drawn into a loving awareness of the divine presence which moves in and through not just us but also through those around us, enfolding all of creation in a compassionate and unifying embrace.

At least, that's how I feel about it now, today, when I'm standing at the Episcopal end of my personal spirituality spectrum. The Buddhist in me gets pretty uncomfortable about the word "Christ" and immediately wants to change St. Patrick's words to something a little less "churchy." It likes the idea of the compassionate oneness, though, so it has decided to let me get away with this sort of preachily religious post. I'm still working on reconciling these two parts of me; can you tell?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Balancing light and dark

This morning I have been reading, in Esther deWaal's book Living with Contradiction, about the importance of the contradictions in our lives, about the ways that the tension between death and resurrection, dark and light, success and failure, health and disease -- all those opposites we face as we move through our journeys -- produces growth.

I know that as an artist as well; not just the use of dark and light areas to enhance the overall impact of an image, but also the importance of risking failure, of trying new things and exploring new directions, of taking what looks like failure and seeing through it to the promise of success it holds.

There's a classic story that comes to mind of the resourceful photographer Farrell Eaves, who dropped his digital camera in a pond while shooting on a photography workshop. Instead of giving up, he strapped the camera to his windshield wipers for a couple of days, driving through the Southwest's wind and sun to dry it out. When the camera was dry again he fired it up to discover that it now added amazing psychedelic colors to everything he shot. This enterprising gentleman not only kept shooting with his camera, he even published a book displaying the results of his work.

After I finished the chapter I was reading in deWaal's book, I opened John O'Donohue's To Bless the Space Between Us, and here's the poem of blessing that appeared:

The will of color loves how light spreads
Through its diffusions, making textures subtle;
Clothing a landscape in concealment
For color to keep its mysteries
Hidden from the unready eye.

But the light that comes after rain
Is always fierce and clear,
And illuminates the face of everything
Through the transparency of rain.

Despite the initial darkening,
This is the light that failure casts.
Beholden no more to the promise
Of what dream and work would bring,
It shows where roots have withered
And where the source has gone dry.
The light of failure has no mercy
On the affections of the heart;
It emerges from beyond the personal,
A wiry, forthright light that likes to see crevices
Open in the shell of a controlled life.

Though cruel now,
it serves a deeper kindness,
Wise to the larger call of growth.
It invites us to humility
And the painstaking work of acceptance

So that one day we may look back
In recognition and appreciation
At the disappointment we now endure.

And now, from this perspective, I look back at the failures in my life -- with jobs, with my children, my first marriage; framed photographs that languish in my office unpurchased; classes and workshops taken with nothing to show for them -- and resolve to try something new today, to risk again, to push my limits and explore. Because each of those "failures" has brought some new gift into my life -- an awareness, a new direction, a discovery or revelation -- and though some of those stories are not yet complete I can see that the tension they hold is pushing me to growth.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Through the eyes of love

Years ago, when I was in my 20's, I read As We Are Now, May Sarton's magnificent story of life in a troubled nursing home, and not long after that I reviewed Jill Paton Walsh's Unleaving, an extraordinary story for young people, written about a home on the beach from the perspective of a young girl visiting her grandmother, and from the same woman being visited by her own granddaughter many years later.

Both books had a significant impact on me, and I thought for a while that I might want to work with the elderly some day. But life has a way of carrying us off into other places, and it wasn't until years later, on a photo assignment for the paper I had once edited, that I found myself photographing people who were being cared for in a church daycare center for elderly dementia patients. Charlie, the man pictured here, was from that photo assignment. The experience of photographing them and interacting with them was quite moving, so when I got a call a couple of weeks ago to do a presentation on photography for a local retirement center, I immediately said yes.

I designed a presentation that would show them lots of photographs of familiar places around the island, and then, at the tail end of the presentation, I showed them some of the fun things you can do with photoshop to make an ordinary picture extraordinary. I closed the presentation with a series of before and after portraits that had been photoshopped to make their subjects look younger, and then offered to take photos of each of the participants and bring them photoshopped copies.

I had a lovely time with the folks who came to the presentation -- they were all intelligent and engaged and engaging -- and I have been greatly enjoying my time this weekend working with their photographs. It feels to me like I am looking THROUGH these pictures to the person who lies behind them, in much the same way Walsh and Sarton saw through their elderly characters to the life and spirit that lay beneath. And though some of the work involves smoothing away the wrinkles and sharpening the jawlines -- the obvious things -- I am also restoring teeth, taking away the clouds from their eyes, and, for the women at least, restyling their hair a bit to frame their faces better.

I have learned, over the years, that when you love someone -- whether it's a friend or a mate -- over a long time, you barely register their aging process: you continue to see them as they were when you first knew them. Or perhaps it is just that who they are, these people that you love, eventually becomes an entity in itself, completely apart from their bodies. I like to think, in working with the photos I took at the retirement center, that I am looking with the eyes of love, and that what I see behind the rheumy eyes and age spots is the person within.

That's something I found it difficult to do with my own parents, although they did not live to the age of these folks, and I wonder if my own children will be able to do it with me.

I hope so.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The problem with Valentine's Day

My younger daughter is home on break, and we spent yesterday on a pilgrimage to Forks and LaPush Washington, in honor of her current fascination with Twilight and the romantic (?) world of vampires.

The subject of Valentine's Day came up frequently in the conversation, and from all sorts of angles; it surfaced again later in the evening when I was at the theater with two newly divorced friends, and again even later on the way home in the company of my daughter and one of our gay friends.

In a lot of ways Valentine's Day is like Christmas -- for a (thankfully not so extended as Christmas) period of time we are bombarded with images of "true love" as our society imagines it to be; a sort of romanticized fantasy of what relationship is REALLY all about. And it's just as hard on Valentine's Day as it is at Christmas to withstand that bombardment without at some point becoming painfully conscious that your life is NOT what all those images and stories seem to imply it should be; that each of us has needs for love that are not being met.

It is hardest, of course, for those who are "between relationships:" the relentless parade of loving couples and romantic gestures only remind them of what they lost, or never had, and may never have or have again; of the promises not kept and the hopes and dreams that have shriveled from lack of nourishment.

But those who are in loving relationships can find it challenging as well, either because their mates don't live up to expectations, or show love in traditional ways, or because other challenges and losses in their lives are overwhelming and draining their awareness of love: loss of a parent, child, job or home, health or transportation, or just the struggle of daily existence can make it hard to see and appreciate the love we do have. Love, in some ways, is like art in the marketplace, or marketing in the business world: the first casualty in times of stress. And then things can look dark indeed.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have rich spiritual lives can take a great deal of comfort from the sense of love and fulfillment that arises in the course of our spritual practice. But even then there is a longing that lies not far beneath the surface, tears that pool at the corners of our eyes, hope that reaches upward for the divine as this tree strains toward the light. We just have to trust that somehow, in the tension of that -- the pooled longing, the straining, and the hope -- we will find blessings and growth to feed us and the compassion to reach out in love to all the others around us who hunger.

...and now, since my friend Karen tagged me, and in honor of the Soul Journal Valentine's Day Blog Party, here is my husband meme -- before which, I just have to say, THANKS HONEY FOR THE ROSES AND CHOCOLATES! (yum, dark chocolate truffles, my favorite!)(and a special thanks to Ali for encouraging him to honor the day):

1)Husband's Name: Christian

2)How long have you been married? In July it will be TWENTY-FIVE YEARS!!! Yay!

3)How long did you date? A year and a half.

4)How old is he? 57

5)Who eats more sweets? He does, no question, though I do need my chocolate...

6)Who is the better singer? I am. He can't carry a tune, even with a bucket, and he knows it.

7)Who is smarter? We each have our areas of excellence and lesser achievement. He's more a math and science kind of dude, I'm more into humanities and religion. He reads more non-fiction; I read more fiction. He's a walking encyclopedia about history and politics but I can figure out how things work and fix them. It's all good, we completely complement each other's areas of expertise.

8)Who does the laundry? I do, but he does the dishes and is a better cook (I wish he cooked more often!) Fortunately the kids -- when they're home -- do their own. And I never have to iron!

9)Who pays the bills? He earns the money; I write the checks.

10)Who sleeps on the right side of the bed? We used to switch every year but now he sleeps on my right side unless we're traveling, in which case he gets the side that has the lamp.

11)Who mows the lawn? Nobody has to mow -- it's all dune grass!

12)Who cooks dinner? I do, about 3 times a week. The rest of the time is leftovers, or we go out, or he cooks.

13)Who drives? He prefers to, but occasionally I get fed up with his driving style and take over. Because he commutes by motorcycle, he has a tendency to speed, and to stop and turn rather suddenly; I think he forgets he has a huge car to drag around the corner...

14)Who is the first to say they are wrong? Whichever one of us is wrong. We share the burden... but I have to say, we can count the arguments on just a hand or two; we rub together awfully well.

15)Who kissed who first? I think he claims this one, cuz he liked me before I liked him. It took me a while to figure out how terrific he was.

16)Who asked who out first? Again -- he pursued for a while before I caught up...

17)Who wears the pants? Hard to say -- this is a terrifically egalitarian relationship. I guess it depends on what the issue is -- maybe we each have one leg in? Hmm. Sounds like fun!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bumping up against it

It was two weeks ago today that, buoyed by a sense of new mission, I went off to the Hood Canal for a weekend to see if I could figure out where this strong sense of calling was going to take me.

This shot was taken as I was attempting to photograph some buffleheads (black and white ducks) who were frolicking in the water just off the deck of the cottage where I stayed that weekend, and as I looked through my images this morning to figure out what to post this one waved its hand in the air and shouted "Me, me, take me!"

One of the things I've been learning as I process the revelations of that weekend is that this blog is really about what these photos that seem to leap into my camera have to teach me. Writing is my way of framing and interpreting the divine presence as it appears through the photos, just as the experience and liturgy and drama and music of church are a way of interpreting the divine presence as it is expressed in Communion.

So what am I learning as I look at this photo? I love the balance of it. I love the counterpoint between the straight lines of the fence and the curve of the chair, and the way they come together in the curved edge of the table and the almost straight edge of the waves: it makes me think a bit of my straight hair and my husband's kinky curly hair as they reflect together in the loose curls of our younger daughter and the smooth waves of our older daughter.

But I think the part that intrigues me most is the way the fence has begun to bend where the chair touches it, shifting its own stiff regularity to accommodate the curve of the chair. So if I go with that parallel -- that the fence is me and the chair is my husband, then I have perhaps begun to be more flexible in those parts of my life where he bumps up against me the most? Maybe the fact that I LIKE that little ripple in the fence is a sign that this sense of irritation I've been feeling since he's been working at home more, this edgy resentment of the interruption in my routine, is actually a good thing; that even though it's uncomfortable, it's an important part of the picture, and actually makes it more interesting.

Or maybe this is a chicken and egg problem: Because his increased presence is causing some ripples, I recognize them in the picture and want to think they will add to life rather than detract from it? I suspect the order, chicken or egg, doesn't matter so much. The important thing is to realize that it's all okay, all part of the picture: my rigidity, his curves, the bumps where they meet and abrade -- it's all good. In the immortal words of Julian of Norwich,

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I have a feeling there is a lot more to be learned here, but I have to run: I am taking my daughter on a pilgrimage to Forks today. So amusing, to be hunting vampires on Friday the 13th! Will I get bitten by this bug? Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

When experience plays like a shadow

This morning I took my Polish sheepdog, Nemo, into our local art store to visit with Duffy, a wheaten terrier who could be Nemo's twin. Duffy's owner, Richard, showed me a print he'd made -- not so different from this image -- after inviting a bunch of people in an art class to draw squiggles on a piece of glass. "Look at all the differing emotions there," he said.

Nemo, who is diabetic and has an incessant craving for food -- especially sugar -- ignored Duffy and spent his time prowling the store, looking for something edible, and eventually found one of Duffy's bones hidden in the back room. Duffy, after his initial excitement at meeting a new friend, quickly realized Nemo was a bit of a dud as a playmate, and lay down in his customary position on the floor, polar-bear style with his back feet splayed out to the sides.

And so it was that each of us returned to our natural stasis: Nemo searching, Duffy resting, Richard teaching and me watching and listening -- it reminded me again of that study done of lottery winners and calamity victims: whatever life brings in the short term, in the long run they return to their natural state. Two years after the exhilaration of winning the lottery, normally unhappy people are unhappy again. Two years after the sadness and grief of a heinous loss, normally happy people are finding joy again.

Examined from this perspective, life becomes little more than a Rhorshach blot; what we see and feel colored almost exclusively by our unique vantage points. What is sent our way doesn't define us; it is our response that defines us, that describes and interprets the picture we see.

Perhaps the only way that interpretation can evolve is by creating the time to really look at what lies before and around us. Because even this apparently random graffiti has gifts within it -- the dancing red pony, the silver lining at the top, the splashes of sunshine yellow being piped in on the right; the stiff grace of the torn and aged bamboo, the playful curves of black that leap and dance across the wall's canvas like shadows over a teal sea... each echoes on its own frequency in the chamber of the heart's experience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thoughts on poise

The other day, while driving off the ferry into downtown Seattle, we passed some old friends from Shaw Island, and stopped to chat with them a while.

Later, on the way to the airport, I mentioned that my mother would have greatly admired the woman's poise, and somehow we found ourselves in a discussion about the word "poised." I said I found it interesting that the word had two different meanings -- poised for attack or takeover, and poised like a young woman, but my husband insisted they were actually the same meaning.

Hmm, I thought. I just couldn't quite see it. We shared the discussion with friends, but came no closer to resolving this issue, so it's been sitting on a back burner in my mind, simmering quietly as the week goes by.

And then, this morning, I read John O'Donohue's introduction to his Threshold Blessings in To Bless the Space Between Us, and found this:

"At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres."

Suddenly I could see how the two meanings of "poised" were the same. Because we think of the phrase "poised on the threshold," I could begin to understand that the country or company poised for attack or takeover is not just literally waiting at the boundary to begin; it is balancing on a precipice between waiting and action; there is impending and intense motion in the stillness.

And the young woman, practicing poise with the book on her head, is also balancing, standing on that boundary between youth and adulthood, between life in a family and life in the world; her poise implies both an inner stillness and an intense readiness for action, for change, that intensity giving a shimmering quality of anticipation to the waiting.

This, I think, is Eckhart Tolle's Power of Now, that sense of being totally in the moment, balancing in a present that will always be tipping into the future; an intensity and quality of stillness that implies incipient motion.

Are you poised? And if so, on what threshold do you find yourself today?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The law of white spaces

I read this morning, in Jesus the Teacher Within, about the Law of White Spaces:

"A rabbi was approached by a group of his students who had been wrangling over the meaning of a difficult part of the Torah. He asked them to show him the page and then asked what they saw there. The words we are disputing about, they replied, the black marks on the page. Right, he said, well, the words contain half the meaning. The white spaces between the words are where the other half of the meaning is to be found."

The snow has returned this morning, bringing white space back into our lives, both visually and figuratively. Because we stay inside and watch the slow accumulation, we see not only the patterns of the snow on the land, but also the white spaces created by the light within, by the sky, and by the simulated snowflakes, dangling reminders of Christmas past.

And if, as I suspect, we'll not be venturing out, there'll be a white space created in our busy days and plans as well, a suspension of activity that invites us to ponder: just what is it, this page on which we journal of our schedules, meetings, thoughts and prayers. And where is it the meaning lies -- in those etched marks or in the life we live between the lines?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The changing booth

A phone booth -- something you don't see much anymore -- stands in the middle of one of our island recreation areas, equidistant from the skateboard park and the art barn, tucked here beside the mini-gym and glowing reassuringly in the darkness.

Those of us who remember a childhood before cellphones know the promised rescue of a phone booth often failed; they often let us down. The directory was missing, or the coins would stick; you wouldn't have enough to call, or the phone just -- didn't work. The good news was that sometimes, if you flipped open the coin release, you might occasionally find a little change.

Was it easier then to place the blame for communication failures outside ourselves? Because now there's no excuse, just I forgot my cell, or I forgot to charge my cell, or simply I forgot to call. Or -- if the problem lies in the call not received rather than the call not made -- I didn't hear it ring, or I forgot I'd turned it off.

And once we understand that God is always with us, not just housed in some bright little building, tucked in a corner of town we only visit once a week for some religious exercise, then what is our excuse for not calling, for not hearing the call? And is it true, what all those Catholics feared so long ago, that once we get direct communication, the church becomes outmoded technology? Or is there still a chance of collecting a little change?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The scent of resurrection

I ran across this image yesterday while looking for photos to use in a workshop I'm doing later this week. I'd forgotten I'd taken it, though, seeing it, I know exactly where I was at the time. There's a wonderful park on our island called the Bloedel Reserve, a former family estate that has been preserved for public use, and I was there for a day-long contemplative retreat.

We got lots of breaks for walking around, so I took my camera with me and got some wonderful pictures -- mostly of paths and bridges, which tells you where my head was that day (the camera never lies). But I am a TOTAL sucker for skunk cabbage; have been photographing it for years (with only occasional success) and apparently I couldn't resist capturing this one, and the way it so sweetly cradles and frames these fuschia wildflowers.

I suspect the reason it caught my eye yesterday is because there is in me -- in all of us these days, I suspect -- a longing for spring. And spring, of course, is skunk cabbage season, the time when all those brilliant yellow-greens burst forth, complete with that nasty skunky aroma, as if all that winter decay is done, and the scent of it is being released into the air to fuel new life.

I don't know where I'm going with this -- I'm not having one of my usual mornings, as my husband is bustling around getting ready for his trip to the airport, and he's just informed me we're taking an earlier ferry so I don't get to go to church either. But as he says, life is what happens while you're making other plans. At least he was willing to take the dog for his morning walk -- and now I need to leave.

So what is the scent of resurrection for you? Think about it; I'll check in when I get back.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

When new and old collide

While visiting the mainland on that abortive dental excursion we decided to visit our old marina on the Duwamish River. As I think I've mentioned before, when my husband drove out here with a friend in 1988, they drove a Ryder truck full of furniture and towed a boat which they slept in at night along the way.

We were pretty broke when we arrived in Seattle, and a friend steered us to this cheap marina, which is buried in a pretty industrial part of the city; it's just to the right of the bridge displayed in yesterday's photo on the poetry blog. When we moved out here we dropped the boat in that marina, and, after a couple of abortive excursions, there it stayed and rotted til a friend retrieved it and moved it up to Shaw.

It was fun to visit the old place again, and I was glad I'd brought my camera, though I knew its battery was running low. I wandered around with the camera in hand, looking to see if there might be pictures: I mean, hey, boats and water -- OLD boats and water, SHABBY boats and water -- what more could I want?

But knowing I had only a few pictures left before my camera went dark, I was being picky, and I saw nothing that captured my interest in the marina, and began shifting my focus. I took a couple of shots of the bridge, walked down to the water and watched the geese, looked for another possible angle on the boats and marina... nothing. And then I turned and saw the color and texture of this tarp on the side of the building and literally RAN to the chainlink fence that separated us. I took two photos of the cat/truck/building, turned to my husband and said, "OMG, that was TOTALLY worth the trip," and we started to walk back. When I finally found a boat image that might photograph well I got the camera out one last time, but by then the battery had definitely died.

Which is just as well, because I really love this picture.

Last night we went over to a friend's house to watch a movie which addressed the differences between the before and after in our lives; the value shifts, new behaviors etc. that emerge when we begin to understand better our connection to the divine. And I think one of the challenges of navigating that transition period is that we tend to stay stuck in our old behavior patterns, to look for God in the old obvious places despite the fact that we now get -- intellectually at least -- that the divine permeates everything.

I have years of success photographing old boats and water -- I just hung a show yesterday filled with HUGE images of old boats and water -- so it's natural for me to train my camera, my focus, my vision, back on those old successful places. But I had to turn my back on the marina to get this picture; had to turn away from the easy, obvious beauty of boats and water, to capture this much less obviously beautiful image. And that's the key, particularly for artists as we grow in our craft: we have to set aside what we know will work, what we know will sell and do what calls out to us, what resonates on that divine cord that links our innermost longings to the Universal Other.

You may not like this image, and you probably don't want to buy it. But for me it says I paid attention: to my heart, to the moment, to the surroundings and the color and the light. It says there is a deep beauty that breathes through poverty and pain and age and loss and ignites them with the colors of passion and freedom. It feels like a step forward, and I love it.

Friday, February 6, 2009

That extra stretch...

I had to take my husband in for gum surgery yesterday (didn't happen, long story, he's fine). He was chuckling as he pulled into the parking space, and when we got out of the car he motioned me over to show me this plate on the car next to us.

I photographed it with my cell phone and sent it to a dentist friend (who was duly amused) and then thought, well, who knows, and took a shot with my camera as well.

This morning I was going through the images I managed to capture in the city yesterday before my camera battery died, and this one surfaced again. Funny, I thought, and moved it into my humor folder. And then I looked at it again and realized that just above the windshield wiper, barely visible, gray-on-gray, is the word "ATTITUDE."

OH! I get it! This isn't just funny dentist humor; there's also something telling us this needs to be a way of life; that just "being open to what comes" -- or to what is, for that matter -- isn't enough. We need to stretch that extra bit, to open WIDE, to risk that slight dislocation of the mental jaw that the snake does so easily in order to accommodate a broader understanding of the divine value that infuses all creation; to step, sometimes, out of our comfort zone and enfold ALL of humanity, not just SOME humanity, in the divine embrace of compassion.

I'm sorry -- it's the punny spirit of my father in me -- I just have to say this: That's the only way those gaping inner cavities in us are ever gonna get filled. (I know. OUCH!)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Stepping out with the goddess

Just before I left for my retreat last weekend I had coffee with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and I found myself telling her about my driftwood goddess.

The driftwood goddess showed up on a beach not long after my mother died. It was a difficult time in my life (the loss of a parent always is) and I had been questioning everything about my faith and my church, rejecting the male, patriarchal God but not really able to see at the heart level if there was anything else there of value.

At that time in my life I understood, intellectually at least, that God was both male and female, and I had been carefully raising my girls with the appropriate language around that. But it wasn't until this piece of driftwood appeared at my feet that I was finally able to FEEL the divine feminine. One look at this delightful creature, whose pendulous boobs and open womb could also be bulging eyes and an open mouth, and I burst out laughing. "I get it!" I said aloud, and suddenly I felt enfolded in nurturing arms.

On hearing this story, my coffee friend told me I needed to bring the goddess with me on my retreat. "She's been sitting in that bowl in your living room for too long; she needs to get wet," she said. It seemed like an odd thing to say, but I thought, hey, what the heck, and brought the goddess with me to the cottage on the canal.

My first act, after unpacking, was to take her out to the beach. "Linda says you need to get wet, so here you go," and I put her in a little stream that flowed off the hillside and down to the water.

"But this is FRESH water, I want SALT water," she said. "Live with it," I replied, "If I put you at the water's edge you might float away. I don't want to lose you, and I'm not walking into salt water in my leather boots."

"So put on your Crocs," she replied.

"Look, next time we come out I'll wear my crocs, okay? Let's just do this," and I set her in the stream and looked around me. The beach at the cottage is not really a beach in the usual sense: instead of sand, it's covered with fist-sized rocks, which are in turn covered with barnacles -- all somewhat difficult to walk on. But there are oysters everywhere (too bad I'm allergic to shellfish, or I'd be in pig heaven), often stuck together in very interesting clusters.

The bed of an oyster shell is just the right shape to hold a piece of soap (we have oyster shell soap dishes in all our bathrooms) and, in fact, is also the perfect size to hold... the driftwood goddess. And so, as she bathed in the stream, I began to see that there were some intriguing clusters of shells on the beach, and that they might make potential thrones for the goddess. Maybe this would make it up to her for the fresh water, I thought, so I picked up two very promising throne candidates, one gray and one all shiny and white, and brought them back into the house with her.

The pretty white one didn't work all that well; it wouldn't stand up in a way that supported her to best advantage. But while the other one fit fairly well it still had some live oysters mixed in, which meant it would stink to high heaven when I got it home. Clearly our furniture shopping wasn't done.

The next day I went out again after the tide dropped. I didn't take the goddess with me this time, but I did find another throne. This one didn't work either, however; close, but no cigar. So on Sunday, after I finished loading up the car, I took the goddess back to the water. This time I found a little eddy in the salt water where I could safely leave her floating, face down, and I poked around the beach one last time.

And there, not too far from the little stream where she lay drinking it all in, I found the perfect throne; all white shells (no live oysters), balanced, quite stable, lacy and VERY showy, which was apparently what she wanted. This time, when I took her out of the water, she was happy, and she stayed damp all the way home; I guess salt water has more staying power than fresh. And, as you can see, she loved having her picture taken with her new throne.

Go figure.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Great Expectations

When I was 10, my parents took me to see Music Man, and it made a huge impression on me. My entertainment and exercise, in those days before we had a television (yes, we were slow adapters) was to roller skate around and around our basement floor in big sweeping circles, dodging the metal poles and singing loudly.

Before Music Man, the songs were all from Broadway shows; South Pacific was a big favorite. But with the advent of that handsome Professor Harold Hill I became a hopeless romantic -- or perhaps I should say, a hope-FULL romantic. Because my two favorite songs from the show were "My White Knight" ("What my heart could say, if it only knew how...") and the Wells Fargo Wagon ("Well it could be... something special... just for me!").

With music, the hunger in my heart for acceptance and recognition, for someone to "get" me, had found its voice, and I spent my days skating in endless circles howling out those songs, especially if one of the cute boys who cut our lawn was in the house to collect his money. But, looking at this picture, which I took on my journey down the Hood Canal last weekend, I see that at the heart of that longing lay my inability to connect with my mother. The expression on the face of that baby girl-- who is clearly not neglected, with her doll, her warm clothes and her pretty new boots -- of sheer longing for maternal attention tears at my heart. And there is the mother, staring resolutely ahead, lost in her own internal battles -- or so I project, as I look at this from the perspective of my own childhood.

Because that, of course, is how we all see: through the lenses of our own moods and experience, which color all the information we take in. Which is why a casual word from a friend can trigger a flood of recriminations; why a child's misstep can trigger frothing parental anger; why a troubled marriage can slowly dissolve, each partner unable to see past their own struggles to reach out to the tormented soul of the other.

How do your preconceptions color this picture? To me, the father, mother and son in this tableau all seem resigned to me; stoic, patient, waiting for the next stage in their lives. The good news is this: they're obviously waiting in the right place, and though the stagecoach may be late, it WILL come. Even the dog, who waits expectantly for the daily treat tossed to him by the driver, understands that it will eventually arrive.

Oho, the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' now
I don't know how I can ever wait to see
It could be somethin' for someone who is no relation
But it could be
somethin' special
just for me!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Woo-hoo! According to Jan, on her Yearning for God blog today is BLOGROLL AMNESTY DAY, where we promote blogs even smaller than our own. I'm not sure there actually ARE any blogs smaller than my own, but here are some not too much bigger than mine that I love and read regularly:

My friend Karen's blog, about dealing with life after the death of her 12-year-old daughter, Katie:

My new blogger friend Kim's blog about faith and quilting:

My new blogger friend Robin's beautiful artwork:

And the blogs of Bob and Sue Cornelis, a husband and wife who are both artists, and very articulate about their work and faith:

I feel honored to be on the same page with these wonderful folks, whose work truly feeds me.

PS: can you believe it? I've been doing this for over a year and I still have no clue how to do links! So I just type them in; hope that's okay. Karen, how did you get so smart so fast? (Folks, she wasn't even using email before she started blogging, and now she's a complete pro!).

Listening for that restless spirit

Reading, in Jesus the Teacher Within, about befriending Jesus as an aspect of befriending yourself, I decided to hunt down an image of that part of me that objects, gets hurt, cries for recognition, and runs off by herself.

And sure enough, here she is, perfect right down to the curly red hair (unlike my own, which is straight and brown). I took this shot at my daughter's high school graduation -- something in me sensed a kindred spirit, I suspect -- of someone's little sister, taking off in a spirit of rebellion and boredom (and no doubt loving the feel of the soft green grass under foot, something that won't happen now that they've covered the playing field with astro-turf).

What I've come to realize, over the past week or so, is that when this child in me objects noisily to something, it is not necessarily true that she is an egoic shadow voice needing to be stifled. It may actually be true that she is God's newly audible voice crying to be heard.

Sometimes, like a mother with a noisy child in church, I just want to strangle her. But then, there are other people outside of myself I occasionally feel like strangling, too. And with them, as with her, it is often true that the voice which I so don't want to hear from is actually the alien divine -- that aspect of the divine which I have not yet managed to recognize or internalize for myself -- needing to be acknowledged, heard or accepted.

It's not unlike my friend back east, who reports he has just taken another load of wood to be stacked. "Gotta be ready for 2010!" he says... and then, almost in the same sentence, he criticizes his wife for buying a second pair of some shoes she likes, for when the first pair wears out. "What if she loses a leg or something? Who knows what she'll need for shoes when these wear out?"

It's so hard to see our own "stuff" in others' objectionable behaviors. But it's almost always there, needing to be heard and loved. The louder and more irritating the voice becomes, the more surely the melody behind that insistent squealing is a dance tune just for you. Sometimes, even if it hurts your ears, you need to make time to listen.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Befriending the beast at the center of it all

I'm not quite sure why, but today seems to need an extra blog post. So here it is. I'll begin with the quote Kim sent me this morning:

This is from The Artist's Way, Week 8: Recovering a Sense of Strength:

"Every end is a beginning. We know that. But we tend to forget it as we move through grief. Struck by a loss, we focus, understandably, on what we leave behind, the lost dream of the work's successful fruition and its buoyant reception.

"We need to focus on what lies ahead. This can be tricky. We may not know what lies ahead. And, if the present hurts this badly, we tend to view the future as impending pain.

"Gain disguised as loss" is a potent artist's tool. To acquire it, simply, brutally, ask: "How can this loss serve me? Where does it point my work?" The answers will surprise and liberate you. The trick is to metabolize pain as energy. The key to doing that is to know, to trust, and to act as if a silver lining exists if you are only willing to look at the work differently or to walk through a different door, one that you may have balked at."

And here's a related quote from Care of the Soul; I found it this morning while re-reading my journals from my time on Shaw Island:

"My responsibility to myself, to a friend, or to a patient in therapy is observing and respecting what the soul presents. I won't try to take things away in the name of health. It's remarkable how often people think they will be better off without the things that bother them. "I need to get rid of this tendency of mine," a person will say. "Help me get rid of these feelings of inferiority and my smoking and my bad marriage." If , as a therapist, I did what I was told, I'd be taking things away from people all day long. But I don't try to eradicate problems. I try not to imagine my role to be that of exterminator. Rather, I try to give what is problematical back to the person in a way that shows its necessity, even its value.

"We all tend to divide experience into two parts, usually the good and the bad. But there may be all kinds of suspicious things going on in this splitting. We may simply have never considered the value in certain things that we reject. Or by branding certain experiences negative we may be protecting ourselves from some unknown fears. We are all filled with biases and ideas that have snuck into us without our knowing it. Much soul can be lost in such splitting, so that care of the soul can go a long way simply by recovering some of this material that has been cut off.

"Problems and obstacles offer a chance for reflection that otherwise would be precluded by the swift routine of life. As we stop to consider what is happening to us and what we're made of, the soul ferments, to use an alchemical word. Change takes place, but not according to plan or as the result of intentional intervention... a muscled, strong-willed pursuit of change can actually stand in the way of substantive transformation...

"Care of the soul appreciates the mystery of human suffering and does not offer the illusion of a problem-free life. It sees that every fall into ignorance and confusion is an opportunity to discover that the beast residing at the center of the labyrinth is also an angel.

"I often think of this paradox as I sit with someone with tears in her eyes, searching for some way to deal with a death, a divorce, or a depression. It is a beast, this thing that stirs in the core of her being, but it is also the star of her innermost nature. We have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star."

When Mary Poppins ages...

As women, many of us learn all too early how vulnerable we are, and how dangerous the world can be. But what do we do with that knowledge? Is it possible to be defended and open at the same time?

I caught sight of this statue while driving home from my retreat on the Hood Canal yesterday, and thought how much she resembles a persona I tend to think of as "The Church Lady." We've all met these women, or at least read of them, or seen them on TV: fiercely upright and righteous, fiercely protective of the way things were or "should be." And, at least according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, this outwardly forbidding and stuffy character often masks some sort of inner depravity; she is as vigilant in stuffing down her own sinful impulses as she is in spotting them in others.

I know, also, that she forms a part of my own character, one of the many archetypes that lurk in there, occasionally leaping to the foreground in defense of some long-held (and usually specious) belief. She is the un-generous one, who operates out of scarcity, keeping what might be needed someday rather than sharing with someone who needs it now. She is the one who keeps both the whining and the wildness under wraps. And, of course, she is also protecting all that is most deeply vulnerable within me.

But it's very hard to love her, particularly as hers is the face we dread to see in our own, looking in the mirror as we age: those drooping jowls, those increasingly squinty eyes, the mouth which droops at the corners -- the natural effects of the loosening skin and gravity that accompany age -- all seem to signify years of repression, anger, and rigidity.

I know that part of coming to self-knowledge is learning to love all the parts of your self, including your shadow. But I confess that this one is definitely a challenge... Perhaps I just need to remember that she willingly opens that umbrella she carries for the unseen child at her side, and that the hand which clutches the purse will also willingly dole out a penny for candy. And when she bends down to help the little ones, her face will crease into a lovely and tender smile.