Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interesting times...

I stopped by the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery yesterday to pick up my book, which I had loaned to David, the curator there. The place was incredibly lively: they were busy setting up for their Artists' Bailout sale, which begins this morning at 10 am.

While I waited for David I wandered around, looking at all the wonderful merchandise with which they are covering their normally spacious walls. Hanging for this sale is like putting together a massive puzzle with no image to go by: they're just filling up as much wall space as they possibly can, but still grouping things together in a pleasing way.

I've been feeling restless lately -- spring fever, probably -- and wishing there were some way I could afford to go to Italy again. Some of it is just a longing for color -- bright colors, like the ones you see here in this picture of the Capri Harbor -- and as a result I was extremely tempted to show up at the Gallery at 10 this morning to snap one of the bird houses off their walls. The bird houses are made of clay; about 6 inches in diameter, and are essentially brightly colored parrot heads sticking out of the wall: my favorite had a blue, turquoise and green head, a bright orangey-yellow beak, and a red tongue hanging out: very lively and silly... and significantly marked down from its original price.

But these days, of course, it's hard to justify ANY discretionary purchases, and particularly art purchases, so part of me was trying to stay away from the gallery this morning to avoid temptation. On the other hand, as an artist, I know we artists need to eat, and need people to continue buying our work. But can I use my desire to keep art alive as a justification to purchase a silly parrot head?

And then there's another part of me, that's still feeling guilty about not answering a telemarketing/fundraising call last night from the Breast Cancer Prevention Fund. Because that's really the problem with this whole economic crisis: It was always true that money we spent on ourselves was money we weren't spending to help solve the problems of the world ( a friend calls that "white middle class guilt"). But now the money we're NOT spending is helping to create problems much closer to home. I would hate to see this wonderful gallery go under, and I would also hate to see yet another artist having to give up his art and enter the work force. And yet the timing of the sale, in some ways, is really bad: April is Property Tax Month in Washington, as well as Income Tax Time, and it was a real struggle for many of us to meet those payments.

So at times like this, with decisions like this, I like to leave things to chance a bit. So I wasn't breaking down the door of the gallery at 10 am this morning; I showed up a little later in the day, with a friend, and the piece I wanted had been sold -- the day before, actually.

I found I was delighted not to have to make the choice.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The inner wellspring of love

After I graduated from college I worked for eleven years in a small town library. It was there that I discovered the joy of romance novels -- through our revolving paperback collection -- and I got quite shamelessly addicted to them. When I first started working there, the library was the oldest building in town, and there was a cubbyhole in the checkout desk where I sat that was perfectly sized to discreetly house a Barbara Cartland paperback, so I always had one stashed there to read during the occasional quiet times between customers and phone calls.

What I remember most about those books -- other than Cartland's irritating habit of inserting lots of ellipses (...) in the last few pages of the books to convey the heroine's breathless joy and finally having been singled out for the hero's love -- was that breathtaking moment when the hero finally -- and passionately -- swept the heroine into his arms for a kiss: my heart, starved for romance as I was in those days, would give a lovely little sympathetic leap, which fed my soul in some way I'm still not sure I understand.

I thought of that leap this morning as I was reading Anam Cara, John O'Donohue's classic treatise on Celtic Christianity. I mean, the guy's a priest, right? And yet he gives one of the most moving descriptions of love I've ever read:

There is, he says, "a primal intimacy in the soul; this original echo whispers within every heart. The soul did not invent itself. It is a presence from the divine world, where intimacy has no limit or barrier.

You can never love another person unless you are equally involved in the beautiful but difficult spiritual work of learning to love yourself. There is within each of us, at the soul level, an enriching fountain of love. In other words, you do not have to go outside yourself to know what love is. This is not selfishness, and it is not narcissism; they are negative obsessions with the need to be loved. Rather this is the wellspring of love within the heart. Through their need for love, people who lead solitary lives often stumble upon this great fountain. They learn to whisper awake the deep well of love within. This is not a question of forcing yourself to love yourself. It is more a question of exercising reserve, of inviting the wellspring of love that is, after all, your deepest nature to flow through your life. When this happens, the ground that has hardened within you grows soft again...

You should invite this inner fountain to free that gradually the nourishing waters begin in a lovely osmosis to infuse and pervade the hardened clay of your heart. Then the miracle of love happens within you. Where before there was hard, bleak, unyielding, dead ground, now there is growth, color, enrichment, and life flowing from the lovely wellspring of love. You are sent here to learn to love and to receive love. The greatest gift new love brings into your life is the awakening to the hidden love within. This makes you independent. You are now able to come close to the other, not out of need or with the wearying apparatus of projection, but out of genuine intimacy, affinity, and belonging... you become free of the hungry, blistering need with which you continually reach out to scrape affirmation, respect, and significance for yourself from things and people outside yourself. To be holy is to be home, to be able to rest in the house of belonging that we call the soul.

You can search far and in hungry places for love," he concludes. "It is a great consolation to know that there is a wellspring of love within yourself."

Years later, now happily married, I still read romance novels; still love romantic comedies. But I am finding, with time, that that little jump of the heart has become more of a steady warmth, suffusing my being. And it comes more often from meditation than from reading or watching movies: it is in meditation that I have begun to tap into that internal wellspring of love that nurtures the soul. And the more I find it there, the less I seem to require it from anywhere else; the easier it is to walk through life without demanding "affirmation, respect and significance from things outside myself."

Which is not to say I'm perfect: I'm a Four on the Enneagram scale, after all; my need for recognition is pretty great. But the gift that comes with our needs and shadows -- and there is always a gift -- is that they bring us closer to that particular and unique aspect of the Divine heart designed to resonate within each individual. I'd like to believe that over time, as we become more attuned to that inner spirit of love, those things we work for outside ourselves become vehicles to gain recognition, not for ourselves, but for the universal and unifying presence of the Sacred.

NOTE: The John O'Donohue quotations are from Anam Cara (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gray days

The gray days are back, and a stiff wind has been blowing out of the north; we have only these low low tides to remind us that spring is really on its way.

It's odd, I suppose: I really love the island life; love living at sea level and walking the beach, love photographing the boats -- especially sailboats, kayaks, dinghies and canoes.

And yet I'm not really cut out for this existence: I'm allergic to shellfish and most fish, so I don't take advantage of all the food that lies out there for the eating. I'm not really a boater, either -- though I was married in a canoe. My back is too stiff for kayaking, I haven't rowed or canoed in years, and if there's enough wind to fill the sails there's too much chop and wave for me to ever feel really comfortable in a sailboat.

All of which makes me more of a spectator in this life, admiring nature's bounty and beauty, but all from the safe distance of my cosy living room, or standing on the shoreline; occasionally stepping through the muck to look for shells and bits of glass. I see this pattern in other ways -- a reluctance to engage -- and wonder sometimes how much of my life is being spent dabbling my toes around the edges.

But perhaps it's a factor of age: certainly it's true that now I understand there are only so many hours in a day; that there's only so much energy I have to spend. So I pour what time and energy I have into family and friends, writing and photography, the daily chores of walking dog, feeding cats, and doing household chores, carefully carving out meditation time and hoarding what's left for classes, travel, the occasional acting role, the occasional photography show...

Maybe it's okay that I don't sail: maybe I AM a sailboat, carefully tethered to my dock most days but free to go where the wind takes me should it arise. And perhaps I only question my choices on days like this when my skies are gray, my tide is low and sailing looks like something only other people do.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho...

We were given a wonderful sermon yesterday morning, about the passage in Luke (24:36) where Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, and they are startled, frightened, joyful and amazed even though they were already talking about his resurrection.

I went out for coffee after the service, then spent the rest of the day at an encaustics workshop, learning to create art out of hot wax. I've not tried this particular technique before, and I was basically just there because I thought it might be a way to enhance photographs for an upcoming show. I knew no one in the room but the teacher (who confessed to being a bit under the weather after partying late the night before) and none of the conversation took what could be considered a spiritual turn.

But both of the pieces I created (you can see the other one on my poetry site using the link at left; I actually like it better than this one) seem now, after the fact, to have been directly influenced by my experience at church in the morning. I wasn't thinking of it during class at all: I was just learning how to keep the wax smooth and how to introduce color (in the case of the first piece) and then how to create texture and add found objects (in the case of this one).

But the other one seems clearly to capture the surprise and joy the disciples felt (which for some reason has been bubbling below my own surface for several days now). And this one, whose focus is a strip of paper that had ripped when my hot palette was slid onto the butcher paper that protected our table, seems clearly to invite the viewer to the upper room -- or maybe this is some sort of stairway to heaven?

My point is this: if we accept the premise that what I created yesterday reflects what I heard first thing in the morning, then could we not take that one step further and say that we are inevitably influenced by what we hear and read -- or at least, that our attempts to express ourselves creatively are so influenced? Because if that's true, then it is the opposite of GIGO (Garbage in, Garbage out), and we need to pay attention to what we hear and read if we want our life's work to reflect the Divine.

Uh-oh. The punster in me wants to say that the opposite of GIGO must be Heaven in, Heaven out. HIHO, HIHO, it's off to work we go!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Framing a life

Last night we were watching TV -- some old British show from the 70's I'd picked up from Netflix on a whim -- and I happened to notice, reflected in the screen of the ancient video player we can't quite bring ourselves to throw away, that there was an amazing sunset happening.

So I excused myself from the room and went down to the back deck to take pictures. Eventually my husband joined me and we decided to walk the dog before it got dark. While out walking we were invited up to share a glass of wine with some neighbors, and by the time we got home again it was dark and time for bed.

... which is what is nice about about weekends, about living in such a friendly neighborhood, about the way the days are warming and lengthening, about not having to worry about where the kids are or supervising them, about not making plans -- we can take the day as it comes, and enjoy the many gifts in it.

So, of all the pictures I took -- two of which have a heron flying across them, some of which have more blue in them, two of which have white adirondack chairs and a table on the beach in the foreground -- this is my favorite, because I like the way the sunset is framed by our snowflake lights, the deck, the trees, the roof and the wall. Maybe life is a little like that: moments of brightness and color and beauty framed and balanced by the ordinary in such a way that it all becomes some lovely pleasant whole.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

One more thing

It occurred to me this morning that there's one other thing Thomas Keating says about Centering Prayer (other than the one about ten thousand opportunities to return to God) that I need to share with you. I can't give you the exact quotation, but it's something like this: even if the Virgin Mary shows up, let her go; use your sacred word and let her go.

I partly realized this yesterday when I was explaining to a friend that what shows up here on the blog every morning almost always follows a photograph. I read, I meditate, and then I sit and sift through my photos until I find one that seems to need attention. I place it here, and then begin to write.

Sometimes something that surfaced briefly in meditation appears again here, but more often than not it is something I read that has a way of resonating through onto the page. It's not that what happens in meditation or what I see there feeds the blog and my life; it's more that meditation serves as a sort of tuning fork, allowing me to still that part of me that swings out and away from center to come back into oneness.

This is the trickier part about centering prayer, because the language we use around it makes us think we're kind of "in there, looking for God." It's easy to get what feels like a revelation, and to want to, well, revel in it. And most of us long to feel special, so if we have some sudden insight, we feel God has spoken to us and we want to bask in that sense of connection.

The problem with this (and here's where language tends to get in the way) is that even saying things like "creating a space for God" leaves us stuck in this egoic space where God is still other, separate from us. The "spiritual experiences" -- if we allow ourselves to get sucked into them -- actually keep us stuck in ego-land, in the very dualistic consciousness that centering prayer works to resolve or alleviate.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Cynthia Bourgeault calls this problem "spiritual acquisitiveness," saying:

"Ultimately, we cannot have our cake and eat it too, and to step into full unitive consciousness requires letting go of that lesser consciousness which would prefer to revel in its own experience. To arrive at this unified whole, there is only one route to get there, and it is known to all the spiritual traditions of the world: dying to self. The self who "has" experiences must finally be let go, as consciousness steps out into the bare, positionless freedom which is unity...One does not "snatch" at insights, illuminations, experiences, because the only known route to unitive freedom is in the dying, in the moving not toward more, but toward less."

To clarify this she offers this wonderful poem by the great Indian mystic Rabindranath Tagore:

Time after time
I came to your gate with raised hands,
Asking for more and yet more.
You gave and gave,
now in slow measure,
now in sudden excess.

I took some, and some things I let drop;
some lay heavy on my hands;
Some I made into playthings and broke them when tired;
Till the wrecks and hoards of your gifts grew immense, hiding you,
and the ceaseless expectation wore out my heart.

Take, oh take -- has now become my cry.
Shatter all from this beggar's bowl:
Put out the lamp of the importunate watcher.
Hold my hands,
raise me from the still-gathering heap of your gifts
into the bare infinity of your uncrowded presence.

Thomas Merton puts it another way.

"In the center of one's nothingness one meets the infinitely real. This act of total surrender is not merely a fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble; it is something much more serious. It is an act of love for this unseen person, who, in the very gift of love by which we surrender ourselves to his reality also makes his presence known to us."

Whatever you want to call that unseen person -- spirit, divine, Christ, True Self, God -- it is the oneness that awaits us when we continue practicing that letting go that forms the heart of centering prayer. And if you meet the Virgin Mary -- or some other amazing insight -- along the way, just let her go. What awaits you at the center is infinitely more... and if there's something you need to know about what came to you, it will still be sitting there waiting for you when your 20 minutes are up.

I promise.

Friday, April 24, 2009

It's a book!

I am very fortunate in my friends, but I have a particular debt of gratitude to mention today: First, to Maribeth, who made it clear she wanted my Contemplative Photographer's Alphabet turned into a book; secondly to Vicky, who -- always alert for artist possibilities -- sent me a pointer to a contest being held on; and thirdly to Maggie, my old friend from high school, who convinced me that Blurb was not a ripoff and I should give it a try.

I figured out quickly that the point of the contest was to get people to self-publish their photography books using Blurb, but it took me a while to realize that this might be a way to make a book out of the alphabet (I am a little slow sometimes). Eventually I screwed up my courage and decided to pursue the option and now, as of this past weekend, I am the proud possessor of a lovely little 8" x 10" book of my meditations.

It's not inexpensive -- $24.95 for a paperback, not including shipping and taxes -- and if I want to sell it through them to anyone else they charge an additional $5 (so I had to raise the price $5 to cover that) but it's really quite lovely: the colors came out great, the paper (I didn't go for the high end paper) is just the right weight and shininess, and I am delighted with the whole process.

The way it works --if you want to make a book out of your own work -- is you download their proprietary software and design the book yourself. The software is easy to use, and since I already had the photos I was able to produce the whole thing in an afternoon. One of the most exciting parts -- since the Alphabet has been stable for a couple of years now -- was designing the back page, which you see here. It's one of my favorite shots from Shaw Island, of a boat in Blind Bay and the Orcas ferry dock in the distance, paired with one of my favorite Hafiz poems -- all in all, a wonderful experience.

SO. If you are an artist who has been longing to put together a book of your work, I definitely recommend a visit to to look at your options. And if you've always wanted a copy of the alphabet for yourself... well, this may not be a particularly inexpensive way to meet that need. On the other hand, buying the calendars I create every year one at a time from my local printer -- and those are only 14 pages, stapled, with no lovely cover -- costs almost the same, so I suspect the problem is buying these things on an individual basis. There are volume discounts at Blurb, just as there are at my printer, but they're not as significant, and I don't see myself purchasing a hundred copies and trying to sell them out of my home...

But, all marketing concerns aside, I confess I am just giddy with delight to see this work in print. So thank you for listening to my gush; I promise tomorrow I'll be back to business as usual!

Oh -- and by the way, the mounted exhibit of the alphabet is ready to leave Houston, so if you have a place to display twenty-six 13" x 19" images and would like to display it, just let me know... the only cost is shipping them to the next location.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The flip side...

A couple of weeks ago I put my back out throwing the tennis ball for my dog. My usual chiropractor was out of town, so I went to her backup, who suggested I get some physical therapy to "strengthen my core muscles."

That's been going fine; I even bought myself an exercise ball so I could work on stuff at home (though my husband thought it would be fun to put the cat on it last night so I'm going to need to buy a new one, as this one's now full of holes!)

But yesterday's PT session was particularly strenuous, and this morning I ache all over. Which means that both meditation and blogging are being constantly interrupted by little messages from anxious nerves and muscles: "I hurt! Is this okay?"

It's a good reminder that meditation alone isn't enough: body, mind and spirit all need to be in good health, working in concert and communion. But what it feels like right now can best be summarized by this photo I took at the Seattle ferry dock on Sunday. It feels like that lovely empty space I carve out to rest with God is horribly cluttered, filling up with garbage thoughts, little gnarly bits that have no particular value but aren't decomposing rapidly either, and I'm running out of space; can't figure out where to put them all.

Oh, goody, a thousand opportunities to return to God!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

About Centering Prayer

Yesterday my quilting buddy, Kim (have you visited her wonderful blog on faith and quilting, An Oft Traveled Road?) sent me a comment asking about meditation. I replied to her in a rather long email, but then there was another question/comment about it this morning from Altar Ego (the gifted chef and scrapbooking priest who does the Reverent Irreverence blog ), so I thought perhaps I should just take a minute and put my reply in this blog.

First of all, I am not an expert. I have been trying various meditative practices -- counting breaths, reciting mantras, releasing thought bubbles, all that stuff -- since the 70's, with little to no success. Which doesn't mean those practices don't work, it just means that none of them seemed to "work" (whatever that means) for me. So I get that anxiety you feel about embarking on meditation.

I discovered Centering Prayer again (actually I had been introduced to it back in 91, but it didn't register at the time) about seven years ago, and only managed to get it to a regular daily practice after about 3 years of struggling AND I still only do it once a day. SO I AM NOT AN EXPERT! (Can I say that any louder?)

But Cynthia Bourgeault IS an expert, and here's what she has to say about the subject:

"We spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with that natural intimacy with God deep within us. The gift of silence gradually recedes in the face of the demands of daily life, so that when we do re-encounter contemplative prayer as adults, it may seem like a strange and inaccessible inner terrain. With some effort, we can stop the outer noise. Silent walks in the woods, Lenten and Advent quiet days at the local church, or a retreat at a monastery are wonderful ways of doing just that. But stopping the inner noise is another matter. Even when the outer world has been wrestled into silence, we still go right on talking, worrying, arguing with ourselves, daydreaming, fantasizing. To encounter those deeper reaches of our being, where our own life is constantly flowing out of and back into the divine life, what first seems to be needed is some sort of an interior on/off switch to tone down the inner talking as well.

That's probably the simplest way to picture what Centering Prayer is...It's very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase, known as a "sacred word," such as "abba" (Jesus' own word for God) or "peace" or "be still" to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. You do this practice for twenty minutes, a bit longer if you'd like, then you simply get up and move on with your life."

Basically, Centering Prayer is a commitment to sit for 20 minutes and open your heart to God, sort of creating a space at the center of your being. Every time a thought comes in (which you can expect to be pretty much all the time) and you're actually aware that you moved away from your intention to create a space for God, you just release the thought and return to your center. I do it every morning, right after my morning coffee, and the way I make time for it is I just get up half an hour earlier than I used to. When I first started the only place I could do it other than with the Centering Prayer group at my church (those are great, by the way) was on the ferry: it's almost exactly 20 minutes between the departure announcement and the arrival announcement, and I love to sit up in the Quiet Rooms at the top of the boat.

I probably like CP -- anxious, controlling person that I am -- because there's kind of no way to fail? Thomas Keating, the founder of CP (though it's based on this 14th century text called The Cloud of Unknowing) is frequently quoted as saying -- to the nun who complained that a thousand thoughts intruded on her meditation time -- "Lucky you! a thousand opportunities to let go and return to God!" Which I interpret to mean there's no shame in distraction: just notice, and bring yourself back to center; it's all good.

For me, at least, I've found there are lots of benefits to this practice:

1. You're practicing letting go, which means that over time you get better at letting go of things in real life as well...

2. You're creating time to listen to God. It's entirely possible that your mind may quiet down enough that you'll actually hear God speak.

3. (This, I think, is the part that scares people) You get to watch your own thought processes, get to know yourself a little better, understand your own motivations and weaknesses a little better. This is not always fun, but over time you come to realize you're not alone in there: you begin to feel more compassionate with yourself, and with others as well; there's a softening that happens.

4. There's a good chance you'll actually be still and calm once in a while -- kind of a lovely floating period, not awake, not asleep, not thinking; kind of a stasis, like the seal in this picture. These brief moments of stillness -- even if they only last for that little nanosecond between thoughts about the dishes in the sink and thoughts about your irritating housemate or your next creative project -- can be amazingly soothing, can make your days go better, and I really think they bless all of creation.

I heartily recommend, if you're interested or intrigued, that you read Cynthia Bourgeault's book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (from which I just quoted), as it's a very thorough and readable explanation, easy to turn back to when you get stalled along the way. It also does a better job than I can of explaining how it is that this practice brings you closer to Jesus -- assuming you want to go there, which I didn't when I started (!); and it contains lots of other useful explanations and instructions as well as a marvelous list of additional resources at the back.

So there you have it. And in the immortal words of that old Alka-Seltzer commercial: Try it! You'll like it!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tapping into that bright joy

We've had glorious weather here the last couple of days, and I've been rising at 5:30 (I think the light wakes me) to be greeted by this lovely crescent moon, which hovers above the water, perfectly centered in my kitchen window. So I feed and inoculate the dog (who's diabetic); feed and medicate the cats (one's asthmatic); feed the fish and then walk out onto the deck with my camera, trying to hold it still enough to get a shot of the moon before the fog (you can see it rising here) obscures it.

It seems to me that the contemplative life -- so far, at least -- is always a bit like that: periods of business, ritual and routine with fleeting breaks of peace and beauty that you try to capture, always working against time and the elusive fog created by constant activity. It's sort of the opposite of sailing, which my husband loves to say is large periods of boredom occasionally punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

My particular form of meditation is Centering Prayer, which means that, though we have a sacred word or mantra, the goal is not to repeat it constantly but simply to use it as a means of returning to center. It works, I think, a bit like the moon. I think of the moon in this picture as a sort of OM: steady and bright, quiet, always present whether we see it or not -- and that little point of light is exactly what the picture needs. If I could carry the consciousness of that OM throughout my day, would it not be a way of calling me back to center when I get off track?

I was thinking of this last night in my improv class -- which went way better this week -- and realizing that in a way the gift of the class is precisely what I need: to teach me that the OM is always there -- rather like the moon -- even if I don't see it. Because it is those moments when our minds (what our instructor calls our "planning minds") go blank and we are at a loss for what to say that he applauds and says "Yes! Yes! That's IT!" -- because he has absolute faith that when the planning mind gives up that what will come forth will be magical.

He actually has this funny hand motion where he puts his thumb on the back of his head and wiggles his fingers like a coxcomb on a particularly crazy rooster and says in this funny squawky voice, "I got nothin', I got nothin" -- mimicking the planning mind in a state of panic. But it's clear he is teaching us to welcome that moment, because that's the point where (though he doesn't exactly say it this way) we get to tap into this huge well of creativity: it's all about letting go and allowing the pure, joyful and brilliant spirit within us to do the work.

I so appreciate this reminder that that spirit is always there, even when the waters aren't calm and tranquil or the fog of busyness makes it hard to see. The sacred word, the moon, my instructor's goofy hand motion -- all serve as symbols to remind me that however crazy life gets, however frantic the voice in my head becomes, I always have the option to stop, if only for a moment, and tap into that bright joy that's always present at the center of being.

Monday, April 20, 2009


It comes as no surprise that many of the ills of modern society can be traced to our inability to comprehend the interconnectedness of creation. But I was intrigued to learn this morning that the word "individual" originally meant indivisible, not cuttable, as in the Trinity, or husband and wife. Originally an individual was a person or thing seen in relation to the whole of which it was but a part, as in an individual instance of a family.

But by the mid-nineteenth century Darwin was describing "individuals of the same species" and soon the indivisible part of a whole had become just a separate part. "Individualism and individuality became the modern attitudes towards the self, meaning now the autonomous, completely self-determining subject, not the person intrinsically united to God or the Whole....Notions of individual identity may even underlie the turbulent and dangerous shift today from economic cooperation with our neighbors to the unbridled competitiveness of market forces. The notorious claim of modern capitalism that "society" does not exist threatens the weak and marginalized who cannot defend themselves, just as it enthrones the successful individual in a pleasure palace of consumption." (Raymond Williams, Keywords, via Laurence Freeman)

Reading this, I am reminded of some discussions I have had with my older daughter over the years about feminist language. She thinks I am rather rabid on the subject (I did come of age in the 70's after all) but I truly believe that how we use language affects how we perceive at a very fundamental level. It could, of course, be simply a chicken and egg problem, but if we could possibly follow the course Madeline L'Engle prescribes in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and go back in time to right a single wrong, the implications for our current thinking could be immense, rather like the butterfly effect: that part of chaos theory that suggests the flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil could trigger a tornado in Texas.

All of which is to say that when I look at this image and feel the existential loneliness of this seagull, I am speaking wholly as a product of my century and my culture; that less than 200 years ago another -- dare I say, Individual? -- looking at this image would see, not loneliness, but an instant, an instance, a rare moment when one of a flock sits at rest, enjoying the flow of the tide and the rise of the sun. One might even call her perch a pleasure palace, though obviously not one of consumption -- unless we're speaking of her potential consumption of nearby fish!

And what do you see?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Prayers for Dana's Daughter

My good friend Chris brought her family to visit us this weekend, and it turns out her brother Dana -- whom I haven't seen for over 20 years -- loves to write haiku. So with permission from Dana Wilson, and in honor of his daughter who just went home from the hospital today after cancer surgery, I hereby post all the Haiku he wrote while visiting with us this afternoon. I have promised to provide a photo for each; I invite you to offer up prayers for his daughter's healing in response.

I see you again
My eyes are now awakened
Divine images

I pray all day long
but God never answers me.
Shut up! and listen

A walk through the dunes:
Weathered memories of walks past --
a road less traveled.

Student or master?
The roles will switch back and forth.
Open to learning?

If I point out spots,
I show you my human-ness.
Will you still like me?

Unexpected dogs
Like unforeseen pregnancies...
Holy shit! What now?

Family and good friends:
This is the church that feeds me.
God dwells within love.

Catching fireflies
Floating -- Flying -- Dreaming BIG!!
Cancer can't beat me.

On Bainbridge Island
Cancer seems so far away.
Thanks for this present.

* * *

The Harrowing

Yesterday's post -- about trekking down into the shadows -- surprised me a bit. First of all because it took a while to figure out why that image was the one I'd settled on, and then because, well, Lent is over, right? But this didn't feel like Lent, exactly -- no breast-beating, no mea culpa -- more like a determination to explore.

So of course this morning Laurence Freeman (I am almost to the end of Jesus the Teacher Within, I promise, though it is so amazingly rich that I'm sure I'll be reading it again) has something to say about this. It's the chapter after his chapter on meditation, and he calls it Labyrinth, to signify that we pass the same way many times over, but at different levels of awareness. And what spoke to me today was a discussion about a point in meditation where

"we become sharply aware of the ego-barrier...the "naked awareness of your own existence" as The Cloud of Unknowing calls it, reveals existential sorrow. It is not depression, guilt, grief or low spirits, but something more ancestral, closer to the shame of Eden after the Fall. We are afflicted by a sense of personal need and incompleteness...Uncovering this deep, clinging sadness people will often painfully see the shadow cast by the ego across all their most precious and sacred relationships and ideals. They will ask themselves if they have ever really loved, if they have ever known transcendence, if even what they once thought their best deeds were really good. The ego's kingdom of separateness shows its resilience and defies even the most powerful of loves."

It sounds harrowing, doesn't it? But it is Spring, after all, and because I live in an essentially rural environment, I'm thinking of harrowing in that good way; the "pulverizing and smoothing of the soil" that must occur before a successful planting. In class earlier this week we talked of the habitual furrows and ruts our brain gets into, and I tried to write about those in yesterday's poem: that way we have of feeling ourselves along the walls, the panic we feel when a new path opens up and there is nothing to hold onto or lean against.

What I am learning from Freeman today is that the harrowing is a promise: that with God's help and our willing hearts we will be able to break the old patterns, be given a smooth playing field; the old ruts and ridges will be gone and we will be free to explore new ways of being. And the good news, says Freeman in his incredibly poetic way, is that

"there is nowhere we can go where we will not find He has been."

And so, Freeman continues, "even in our deepest and darkest night of the soul, in the depth of hell, or in the shame of our ego's hurt pride and rejection of God, Jesus is there knowing what we are suffering, and extending compassion to us. Hope is not false consolation... we must pass through the sadness of existence before entering the joy of being."

And the song playing over and over in my head, the melody in my brain this morning as I write, is that same David Byrne piece I first paid attention to a few days back:

I'm primitive and selfish
I'm childlike and I'm helpless
Well I got that way because of
My love for you

My love is you
My love is you

Friday, April 17, 2009

Exploring the many mansions

We've all heard the phrase "in my father's house there are many mansions." When I was growing up I took that to mean that there was room in heaven for all kinds of people, but later, when I began to rebel against the "One Way" aspect of Christianity, I came to believe that though there is one divine presence in the world, and one primary message of love and compassion, there were lots of different ways of disseminating that message, in order to accommodate all the different kinds of people in the world.

Somewhere in that phase I came to realize that Christianity, though I have lots of reservations about it, is the message that works most effectively for me. There are, of course, lots of different aspects to Christianity, and over time some have proven either healing or troublesome for me, but I think the tension in that has been productive, and I've enjoyed the freedom to wander through different parts of that "house," exploring.

But today I'm thinking that I am also, to some extent, my father's house. And like the hotel in this picture, different parts of it are occupied at different times; light falls on different parts at different times, and some of the lower/deeper aspects of this particular home are pretty much constantly in shadow. There is, I think, a natural longing to follow the light; to spend most of my time in the "mansions" that are well lit and familiar. But sometimes the dark seems to be rising, to be stretching fingers of darkness into the light, like some insidious weed (can you tell I spent some time in my yard yesterday?), and I have this sense that I may need to get down to the root of it, to take the light of love and compassion down with me into some of those lower rooms and trust that light to illuminate some of my lesser known bits of internal furniture.

I fully expect to trip over things, and know I may occasionally need to come up for a little recharge of my batteries, but I've been living in the light long enough now to see it as an adventure, and would rather consciously walk into it than have it creep up on me and extinguish what light I do have.

I know, it sounds like Lent. Maybe it's just leftovers from Lent. But my dreams have been incredibly vivid lately, and I know you can't have all that color without light. So I'll take it as a sign and embark on the journey. And if it only lasts a minute, or an hour, or a day -- at least I will have honored the existence of those other mansions.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Clinging to the clutter

Driving down our street yesterday I passed this surprisingly large rubber duck sitting on a neighbor's front porch. I hadn't realized rubber ducks came in larger sizes but this one is about 18 inches from stem to stern (that's dune grass you see in front of him, not regular yard grass).

My guess -- since I haven't seen him before -- is that he's a relic of Easter. And though I could chuckle at the idea of giving a giant rubber ducky to this family's children (who are approximately 9, 11, and 12), the fact is that I sent both my daughters (who are 20 and 22) easter bunnies and candy this year to liven their dorm rooms.

The problem with such gifts, of course, is that, though the giving and receiving of them is a joyful ritual, "within a short time the gifts, or most of them, have lost their giftedness and become possessions which clutter up our homes and lives." (that from Laurence Freeman) What, then, do we do with all this clutter?

I received an email from a friend this morning who had told me over the weekend of a promising new man in her life. Now, four days later, they are still playing telephone tag: he sets a time to call and misses it, then calls after she has gone to bed and turned off her phone -- or, he sets a time to call and then says he's off to dinner with friends, or wine with the neighbors: can he check back later? For her these are red flags, signaling that something isn't quite what it seems about this man. And for me, though I, too, can see that he is not what he appeared to be, what I also see is a person who is clinging desperately to the clutter in his life.

Which is, of course, what Freeman is talking about. Because he mentions the problem of possessions in the context of a chapter on meditation: the thoughts we bring with us to meditation are like that post-Christmas clutter. They are the things and activities which, during our busy days, keep us feeling occupied and important. But just as the gifts we get at Christmas serve as a symbol and reminder that we are loved and valued by someone, and then gradually lose their symbolism as the moment of giving wanes; so the busy activities of life are just ways we have of feeding our ego's sense of importance, giving us the illusion that we are valued, loved, special.

The distracting thoughts that so repeatedly take over when we meditate are really only pale imitations of the real truth, the value and love we can discover if we sit quietly, release them all, and sink to the core of love that lies at the center of our being. So why do we cling to them so? Perhaps because we cannot trust that core is really there: perhaps we are afraid to let go, for fear there will be nothing more to discover within ourselves than a collection of petty distractions.

But it works the other way, too: sometimes, however briefly, we succeed in setting aside our thoughts and reach a moment of transcendence. And then the temptation is "to capture that taste, to preserve it for later use... attempting to turn gift into possession. But even to think about it conceptually is to try to possess it, and this drives it away."

The good news, though, is that -- like a very special Christmas present -- the awareness of this particular gift, the taste of the Holy that sometimes transforms our meditation, can linger long after the experience of receiving it is gone. The taste of this transforming reality, says Freeman, changes us forever. Because, having tasted it, we come to realize that we have had an opportunity to touch into our essential and true nature; into the boundless love that is God, that lies at the core of being. And, having tasted it once, we learn over time to keep coming back for more; learn -- however slowly -- that the other thoughts and concerns that distract us pale in comparison to this moment of ultimate union. In continuing to commit to meditation, in continuing to choose to sit when every part of us yearns to "take care of business", we learn that in releasing our thoughts, emptying and impoverishing ourselves of the daily business and "important stuff" of our lives, we come in time to the ultimate fullness for which we always hungered.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Precious prodigal

Yesterday I was on the phone with a friend who had actually been given the afternoon off for Good Friday. Unfortunately she'd become very angry with her boss just before she left work, and the afternoon -- which could have been a wonderful time of relaxation or meditation -- was spent instead, not just in rehearsing her anger from the morning, but also being angry with herself for wasting an afternoon being angry.

I was reading Freeman's Jesus the Teacher Within this morning, and he gave me a wonderful new perspective on this human propensity for self- flagellation:

"Like the prodigal son, after frequent bouts of self-indulgence, we 'come to our senses' not once but as many times as necessary. We turn round again and return home. We also have to deal with the condemnatory elder brother syndrome in our own psyche. Above all, like both sons, we have to learn who the Father really is who welcomes us back so humbly and so often and calls us to join the feast of life he has put on for us."

It seems perfectly obvious, once you think about it. But I found this concept incredibly freeing, perhaps because I give way too much credence to that elder brother voice in me. I think it may be that I forget that his voice is NOT the father's voice, and allow my younger weaker self to believe that condemnation is both real and merited; get caught up in the squabbling dialog, driving those two parts of my psyche further apart rather than staying attuned to that larger deeper voice which holds them both so tenderly in one embrace.

I think many of us who choose to be conscious about our commitment to a spiritual life allow ourselves to be dominated by that inner elder brother -- in fact, I wonder if that isn't why the yoke of church becomes so heavy at times. We need to honor both the voices, to remember that each is loved, each created by God, each has an important role to play if we are to be fully realized. And thinking about this, I am reminded of that wonderful Mary Oliver poem, and think of the prodigal son as our "wild and precious life."

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Saying YES!

I realized after waking up this morning that my experiences in Improv class last night were really stirring up some old demons. So I have to say -- I am incredibly grateful that Improv on Monday nights is followed by my spirituality class on Tuesday morning.

I am, as you can tell, always eager to share stories, and there were any number of moments in class today where I was eager to speak up and share the various humiliations and revelations of last night's class. But I try to be careful, to pay attention to what is being said around me, to hold back on the stories and see if an opening appears (though I do not always succeed). And one of the blessings this morning was that, though openings did not occur (thank heaven) for the bad stories, one DID occur for the one good revelation of the evening. So I will share that with you, having erased the previous version of this post.

One of the exercises we did last night was to come to the stage, two at a time, and person A would start by saying "I did X today" (where X could be absolutely anything, true or untrue). From that point on, the two people take turns speaking, beginning with person B, who begins every sentence with "Yes, and you.....", to which person A always responds, "Yes, and I...".

So if I were, for example, thinking of this statue, and said "I went bowling last night," then the other person could say, "Yes, and you bowled a perfect 300" and then I could say "Yes, and I was their millionth customer, so I won a million dollars." Person B could then respond, "Yes, and you're such a whiner you STILL complained that the hot dogs at the bowling alley are too expensive!" and I could say "Yes, and I decided to give all the money back to the alley, setting it up as a fund to pay for free hotdogs for anyone who asks."

The goal of the exercise -- well, there are probably many goals -- is to train us out of our tendency to negativity and denial, to take what's given and run with it -- which can open your imagination and creativity to lots of strange and bizarre places. It's also great for listening practice, and character development, and any number of other things: I'm hoping to start practicing it with my husband.

But the blessing of it, I realized this morning, is that it also works as a meditation practice. So I can sit here and say, OMG I am horrified to discover there are still parts of me that are angry, or self-absorbed, impatient or incredibly uptight but there is another voice -- call it Jesus, Spirit, the Divine, whatever -- which says "Yes, and you are ALSO..." Which allows me to remember all the other things I am, too, and know that all those parts of me were created by God, who created us and CALLS US GOOD, and enfolds all those parts of us tenderly and gently in one single loving embrace.

So thank you, fellow travelers on the journey, for your patience and your listening. I hope you know, as I do, even if only for a moment, that all those parts of you you find so hard to love are, yes, all there, AND, YES there are other parts, too, and YES God loves them all. It just bowls me over!

PS: I was just in the kitchen, making lunch, and my husband's favorite playlist -- David Byrne -- was playing. And this is what I heard, standing, arrested, before the microwave; it makes me think of all that unconditional love that waits out there for us:

Sometimes dear
You tell me I'm an asshole
Sometimes you're an asshole too
Even though we're filled with imperfections
I don't think any less of you

I'm primitive and selfish
I'm childlike and I'm helpless
Well I got that way because of
My love for you

My love is you
My love is you

Monday, April 13, 2009

There's got to be a morning after

I awakened early yesterday, Easter morning -- about a half hour before the sunrise service was scheduled -- to hear wind and rain pounding at the window. I offered up a brief prayer for all those who were planning to worship outside in the rain and crawled back into bed.

Rising at the same time again this morning, because as we move into spring the sun is lighting the room earlier and earlier in the morning, I could see that today we would be getting the sunrise that would have made yesterday's services magical. Oh, well!

And so now, here I am, back at my computer, and it's time to write another post. What do you say, after Easter Sunday? What more can there be after that day has passed? Looking over my images, I chose this one, which I'd worked on a few days earlier, and as I gazed into it, wondering what to say, I heard playing in my head a song I hadn't thought of in years. Do you remember the Poseidon Adventure -- the movie about the cruise ship going bottoms up in a storm? I looked up the lyrics to its theme song, and they seemed surprisingly appropriate for today:

There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on thru the night

We have a chance to find the sunshine

Let's keep on looking for the light.

Oh can't you see the morning after?

It's waiting right outside the storm
Why don't we cross the bridge together

And find the place that's safe and warm.

It's not too late, we should be giving

Only with love can we climb

It's not too late, not while we're living

Let's put our hands out in time.

There's got to be a morning after

We're moving closer to the shore

I know we'll be there by tomorrow

And we'll escape the darkness

We won't be searching anymore.

This song -- which I remember hating at the time, because it was so hokey -- is really, like Easter, about hope. And however you may feel about all the theological brou-ha-ha that surrounds the Resurrected Jesus (and I'm not sure I'll ever be completely comfortable with that, myself -- I prefer to steep myself in his words, not his story), the subject for the season is really about hope.

The problem with Easter is that there's got to be a morning after, what Jack Kornfeld so cleverly titled "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry." The problem with Easter is that you come to the day after -- today -- and it's all about business as usual, and going back to work, or school, and despite the lovely sunrise the weather now is just as gray and wet as it was yesterday. Has anything really changed?

I'm not sure it has. Just because I "got" -- however briefly -- that finding Jesus is more about stepping into the empty tomb than it is about reading books; that faith is about seeing Jesus in the eyes of those around us and learning to love -- doesn't necessarily mean I'm living my life any differently today than I did three days ago. But that doesn't mean I'm not willing to try. And it does mean, I hope, that the awareness of who I want to be and where I am determined to go may be planted just a little deeper.

John O'Donohue, in his book "To Bless the Space Between" talks about "the shoreline of the invisible." I guess the hope of Easter is that, however slowly it occurs, I may be moving closer to that shore.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


And so,
having stepped into this cavernous abyss
and finding you not there,
I emerge from contemplation
of the emptiness within
to find you waiting on the street --
to see your penetrating gaze
in the eyes of each fellow traveler --

and then at last
the angels who have walked with me
into and through the darkness
tip their baptismal font
and I am bathed in light.

Blinded by your glory
I stagger forth into the world
to love,
to love.

* * *

Saturday, April 11, 2009

All the books in the world

And now I see that I am Mary --
waiting at the cavern of my heart
for Jesus to appear --
And all the books in the world
will never make it happen --
no magic from these written words
unlocks this gate in which Self lies entombed
and as I wait,
stare blindly at this page,
no angel will appear,
no false gardeners
to prune the rose that climbs this rugged fence.

It's time for me to rise
from this numb death and firmly grasp the bars,
to throw aside the bonds that separate,
and boldly step into the heart:
Only after I have dared to seek you there
will you accost me on the road
and calling me by name enfold me in your arms.

Friday, April 10, 2009

All I have to give

One of the thoughts that has been recurring this week has been an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this blog and its readers. The reason I'm feeling that again this morning is that it's a place where I can post images like this one and they are actually deemed appropriate.

Last week I was invited to contribute an image to the Image and Spirit blog for Easter, and I remember wondering if there was any way I would be able to do that in advance, given the effect Holy Week usually has on me. So on Tuesday, when it became apparent that I would have to come up with something, I spent the entire day struggling to come up with some sort of resurrection image -- and failed miserably.

But it was an odd sort of failure -- not really her decision or mine, just a sense that nothing really captured Easter. Eventually she found another of my images by poking around on my website, but as we were discussing it later we realized that, for both of us, the problem with all the images was that they all included some artist's rendering of the resurrected Jesus. We have both spent some significant time NOT connected to church and Christianity, and though, for both of us, it was a renewed understanding of Jesus that brought us back, we are both still tiptoeing around the edges a bit, and, for me at least, images of Jesus bring with them an awful lot of negative baggage.

But today is Good Friday, and I came back from Italy last fall with numerous images of crucifixion scenes, so today is my chance to display them, and this is the perfect place -- unlike my local gallery, which invited me to participate in a show in November, the second annual "Women Behind the Lens" show, with specific instructions: no politics, no sex, and no religion! It reminds me a bit of my first visit to the Episcopal priest who counseled me through my divorce. "My friend Robbin says you're a great listener," I told him, "but I'm not into the religious shtick, so if you start throwing that at me I'm out of here."

"Hmm," he replied. "Religious shtick is really all I have to offer. But why don't you have a seat, and we'll talk and see what happens." I loved his honesty, and stayed; eventually I came to love him, as well as his honesty (we are still friends some 28 years later) and ended up being confirmed in his Episcopal church.

I feel like echoing his words to my gallery: in some sense, all my work is religious, even when it doesn't have subject matter that can be specifically designated as religious. Religious schtick is all I have to offer these days. But I am not as brave and bold as he, so I will not tell them that; I will just share images -- as he shared conversation -- that speak to who I am, and let them choose.

This will not, of course, be one of those images. And technically I can't really consider it one of my images anyway: it's my photograph of someone else's art. And because I know how it feels just working to get its colors right and its frame straight, I wonder how it must have felt to paint it, to paint the holes in Christ's hands and feet, to draw the gentle curves of his belly and knees, to apply the crown of thorns to that bowed head. Was the artist painting during Lent, I wonder? Who modeled for these figures? Was he, or were his models, a person or persons of deep faith? Did creating the painting express or enhance that faith? I feel like it must have, because I find it hard to believe that art this powerful could flow from anywhere other than a place of faith.

But of course that is the magic of God, who can work through anyone and anything -- no matter how faithless -- to awaken us to the Divine. The artist and models may have just been doing their jobs as assigned, working only to maximize the impact of the piece. It is God, moving through the image into our hearts, that awakens the faithful response within us. And that's the beauty of it. I may, as an artist, have days when I fail to do what I set out to do. But God can move through my work anyway, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

And now,
after close to 40 days of desert time,
the last feast stands before us.
Our feet are washed, the food is served;
The noise of preparation,
the shuffling of chairs,
the jockeying for position,
the happy chatter slowly stills;
a banging on the glass
calls us to attention:

Love one another
in remembrance of Me.

* * *

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

He's got the whole world...

I'm not sure what this image -- a mosaic from a church in Florence -- is meant to represent; I'm certain it's written up somewhere and I could look it up on the internet.

But it's midway through Holy Week, and I'm tired. I'm tired of Lent, tired of not living up to my own standards, tired of not meeting other people's needs, tired of other people not meeting my needs... just tired. And tomorrow the real work of the week begins.

So today, instead of doing the research, I'm just going to jump to conclusions -- a leap all too familiar for me -- and I'll hope that what I assume does not (as my daughter is fond of saying) "make an ASS of U and ME."

I'm not sure if you can tell, but Jesus appears to be holding a bright blue ball in this picture, and there is a pot of lilies at the center of the image. I would like to think that bright blue ball is the earth, though, again, I should do the research. I don't know when this church was built, this mosaic completed, or where that falls in relation to the discovery that the earth was round. And I don't know if lilies had already come to symbolize Easter when this church was built. Suffice it to say that, for me, in this picture, part of the promise of Easter is that Jesus will continue to cradle the earth. And today, as we begin that final slide down toward Good Friday, that means a lot to me: it's a gentle reminder that we who are tired, impoverished, hungry, jobless, sick, lonely, or any of the other ills that beset humanity are all still very much in God's hands.

And for that, and for the friends and family who are all so loving and patient with me, I will always be grateful.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Egoic and edgy

As we head down the home stretch into Easter I'm becoming increasingly conscious of my own restlessness, my jumpiness; this edgy part of me that is watchful and skittish. It's as if I am the Easter Bunny: conscious that something big is coming, that I need to prepare, but unable to trust that when the time comes I'll be ready. Instead of being in the moment, one with my surroundings, attuned, I am scattered and anxious and feeling more Other than One.

This became really glaringly apparent to me last night: I had signed up for an Improv class, thinking that it might be a good way to keep my brain active and in tune. And this morning, as I lay in bed remembering the various exercises we walked through, it was clear that, for all my talk of being attuned and in the moment, I was not truly present in the classroom, not wholly engaged with the other students.

It's partly the anxiety levels associated with doing something new -- and exacerbated, of course, by being in a roomful of strangers. But there's also that desperate drive to succeed, to not make a fool of yourself, that is completely at odds with the task of improv -- which is at heart a willingness to fail in public. It was not unlike the time I tried to learn to ski, and all of my energy was concentrated on not falling down. The end result in both these cases was rather appallingly awkward and stiff -- because in both cases the real task is to become one with the environment around you.

I remember learning --many years ago -- that sin is separation from God. I was reminded of that this morning while reading Laurence Freeman's chapter on Spirit in Jesus the Teacher Within, and was very struck by this passage:

In the Spirit people could dare to feel a love that recognised no boundaries... in which ancient distinctions of caste and class, even of gender, race and religion, lost their old sectarian meanings and their power to divide. Faith prepared the ground for this new unity. Faith -- which is openness to the proven by the way people live with others in equality, compassion and tolerance. The dualistic, divisive ego, of course, ever lies in wait, sometimes dormant, always easily aroused and reinstated.

Clearly it is the ego that keeps me separate from the earth and snow when I ski so poorly; clearly it is the ego that keeps me from falling in smoothly with my fellow improvisors; that keeps me from seeing the parts of the kitchen they define with their miming of coffee making and pancake cooking; that keeps me from trusting the moment. It is as if all of the ways I keep myself separate have suddenly become glaringly, painfully apparent, and I am exposed as the selfish, self-absorbed, wholly other and egoic creature I really am.


Perhaps that is the appeal of Good Friday -- it gives us yet another chance to put an end to that otherness that is so dominant within us, a way to clear the decks so the Spirit can rise to the surface again.

I am so ready.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Feeling Over-Exposed

On the first Friday of every month the various galleries on our island stay open late, and offer wine and little treats to the art-buying public. And though the art-buying public isn't buying much art these days the tradition continues: between the hours of 6 and 8 pm the streets in the center of town are filled with people moving from gallery to gallery, enjoying the latest exhibits.

I try to attend the First Friday gatherings regularly with a couple of artist friends, although my visit was cut a bit short this last weekend because I had agreed to attend a poetry reading at 7; I only made it to two of the galleries this time and will have to explore the others sometime over the month to come. One of my friends was out of town, but the other one and I decided to have dinner together before the gallery walk, and so it was that around 5:00 we were walking along the waterfront, enjoying the views of the marina on our way to the pub. The light was spectacular, and I kept pausing with my camera, but it was almost impossible to get a good shot: the sun was still too high in the sky, and the dynamic range was just too wide for my particular digital camera to take in.

What that means is that I have to choose: if I expose for the light parts of the image, the rest will be too dark and I will lose both detail and color: those intriguing reflections you see in the water here, which show you parts of the boat that don't actually appear in this image, would completely disappear if I exposed for the white at the back of the boat. If I expose for the mid-to-dark parts of the image, however, the whites will be blown out, and I will lose detail and whatever slight variations of color there are in the whites. I usually find there is more to lose if you expose for the light, so I expose for the dark and allow the whites to lose their form: this image, with its lack of detail at the back of the boat, is a perfect example of what happens in cases like that.

So I bring this up because walking through Holy Week is a bit like trying to shoot in bright sunlight: it's very hard to encompass the high contrasts between the triumphant beginning and the slow darkening of Maundy Thursday and the vigil; between the horror of Good Friday and the exultation of Easter. Most people, I think -- the C and E Christians, some call them (as in, they only show up in church on Christmas and Easter) -- tend to expose themselves only to the light parts of this week. I understand that choice -- it's difficult for a lot of folks to find time to attend weekday services. But in making that choice they miss a lot of the rich detail and color of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

In thinking of this I am particularly remembering a Good Friday service spent at tiny Christ Church in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, listening to my friend Linda Strohmier preach. It was the perfect location for a Good Friday service: dark, and cold, made of stone with dark pews and altar and an absolutely extraordinary blessing of stained glass windows (for a virtual tour, click here). But there have been other Good Friday services in much less impressive surroundings that were just as moving -- again, that cafeteria in Sammamish comes to mind, and the year I made a cross for Good Friday out of two-by-fours and huge nails. When we draped it in a black veil it was if all the light went out of the room...

I guess what I'm saying is that I prefer to expose for the darker parts of Holy Week, and I like the reflections and discoveries I make by doing that. I have to confess that it's partly because I don't tend to like crowds very much, so I try to avoid the services where the parking lot is full and people are milling around in the Narthex trying to find seats -- which means I missed the pageantry of Palm Sunday by attending the early service. And I usually miss the craziness of Easter Sunday, choosing instead to attend a Saturday night vigil service (if I can find one). Perhaps what I am saying is that my own soul, like my camera, can't quite encompass the full dynamic range of Holy Week, and so I choose to err on the side of darkness: which means I tend to miss the colors and details that are so much a part of Palm Sunday and Easter.

But the good news is that Easter comes anyway -- even if I don't get all the spicy parts of it. But after the rest of the week, the light of it is almost blinding. So forgive me if I tend to look away, to explore some of the darker corners of it: perhaps I am just protecting myself from the overwhelming power of the light.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In Holy Limbo

Two years ago I stood in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, photographing the Palm Sunday procession through the courtyard of that magnificent church. Yet today I went to the early service here at Grace, happy to miss the parades and excitement that traditionally accompany this solemn service.

What is it about the pomp and pageantry of Palm Sunday? And how on earth do we -- year after year -- reconcile that dreadful conflict between the parades and the palms and the cheers and the music on one hand and the reading of that most difficult passage in the Bible on the other?

The Passion was, of course, our Gospel lesson this morning, but, though we stood for the last section of the reading, we were not required -- as I have been in some churches over the years -- to shout "Crucify Him" with the ragged mob. And though we heard the sad story of Jesus' repeated efforts to get the disciples to wait up with him in the garden, and were invited to sign up to join the vigil in the Narthex, we did not have to join Peter in denying Him three times. We were given individual palm fronds, but were neither required nor instructed to turn them into crosses: it was, over all, relatively painless for a Palm Sunday.

And yet, the memories linger, not just of other similar Sundays over the years, but of other processions around the Easter Season: of the police in Hanover, NH closing down West Wheelock street so the parishioners of St. Thomas could process from Edgerton House, the student center, to the church to begin the Easter Vigil; of stately dancing with the students around the altar, to the tune of "Lord of the Dance"; of one particularly memorable Easter at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, when the Dean set a match to a giant bowl of oil and the flames leapt almost to the ceiling; of a simpler time worshiping in a school cafeteria in Sammamish, when families arrived carrying cut flowers to place in specially drilled holes of a life-size cross.

All these memories are vivid, as vivid as the still magnificent mosaics at the Basilica di San Marco, despite the passage of years. And, because artists and writers have rendered them repeatedly for years in many different media, so are the sounds and sights of the Easter Passion: excruciatingly so. It is not, as our priest said this morning, a pretty story. And though it ends in Resurrection, that is not your typical happy ending. There will, despite Jesus' promised presence, always be a stronger sense of absence, a sense of something not quite right -- a task failed, a promise broken, a dear one lost...

And so it is that we enter this week so many call Holy with mixed emotions. There is the pageantry of today, the thoughtfulness of Maundy Thursday, the stark black loss of Good Friday, that liminal space of Holy Saturday, in which we feel with the disciples that uncertain space between what was and is to come, and then the burst of enthusiasm that is Easter. And always I wonder: will it come again? Will I reach that point at the same time as my colleagues? Or will, when all is said and done, the Easter finery put away, the cross stored back in the cupboard again; or will it just be yet another day?