Sunday, May 31, 2009

Drops in the ocean of divinity

For years I've been intrigued by the patience it takes to rake a perfect zen garden. I don't actually have that kind of patience -- or at least I haven't discovered it yet -- but one of my daughters has it, and my father had it for sure, though he never had a zen garden. Perhaps he needed that patience to deal with me!

But I also never quite saw the appeal of raked sand -- though I've seen several of these gardens over the years -- until I photographed this one at the Bloedel Reserve on my trip with Barbara last week. For some reason I really like this image: it's as if a stone had been dropped in the water, and has been creating ripples, echoing outward from the point of impact.

My husband and I went to a lecture on "The Art of Collecting Art" on Friday evening, the first of three installments, all to be held in the homes of local art collectors. Though much of what this first couple had collected had limited appeal for me, some of their pieces were absolutely extraordinary, and the overall impact of the evening was to make me want to trust my judgement more -- and to find ways to acquire more art.

They made it clear they were more than willing to wheedle gallery owners into installment plans -- something I'd never thought of -- and as I listened I found myself remembering several pieces over the years (one in Italy last fall, for example) that I wished I'd just gone ahead and tried to purchase over time. But then I look at that, and I realize that those decisions were based on what is essentially a fiscally conservative stance: we've always been very careful NOT to spend money we didn't have, which means (though, unlike some of our older friends, we do charge things from time to time) we don't tend to carry debt around for longer than 30 days at a time -- something for which I'm grateful now that my husband is between jobs!

And, in fact, most of the art we own was bought with the proceeds of my own art sales: in fact, my favorite scarf -- a gorgeous multi-colored pleated shibori in shades of yellow-green, asparagus, blue and eggplant -- was purchased with the proceeds of my first big sale at our local gallery -- as were a couple of brushed steel vases. It always seemed to me that I was incredibly lucky to be able to pursue my art at all, and that by buying the work of other artists I could make it possible for them to keep refining their craft as well...

So, yes, I still lust after other people's art. But I'm coming to realize that collecting isn't really about spending lots of money and getting the most bang for your bucks, but rather it's about supporting the arts and surrounding yourself with whatever beauty and inspiration works in your price range (hey, sometimes a bunch of wildflowers can be WAY more beautiful than a more enduring work of art to me).

The truth is that what inspires me may not inspire you at all. Love/affection/appreciation felt deeply -- whether for a person, animal or thing -- seems to me to be a very individual thing, arising from the unique spark of the divine that lives in each of us and manifesting itself quite differently from one person to the next. But as a friend said in class last week, the divine in each of us is like a drop in the ocean: each drop is water, but none are the whole ocean. I may have God in me, but that doesn't make me God. And though the drops may vary significantly from one person to the next: somehow the ocean of Divine is capable of encompassing us all -- and that's a good thing!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Circles of Awareness

This morning I was reading in Cynthia Bourgeault's book on Centering Prayer about the circles of awareness.

At the outer level -- the sky in this picture, or perhaps the circumference of the glass, where world and body intersect -- is ordinary awareness. Cynthia describes this as the Martha in us, the part that is busy interacting with the world.

Spiritual awareness lies deeper within, the blue-green parts of the glass; the Mary in us, that sits at the feet of Jesus. And at the center lies the eternal flame of Divine Awareness -- the Source that is both the source of light above and the source of light within us.

I have to run, but I did want to share that with you this morning...

Friday, May 29, 2009

What to do, what to do...

I have continued tuning in to my heart chakra, and it seems there is no ugly orange slimy faceless moonsnail inside that shell I discovered when I first ventured in. Rather, it's a young girl who has been taking shelter in there, with long long legs and pink short shorts and a sort of 50's-looking white blouse with short rolled-up sleeves.

She's a little sleepy, and a little hunch-backed from being curled up in such a tiny spot for so long, but she basically has the trusting, welcoming benevolent curiosity of this goat. Which must be why I was drawn to this picture this morning; there's something in the facial expression that makes me want to stay connected with the goat, to keep looking.

I love his fuzziness: we tend to forget that old goats were once young and soft. I love too the way that fuzziness is echoed in the curls of chicken wire on the right: they look sort of fuzzy, too, though I know they aren't. I also love the Mona Lisa half-smile, and the little white tufts of hair below it that set it off. The brown patches on his knees look like he's been kneeling in the dirt -- working? praying? gardening? -- but he seems to have set that aside to welcome me.

There is also a sense of expectation in his face, as if I have brought him a present, or a question, or some important news. I am unexpected, I think, but no less welcome for that. He seems completely present, and focused on me, but at the same time it's clear the situation -- whatever it may be -- is about to change; that once I deliver whatever it is he's waiting for, some threshold will have been crossed, and I will either leave, leaving him to return to whatever he's breaking from, or we will go into his yard together. I get the sense that however present he may be, he is eager to get back to whatever he was doing before I arrived.

My husband and I have been discussing (should I say arguing about?) all week the challenge of how best to celebrate our upcoming anniversary, and we are no closer to a resolution today than we were a month ago. Part of the problem is that we want to honor these milestones in our lives (our 25th anniversary and my 60th birthday) but we don't want to break the bank to do it. But a bigger part of the problem -- one that's always been a challenging aspect to our relationship -- is that I am a bit of a stick-in-the-mud about travel: I want to know where I'm going, I want to know there will be a comfortable clean bed and a warm shower when I get there, and I need to eat regularly. Ideally, for me, a vacation would also include a fair amount of downtime, lots of photographic opportunities, and a wireless connection so I can keep blogging.

He, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit, and thinks we should just take off in the car, stop when and where we feel like it, and be sure there are sleeping bags and a tent in case we can't find a hotel when we're tired. His idea of the perfect vacation is one that is so stressful you're grateful to get back to work when you're done, while I prefer to relax and be pampered. And because we (I now realize FOOLISHLY) married only 2 days before my birthday (note to self: if you ever marry again, do it in, like NOVEMBER or something), somehow both our needs need to get met on this vacation, because, although it is MY birthday, it's OUR anniversary. So the discussions are complicated by my longing for a great birthday and the guilt I feel for not wanting what he wants.

Of the two of us, I suspect I am the one who is more like this goat. I'm open to interruptions, but there's a big part of me that's impatient to get back to what I was doing. I'm curious, I'm friendly, I'm open, and I'm busy. He would probably be one of the other goats in the yard, off on his own trying to figure out how to climb the tree or break out of the fence -- while I'm saying "be careful!"

But my reading in Notes from the Song of Life this morning (I confess, I can't seem to stick to just one of these little chapters a day) echoes something my husband has been saying for years: "You are either growing or you are decaying. There is no middle ground." -- and that's one of the things I love about the man: he's always been willing to change, to try new ways of being. But McCarroll goes on to say this:

"In order to live you must grow. How? By gently unfolding your potential through practicing the art of living. Each day you must stretch a little into the uncomfortable... But (he adds) you must begin by being yourself, no matter what that means."

Does this feel like a bit of a conundrum to you? It does to me -- especially in this context. I need to accept and honor that I am the sort of person who longs to be pampered, and at the same time I need to push my edges a bit, challenge myself to try new things. I need, I think, to be like this goat: confident, self-assured, centered, and yet open to what life may bring into my yard. Why is that such a hard balance to strike?

Maybe I'll join that long-legged girl and sit with her on the edge of the shell, dangling my own legs over the abyss below. Perhaps, like this goat, she has something to tell me -- or perhaps she will just be happy to listen while I whine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I love living by the sea, in such a natural environment; love meditating with the cat curled in my lap, his breath warming my wrist while the birds chirp outside the window and the waves lap lightly at the shore. It's easier here to be in touch with the subtle rhythms of life, and I'm grateful.

I started a new book yesterday, a little one, with thirty short readings meant to be read, one a day, for a month. It's called Notes from the Song of Life, it's by Tolbert McCarroll, and today's reading was so absolutely delicious, and such a perfect description of this path you and I are traveling together that I wanted to share it with you.

When you were small you were told of gods more powerful than adults... But when you were tall enough to look directly at the face of a god, you discovered it was only a mask. You were angry and turned away from the god-mask.

Your childhood experience could be the end of your relationship with the concept of God. You are filled with doubt. But your doubt is holy and could guide you to refreshing spiritual realities. If you are fortunate you will run across some truly spiritual people. If you believe they have no desire to determine your path or control your behavior, you will feel free to listen to their experiences.

First, you will hear that the god-mask is an image painted for those who are not participating in a divine experience. There may be some sadness. Down deep you wish for a powerful parent who will get you out of trouble -- one who constantly thinks of you. But flowing with the sadness comes a realization of your own inner strength.

Then you will learn of a divinity in which you can participate...God is a word for the fundamental mystery of existence. Because it is a word it should have a meaning; because it describes a mystery it can never have a universal definition.

When you were a child you wanted to know where God lived. You imagined a superhuman being, like Santa Claus, who lived "up there." As you grew older you realized there was no "up there." In church you heard about a supernatural being who lived in a place parallel to your world but not of it. A god who is superhuman or supernatural is distant from you. But perhaps God is not so remote. It may be that God is not a being but is being itself. God is unlimited; definitions of God are all limited. God cannot be captured in a net of words.

..."God" is a word. "God?" is the fundamental question about what it means to be a complete person. "God?" is a challenge to realize your humanness through an experience of what is unchanging and unlimited. Do not quest for "God" but for "God?"

There is a rhythm in all of life. The rhythm can only be heard in moments of quiet. If you are in harmony with this rhythm there will be a sense of completeness in you and in all the people and things you touch. At first you look outside yourself for the rhythm and you only hear a faint sound. Then you listen inside.

When you hear the song you must decide what you will do. You can wander in search of other tunes. You can stand rigid and continue to listen. Or you can let the song possess you. You can become a part of the rhythm of life and open yourself to ultimate frontiers of existence. If that happens to you, then to the question "God?" you have responded, "Yes!"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A different sort of journey

This morning, on the advice of a friend, I elected to spend some time in meditation with my heart chakra. I sat for a long time in a lovely peaceful state, but nothing much was coming up for me -- probably not surprising, as I've not done something like this before, so wasn't quite sure where or how to begin.

Being an image-based sort of person, I thought... well, maybe I should try working from some sort of PICTURE of a heart, so I mentally re-visited a shot I took last week and published on my poetry blog last Saturday. It's just a hole in a mossy tree, but it's shaped like a heart (thanks to PhotoShop), and though it's dark the sun has brushed the edges of the tree and you know it will soon come round and illuminate the hole as well.

There's also a crack that extends down from the hole, so you get a sense that the tree will at some point be broken open -- so I spent some time with that, wondering, but nothing seemed to emerge there, either. But as the sun rose in its arc, I began to see that there was something large and white and curved in upon itself that had been stuffed into the hole, and that it was pushing out at the tree from the inside, which was what was causing the crack.

So I tried to get to know it: was it a man's shoulder, clad in a white oxford cloth button-down shirt? Could I take it out and love it, wrap my arms around it? It didn't seem to respond.

Perhaps the tree was working as a sort of cocoon... or maybe the thing itself was a cocoon, with an ugly caterpillar inside -- in which case I couldn't cut it open to see, or I'd risk arresting its development, so it could never become the butterfly it was born to be. Somehow that didn't work either, but I was okay with that. So I sat there a while longer, until the cat jumped onto the table beside me and I knew it was time to come back to reality.

And when I opened my eyes I looked around the room, unconsciously searching for a clue to the white thing in the tree, and found this lovely bowl of shells that sits on the side table beside my husband's chair. With a faint shock of recognition, I realized that it is a shell that I was seeing, tucked into the heart of my tree, a shell grown so large the tree is being broken open. And the sort of teary anxious feeling that was what drove the visit to the chakra in the first place is somehow connected to the slimy ugly moonsnail that lives inside the shell. Hmm, I thought, I'm not at all sure I want to go there!

Which brings me back to yesterday's post, about being a source of darkness. Because there's a tricky line to walk in there: darkness, ugliness, sorrow and pain are all an important part of the journey, and we'll never get to the heart of ANYthing if we persist in avoiding all those negative emotions. We have to be willing to walk through a dark night or two, to step into the shadows from time to time if we are ever to grow fully into the selves we were born and called to be. And the fact is that sometimes we don't get to choose: we're just thrown in with our demons and have to struggle to stay alive. Sometimes, also, we have to stay in there for an uncomfortably long time in order to fully embrace whatever it is that the darkness has to teach us.

But we do need to be careful not to set up permanent housekeeping there, to understand that we are there to journey through, that we are born to live in the light and to light we must return. So I'm thinking that on my next visit to the heart, I might need to tie an imaginary white rope around the tree and rappel in, then continue holding on to the rope as I crawl into this thick white shell in search of whatever it is that's hiding inside. Maybe it's a bit like spelunking, exploring the caves of the heart, and the rope will be how I find my way back out again. That shell looks really thick and hard, unlikely to be broken open, so I doubt there are any shortcuts to the center. I'll just have to keep wandering in, a little deeper each time as I build up my courage, and maybe eventually the moonsnail will come to trust that I mean it no harm and will wiggle out to greet me.

Ugh. Can I just say -- I'm not at all sure I'm looking forward to this?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Source of darkness or source of light?

Last night, while we were watching TV upstairs (an old episode of The Buccaneers, courtesy of Netflix) I heard an unfamiliar noise and realized the dog wasn't in the room with us. I hurried off in search of him and found him under the dining room table, feasting on a loaf of bread he'd managed to snark off the kitchen counter.

The loss of the bread is bad enough -- it was a loaf specially baked for my husband by a friend, in honor of his "retirement" -- but the real reason I was distraught (it's all about ME!) is that our dog is diabetic. Which means (and we know this because this is not the first loaf of bread he's demolished when we weren't looking) that his system can't handle all the carb content, and he'll be up all night drinking and going to the bathroom.

Which is why I found myself wide awake at 2 am after rushing downstairs to let the dog out. So I sat at my computer to tackle again the meditations I'm revising for the Gospel of Thomas. By 3 am I had finished the meditation for Logion 90 (I had been pondering that one for most of the day yesterday) and had also had a flash of insight about a better numbering scheme to be sure the finished ones were all filed in order, so I was re-labeling the files and slowly walking through to see if there were additional changes needed in some of the ones I had done earlier on, and I came to Logion 24, which reads like this:

His students said to him, "Take us to the place where you are, since we are required to seek after it."

He answered them, "Whoever has an ear for this should listen carefully! Light shines out from the center of a being of light and illuminates the whole cosmos. Whoever fails to become light is a source of darkness."

I realized, looking at the meditation I had done, that this was one of the unedited ones, left over from the first time I walked through the Gospel of Thomas some three years ago, and that it definitely needed work. So I went wandering through my files and found the image posted here, which is a lovely picture to illustrate light shining out from the center illuminating the cosmos.

But in the end, this Logion is really not about That Light -- it's about US, BECOMING light. Which made me think of a conversation I'd had with a dear friend yesterday. She's been working for a church -- a good one, that does lots of good works -- for some time now, and she's been pretty miserable in her job. Those of us who love her know her as a light-filled being, but her job has pretty much extinguished that light because she is doing something she's good at, but it's not what she was born to do. (How many of us have been in THAT situation!).

Later, talking about her situation with my husband -- partly because it parallels a long-ago situation of my own -- I was able to see that what finally propelled me to leave that job was not knowledge that my gifts could be better used elsewhere: I'm not sure I even began to understand at the time what my gifts actually were. I left because the job was making me a source of darkness -- particularly for my family, but for my friends as well.

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know there is a source of light in the world. But, like me, you may not yet see your own role in bringing that light into the world. So I invite you to look around you, to see where it is that you shine and to find ways to do more of that. Look also, then, to be certain the stresses in some corner of your life have not made you a source of darkness. And if they have... well... I hope it's possible to find a way to lighten up that corner. Because now I understand that whenever we make a choice to linger in the darkness -- as opposed to walking determinedly through to the light on the other side -- we can become caught, and become a source of darkness. It's an easy trap to fall into -- I've been there several times -- but not a healthy place either for us or for those we love.

PS: to see the new -- but possibly not final -- meditation for Logion 24, visit my poetry blog for today... I don't think it's there yet. But I'm getting close...

Monday, May 25, 2009

A chicken and egg problem

It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem: I've had a sort of topsy-turvy week, and as a result my meditation periods have been very unfocused.

Or is it that my meditations this week -- many of which have been broken up, or sandwiched in at odd times of day -- have been pretty unfocused, so I've felt a bit off-kilter all week?

It's hard to know which came first, but what I do know is that this morning there was some sort of minor shift and the meditation fell back into place: it was almost as if I could breathe again.

The difference was so immediate and so obvious that I found myself thinking of the time we spent on our neighbors' deck two nights ago. They have three rocking chairs and two deck chairs that operate sort of like recliners: you lean back, and the feet rise up. I was sitting upright in one of the deck chairs, and Joanna suggested I might want to tip it back. "How do I do that?" I asked, and she said all I needed to do was lean back.

Well, I tried leaning back, I tried pushing back, I tried pushing from the handles, I tried pushing from the floor -- I just couldn't seem to make it go. Which was odd, because for her it was a perfectly simple operation: you just lean and the chair leans with you. Of course she's had these chairs, or chairs like them, for years: she grew up in California, and used to live in Florida, and has always been a sun worshiper. But for me, fair-skinned as I am, and having grown up mostly in the North -- Chicago, Vermont, and now Seattle -- well, sun worshipping has never really been an option, and these chairs are just... unfamiliar.

It's a bit like the physical therapy I've been doing this last month: there are certain muscles that just checked out, years ago, after an automobile accident, and for years other muscles have been compensating for them. So now I have to find the ones that are supposed to be doing the work of walking, pay attention to them, make them work, make them carry their portion of the load. It takes enormous concentration -- and I'm not very good at it yet. I do see progress, but it's very slow, and I have to stay on task -- just as I do see progress with meditation, but sometimes it's very slow, and I just have to stay on task.

But this morning, it was a bit like Joanna's chair: somehow, something moved a little differently, and I tipped right back into oneness. It was heavenly. Just heavenly. Like the sun on my face. So even if my day doesn't go as smoothly as I'd like, I'll get to carry this lovely memory of peace around with me. Such a blessing!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Time for discovery

Most of us grew up with the Wizard of Oz, I suspect; certainly I did. And there are certain images and lines from that movie that over the years have achieved a sort of iconic status: the house with the witch's striped stockings sticking out from underneath, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," "And your little dog, too," "There's no place like home, there's no place like home," "not nobody, not nohow," the voices of all the munchkins, the greens of the Emerald City, the flying monkeys, the Cowardly Lion, "I'm Melting, I'm MELTINGGGGGGGG..."

And there's this one, of the Good Witch, who looks after Dorothy so tenderly, and is always there to protect her, who speaks with that oh-so-melodic motherly voice and makes everything better.

One of the things I learned from the women's movement is that images and movies and jokes and stories can have a profound impact on the psyche -- (and, yes, I held off giving my daughters Barbie Dolls as long as I could, but eventually I caved -- and found I loved their pretty shiny ballgowns as much as the girls did. (Hmm -- Cinderella and my Connie doll yesterday, the Good Witch today -- what's this about?)) And I think Cinderella's godmother and the Good Witch left all of us with this longing for someone who would wave her magic wand and make it all better -- which, in our culture, seems to have something to do with being beautiful, wearing beautiful clothes, winning the handsome prince and living happily ever after.

But of course, that's NOT the message of the Wizard of Oz. If you think about it, L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz series, had some very wise things to tell us. And one of the most important bits of wisdom in that movie is that you can't expect someone else to save you. There is no real Wizard: that which you seek is already with you -- you just need to discover it. The Tin Man, who so wanted a heart, already obviously had one. The Scarecrow who wanted a brain was already wise; the Cowardly Lion was brave when it counted; and the way home for Dorothy was already on her feet.

So what do you long for most? Is it possible it's already in place for you, waiting for you to discover it? Don't close your eyes and just wish: close your eyes and, instead of wishing for a genie or a fairy, a magic wand or lottery winnings, ignore the man behind the curtain and take time to discover the gifts within, just waiting to emerge.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

When the whites get a little dingier

Both these beautiful white hydrangeas and the lovely blushing bride were photographed while standing in the parking lot outside my daughter's dorm last weekend; I've been itching to put the two shots together all week.

I think it's because I'm still thinking about that Rumi poem we heard in class on Tuesday --

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

It really resonated with me, because I can barely remember a time when I didn't dream of loving someone and being loved. At least as early as third grade I remember demanding that my mother buy me BLACK and white saddleshoes instead of BROWN and white, because that was the color Jeff Isaacs wore, and I thought if we wore the same shoes he might like me. And though I didn't get my first doll until I was in fourth or fifth grade, I remember her perfectly: her name was Connie, she had black hair and blue eyes with beautifully lashed lids that opened and closed, and she wore a lovely white satin wedding gown.

I remember also the beautiful blue dress Cinderella wore in the Walt Disney movie, and the thrill I felt when her prince finally tracked her down. And I remember the first time I discovered Jane Austen, and Georgette Heyer, and the thrill I felt when each of their heroines finally connected with their heroes.

But of course all of that -- the shoes, the wedding dress, the ball gown, the romance novels -- all of it centers around that ecstatic moment of connection, and has very little to do with the day-to-day business of living with a loved one which Jack Kornfield's wonderful title describes so well: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

We have such a longing -- throughout our lives -- for that moment of connection. It's a wonderful, heady longing, and fuels our determination to return, day after day, to meditation and prayer -- even if, as one friend said recently, you're stuck in the laundry and still waiting for the ecstasy.

In its darker guise, of course, the longing also propels us into -- and sometimes keeps us in -- relationships that bear little resemblance to the stuff of dreams; relationships with difficult people, with destructive substances, with dysfunctional workplaces, with addictive behaviors... all of which do little to fill that hunger for connection and yet can often be very hard to break or leave.

All of which may be why we all feel a little teary at the sight of a bride: there's so much hope and potential there, and yet we know that all those lovely whites will get dingier with time, and probability is high that there'll be a lot of laundry in her future. There's a hope that she'll find that lovely balance we all crave, but it's mixed with an understanding that sometimes the laundry -- the day to day minutiae and challenges of sharing a life -- will get stacked so high she'll just want to leave and let someone else take care of it.

It is at those moments -- the tipping points in a marriage, a job, a friendship, a life -- that that old familiar serenity prayer seems to say it best:

Lord, give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Resisting discouragement

This photograph was taken during my excursion through the Bloedel Reserve with Barbara. We had stopped to rest on a shady rock in the Japanese Garden, and I caught sight of this reflection through the branches of a tree in front of us.

This morning I received a mailing from the Art of Photography exhibition in San Diego saying they had extended the deadline for their annual exhibition until May 31. Though I have entered (to no effect) in previous years, I've gotten a bit discouraged and had decided not to enter this year. But in the spirit of letting go I decided not to cling to that decision but rather to see if there were something I had shot in the last week or two that might qualify -- the entry fees are not that steep (just $10 at this point).

This one seemed a good candidate; there's another I shot in Portland of children playing in a fountain that I also sent in this morning (I'll put that on my poetry blog). And my friend Robin thinks the poppy I shot yesterday (after Barbara taught me how to use my camera's super macro feature) is my best work ever (that's on the poetry blog, too) so maybe I'll send that off as well.

It's always hard to know what an individual judge will like: I'm particularly aware of that this week, having judged the high school photo contest just last Wednesday. There is an unwritten rule that we try to distribute the winnings as broadly as possible among the students, and all the entries have already been judged twice before I get there, so my challenge is to pick work that hasn't already won a prize -- but, at the same time, I'm told that if there is something so incredibly outstanding that I can't resist it I should honor that impulse even if it's already won something.

Fortunately there are several categories to choose from, so I was able to spread the wealth around, but I did end up awarding two prizes for images that had already been honored; I just frankly found them irresistible. But the tricky part, for me, was that there was one image I really adored -- and it was the prow of a boat. Which means that it's an image I could easily have shot myself, and, in fact, if I HAD shot it myself I would definitely frame it and try to sell it: it was lovely. But it seemed prejudiced -- given that I am best known for my boat photos -- for me to award a boat photo. And there is always the risk that the kids (smart as they are) will figure this out and submit a pile of boat photos for next year's exhibition.

So I only gave it one of the lesser prizes, less than what I felt it deserved. And then, when I dropped by the gallery to meet a friend a few days later, I learned that there was yet another panel of judges who came along after me, mystery judges with additional prize money to award, and they had given that boat picture a first prize. I was thrilled to learn that the student WOULD be getting money, and would be honored for such excellent work; thrilled also -- of course -- to realize it wasn't just prejudice on my part: it really was a good image. At least in someone's eyes.

And that's the trick, of course: judging photography is every bit as individualistic as finding a mate. There are always a few photos -- or people -- that EVERYONE finds appealing. But for the rest of us... well, there's almost always someone out there who will really appreciate us, and lots of other folks who will pass us by without a thought. A good marriage, as this one in the photo appeared to be, can be a particular blessing that way: there's one person who almost always greets you with a smile on their face and joy in their heart. But if you haven't found that one person yet -- or if you haven't won a contest yet in your chosen field -- it's easy to get discouraged, to assume that you or your work is somehow lacking in value.

The trick is not to despair. I don't necessarily mean you have to keep pushing in that particular direction: sometimes repeated failures are an indicator that you may be on the wrong path, and that you're actually called to walk a different direction altogether. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people fired from one job or divorced from one relationship who resolve to take a different tack on the sea of life and find the next opportunity infinitely more rewarding than the other ever could have been. But it's easy to get stuck in despair, to avoid the risk of exploring new opportunities and just claim victimhood as your permanent identity. Laurence Freeman had something to say about that in Jesus the Teacher Within this morning: "Despair," he says, "is the attempt of the ego to immortalize its suffering."

Yup. Been there, done that: Rejection, death, loss, divorce... It can be very tempting to get stuck in the dark place, hanging on to our suffering in response to these challenges. It's so much easier than staying open, facing into the pain, learning what we need to learn, and moving forward. But trust me: despair is a dead-end street, and the alternatives -- however challenging or painful -- will always prove more rewarding. So if something a little different knocks at your door today, open it! Welcome it in! And though I am repeating myself, I just have to end with this Rumi poem again:


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Letting go

I'm not sure when I first attempted to photograph a skunk cabbage, but I do remember discovering a secret forest of them when we lived on Shaw Island, and spending lots of time there trying to capture their beauty.

There's a patch on Bainbridge, too, not far from my house, and I've been known to stop my car and leap out with my camera in an attempt to get that elusive skunk cabbage shot.

But the best skunk cabbage I've ever seen anywhere lives in the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge: there's a fabulous patch of them there, with a bridge passing through so you can shoot easily without sinking into the muck they like to call home. I spent hours at the reserve yesterday with my photographer buddy, Barbara, and part of our meanderings took us right through the cabbage patch, so when I began looking through the results of our labors this morning I found this beauty.

What's great about photography -- and we talked about this quite a bit yesterday -- is that so often it's not about what you see, but about what the camera sees. I didn't realize when I took this that there was anything behind the cabbage; I was just framing the leaves and the stalk. And yet it is those surprising pinks and yellows in the background which turn the photo from tame to delicious.

On Tuesday, in the class we share, my friend Martha was talking about her fear of flying -- which she seems to have conquered -- and when I asked how that happened, she said it was because someone explained to her that, at heart, the fear was really a control issue. She was frightened because she had no means of controlling the plane, and once she understood that (and did some EMDR work) the fear no longer had its paralyzing effect.

So I'm thinking about what Kim said in her comment a couple of days ago:"The artist in me wants to see where I can be lead, what I can learn and experience rather than trying to tame the winds (or the paintbrush or the fabric or the lens) and force the winds to blow where I have determined they need to blow (and how hard and how long)." I think what she's talking about is control, and about the fact that what's so freeing and enchanting about pursuing our creative impulses is that this is one of those places in life where we choose NOT to control, and allow the winds of spirit to blow us -- which is how we can come up with images like this one.

Barbara -- who met me at work over 17 years ago, when I was still in my driven phase, observed several times yesterday how lovely it was to see me so contented and joyful; that walking away from the corporate environment has obviously led me to a healthier place. I think the reason she was able to stay in that environment and I had to leave is that for me it was a place where my need for control kept getting triggered, while she was much more able to go with the flow. John O'Donohue talks about that in Anam Cara this morning, saying that control is connected to fear, which is connected to death.

Many people are terrified of letting go and use control as a mechanism to order and structure their lives. They like to be in control of what is happening around them and to them. But too much control is destructive. You become trapped in the protective program that you weave around your life, which can put you outside many of the blessings destined for you.

Control, he says, must always remain partial and temporary...Mystics have always recognized that to come deeper into the divine presence within, you need to practice detachment. When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes. False things, which you have desperately held on to, move away very quickly from you. Then what is real, what you love deeply, and what really belongs to you comes deeper into you. Now no one can ever take them away from you.

I can see now that a lot of the problems in that last job were really connected to my own need to control my environment. So even though it was hard at the time, walking away was probably the best thing I could have done -- it led me to this lovely mental/emotional/psychological/physical place I now so joyfully inhabit. And it seems clear to me that the photographs I love best are often the ones I had the least control over; the ones where I shot on impulse, led purely by the divine muse. And what I thought I wanted -- the rich greens of the skunk cabbage, for example, may not really be the thing that works for me; it may be something else altogether, something that sits quietly in the background and makes everything come alive without my even noticing.

So then I ask you: where are the parts in your life where you keep finding yourself struggling with control issues? And how could you free yourself -- like my friend Martha -- to fly?

As always, the John O'Donohue quotation is from Anam Cara (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The lover within

My blogger buddy Kim of An Oft-Traveled Road sent me a wonderful poem after yesterday's post: It's by Derek Walcott, and called Love After Love.

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

It's hard for me to imagine a poem more perfectly matched to thoughts about befriending the face in the mirror, and what I particularly love about it is the line "Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life." We were speaking of that in class yesterday, as we were walking through the last chapter of Jesus the Teacher Within; of the appeal of that conviction that God is not separate from us, but loving us from within -- and the difficulty, even if we get glimpses from time to time, of living in a way that retains full awareness of the love that flows through us from that loving stranger within.

I shot this picture in Portland, of a chrome sculpture seen through a window, because I loved all those reflective surfaces and was drawn to the blues that are culled from the sky and nearby river, and by the framing of the window panes. But looking at it now I see that I am in this picture as well, though only as a shadow tucked between the two lampposts, and that its strongest impact lies in that rather pointed beak that sits just to the right of center -- it is there that the sky and river are most perfectly reflected.

But -- speaking as a critic now -- the beauty of the piece lies in the movement and the questions it raises. Yes, there is that rather pointed admonition to look down, to sit and watch the way your heart reflects the world around it. But the lampposts draw you heavenward, the framing keeps you grounded, and that hazy central figure keeps drawing you back to question: who am I? Who is this stranger in the glass? And who is this loving stranger within? What spirit ignites that orange flame in the lamppost?

...which makes me think of the Rumi poem Bev read at the beginning and end of class:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.

It must be true: the signs are everywhere.

The Rumi poem is from THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, translated by Coleman Barks.

"Love after Love" is from COLLECTED POEMS 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott.
Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Looking the other way

Yesterday I received some wonderful news: a portfolio of images I had submitted to the Center for Fine Art Photography has been accepted for exhibit and publication! The next step in this process is to send them the full-size images and an artist statement, so yesterday afternoon I sat down and began drafting that statement.

The images in the portfolio are photographs of my daughter and two friends preparing for a high school dance; they are shot in a fairly small bathroom, and include several pictures of the girls staring into the mirror and applying makeup. When I was taking them I was feeling more like a mom than a photographer, so coming up with an artist statement is a bit of a challenge -- it's more like this blog, a set of observations about what the photos teach me rather than a statement about what I set out to accomplish.

So I spent quite a bit of time staring at those images yesterday, and I came to some intriguing conclusions which continue to inform me this morning. Growing up in the 60’s, I was surrounded with images and messages about beauty and femininity; images I found hard to dispell even after being shaken and stirred by the women’s movement in the 70’s. For years I dealt with that tension between longing for beauty and knowing it shouldn’t be important by avoiding beauty salons, makeup, expensive clothes, etc.

But looking at these images I see that I was also avoiding looking in the mirror. And I realized that one reason I was taking those photos was that there was a mix of curiosity and pride I felt in looking at my daughter's WILLINGNESS to face the mirror. There are obviously lots of places I could go from this intriguing starting point. But this morning, as I pored over my images from our weekend in Portland, this was the one that kept begging to be printed. So I put it on the page and stared at it for a bit, trying to figure out what needed to be said. And I realized I was feeling a really strong temptation to photoshop out the reflection of me -- even though it is completely distorted and unrecognizable.

When I think about that -- and the pull this image has for me -- I see that many of my favorite photographs are about reflections, just not of me. And suddenly I am reminded of the rather long period in my 20's when I struggled with this sense of myself as a mirror. I felt, in those days, like I had no personality of my own; I just reflected back at other people what they wanted to see. I remember being desperate to discover some inkling -- ANY inkling -- that there might be some sort of core, indestructible self inside me somewhere (not surprising, given that I was trying on a variety of personalities at the time in a desperate attempt to recapture the interest of a straying husband).

So clearly there's something here I need to spend time with -- and it may just mean I need to be willing to look into my own mirror. Over the years I've grown comfortable with that core indestructible self that lies within me, and I am less of a mirror now though I still feel called to share my reflections. But I'm still uneasy about that face in the mirror, although somewhat less so as I grow older. She just doesn't quite look like who I feel I am? (If that makes any sense). But perhaps, like this image and the images in the portfolio, she has something she needs to tell me, and I need to stop a bit, look, and listen.

Here's the end of that artist statement I wrote yesterday:

These images make it clear that each girl had moments when she was essentially alone with that face in the mirror. At heart it’s the challenge all humans face: we can surround ourselves with friends and activities, masking reality with humor and makeup, but eventually we must confront our own unique selves. Will we have the courage to see and address the flaws and learn to live with them? Or will we turn and look the other way?

Hmm. I think I may have just spent a lifetime looking the other way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another state of mind

This is where I was yesterday: in another state of mind. In another state altogether, actually: we were in Oregon, helping our daughter move into the basement where she and her boyfriend will be spending their summer. But by yesterday morning the moving was done and we were scheduled to share breakfast with some old friends and then drive home so I could sing in a concert here.

But the dog, who was staying in the hotel room with us, woke us early to demand a walk, and in the end I didn't get to meditate or blog before we left the hotel. I was surprised at how much it threw off my whole day. I like to think of myself as flexible, but... I was virtually incapable of making conversation with our friends (I was practically falling asleep at the table) and remained irritable and unfocused for the rest of the day. My husband's driving was a bit more erratic than usual, and eventually I insisted on taking over; it was just too unnerving to watch.

As we were tidying the kitchen after dinner I explained to him (again) that I hadn't been angry about the driving, I was just upset and feeling unsafe. And I added that I find it hard to like myself when I start snapping at him that way, but it seemed important to honor my feelings. He was actually very sweet about it, and pointed out that I didn't kick him out of the car or threaten to leave him or call him names, I just calmly insisted on taking over the wheel: it all seemed quite reasonable to him, so I felt a little better about it. Apparently I had managed to channel the turmoil and frustration reasonably effectively, or else it's just that he's so calm himself that my stuff just didn't bother him.

It's all a reminder that things won't always go as planned, and we won't always be as calm as we would like -- or sometimes even be ourselves. For me, for some reason, that's always a little unnerving: something in me thinks the whole world will fall apart if I don't hold up my end. But I'm lucky: I'm in a web of relationships that remains amazingly flexible, so that if I drop into some other state of mind the web acts as a sort of trampoline, forgiving and raising me up, holding on, staying connected...

And as I was thinking of that this morning I realized that we are all of us in the web of relationship with each other, all bouncing and compensating together -- which is how it is that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Argentina can create a tropical storm somewhere else. It's a good thing, this web: it has a way of steadying out the dips and plunges of life. It does mean that dips and plunges elsewhere in the web can reverberate onto us, but I it also means that when we undertake to create a bit of steadiness or serenity in our own corners, that can contribute to the steadiness and serenity of the whole.

So, yes, it's part of my job -- even if it doesn't make any money -- to create this little corner of stability. But if there are days when I struggle and churn; if I fall down on the job from time to time... well, that's okay, too. It's all part of the cycle of things, always an education, and eventually the vibrations will subside and stasis will return. I just need to be as patient with myself as my husband is with me. As Rumi says:

How many victories are won
without spiritual struggle and patience?
To show patience for the sake of the cup of Divine Knowledge
is no hardship: show patience, for patience is the key to joy.

[Rumi, Mathnawi III, 211-212]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Seeing blessings in the dark

We have a busy day planned today; my husband is already up and bustling about and it is hard to concentrate. But I have two things I wanted to share with you today. The first is something I read in Anam Cara yesterday, about coping with difficulties:

"How you see, and what you see, determines how you will be. Your perception, or your view of reality, is the lens through which you see things. Your perception determines the way things will behave for you and toward you. We tend to perceive difficulty as disturbance. Ironically, difficulty can be a great friend of creativity.

I love the lines from Paul Valery: "Une difficulte est une lumiere/Une difficulte insurmontable est un soleil" -- that is, "A difficulty is a light; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun." This is a completely different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult. Deep within us, there is a terrible impulse and drive toward perfection. We want everything flattened into the one shape. We do not like unexpected shapes [Kim: is this written for quilters or what!]. One of the essential aspects of beginning to re-imagine the workplace is to awaken the ability to welcome that which is difficult and awkward. Frequently the actual work itself is fine, rather it is our image of it that makes it appear difficult and awkward."

I read this yesterday and loved it; I'm sure it contributed to the positive mood shift I've been feeling. And then, last night, I finally got around to reading the two most recent Rumi poems from Spirituality and Practice, and found this one to be yet another wonderful way to view the stress points in our lives...

When a feeling of spiritual contraction comes over you,
O traveler, it's for your own good.
Don't burn with grief,
for in the state of expansion and delight you are spending.
That enthusiasm requires an income of pain to balance it.
If it were always summer,
the sun's blazing heat would burn the garden
to the roots and depths of the soil.
The withered plants never again would become fresh.
If December is sour-faced, yet it is kind.
Summer is laughing, but yet it destroys.
When spiritual contraction comes,
behold expansion within it;
be cheerful and let your face relax.

[Rumi, Mathnawi III, 3734-3739]

So with that I will leave you and run off and take my shower: Have a great day, and be cheerful!

As always, the John O'Donohue quotation is from Anam Cara (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website:

Friday, May 15, 2009

A gift to share

Last night we went out to walk the dog just as the sun was setting, and I stopped off on the way home to water my neighbor's seedlings.

They have two hummingbird feeders hanging off their porch roof, so I sat for a bit with my cat, Alex -- who always joins us on the nightly dog walk -- and watched the hummers, who were all atwitter because their favorite feeder was empty.

We'd had some fairly serious windstorms earlier in the week, so the lovely driftwood webs Jerry hung from the eaves had taken a beating: a few of the branches were on the deck, and one was hanging down; it made, I think, a spectacular image, silhouetted in the door -- along with the water and the mountains -- by the dying embers of the sun. I was grateful to have been there with my camera at the critical moment.

Yesterday my husband was attempting to put his new email address into linked in, and one of the links we clicked in our attempt to figure out where to do this was "change email signature." How quickly we forget -- I haven't had an email signature in years. But when I did, it was a Bresson quote -- That's Robert Bresson the French film maker, not Henri Bresson the photographer -- that went like this: "Make visible that which, without you, might not have been seen."

I still think that's a wonderful quotation. Now that I am older and a little wiser, I see it is about more than photography: it's about finding what you were born to do, and doing it; about discovering what you have a unique gift or opportunity for seeing, knowing, sensing, tasting... and sharing that with the rest of creation. Which is why I share this image with you: I have had the unique opportunity, not only to live in this beautiful place, but also to befriend these wonderful neighbors of ours; not only to have a dog to walk and a husband to walk him with, but a cat to join us and lead me to the hummingbirds (don't worry: he's never caught a bird, he just likes to watch!). So many gifts are captured in this one photo: the gift of color, of sunsets and clear skies; the artistry of Jerry's driftwood webs; this wonderful camera that captures such exquisite color...

I can only be grateful. So I smile, press the shutter, and pass the gift on to you. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The unemployment boat

My husband and I discovered on our honeymoon (too late, baby!) that we had very different ideas about how to spend vacations. We were in Hawaii at the time -- some 8 months after we'd married, on a belated wedding trip courtesy of my parents' travel agency -- and it quickly became apparent that my idea of vacation (lying in the sun, playing in the surf, reading, eating, occasional shopping and maybe a historic site or two) was not his.

His theory was that vacations should be so busy and stressful that by the end you would be happy to get back to work. Which meant daily excursions, boat rides, and, most memorably, a drive on a winding, unmapped and seemingly endless dirt road through apparently private land in an unreliable rental car with storms threatening to turn the ruts into mud. Twenty minutes into the drive I stopped speaking to him -- probably the only time in our life together I've done that -- but eventually we came out into a rundown neighborhood and found a tiny restaurant that had the best Thai beef salad we've ever had in our lives.

Although that was almost 25 years ago, he still has that restless streak, so it will be interesting to see how he chooses to spend his time over the next few months. It's a bit like this picture, which must be why it called to me this morning: it's like I'm sitting in someone else's boat, in a place I don't know very well, and it's a bit dark at the moment. I can see that there is light ahead, around the corner; a new day is dawning, the colors are warming up... it's all good.

But if I am honest, then I have to admit I am anxious. And then, of course, I get into self-flagellation mode, where I beat myself up for not trusting that whatever happens will work out for the best. I have loved this peaceful phase of my life, loved having the house to myself, loved spending my time in ways that feed the blog and my art and my spiritual life. But I am no longer alone on this vacation, and the specter of that long-ago honeymoon worries me. How will we balance peace and activity in this new life we share together?

I was reading more of John O'Donohue's views on work in Anam Cara this morning, and one of the things he talks about is the fast pace of some environments, where you are so rushed you risk leaving your soul behind. That, I think, has been the job of these last few years: I've been sitting, giving my soul time to catch up after an extremely high-pressured work life. And it's what I love about my life now -- busy though it is -- I can always take a moment to let my soul catch up; it's one of the many reasons I meditate every day, and the meditations, I believe, are what allow me to be as busy as I am.

I find myself very unwilling to rock this particular boat. But of course, life always has a way of rocking our boats. Somehow I will need to find my own internal steadiness for the journey ahead, and trust that something delicious will again be waiting for us at the end. What helps, I think, is a return to the practice of Tonglen: when I feel that anxiety, to breathe in for all the other unemployed families out there that struggle to adjust to new circumstances, and then to breathe out what peace and trust, steadiness and balance I can muster from within for all of us. Because the truth is -- we're all in this boat together, wherever the journey takes us.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Where we belong

This morning, in my reading of John O'Donohue's classic, Anam Cara, I have come to his thoughts on the nature of employment. This is a tricky subject for me for any number of reasons, but the three that loom largest this morning are these:

1. The ongoing discussions around whether or not I am "working" given that I neither report to a place of work nor have any income to speak of (let's not go there)

2. My last place of employment was supremely dysfunctional, and though I left of my own volition it took me years to recover my equilibrium... and, sadly, I was working for The Church. (Let's not go here, either)

3. (and probably most significant at the moment) My husband was laid off last week: this photograph was taken at his goodbye party on Friday. I like to think the empty chairs are significant: if you ask "What were they THINKING?" the answer is -- in my head, at least -- "They weren't!"

Before you gasp in horror at my misfortune, I will hasten to say that though the initial shock of it was devastating, after a week of processing I see that this experience is full of gifts, and that we are blessed in many ways that others in a similar situation are not. Though -- like many others in this country -- what savings we had have been considerably reduced by the recent economic downturn, the fact is that he received a good severance package and has already begun to be courted by other employers both within and outside the company. His biggest challenge, I suspect, will be resisting the urge to return to work before he takes advantage of some much-needed time off. We'll see -- there could be more nasty surprises ahead -- but for now prospects are good and we are having fun imagining how we can spend our summer off together. In some ways the Rumi poem I received for this morning from Spirituality and Practice perfectly summarizes my emotional ride of this past week:

Sometimes, in order to help, He makes us miserable;
but heartache for His sake brings happiness.
Laughter will come after tears.
Whoever foresees this is a servant blessed by God.
Wherever water flows, life flourishes:
wherever tears fall, Divine mercy is shown.

What's interesting to me is that it also describes, in a way, my emotional ride of the last 13 years since I quit that last devastating job of mine, because the level of tears and heartache you can experience when you are betrayed while laboring "on behalf of the Lord" can seem rather extreme: you are forced to question, not just your employers, but yourself, your faith, your church, your entire belief system, and even the existence of the Divine. And yet, the blessings in all those tears have been huge and still continue to multiply.

My guess is that there is still healing to be done, both for my husband and for me. But I think that part of the reason he seems relatively sanguine about his new status as a member of the increasingly vast sea of unemployed folk is that, unlike me, he has always been very much his own person. (And, unlike me, he was serving in a work environment that encouraged questioning, valued the integrity and competence of its employees, and fostered -- and relied upon -- creativity.) O'Donohue beautifully describes what can go wrong in our relationship with the workplace -- at least, it beautifully describes what happened to me, and helps me understand why it took me so long to recover:

"You should never belong fully to something that is outside yourself. It is very important to find a balance in your belonging. You should never belong totally to any cause or system. People frequently need to belong to an external system because they are afraid to belong to their own lives. If your soul is awakened, then you realize that this is the house of your real belonging. Your longing is safe there...

Longing (he goes on) is a precious instinct in the soul. Where you belong should always be worthy of your dignity. You should belong first in your own interiority. If you belong there, and if you are in rhythm with yourself and connected to that deep, unique source within, then you will never be vulnerable when your outside belonging is qualified, relativized, or taken away. You will still be able to stand on your own ground, the ground of your soul, where you are not a tenant, where you are at home. Your interiority is the ground from which nobody can distance, exclude, or exile you. This is your treasure. As the New Testament says, where your treasure is, there is your heart also."

Though my husband has never been drawn to the spiritual life and considers himself to be somewhat of an agnostic, the fact remains that he is very much himself, very much in rhythm with himself, and has always been wary of causes and systems. At the same time he is a humble, deeply loyal and committed employee -- which is part of why he has been with the same company for 17 years. He not only bears the company no ill will but believes they made a perfectly reasonable decision under the circumstances, and he frankly looks forward to returning to work there sometime in the not too distant future -- preferably AFTER he's had some time to play a bit, learn some new skills, and pursue a few dreams of his own.

Which is not to say there will not be challenges to face in the road ahead. But whatever they may be, we know we will face them together -- opposites though we may appear to be -- and that is one of the greatest blessings in my life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Choosing peace

On Friday I dressed up a bit (from my usual sweatshirt and jeans to "business casual") and took the ferry in to attend a retirement party. There were a number of old acquaintances present, and several of them asked if I was still doing photography.

It was odd -- I had to stop and think a minute. So much of my energy is around writing and poetry these days that I no longer think of myself as just "a photographer" -- a self-description I remember had a taste of the miraculous about it as little as ten years ago. But am I still a photographer? Yes, I guess I must be, because a day rarely goes by that I don't take a photograph; my camera is always somewhere close by. And a day NEVER goes by that I don't PLAY with photographs -- like this one, for example.

This was shot from a cab window in Taipei when we visited our daughter there a year and a half ago. And like many other hundreds -- well, probably thousands -- of photographs, it's been sitting quietly in a file folder waiting to be discovered. This image is cropped a bit, but otherwise unretouched, and I think the colors in it are simply amazing: almost a complete spectrum. But then, Taipei was like that -- especially at night: it was almost as if the Taiwanese could never have too much color. Or too much clutter, for that matter: everything was very busy there, and it seemed the primary activity was all about shopping, shopping, shopping.

It reminded me of the period back in my early thirties, the time between husbands when I lived in an apartment in Boston's Back Bay and worked at an ad agency. The apartment was quite beautiful -- brick walls and a bay window, though for the life of me I am unable to picture anything else now about the inside of it -- and Back Bay is a lovely, serene neighborhood, very tasteful and elegant. My commute was easy -- a short walk to the T, only one transfer to get to Copley Plaza -- so I didn't even need a car.

But the man who is now my husband was still living in New Hampshire back then, and though I had come to Boston because I wasn't at all sure that relationship had any future, each weekend I found myself heading back to him on a bus. And what I remember most about that weekly bus ride is the huge sense of relief that would steal over me as we left the city and headed into the green of the countryside. It was almost as if working in the city was like picking blackberries: I would head home covered in tiny irritating scratches, and the green trees and rolling hills were a visual balm soothing away those distracting wounds.

In a lot of ways, that is what meditation does for me now, I think. When I settle into my chair, my nerves are sort of sparkling and itchy with thoughts, ideas, concerns, plans... all the challenges that stir me up are fermenting in there, each with its own strident voice, like little children waving their hands excitedly in a classroom: "Think about me!" they cry, "Think about me!" And as I take the time to stop, to breathe, to center myself, they gradually subside, first lining up to collect their little mats and quilts and then lying down for their naps. One or the other may be particularly twitchy that day, but if I'm lucky (and fierce about insisting they quiet down) a sense of peace steals over the room, a peace which feeds and restores my soul in a way that bright colors and busyness -- however attractive they may be -- never can.

Which is why, I suspect, that photos like this one tend to lie in the file folder undetected, and pictures of green trees and water, grassy hillsides, flowers and animals have a way of finding themselves onto this blog rather quickly: because, given the choice between peace and activity, I repeatedly choose peace. And it was coming to see and accept that that led me to understand my calling to be a contemplative photographer.

My mother's voice just popped up here: she wants to tell you that, yes, I always was a lazy child! And now I see that this is one way in my life that I have been able to re-baptize one of those bad kids on the playground I talked about a few days ago. Because I know now, right to the core of my being, that I am far from lazy: in fact, I am rarely still, always planning and looking ahead. Which is one reason why meditation is so important for me: it helps me to maintain a critical balance. What my mother saw as lazy was in fact my determined longing for peace and balance -- something she was never able to find (I'm not sure she even knew she needed to look for it!) and I found difficult to achieve in her presence.

Which helps me understand that the other "bad kids" in there may have similar roots. And if re-baptizing this one has resulted in a whole new definition for my life and purpose (from corporate executive to contemplative photographer IS rather a leap, if you think about it, even if it was more a slow crawl than a leap), who knows what looking at the others may bring!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Go with the flow

"The ocean," says John O'Donohue, "is one of the delights for the human eye. The seashore is a theater of fluency. When the mind is entangled it is soothing to walk by the seashore, to let the rhythm of the ocean inside you. The ocean disentangles the netted mind. Everything loosens and comes back to itself. The false divisions are relieved, released, and healed."

It wasn't until we actually lived on the water that we discovered that the Pacific tides are not as regular as the Atlantic ones; those lovely tide clocks they sell in the catalogs don't actually seem to work very well for us. And one key feature of this irregularity is that in winter the tides tend to be high during the day and low at night, while in summer they are low in the day and high at night.

All of which adds to our sense of confinement in winter: not only is it rather relentlessly gray and wet (although I confess this year was different, as we got lots of both snow and sunshine instead of clouds and rain) but even if we can go out there's no beach to walk; the tide is most of the way up to the dune grass and lapping at our shoes.

But the ocean still exerts its lonely pull on our souls. Perhaps it is the vast unity of it that calls to us, or maybe it's the sound of the waves slapping on the sand. It could be the deep promise of the always changing surface that masks the steadiness below, or the simplicity of the surface masking the teeming complexity of life on the floor below.

Or perhaps it is just like calling to like. Our bodies are, after all, made up of 60% water. And for us, like the ocean, it is true that the storms that move over the surface of our lives rarely disturb that deep serenity within -- it is only that we forget the serenity is there, or don't take the time to seek it out. And for us, as for the ocean, our outer appearance masks a teeming complexity of thoughts and reactions below the surface.

So how can that be, both this teeming complexity -- all those kids on the playground from yesterday's post -- and that deep serenity? Perhaps that is why we like to look out over the water: it reminds us that it is possible to have all those things coexisting within us; that it is possible -- especially if we take time to breathe and pay attention -- to hold all that in balance, to achieve a slow steady flow of rhythm which allows the tension and complexity, the serenity and simplicity to weave together in the seamless tidal pattern that is unique to each of us.

If your children watched Fraggle Rock growing up, you might remember this song -- its message does seem to relate to this post:

When every dream you've had,
Has gone from good to bad,
Get a move on.
(you gotta) Go with the flow.

When every road you choose,
Gives the loser's blues,
Get a move on.
Go with the flow.

Well, when you try all day,
Try all night,
Try until you drop,
Until it don't come right.
If you're gonna grow, you know you,
Gotta go with the flow.

When the dark comes down,
The night is all around,
Get a move on.
Go with the flow.

You know you can't pretend,
You're looking straight at the end.
Get a move on.
Go with the flow.

Well when you're deep in fear,
Right up to here,
It's a very ???? atmosphere.

If you're gonna grow, you know you,
Gotta go with the flow.

Get a move on.
Get a move on.
(you gotta) Go with the flow.

Such fun -- being a child of the seventies!

As always, the John O'Donohue quotation is from Anam Cara (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mothering yourself

Yes, I know this is not exactly an appropriate picture for the season, but for some reason it's been begging to go on the blog for several days now, so I've decided to give in and see where it takes me.

I do remember taking our girls to the pumpkin patch when they were little: our favorite spot was Remlinger Farms, which not only had pumpkins but also a train, and ice cream, and really good burgers and lots of fun farm animals to visit with.

For Ali in particular choosing a pumpkin was like choosing a Christmas tree: very serious business. To her the trip was about finding the perfect pumpkin, and she had very strong feelings about what that might look like. Katherine, on the other hand, always seemed to look for the one that might be abandoned if we didn't take it. The good thing about that division of labor was they never got into battles over whose pumpkin was whose...

So this morning, perhaps in honor of Mothers' Day, my husband decided to go to church with me (!) so he got to hear a particularly amusing sermon about love, and the importance of loving your brothers and sisters as well as loving God. Driving to the coffee shop after church he asked if I thought he loved enough. "Oh, absolutely," I replied, "You're way better at loving than I am." Maybe not always about saying the WORDS, but he's MUCH better at seeing and appreciating the good in other people than I am. He even thinks Dick Cheney probably has redeeming features (I have trouble with that one) even if he's not quite certain what they might be. "He's probably very complicated," was his conclusion on that subject.

But then he pointed out that loving people doesn't mean you don't get angry with them. "Even God has to do that tough love thing sometimes," he said. And then for some reason I found myself thinking about a moment in my meditation this morning when I felt like my heart was a sort of playground populated with lots of kids, all versions of me, some of whom I like and some of whom I find it pretty hard to love, some of whom I get pretty angry with.

And I realized that I was always careful when I got angry with my kids to let them know I didn't like what they were DOING but I still loved THEM. And the sad fact is, I'm not as careful about that with the kids on my own inner playground. I enjoy the cute likeable ones and the smart ones and the creative ones but I get very annoyed with the selfish ones and the fearful ones. If my heart were a pumpkin patch instead of a playground, I'd be more like Ali, looking for the perfect one; I need to cultivate Katherine's way of looking for the sad or lonely or ugly pumpkin and choosing it to take home with me.

Something I read in Anam Cara this morning offered a lovely solution for that challenge: O'Donohue was actually quoting Nietzche, who apparently said "one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. In this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life.

"This," O'Donohue continues, "is the slow and difficult work of self-retrieval. Every person has certain qualities or presences in their heart that are awkward, disturbing and negative. One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities."

Maybe that's one of the challenges of the empty nest: now that you no longer have to expend as much energy parenting your children, it's time to pour some of that good loving energy into parenting yourself: not just in the disciplinary now-that-the-kids-are-gone-you-WILL-exercise-and-lose-weight kind of way, but also in the aw-sweetie-you-screwed-up-again-but-I-still-love-you kind of way.

So whether or not you've been a mother in your lifetime, maybe today, in honor of Mothers' Day, you should visit that inner pumpkin patch and look for one of the less appetizing pumpkins, take it in hand and re-baptize it; let it know you are grateful for all it has taught you over the years. Take a little time to love those parts of yourself you've always found it hard to even look at.

I suspect you won't regret it.

PS: if you liked this post, you should be sure to visit my poetry blog for the completion of this thought... and, as always, the John O'Donohue quotation is from Anam Cara (© John O’Donohue. All rights reserved). To learn more about John O'Donohue, be sure to visit his website:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Finding that sacred balance

As I was driving out yesterday I passed this big guy perched on a telephone pole above our mailboxes. We're all so conditioned to think of the eagles as endangered that we tend to get excited when we see them, but the sad fact is that -- here, at least -- they are NOT endangered, and, in fact, there are too many of them living around the lagoon, and they decimated our heron population last year.

It used to be that I could count over 80 herons on those few days in March when the flock flew in to lay their eggs in the nesting ground by the graveyard on the hill above us. And even though many of those moved on within a week or two, we could guarantee between 10 and 20 fishing in the tide flats for the rest of the summer. But today's a low low tide, and I only see one lone heron out there.

Which is, I guess, to say that things are always in flux in the natural world -- I'm thinking now of that Blood Sweat and Tears song -- "What goes up must come down; spinning wheel got to go round." There is a natural ebb and flow to animal populations, to tides, to emotions... and so often our natural impulse is to resist, to interfere, to stiffen ourselves against the change and cling to what was.

But I think that's because we tend to identify too closely with our circumstances: as we grow more and more detached from our sacred inner core, we become more and more dependent on our external surroundings for our identity. Which makes me think of something I read in Anam Cara this morning:

"There is the lovely story of the wolf-spider, which never builds its web between two hard objects like two stones. If it did this, the web would be rent by the wind. Instinctively, it builds its web between two blades of grass. When the wind comes, the web lowers with the grass until the wind has passed, then it comes back up and finds its point of balance and equilibrium.

These are beautiful images for a mind in rhythm with itself... when we tighten or harden our views or beliefs, we lose all the softness and flexibility that makes for real shelter, belonging and protection. Sometimes the best way of caring for your soul is to make flexible again some of the views that harden and crystallize your mind; for these alienate you from your own depth and beauty."

There will always be windy days and rough times coming into our lives -- often when we least expect it. But we have this wonderful option of staying flexible; an option which makes it easier, when that web of existence is forced almost to the bottom, to rise again and re-establish equilibrium. And I believe it is far easier to do that when we are in touch with that sacred inner core. When we are attuned to our own part of the divine web of being and less attached to the forms that surround us, we learn to trust that we are treasured, loved and cared for, and that those winds will eventually die away and we will again find our true balance, just as our animal populations will again find a balance. I suspect, now that there are no heron nests to raid, the eagles will move on and eventually the herons will return.

It's all good.