Friday, July 31, 2009

Can you be busy and mindful at the same time?

One of the places I was determined to revisit when I returned to Door County was Kangaroo Lake. It's a pretty big lake, and it's divided by a road that crosses over it, one of several roads which connect the two sides of the Door Peninsula.

The side of the lake that falls north of the road is closed to fishing vessels and all watercraft, swimmers, etc., and is very peaceful; people fish from that side of the road, or, like me, walk along and enjoy the reflections of lilies, reeds and sky.

The south side of the road is an active lake; there are houses around it, with docks and little motorboats; there were people waterskiing there while I was taking this picture, and a stiff breeze out of the south, so that water was all churned up.

I was reading again about mindfulness in Thich Nhat Hanh this morning, and for some reason -- you know how perfectly obvious things can just creep up on you and slap you in the face? -- it finally hit me that mindfulness is not just a sometime thing: ultimately it would be good to ALWAYS be mindful. And realizing that, I felt I had to acknowledge at least the partial truth of that old saw: "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

Because the reason I talk so much about mindfulness and presence is probably because I'm not really all that good at it. I am VERY present when I have a camera in my hand -- which is probably why I love photography so much -- but am I present, really truly present, in my life? I don't see how I can be, because to do that well would slow me down so much: how would I ever get anything done?

As I thought about that I remembered -- with sadness -- all those times my children wanted to talk to me when they were little, and how I was always impatient for those times to end so I could go on about my important work -- whatever that might be. Or the times in Bible study when I'm not so much listening to what others have to say as I am waiting for the chance to reveal my own insights. Or the times in conversations, in coffee shops, or with my husband or his father, when part of me is tapping its fingers impatiently wishing whoever it is would get to the point.

Fortunately another voice inside spoke up before I could go too far down the road of guilt and self-criticism (and what a very well-traveled road that is!) and reminded me of all the times over the years when I've been willing to drop everything to listen: to an anxious child, sitting on my lap or calling on the phone; to (as yesterday) a real estate client who feels rushed and anxious; to a stranger or a friend who calls with a question or concern. I do -- occasionally -- take the time to pay attention to my dog, or give my cats a snuggle; I am fed by the observations of the women in my spirituality group, my friends, and my neighbor; I feed the fish and water the plants and notice the tides and the cry of the seagulls, the kingfisher, the swallows and the eagles who surround my house with sound.

Yes, the goal of mindfulness would be to be attentive all the time. But I have to be tender with my busy self, to allow for the progress I've made, to understand that my life, like Kangaroo Lake, will always have a busy side and a quiet side, and that there is a road across the center where I can stand when I'm trying to balance the two. I need to remember that even when I feel like I'm going over the edge -- and doesn't this picture have a sense of that, almost like it's the edge of the waterfall? -- that in reality I am only a step away from that center road, where I will be safe, and grounded; able to see both sides and choose what is the appropriate mode for the moment.

Hey. It's all good. Really. And maybe someday I'll get better at being both mindful and busy at the same time; there's always that hope!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

No castle in the sky

As an only child with two working parents, I grew up addicted to books. Books were my best friends, my entertainment, my mentors; they formed my ideas, my understanding of the world, and my dreams in ways that continue to haunt me now, so many years later.

My preferred diet was fairy tales: I had the complete tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm; The Children of Odin (a book of Norse mythology); and piles of other similar books. I also remember taking more fairy tales from the library on our weekly family visits: books of tall tales, and the Red Book of Fairy Tales, the Green Book of Fairy Tales, the Blue Book... etc. etc.

Suffice it to say that my head was full of castles and maidens, damsels in distress, princes, princesses, dragons and trolls; all wonderful archetypes to help me sort through my experiences in the real world.

Or not.

Because when you grow up essentially alone in a world populated by myths and legends -- and don't many of our children do that today, addicted as they are to television and computer games? -- you have a tendency to step out of reality and into those dreams, whatever they may be. If life is rough, you imagine being rescued. If only ugly boys want to date you, you imagine a handsome prince. If you live in a rundown shack, you imagine being a princess in a castle...

You can get addicted to romance -- the sort of thinking and hoping so beautifully captured in "At Last," that old Etta James song (recently made popular by Beyonce in the movie, Dreamgirls):

At last, my love has come along,
My lonely days are over,
And life is like a song,

Ohhh at last
The stars above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover,
The night I looked at you

I found a dream that I could speak to,
A dream that I, can call my own,
I found a thrill, to press my cheek to,
A thrill that I, have never known,

Ohhh you smile, you smiled
And then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven,
for you are mine, at last!

It's a great song, great lyrics, lots of passion; speaks to that hunger inside all of us that seems to be consuming my blog this week. But if we get hooked into that kind of thinking, instead of being present, attuned to reality and coping, we can find ourselves drifting off into a world where someone else is taking care of us and making everything nice -- and in the process we can miss the blessings that are staring us in the face, fail to take responsibility for our own rescue (or salvation), or even turn everything that seems to block our way to dreamland into some sort of demon.

It seems to me that this is one of the flaws of Christianity: that because we see God almost exclusively as some being outside and above ourselves, we come to expect that being to rescue us. And the words of Jesus -- which could so easily be construed as a call to presence and mindfulness, a reminder that the kingdom of heaven is here and now, living in each of us -- are more often interpreted in a way that makes him a savior, a knight on a white horse who instead of teaching us by word and example to live as he lived promises to come back from heaven to rescue us. And that kind of thinking has a way of removing us from reality and responsibility.

There is much I love about Christianity, and its central metaphors of grace, hope and forgiveness are critical to my own understanding of spirituality. But I am nonetheless drawn to the more Buddhist understanding of how we are to be in the world. And what I read in Thich Nhat Hanh this morning just seems eminently more practical than the traditional Christian understanding of how the world works:

"We long for permanence, but everything is changing. We desire an absolute, but even what we call our "self" is impermanent. We seek a place where we can feel safe and secure, a place we can rely on for a long time...We all need something good, beautiful, and true to believe in. To take refuge in mindfulness, our capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment, is safe and not at all abstract. When we drink a glass of water and know we are drinking a glass of water, that is mindfulness. When we sit, walk, stand or breathe and know that we are sitting, walking, standing, or breathing, we touch the seed of mindfulness in us...the light that shows us the way...the living Buddha inside of us.

"Mindfulness gives rise to insight, awakening and takes us directly to a place of peace and stability, to the most calm and stable place we can go. The Buddha taught, "Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself and not in anything else." This island is right mindfulness, the awakened nature, the foundation of stability and calm that resides in each of us. This island shines light on our path and helps us see what to do and what not to do."

And as I read this I remember how it is that I came to be so enamored of the Gospel of Thomas. Because, after years of knowing that I am absolutely rooted in Christianity, and years of being drawn to Buddhism, I heard the words that somehow, for me, bridged the gap and helped me see that what Christ calls us to is exactly where I was longing to go -- and it isn't some castle in the sky.

Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. No: the divine Reality exists inside and all around you.

Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known-- realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One. -- The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 3

Yes, there is a castle, a safe place, where we will be loved and cared for beyond our wildest dreams. And even Jesus tells us that place is not imaginary, or in the sky, or even in a stained glass window in a restaurant in Wisconsin. It's right here, right now, both inside and all around us -- we have only to pay attention.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inspiration from the Museum of Wisconsin Art

One of the highlights of our recent trip was a visit to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, Wisconsin. The Museum was not a planned destination; it just happened to be mentioned in a guidebook, and West Bend was on our route to Sheboygan, where we planned to visit the much more widely publicized Kohler Art Center.

I don't think of myself as much of a traditionalist, art-wise, nor have I ever been all that into realism, so I was looking forward to the inspiration I would find at the Kohler and this was just a side stop along the way, kind of like the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb.

But the Wisconsin Art Museum, which is housed in what feels like a stately old home in downtown West Bend, was just irresistible for me. They had a lovely blend of new and old work,and their collection of Wisconsin artist Carl von Marr was simply spectacular.
Von Marr's work, as you can see, is very traditional, but I loved the color and the light; the strong contrasts and the movement. His portraits -- which seemed primarily of family members -- seemed very real and warm; the people were not beautiful but you had a sense that you knew them, or would like to. There was a huge image of a picnic in the trees on a sunny afternoon, filled with women and children gamboling on a dappled lawn, that was simply irresistible; this photograph really doesn't do it justice.

The impact of Von Marr's work on me was significant -- it really was drool-worthy -- and I found that several of the photographs I took later on in the trip had some of the light qualities found in his work -- perhaps because, like von Marr, I was responding to the Wisconsin light.

Whatever the reason, I found myself inspired to print one of my photos on canvas; added some gel medium (on the advice of Richard Nelson, proprietor of our local artshop, Oil and Water) and mounted it in a gold frame. (Yes, you already saw this image a day or two ago). And even though my gallery has already told me that it's "Not their sort of thing," and even though I know it doesn't hold a candle to the real von Marr's I saw, I am pleased with the results, and have hung it on my own wall.

Somewhere I hope Mr. von Marr is watching, and I hope also that he understands: Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. And that, by the way, is a quote from Charles Caleb Colton, vicar of Kew; an obscure British cleric from the Regency period in England, one of my favorite time periods to read about. Who knew!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Balancing passion and mindfulness

This lifesize statue of John Belushi as a wailin' Blues Brother hangs over the cafeteria at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo Illinois. I'm not exactly sure why I was so determined to share it with you today, but I think it has something to do with the passion it conveys.

The man obviously had a passion for music, and you can tell from this image that he probably had a passion for food as well. We know he had a larger-than-life quality from the exuberance of his performances, both with the band and with Saturday Night Live, but his accidental death -- from an overdose of cocaine and heroin -- doesn't feel all that accidental; it feels like all that passion just burned him out.

I am still reading Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, and this morning -- appropriately enough, given yesterday's post -- I got to the fifth of the Five Wonderful Precepts of Buddhism: Mindful Consumption. Mindful consumption is not just about being a vegetarian or watching what you eat (remember that phrase, "You are what you eat?"). It's also about what we consume "from violent TV programs, video games, movies, magazines and books." And, of course, he tackles the issues of drug and alcohol consumption.

"Drug users know how destructive their habit is, but they cannot stop. There is so much pain and loneliness inside them, and the use of alcohol and drugs helps them to forget for a while... trying to stop the drug traffic is not the best use of our resources. Offering education, wholesome alternatives, and hope, and encouraging people to practice the Fifth Precept are much better solutions. To restore our balance and transform the pain and loneliness that are already in us, we have to study and practice the art of touching and ingesting the refreshing, nourishing, and healing elements that are already available. We have to practice together as a family, a community, and a nation. The practice of mindful consuming should become part of our national health policy. Making it so should be a top priority..."

"Once we are able to see deeply the suffering and the roots of the suffering," he goes on to say, "we will be motivated to act, to practice. The energy we need is not fear or anger, but understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who destroy themselves, their families, and their society are not doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming, and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished."

On reading this, I find Hanh's thoughts inspired, and yet, at the same time, it feels hopelessly naive. And why is that? It feels to me as if we, as a society, have gone hopelessly off-track: spend any time with your television (and I don't even have cable) and you can see signs of that: the enormous amounts of gratuitous violence, the constant pressure of the advertising, the subjects covered in our newscasts -- there is a sort of mindless consumption that has been happening for sometime now, and it's not clear to me that we have anything good to show for it.

But I don't want to go backwards, either; don't recommend reverting to the land, like the Amish, or going back to the 50s, when we were all nuclear families and everybody went to church. Now, especially after watching an episode or two of Mad Men, that era has an almost Victorian feel to it: so much apparent sweetness and light on the surface; so much heinous behavior going on below the surface...

I guess I'm hoping that the hideous state of the economy will serve as an indicator and people will start looking for other ways to feed that hunger that seems to drive us all into bad behavior. But I'm not sure how we get there, or how we begin to educate an entire society about mindfulness -- because I do still believe that mindfulness, being aware of what we're doing, or saying, or consuming -- is the beginning of health. The problem, of course, is that it isn't exactly a quick fix. And with the speed of all the other things in our society -- cars, planes, communications -- it's hard to be patient long enough to see the benefits of any medication, let alone something like meditation and mindfulness, that requires concentrated effort over time.

We are, I think, a passionate people: we want, we hunger, we long for things with a kind of exuberance that betrays the youth of our country. But that passion doesn't have to throw us over the edge into "too much of a good thing." Properly channeled, it could guide us into a deeper understanding of who we are and our purpose in life; it can act as a fuel for the good stuff that we do, and keep us going when we hit obstacles or lose energy or get discouraged. But that kind of channeling, of containment, takes discipline, and maturity, and I'm not sure how we can encourage a whole society to grow up.

Monday, July 27, 2009

You won't see me in shorts!

Looking at this photo of our anniversary dinner in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin (that's spaetzle and rouladin) you can see why I am now on a diet, attempting to lose the weight gained on our trip through the midwest.

For years -- well into my 30's -- I was a scrawny little thing: 5'9" and weighing around 127 pounds. I used to say I was a fat person in a skinny body, because I loved to eat; I just never seemed to gain any weight (largely, I suspect, because of all the stress in my first marriage; at one point I was eating daily hot fudge sundaes and my weight STILL dropped to 122!).

But then I remarried, and within 5 years I had gained two children and about 50 pounds. You still couldn't call me fat, but I am definitely NOT scrawny, and I still love to eat, so finally, about 5 years ago, I did the South Beach diet, relearned how to eat wisely, and dropped 30 pounds. It was fabulous, to have my first real attempt at dieting be so successful, and I noticed a lot of minor physical problems disappeared right along with the weight. Although the pounds began to creep up again about a year later, it was pretty easy to keep the creep to a slow crawl, and I was perfectly content to hover around 165, feeling pretty skinny in a loose size 12.

But around Christmas this past year, four years into my new body, I started slipping, and though I was okay with 170, the five pounds I put on in Wisconsin have put me over the top, so I'm taking advantage of my husband's absence to embark on another round of South Beach.

For some reason, though, it's not so easy this time: I'm not gaining, but I'm not really losing either -- though perhaps it's too early to tell. And I'm realizing that what eating I do outside the allowable amounts is driven by a hunger that is somehow connected with this feeling of not having felt centered in recent months.

It's easy, when my stomach is hungry, to tell myself that's the feeling of my stomach shrinking, to drink a glass of water and go do something productive. But for some reason when my MOUTH is hungry, for a particular flavor, it's way harder to resist. So I'm working on telling myself that that particular weakness, just like all the other weaknesses we encounter in ourselves as we walk mindfully down the spiritual path, is ALSO a whetstone; that the hunger, and the lack of resistance, is something I need to listen to, to pay attention to; that I need to listen for the need or hunger that lies beneath the craving and stop using food as a palliative.

Easier said than done, of course. But if you are one of the many folks who, like me, find summer, with its hot days and minimal clothing, a time to grow severely discontented with your weight, well -- I guess this is me saying you're not alone. And, like everything else, I suspect this issue has some spiritual roots, and I am determined to explore them.

But just so you know: even if I drop the 10 pounds I am determined to lose -- well, you still won't ever see me in shorts!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The allure of drama

Now that I have some big blocks of time for myself, I am going through my photos from our recent trip, discarding all the obviously useless ones and getting to know the ones that have possibilities.

This is always an interesting process: it's fun to discover the winners, easy to discard the ones that are out of focus, and interesting to watch how my mood, or the cat on the keyboard, or the weather, or the music that's playing influences the choices I make for all the ones that fall somewhere between good and terrible.

And what I see most of all is that I am still -- despite the fact that I am the one member of my family who finds it easy to throw things away -- still very much a child of depression parents; i.e., a saver. I keep thinking there might be something salvageable about an image that doesn't have all that much to offer at first glance. And sometimes I think, well, I don't like this one but my husband might want it as a memento.

The tireder I get, the harder it is to make the choices. And the longer I spend at it, the tireder I get, so then I take a break, take the dog for a walk, grab a snack, or even take a nap: with no-one in the house, I can choose to do any of those things and not worry that I'll get pulled off-task, which is good, because this is a process that works better if I can keep holding the whole body of work in mind. That way I can begin to imagine combining images -- whether separately, as an exhibit, or together, pulling a tree here and a sheep there and adding them to a barn in a field to create a fantasy world of my own design.

Through it all I'm watching for stories, or for those evocative images that create a mood or feeling that lifts me out of my own sort of plodding malaise (this really is sort of like watching widgets come off an assembly line and picking off the flawed ones; it's definitely not the exciting part of being a photographer) into some other space. This one definitely falls into that category: it's almost like a stage set, with the lighting and those old cars (I did have to photoshop out a white minivan that was driving right through the middle of the image, but the rest is completely unretouched) and seeing it I am back in the world of O Brother Where Art Thou, or Grapes of Wrath, or maybe Bonnie and Clyde, all those great classic movies.

And looking at it I can't help but wonder: what is it like to live in this town? What are their lives like, the people who come to this bar on the weekends? Do they gamble away their life savings, or flirt with loose women, or just nurse a beer and talk about the tediousness of the assembly-line bits in their own lives? Are there barfights? Is there one of those swinging saloon doors, around the corner where we can't see it? Will a little boy burst through that door, calling for his father, because his mother has gone into labor?

Because this is a picture that just reeks of drama, something I do my best to avoid in my own life -- perhaps because I had more than enough drama in my first marriage, enough to last a lifetime, and I gradually came to learn that drama is really an inadequate substitute for love. Love -- at least at this point in my life -- is something quieter, and deeper; something that enriches my heart rather than just stimulating my head; something cool and peaceful, ever-replenished and enduring, more like standing under a waterfall than like going to Disneyland or watching fireworks... or the quick high you might find at this roadhouse, this bar, this casino.

So, though I love the quick hit of this image, and I'll keep it for its dramatic qualities, it probably won't make it into my collection of screensavers. Because that collection is reserved for the ones that, well, the ones that feel like love.


My friend Robin sent me the following poem in response to this image, and I love it:

Roadhouse Bar & Casino
is painted on the side for all to see
but for those who know
the inside is a whole different
thing one not imagined from
a quick glimpse of its outside

Jeni-Lee lives in one half of the building
and the other half is her yoga studio
don’t laugh she went to school in
Michigan, Ann Arbor, and came
back here to her first love
the long low skies and surprising
twists of weather.

She also came back for Johnnie
her first love the one who filled
up her heart like nothing or no one else
and then too there were the memories
of a simple and joyful childhood
when her mother was still alive
and laughing all the time.

She has a regular clientele of young people
curious and eager as well as several women
who refer to themselves as middle-aged hippies
and there are some men young and older who
for the easy hospitality of the music and tea
who talk about enlightenment at the end
of a day in the fields, in the truck, or down
the road in the mill.

Roadhouse Bar & Casino
is painted on the side for all to see
but for those who know
the inside is a whole different
thing one not imagined from
a quick glimpse of its outside

------- Isn't that just AMAZING?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The compassionate alternative

About a year ago, perhaps a little more, there was an article in The New Yorker about the rising cost of medical insurance. And one thing that struck me mightily -- I may have even written about it at the time -- was that a lot of people who end up suing doctors for their mistakes would probably not have sued if the doctor had just apologized to them.

I find that incredibly sad. We are, as a people, so quick to blame others and justify ourselves that a whole industry has sprung up around that -- because isn't that what lawyers and litigation are about?

But it's one thing to bemoan this state of affairs, and another thing altogether to try and change it. Because change begins at home, right here, in your own relationships with close friends and family, and... well, we all know how hard it can be to be confronted by our dear ones, or, even worse, to have to confront them -- or a boss, or a friend, or a neighbor...

For someone like me, a woman, with strong Presbyterian roots, guilt can be a way of life, so for me apologies come pretty readily. Though I will engage in a certain amount of excuse-making, the apologies are genuine and heartfelt, and I usually carry piles of guilt around afterwards (just ask my children).

But confrontation is harder for me, because it assumes I have a right to feel whatever it is that I'm feeling. I grew up in an environment where anger was definitely NOT okay, so when it's time for me to confront, I'm not always sure I have the right to do that, and things get pretty awkward and blustery as I try to get my feelings out on the table.

Sometimes I want to bring out the big guns, to stand over the offender and shake a finger and say "How could you do this to me?"; to make them feel horribly guilty. Sometimes --I'm ashamed to say -- I even withhold forgiveness for a while after they apologize, because... well, they were the sort of person that did that sort of thing, and did I really want to be friends with them?

Sometimes I just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend it didn't happen. But often that just means the unresolved issue stews and ferments and eventually boils over and everybody gets burned -- and it takes a long time for all parties to recover and heal when that happens.

One particularly troublesome variant on the head-in-the-sand version is to run away without saying anything-- which rarely solves anything; I usually just get to face the same issue again, later on, with someone else. It's not so much that leaving is bad -- sometimes that's the best choice. But to leave without having said anything allows the bad behavior to continue unchecked, and then the next person who comes along after me then gets stuck dealing with it all over again.

Sometimes, for those of us with short fuses, we do a pretty good job of saying what's bugging us, but then all this other old stuff comes boiling up and we get really loud and slam doors and then afterwards we feel horribly guilty and have to apologize and grovel.

And sometimes I'm so busy apologizing for being angry that it begins to look like I'M the guilty party for ever having dared to expect whatever it was that is at issue -- which can let an unscrupulous offender off the hook.

But all these situations, whichever choice I make, tend to take a familiar shape -- a cycle of hurt, then anger, and then guilt, and then back to hurt -- and they acquire a certain momentum as the cycle keeps rolling downhill, usually into the valley of shame. That shape has become so familiar over the years that it's terribly easy to just step into it and let it roll. But this morning I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's words about compassion, and I was reminded once again that the way to step out of the cycle is to try to understand the other person's point of view.

Yes, it's important to name my truth, whatever it may be; things that are hidden have a way of festering. And if I can do that in a way that doesn't come loaded with lots of old baggage, or throw stones at the other person, I've made a terrific first step. But the second step is important, too: I have to be willing to listen, to HEAR, when the other person explains the rationale for their behavior. Because there are many possible responses I could make, and the right one -- whatever it may be -- should honor both the other person's truth and mine; should be made, not out of bitterness, or retribution, or shame, or pride, but out of compassion for both sides, and out of hope for the possible.

But all that means setting the ego aside -- and we all know how tenacious the ego can be.

It's a challenge, that's for sure. But as I speak with my neighbor, now married almost 45 years, and as I look at the snarly bits and the joys in my own marriage, and as I see the peace on the face of this Amish couple, enjoying their morning coffee on the train, I can feel that hope for the possible. Yes, there are rough spots. But we don't have to run and hide, or come out with guns blazing. I really want to believe that if we choose the compassionate approach it is possible to walk through together and get to the other side.

Thinking about that this morning, as I was meditating, an old song from my Presbyterian childhood came into mind, and sort of hummed along below the surface for the rest of my meditation time:

Lead me, Lord, Lord;
Lead me in thy righteousness:
Make thy way plain before my face.

Perhaps that's the best way to ensure that we make the compassionate choice in difficult times: to step back, and allow ourselves to be led, not by our OWN righteousness -- or self-righteousness -- but by the Divine and universal understanding of what is right for all concerned.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Some days it's a tough row to hoe

I am, at last, after almost three months of transition time, back on a relatively normal schedule this morning (though I overslept a little; so nice to be back in my own bed!).

So I shouldn't be surprised to find I'm cranky and out-of-sorts: Meditation is a practice, after all, and if muscles begin to atrophy when we don't exercise them, surely the spirit -- or whatever it is that gets exercised in meditation -- would also be a bit slow, even backward -- after a long down period.

But I had thought -- well, hoped, really, that being back in my routine would be a bit like returning to a lover after a long absence; sort of an ecstatic experience. Instead it's more like having a husband come home after a long absence (I am reminded of some of the experiences I read about in our local submarine museum, which has a whole exhibit devoted to the wives of these men who are gone from home for so many months at a time).

When I am separated from my husband, I get used to being in control, doing things when and how I want to do them. And when he returns -- though there is that initial delight to see him -- there is this juggling thing that happens while we navigate the transition and I learn again to share responsibility, to invite his opinions and listen to them, to talk about my frustrations... Oh, right. This is what learning to live with an unemployed or retired husband is all about, isn't it!

I should not be surprised to discover -- again -- that God isn't like a wonderful mistress or lover, only there for the good stuff, the ecstatic stuff; that a relationship with God is still a relationship, littered with ups and downs, times of connection and distance, and (which is bothering me today) times when you come up against your own shortcomings and that face in the mirror just doesn't look like a very nice person.

Fortunately, just as my husband keeps telling me he loves me in spite of what looks like bitchiness to me, God keeps loving me even when I don't feel like I'm doing a very good job of living up to what I thought a child of God should look like. And I suppose that's why this picture worked for me this morning: because this path we're on looks a bit like farming. There'll be good weather and bad weather, good years and bad years. With luck you'll get a stretch of good weather and bring in enough hay to get you through the winter. And the fact is, the ground will still be there next spring, and the grass will still grow, and the farmer's job -- like mine -- is to do his best to stay on top of things, to plow when it's time to plow and harvest when it's time to harvest; to keep the barns and fences mended, the equipment in good order, and to share the bounty as best he can.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Transitions: a farewell and two welcomes

Back home, pulling ourselves together; I wake up in the night disoriented, as if I am still on the train, feeling the slight roll, the vibration of the tracks, hearing the call of the whistle echoing across the prairies.

Shooting through the train windows was a challenge, but, oh, what a beautiful country we live in. This, I think, may be my favorite shot...

And while we were on the road, we received news that a dear friend's son died suddenly of an aneurysm. Teddy had been in that one-room schoolhouse with my daughters all those years ago, and his sweet smile will haunt us all for years to come, leaving a life filled with his presence even as it feels emptied. At the same time, two other friends have become first-time grandmothers, welcoming new smiles into the world...

All these transitions, and still something timeless lives in the lines between and connects us all.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Connective tissue

Yesterday we left Door County and drove back south, speeding by the barns and fields under a gray and sullen sky. I kept shooting out the window, watching for those dips in the landscape when my camera would be able to see what my eyes have been drinking in for days.

But what I get, when I shoot -- well.. it's a bit like life. There are these brief moments of mindfulness, when the camera can actually see what is happening. But for the most part things are a blur -- especially the immediate surroundings, and it's only the stuff in the distance that has any clarity.

We were talking, a day or two ago, about the importance of taking the long view -- of trusting that the things that are a little uncomfortable right now will pay off in the long run. And we spoke also of how hard that is to do when you are young and everything seems so immediate and critical. Maybe that's part of the problem with this beautiful country of ours: we are still so young, and haven't begun to look beyond our own immediate needs, either to treasure the past or to build carefully for the future.

Hmm. I'm sounding a bit like an old lady -- I must have just had another birthday!

But it does make me sad, that in our rush to have the latest technology or the latest fashions or the coolest friends or the most popular ideas we forget that there is this deep connective serenity out there, the timeless slope of fields and farms that fuels much of our past and ties us all together to a common land. And in our deepening polarization -- are you a red state, or a blue? -- we forget that what we all share is this glorious sweep of green.

Friday, July 17, 2009

That old God in the sky

A few months ago I was having some back problems and my chiropractor was out of town, so I went to HER chiropractor, who suggested some physical therapy might be in order to "build up my core muscles." So prior to this vacation I had been spending daily time doing exercises and was basically re-learning how to walk. And it was all going really well.

But of course, on vacation, there isn't the room or the time or the equipment to do those exercises, and so I've been backsliding a bit. Which means that, on a day like yesterday, when we visited five different museums (don't worry, they're all tiny) and I did a lot of walking, I wasn't thinking about it too much and I reverted to the old familiar walk; I wasn't consciously using the right muscles.

This morning, therefore, I'm aching a bit, so meditation has been more about trying to get comfortable than about centering and mindfulness and getting in touch with the Divine within -- and, in fact, I find myself reverting to old habits, asking the Old Version of God -- the one in the sky who listens and fixes things -- for some assistance.

It's all too easy to fall into that particular habit -- of asking the Man in the Sky to fly in on his white tractor and fix everything. And though I know now that that's not quite how it works, I persist in lapsing into the old ways of praying just as I lapse into the old way of walking.

Fortunately God and faith and spirit and Love are there for us even when we're not quite on track and have forgotten which row to hoe. And as the breeze springs up again from my hotel air conditioner, I realize with gratitude that Spirit is always there, even when we forget where to stand, or how to kneel, or Who lives on inside us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Big skies

There's something about driving through miles and miles of these glorious rolling fields, occasionally punctuated by bright red barns and tall white silos, that is just amazingly soothing. The sky seems bigger here, and the variety of cloud formations is so beautiful...

The sky where we live comes mostly in two varieties: gray, and blue. We don't tend to get the sprinklings of tiny cumulus clouds, or the streaks of cirrhus clouds -- and here we get both, a constantly changing slideshow, all day long; it's glorious!

We also don't get these long views, northwesterners being such tree-huggers and all: the trees -- and their extraordinary height -- turn the roads on our little island into tunnels, especially in winter, and our only long views are across the water.

As my husband drives, I keep my camera on and shoot out the window. The results are mixed, but the glory of a digital camera is that you can collect so many shots and then discard the ones that don't work with no real penalty -- no cost to develop, no cost to shoot except possible wear and tear on the camera; even the batteries are rechargeable.

...and we're driving with a GPS system, so it's easy to detour down a side road whenever we're tempted, as we can always find our way back. Unless, of course, the GPS dies, which it was doing frequently yesterday. Apparently there's some problem with the firmware, so we went to the website and downloaded new firmware last night; don't know if it will work today or not. The Garmin people have an apology on their website, but I keep thinking of all of the Americans who, like us, challenged by the economy, decided to do driving vacations this summer to save money, and are wandering around back roads without maps until they suddenly discover their GPS has gone black on them...

Modern technology is an amazing thing, and incredibly useful when it works. But it's not so easy on the eyes; I usually put my camera away when the cell towers start looming and the infrequent barns give way to shopping malls, rows of suburban houses, and huge parking lots full of farm machinery. I'm sure there's beauty there somewhere, but I confess I find it difficult to see.

But today we'll be heading up to Door County, and leave even the possibility of those malls and rows and lots behind: it's deliciously rural up there, and I can't wait to see it again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Serious repercussions

This morning's breakfast was lovely, with the doors open to the porch and the sound of the mourning doves cooing in the backyard. We don't have mourning doves (or is it morning doves?) in the Northwest, so it was delicious to hear them again.

Tomorrow is officially our 25th anniversary, but originally my husband had wanted to marry on the 14th, today, because it was Bastille Day (and we were married in a War Canoe -- can you tell there are some themes here?). So he still thinks of today as a special day, and there was a card by my plate when I came down to breakfast. This is what I found when I opened the card:

"There are repercussions, serious repercussions to marriage. Among those, the reality of an anniversary. And while I completely loved you the day we married, there does not exist a mathematical equation to measure my current adoration of you. So today, from the vantage point of passed time, I proclaim that you are now even more extraordinary, intoxicating, and habit-forming than the day you said yes. And as such, my basic needs remain: food, clothing, shelter, you."

Yes, that was a PRINTED card -- and I gather he bought it some time ago and was saving it for this moment. Isn't that the sweetest thing? And a perfect gift from mathematician...

As we head into the last 24 hours of our 25 years of marriage, I have to say I am feeling incredibly blessed.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When you vacation away from vacationland

At the other end of our street, about a half mile from our house, there is a state park with a fabulous driftwood beach. What you can't see in this picture, because it was taken on a cloudy day, is that standing here on a clear summer day you can see Mount Rainier and the city of Seattle on the horizon.

So why, you might ask, would we leave this wonderful spot to go on vacation somewhere else?

Good question!

But here I am, in Barrington Illinois, a distant suburb of Chicago with acres of green grass and huge suburban homes, after almost no sleep last night and a very long day of travel. We've had a fabulous dinner cooked by my beautiful sister-in-law, a lovely evening of conversation, and soon we'll be off to bed, to rise in the morning and head for Iowa.

We do things like this, we Americans --leaving our homes and exploring other parts of the country -- partly because we get the travel bug, partly because we end up with our families spread all over the country and we want to check in with them, and partly because there is so much beauty in our country that it would be a shame to get set on one idea of what is beautiful: there's beauty everywhere, and it takes a lot of different forms.

So I'm hoping to share a bit of that beauty with you -- in this case, the midwestern kind (which we coastal folk tend to ignore) -- over these next few days. No guarantees that I'll have time to meditate or any particular wisdom to share. But who knows: as my mother-in-law used to say, "The Lord moves in mysterious ways." This is where I grew up, and though I love the East and West, this is my home and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Buddhist explication of Eucharist

You might guess, from occasional posts in this blog (good detecting, Holyfoolishness!) that I have serious approach/avoidance issues with Christianity and The Church. This morning I was reading Conversations With Christ, a book a dear friend recommended about St. Teresa of Avila's teachings on prayer and meditation, and I read that she recommended spending time with some aspect of the passion of Christ; meeting Christ there, hearing his story and reflecting on "the pains which He bore there, why He bore them, Who He is that bore them and with what love He suffered them."

As a former Presbyterian, I grew up in a church whose altar was dominated by flower arrangements and an empty cross, and though I was led to my first conversion experience by a meditation on the suffering of Jesus on the cross, I am nonetheless uncomfortable sitting in this space. The older I get, the more I realize that it is the teachings of Jesus, not the stories told surrounding Him, that inspire me to faith.

So I drifted away from St. Teresa, though I am by no means done with her, and turned to Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, to find this:

When I was a young monk in Vietnam, each village temple had a big bell, like those in Christian churches in Europe and America. Whenever the bell was invited to sound (in Buddhist circles, we never say "hit" or "strike" a bell) all the villagers would stop what they were doing and pause for a few moments to breathe in and out in mindfulness...Breathing in, we say, silently, "Listen, listen," and breathing out, we say, "this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home."
Our true home is in the present moment. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment. Peace is all around us -- in the world and in nature -- and within us -- in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed.

This talk of the true home seems to me to be very like what Jesus said -- as opposed to the story of his passion. In Logion 3 of the gospel of Thomas, for example, he says,

"Divine Reality exists inside and all around you. Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known -- realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One."

So then -- because, like most humans, I like to declare one thing better than another -- I found myself saying, "Phew! Too much Catholicism for me; maybe I'm a Buddhist after all!" and went on reading Thich Nhat Hanh. He began talking about mindfulness during eating, and suddenly I was in this passage:

"When a priest performs the Eucharistic rite, his role is to bring life to the community. The miracle happens not because he says the words correctly, but because we eat and drink in mindfulness. Holy Communion is a strong bell of mindfulness...If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God."

Ah, I thought. That's it. There was a wonderful surge of clarity, and a huge sense of gratitude for the ritual of Eucharist as I experienced it, just this morning, in a circle of some thirty people, knowing that in Anaheim Eucharist is being shared among some 8,000 people. And having drifted away from Christ, I drifted back in again, swinging lightly in the breezes of spirit. But why, I wonder, does it take a Buddhist to remind me about the heart of Christianity?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Just the way you are...

While I was in Anaheim visiting at General Convention (I'm home now, safe and sound) I had lots of opportunities to visit with old friends from the days when I was an official Episcopal Communicator. And a couple of times I found myself telling the story (which I don't believe I shared here; forgive me if you've heard this before) of the presentations I did at the retirement centers on our island.

It was part of a project the Gallery was doing in honor of its 60th birthday -- they had set up a series of art courses for folks over the age of 60 (which will soon include ME!), and I was one of the teachers. It was suggested I just show photographs of the island, thinking they would be delighted to see some of the things they don't get out to see much anymore, but I decided to expand that idea to show some of the things you can do with digital photography and photoshop.

As part of the presentation I brought a copy of Treasured, a book that was created by the local Presbyterian church to feature some of the older women in their congregation. I had done the portraits for the book, and I talked about ways I had altered the portraits so they would be both more flattering and show what we THINK we see when we look at these women. As the conversation evolved, I ended up photographing the participants in my class at the retirement center and then taking them home, doing similar alterations, and bringing them back portraits of their own to keep.

The time I spent with those portraits was actually wonderful. I loved the people I met in the class -- loved their spirit and their beauty -- and it was fascinating to see how even in the course of an hour my image of them shifted. Old age -- as all of us who are aging know -- is not pretty: the skin wrinkles and spots, the hair thins, the eyes fade and hair grows coarsely in lots of unexpected places. But when you come to know someone, you really don't see those things any more: you begin to see the real person; the child of God who lives underneath the skin.

I'm thinking that this may also be the reason it is so important to create the time and space to come to know people of different races, religions, and political persuasions from ourselves; to broaden our concept of what is family to include those outside our expected groups and organizations (yes, I'm talking about Ubuntu again...). Because in the end race and religion and political persuasion may be just more hairs and spots; things that disappear when we realize the person beneath is just another unique member of our human family, not so different from ourselves.

And, just so you know, I loved the lady in these pictures; she was a wonderful participant in the class. And I -- despite the hairs and wrinkles -- actually find her MORE appealing in the picture on the left, because all those "distasteful" features I removed give her character; they are a part of who she has become over the years. And though, when you look at them closely and imagine them on your own face, you might wrinkle your nose a bit, I think it's important to see that they somehow contribute to the way her beautiful soul shines through. So today, take a minute to look in the mirror and love who you are becoming -- and remember that God loves you JUST THE WAY YOU ARE!

Friday, July 10, 2009

They gotcha comin' and goin'

The lobby area outside the exhibition hall, the House of Deputies, and the Worship Center at the Anaheim Convention Center has a wall of windows, with carpet at both ends and a shiny floor of some sort in the middle, with two-story escalators and an open staircase to add drama; it's all quite beautiful. The light patterns yesterday afternoon were fascinating, so I suspect you'll see another picture or two, either here or on my poetry blog, before the week is through.

But this image is actually two images, shot within minutes of each other, of exactly the same location, near the doorway across from the little park that connects the Center to the Hilton Hotel. I had originally decided just to use one image -- the one on the left -- but when I had finished altering it (I had to photoshop out a sign and do a little distortion to get the angles right) I flipped it horizontally so it would sit nicely on the left side of this page, and it was then that I realized how cool it would be if I paired it with the other image. It wasn't til I put them together, though, that I realized I would end up with what is essentially a gothic arch and the suggestion of stained glass windows.

But here it is, and now I hear a phrase from my childhood echoing in my head: When I was growing up my mom used to say with a shake of her head, "They gitcha comin' or goin'." I learned from the context that this was her way of describing a no-win situation, where you would find yourself at the mercy of someone else -- often an institution of some sort -- and you would find yourself the poorer for the connection no matter how you approached or left the situation.

So what does it mean when I look at this image and think, "The church'll gitcha, comin' or goin'?" As I ponder that thought, a host of possibilities come singing in; a celestial choir of angels and devils raising their voices to be heard. Some of the voices are negative, as I listen to the gossip and watch my former compatriots struggle with long hours and low pay, trying to put together news stories about what's happening here while at the same time fighting for what they believe to be right for the people out in the pews and worrying about job security. And some of the voices are positive: though I have learned over the years to be wary of the church -- the road to hell so OFTEN being paved with good intentions -- I am liking a lot of what I'm hearing here. The stories are amazing, the work of the artists I've encountered is often breathtaking, and the ongoing dedication and commitment of those who feel called to serve is inspiring.

So maybe that's it: the "comin' and goin" is all about my approach/avoidance issues with the church. I am proud to be part of a community which takes the needs and rights of humanity so seriously, that is so dedicated to doing the right thing -- and so I find myself being drawn in and eager to participate. But then I run up against the sniping and the hidden agendas and the posturing that goes on and I want to run screaming from the room.

I suspect the challenge for all of us is to stay centered and balanced in the tension between the oneness we strive for and profess and the egoic individualism that keeps tearing the fabric of community here. It's like the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury in that beautiful meditation he gave yesterday morning:

"Sin is our constant temptation to slip back into nothingness, into unreality – the void of our own individual desires and agendas, the void of a self that deludes itself into the belief that it is really there on its own, independent of God and of others. So when God in Jesus Christ restores humanity to its proper place in God's heart, Jesus has to face full-on the strange power of nothingness, the power of the terrors and dreams that are generated out of the self in its urgent attempts to keep itself alive by its own strength. Jesus dies because we don't want to die – to die to our fantasies and self-centered plans and dreams. To follow him is to risk stepping into life by recognizing that something in us must die – so that everlasting and true life may live."

And then he says, "Life is proclaimed not in our achievement, our splendid record of witness to God, but in our admission of helplessness and of the continuing presence and lure of death in our lives. To be able to speak of this, and not to retreat in fear or throw up defenses is part of true life; it is to know that our name is spoken by the Word of God and that we do not have to battle in resentment and anxiety to create an identity of our own. It is already there: we are already called friends. we are already bound to each other, and our life is invested in each other, in those we see and those we don't, those we like and those we don't. We are in the holy place with Jesus, a holy nation, a royal priesthood."

A life in the church then, will always be challenged by this tension between the coming and the going, between individual and corporate, between nothingness and oneness, between our own unique identities and our common call to view ALL of our compatriots -- at home, at work, in the church, in other churches, and in the whole world both in and out of the church -- with the compassion we would show our fellow children of God.

Yes, they got us coming and going. And to comprehend that and to walk voluntarily into that mix is, in the end, a truly holy thing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An illicit photo

Okay, time for True Confessions: we were specifically asked NOT to take photos during this morning's Eucharist, but I didn't listen. This is a photograph of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, delivering a truly inspiring sermon on the importance of setting aside individual agendas for the common good (almost as impressive as his speech last night, which you can (and should) read about here) to the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim.

And he is standing in front of the absolutely GORGEOUS reredos created by Mel Ahlborn, the president of ECVA, for use at Convention. Her Ubuntu Reredos consists of 5 separate multimedia shows (each one will show twice over the 10-day course of Convention) developed to portray the work of several artists (yes, I am one of them); each show is displayed on three giant screens which sit at the front of the hall in which we hold our daily Eucharist, and they all look like huge stained glass windows; they are breathtakingly beautiful.

Back to that rebellious spirit that chose to take this photo -- in my own defense, I will say that my camera does NOT use a flash, and does NOT beep when it shoots, focuses, opens or closes, so it was as unintrusive as I could possibly make it -- unlike the hundreds of cameras that were flashing as he walked into the ECW Triennial hall this morning to deliver a brief meditation on the importance of church women through the ages in delivering the best of what the church has to offer.

I had not encountered Rowan Williams before; my last experience was with Archbishop Carey, who preceded him. I will say without any reservation that I was very impressed: he spoke well and beautifully, without mincing words, about some very hard things, and I found him honest, inspiring, and very theologically grounded. He also had one of the most beautiful speaking voices I have ever heard, so all in all it was wonderful to be here and to have a chance to hear and meet him; one of those rare times when I found myself honestly proud to be a member of the Anglican Communion, and a reminder of why it is I continue to return to this troubled church of ours even when I sometimes want to throw up my hands in disgust at all the divisiveness.

Ah well, back into the fray. Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A gift to share

Well, here I am at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim, embarking on my new volunteer role in the Episcopal Church (more on that later).

Because I arrived so late last night, I stayed at this sort of sketchy hotel (there are signs everywhere saying "this is a smoking establishment; smoking has proven hazardous to your health" or something like that) but it was a wonderful opportunity to connect with my new "boss" -- and of course we've discovered we've much more in common than we might have initially assumed. Isn't that always the way?

The theme of this convention is Ubuntu -- which is also the theme of the exhibit I have been curating for ECVA in honor of Convention -- and it seems to me that this is exactly what it's about: that ANY time we take the time to get to know someone -- no matter how different they may initially appear to be -- we will learn we have things in common. We are, after all, all members of the human family, and much of what we do and say and think about and worry about is stuff we have in common with the other members of the human family. The more we act on that assumption, the closer we will be to achieving peace: not just inner peace, but international peace.

So I'm thinking that the stated challenge of that Ubuntu exhibit -- to create a work of art which both conveys a sense of our connectedness with the human family and serves as a call to act on behalf of that family -- could well be a reasonable lifelong challenge for artists everywhere in every nation and denomination. Because, in a way, that is a big piece of what art is about. The artist, in his or her art, is saying, "This is what the world looks like to me," and those who choose to look at or buy that work are in essence saying, "Wow. Something in what you are seeing resonates in me, too."

I like to say that that "something" which is conveyed by the artist and then resonates in the viewer is that "portal to the sacred," Eckhart Tolle talks about. So in essence art -- at its best -- would always be an invitation to a deeper understanding of our commonality, and the way the presence of the divine vibrates through that commonality. But then, maybe that's too philosophical... but that's what's on my mind this morning.

So why the empty pool? Well, it was the view next to the elevator at the sketchy hotel. And it seemed rather poignant: all that elaborate setup -- the curvy pool, the chairs, the palm trees -- and yet no one was there to enjoy it, just me photographing it. It made me think of meditation -- that Divine table that is set for us, the one we're so often too busy to take advantage of. So lovely, so thoughtful, designed with us in mind, offering rest, relaxation, rejuvenation... and yet we persist in doing something else. For me, going out with my camera has a lot of that same refreshing feeling, and yet it's often hard to find -- or make -- the time to do it. But if God moves through our art, shouldn't we be consciously making more time and space for that to happen?

So I invite you, today, to stop rushing; to sit by the reflection pool that is meditation and allow the creative spirit to flow through you and out onto a page, or into fabric or clay or paint or a camera -- whatever medium allows you to express yourself -- and share that invitation by sharing your art with someone. Is that too much to ask? I don't think so; I think it's both the greatest gift we are given and the greatest gift we get to share.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When extravagance isn't the answer

Last night, while cleaning out my daughters' fish tanks, I was listening to NPR, and they broadcast an extraordinary program which was just so illuminating that I found myself thinking it ought to be required listening for every graduating high school student. The program, created by Kate Ellis and Ellen Guettler, was called "A Better Life: Creating the American Dream," and you can listen to it or read a full transcript of it here.

The statement of the program's premise is this:

The American dream has roots in the nation's loftiest ideals - the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So when did it also come to mean a house, a car and a college education?

As they walked through this amazingly perceptive overview of the history of the American dream I was particularly struck, not just by President Gerald Ford's efforts to curb inflation and consumption (I definitely did NOT remember that), but by a quotation from President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" Speech, delivered thirty years ago this month on July 15, 1979. In the speech, which was intended to address the energy crisis (remember those long lines at the gas stations?) Carter said, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." How curious it is, I thought, that we've been struggling with this issue for so long.

And then, this morning, in Elizabeth Lesser's book, The Seeker's Guide, I read these words about Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and its astonishing promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"The great strengths of America can be traced to this revolutionary promise. But the weakened soul of the nation can also be traced to the promise. John Adams warned of the dangers of the promise when he wrote, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." The drafters of the Declaration of Independence were well aware of the risks they were taking when they signed off on such a radical promise. Thomas Jefferson took the greatest risk when he substituted the words "the pursuit of happiness" for the original word, "property," in the trinity of inalienable rights. and while he pointed out that "happiness is attainable only by diligent cultivation of civic virtue," he was unclear on how, or even if, that civic virtue could be legislated...the promise set in motion the ongoing dialogue between the old value system of Puritan restraint and civic duty and the new hankering for self-expression and individual advancement."

Lesser goes on to explain that "in retrospect we can see that our founding fathers opened a Pandora's box by molding a govenment around individual freedom and happiness. Even as the American Constitution was being crafted,debate raged around the possibility of its lofty ideals being distorted by self-serving individuals. The correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in their later years is full of concerns of what could happen in America if its citizens took advantage of the sacred promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"AT THE SAME TIME," she writes, "Americans were in the process of shifting their definition of happiness from the procurement of rights to the acquisition of things. Industry, mobility, and communication technology all contributed to the rise of consumerism as an American passion. To have more was to be happy."

So there we have it: the struggles we face today, the challenges we have as a country in learning to balance a commitment to the common good with our individual striving and needs -- the urge to acquire and consume -- are a natural outgrowth of the founding premise of our country. Does that excuse or justify our extraordinary materialism and acquisitiveness; our ridiculous and ever-more extravagant "needs"? And, more importantly, does this emphasis on individuality necessarily preclude spirituality?

I think we can all agree that allowing the materialism to flourish unchecked by spirituality is a serious problem. But isn't it also true that those founding principles are giving birth to a uniquely American spirituality? Lesser goes on to address that very thing:

"We are witnessing the birth of a wisdom tradition that is uniquely American. Within traditional organized religions, as well as in the hybrid creations of our times, the stamp of American thinking is plain. We see the American spirit in the proliferation of nonaffiliated Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic churches, and also in the profound changes within sanctioned denominations. This spirit values independence from religious hierarchy. It crosses religious and social boundaries, telling the tale of a diverse people, gathered in close proximity, and absorbing each other's ways of worshiping, ritualizing, and mythologizing the great mysteries of life... It respects both a mistrust of heavy-handed authority and the willing surrender to a higher power."

What intrigues me about all of this is that I hear echoes of something I learned in a workshop a few years back and which continues to crop up in my readings and thought: our greatest weaknesses always have the potential to become our greatest strengths -- in fact a quotation to that effect surfaced in a conversation with a neighbor just the other day. It’s from Brother Tolbert McCarroll’s Notes from the Song of Life, and I've put it in this blog before:

“You are like a blade of a knife. When you were born your edge was sharp. But it did not stay sharp. With use it will dull and need to be resharpened. So at birth you were also given a whetstone. Your natural weakness is your whetstone. Through it you sharpen your edge. Without it you would remain dull."

What if that tricky phrase, the pursuit of happiness, were our own corporate whetstone as a nation? And if that's true, wouldn't it be wise to begin to question what exactly makes us happy? Now, at a time when so many people are realizing that things -- addictions, whether to stuff, or drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or other things we can over-accumulate or overuse -- actually DON'T make us happy, isn't it possible that we could, as a nation, begin to work toward realizing that the happiness of others feeds our souls; that connection with the divine feeds our souls; that a sense of purpose feeds our souls; that it is THOSE things which will ultimately make us truly happy?

Well, heck; a girl can dream, can't she?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Flitting about...

We are just back from a whirlwind trip to the San Juan Islands to visit briefly with one of our daughters on her day off; this lovely dragonfly was on the roof of our favorite pottery/garden shop on Orcas, Crow Valley Pottery.

I will be flitting here, there, and everywhere over the next week or two, so this is a warning that the blog will be intermittent for a bit as I bounce from flower to flower sipping the nectars of experience this summer. (How's that for tying an image to a post?!) I do plan to take my computer with me, but I am learning that without time for reflection the posts have less of a meditative quality, so I will endeavor NOT to just indulge my urge to write but rather to share when I feel moved -- and centered -- enough to do so.

I hope you are having a lovely summer, and I look forward to sharing more thoughts and images with you as I go flitting about...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A breath of hope

The Fourth of July is a big deal on the little street where I live. We start the day with an all-Sandspit Pancake Breakfast (This year all the proceeds -- and we raised more than $1500! -- go to the American Cancer Society Relay for Life).

And then, at 1:00, we hold the annual Sandspit Fourth of July Parade, which begins at our end of the Spit with a 21 gun salute fired across the lagoon by our neighbor's cannon, and ends with all of us seated on a hillside at the park (at the other end of the street) singing patriotic songs.

I know. It's pretty funky -- and too corny and precious for words. But I love our little bit of Americana, and love that all of us -- even the ones who squabble -- can gather in harmony, if only for a day. It gives me hope.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Down among the wines and spirits

This morning, for the first time in two months, I was treated to a lovely long uninterrupted meditation period; it was pure heaven to sink into the quiet depths of being. As I was coming out I thought of several images that might represent the blissful peace of that time, but then another tune from that new Elvis Costello bluegrass album popped into my head: "Down among the wines and spirits."

It's a song about a man who has broken up with the woman in his life and is drowning his sorrows in liquor, so at first I didn't think anything of it. But then I realized that, in a way, meditation is like paying a visit to your personal wine cellar. So I decided to explore the ramifications of that thought: what would it tell me about this process? How is meditation like a visit to a wine cellar?

Well, it does begin with a decision: you need a taste of spirit, so you make a choice to go down to a place where you have found spirits in the past. And it does feel like you're going to a cool dark place deep within. You don't seem to live there, or even go there very often, so things are pretty dusty, with a few cobwebs to be brushed away.

What you find there is rich and deep and dark and clear and intoxicating. But you don't usually get the full benefit of it while you're down there; you bring it up with you into the light. It's meant to be shared with friends, to be swirled around a bit, sniffed and savored. Drinking it in can make you giddy and silly; even a bit childish -- and we all know it can be addictive. And if you sip at it carefully, the buzz you get can last quite a while!

I'm not much of a wine drinker, I have to confess -- red wine gives me headaches, and I can only drink about half a glass of white wine before I get really sleepy. And I don't have a wine cellar; I photographed this one in a castle in Verrazzano, Italy. But my visit to my own personal inner wine cellar this morning was... well, just delicious. And, like Elvis Costello, I guess I could say --

Suddenly he's calling out more, more, more
Speaks of invisible things he hardly credits
I'm twice the foolish man I was before
Down among the wines and spirits....

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sex, Politics, and Religion

My mother died back in January 1997, just six months after my daughters and I had moved to Shaw Island. My relationship with my mother had been pretty awkward for many years, so processing her death was difficult and I found myself spending many hours walking the beaches trying to sift through the storm of emotions.

It was around that time that I picked up a copy of Julia Cameron's classic, The Artist's Way, and was advised to take myself on an Art Date. Shaw is a very small island, only about 6 miles long with about 150 year round residents, a school, a library, a museum and a general store. Where was I supposed to find an Art Date?

Eventually I decided to buy myself a camera -- a little point and shoot -- and my art dates became a daily process of wandering around the island, taking pictures of whatever caught my eye. During that period I became fascinated by the patterns I found in driftwood and stone, and eventually I accumulated over a thousand photographs like the ones displayed here: closeup shots of the universal themes that emerged on close examination of natural formations.

It was when I took them in to be developed that the print shop guys (I had to go to Anacortes to get prints in those days, an hour and a half ferry ride from Shaw) began suggesting I show my work in galleries. Eventually I took a selection of driftwood and stone pictures to a gallery in Friday Harbor (one of the other islands in the San Juans) and they accepted them enthusiastically, thus initiating my career as a professional photographer.

But ultimately, of course, these pictures just opened the door into the gallery: these sorts of photographs rarely sold. It was always the more identifiable shots -- a beach with mountains in the distance, a sailboat silhouetted against a setting sun, light streaming onto a bench in the woods -- that people wanted to buy. And though I now, again, live only a short walk from a beach littered with driftwood, I confess I haven't photographed a piece of driftwood in years.

So I was taken completely by surprise a couple of years ago when I learned that the famous monk, Thomas Merton, had also spent a lot of time photographing stone and wood patterns like these -- you can find some of them online here. Eventually I managed to find two books of his photography, and though I can't say I loved all the work, I was certainly struck by the resemblance to some of my own pieces. So I guess that even though I wasn't meditating back in those days, there was a meditative quality to the work I was doing.

Now that the Unexpected Dog show is down (I brought home the unsold pieces yesterday) it's time for me to begin imagining what I might print up for the November Women Behind the Lens show at my gallery. It's a wonderful opportunity to explore the creative edges of my work, so I'm already beginning to test out new possibilities, ways of mixing art and language and photography. But part of me wonders if it might not also be time to resurrect some of those old driftwood photographs... oh, but wait: I'm not supposed to show anything having to do with sex, politics, or religion. Does that mean that these three would be unacceptable?