Monday, August 31, 2009

What are you hungry for?

Because I had packed up Anam Cara I just opened Elizabeth Lesser's The Seeker's Guide to a random place and started reading this morning.

Initially the section was talking about preparing for death, which seemed vaguely relevant because I'd been aware of some mild chest pains, probably left over from my bout with food poisoning.

But as she continued to explore the subject, she was talking about heart awareness, about learning to forgive your own humanness, and to distinguish your own voice from the parental and societal voices that so often seem to dictate what we ought to be thinking and feeling.

I haven't time to go look for the exact quote, but at one point she asked, "What are you truly hungry for," describing those moments when you stare at the refrigerator an hour after dinner thinking you want a snack, or when you sit down in front of the television for some mind-numbing sitcom or reality show.

I thought of this picture, somehow, with its delicious menu, the deer head, and all those portraits. It's as if you get all those voices telling you what you should or should not do every time you ask that question "What am I hungry for?" And at the same time you get the carnivore's guilt as suggested by that deer: I did this bad thing, therefore I should not allow myself the pleasure I really want; let's stuff that longing down and assuage the hunger with something else...

I've gotta run, but I invite you: the next time you reach in the refrigerator for a bowl of ice cream, stop and ask yourself, "What am I really hungry for?" The answer may surprise you...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Body and Soul

Even as I was writing yesterday's blog I was thinking there was a lot of disproportionate whining going on. Yes, there were some challenges, but not really anything out of the ordinary. So why was I so stressed?

Turns out I was sick -- food poisoning, I think; a mild case, and much better this morning. The good news is... well, you remember that line from The Devil Wears Prada -- "I'm one stomach flu away from my goal weight"? Yup, it works: the last few pounds I was trying to lose just FLEW off last night!

But the best thing was that when I woke up this morning (and, yes, I slept in and missed church) I could see absolutely nothing from the bathroom window: we are totally fogged in. And every cell in my body began to dance: I had forgotten that there are good things about the change of the seasons, that I love fog (and love photographing in fog).

And with those thoughts came acceptance, I think, of all the transitions that have been worrying me this week. The tension in my shoulders was gone, my stomach felt SO much better, and I just felt back in the arms of the divine again; calmness was stealing over me.

But today's soul friend has a sort of mildly irritating combination of serenity and challenge to her, as if she is saying, yes, she knows how to do mellow, but we don't get to coast here: it's time to "man up," to get to working on the business of life -- whatever that may be.

And given what awaits me today I'm very relieved to have discovered that yesterday's disproportionate discomfort was body-related, not soul-related; sometimes those things can get confusing (they are, of course, inhabiting the same being, so it's not surprising that they interact and affect one another). Although maybe what happened was my body got impatient with all the toxins my soul was dragging in and just decided to expel them?

At any rate, it's a new day. A new set of challenges will face us, and we will not be facing them alone. So bring it on!

Saturday, August 29, 2009


My daughter and I love to shop at Value Village, a northwest variant on Goodwill, and one time when we went there was a box full of styrofoam heads, so we bought some, not knowing what we might do with them.

Today I decided to tackle one in an attempt to create a 3-Dimensional soul friend. She's not done yet; hair and hat were just thrown on when the rest of her finally dried; I suspect there will be other add-ons at some point but for now she's just a head, and I didn't want her to be bald.

But she looks sort of tired, which is exactly how I feel: I awakened too early and it's been a very full day. I got word I'm supposed to mount an exhibit at a friend's bakery for September and I'm off to Vermont in two days so I had to run around rounding up framed images for the exhibit and arranging to have it hung in my absence, plus I'm packing, but I had already started this lady so I had to finish her so the dining room table would be clear when my daughter comes home tomorrow. Whew! Did you hear me rushing through that sentence?

I took the dog in to be groomed this morning and I think he got soap in his eyes; he's been squinting and rubbing them all afternoon, so I'm worried about him. There's a prescription my daughter needs that we ordered from Medco 2 weeks ago, but it hasn't shown up yet, and my other daughter is completing some very important tests this weekend for college. So it should come as no surprise that my shoulders are really tense, which is sapping my energy.


Too much to do, too little time... Sorry to be so cranky!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The love at the edge of your soul

I love to listen to music when I'm driving: I put together compilations from time to time and find I will listen to a single compilation over and over for months on end. My guess is that it's usually symbolic in some way of whatever state I'm currently in, but I also suspect the music influences me in return.

Lately I've been listening to some rather achingly romantic pieces: The Prayer, by Andrea Bocelli; Someone Like You by Van Morrison; Bring Him Home from Les Mis; Michael McDonald's I Can Let Go Now; Beyonce singing At Last... The kind of music that makes your heart sing (unless it makes you want to throw up -- there have certainly been times in my life when songs like these have affected me that way!).

But it's clear something in me was experiencing a deep longing, and it took me a while to recognize that. Clearly my internal balance has been off -- though now it's finally beginning to shift back again -- so this morning I really appreciated these words from John O'Donohue's Anam Cara:

"Sometimes it is easy to be generous outward, to give and give and give and yet remain ungenerous to yourself. You lose the balance of your soul if you do not learn to take care of yourself. You need to be generous to yourself in order to receive the love that surrounds you.

You can suffer from a desperate hunger to be loved. You can search long years in lonely places, far outside yourself. Yet the whole time, this love is but a few inches away from you. It is at the edge of your soul, but you have been blind to its presence."

As you can see, today's soul friend -- influenced, no doubt, by these words -- has a distinctly benevolent quality, a depth and richness and stability that I find very reassuring.

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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Soul friends

I've been between books for a few days now (still recovering from Thomas Merton) and this morning I stood in the kitchen and realized I REALLY REALLY wanted something to read, to feed my soul.

I keep a collection of possibilities at the end of the telephone counter -- just for occasions like this -- and upon looking through it I discovered (or re-discovered) John O'Donohue's Anam Cara. It seemed a perfect match for my mood, so I picked it up and right off the bat found a PERFECT artist quote.

Since it had something to do with the dawn, and the colors over the lagoon were particularly beautiful this morning, I went out and took a few shots of the sunrise and put one of them on ECVA's Image and Spirit blog, pairing it with the O'Donohue quote (you can see the finished results here).

Which meant my brain was full of color when I sat down to meditate. And even though the meditation was interrupted by a text message, I was left with a sense of mission: for some reason, I just had to paint a soul friend (that's what Anam Cara means: soul friend).

So I set my buddha candle down on the dining room table, got out a pad of watercolor paper and some black paint, and drew the first of what I hope will be a whole roundtable of soul friends. It was fun -- she surprised me by looking a lot like my niece. I added some photographic touches -- and voila! I'm looking forward to seeing who shows up next. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Conflicting signals

My husband and I have discovered a new guilty pleasure from Netflix: it's a British comedy called Coupling, about 6 people in their early 30's, dealing with the challenges of dating and aging. Sounds trite, I'm sure, but it really makes us laugh, we got a HUGE kick out of watching it with our daughter, and it's triggered some interesting discussions about what our lives were like before we met (in our early 30's).

It seems to me that one of the most common problems these folks face -- and probably most everyone in relationship faces -- is conflicting signals. I don't know about you, but I tend to assume the confusion stems from the fact that the other person doesn't know what they want, but this image cropped up this morning to remind me that it's not always the fault of the person giving off the signals.

Sometimes we have trouble reading people because something -- previous experience, or expectations, or just a simple trick of the light -- is obscuring our vision, so we just can't discern what they're trying to tell us. All the possibilities are there, and sometimes we just can't quite tell which is the one that's specifically being communicated.

Which is probably a good thing for me to remember when I find myself grousing about someone not being very clear about what they want or need from me. It might not always be them; it may be that I've got something clouding my own perceptions...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ready to roll...

Though I'm not a regular commuter, I've been spending a fair amount of time on ferries lately. I've usually got my camera with me, and it seems to be craving simplicity and super-saturated colors lately, so I just sort of follow it around and allow it to collect what it needs.

I know; that sounds a little goofy, as if my camera has a mind of its own completely apart from me, rather like the characters that take on a life of their own when an author writes a book. It's not strictly true, of course -- the camera and the characters are always expressing something of the author or photographer's own nature -- but it does sometimes seem that by separating ourselves slightly from the creative process we enhance the energy flow.

For some reason I have this image of a hose with a few kinks in it -- the nozzle needs to be farther from the source so the hose can be straightened out and opened up. Hmm -- there are a lot of places I could take that image, but I suspect that's a topic for another post. Right now I want to think about these ferry blocks, which were calling to me this morning. And I think what that's about is that they were created on purpose -- with these handy tabs to make them easy to move -- to keep cars from rolling off the ferry when it's on the move.

But we don't actually spend our lives on the ferry. The ferry is just a means of transport from one shore to another, which means that when you reach your destination the block needs to be removed from under your wheels in order to disembark. I'm trying to explore what significance that might have for those rocky transition periods in our lives, when we are not doing the driving; when someone else is piloting the boat and we're expected to turn off our own engines and wait.

I do know that there have been times -- when we're getting really close to shore, and it's time to get back in the car and prepare to drive again -- when I've been driving an old car with a weak battery and I've been concerned I wouldn't be able to start it up again. But that's not so much of a problem these days; now it's more that I'm itching to get where I'm going -- wherever that may be -- and I return to the car and wait impatiently for the ferry personnel to remove the block so I can move forward.

So maybe that's where I am now: I'm in some sort of transition, and I've had to give up driving privileges for a bit; someone else has been in control for a while now. And there are blocks that have been keeping me on the transition boat, but I'm kinda thinking this ride has gone on long enough now; I'm ready to disembark. But the fact is, we're not quite ready to land yet, the blocks are still there, and it's for my own safety; I just have to trust they'll be removed when it's my turn to be in control again.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Floating on the river of time

Last night we were awakened just before midnight by a loud grinding and roaring noise outside our window. ("And from the lagoon, there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter!")

Peering out the window into the starlit but moonless night, I could see that someone -- I hesitate to use the phrase "some drunken idiot", but it does lurk below the surface of my brain -- had attempted to enter the lagoon as the tide was going out -- in the dark, with no lights -- and, when the inevitable happened he (and it was definitely a he, I could hear the voices; I believe he may have been accompanied by a she) assumed that by gunning the motor loudly (digging it deeper into the sand) he could somehow extricate himself from his plight.

After listening to several rounds of motor gunning I finally gave up and called 911, but they never sent anyone and eventually the tide subsided enough so that even in the dark I could see the light sand being exposed around the boat and hear their footsteps as they climbed reluctantly out and trudged home.

Sadly, it took me until 4 am to get back to sleep, and by all rights this morning I should be out of sorts. I am aware, however, that I have the opportunity to choose how I respond to my lack of sleep, and, seeing the boat this morning, anchored and drifting quietly in the lagoon as if the tension and noise of last night had never happened, I choose to follow its example and let the frustrations and challenges of the night before be released, to float gently on the surface of today.

So it was amusing this morning, flipping through Elizabeth Lesser's The Seeker's Guide, which is the next book my spirituality group will read together, to find this passage:

"The secret in life is enjoying the passage of time: Instead of clutching on to the past or fearing the future, experiment with letting go into the mystery of life. Float on the river of time, curious about its direction, open to its changing nature. You don't really know where it's going, so why not relax and experience the ride!"

It's a new day, and I have a big exhibit to pull together for hanging tomorrow, a house to tidy up, and an appointment with my spiritual director. I think I'll just relax into it, do what I can, rest when I can, and keep floating.

And now I see that the boat's owner -- whom I do not recognize -- has kayaked over to the boat to usher it home. All's well that ends well!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Disobedience? Or does everything belong?

I grew up thinking monkeys were mischievous (or as some might say, "mis-CHEEV-ious") creatures whose antics -- as in the classic children's book, Caps for Sale -- would show us up; make us look a bit foolish and pretentious.

I can still see our librarian, Mrs. Eckels, reading that book aloud, shaking her finger at the children as if she were the hat salesman shaking his finger at the monkeys, and saying fiercely, "You monkeys you, you give me back my caps!"

And there are the classic three monkeys in the "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" pose, mocking the futility of those resolutions. There is this sense of "your rules are stupid, and not for me" about monkeys, but we don't seem to hold them responsible for that: we just shake our heads and smile, in the sort of "boys will be boys" way that says we know what they're doing is wrong but somehow admire their resistance -- their deliberate disobedience -- at the same time.

So what does that mean when a meditator starts encountering "monkey mind;" that oh-so-familiar phenomenon when you've just settled into your meditation space and all these random thoughts come leaping to the foreground, getting in the way of your determined efforts to achieve a few moments of serenity?

I was thinking of this today, and remembering a moment a couple of weeks ago when I was coming off the beach, having walked the dog, and suddenly found myself wondering what on earth I was supposed to be mindful of. I suspect, at the time, I had conveniently forgotten that mindfulness needs to be of internal as well as external states -- I can never seem to keep all the pieces of this life in my head at the same time! And of course that's a big piece of meditation: to be mindful of all the monkeys that begin cavorting on the stage when we settle into that quiet space.

The trick, I think, is to just notice the monkeys; to appreciate them without engaging with them so they'll eventually get bored and scamper off the stage. Because they ARE mischievous, and they delight in pulling us off track; it's all a game for them. If you ignore them, or get angry with them, they'll just get more rambunctious, but if you accept and acknowledge their presence and then return your attention to the emptiness at center stage you should all be able to co-exist fairly comfortably with them.

I think this image called out to me this morning because I was wandering through FailBlog yesterday -- an amusing way to pass the time -- and this incidence of deliberate disobedience reminded me of that. But of course it's possible that this is the owner's boat, and the rule applies only to outsiders who might tie up there in his or her absence. And the truth is, those monkeys -- however much we may be shaking our fingers at them -- are OUR monkeys, they're not someone else's monkeys. That stage was created for them as well as for us; they may even belong there, however much we may be determined to deny them access.

They may also have something important to teach us about how we are -- or how we ought to be -- in the world, which, of course, is why they are so aggravating: they have a way of deflating pretense and mocking all our efforts to appear calm, centered and serene. So the next time you sit and all the monkeys come out dancing, try not to condemn yourself -- or them -- for the ways in which they diverge from your current list of shoulds. Instead, take a minute to acknowledge them. Agree that the stage belongs to them as well, that they have their own roles to play, and then gently explain that the time has come for intermission, invite them to return to the wings and firmly close the curtain. They'll have plenty of other opportunities to perform!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

We're all in this together

I remember showing my very first batch of photographic meditations to a friend at one of Cynthia Bourgeault's retreats. The reflections were lectionary-based; responses to a year's worth of lectionary readings, one for each week.

I offered them to her, and tried to explain the way they had poured out of me onto the page, as if Someone Else was writing them. And what I remember most is that the woman looked them over in a sort of cursory way, and then looked at me and said, "I'm pretty uncomfortable with you saying they were written by God." And the fact is, I'm still uncomfortable with that. Because what happens on this blog is still not written by God; it's just written by me.

Each morning I sit, I find a picture, words pour out, and I never quite know whether it's me with an axe to grind, or if I'm just trying to be clever, or playing some sort of game (hard not to wonder, when it's so much fun!) or whether something someone needs to hear is being said through me and I should just let it flow. Because however wise what happens on this page may sometimes seem, the fact remains that I am still a relatively unenlightened, imperfect person: not especially fearless, or compassionate; rarely fully present, and only occasionally serene.

So it can feel pretty awkward when the blog gets this kind of preachy quality: after all, who am I to tell you what to do and how to live? And isn't it always true that the folks who most like to tell you what they know are the ones who know the least? (As that old proverb says, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.")

For me to go on and on, day after day, about the challenges of living the spiritual life, is not unlike this picture: It's as if I'm hitting you over the head with a giant fist, shouting "I'm open, I'm open, I'm really open -- and you should be, too!" There's always a chance it's NOT any kind of divine intuition that drives the words on the page; it could just be my ego, mouthing off again.

In light of all that, I'd like to thank you again for walking with me on this journey, for sticking around, for forgiving me when I go off the deep end and for being patient with me when I get over-chatty. And I promise to do my best to remember that it's not really my job to come up with answers, but rather just to raise the questions, to look at the stuff of life and say, "What if?"

It's not my job to pontificate, and I don't need to be wise. I just need to listen, to pay attention; to stay open and not get carried away. Ultimately the blog isn't about whatever wisdom I have to offer. It's more about what Red Green says on his goofy DVD, We can't help it, we're men! -- "Remember; I'm pullin' for ya. We're all in this together."

Friday, August 21, 2009

A message of hope

This morning I finished Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing (edited by Robert Inchausti). It's been an interesting journey, but I have to say I'm grateful to Mr. Inchausti for ending the book with this message of hope, written by Merton in 1967, a year before he died.

"The message of hope the contemplative offers you... is that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing ever found in books or heard in sermons.

"The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words...the intimate union, in the depths of your own heart, of God's spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit."

Now there's a message of hope to fuel a soul lost in the desert...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When the illusion becomes a cage

My dear friend and neighbor Joanna gave me Offerings, a photographic collection of Buddhist wisdom sayings, for my birthday; I keep the book open next to my Buddha candle and visit with it briefly every morning.

Today's saying was something about living "in a cage of our own making," which seemed to follow nicely after yesterday's post about how our perceptions color our impressions and experience of the world we live in.

There are times, for me at least, when things seem to get badly out of focus; somewhat like this image. It takes a while to understand that something is wrong -- I keep bumping up against things, and eventually realize that I'm just not seeing all that clearly.

But once I realize that something is off, it takes quite a bit longer to make the necessary shift back into reality. And part of the problem is that I keep staring at the same old thing, sort of squinting at it, trying to see it in a new way to make it work. But what is often going on is that my focus has shifted from what is real and true and now -- the actual trees and sky captured in this image -- to the reflected surface of that reality.

In the case of this photo, that's the hood of a car; in my own life I think it has to do with ego, and the way ego tends to reflect the needs and demands of our society and our surroundings. I could stare at this reflected image for hours and it would never get any clearer because the reflecting surface is itself flawed. And I could spend hours mulling over my ego's perceptions of the world -- and get pretty grumbly in the process! -- and never really get any closer to extricating myself from this uncomfortable and unfocused space, because those egoic perceptions are inherently flawed, entangled as they are in history and shoulds and unfulfilled longings and expectations; cluttered as they are with shadows and fears and black holes and blind spots.

The trick -- when we get stuck in this reflected life and finally begin to see that an about face is in order, that we need to close our eyes, turn around, and open them again to see the true path before us -- is to stay light on your feet. There is -- for me, anyway -- this frustration that emerges when I finally begin to see what's up, and at that point I'm tempted to break out the sledge hammer, to attack myself and that reflective surface, indulging in a destructive bout of guilt and recriminations for having fallen into the egoic trap yet again.

But look at this image, this reflected image. It's not that it's bad: it actually has a lot of charm and appeal. It only causes problems when we think of it as reality and expect it to be accurate. We need to understand and accept -- in true Buddhist fashion -- that this unique way we experience life, reflected as it so often is in our own surface perceptions -- is an illusion. Once we understand that, we can learn to dance lightly through it and over it; we can step back from it and see it for what it is without getting caught up in our need for it to be true or our need to justify our own particular perceptions.

Having understood that it is an illusion, that there is a deeper I behind the me, we can also learn to appreciate the value of our own unique perceptions; to smile at them with compassion, the way a fond parent smiles at a child's illusions. Because this out-of-focus place that so often lures us off-course isn't bad in itself -- those departures from reality have an enchantment all their own, and the mid-course corrections they necessitate have a lot to teach us. We just need to work to keep it all in perspective, and not let the illusion turn into a cage.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What lies beneath?

This morning I was reading some letters Thomas Merton had written to one of his Superiors, who was apparently not appreciative of his work.

He is, in those letters, by turns submissive and defensive, occasionally bitter and sarcastic, and even as he is conducting the dialog he is continuing to write. At one point, in what appears to be a fit of pique, he writes a piece called "A Signed Confession of Crimes against the State" in which he says:

"I confess that I am sitting under a pine tree doing absolutely nothing. I have done nothing for one hour and firmly intend to continue to do nothing for an indefinite period. I have taken my shoes off. I confess that I have been listening to a mockingbird. Yes, I admit that it is a mockingbird. I hear him singing in those cedars, and I am very sorry. It is probably my fault. He is singing again. This kind of thing goes on all the time. Wherever I am, I find myself the center of reactionary plots like this one.

...The sun? Yes, it is shining.. I see it shine. I am in full agreement with the sunshine. I confess that I have been in sympathy all along with the sun shining, and have not paused for two seconds to consider that it shines on account of the state. I am shattered by the realization that I have never attributed the sunshine to its true cause, namely the state. Clearly I am not worthy to exist another minute."

There is something rather childish and petulant about this statement, and at the same time several points are being made. Clearly some things -- like the sun and the birds -- are beyond the control of institutions. And, equally clearly, if you are looking -- like McCarthy, during his era -- for subversive acts, almost anything, however innocent, will appear to be a subversive act. And, sadly, when you are under constant criticism simply for existing, even the simplest pleasures will have a bitter taste to them.

So much of what we experience is about perception; about the mood we're in at the time, about what is happening elsewhere in our lives, about what we have eaten or drunk -- how can we ever accurately comprehend truth when it is so colored by what we carry with us into the picture?

...Which is one reason I have begun to love playing with these really simple, often almost monochromatic images, looking for the colors and perceptions that lie beneath the grays and beiges. This one -- of the edge of a metal building reflected in a window in East Portland -- is unaltered except for its color. And I didn't add color, paint in any new colors, I just bumped up the saturation to reveal the colors that lay beneath the gray and beige; colors I could sense were there, but which were not immediately obvious to the naked eye.

I'd like to believe that spirit and joy and love are like color: always present, if not detectable; lying always just beneath the surface of even the simplest, most ordinary experiences. But I also know that sometimes what looks like spirit may actually be very gray and empty underneath; that sometimes institutions and practices which promise or advertise spirit and joy and love at the surface level may simply mask an underlying and enervating grayness. It is the role of the artist and contemplative to keep drilling down to the underlying truth; whichever it may be.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Plus ca change...

Yesterday some friends were showing us the new playroom they had built over their garage. They had spent two months in Bhutan, and had brought back a prayer wheel, which they had mounted by the back door of the garage and habitually spun whenever they left or entered the building.

I thought of that prayer wheel this morning, as I was reading Thomas Merton's observations about his own writing. "Keeping a journal," he says, "has taught me that there is not so much new in the interior life as one sometimes thinks.

"When you reread your journal," he goes on, "you find out that your newest discovery is something you found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences."

I'd like to think that's true; that though, like the prayer wheel, we keep spinning through the same sequences, we are bringing something newer and deeper with each visit. But it seems equally possible that when we keep revisiting the same thoughts and experiences we might wonder if they are authentically our own inspirations, or whether they might be, like this somewhat fake-looking replica of Stonehenge that overlooks the Columbia River, a rather weak and outdated pattern, an inferior mimicry of someone else's views that we've somehow set in stone for ourselves.

I suppose it's a bit like the popular conception of Karma -- sort of like the woman who repeatedly dates the same kind of guy, with the same predictable results; constantly replicating a bad experience without ever making any observable forward progress. Are we, indeed, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, doomed to repeat endlessly the same unfortunate sequence of thoughts or events? And if so, what would break the cycle -- or is it, in fact, meant to be broken? What if it is our job to keep walking the same path, as an example to inspire some other observer to make different choices or to draw different conclusions?

Though this Stonehenge is a copy, that does not apparently preclude its viability as a tourist site; it still offers a delightful opportunity to stop and appreciate the glorious vistas that lie beyond its precast columns. There is a certain thoughtfulness and originality evident in having made the choice to erect this particular edifice in this particular spot.

We Americans seem to be obsessed with originality, with claims to be new and different. From our writing and art to our cereal and automobiles, we are desperate to be coming up with the latest and greatest in our quest to win friends, influence enemies, and make pots of money by creating or capitalizing on the latest fads. The obsession with more and better and newer affects a disproportionately large number of life choices, from clothing to preschools to jobs to colleges to food fads and mate choices; it's no wonder we could create a musical with the title, Stop the World I Want to Get Off.

Yes, we don't want to get stuck in old thought patterns or old life patterns -- especially if they are not an accurate depiction of what we honestly think, feel, or believe. But it seems to me there is a wisdom in choosing to re-visit, to re-evaluate, to contemplate, to deepen our understanding of the choices we make; of how we live and what we learn from that. Just because it may seem that we are endlessly pushing the same rock up the same hill, that is not necessarily a reason to give up. Merton's take on Camus is that "because life is absurd that is all the more reason for living, and for refusing to surrender to its absurdity."

Merton sees The Myth of Sisyphus as "a first step toward a kind of modest hope...a valid affirmation of freedom: the only freedom man has, the freedom to keep going even though a certain logic might seem to prove that resistance is useless." On the contrary, says Merton, the meaning of life is to be FOUND in resistance; in constantly evaluating and determining to speak whatever truth you find. "When you realize that you may be shot for your editorial," said Camus, "you weigh what you say. You make sure you mean it."

Yes, we may be continuing to recycle through the same thoughts and behaviors. But as long as we are conscious about those thoughts and behaviors; as long as we are aware and present and operating out of a thoughtful space where the choices continue to be choices rather than just autonomic reactions to familiar situations, there can be a depth and beauty to the inevitable cycling/recycling that goes on.

So it's good, actually, to revisit old decisions, to re-examine history, our own and our society's, and to realize that we may have been on this road before. Perhaps the perspective -- and humility -- we gain from realizing that, as the French say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," will allow us to become more deeply human and more fully divine in our understanding of the human condition.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Desert encounter

This morning I am still reading Merton's writings about other writers; I am finding it rather dense and slow-going, I confess. But he said something about the poet, Edwin Muir, that struck me:

"As a poet, Muir felt himself compelled to 'divine and persuade' -- to divine in the sense of a water diviner finding hidden springs; to persuade, not by demonstration, but by sharing the water with others."

I loved being reminded of the fact that "divine" is also a verb, and love thinking that the work we do as writers, contemplatives, and artists is to unearth that which is divine, which lies beneath the surface, and then to share what we uncover.

I loved, also, our drive through the desert yesterday; the stark magnificence of the bare mountains against the blue sky. And I find it amazing, on so many levels, that such land exists; that the people who founded the communities in which I lived got here by walking over these endless dry slopes. What horrors must have driven them away from the communities in which they had been living? And what hope must have helped them keep going; surely the lack of trees and water for days on end must have been hideously discouraging.

And, as I said yesterday, how extraordinary it is, that I, who live on a beach near a rain forest, can drive a mere two hours and find myself in such a completely different landscape! But what, I wonder, is the divine purpose that lies behind the creation of such apparently uninhabitable and inhospitable land? Is it just the contrast of it, that serves, like shadows and light, to accentuate the extraordinary lush richness of my own climate?

And yet there are people who choose to live there, who revel in the hot dry climate and perhaps even find the air where I live too rich to breathe. One of Merton's letters is to James Baldwin, and he says, after admitting that as a white man he will never fully understand what it means to be black, that "there is not one of us, individually, racially, socially, who is fully complete in the sense of having in himself all the excellence of all humanity.

"This excellence, this totality, is built up out of the contributions of the particular parts of it that we all can share with one another. I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack."

Perhaps it is also true that our country, our world, our universe, our complete and total divinity, will never be fully grasped until we understand that what is different from us --what we lack, or cannot understand, or cannot tolerate -- is in fact a vital part of who we are in toto. Until we can experience, accept, and even welcome all those other ways of thinking, living, and being; until those who dwell in the rain forest can see the value in the desert; we will never be fully human, which is to say, fully divine.

And how can we begin to know until we engage with that which is other; until we choose to step outside our own narrow worlds? According to Merton, Camus saw this clearly, and understood that though we who are artists, writers, and contemplatives are tempted always to solitude and silence, "he always felt that this attraction was a mere temptation to be resisted. He needed to be present among men, for his own sake as well as for theirs... In his notebooks he writes, 'Peace would be loving in silence. But there is conscience and the person: you have to speak."

It is not enough for me to sit in my own little corner of the world and pontificate about whatever occurs to me: it is imperative that I balance my alone time with ventures out into community; that I balance the solitude and sameness of my life with human interaction and with the different and the unfamiliar. I must also learn to balance silence with speech, working, like Merton and Camus, "to find those few words by which to appease the infinite anguish of free souls;" using art and language to convey a welcoming awareness of other that can help fill the emptiness that results from our disconnection with our complete humanity.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A blessing in the contrasts

We're going off for a drive today, crossing the mountains and heading into desert territory for a bit. The photos my husband brought back from his recent excursion into the wild west have whetted my appetite for starker vistas, and, living in Washington State, we are fortunate that we can live in a rain forest or on a beach and still have access to desert and mountains in only an hour or two.

The artist in me has been craving simplicity lately -- I suspect that's why I've been pursuing these more mechanical images -- ferry interiors and such. But I've also been drinking in a lot of color; hypersaturating images to bring out the shades that lie beneath what appears to be a simple gray.

Today, however, it was this photo -- shot at a car show last summer -- that called out most loudly to be seen. And I suspect it is symbolic of a sort of stripping-down that is occurring (or needs to occur) as we continue navigating this next section of our lives. Perhaps I needed to be reminded that simplicity is a good thing; that at times I even crave it. Or maybe it's just -- given that we are edging into that annual transition time that occurs every fall, when our daughters pass through our lives again on their way back to college -- that I'm creating a quiet moment of peace in preparation for the inevitable storms ahead.

Whatever the reason, I find this one to be a soothing reminder that there is an underlying structure to life; that its patterns are time-tested and familiar; and that beauty can still be found, even when there is no color, as long as there is a healthy balance of light and shadow, ups and downs; bumpy roads and smooth. There is a blessing contained in all those contrasts, just as there are blessings in living in a state with so many different eco-systems. If you get a little bored with familiar vistas it's easy --sometimes scarily so! -- to slip over into a completely different territory. And it's all good.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

An encounter with existential angst

When I first picked up Thomas Merton -- I am reading Echoing Silence, a collection of his thoughts on the subject of writing -- I felt I had found a kindred spirit; someone who, like me, was a writer, and a contemplative, and an artist; who thought and felt as I did, who could articulate the struggles and the joys and the frustrations that challenge anyone who attempts to straddle all those disciplines.

But this morning I have been reading a series of Merton's letters and observations to and about Boris Pasternak, on the subject of Doctor Zhivago, and I found this huge sense of resentment and resistance arising in me. So I sat with that a bit, and was forced to face into the fact that there is a deep unresolved tension in me between my inner romantic and my inner cynic.

The romantic in me loves the idea of love; reads romance novels and watches movies like "French Kiss," "Chocolat", and "Possession;" cries at weddings -- all that girly stuff. Though I am a happily married woman of 60, I sometimes feel like I am back in that lonely basement of my childhood, skating circles of boredom around the floor and singing "Goodnight, My Someone" from Music Man at the top of my lungs hoping the boy who mows our lawn will be swept away by my beauty and song. (As if!)

But the cynic in me balks at Merton's passion for Yuri and Lara in Dr. Zhivago, because, after all, Yuri was actually married to someone else, not Lara. And I, who have a lifetime filled with experiences of married men falling in love with other women -- two pastors, my first husband, my father, my bishop; even my president! -- cannot seem to get past that surface plot device in Dr. Z to the undeniable wealth of meaning that lies beneath. I get, on an intellectual level, that Pasternak "stands for the freedom and nobility of the individual person...for courageous, independent loyalty to his own conscience," and that he is "fighting for man's true freedom, his true creativity," but for me that other piece of the story -- however romantic and passionate it may seem -- gets in the way.

And thinking about that, having watched this foundation being laid yesterday, I felt like I was bumping against a similar huge and impenetrable mass of cement at the bottom of my own heart; that that piece -- or those pieces -- of my story get in my way; that my inner divinity, and the love and acceptance I could be feeling from God, are somehow buried beneath this thick layer of rebar-laced concrete, and all this writing has been merely skating around on the surface, singing songs of imaginary love, not really releasing that flow of blessings I spoke of yesterday.

So when I read that Merton has a Lara (named "Proverb") in his dreams, and that later he "was walking alone in the crowded street and suddenly saw that everybody was Proverb, and that in all of them shone her extraordinary beauty and purity and shyness," I am torn between an ongoing shame that I can't seem to get to that feeling of a universal love for humanity and an undeniable urge to stick my finger down my throat and barf.


But maybe I'm just cranky because the dog woke me up at 5:30 and the cats have been whining the entire time I've been trying to write. Wouldn't it be nice if that were all that's really bugging me?

Friday, August 14, 2009

When hope drains out

I think this is my fourth attempt to write this blog post today. It has something to do with the fact that we had to get up early and move our cars this morning -- some neighbors on our one-lane road are building a new home, and today 9 trucks full of concrete were scheduled to pour their foundation.

So we drove out once -- at 6 am -- and walked back. I walked out again at 8 to watch the beginnings of the pour, and again at 10 (walking my husband to his motorcycle, as he was heading into Seattle for a lunch date and a lecture), and I stayed a bit each time to watch the experts at work smoothing the concrete... which is probably why this image called to me: this pipe is about the same width as the pipe through which the cement was pouring into our neighbors' foundation.

At any rate, my normal morning routine of coffee, reading, meditation and blog didn't happen in the usual way -- which means that I'm a little low on God-fuel, and trying to write under my own steam, which just doesn't seem to be working today.

At first, because I love the colors in this image, I tried writing about color, and talked about why I like colored walls so much better than white ones, but that didn't go anywhere. I tried writing about taking this series of ferry images into the Gallery (they liked them; Yay!) but that didn't really work either.

I wrote three introductory paragraphs on some other subject, too -- and those must have been REALLY bad because I don't even remember what they were about! So now I guess I have to venture into the obvious, and talk about things "going down the drain." Or maybe about events and people that leave you feeling drained? It's odd, that all the connotations for drains, draining, being drained, are all so negative. Because a real drain is designed to take away excess, things that are no longer needed, or are waste products. So actually having a drain is a good thing, right?

I guess what gives the word drain its bad connotations is the fact that it implies a resulting emptiness. But can't emptiness be a good thing? There are times -- especially when I'm meditating, or when I'm depressed or worrying -- when I WISH all the extraneous thoughts would drain out, be gone. And emptiness in the context of a tidal basin -- like the three-walled basement they were pouring today, so the tide could roll in and out under the house -- is usually a prelude to a new round of fullness, just part of the cycle...

But of course not all emptiness is good, in which case -- like some of the homeowners here and up in the San Juan Islands -- you might be worried about empty wells and used-up aquifers; or, like the town of Bainbridge and the City of Detroit and any number of other communities across the nation, you might be worried that there's no money in the coffers to pay outstanding bills, or to pay expenses and salaries for city services and personnel. You might be concerned about emptiness when it involves a retirement fund, or a bank; someplace where people placed their money hoping it would continue to accrete to bring comfort in old age.

Or there is the empty nest my friends are experiencing these days as their children head off to college. Or the empty hole left by the death of a loved one -- that emptiness is one that never seems to quite go away.

Perhaps that's why the drain image called out to me: after all, many of us are feeling drained by our current economic circumstances, and/or by recent events in our lives. And when just staying afloat -- whether economically or emotionally -- becomes an all-consuming exercise, that sense of fullness -- even fullness of spirit -- can abandon us, leaving us too drained to keep up our spiritual practice.

But that's exactly when we need to do it most. Because I suspect that those spiritual lows, once the tide reverses, work rather like our own little lagoon: when the tide shifts, when the lagoon is at its lowest, is when the incoming tide is most powerful and determined; as if that emptiness is an extra invitation for a huge rush to flow in. And it seems to me -- has always seemed to me -- that prayer and meditation work to loosen whatever plugs or clogs there are in your system that may be keeping the blessings from pouring in.

Perhaps life is an endless flow of blessings, flowing into us and through us into the lives of others? Which could explain why it is that when we are feeling particularly blessed it is so important to share, to pass those blessings on. Perhaps if we don't, the system gets clogged up? Oh, dear, no -- that would make me like Job's friends and neighbors, saying that all the terrible things that happened to him are the result of some dreadful mistake that he made with his own allotment of blessings. And I frankly don't believe that -- and don't want to be one of those "blame-the-victim" sorts.

So maybe I'll just stop here, and say this: Yes, there are people and events that drain us. But the drain may not be all bad; it may be loosening up something within us so new life can pour in. (For your sake, and for mine, and for all the children of the world who hunger and suffer, I certainly hope so.) And I do believe that if we can still manage to pray, even when things look their blackest, the chances are good that the blessings -- and a renewed sense of hope -- will begin to flow back in again.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Playfulness on the journey to enlightenment

This morning I continued reading Merton's thoughts on alienation, and he described a situation I, too, have observed, particularly in teenagers, but at low moments in myself as well:

"There is a painful, sometimes paranoid sense of being always under observation, under judgment, for not fulfilling some role or other we have forgotten we were supposed to fill...nobody really has to look at us or judge us or despise us or hate us. Whether or not they do us this service, we are already there ahead of them. We are doing it for them. WE TRAIN OURSELVES OBEDIENTLY TO HATE OURSELVES SO MUCH THAT OUR ENEMIES NO LONGER HAVE TO." (The caps are his, not mine)

What intrigues me about this is that Merton believes that as artists and contemplatives we are uniquely capable of exorcising this kind of alienation on behalf of society, through the simple expedient of expressing our immediate response -- through art, poetry, music, or whatever gift we have -- "however unconscious, irrational, foolish, unacceptable, it may at first appear to be."

What Merton is calling for is a removal of those filters -- to which artists tend to be particularly sensitive, I believe -- that tell us -- on behalf of some internalized cultural imperative -- that we should pursue a particular style and eschew another; that the work that emerges out of a deep connection to soul has no value apart from its stylishness or perceived originality; that rather than choosing to pursue or exhibit that which speaks most clearly of what we find within or what we respond to, we must sort through based on what we imagine society will accept or reject, declaring that this work must be kept because "people will like it" and that work must be tossed because "it's not saleable."

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, her book on writing, calls this internal critic perfectionism. Perfectionism, she says, "is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life... will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force...keps us standing back or backing way from life, from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here."

We, as artists, in choosing to tap honestly into the creative fount within and to allow our responses to flow freely onto page or canvas, allow those who view our work to see that it is possible to do that; that it is possible to go into the depths, to make messes, to be imperfect and honest and open and to emerge safely, even to emerge enlightened. We take that journey, engage with that spirit, and risk those failures, on behalf of all mankind, in much the same way that monastics live and pray on behalf of all mankind.

We have to learn the knack of free association,"
says Merton, "to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance."

(Sounds to me like another plea for taking a picture rather than making one.)

"The office of the monk or the marginal person, the meditative person or the poet," he says in a later talk, "is to be a witness to life. And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine...and among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible.

And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words...beyond speech... beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are."

So those struggles we face as we attempt to find a path, or to find our voice; to express our longings and discoveries along the journey; to give birth to that which labors within us to emerge into light, are not just our struggles but the struggles of all creation. Just as it says in Romans 8:22, "W know that all creation has been groaning together, as if in childbirth, until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait and long for open recognition as sons through the deliverance of our bodies."

Yes, it's challenging to fight our way through the thicket of preconceived notions to what is good and true and longs to be expressed through us. But we continue to press forward on behalf of all humankind, in hope that we may dissolve the false divisions of the perceived, material world and reveal our underlying spiritual unity as children of God; that we may find and express the acceptance, love and grace that allows each of us to be fully human -- messy, imperfect, and fully ourselves.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The itch under the mask

This morning I discovered another thing to love about Thomas Merton: his sense of humor! He was writing about the incoherence of modern language (this is from The Non-Violent Alternative, published in 1971) and went off on a tear about advertising:

"Now let us turn to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia," he says, and he proceeds to quote a poem that served as an ad for the new Arpege Hairspray in a September '66 New Yorker.

The poem, he says, "must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning...We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again is also a kind of gnostic initiation)... and the content, the "experience," which is one of self-enclosed narcissism woven of misty confusion..."

But the kicker that had me laughing was this: "When we reflect that the ultimate conceptions of theology and metaphysics have surfaced in such a context -- hair spray -- we no longer wonder that theologians are tearing their hair and crying that God is dead. After all, when every smell, every taste, every hissing breakfast food is endowed with the transcendental properties of being..."

I have to assume that by "hissing breakfast food" he means Kellogg's Rice Krispies with their indefatigable Snap, Crackle and Pop. But somehow you don't think of a monk eating Rice Krispies -- and I love the idea of a hissing breakfast food -- as if, somehow, it were a snake tempting you away from the REAL things of life...

I was thinking of this when I watched one of those short Dove videos that are making the rounds these days, of the perfectly ordinary young woman who is turned with the help of makeup, hairstyling and Photoshop into a billboard ad for beauty products. It's all part of that confusion -- to which advertising of course contributes -- about what is and is not real; a confusion which can result in the sort of serious alienation from self and self-image that we see in young girls who have anorexia.

Not surprisingly, Merton has something to say about alienation as well: this passage is from "Why Alienation is for Everybody," written in 1968:

Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or may not want to play. Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask, totally satisfied with my role, and convince myself that any other identity or role is inconceivable. The man who sweats under his mask, whose role makes him itch with discomfort, who hates the division in himself, is already beginning to be free. But God help him if all he wants is the mask the other man is wearing, just because the other one does not seem to be sweating or itching. Maybe he is no longer human enough to itch. (Or else he pays a psychiatrist to scratch him.)

... and this, in turn, reminds me of that famous Anais Nin quote which a friend recently posted on Facebook: "And then the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." It's not any easier to blossom than it is to break out of a cocoon or to risk stepping out from behind a mask. But the alternative -- to remain stuck in that misty confusion of self-enclosed narcissism Merton describes -- can be deadening, and some version of one of those steps is inevitably necessary if we are to become fully real.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When art becomes a cooperative effort

As usual, I took my camera everywhere with me while I was on Shaw, and made special excursions to familiar spots to shoot subjects that have always given me pleasure.

But the weather was cold and gray for most of the trip, and with the exception of a couple of Skagit Valley barns and one good sunset, I was disappointed with the old familiar images and discarded most of them.

I was fresh from that manhole cover image, though -- the one I shot in Chicago (see my August 3 post) -- and was attuned to beauty at a different, less obvious level, so I found myself wandering the ferries and shooting their floors, walls and ceilings. And I LOVED the shots I was getting: this is one of my favorites, from the floor of the Elwha.

What intrigues me about this process is that I was (again) not MAKING photographs, just TAKING them, responding to what called to me. But I was clearly operating out of a current mindset -- as opposed to the Shaw and Skagit mindset, which was more in a "this used to work for me, let's shoot it again" vein. These ferry images (I'll share a few more with you over the next day or two) actually feel like they sing to me.

The song has to do with the economy, oddly enough; with all the people who are out of work, who are making do, compromising, letting go of old lifestyles, paring down, discovering what is important and what is not, learning to prioritize, what to keep, what to let go... It has a strong feel (to me) of the Great Depression of the 30's, but there are new undertones of acceptance and joy that I don't remember observing in the art of the 30's. Perhaps that's because we've not fallen quite so far this time, or maybe it's because the things that are being restored to us -- time with family, community, cooperation, service -- clearly have more value than the material goods we've lost?

Whatever the reason, these images seem to me to celebrate the value of solidity, of patching and re-using; of core basics, and the ordinary stuff of everyday life, the bits that keep going, the heart and engines that keep pumping even as all the extraneous stuff is stripped away. Which is not so different, of course, from what I believe, or even have been thinking about. But I didn't consciously set out to express those things: the value in these images, for me, is that there's a cooperative effort here between the thinking self, the listening self, the camera, and the subject. And what emerges from that cooperation has a reassuring and hopeful quality that I find both endearing and encouraging.

Is it art? I'm not certain.

But I'm liking it!

Monday, August 10, 2009

A creative response to the "isness" before us

A good photographer -- I was told once, in a truly excellent weeklong photography workshop -- does not take pictures, she makes pictures. I have struggled with this distinction ever since, because it seems to be my calling, not to create photographs -- i.e., to use a model, or create a backdrop, or to consciously juxtapose disparate objects as an expression of some deeper opinion or wisdom I wish to share -- but merely to take them; to capture a moment when it appears and then to discover what IT might have to tell ME.

Which is why, of course, my photography often awakens that "Jeez, if I'd been there, I coulda taken that picture," response in viewers -- and therefore becomes a bit of a hard sell.

But then, of course, having "listened" to a photo, I've come to love the subsequent explorations of meaning and presentation that become possible in the land of digital photography and photoshop. In the world of post-processing, it is as if the photograph and I explore together what potential worlds the image may be longing to express.

One of the things I love about Thomas Merton is that he is not just a mystic and a writer; he, too, was a photographer -- in fact I have two books of his photographs, and he seems to have been as enchanted with driftwood and natural formations as I have been at various points in my photographic career. So I love that he explores the creative process from these three different points of view, and particularly appreciated what he had to say this morning in his reflections on "The Theology of Creativity":

"The Zen artist does not 'study Zen in order to paint.' ... he does not...practice meditation as a means to artistic experience and expression...rather he enters into a purifying struggle against conceptual knowledge, in which he 'sweats out' his attachment to images, ideas, symbols, metaphors, analytic judgments, etc. as means for grasping, appreciating, and understanding reality.

Instead of this, he seeks to recover an immediate, direct intuition... an intuition in which the existent knows existence, or 'isness,' while completely losing sight of itself as 'a knowing subject.'

...there is then no artistic reflection: The work of art springs 'out of emptiness'... One cannot begin to be an artist, in Suzuki's sense, until he has become 'empty,' until he has disappeared."

I suspect I like these thoughts, not just because they shed light on some of my own struggles with the connection between my meditation practice and my work, both as writer and as photographer, but also because they give me leave to continue exploring the territory that lies between "taking pictures" and "making pictures;" a sort of justification for my own preferred approach to photography, which is to raise the camera to my eye in response to some obscure awakening that passes from a subject to me, some combination of light and stillness that invites a capture and reflection.

Because there is -- despite my ongoing frustrations with my inability to be fully present at all times, and my newly re-awakened concern that the camera may sometimes decrease rather than induce my ability to be present -- a huge gift in allowing photography to lead me rather than me controlling it. And that is that in moments like this morning, when my dog -- who usually waits for his second morning walk until after I have completed my blog -- insists that I break in midstream to take him outside -- there could be a gift awaiting me.

For as I stood, waiting for him to do his duty, I realized that this scene which lay before me, when the Puget Sound was uncharacteristically still and a gentle mist was falling, was crying out for attention from my camera. So I took him in, gave him his reward, and went back out with my camera to collect my own reward: this shot -- which I now share with you.

Peace be with you, my friends -- and may we continue exploring together what it means to develop a creative response to the "isness" of our world.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Polishing the mirror where God shines forth

This is last night's sunset at Neck Point, the little tip of Shaw Island where we used to live when the girls were little. I was on the island this past weekend (and away from the internet, in case you were wondering) so that my daughter and I could attend the memorial service for my friend's son (and my daughter's schoolmate), the 20 year old boy who died three weeks ago of an aneurysm.

It was lovely to be back on the island, and lovely to see my daughter (however briefly; she had to leave right after the service to get ready to lead a canoe trip at the camp where she works). And lovely most of all, despite the circumstances, to spend an evening with Teddy's mom; to hear the story of his life and death; to hear how their lives have been going and what her plans are for the future: she's an amazing and admirable woman, now a minister in the Church of Religious Science, and is about to turn her home -- now that her girls are in college -- into a bed and breakfast for people who come to Seattle for treatment for chronic illnesses like Lyme Disease (of which she and her daughter are also sufferers).

I had a lot of alone time while I was away -- Shaw is like that -- and I spent much of it reading Echoing Silence, a compendium of Thomas Merton's thoughts on writing. I am still processing, but what he was writing was absolutely soul-stirring for me: I felt I'd found my soulmate, I received a ton of affirmation for what I've been encountering along the way, and I can see I still have a great deal to learn on this path. So I thought, rather than go into what sometimes feels like preacher mode, I'd just share this quote from Merton today: it explains better than I ever could why it is that writing here means so much to me. Thank you -- by the way -- for continuing to be willing readers.

“Writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because, when I pause at my work, I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing, and I had not observed his coming.”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

You can let go now

I was having fun playing with this reflection shot this morning, taking pieces of it, copying them and adding colors, layering on the new colors and erasing...

When I had gotten it just the way I wanted it, I hit "merge layers" and suddenly some of the light disappeared. I tried lots of ways around this to little effect, and finally pasted another layer on, tried again, and it sort of worked.

I've been working with Photoshop since 1992, but there are still surprises from time to time; I mostly just try to go with the flow and trust that the end result will have what it needs to have.

Life is like that, too, of course, and parenting even moreso: just when you think you've kind of got the hang of things a curve ball comes your way and you have to get creative and resourceful and work at it all over again; there never seems to be a time when you can just coast -- or at least, the coasting times never seem to last very long.

The tricky part is that going-with-the-flow-and-trusting thing, as it usually involves letting go of control (not that we have any choice in the matter), and most of us find that pretty hard to do. I know I certainly do. Which may be why I love photography and art so much: it's a place where I can practice letting go of control and be reminded that the results often turn out "More than we can ask or imagine."

And now, as I write, I hear that wonderful Michael McDonald song from the 80's, "You Can Let Go Now." You should listen, if you don't know it; I just found it again after years of not hearing it, and I'm loving it.

It was so right, it was so wrong
Almost at the same time
The pain and ache a heart can take
No one really knows

When the memories cling and keep you there
Till you no longer care
And you can let go now

Its wrong for me to cling to you
Somehow I just needed time
From what was to be-
its not like me

To hold somebody down

But I was tossed high by love
I almost never came down
Only to land here
Where love's no longer found
Where I'm no longer bound
And I can let go now

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

So close, and yet so far...

For some reason, even though (or perhaps because) I am reading about mindfulness over my morning coffee, the practice of mindfulness seems impossibly remote and confusing right now.

At one point yesterday, returning from walking the dog on the beach, I was putting one foot in front of the other, walking up the ramp to the deck, aware of my balance, the broken tread, the dog, the smell in the air, the weeds, the rocks in my shoes, and STILL just didn't get it. I found myself thinking, just what is it I'm supposed to be mindful OF?

It feels a bit like what my husband calls "an off-by-one bug" -- something is definitely not computing properly, and you're tearing your hair out, and it turns out that what's derailing everything is just a tiny deviation, so close to right you can't even see it. It's kind of like the old days, before GPS, when you'd be in a strange place, working off a map, take what appears to be the right turn and end up completely lost in the wrong part of town. If you'd only taken the VERY NEXT TURN you'd have ended up right where you wanted to be.

And that's why I chose this picture today: it feels a bit like I'm trying to breathe with a snorkel under water, when all I'd have to do is lift my head out of the water and there'd be all the air to breathe I could ever need; I wouldn't have to struggle so for each breath. I get that I'm really close, but I am really NOT THERE.

That said, as long as I'm snorkeling along here, I'm seeing some pretty interesting stuff.

1. I had to go to a nearby hospital to meet with someone about an upcoming exhibit in one of their waiting rooms. The hospital is in a town with lots of shopping malls. There wasn't anything I needed, so I could have come straight home, but instead I wasted an hour browsing through TJ Maxx. At some point, standing looking at housewares I could never want or need, I realized I have become my mother, for whom shopping was a recreational activity she could -- and would -- do for hours on end, days on end. Out of boredom, I presume; or could it have been longing? The only difference is that she would bring home piles of kitsch, while I just look without buying.

I did see this lovely green enameled colander. I've always wanted a real colander, but we have a perfectly good sort of strainer thingie that we got at a garage sale before we married, so I walked away from it.

Later, on the phone, my friend Robin tells me that that sort of shopping is feeding the artist in me, that's looking for color and shape and design to inspire me. I'm not so sure...

2. I always thought that working with the camera allows me to be fully present. But I watched a movie 2 nights ago (2 Days in Paris; funny but irritating at the same time) in which the narrator, a photographer, tells us she did not take her camera with her to Venice so she could be fully present to her lover, but instead HE took a camera, and instead of BEING with her in the gondola he was busily taking hundreds of pictures of the gondola ride.

Ouch. That is so me! And it's true; in certain circumstances -- my husband informed me of this on the train -- I use the camera to avoid interacting with people (I'm not avoiding him, so much; he was referring to my avoidance of certain types of social situations where I might have to make small talk -- something he excels at and I don't).

And then, there on the movie narrator's kitchen wall in Paris, is the exact green colander I saw in TJ Maxx. So of course I had to go back and get it.

3. Just before I woke this morning I dreamed I was visiting an old neighborhood, standing at the house next door (off by one!) to where I used to live. The woman who owns the house is standing outside, looking at me, but talking on her cellphone to a friend about the impossibility of finding good schools, and I am trying to interrupt the conversation to tell her I know of one. I can see, next door, the house we used to live in, but they're in the middle of a huge renovation and the house has changed beyond all recognition.

My friend Joanna has been in dream groups for years, and I know she would tell me everyone in the dream is me. So here's my interpretation: I am my true self, my higher or deeper self, in my dream. And the neighbor lady on the phone is the me that's out in the world, interacting with people, still shopping around for solutions to problems that I've already solved (she just won't listen to me!). I can't really go back to where I was, as everything has changed, but who I was still seems to be dominating the conversation, and I -- the true, knowing self -- am only occasionally able to interrupt; the way mindfulness only occasionally works. There's all this knowledge and understanding there, as free and universal as air, and I am still struggling along under water, just sneaking occasional breaths through a snorkel...

It's not that I'm depressed or discouraged about it, exactly. But it sure would be nice to get my head above water for a while!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Oh, deer, I'm not perfect!

Today I got to wear one of my other hats, that of real estate photographer; this deer stands in the yard of the house I was shooting this week.

It's a fun gig, all things considered, and the only one I have that pays these days. The pay is reasonably good, too, but unfortunately I only work with one agent, so the jobs don't come up all that often.

This house was particularly beautiful, and the landscaping was lovely, though you can't quite tell from this photo; it was pretty cloudy this morning so the colors weren't exactly popping...

The best part of these jobs -- other than the money -- is the opportunity they provide to admire other people's houses; to see how they do things, what they landscape with, how their rooms flow... What I'd REALLY love is to see how they live, how they furnish their homes, but the woman I work with always stages their homes with furniture she uses for that purpose, so I see the same bed from house to house; the same chairs, the same knicknacks... But it's still fun.

And how am I going to turn that into a blog? you wonder. Hmm. Maybe I'll just make this one a gift to all of us, to you AND to me, and say that when a house is all staged like that, well, yes, it's a great opportunity to imagine how it could work for you or your family. But frankly I miss the mess. If I were looking for a home -- which I'm not -- I'd expect things to be tidy, but sort of cluttered, lived-in. I like to see UNIQUE photos and memorabilia, not artwork from TJMaxx. I'd like to find kid's games in the cupboards and grandma's old silver baby cup tucked away in the sideboard; towels that are a little frayed and sports equipment in the hall that leads from the garage into the kitchen. And I'd LOVE to see where they put their computers; how they arrange their offices; where the catalogs pile up in the kitchen.

Because that's the daily stuff of living, and I want to know if a house is lived in. Yes, if it's all removed, you can get a feel for the bare bones. But a house is so much more than its bones...

I guess what I'm saying is this: if you come to my house (and let me know first) I promise to clean up for you. But I'm not going to put EVERYTHING away (because I can't, for one thing; I'd never find it again!). And if I come to visit you, I expect the same thing will be true -- you'll tidy up a bit, if I give you enough advance warning. But I'm hoping you'll trust me enough to let the real working bits about the house show through.

Because the fact is that those working bits are an important part of life, part of who you are and how you walk through your day. And, since I've just realized that those things aren't something for you to be ashamed of, maybe I'll stop beating myself up about the way things tend to pile up in MY kitchen, and the way the clutter levels seem to rise and fall on MY desk and dresser, and in MY closets. After all, if I can tolerate imperfection in you, shouldn't I be able to tolerate it in myself?

...and as I was writing that last sentence, I suddenly remembered my very first conversation with my friend Claudia, whom I met at an Episcopal Women's Getaway at our diocesan camp and conference center in 1989, just a few months after we moved out to the west coast. I didn't know a soul, and had gotten lost on my way there, so I arrived late, taking the last chair in a roomful of chattering women. The woman next to me first asked if I was the priest (which made me laugh) and then proceeded to tell me about an article she'd read in the Seattle Times that claimed creativity was inversely proportional to housekeeping.

"I'm not very creative," she mourned, "So it must be true; my house is always immaculate."

"Well," I responded, "I must be EXTREMELY creative, because my place is always a MESS!"

There was something in the self-acceptance of those two statements that had us grinning at each other like idiots, and we've been friends ever since.

So Claudia, this one's for you!