Saturday, October 31, 2009

Letting the world go

My chiropractor told me this morning that not all the pain I seem to be harboring in my body this week is my own. "Direct your breathing to this spot," she says as she presses her warm hands into the small of my back. "Feel what emotions are being triggered there, and release them. They may be old, they may not even be yours. Tell your body and your emotions that what matters is what's here, and what's now."

Like me, she's a bit of an empath, and so she understands when I explain how hard it was to read about that gang-rape in California, and how saddened I am that a dear friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer. I told her I had been doing some tonglen -- breathing in other people's pain, and breathing out my own joy to help -- and she says that may not be the best practice for me right now; that perhaps I need to more attentive to my own needs.

My husband had an appointment with her this morning, too, and afterwards, as we walked out together, I thought of this image; of the two of us floating away together on a soothing sea of love. Some days you just need to rest in that space and let the troubles of the world be somewhere else. Some days you need to fill your own cup and not worry so much about filling others. What I tell others needs to be what I tell myself.

But it's not all that easy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Palm frond friend

Yup, you guessed it; I'm playing again. This is a palm leaf from Anaheim; I just loved the way the tips curled, and wanted to shift the colors in a way to emphasize that. One thing led to another and now I have another one of those soulfriend images -- one that seems to be really embracing everything.

Which reflects how I felt reading this morning's passages in Shambhala: that sense of the basic goodness of life permeates Chogyam Trungpa's writing, and it has a way of warming, of challenging and inspiring, that helps me feel more open and welcoming; less closed in and anxious.

Reading this wonderful book also reminds me, not just of how much work there still is to do, but also of how right everything is just as it is; how perfectly normal and acceptable it is to be where I am and doing what I'm doing. Which is part of what learning to be fully present is all about, of course -- not getting caught up in where we were or what's ahead but celebrating what is now: the purr of the cat at my feet, the chop of the wind on the waves outside my window, the light ticking of my husband at his keyboard in the other room...

It's all good.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Risking disapproval

In spite of (or perhaps because of?) the amount of time I dedicate to my meditation practice and to reading, studying, and writing about spirituality, I still seem to be rather painfully far from enlightenment -- particularly in three areas.

1. I am still fearful, and have trouble remaining calm and centered when life gets scary, messy, or confusing -- and even when the possibility arises that it might get that way.

2. I am not nearly as compassionate with others as I ought to be.

3. I am not nearly as compassionate or trusting with myself as I ought to be.

Number three has obviously been raising its head lately as I struggle after the fact to organize what turns out to have been a rather messy summer. And it came up again this morning, because I read this in Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior.

"You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel that discipline comes from outside, there is still a lingering feeling that something is lacking in you. So letting go is connected with letting go of any vestiges of doubt or hesitation or embarrassment about being you as you are. You have to relax with yourself in order to fully realize that discipline is simply the expression of your basic goodness. You have to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, and let go of your doubt and embarrassment so that you can proclaim your goodness and basic sanity for the benefit of others."

I read this and felt like crying, because it felt like he was speaking directly to one of the most wounded parts of me. Yes, I am mostly a good person, but I often suspect it's because I'm terrified I'll be caught and punished if I do anything wrong. Yes, I am a faithful person, but I sometimes wonder if it's because some part of me still worries God will rain vengeance on me if I am not. And though I understand intellectually that God is loving, and lives within me as well as outside of me, some part of me still thinks of God as an angry father, waiting for me to make a fatal misstep -- which contributes to a lack of confidence that is embarrassing, given my age and expertise.

This issue has been bumping up to the surface a lot lately, which is probably a good thing; it's always good to befriend those wounded bits that bump around inside us -- especially when they have a way of disabling or derailing us. I suspect it's partly coming up because it may finally be safe for it to do so, as I develop more and more skills for ministering to those hidden parts of me. But it's also because I'm stepping out into new arenas, trying new things, putting myself on the line in occasionally public ways, which is always stressful.

So to honor that adventuresome spirit in me, I will share this image which I created yesterday. I was cleaning out my photo files (you'll see another similar image off to the left, which will go with today's poem) and there were images which had some fun ingredients but lacked interesting composition, so I began to play. I'm not going to claim this is great art, but I'm going to at least honor the creative impulse by putting it out there. And I invite you to do the same. Try something new; take a risk; explore. And then share the results with a friend -- and learn to trust that your impulses may not be either bad or great -- they might just be, well, you, exploring. And THAT'S OKAY!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Come Harvest Time

That problem I mentioned yesterday -- about cleaning up our leftovers? -- is, in a lot of ways, a manifestation of our cultural issues around growth and acquisitiveness; the constant drive to get more. My friends who work in the arena of sustainability talk about the folly of measuring success by the GNP; that just because we're creating more doesn't mean our people are better off.

And in fact, in a casual chat at my local coffee shop a day or two ago, someone mentioned that something over 90% of the wealth in this country lies in the hands of around 1% of our population.

I never know if statistics like these are true -- Huff's famous book, How to Lie with Statistics came out when I was five, so I grew up feeling pretty skeptical about such things. But it seems clear that the gap between rich and poor in this country has grown exponentially in the last few decades, whether (as Michael Moore claims) it's capitalism that's at fault or whether it's just the rampant consumerism that sometimes results from that pesky belief in the individual's right to, not just life and liberty, but also the pursuit of happiness -- which often gets defined as "having more stuff."

I try hard not to succumb to that temptation, and do my best, when I have the opportunity to get new "stuff," to give an equal amount of old "stuff" away. But where I fail is in the arena of my photographs. I am ALWAYS acquiring new ones, and I have a very bad habit of not taking the time to sort through them, of not tossing the weak ones and the duplicates. Worse yet, I don't even take time to evaluate the good ones; I'm so busy getting more that I forget or miss the good stuff I already have.

I say this because just yesterday I rediscovered a file of photographs I took in Anaheim this summer at the Episcopal General Convention. The convention center there was gorgeous -- especially in the early morning, when the bluish outside light poured in the windows to provide this lovely liquid counterpoint to the orangey interior light. Not that this is a particularly meaningful photo, but aren't those colors delicious? And I didn't even know I had it; I'd completely forgotten a whole pile of similarly rich images.

Fortunately winter is coming, with its gray days and piles of indoor time; always a good time to sort through the photos I've gathered over the course of the year. And perhaps, rather than flagellate myself for "things done and left undone" I should remind myself that there are seasons in life as well as in nature; seasons of growth and fullness, seasons of harvest and pruning, seasons of hibernation. Perhaps that's what this recession is about, as well: we are reaping what we have sown, and now we assess what crops and behaviors have worked and which need to be set aside so that new crops and behaviors -- hopefully more sustainable ones -- can emerge.

It's all good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Should to Will

Yesterday I was working on a piece about the sacrament of Baptism, studying a statement by Bishop Schori and reviewing the Baptismal Covenant, and I was reminded of a children's sermon I gave on the subject years ago.

The sermon was based on two pairs of boots: a lovely leather pair that had been permanently damaged by walking through a heavily salted snowy parking lot, and a pair of shiny green rubber rainboots. In my sermon I basically said that Baptism was a lot like getting a pair of rubber boots; kind of a guarantee that whatever messes we create in life can be washed off, and we can be restored to a kind of shiny original wholeness.

This morning I was reading about what Chogyam Trungpa, in his book Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, calls Great Eastern Sun. Great Eastern Sun is a way of being in the world which assumes the innate goodness and purity of things, and "because we appreciate the world, we don't make a mess in it. We take care of our bodies, we take care of our minds, and we take care of our world. The world around us is regarded as very sacred, so we have to constantly serve our world and clean it up... our entire physical and psychological existence and the world that we know -- our sky, our earth, our houses, everything we have -- was and is originally clean. But then, we begin to smear the situation with our conflicting emotions. Still, fundamentally speaking, our existence is all good, and it is all launderable. That is what we mean by basic goodness: the pure ground that is always there, waiting to be cleaned by us. We can always return to that primordial ground."

In her statement on Baptism, Bishop Schori says that baptism is about death and rebirth; a washing away of old identities that is not limited to one place and time. "This water," she says, "is meant to roll on like a river of blessing, bringing peace to the warring and healing to the nations." And reading that, I see that as a people we Christians have a tendency to think Baptism ends with putting on the rubber boots; that it's all about us, and the fact that we are saved no matter what sins we commit. Because we know we're "launderable" --the mud will wash off -- we don't bother doing it on a daily basis, assuming we'll get around to it eventually -- maybe on our deathbeds?

We forget about the river of blessing; about the responsibilities we assume as part of that gift to carry it out into the world. We forget that baptism is meant to keep restoring and renewing us so that we can continually be working toward peace, righteousness and compassion. And without that understanding, we can get stuck in what Trungpa calls Setting Sun thinking: "you have a giant vision, which you can't consume, and you end up throwing most of it away... we just get rid of anything unpleasant...we forget about the leftovers or the greasy spoons and plates. We leave the job of cleaning up to somebody else."

It's almost as if, having been given the new boots, we no longer feel we need to take care of them. But that's really not the case. Ultimately Baptism needs to be about balance; it is a stepping out and a return, a determination to give and a willingness to restore and be restored. And thinking about this, I realize my own life has been out of balance lately; that there's been too much stepping out and not enough return. And what I mean by that is not what you might think, that I've been giving and giving and not taking the time to feed myself, but rather that I've been getting caught in these giant visions which I can't quite consume.

It's a bit like that old phrase: her eyes were too big for her stomach. I've taken on so many projects that I can't finish them all and I haven't time to clean up after myself. The Buddhists understand the importance of being present: of being aware and conscious of what we're doing as we're doing it. If we get too busy, if our plate is too full, we run into a couple of problems: we're not really THERE when we're trying to do our good works, whatever they may be, which means we're not giving anything our best efforts.

And the detritus, the leftovers of all those good works, has a way of piling up around us and getting in the way. In my rush to fill my time with the fun stuff, or the good stuff, I forget (or avoid) making time for the cleanup and restoration.

Which leaves me with a messy office, a messy kitchen, and a messy life -- all of which mean I'm not functioning at my optimal capacity. You could say it's all good, that it's all in the service of creativity or generosity, but the fact is every project has its leavings, and I should be tidying up as I go; washing the boots every day instead of waiting until they're so muddy that I'm leaving traces wherever I go.

Yes, I know, it's a "should." But so are all those promises we make when we renew our Baptismal Covenant: promises to avoid sin and repent; to engage in worship, communion, fellowship and education; to proclaim the Good News by word and example; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace. Those are all things we should do. But that's not what we say when we recite the covenant. We don't say "I should." We say, "I will, with God's help."

Time to turn those "should"s into "will"s.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A curious adventure

This morning I emerged from my meditation with a simple vision for a logo. I saw my body as a circle, with a heart at its center. And when I breathe, it creates a sort of river into the heart, connecting heart to what lies outside me, flowing into the heart and out again, with a sort of delta at the edge where body and world meet -- which means the circle is broken open. As I breathe in, I am breathing in oneness with all that is, and as I breathe out, I am breathing out my own uniqueness, sharing it with all that is.

I drew a picture of the heart/river -- just as a reminder -- and then went hunting for a photograph to share with you, and this is what appeared. I don't even remember where I shot it, but it popped up almost immediately, at the top of my "latest pictures" folder, and what's odd is that it bears a curious resemblance to that logo I was trying to create.


So of course I had to superimpose the drawing over the image, to see what would happen.


It's not great art, of course. But can you sort of see that the body is the part defined by the green, and that the heart at the center, and the river pouring out are really part of the world outside the circle? And I like that the tree extends the delta beyond the circle, like a tongue; maybe that's our words flowing out?

And now I see that every breath is an opportunity to reconnect. And, more importantly, I see that when our hearts are broken -- like that big crack at the center -- and we are thrust into that dark night, it is actually we who are broken open, and it's a gift, allowing us to connect with God and the universe -- if we can accept that, and not move quickly to seal the hole.

And then I realize that this is an illustration of the closing paragraph of Teresa's talk, the one I posted two days ago:

Surrendering and accepting opens the door to trusting the Good that God is, allowing It to flow through us, in whatever form it takes. Trusting God allows us to release our illusions of control and our exhausting habits of separation. The Dark Night moves us closer to true realization and unification, closer to the revelation of the simple joy of truly living as God in this material world.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

When feelings color perceptions

Though we live only 45 minutes from one of the loveliest cities in the country, I rarely take the ferry into Seattle. But when we do go into the city, I love to bring my camera along to capture whatever calls to me.

It's always an adventure, taking the camera into the city, because the sights there are so different from the ones I'm used to on the island, and my eyes get this wonderful full feeling, as if they've been starved for a different way of seeing.

Being a worrier, I worry about that starved, restless feeling my eyes sometimes get: it's what leads me to want to travel, and to attend workshops, so you could say it's good and forces me to broaden my perspectives. But I live in what many people could think of as paradise -- it's rural, it's on the water, the air is fresh and pure... how could I want for more?

The fact is this: we humans get bored. Some of us get bored more easily than others. And, yes, the boredom can be a problem if it means we are avoiding going into some of the deep places; if the restlessness comes from not wanting to face or address something close to home. But just as we need to be brave enough to walk into the dark places, we also need to be gracious and gentle with ourselves, to lighten up, to give ourselves permission to take a break and do something fun -- even if that just means sitting in a chair for a few minutes with a cat on your lap, taking a ferry ride, or sharing a cup of hot chocolate with a friend.

Because the fact is we tend to see everything through the lens of whatever feelings are dominant in our lives at the time: those emotional responses color everything, just as the blue at the top of my windshield colors this image of the city. If we can create a little space, a little light, a little color in our lives the darkness won't seem quite so heavy -- and that space, light, and color will have its own effect on how we see the events that surround us, giving us a little additional buoyancy so we're not quite so likely to sink into that depression John Bunyan calls "The Slough of Despond."

You don't even have to actually DO something; sometimes even THINKING about something you might enjoy can perk you up a little -- which may be why the gratefulness exercise (you know, the one where each night before you go to bed you write down 5 things you were grateful for that day?) can prove so uplifting over time. It's always good to be reminded of the blessings of life -- and when you're not noticing the ones in your own life, you can take that time and think instead of the little things you love: maybe even pick one for every sense. So for me, today, at this one small moment in time, I think that would be: the taste of roasted garlic, the scent of stargazer lilies, the sound of Andrea Bocelli singing "Besame Mucho" (what can I say, some days I'm just a ridiculous romantic), the colors of blue and green in this photo, and the feel of a child's soft cheek.

My answers might be different a minute from now. But I have to say thinking about these things puts a smile on my face. So what puts a smile on yours?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A light in the dark night

Back in 1997, when I was living on Shaw Island and coping with my mother's death, a woman named Teresa Molitor Luttrell moved to the island with her three children; two daughters and a son, Teddy. Our kids promptly became fast friends, as did we, and though we rarely see one another these days the sense of connection has remained.

This week Teresa, who lost her son Teddy to an aneurysm last summer, posted this talk, which she gave last week at the Northern Lights Spiritual Center in Tukwila, WA.

With her permission, I share it with you: Whatever your faith or belief system, I think her words have something very important to tell each of us.

Sometimes things happen that push us to the very depths of despair. In the aftermath of my son’s death there were only two things I could anchor myself on: that God is all there is, and that God is Good. These two truths, for me, are absolute. And if they are true, the logical progression is that all there is, is Good.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Our human definition of Good is ease, comfort and desired outcome, while God’s definition, in my opinion, is that which grows our soul. ‘Growing our soul’, to me, means whatever brings us closer to Unity consciousness. This definition of Good is not always easy, and in fact may feel like tragedy and involve the hardest things we’ve ever encountered.

When we enter into the ‘dark night of the soul’, tools that have worked in the past stop working. When we come up against something we did not want, have prayed to have changed, and the situation pushes us to the absolute limits and strips us down to the barest of essentials, then we are being offered a great gift, an opening and opportunity to move from the second kingdom of consciousness to the third.

Religious Science is really great about helping people move into the second level of consciousness, where we learn we are spiritual beings capable of co-creating with God; this is the realm of ‘done by me’. (The first kingdom is victim consciousness; second ‘done by me’, third ‘thy will be done, through me’; fourth kingdom is Unity consciousness). Sometimes, however, we miss opportunities to begin to move into the third kingdom when difficult challenges are viewed as failures of consciousness because a desired demonstration isn’t made. But what looks like failure is actually an invitation.

Prayer is not always answered with ‘yes’. Spiritual laws exist, but God is beyond law—the creator of Law, but not its subject. An example of prayer being answered with no is Jesus’ prayer in the garden to ‘take this cup from me’. God’s answer was no, because the no was of greater benefit to the growth of Jesus’ soul—the path to complete Unity consciousness. We manifest stuff easily if it supports our growth or makes no difference, but treatment may not work if the particular issue is what will bring us to our knees, break us open--if the no will grow our soul more, through our struggle, surrender and acceptance, than an ease-filled yes.

‘Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open.’ --Rumi

The dark night challenges us to our core. Even Jesus cried out, ‘why do you forsake me?’ The dark night is NOT EASY. It is, however, transformative (‘alchemy’ means transformation). Surrendering and accepting opens the door to trusting the Good that God is, allowing It to flow through us, in whatever form it takes. Trusting God allows us to release our illusions of control and our exhausting habits of separation. The Dark Night moves us closer to true realizaton and unification, closer to the revelation of the simple joy of truly living as God in this material world.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Perils along the Path

For some reason (can you see the little rocket ship over on the left?) this pumpkin makes me think "Ground Zero" -- there's such a burnt out quality to that center, the ring of devastation, the incoming rocket.

And yet, it's just a pumpkin, and not even a rotten one: this is just a particular trick of coloration. If you look at other pumpkins around it, you'll see this pattern is not unique, just a little more distinct in this case.

But I could imagine that if I were this pumpkin, having grown up with the idea of what a perfect pumpkin is supposed to look like, I could easily fixate on my blemishes, my vulnerability, my own burned-out/damaged/ugly places; I could become completely obsessed with my own (presumably unique) weaknesses and insecurities.

We humans are like that -- it's easy to get caught up in our own struggles, even consumed by them, and often it isn't until we manage to step back, outside our own egoic obsessions, to take a look at the pumpkin patch as a whole, that we begin to see that NONE of us is perfect and each of us struggles, though our particular challenges may vary.

This morning I am reading in The Seeker's Guide about the challenges of the ego, and about the way it has of tripping us up just when we're starting to make spiritual progress. "Unhealthy ego converts spirituality to its own misguided uses in tricky ways," says Lesser. "It will allow you to pursue genuine spiritual development right up to the moment of harvest. As soon as its territory is seriously threatened, though, ego will appear -- hungry and determined. Soon, your tidy spiritual garden will be converted by ego into more material for its survival. This is spiritual materialism."

Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan monk who wrote Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, writes that we are often "deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques...Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality."

For those of us who are willing to walk that suspension bridge I spoke of yesterday, the risks of spiritual materialism are great: lacking the external controls set by an organized religious community, we need to be extra vigilant about avoiding self-absorption and keeping the larger view, the larger good in mind; about exerting self-control and avoiding what Lesser calls "spiritual materialism's top ten list: Narcissism, superficiality, the never-ending process of self-improvement, instant transformation, desire for magic, grandiosity, romanticizing indigenous cultures, the inner child tantrum, ripping off the traditions, and the Guru Trip."

Interestingly enough, Lesser points out that it is our founding principles as Americans -- that insistence on every person's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- which have both both brought us to new thresholds of spirituality AND made spiritual materialism our frequent and particular downfall. The decision to value each individual is what is helping us to transcend our past, but we always run the risk of becoming so obsessed with the individual that we lose sight of the community.

It is this vulnerability that makes standing on that bridge most scary; why it's so important to stay in touch with and grounded in our spiritual roots -- and it's a big part of the reason why I still worship in an Episcopal church every Sunday morning. The weekly exposure to the Bible, the liturgy, the hymns and the sermons has a way of keeping me on track: I love it when the day's sermon echoes something I have struggled with here in the blog, and I love it also when the sermon or the readings raise another dimension of thought I had neglected to consider. It keeps me in touch with the larger picture, and though there are no guarantees my ego won't get carried away from time to time, I count on my connection with the church at large to serve as a sort of plumb line so I never stray too far from center.

Uh-oh... I think that I've been mixing metaphors again! I'm not sure a plumb line would be much help on a bridge. Let's see -- anchor? No, that would just drag me overboard! Perhaps the church is the tower and I just have to be sure to hold on to the cables? Or is God the tower and the church the cable... But wait -- didn't I start out in the spiritual garden? Maybe I need to be talking about being a branch and staying connected to the vine...


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Transcending and including

Ken Wilber, in his book, A Brief History of Everything, writes "Evolution always transcends and includes, incorporates and goes beyond." In The Seeker's Guide, Elizabeth Lesser helps us understand Wilber's concept with these wise observations:

"A healthy person grows into individuality, incorporating the best of inherited and taught behavior and beliefs, and transcending those parts that no longer serve the mature self. If we try to transcend only, in a compulsion to separate from the past, we end up damaging parts of ourselves --root parts that keep us connected to our basic nature and our place in the world. Yet if we reject the natural urge toward transcendence and turn around, grabbing on to the past with nostalgia, we also do violence to life, because life is also movement, creativity, evolution... this means evolving beyond the limits of the past while honoring the wisdom of those who came before."

I think the tension between inclusion and transcendence is one of the most difficult aspects of the maturation process: how do we know what NEEDS to be transcended, and what NEEDS to be included? And when we come to those inevitable spots when nothing that went before seems to work for us anymore, how do we keep from "throwing the baby out with the bathwater?" I watch my daughters struggle with this as they find their own way in the world, sorting out how they are like their parents, and how they are different; what to keep and what to toss from the messages they received both consciously and unconsciously from their childhood.

And for myself I see this tension on several different levels -- both in my efforts to sort through those old messages to see which ones might be outmoded, and in my efforts to forge a spiritual path. Though I have known the love of One God most of my life, my understanding of the Divine Presence has taken many different forms, as have my worship and devotion practices. Mostly this is good, because it allows me to speak many different languages: having been involved for a while in a charismatic fundamentalist Christian community, I can speak that language, and can understand the power those beliefs can hold. Having worshiped in a Quaker congregation, I appreciate the value of communal silence. Having grown up in a Presbyterian church and served as an elder in a Congregational church, I know and love the beauty of pastoral prayers which vary from week to week according to the themes of the lectionary. And having worshiped for years in a Rite I Episcopal service, I love the glorious rhythms of the traditional liturgy, repeated with little or no variation week after week.

I say the Lord's Prayer weekly (though I confess I often skip the first two lines, even though some part of me persists in thinking of God as male) but I LOVE the New Zealand prayerbook's version: "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: the hallowing of your name echo through the universe!"

And, of course, there is the wash of other religions in my thoughts and speech: the mystic poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, the wisdom of Jack Kornfeld, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle. But sometimes it's challenging to hold all that in tension, to transcend my childhood models and beliefs while still holding them tenderly, still knowing their truth for me. I feel that pull to Buddhism, yet cannot abandon the hope and faith of my youth, which feeds me still. And my reluctance to either abandon or commit fully to either side of that equation keeps me on what feels like a suspension bridge between the two, swaying unsteadily as I try to hold the balance.

I am grateful for all those who hold with me a sense of mystery, who are willing to sit with me in the midst of the paradox, not knowing if that deep current in which we swim is sea or sky, who understand the path is sometimes straight and sometimes wildly curved. Thank you for your wisdom, your willingness to learn and evolve, and your open acceptance of the unpredictability of things!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Majestic moments

I've been reading about the great photographer Edward Weston, and this morning I read that at some point early in his career he got very excited about a phrase he read in a review of a Steichen exhibit: The Majesty of the Moment.

One of the things photography keeps teaching me is that each moment is unique, and that everything is always changing. Something which looks absolutely magnificent when I drive by may be completely gone by the time I realize I want to photograph it and turn my car around. The light may have shifted, or the deer may have fled into the woods, or the boat may have sailed on by...

So I try to keep my camera handy (although sometimes I forget to put in the memory card, or forget it may be time to recharge the battery) and catch what majesty I can. This photo, shot as I was driving out our street, is an example of that: it's not a great composition (I would prefer to have the chairs facing into the photo rather than out) but the moment is a classic sandspit moment -- full of light and color and summer and view -- and it has the extra emotional impact of being a shot of our neighbor June's front yard, taken only a month or two before she died. So it will probably go into this year's Sandspit Calendar, and those who see it will think of her...

Not all moments are majestic, of course -- some of them are just ordinary: I know, because I seem to shoot way too many of those. And then there are the others, that are majestic at the other end of the spectrum, the horrifying end: the first bombs at Pearl Harbor, or the collapse of the World Trade Towers surely fall into that category. Or, on a more personal level, the loss of my friend's son this past summer to an aneurysm, or this story I learned last night in an email, about another friend's 25-year-old daughter, who had let her insurance lapse while she was between jobs, and had her pajamas catch fire yesterday morning while she was boiling an egg at her gas stove.

Fortunately, the burns were not severe--first and second degree, on her chest, neck and hands-- and there was a hospital just across the street. But she was in the ICU for about 24 hours. Which means, of course, that the bills are going to be huge. And my friend's husband is still unemployed after losing his job a year ago, so they can't help out.

It's a nightmare, for sure; one of those moments that will have a huge impact on all of them for some time to come -- and surely another reminder that in times like these reform of our health care system is desperately needed. And as I watch my friends' valiant responses to both these challenges, and their willingness to continue counting their blessings in the face of so much loss, I am amazed anew at the extraordinary resilience and determination of the human spirit.

But still -- it's a reminder that things can change really suddenly, and that even those ordinary moments can have a certain relative majesty -- because in the next moment they will be gone forever. Another good reason to pay attention now, to notice now those gifts each moment brings.

I keep hoping I'll get better at that...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Creative cooperation

Isn't this the coolest set of mailboxes you ever saw? I LOVE the creativity of it, and wish we could do something like this in our neighborhood -- but of course, one of the things that makes it possible for these folks is that they are a family. Presumably that means they get together with some frequency, which makes it easier to come up with creative solutions like this one.

One of the things I love about the concept of Ubuntu is the idea that community can be family, too; that strangers are also part of your family. When I first read that, I saw it more as a call to compassion, or to the golden rule: treat others as you would have them treat you.

But looking at this image I see how wonderful it could be if we took that further; if we as communities could get together more regularly, as families do, without agendas but just to chat and brainstorm, to explore creative solutions to simple problems. What if we could look at our resources (in this case, they obviously had an old family car) and our strengths (obviously someone in the family had a way to cut metal) and be willing to sacrifice an old way of being or seeing in order to meet a more current need?

Surely someone in the family objected; wanted to keep driving this old beauty, or to restore her to her original state. But clearly that person was willing to compromise. Surely someone in the family thought the old mailbox stands were perfectly adequate, but was willing to try something new. And how wonderful that everyone agreed to take pride in the family name, to rejoice in what they shared and to share it wholeheartedly?

In these challenging economic times, communities and people everywhere are being encouraged to share, to offer up their own particular resources and strengths, to sacrifice an old way of being or seeing to meet a more current need. And I'm betting the more successful communities work that way because they have a unique quality, a sort of shared quirkiness -- and an acceptance of that -- a sense of pride in who they are and what they have accomplished together, and a willingness to approach their challenges creatively, and together.

My only question is, how do we build communities like that? Because it looks to me like my street works that way -- though we haven't gone so far as to get creative about our mailboxes -- but my city sure doesn't.

Monday, October 19, 2009

When the circle has right of way...

Our assignment last week for our ongoing photography project was SHAPE, so by the end of the week, as I was heading off to lead my workshop at Pilgrim Firs, I was seeing shapes everywhere.

I had resisted shooting signs earlier in the week because we have a rule about not shooting things with words on them (too distracting), and, actually, about not shooting "things" anyway -- which turns out to be particularly hard with shapes. In the past we could avoid "thing-ness" by moving in close, but shape has to do with totality, so that wasn't really an option...

At any rate, this was one of the shots I took, and it pretty much breaks all the rules. But I like it for two reasons: because it tells me something about what these particular shapes (and colors) mean in the context of our particular society, and because it's a little bit amusing that the only shape missing is a circle (other than the flashing light) and yet the sign states uncategorically that the circle has the right of way.

Aargh -- the cats are crying to be fed and the repairmen are due any minute. So instead of offering any of my own thoughts about what it might mean for the circle to have right of way I'll just stop here and leave it for you to ponder. Have fun!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Through the reflections and the tears

The rain came down in buckets yesterday, and with it came the wind; my husband informed me somewhat sheepishly at bedtime that he had taken down the wind chimes again while I was off at my retreat; their noise is just too distracting for him on windy days.

There was, however, a moment of calm in the morning before I left; this is a shot of an unusual wave pattern I noticed out my living room window through the fog and rain.

What intrigues me about this image -- and what intrigued me about that moment -- is that the water was so calm at that time. I know it looks like there are waves, but if you look closely you can see a bird flying low across the lower right side of the image, and you can see her reflection in the water below.

This view is on the Puget Sound side of our house, not the lagoon side. The water on that side is usually pretty choppy, so it was unusual to see it calm. But because it's calm the wave pattern is really striking -- and I have no idea what caused it; there were no boats out because the weather was so bad.

I'm thinking that the reason this photo calls to me this morning is because there are lots of rather mystical moments in our lives; lots of times when "the Lord moves in mysterious ways." But we're mostly unaware; we don't see that movement because our lives are too busy, too choppy. It's only when we manage to establish a sense of calm that we can begin to see those mystical patterns dancing across the surface our lives, guiding us or calling us or just shifting us slightly, to see things in a new way.

This scene was revealed to me -- this calm in the middle of the storm -- because, if only for a moment, I chose to pause and look outside my window. Yes, there are some reflections off the window. And yes, you can see the drops of rain, like tears. But through the reflections and the tears you can see God moving over the water.

Which makes me think of Genesis, Chapter 1:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters."

Perhaps it looked a little bit like this.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Just smile...

I've just returned from a UCC retreat center somewhere south of Port Orchard, where I was kindly invited to do a workshop on the topic of finding God in a chaotic lifestyle.

I had a wonderful time, and met some lovely women, and now I'm home all I really want to do is curl up and take a nap, listening to the steady sound of rain on the skylights.

But one of the things we did near the end of the workshop was to share some of the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of things we loved. It was such fun to hear about things other people loved -- my favorite was "touching a goat's milk sac" -- that I thought I'd share one of my favorite photos from that Miksang workshop I did in Colorado.

It's not that it's a great photo -- or even that I like lollipops. But when I look at this I remember the joy I felt trying to photograph a tray full of brightly colored lollipops, and it makes me smile. So I'm showing it here in hope it will make you smile, too -- cuz smiles are pretty wonderful things. Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Not necessarily garbage

After a long Indian Summer, days on end of clear skies and cold nights, the Northwest has finally reverted to its more standard October menu of gray and rain. My camera is delighted; having been raised in the Northwest, it seems a bit overwhelmed by the high contrast of sunny days, and seems to prefer the rich lush color it gets when things grow wet and cloudy.

But my brain hasn't made the transition yet, and I found this morning I had a longing for the bright blues of southern Italy, so I went browsing through my Italy pictures. Instead of picking the beautiful blue rowboats of Capri or Naples, however, I ended up with this trash can from our hotel in Sorrento.

Hmm. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that my Miksang assignment this week is to shoot SHAPE. In fact, I was really struggling with that until this morning, when I was again reading Chogyam Trungpa's Dharma Art.

He's talking about what he calls the Four Actions, and says this: "The first action has a sense of pure perception without sharp edges. It is related with the color blue, and also related with the circle, as opposed to a square or other shape. The round shape of the circle represents gentleness and innate goodness, which is absent of neurosis. Blue is like a pure sky and represents space. Blue is also related with the air: cold, fresh air. Altogether, being without sharp edges has a sense of seeing the world at its best. This is the first karma, which is the principle of peace, or pacifying."

He then went on to describe the other four actions/karmas: enriching (a yellow square), magnetizing (a red half-circle) and destruction (a green triangle). I confess that the further down the path he got the more arbitrary the construction seemed to me, and though I could imagine that if I spent time with it it might take on more clarity, I could feel my resistance building -- and with it a bit of a sneer, that this so-called important man was probably just talking gibberish.

We humans are such curious creatures. Confronted with something we can't quite understand, we have a way of shrinking into ourselves and away from it. We become wary, suspicious, and a little anxious, and we are quick to condemn -- and somehow I'm thinking this is the way, and the reason, so many people are reacting so negatively to Obama: his concepts are new to many, a little scary, and so, rather than walk toward him with an open mind, they shrink away and condemn.

There's lots of Biblical precedent for this: Jesus' statement in Matthew 13:13, for example: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand." Or in Jude 1:10, where it says,"these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals--these are the very things that destroy them."

As soon as I felt that sneer growing, I lectured it and told it to be more open. Because despite my reservations, Trungpa's words helped me understand what it might mean to be out shooting shapes; helped me see that somehow it might be possible for my camera to portray a shape without getting all caught up in what the shape actually was. And with that I definitely got the itch to go out with my camera, even though the rain has gone from delicate showers to downright pouring.

I'm thinking that this is why this morning's image is a garbage can. It's to remind me that I often see without seeing; and that my mind is too quick to condemn. It's to remind me that it may be a mistake to focus on the garbage; that it's more important to notice the light, or the color, or the shapes; the circles and the squares. And it's also there to remind me that just because I don't understand something right away, that doesn't mean it does not have value. It's important to remember that my brain is not always my most open and intelligent way of perceiving. I need to pay attention to my instinct, which may know more about what a situation has to offer than my thinking mind.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

No place like home...

After having visited that abandoned home on Tuesday and blogging about it yesterday morning, I decided to take my husband to it, thinking it might spark some interesting conversations. Yesterday was one of those typical northwest days, showers alternating with brief bursts of sunshine, so we were lucky to get in and out of the property before the heavens opened up and began to pour.

He definitely understood the appeal of the place, and our discussions revealed some important thoughts for each of us, around what retirement might look like (for him it definitely does NOT include a dog!) and what an ideal home might be; about our feelings for the home we have, about how much we both miss New England (though not the bugs and snow)... It was all good.

And then I came home to find two wonderful notes from my blogger buddy, Maureen, inviting me to breathe into the longing and pointing out that we are already living our best life (so true) and, later, another note from my friend Karen, who knew the property and why it had fallen into disrepair. Standing in our living room, sharing these observations with my husband, I thought what it would be like to stand in that OTHER living room, and realized, yes, this place is perfect for us now, and though I miss having trees and grass (we have no yard or trees, just dune grass) I would miss our views and neighbors more if we were to leave. The fact is, that rush of emotion I felt looking at the other house was a curious mix of my childhood restlessness cropping up, memories of fall in New England -- and yet another manifestation of spiritual longing.

So it was amusing, this morning, as I was preparing to lead a retreat whose subject is largely about finding ways to return to our spiritual home, to read in Elizabeth Lesser's book, The Seeker's Guide, this quote about that longing for home:

"To long for peace, or God, or spirituality is quite natural. To feel a certain loneliness for a nameless friend or an emptiness that cannot be filled with the ways of the world is instinctive. Especially today, with the accelerated pace of human activity and technology, we may feel a deep spiritual hunger. Yet many of us don't know what to do when a longing for spirituality settles briefly in our hearts. we may not even know what it is. With the first pangs of hunger we rush to fill the empty space with something, anything, rather than float quietly on our backs in the mysterious waters where our souls live...

"We could say that the history of human suffering is our inability to come to terms with spiritual hunger. Like one big cosmic joke, humans were born yearning for a home of tranquil abiding, yet without the map to get there...Thus a critical step on the spiritual path, and one that we will take over and over, is to let ourselves experience spiritual hunger long enough and deep enough to follow it to its source. Unless we do that, we will never get the chance to taste the true nourishment that is indeed available, closer to us than we think."

Sometimes I think I should just rename this blog SYNCHRONICITY: so much of what happens here seems to be about the way the pieces of my life and other lives around me have such curious ways of overlapping and connecting.

But, yes, there were messages -- in the odd force that led me to drive down that particular road; in the emotional response to the house, the shed, the grass and the trees; in the process of preparing for this retreat; in the reading I'm doing now that my spirituality class has started up again. And they're not just about me; they're all about that wonderful way the Divine has of calling us home.

Which makes me think again of the passage the Rev. Cathy George quoted from Bishop John Coburn when she spoke at his memorial service:

Everything you have ever experienced” John writes “has been God trying to communicate with you. God is doing everything possible to bridge what separates you from him. God will stop at nothing that is not contrary to God’s nature, not even the death of his son, so that you and he may come together and converse with each other, saying I and You that you may know God as your lover and yourself as his beloved.”

Thank you again, Barbara, for sharing Cathy's homily with me. And Thanks Be to God for continually calling us Home -- in both senses of that phrase: for awakening our longing for spirit, and for residing within each of us, so that each of us serves as -- and may be called -- God's Home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A bit of wanderlust

I spent a little time over the weekend exploring a part of the island I rarely visit, and one of the road ends I explored went by a beautiful old summer cabin that sat on an elbow of land on the edge of the bay.

The cabin had been painted red, with a sweet front porch only steps from the water and a charming little sandy beach, but the windows were boarded up and there were no trespassing signs everywhere. The yard was glorious -- a child's paradise of wise old trees and gracious lawn -- and in the back was this abandoned shed, and the table with its teapot, undisturbed.

I fell in love, I have to admit; I cannot fathom why something so beautiful sits unused and unloved in such a desirable location. What tragedy explains this waste? And then, sadly, the greed kicks in, and I begin to imagine having it as my own; spending my latter days there with my husband, turning the shed into a studio, someday having grandchildren come to play in the shed and the yard... Why is it that there is this drive to possess, to acquire, to take things for our own? Is not the life we have enough? What is it in us that's always seeking more, or different?

Or is it just that the child in me -- who moved every 3 1/2 years -- is restless again? We've now lived in this place longer than I've ever lived anywhere in my entire life -- over 8 years -- and it shouldn't be surprising that a lifelong habit of moving would kick in from time to time and lust for change. Perhaps I'll sit with that a bit, befriend the child who longs to move again and ask her what she's looking for, and what drives her restlessness. It could just be she only needs a hug.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blessings like water

As I think I may have admitted here before, my husband and I are fans of the TV show, 2 1/2 men. And there's something Charlie Sheen's character says from time to time when whatever woman he's with at the moment has blurted out some huge statement of love, or of disappointment with him: he shrugs his shoulders in apology and says "I got nothin'."

...which is how I was feeling before I walked into that diner yesterday. It wasn't that I was empty; I was just... blank. So it was a delight to read this passage in Chogyam Trungpa's book, Dharma Art this morning:

"Usually people don't like to show their initial blankness. Particularly people who are highly trained or have studied too much or have become too involved with the professional world would like to hide that blankness. But that blankness is the basic ground.

Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic. It's very ordinary. It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you begin to realize that you can dance with them. So inspiration comes from acceptance rather than from having a sudden flash of good gimmick coming up in your mind. Natural inspiration is simply having something somewhere that you can relate with, so it has a sense of stableness and solidity. Inspiration has two parts: openness, and clear vision. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which is blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open."

Which I think explains why I was so incredibly pleased with yesterday's images: I didn't go to the diner expecting to shoot. I went to the diner out of acceptance; out of openness to the moment. I wouldn't get to blog that morning because my husband was around the house and clearly uncomfortable. We couldn't call the chiropractor because they weren't open yet. Why not turn the unexpected together time into a breakfast out -- something we rarely do -- and just relax, feed ourselves, and enjoy each other?

Trungpa says that openness is an important by-product of a regular meditation practice. "Once the practice of meditation is developed and you begin to see yourself clearly, then you also begin to see your environment clearly. ...The sitting practice of meditation allows a sense of solidness and a sense of slowness and the possibility of watching one's mind operating all the time. Out of that, a sense of expansion slowly begins to develop, and, at the same time, the awareness that you have been missing a lot of things in your life. You have been too busy to look for them or see them or appreciate them. So as you begin to meditate, you become more perceptive. Your mind becomes clearer and clearer, like an immaculate microscope lens."

My usually controlling self had taken a back seat and was just going with the flow -- and suddenly the flow was feeding me on lots of different levels, giving me exactly what I needed for that particular moment. Because I was open, centered, in the moment, blank, I was able to see all the gifts; an incredible blessing. I had gone beyond trust, not-trust, hope, and not-hope to this kind of flat, quiet, unexpectant space. And in the end the blessings poured out like water.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Empty pot, full heart

My husband's back went out yesterday, so he decided not to work today. While we were waiting for the chiropractor's office to open so he could make an appointment, we decided to go out to our local diner (which has changed hands yet again) for breakfast.

It's one of those fabulous fifties diners -- not that it's decorated with 50's stuff, but it has that lovely distressed aluminum trim, turquoise booths, and those charming little mini-jukeboxes. And, sadly, by the time we left there was no one else in the place. So I asked the waitress if I could take some pictures, and she said yes! Hurray!

I'd just been telling my husband as we drove into the parking lot that I was feeling a bit sad about my photography this morning. I'm doing the final prep for the Women Behind the Lens show, and, well... maybe it's kind of like stage fright? I'm just not at all sure if what I've been shooting lately is really from the heart.

So to take my camera into the diner turned out to be a really wonderful gift: I LOVED what my camera was seeing. Taking these pictures was like taking a long cold drink of water after a week in the desert -- they were just SO rich and juicy! So I'm hoping to include one or two of them in the show, just to provide a bit of an alternative to the other, rather gritty pieces that I'm currently planning to exhibit.

I know. It's just a pot of coffee, and an empty one at that. But the sight of it just makes my heart soar. Go figure!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just breathe...

We've all engaged in finger pointing exercises: that activity starts pretty young -- especially if you have brothers and sisters. "He started it," or "She hit me first" seem to be commonly repeated phrases in the face of parental accusations.

But it doesn't seem to stop there: I often find myself in the car, driving down the road, late to an appointment, and some part of me is busily finger-pointing, manufacturing excuses. "There was a truck blocking our road," or "I got a phone call just as I was leaving," or "My husband decided at the last minute he wanted me to run an errand."

It's not that the excuses aren't true, but the fact is I COULD have been on time if I'd not been engaged in something else; I COULD have factored in some allowance for those last minute interruptions. But I don't tend to say "I got caught up in planning the workshop and lost track of time" because some part of me isn't quite willing to accept the responsibility for my lateness. Some part of me, which seems to date back to my childhood, is convinced that anything I might be working on is not valuable enough to serve as an adequate excuse, and wants to project blame elsewhere.

So that's what happens with finger-pointing. But this image isn't really about finger-pointing. It's about TOE-pointing, which has much more attractive connotations. Toe pointing calls up images of graceful ballerinas en pointe, a child testing the water of a pool, or certain kinds of exercises which can only be done lying on your back, exercises which stretch, strengthen, and tone. While finger pointing comes out of our heads, out of a real or imagined sense of guilt, and is accusatory, toe pointing turns things upside down and focuses on the body, with implication of smooth, flowing lines; testing, adventurous; graceful, organic, feminine.

So even though our fingers and toes are all part of the same body, we tend to see them as separate, just as we see the brain and the body as separate, and we're altogether too quick to label one good and the other bad. How can we begin to reunite brain and body? Because if we could see it all as one, the good and the bad would be shared across the range of activities and we might be less quick to label; might remember that fingers test the water, too; that a ballerina's hands may describe an even more graceful arc than her toes; that feet can step on things and grind them into the dirt.

I think that in order to strike that balance, to see it all as one complete whole, we have to keep our focus on the heart, the source, that which relentlessly pumps food and energy out to the extremes of being. If my head is about thinking, my hands are about doing and my feet are about going, and if my attention remains on any one of those extremes, I lose sight of the importance of being, which is, after all, central to existence. So I need to keep returning to the heart of the matter; to the heart which lies at the center of being, providing quiet and constant fuel for the thinking, going, and doing by which we define ourselves. Somehow I have to balance my attention levels in a way that keeps me whole and fulfilled while allowing me to carry out whatever purposes I was born to.

But of course it's hard to justify taking the time to return to center, because it doesn't necessarily have any obvious result; we get nothing to show for it except (over time, if we're lucky) through increased productivity in the other areas. Fortunately there's a frequent reminder out there, a way for the body to return to center even when the rest of our attention is out doing, going, and thinking. That reminder, of course, is the act of breathing. And if we watch that, we see that the body understands perfectly that there must be a balance between breathing out and breathing in, between doing and being, between giving and taking, between loving and receiving love.

Which is why, when my daughter calls to announce she's stressed out about something going on in her life, whatever advice I may offer I always end up adding, "Breathe. Just Breathe." And she's heard that from me so many years now that she always stops then and takes a deep breath, and I hear that light sigh of her exhale, the sigh that says, right, I get it; I have to stop obsessing and just remember; know that I am loved and the world is good and everything will be okay.


Just Breathe.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Struggling with the voices

I woke up a few days ago after having several dreams about creating this image -- or something like it. This is not the first time such things have happened, but always before the images were created using pastels or acrylics; this is the first time I've seen a manipulated photograph in a dream.

So, since I had some free time yesterday, I decided to attempt to recreate it -- always an interesting process, given that dreams are so imprecise. And watching myself as I worked on it, I discovered some interesting voices playing in my head, expressing a lot of tension.

One voice was attempting to hold onto the image in the dream, as if that were the ideal and any thing that doesn't match the dream would definitely fall short of what was required. Not only is that voice a perfectionist, but it was as if the original image came from somewhere outside of me, and was something someone else was expecting me to live up to.

A second voice was making excuses: "But that original picture doesn't exist; I can't find it in my files, so you can't expect me to make an exact replica. I mean, I'll do my best to come close, but..." That voice was doing a lot of whining.

A third voice was attempting to stand up for me: "The dream is just an idea: YOU are the artist, YOU get to choose how to carry it out. And you can choose to add or subtract or change the elements as part of the creative process: this should reflect YOU, not some dream you had; you can improve upon the dream."

A fourth voice was chanting quietly from the corner of the room, where she sat on the floor, hugging her knees and sulking. "You'll never get it done. It'll never be any good. This was a stupid idea. You're not an artist, you're just a player." And a fifth voice was actually sitting at the computer with a frown on her face, trying different solutions and struggling to make it all work while a sixth voice was watching over her shoulder, tapping her foot and telling her to hurry up, she was wasting her valuable time; there are lot of other things to be done here, oh, don't worry about making that line straight, just do it, it's not like you're going to sell it or anything, it's not like it matters...

And then, because #5 listened to #6, we got to the end of the project and that line -- one of the first steps of the process, wasn't straight, and threw the whole piece off. The rush, the compromise, the busy-ness and the fear damaged the whole project, and though I could do some things to compensate, there was a deep regret at the end for not having trusted myself enough to pace myself.

Whooo-EE! Does EVERY artist have all those conflicting tensions? And are all those voices shouting only when I'm trying to respond to some inner prompting of creativity, or are they there all the time? Sitting apart from the project later and attempting to process a completely different situation, I had this vision of a crow with a wounded wing. But the wing has no chance to heal because it's been pinned to the crow's body with a sort of giant staple; one point embedded in its shoulder and the other embedded in its heart. The crow has learned to limp along quite successfully, but there's no hope of flying until the staple is removed.

For some reason that makes me think (who knows why the brain travels these odd paths) about Obama's Nobel Prize. It's fabulous, it's a message of hope and respect from the rest of the world, and he accepted it with all the appropriate grace and humility for all the peace that does not yet exist. And yet there are so many people in this country who are grumbling about it. Where does that grumbling come from? Why are so many people angry with this man who is attempting to tackle so much in so short a time? It is as if my voices are America's voices; as if Obama is trying to bring some reality to this dream we had, that dream articulated in the Declaration of Independence, in our Constitution, in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the rest of the country is divided up into perfectionists, worriers, cheerleaders, and nay-sayers; people who are trying to help, people who want to rush things, and gloomy guses who will never be satisfied.

It's a wonder ANY of us ever accomplish ANYthing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

That flame of color

One of the most heartening things I've learned in recent years is something I picked up at a workshop given in Seattle by Jack Kornfeld and Dr. Daniel J Siegal called The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. The workshop was essentially a dialogue between the principles of Buddhist psychology and new advances in neurobiology (the crossover was amazing), but the piece that excited me the most was the neurobiological discovery that the brain is capable of re-programming itself; that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

My own most recent example of this is this photo, which I shot while we were up on Hurricane Ridge earlier this week. It's been almost exactly a month since I went to Colorado for my Miksang workshop; almost exactly a month since I spent two days just shooting moments of color. But my eyes, or at least their neural pathways, still carry the residue of that experience. So even though we were standing on a mountaintop, surrounding by intriguing dead trees and these amazing long views, my attention was caught by this brightly colored collection -- a tarp, a water jug, some canvas straps -- in the back of a truck, and I couldn't seem to walk by without shooting that flame of color.

It's a bit like it was when I was pregnant: suddenly everywhere I looked there were pregnant women. Or when I was in the throes of my divorce; I seemed to keep meeting other people who were really struggling in their marriages. It's almost as if we can choose what we're attuned to. When we focus our energy on something particular, it is as if the act of focusing leaves an imprint, like the press of a hand on one of those heat-sensitive foam pillows: the imprint lingers long after the hand is gone, doing a slow fade, continuing to influence thoughts and perceptions.

Perhaps that's why making regular time for prayer or meditation is so important -- because it leaves an imprint that continues to mold you even after you've stopped and returned to your daily tasks: it is certainly true that the things which occupy your mind when you're NOT meditating have a way of intruding on your meditation time!

But the most important learning here is that we can generate new habits of thought, new ways of living, new ways of seeing. It IS possible to replace old habits of thinking with new ones; it just takes conscious effort and some conscious repetition -- which means that even if we can't change the situations around us or the people who challenge us, we CAN change the way we see them and respond to them. And if we can build these new habits of thinking, they can actually stick with us; they have staying power, they're not just temporary fixes. The brain is imprintable.

I find that incredibly encouraging.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thinking of Steinbeck on Hurricane Ridge

This month the citizens of our island are reading Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and those of us who write have been invited to write 2000 word stories about our island in the style of Steinbeck.

Always game for a challenge, I picked up the book and began reading, thinking it would be fun to do some emulating. But that turns out to be a much more difficult task than I had initially imagined.

What I remember about Cannery Row (which I read long before I self-identified as a writer) is that it's about poor folks living on the bad side of town. I had not registered -- or at least had not remembered -- Steinbeck's passion for detail.

Here are the first two sentences of the novel:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."

Talk about being present to your surroundings: who among us sees with that much precision, with that much attention to the senses and textures and structures that mark our immediate environments? The chances are that there's someplace in your town that has some of these characteristics: do you know where it is? Do you notice it? Or do you avoid it -- the way the people of Monterey must surely have avoided Cannery Row when it looked like that?

And what would it mean to draw attention to that aspect of your town, to the grimy underside that folks long to pretend does not exist? Or would it instead be possible to bring the same kind of attention to a less seedy part of town: would it have the same impact?

Faced with all those questions and challenges, it's probably not surprising that I decided -- instead of writing -- to play hooky and take advantage of the unseasonably gorgeous fall weather yesterday to go to Sequim, a sunny little town about an hour and a half from my island. I had a photo assignment there, so I drove over with my husband, took the pictures, and then went up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics for some fresh mountain air. It was a gorgeous day, and the view went on forever (as you can see).

But it wasn't a view with a lot of detail; it was actually incredibly restful and simple, pure as the air we were breathing; almost like finding a little pocket of spirituality and peace in the midst of a fairly chaotic lifestyle. So I share it with you here as an antidote to the Steinbeck passage, knowing that it, too is a poem. But there's a scent, not a stink, of mountain air and cedar trees; a noise of restless jays, a quality of light, a tone; once a habit and a nostalgia -- for my mountain-climbing husband -- and now a dream, because he doesn't do that any more. And there's none of the gathered-and-scattered-ness that marks Steinbeck's second sentence; at least, not that I could see.

At the end of our visit, my husband insisted on taking the dog out of the car, and then sat on a bench with the dog, looking out over the mountains, instead of taking him for a walk. "Why aren't you taking him out into the meadow," I asked. "He must surely need to pee."

And my husband replied, "He just peed a little bit ago; probably doesn't need to do it again. I just thought he shouldn't come all the way up here without having a chance to smell the mountains." And there they sat, the two of them, breathing. It was lovely, and very dear.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Getting my ducks in a row

I'm not quite certain why this image called to me this morning; I suspect it may have something to do with ducks flying south for the winter and my having made the reservations for our annual Thanksgiving trip yesterday (this year my husband's family is gathering in Florida -- a LONG way from Seattle!)

But I know that what I liked about the image is that the four ducks who are heading forward look very confident, and the sideways one in the lower right corner looks like it's reassuring an apprehensive mate; notice how short the mate's neck is compared to the others?

When we're confident that we know what we're doing and where we're going, our necks are longer; our shoulders low and relaxed. But when I get anxious or apprehensive, my shoulders have this way of creeping up to my ears. I always thought that was just where I hold tension, but looking at this picture I'm thinking maybe it's really a turtle-like response: I'm willing to stick my neck out when I'm sure of myself, but part of me wants to pull into my shell when I worry I'm in danger of making a fool of myself.

Writing that, I had a sudden image of my Dad: when he wasn't sure, his shoulders would creep up and his eyes would get kinda squinty, too; almost as if he were a child, thinking, if I can't see you, you can't see me? When it was really extreme, his head would turn off a little to the side, as if to ward off a blow, and one side of his mouth would kind of creep up.

Remembering those things, I find myself feeling them in my body, and suddenly I'm reminded of that wonderful study quoted in Blink, about the two scientists who were studying facial muscles. When they were analyzing all the muscles involved in frowning and anger, they actually found their moods switching toward anger, and came to realize that there might actually be some truth to the old adages about "putting on a happy face;" that smiling and frowning can actually cause your mood to change.

We were speaking of this yesterday in our spirituality class; about the messages we got as young women, messages that taught us to hide and supress our angers and fears, to "make nice," to be "sugar and spice." My mother-in-law used to say the job of a mother was to civilize her children, and certainly teaching these messages encourages a certain amount of civility -- and presumably a child who learns to smile in spite of everything will feel a bit cheerier.

But we've all see the other kinds of smiles, the fake ones, the ones that mask anger and fear -- and we all know they don't do a particularly good job of that. How can we raise our children -- and ourselves -- in such a way that the need to be gracious and functioning members of society is balanced with a determination to be true to and honest with one's self? It seems to me that when we achieve a good balance there we get more confident, better at sticking our necks out, taking risks, moving forward, helping others, being ourselves. And then the smiles become more real, more honest, more likely to create reflected smiles in the lives around us.

I'm thinking now that the way to achieve the balance between respect for others and respect for ourselves may have a lot to do with unconditional love, that loving voice of acceptance that somehow gets planted deep within us. It doesn't matter quite so much where it comes from -- our parents or grandparents, our mates, or somehow from our faith -- but it does seem to make an enormous difference in how we move in the world.

Which may explain why I feel the need to meditate. Not having heard or felt that loving acceptance from parents or mates for the first 30 years of my life, its voice took a long time to get planted, and I still need to be conscious about listening for it; it's all too easy to lose that grounding and get off track; to get fearful or anxious, to pull into myself and back away from challenges, to question my motives and decisions -- which is not necessarily a bad thing ...

But meditation brings me back to a place of acceptance, to a still place where both the part of me that rushes into things and the part of me that questions all my decisions can co-exist more comfortably. In that space of unconditional love, I can get all my ducks in a row: all the wise and creative and fearful voices in me can be heard safely and then, working together, can make hard decisions together and move forward without flinching or squirming. They may not make the best possible decisions, but at least they'll help me be the best that I can be.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To change or not to change

After all our discussions this weekend about the challenges of being change agents, I read this in Dharma Art this morning: "Although you would like to see things changing -- not working out as they were, but reshuffling themselves -- at the same time, the world remains as it is."

This is the last line of a whole chapter on seeing things as they are instead of labeling them, or defining them as good or bad, or as "I want this" or "I hate that." And though Chogyam Trungpa is speaking of art, I find myself wondering if I might be too quick to assume that change is the answer when situations or images are either boring or uncomfortable.

The original version of this image, for example, is a dull beige. The lines of it are identical, and I loved the texture, but I really wanted more color, and more than just ONE color, and so... well, I changed it. And now, for me at least, it is more pleasing. But is that a good thing?

Ah. With just a moment's flash, I see that it is also true that this is who I am and what I do; I see an image with all that potential beauty, and I peel back that which is to reveal the potential richness that lies beneath, and that the very act of questioning that is a kind of change impulse.

Perhaps this task of trying to stay present, to see the moment as it is, and accept it, is also means staying present to who I am, to my impulses, and to accept them as well. Because, in all those discussions of the weekend, it was clear that one of the problems that kept us from accomplishing what we felt born or inspired to accomplish was a lack of belief in ourselves. And surely, if we could actually see and accept ourselves as we are without always wishing we -- or our lives -- were different, then we would pay more attention to the task at hand instead of wishing or worrying. And wouldn't that make us more effective?

It seems a little convoluted, this wanting to change the impulse to change. What is it in me that wants to change things? And what other part of me can't accept that, and wants to change that? And what OTHER part of me looks at both of those parts and just... smiles? I think that last piece is the Godness within, that inner divine that is so deliciously accepting. I think I'll just go sit at her feet for a while and rest...