Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dew Drop Inn

This morning I was reading Jack Kornfield's  A Path With Heart, and the topic concerned compassion, co-dependency, boundaries and self-esteem. 

It seemed appropriate, given yesterday's belated post about learning to say no, and so I took those thoughts with me on my walk -- thoughts about being compassionate with ourselves; about giving, not out of fear, but out of abundance; about being honest with ourselves about what we need.

And as I walked this little refrain began to accompany my steps:

I can only be what I can be;
I can only do what I can do;
I can only give what I can give --
Life's not what it's not;
It is what it is.

But then I kept thinking about what I learned in my courses last term, about what happens when you put two or more people together in an open and safe space, and how the sum of what happens there is greater than the sum of the parts: it's a bit like that passage in Matthew 18:20 -- "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also."  If you conflate those two concepts, then God becomes the energy that flows between us -- or perhaps it's that the energy that flows between us becomes Divine?

At any rate, the refrain went through some evolutions, and became this:

What we can be;
What we can do;
What we can give --
Is so much more
When we can be and do and give together.

So then I came back and found this image: a perfect pristine canoe, suspended above the water, completely apart from the world.  But the canoe wasn't born to hang there; it was created to be in the water, to balance, to move forward, to ride the waves. 

Though time for rest, retreat, and renewal is important to achieve the self awareness that can fuel us for the journey, it's not enough to perfect ourselves apart from our communities.  Humans are primarily social animals, and at some point we need to engage, to get back into the fray and paddle as best we can.  We can be all about looking good and seeming together, but the real test is this: can we stay afloat when we get back into the water; when we begin again to do and be and give what life asks of us?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time to stop and breathe

You know how we all used to dream that a knight on a white horse would come and rescue us -- you know, back when we thought of ourselves as fragile and helpless...

I think this image -- with its tired old horse -- sang to me this evening because I've been struggling for the last several hours trying to get a document to print out of InDesign in the same colors I see on my screen. 

It took me a while, but I got Photoshop to print right after I got my new computer.  And they're part of the same software suite, right?  So InDesign should print right as well, right?

Not so -- at least not so far, although I had a small stroke of genius about 5 minutes ago and tried printing a photoshop document and matching all the settings between the two print dialogs (and wouldn't you think they could STANDARDIZE that dialog box?).  Ooh, here it comes, let's check... NO!  The red box is still printing as yellow.  GRRR.

I wish I could just call some knight to come in and fix all the settings for me.  But the thought of an extended dialog with someone on the other side of the world who assumes I am completely clueless and answers questions I wasn't asking in the first place is just not all that appealing.  The truth is, I just have to keep fiddling -- and using up this expensive paper -- until I can get it to work.  Which is not how I wanted to spend my time today -- I'm doing this project as a favor for a friend, you know the kind, "Oh, just take a couple of pictures and run it off again, no problem."

It's a great lesson I seem to have forgotten somewhere along the way: learn to say NO!  But it's also frustrating that something that printed beautifully on my old computer 2 years ago is such a disaster on my new one.  And at some point I WILL need to solve this problem.  I just kind of didn't want to deal with it NOW.

So -- as my husband would say -- What did you learn from this?

I think maybe I thought _I_ was the knight on the white horse.  Maybe it's just time to put me out to pasture?  Nope.  I think I just need to pull an Einstein: take a break, take a nap, come back fresh and the solution will be obvious -- I've just put in too many hours today; I'm forgetting to stop and breathe.

How about you?  Did you stop and breathe today?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The blocks that make us whole

"As our development of self grows and our heart becomes less entangled, we begin to discover a deeper truth about the self: We do not have to improve ourselves; we just have to let go of what blocks our heart.  When our heart is free from the contractions of fear, anger, grasping, and confusion, the spiritual qualities we have tried to cultivate manifest in us naturally.  They are our true nature, and they spontaneously shine in our consciousness whenever we let go of the rigid structures of our identity."
  -- Jack Kornfield,  A Path With Heart

I find this passage -- and Kornfield's absolute conviction that the True Self that lies beneath is a beautiful, whole and godly thing -- enormously reassuring.  So when this image jumped out at me today, I decided that that tree that loops across the foreground and blocks your view of the stream represents "what blocks our heart."

But what interests me is that, although that foreground tree (and the little wounded spot on its trunk) keeps the picture from a conventional prettiness, it also adds artistic value of its own to the image, and pulls us into the picture in the very act of blocking our vision.

Which tells me that even though I've found some brief respite by stepping back into A Path With Heart, the messages I've been gathering in earlier posts this week about loving opposites, and about attraction and aversion, are still floating around in my consciousness.  So you have to ask: just how is it that we let go of what blocks our hearts?  And again, I think the answer lies in learning to love all the parts of ourselves and our circumstances -- and most especially those things that block us, and in the blocking force us to look beyond to what lies beneath.

Because the blocks -- however irritating they may be -- could be exactly what defines us, what gives us depth and life and originality.  I suspect it may be true that it is only when we can learn to see the gifts in those blocks that we can fully realize the joyous spirits we were born to be; the True Self and all its unique blessings.

Monday, September 27, 2010

High Hopes

We watched with amusement yesterday as our outdoor cat, Alex, carefully stalked this heron, who had decided to groom himself on one of our logs.  Herons are notoriously skittish, so, of course, as soon as Alex reached the end of that ramp the heron flapped his great wide wings and took off, squawking all the way in indignation. 

We have to assume that it was all a game for Alex; surely he knows the heron is too big for him!  But it makes me think of that song that was popular when I was a kid, High Hopes:

Once there was a silly ol' ram,
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam;
No one could make that ram, scram,
He kept buttin' that dam

But he's got high hopes... he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie in the sky hopes
So any time you're feeling bad
'Stead of feeling sad
Just remember that ram.
Oops there goes a billion kilowatt
Oops there goes a billion kilowatt
Oops there goes a billion kilowatt dam!

Reading of Mary Magdalene again this morning, I feel about as foolish as my cat: the esoteric ideals and imaginal worlds Bourgeault (and Mary) are describing seem as remote and impossible as the heron, and have an amazing gift for flying off out of reach just when I think I'm getting close.

But there are bits here and there which I find encouraging -- or at least comprehensible -- and the phrase that caught me this morning was this: "It is the chains of attraction and aversion, forged in the dominion of wrath, that bind us solidly to the gravitational field of this world."

This feels like another way in to the tension of opposites I was speaking of yesterday. As long as we continue judging -- "This is okay, this is not okay.  This is good, this is bad.  She is nice, he is not nice.  Your behavior is despicable, mine is not.  These people/clothes/activities/neighborhoods/politicians are admirable/attractive/desirable/worthy and those are not." -- we are dividing the world and ignoring its underlying unity. 

So I get that.  But what I can't see is how it could be possible to function without judging.  Now perhaps it's because I am, on the Myers-Briggs scale, an ENFJ, which means judging, making decisions, choosing, comes relatively easy for me.  And I know from watching family members who do NOT have that J at the end of their profiles that it's a bit trickier getting on in the world without that capacity.  It turns out to be surprisingly useful to be able to quickly assess  "That works for me, this doesn't."  Not only does it speed up shopping trips (!) but it also serves as a useful protective device -- I see warning signs in situations or people, and "just don't go there," which can save me lots of grief.

But isn't that exactly it -- if you're good at navigating this earthly life, aren't those exactly the skills that keep us rooted here and make it hard to imagine another way of being?  And couldn't it be true that the things I protect myself from might be the very things that could help give me a push toward a deeper understanding of oneness?

Ah-- but in looking at it that way, I'm judging again: this behavior works here, but fails there.  See how pervasive this tendency can be?

And so I think I will continue to emulate my cat: I will creep slowly -- very very slowly -- toward my goal, holding as steady as I can, knowing the high probability that just when I get within reach it will fly away -- again.  Because in that slow creeping I am learning balance, and focus; in keeping my eyes on the prize, I am finding a steadiness of purpose.  In working to escape those chains of attraction and aversion, and in tempering the wrath I feel when things don't go my way,  I can begin to at least imagine another way of being in the world.

And it's all good.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the integration of opposites

Last night we went to our fourth and last birthday celebration of the week.  Wednesday's was for my husband, Thursday's was for our older daughter's almost-fiancee, Friday's was for our younger daughter, and yesterday's was the 20th birthday celebration for the wonderful church we helped to found on Seattle's eastside: Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Sammamish, Washington.

The evening was also a celebration of the ministry of Pastor Fred Jessett, shown here with his wife Kris at our younger daughter's belated baptism.  Fred knocked on over 1200 doors in his efforts to get Good Sam off the ground, and though he's now long-retired, he still serves as vicar emeritus for his adoring congregation.

Due to a last minute seating change, I found myself sitting beside Good Sam's brand new music director, and -- as happens sometimes -- we slipped almost immediately into a deeper level of conversation than usually attends such social events; clearly, at some level, we were kindred spirits.

But afterward, as often happens, I found I was kicking myself a bit for having monopolized the conversation.  And my first thought was, "Shoot -- I went off into Chatty Cathy mode again!"

But then I read, in Cynthia Bourgeault's The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, that when Mary talks about the importance of becoming "fully human," she's using the word anthropos,  which refers -- as does Logion 22 in the Gospel of Thomas, to "an integration of the opposites within oneself... the union of the finite and infinite within oneself... so that that there is "one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all."

This passage seemed to echo some of the conclusions of the final term paper I wrote while in Vermont last week: I had written that in order to serve others we need to be conscious of our own motivations, blind spots and weaknesses. "Awareness and acceptance of my strengths and weaknesses," I had written, "empowers me to become – whatever I do -- a more balanced and integrated whole."

So I began looking back over the evening and that conversation with different, less hostile eyes, in hopes of finding a way to love behaviors I often find distasteful.  And what I saw was that it was cruel to call myself "Chatty Cathy" and crueler still to assume I was attempting to impress my new friend.  I suspect, instead, that what drove the conversation was a sort of youthful eagerness, a desire to share strategies that might protect the person from some of the hardships I'd endured; to offer a sort of jumpstart along the path to wholeness.

And suddenly I could picture my older daughter, so painfully bright, so eager to share her knowledge with new friends, and so frequently rejected for those behaviors because they weren't ready to hear, or thought she was hopelessly nerdy.  And isn't that really the story of Christ -- desperately trying to help his disciples understand the nature of that mystical union, and being first misunderstood and then ultimately crucified for his efforts?

There's an exercise I've mentioned here before, that I learned a few years back in a workshop given by a Parker-Palmer-inspired group called Washington Courage and Renewal: write down the characteristics in yourself that you find hardest to love, and figure out the gifts those characteristics bring to you and the world.  The answers surprised me then, and continue to bless me today.  So I heartily suggest -- next time you hear those voices inside you, attacking repeat behaviors -- that you spend some time getting to know and love both those voices and those behaviors.  I feel certain they have lessons to teach us, and I firmly believe that if we can integrate them into our total being we'll find it easier to grow into the fully human individuals we were born to become.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gradual, conscious and sober

"Jesus... did not change anyone's states, either by secret rituals or by esoteric information.  Rather he set his disciples on the only known path to integral transformation: the slow and persistent overcoming of the ego through a lifelong practice of surrender and non-attachment.  His gnosis is gradual, conscious, and sober."

  --Cynthia Bourgeault, in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

A young friend of our daughter's came to stay with us for a couple of weeks this summer, and last night she and her father came back to the island to take us out to dinner as a thank you for having hosted her while she decided about applying to the University of Washington.

Unfortunately the evening began and ended awkwardly: their ferry was an hour late, and we forgot to watch the clock at the end of the evening so they missed the 9:45 and had to wait until after 11 to get back to Seattle.

I woke up this morning with that queasy feeling in my stomach that always comes with a sense of guilt: why had I not been more conscious of the time?  How could I have subjected our guests to such thoughtless behavior?

Oddly enough, I found the above-quoted passage enormously reassuring.  For some reason, what I hear when I read it is that it's okay that I am not yet perfect (perhaps this is the true nature of forgiveness?).  It's okay that I am not yet always fully conscious.  The process of integration is predictably gradual,  and "a slow and persistent overcoming of the ego" is all that is required of me.  It's okay to fail from time to time, and inevitable -- as the barriers between self and other begin dissolving -- that the ways I fail others will echo all that more loudly in the chambers of my heart as my capacity for compassion continues to grow.

I think this image rose up for me because  it reflects that philosophy: not every day will be sunny, nor will the garden that is my life always be tidy.  But there is beauty to be found even in the fog of confusion and the weeds of neglect, as long as that which we hope to tend in ourselves and others is still growing.  Perhaps today what I need to surrender is my need to do it right, and it's time to release my attachment to perfection...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Focus on the blues

Today is my younger daughter's birthday; she came over from Seattle to have lunch with us (and open presents of course!) but will be returning to the city for this evening's partying activities.

It's fun to watch her leap into her new life,  but she's not exactly a still pond: life's a bit crazy right now.  So when I found this photo I had taken my last afternoon in Vermont I found myself responding intensely to the stillness of it, and to those rich, deep, calming blues.

... which makes me wonder: can the blues -- I mean the kind of blues that make you sing sad songs about "Dat man who done me wrong" -- also be calming?  How did the color blue come to be associated with sadness?  It seems odd to me, because blue, for me, is associated with sunny skies.

Ah well.  That's about as deep a question as I can ask when she's bustling around getting ready to move another pile of stuff to her new apartment.  To muse on the really deep stuff of life, you need a little peace and quiet -- or, at least _I_ do -- and that seems  to be in short supply at the moment.  Which means I need to grab those calming breaths in odd moments, and trust that they, and images like this one, will be enough to tide me over to my next opportunity for peace.

May this photo offer you -- if only momentarily -- a spot of tranquility in your busy day...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

First we have to deal with now

As anyone who's been through labor and childbirth knows, transition is the hardest part.  However difficult it is to wait and watch all those months as the new life grows inside you, the challenges of dealing with changing body shape, raging hormones, and finding workable clothing are all tempered by the wistful anticipation of what is to come.

Transition, though -- transition is just pure pain and terror, and I suspect there are few women who have any room for mixed emotions when they enter this phase: they're way too busy either wishing they'd never gotten pregnant or demanding that it be over.  The intensity of transition is horrendously difficult, you have NO control over what's happening, and none of the pain of contractions can prepare you for what's to come: even if we've been through it before, we really have NO CLUE how life will change on the other side.  We're birthing new life, after all: it's just never going to be like the old life again.

So why, I wonder, do we assume that any of the other transitions in life will go smoothly?  The fact is, we are almost perfectly designed to resist change, and when it's in the wind we react as if it were a cold snap, pulling into ourselves, clutching our bellies, shivering, and praying it will go away.  It's normal, it's natural, and it's damned unpleasant, and... well, there's really nothing we can do about it.

Hmm.  Does it help to know that?  I was thinking about it this morning, on my walk -- after spending most of my evening comforting first one tearful daughter and then the other.  Because they're in transition -- the hard labor that comes with moving into adulthood -- and it hurts, and it's terrifying, and they can't run away, they just have to keep letting it move through them.  And I can't go through it for them -- I can only hold them and reassure them, even though none of us has a clue what awaits on the other side.  I suspect, of course, that when the wind dies down there will be lots to celebrate and enjoy.  But that's later: first we have to deal with now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Welcoming the light

Re-entry after a vacation, even a working vacation (which this one was; I spent most of my time writing papers and preparing photos for various projects that rolled into my inbox while I was away), is always challenging, and this one has been no exception to the rule.

But mixed in with the time change and the to-do list and the week's worth of catching up and the three-birthdays-in-a-row that start today have been some gifts: Cynthia Bourgeault's new book on Mary Magdalene arrived in the mail while I was gone (hurray!) and this was the sunrise that greeted my sleep-deprived eyes when I staggered into my bathroom this morning.

It's amazing what a little light, and color, and inspiration can do to alleviate the challenges of daily life.  It's a bit of a reminder of our sacred duty as artists -- which Vasily Kandinsky describes this way:

"The duty of the artist is to send light into the darkness of men’s souls."  

I don't think we do that alone, of course; I prefer to think of myself as a channel through which light flows.  But mostly, this morning, I am grateful that light has that wonderful quality to illuminate -- and soften -- the darkness that can set in when we are feeling depressed or overwhelmed.  It really helps -- and I am happy to share.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

There's no place like home

This morning I was glancing through a book my friend had loaned me, and it had an exercise in which you were invited to mentally go to your favorite place in nature, and then think about what you hear, what you see, what you feel, what you smell...

... Which got me to thinking about what I love about this farm where I'm staying, and the countryside I've been driving through, and what I love about my own home on the other side of the country.

So I went downstairs to sit in one of those inviting rockers on the front porch, to bask in the morning sun and watch the mist rise over the fields.  The sun was warm despite the autumn chill, the dew on the grass was sparkling, and the air was thick with the sound of -- is it crickets? Katydids? Cicadas?  Not sure -- but it's a very pleasant hum that reminds me of my childhood.  There were birds, too -- crows and chicadees and some others I didn't recognize; no mourning doves -- but perhaps I'd come down too late to hear them. 

But through it all there was a steady stream of traffic noise -- large trucks, from the sound of it -- and I realized I was missing the sound of home: no trucks, no traffic, no cicadas; but the gentle lap of waves, and the cries of seagulls, herons, and canada geese mixed with the chicadees and crows.  There the mist rises over snow-capped mountains, and the Puget Sound -- not more beautiful, just... different. 

All of which tells me I'm ready to head home.  Which is a good thing, given that my flight will be leaving this afternoon.  It's been glorious here; the gentle rolling hills and red barns and white clapboard homes and subtle colors of early fall have fed my eyes, and the friendship and conversation, the sense of shared challenges and shared vision have fed my soul.  Each of these places is lovely, and I'll probably always feel at home in both, maybe even a little torn between the two.   And if there's a restlessness in me that's still unquenched despite my recent travels, well -- I'll just have to keep an eye on that, and listen to it, and see where it leads me next -- which might not be a place at all, but a new state of mind.  Guess I'll just have to wait and see!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going with the flow

One of my friends' dogs was pacing noisily out in the hallway this morning, her thick nails clattering on the hardwood floor. I've gotten pretty good at sleeping through the noise (she does it at night as well as in the morning), but today she let out a sharp woof, and I thought perhaps she might need to go out.

So I staggered out of bed (it was a little before 7, and I haven't really bothered switching to East Coast Time, so it was early for me) and tried to coax and cajole her down the stairs and out the door, but she was having none of it. 

Since I'd thrown a fleece over my PJ's and put on shoes, I grabbed my camera and went out on the lawn: it was a beautiful morning, and the sun was bowling long streaks of light along the fields and through the trees and hay bales.  I took several photos, none of them particularly spectacular -- digital cameras really don't deal all that well with these extremes of light and dark -- and then I heard the other dogs barking, and turned to find my friend sitting in the rocker on the front porch in her bathrobes with the dogs frolicking at her feet.

Since we were up anyway, we decided to blow off our morning routines of exercise and meditation and just take our laptops to the local coffee shop.  So now I'm sitting at Bennington's South Street Cafe, on a long low gold velvet couch, sipping a double short breve' and listening to a really tacky version of "I woke up, it was a Chelsea Morning, and the first thing that I HEARD..."

But the sun is shining on my coffee cup, the old gold velvet is gleaming, and the coffee is delicious.  Some days you just need to go with the flow and accept what life hands you -- and it's all good!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beyond the net

"The real world is beyond our thoughts and ideas; we see it through the net of our desires, divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer.  To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net.  It is not hard to do so, for the net is full of holes."
 -- Sri Nisargadatta, in Jack Kornfield's A Path With Heart

Through this web of desire, we can see the divisions, and we can see the light.  But we can't seem to step back far enough to see the whole picture, and don't want to reach through and touch into that space of wholeness; it's much more comfortable to stay on this side and continue speaking our endless litany of "He is evil" and "She is bad" and "They done me wrong."

When will we come to sense the interconnectedness and the emptiness out of which all beings arise?  The more solidly we insist on grasping our identity, says Kornfield, the more solid our problems become.  As long as we continue to see ourselves as separate, not just from others, but from ourselves; as long as we ignore our blind spots, blame others for our own lack of vision, ignore or vilify our own weaknesses and torture ourselves with thoughts of rejection and misuse, the pattern will remain the same.

Wholeness will never be about rooting out impurities and imperfections.  Wholeness will emerge when we can learn to see the blessings that lie hidden beyond the stories we weave around our challenges and vulnerabilities; our weaknesses and our shame.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Try it, you'll like it

I passed this charming little museum this afternoon, and had to stop for a photograph -- it seems such a sad commentary on the economy these days -- especially for artists.  And I have to say -- it doesn't look like we're going to get some kind of New Deal coming through to fund art projects; the government is way too busy bailing out bankers and auto executives.

But that doesn't mean the impulse for art is dead -- in a lot of ways, art is more alive now than ever: I keep meeting people who, having lost traditional jobs, are exploring more creative alternatives.  And I've noticed that the first Friday gallery hops on our little island have grown very popular, though it's not clear there are all that many sales.

So, yes, those of us who are artists are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. But there's still beauty out there to capture, whether on canvas, or film; in music or dance; in clay or basketry or rugs or weavings...

I was thinking of this as my friend left yesterday to drive his daughter to North Carolina for a 9 week internship at the John C Campbell Folk School. You wouldn't BELIEVE how many different kinds of art are taught there -- everything from broom making to marbling, soap making and story telling.  Imagine how much fun it would be to spend some time in a place like that!  Do any of those activities call to you?  Perhaps you need to listen to the call.  You don't have to go to Carolina, but it might be possible to do something with things you already have lying around the house -- even cutting up magazines to make collages can be fun, and can bring a little joy into your life.  And I can say from experience that making time to sing with a few friends at a nursing home can be VERY rewarding.

Here's one thing I know is true: just because the museums and galleries are struggling, it doesn't mean that the artistic spirit isn't still alive and well.  Because art -- and we tend to forget this -- was never really about the selling: it has always been about giving voice to that wild creative spirit that dances in our souls.  So please -- don't give up!  Take advantage of this fallow period: learn something new, or try a different approach.  Explore a different angle, or embark on a project... If there are no buyers out there, that means you can create solely for yourself this time.  Which might make for some surprises -- so why not give it a shot? 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Someone to hold your paw

I've been trying to stick to my walking habit, though the path choices are not as simple here, and in today's meanderings I found this charming vignette apparently marking the gravesite of some beloved pets.

... which seems appropriate, because I've had several interactions today with one of my host's geriatric dogs, and I'm concerned that she may be trying to tell me something important about end of life issues; whether for her or for me I can't say for sure, but I assume it's for her.

Her name is Dolma, and she recently turned 16.  She can barely walk, and is a pretty fussy eater plus she's had a round of urinary tract infections that have resulted in some embarrassing accidents; she rarely wakes up in a dry bed in the morning these days.

But twice today she's come to me (and, though I've visited several times over the years there's no reason to believe she specifically remembers me) and tried to communicate something.  The first time was a rather long interaction, ending in an extended hug and a move of her food dish to make it a bit more accessible.  The second time I was busy, so I mostly just spoke reassuringly to her while I continued composing my friend's obituary, because I'm kind of in a time crunch and need to begin typing my final paper for school.

It feels like she's trying to tell me she's had enough and wants relief, but I'm thinking that may be projection on my part; surely if I were living her life, despite all the love and attention she gets, I might well be ready to leave it.  Maybe she just needs reassurance and hugs and understanding; I don't know.  I know from experience that it's hard to make these kinds of decisions for our pets, but I also know that eventually either they choose to give up the ghost or it just becomes too painful to watch them struggle.

It's not so different, really, from watching people in the death throes of a marriage, or a bad job: it hurts to watch, but the decision needs to be theirs, and you know they'll make it when they're ready.  All you can do is offer support and the promise -- or at least the possibility -- of an easier life on the other side of whatever transition is in the works.

Change is hard, and it takes time.  It helps if someone is there to hold your paw and give you backrubs.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wake up call

I found this beautiful flower opening to the sun in a remote corner of the garden this morning.  She looks a bit like a giant crocus, but of course it's the wrong season for that.

Funny, isn't it -- how we think we know what's appropriate for each season of our lives, and then some surprise emerges.  For us in the Northwest, who expect cloudy days in wintertime, a patch of sunshine in November seems an incredible gift, and a brief rainshower in summer even more surprising.

As we cycle through those internal seasons we all have -- which so often have little to do with the external seasons (though I have noticed over the years that my creative juices tend to go into hibernation in wintertime) -- I love those moments of relief: a burst of laughter in the midst of grief, a moment of seriousness in contrast to a sunny mood.

I wonder if those startling blessings are actually always there, it's just that we get in the habit of seeing things in a certain way; if these bursts of light in the darkness and the clouds that give definition to a blue sky are simply a wakeup call.  Wake up! Be present!  Don't assume that how things have been is how things will always be...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When your body has a mind of its own

Here's another view of my friends' farm in Vermont, taken when we visited last September.  I'm looking forward to the peacefulness of this place -- especially at the moment, as I'm dealing with my usual pre-flight jitters.

It always makes me wonder: how strong can my faith be, if I get so anxious before traveling?  I've walked, I've meditated, and still I can feel my shoulders curling up around my ears, and my stomach clenching unnecessarily.  What's that about?

I'm thinking it has something to do with the traveling we did when the kids were little; when there were so many extra things to carry and keep track of, and back when my back was still pretty weak and it would take me days to recuperate from all the extra lifting and those uncomfortable plane seats -- it's as if my body was imprinted on negativity, and I can't seem to retrain it. 

We talked a lot about that in class yesterday -- about the messages the body sends that have very little to do with what we're saying, or think we're feeling.  We had a guest instructor who suggested we spend time watching television with the volume off, to get more practiced at reading other people's body language -- he even said, with a bit of a laugh, that he rarely listens to what people say these days, as their bodies speak much more clearly.

And then we got to practice, doing role play of various situations we might encounter, and then giving each other feedback on the body language we observed: which was fascinating, and very educational.  We agreed, also, that by shifting patterns in our bodies we could shift feelings and attitudes.  So perhaps I can conquer my jitters by straightening up, breathing deeply, and visualizing the relaxation that awaits me only a day's travel away.

Hmm.  Guess I'll keep working on it...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Country roads take me home to the place I belong...

Today was my last day of class, and it was absolutely wonderful.  I'd love to tell you more, but I suspect I'll have to wait until tomorrow: tonight I need to get busy packing for Vermont.

And just in case you don't hear from me (though I suspect you will) over the next few days, it'll be because I'm here, walking down this, my favorite country road in Vermont (though there will still be leaves on the trees.)

Can't wait!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It is what it is

Tomorrow I'll be in class all day, and then Tuesday morning my daughter and I will fly off to Vermont for a week.  Some part of me is eagerly looking forward to a week away -- especially since we'll be staying with some very dear friends -- but another part of me is feeling a bit overwhelmed by all that has to happen between now and the time we leave.

But then, I always get a bit anxious before a trip.  It's not that I'm afraid of flying, it's more the complexity of the departure -- the rushing, and the logistics... I'm usually fine once I'm on the plane. 

But there's some other part of me this year that's watching me gear up for this and feeling very critical: why are you so worried? it says.  Your life is so much easier than the lives of so many of your friends right now; you should just be rejoicing in your good fortune!

Shoulds.  We all have them, we all hear them, and they are often terribly overwhelming.  I asked one of my classmates yesterday -- who in a coaching session had sailed to an island of shoulds -- how she could use her creative powers to cope with all those shoulds.  "I think I'd just burn the whole island to the ground," she said. And then she added, "But then I'd probably just create more shoulds."

And that's the kicker, of course: wherever they come from, we are often the ones who allow our shoulds to continue populating -- and it's hard to know which ones to keep and which ones just need to be burned out.  So what ARE the shoulds, anyway?  I think they are the voices inside that keep expecting us to be good at everything; to be perfect, in fact.  And of course Jack Kornfield has something to say about that this morning in A Path With Heart:

"We fragment our life and divide ourselves from it when we hold on to ideals of perfection.  In ancient China, the Third Zen patriarch taught that "True enlightenment and wholeness arise when we are without anxiety about nonperfection."  The body is not perfect, the mind is not perfect, our feelings and relationships will certainly not be perfect.  Yet to be without anxiety about nonperfection, to understand that, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross puts it, "I'm not okay, you're not okay, and that's okay," brings wholeness and true joy, an ability to enter all the compartments of our life, to feel every feeling, to live in our body, and to know a true freedom. ...The purity that we long for is not found in perfecting the world.  True purity is found in the heart that can touch all things, enfold all things, and include all things in its compassion."

So as some part of me anxiously watches another part of me gear up for the trip, and yet another part of me sneers at the anxious part, I will just try to hold them all lightly in a loving embrace, and expand that embrace to include all my friends who are struggling today.  Sometimes life is just difficult, and sometimes some part of us is just determined to make it seem difficult.  But really, well -- it just is what it is, and you just have to let it flow.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teaching tolerance

Today was a school day, so I'm getting to this a bit late.  But we studied cultural assumptions in class today, and it was a terrific eye-opener.

My guess is that if we spent as much time teaching our children to communicate with people who are different from them as we spend making weapons and armor (in both the actual and metaphorical senses of the word) this world would be a very different place -- and much more pleasant to live in.

We might even be a much more advanced civilization: think how many cures for disease, hunger and homelessness we might have found if we weren't spending all our money building defenses against imagined dangers from misunderstood cultures.


I hope our children do a better job of teaching their children tolerance, openness, and consideration than we did teaching them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The wisdom of the heart

I am happy to report that I managed to find some peace on my walk this morning -- thanks largely, I think, to Jack Kornfield and my continued reading in A Path With Heart.    So I thought I'd share a few of the key passages here with you, in case you might be struggling a bit, too:

"Whatever extraordinary wisdom or compassion you learn in meditation is already there within you.  It is here already.  You don't have to create it or imitate it, but listen for it and discover it within you....All problems take on a new meaning... when we can picture or feel what strength and wisdom, what compassion and clarity feel like in the midst of our very greatest difficulties."

"The wisdom of the heart is here, just now, at any moment.  It has always been here, and it is never too late to find it.  The wholeness and freedom we seek is our own true nature, who we really are."

"When we respect the natural cycles of life, we find that each of life's stages has a spiritual dimension.  Each stage contributes wisdom and experience that we will draw upon in our spiritual growth....The great cycles of our life wash over us, presenting us with challenges and difficult rites of passage much bigger than our ideas of where we were going... When we bring to them attention and respect, each of those tasks has a spiritual lesson in them... As these inner cycles open, our spiritual task is to include eah of them in our awareness, bringing to each the love, wisdom, and forgiveness that have been needed all along."

Somehow I found all this reassuring, and something led me, as I walked this morning, to think and ponder on what I love in this life; what people, objects, and activities fill my heart with a sense of joy and purpose.  And then I just did some tonglen, breathing in the pain of all the people around me who have suffered losses these last few weeks, and breathing out the joy and love I can find deep within.  I finished my walk full of energy and hope, and was even able to find a sense of peace.

I'm hoping my words and image -- combined with Jack's words -- can bring some of that peace to you today.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When life gets overwhelming

As I'm sure I've mentioned here, this has been a rough couple of weeks; we've been touched by several deaths and some fairly serious illnesses.  This morning I learned of another loss, and I am deeply saddened.

My dear friend Gillian, the artist who taught me everything I know about pastels and about the importance of light and dark contrast in composition (see her lovely work here) was married to an extraordinary man, Colin Bull, a renowned arctic explorer and author (see his books here) and a delightful raconteur.

My husband and I have spent many wonderful evenings with the two of them in recent years, eating at each other's houses or going to a local Indian restaurant: our husbands would swap stories about ice climbing, university life, politics and expeditions while their wives compared notes on the challenges of creating and selling art and raising children -- and living with delightful raconteurs!  As I'm sure you are aware, couple friends are rare and precious, and Colin and Gillian were definitely in that category.

Another artist friend dropped me a note this morning to say that Colin passed away suddenly on Tuesday while on a cruise to Alaska with Gillian.  I can only begin to imagine how traumatic this has been for her:  I'm aching for her, and also wishing our summer hadn't gotten so complicated -- we've been meaning to invite them over for dinner for several months now, and somehow we just hadn't gotten around to it.

The phone just rang as I was typing this, and now I've learned that my coaching partner, Renee, who postponed our coaching session last night because she wasn't feeling well, has had a heart attack.  She's okay, and recovering, but still...

Let's just say I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed this morning. I don't have any nice answers for all this sadness; I know I just need to sit with it and hold it in my heart.  I thank God for my children, all of whom are home right now: they've had significant losses this year as well, and so we comfort one another, and remember those who struggle, and those whom we have loved.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

That time of year

This is one of my favorite poems, and somehow this image makes me think of it.  I dedicate it to all those whose losses have occupied my mind these last two weeks:

That Time Of Year Thou Mayst In Me Behold
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

If I could take time to sit...

Yesterday I had to fill out one of those online questionnaires for my coaching class, which meets for the last time this coming weekend.

The questionnaire, which can be found at (the website for the author of Coaching Across Cultures, an amazing book) invites you to consider what cultural biases you might have with regard to time use, communications style, personal boundaries, organizational preferences, etc.  And taking it -- just looking at your way of being in the world -- can be a real eye-opener.

I talked about this a bit in an earlier post, about how some of the reading I was doing for school was helping me to understand that I tend to move at a fast pace, and do a lot of parallel processing.  I mean, here we are in this lovely environment which offers a constant invitation to sit and watch the birds or smell the beach or listen to the waves, and I spend most of my time being "busy."  And what's that all about?

And the information about direct vs indirect communication styles, and about high context and low context communications all helped me understand some of the early misunderstandings in my current marriage as well as some of the things I see going on with my daughters' relationships.

But what really struck me yesterday was this: we had to print off our results, so I had done so and stapled them together, leaving them at the top of a pile of papers I printed off yesterday for class.  My daughter found them and was greatly amused to read my self assessment.  But she was particularly intrigued by the low rating I gave myself for functioning in a competitive environment.

I had to think about that for a minute.  Because the fact is I can be very competitive; I remember it was one of the problems in my first marriage, because we were BOTH competitive.  So you'd think I would thrive in a more competitive environment.  Where I think the problem comes is that I don't approve of that side of myself, so I don't like being in situations where it wants to take over.  And though some part of me wants to be a winner, I also don't want to be a loser, and I feel enormous sympathy for other losers, with a little guilt thrown in.  Maybe it's just too much drama for me?

At any rate, it's something to explore.  It's always fun to poke around in those tight places and see what emerges; new insights so often bring leaps of understanding.  Now if I could just sit still long enough to examine this.  I think that's one of the challenges of doing Centering Prayer, as opposed to Buddhist meditation practices: Centering Prayer encourages you to let go of whatever thoughts come into your head as you sit, while the Buddhist style seems to be to lean into them a bit, see where they take you.  So maybe that's what I should do on my walks, and CP is for my sits?  Hmm.  Something else to explore...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Saints and demons

My daughter and her friend returned from Canada last night, and to celebrate his last night in the states we went as a family to see the movie, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."  The movie was actually great fun, sort of a cross between a 20-something romantic comedy, a video game, a moral tale and a cartoon with a lot of rock music thrown in; I'm embarrassed to admit I liked it more than Eat Pray Love (which didn't, and maybe even couldn't, live up to the wonderful book on which it was based.)

But on the way home there was a certain amount of arguing that went on in the car, sort of playful, sort of not, and I realized an old familiar demon was appearing on the scene: our daughter's annual post-camp malaise.  It's a time when we can do nothing right, primarily because this is not where she wants to be, and we can't be the friends she's so desperately missing. It always takes a while for her to adjust to the end of this favorite part of her life, and though I know she tries not to take it out on us it's not always a successful effort.

When she's going through this period, we've all learned there's not much we can do except hold her in our hearts, be as gracious and firm as we can, name what's going on, and release whatever responses emerge in us when she goes off on a tear.  You kind of need the patience of a saint -- or a madonna -- to get through.  So I'm reading Jack Kornfield's chapter (in A Path With Heart) on dealing with the demons that rise up in meditation with interest; coping with demons in meditation can't be that different from coping with them outside of meditation, right?

Kornfield mentions eight demons -- desire, anger, fear, boredom, judgment, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt  -- but this morning, while I was walking, I decided I really wanted to add two more demons (though I'm sure they are probably just sub-classifications of fear -- or maybe restlessness?) which seem to be the ones I struggle with the most.

The first is planning, or anticipation; also known as "the shoulds."  I'll be in that lovely quiet place and then UP pops something I need to do today, or should have done yesterday, or something some other family member should really be taking care of; I should be sure to make a note to nag them about it.  Sometimes this one gets so intrusive it's just easier to keep a pencil and a pad of paper next to my meditation chair so I can write down whatever it is and release it.

The second is worrying, and it's the same basic deal: I'll be in that lovely quiet place and then UP pops something I'm concerned about, usually something to deal with one of my daughters.  Sometimes it's a long-term concern and other times it's a short-term concern, but it's often followed by a feeling of helplessness -- which then, fortunately, leads to a short and pretty heartfelt prayer, and then circles back around to the whole process of letting go.  It's not really fear, exactly; it's more this sort of probing thing, like poking at a sore tooth: How serious is this?  Do I need to do something?

Kornfield has some lovely meditations for dealing with the demons; they're mostly about noticing -- where they come from, what images arise, what feeling states arise in the body -- and accepting/welcoming instead of resisting.

But then, at the end of the demon chapter he offers a wonderful meditation on impulse control -- and that's the piece I want to share with you today.  It starts with an exercise you can do as your meditation draws to a close:

"Do not set a fixed time for the end of your meditation.  Instead, sit until a strong impulse tells you to get up.  Notice its quality... name the energy that has arisen and with it sense the impulse to move.  Feel it carefully in your body, naming, "wanting to get up, wanting to get up," staying with it for as long as it lasts.  (This is rarely more than a minute.)  Then after this impulse has passed, notice what it feels like now and if your meditation has deepened from sitting through the whole impulse process.  Continue to sit until a second impulse to arise pulls you strongly.  Notice the whole process in the same way as before.  Finally, after a third time of carefully being with the whole impulse process, allow yourself to get up.  The depth of your attention and centeredness will gradually grow through this practice.

"If you wish," he says, "you can extend your observation to other strong impulses, noting the whole process of wanting to scratch an itch, to move while sitting, to eat, or to do other things.  Being aware in this way will gradually teach you to stay centered, to have a capacity to take a few breaths and feel the changing responses to situations in your life rather than reacting to them automatically.  You will begin to discover a center of balance and understanding in the face of the forces of your life."

I like this one; it feels like a way to bring meditation practice into daily life -- something I'm always hoping/struggling to do.  But also I'm thinking this would be a fabulous way to control that snacking urge that arises in the late afternoon and again in the late evening.  And is that tacky?  To take a serious meditation practice and immediately start thinking about it as a diet mechanism?  Oops, I think that's the judgment demon rearing its ugly head.  Guess I'll just have to go sit with her till she goes away...

Uh-oh, here comes Hunger:  Must be time for breakfast!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Put this Design in your Carpet

Any movement or sound is a profession of faith,
as the millstone grinding is explaining
how it believes in the river.
No metaphor can explain this,
but I cannot stop pointing to the beauty.

Every moment and place says,
Put this design in your carpet.

I want to be in such a passionate adoration
that my tent gets pitched against the sky.

Let the beloved come
and sit like a guard dog
in front of the tent.

When the ocean surges,
don't let me just hear it.
Let it splash inside my chest.

Rumi, A Year With Rumi (September 3)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A world of opposites

I remember, after my divorce, how difficult it was to see other people in love.  And I remember, after my father died, how difficult it was to hear of other people's wonderful relationships with their fathers -- and how difficult it still is, some eight years later, to utter the first two words of the Lord's Prayer.

I see, also, how challenging it can be, for those who live on the edge of bankruptcy, to see the flamboyant wealth in the world; for those who cannot afford a car to learn of another's huge garage, littered with Packards, Mercedes, and Rolls Royces.

And from those things, I can begin to imagine how hard it must be for those who lose a child to hear others speak of their children; for those who live with impending death to go about the business of life.

And this morning it feels incredibly shallow to even speak of how difficult it can be to reconcile this world of opposites; to suggest there can be beauty in death when you're not facing it; to ramble on about the nobility of poverty when you live in relative comfort -- or, like a priest I once heard, to preach on the joys of servitude when you're used to being waited on hand and foot.

The world is full of painful contrasts and contradictions, and today is one of those days when I can't imagine any promise I might offer of hope in the face of trouble would be met with anything other than a sneer.  It's not to say I don't believe there's hope -- I do.  But there are days when that seems foolishly naive.

And so I sit, poised on the brink of reflection.  There's no going forward, there's no going back, and staying on this edge is incredibly difficult and humbling.  In the face of all the pain and all the losses and impending losses these last two weeks have held, I can only be present.  I have nothing else to offer.

Ah, but thanks to Kim at One Year Here, I have the perfect offering from Rumi:

On the day I die,
when I am being carried toward the grave,
don’t weep. Don’t say, "He’s gone. He’s gone."

Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they’re not gone.

Death is a coming together.
The tomb looks like a prison,
but it’s really release into union.

The human seed goes down into the ground
like a bucket into the well where Joseph is.

It grows and comes up
full of some unimagined beauty.

Your mouth closes here
and immediately opens
with a shout of joy there.

A good reminder that we don't have to do it alone; that there are always people standing by who can give us a different perspective.

Thanks Kim.  It helps.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Before the gray and cold set in

The days are definitely growing shorter now -- by the time I got to the ferry after my Wednesday evening meeting, the sun had set and the big lights that illuminate the ferry waiting lot were already gleaming -- only a week ago I spent almost my whole waiting time photographing the sunset.

And though the weather is spectacularly gorgeous today, and warmer than it's been in what seems like weeks, you can feel it: change is in the wind.

Today was my daughter's boyfriend's last day at his summer job, so now the two of them have begun looking in earnest for whatever might come along next to pay their bills.  My husband's friend is home from the hospital -- though they had a bit of a scare this morning -- so he hopes to be heading home to us this evening.

The school buses are roaming the streets again, the town is filling up with tourists eager to celebrate the long weekend, and boats are starting to pepper the Sound, ready for a last weekend of play before the gray and cold set in.

For me, though I've spent the entire day running errands, there is a sense of expectancy and anticipation; a little like that feeling we used to get the week before Christmas.  I suppose it could just be years of conditioning for the onset of fall, but it feels like something exciting and wonderful is just around the bend. 

My schoolwork has been forcing me to take a pretty hard look at some of my ways of being in the world, and it's been feeling a bit at times like I'm in the spotlight, or in an interrogation room.  But the discoveries aren't really all that scary; it's more that they give me hope for change, both for myself and for the world.  If we can find a way -- or even if I can find a way -- to strike a better balance between love and power, between compassion and action, I do think we have a chance of making a significant difference.

But of course, the more I am beginning to believe in that possibility, the more negative predictions I hear from my friends.  And somehow I just have to juggle that, too; find a way to balance the negative and positive outlooks that can keep me/us moving forward into the light.

No one said it would be easy, or simple.

But no one said it couldn't be fun, either!  So I'm going to try to keep that sense of anticipation building, and see where it leads.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Getting hooked, and letting go

I knew meditation would be challenging this morning: my daughter and her friend decided to visit friends in Canada yesterday, and got held up at the border.  The last I heard from her was 9:00 last night, and they were still stuck at the border (after leaving around 9:30 yesterday morning!) so I have no idea where they are, or where they spent the night.

They're old enough to cope, of course -- and Canada is not exactly a third world country.  But some part of me keeps getting hooked into worrying, so I'm just trying to be conscious about letting it go.

Which is the blessing of Centering Prayer, of course: it's ALL about letting go, releasing the things that hook us.  But that's not always easy -- and I'm thinking there's a blessing in that.  When I notice things are particularly difficult to release, it's an opportunity to take a look at what's in play.  Why am I not releasing?  What does that say about me, about my faith, about my relationship with the universe?

Those are all good questions to look at.  But in the end, for now, those questions feel like hooks as well.  So perhaps I just accept that for now, this is how it is: I'm a mom, I worry, and she's probably fine.  And even if she isn't, there's nothing I can do about it from here; for one thing, I don't have a clue where they were planning to cross the border.

All I can do is breathe.  And practice Tonglen: breathe in, for worried mothers everywhere; breathe out any comfort I can share.

We're all moms together.

(Late breaking news: she finally made it into Canada after a 24 hour delay; hurray!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Music to my eyes

A couple of months back my husband and I signed up for a series called "The Art of Collecting Art."  This was our second year doing this -- I signed up on a whim last year and it was so much fun we decided to do it again.

Folks who sign up are invited into three homes of island residents who collect art.  The type of art can vary considerably, but it's always fun to hear where their pieces came from, how they got started, what excites them...

My husband, though he is officially a computer geek, has the soul of an artist, and his mother was a gifted artist, so -- though he doesn't always appreciate or understand MY work -- he does enjoy museums and galleries and being surrounded by art.  So it's also fun because it's something we can do together.

This year's patrons included a local collector of luxury automobiles, and after spending time in his garage with his Packards I asked if it would be okay for me to come back with my camera and photograph a bit: I still have that Patterns exhibit coming up, and I could see some shots that would be perfect. 

So yesterday I got to go back with my camera and spend an hour indulging my appetite for beauty. I was sorry not to be able to bring my husband along as we'd originally hoped; he's still cooking and running errands for that family down in Portland.  But -- oh, my.  It was just pure heaven to be in that room with those beautiful creatures; like the glories of Rome or Greece, they are a delicious testament to the artistic sensibilities of another era, when music wasn't a sound bite and literature wasn't a tweet: such loving attention to detail.

I only opened up the images this morning, so I haven't gone through yet to see what else might be there,  But I love this one, and thought I'd share it with you: I call it "Self Portrait with Rolls."  Isn't it just delicious?  It's like a painting; it feels like it belongs on the cover of a book.  And the grid of that radiator makes me think of organ pipes -- music to my eyes!