Saturday, June 30, 2012

Acqua Alta

As I mentioned in last Sunday's post, our dog is having his annual bout with seasonal allergies.  But this year's attack seems significantly worse than in previous years: he's having a lot of trouble sleeping -- which unfortunately means we're having trouble sleeping.

We give him benadryl at bedtime, but each day the dose seems less effective, and each day he begins the relentless scratching a little earlier -- which also means he gets restless and begins walking around and bumping into furniture with the cone of shame -- and trust me, it's impossible to sleep through that.

But he can't bear to be apart from us.  So if we put him out in the hall, he scratches repeatedly at the door (in addition to thumping on the floor and bumping into things).  If we put him in another room in another part of the house, he barks until we let him out.

So we've arrived at a sort of solution: when he wakes and begins to scratch (which happened at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. this morning) we give him another dose of benadryl and whichever of us is most awake takes him back to the guestroom and reads until they fall asleep (and his meds kick in).

I only mention all of this because the end result is we're really not getting enough sleep. And sleep deprivation has a way of mounting up -- which means that by yesterday I was just... well... useless.  There were things I wanted to do.  There were things I needed to do.  But I didn't have the energy to tackle any of them; I didn't even have the energy to take a nap.  And the part of me that's always driving me to DO! DO! DO!  has begun feeling increasingly worthless and anxious.

I do understand that this will pass -- if nothing else, I'm leaving in a week or so to serve as artist-in-residence at my daughter's camp again, and I tend to sleep very well there.  But in the meantime I'm finding I have an extraordinary level of sympathy for people who struggle with depleted energy levels: it's very difficult to stay upbeat and positive when you are feeling exhausted and helpless.

Which must be why this painting came out the way it did.  I painted it three days ago, and I call it Acqua Alta, the phrase the Venetians use for those times when the tides are so high that they fill the walkways and piazzas, and people have to wear boots and walk on specially installed platforms.  It seems to me to reflect the fact that I know there's some spirit in there, but I'm just feeling overwhelmed, trapped, awash, overcome... 

BUT.  Today promises to be a fun day, with visits from our daughter and some other dear friends.  I feel certain that my soul will take heart and rise to the occasion, however weary the body may be...

Friday, June 29, 2012

Seeking balance

Here, as promised, is one of the images from the upcoming Picnic show. It's called (not surprisingly) Still Life -- a rather generic name, I agree -- but since I don't tend to shoot this sort of thing I figured I was safe giving it that name; it's not all that likely that I'll do another still life.

This one actually happened by accident: I was roaming around the yard of a Vermont farmhouse one morning in June, carrying the platter, the tablecloth and the pitcher and putting them in patches of sunlight to suggest the idea of a picnic.

I had just set them to rest on this bench, beneath a willow tree, and the closeup shot just had more impact than the one of the bench and the willow.  Which makes sense, if you think about it; I do use my zoom lens a lot, and generally prefer to focus in on things.

... which is a bit of a life habit as well, I suspect; I tend to be more conscious of the details around me, the little things that are worrying or delighting me, than the big picture.  Which may be why I'm feeling at odds today.  As I wrote to a friend this morning (Note to self: do NOT tackle your email before blogging, as your emails will turn into blog posts), I’m feeling this odd mix of delighted and devastated; finding it hard to keep my balance.

I'm THRILLED with the Supreme Court decision, just thrilled. But I'm surprisingly upset about the loss of Nora Ephron. I actually get teary thinking about her. She was the companion of my youth, the wise one who understood the pain of my first husband’s infidelity and our subsequent divorce, the one who helped me to laugh and to hope with those delicious movies of hers; the one who got why I wear turtlenecks so much of the time... She was a companion on the journey, always a little ahead of me, waiting with open arms to welcome me to whatever new stage I was entering. And I will miss her.

I’m also just horrified about the fires in Colorado — not so much because I have friends there (though I do, and they seem to be safe for the time being) -- it just feels so overwhelming and out of control. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes — they’re all horrible and wreak awfulness, but their duration is relatively short, and then you get to figure out what to do with the damage. The fire just seems to keep getting worse...

So it's little wonder that I'd be drawn to a relatively placid image like this one today. It doesn't have the clear blue calm of my boat pictures, though there's a touch of that. There's a lot of red, like fire; just softened, into the sweet roundness of the fruit, the gentle folds of the cloth. And behind it all, that worn smoky gray you see in all the after pictures of where the fire has been. There's the promise of friendship, and health. But all in all, there's something very dark about it...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Division and wholeness

Yesterday morning I dropped off the art for the Picnic show, which opens at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery next Friday night.  I'm not all that excited about it, to be honest, but the light in some of the images is nice...

Boy, talk about damning with faint praise!  I'll share a couple of my favorites here later, but for now I'm posting an image I AM excited about: I painted this one yesterday, and it feels like I'm getting closer to what I'm trying to do.

The main indicator for that is that with this one, as with the young girl I painted a week or two ago, when I look at it there is an emotional response, a sort of heart surge of recognition.

After spending a little time with that, I decided to name this one Separation. I kept feeling like it was a particle of light spinning off from a body of light -- like a soul leaving the oneness to reside in a body.  The light patch on the right has a vaguely maternal feel to me, and the one on the left feels like she's being carried away, safely, but reaching back as if for a final embrace.  But then Christine from Mystic Meandering commented that she saw it more as emergence than separation -- and I like that, it feels right to me.  So now it's titled Emergence.

I know.  It's all a fantasy, and others might not see it that way.  That certainly wasn't what I intended to paint -- but then, I didn't intend ANYthing, I just painted and watched it grow... which is, I have to say, a really wonderful process, when it goes well.  I still don't seem to have much of a sense of control over it, but I'm starting to like what happens with the brushes and the colors more.

... and I finished this reading of A Hidden Wholeness this morning.  I say "this reading" because I know I'll be coming back to it in the fall, reading it more intentionally with a circle of friends; I look forward to that.  But I love that he finishes with a poem from Mary Oliver, and somehow the poem seems to connect with this image, so I'll close with its closing verses:

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Here's what Parker Palmer writes, after the poem, closing the book:

"As we embrace the simple fact of our mortality, we also embrace true self.  Knowing with new clarity that the gift of life is ours only for a while, we choose to live "divided no more" simply because it would be foolish not to.  As we live into that choice, we see with new clarity that all the life around us is "something precious to the earth," and we find more and more ways to honor the soul in ourselves and in every mortal creature."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Words upon our hearts

This image is a quick response (there could be so much more to it, and so many other ways to do it) to this wonderful old Hasidic tale I found in A Hidden Wholeness this morning:

 "The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, 'Why does Torah tell us to 'place these words upon your hearts'?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?'  

The rebbe answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.'"

What a perfect explanation for all those concepts we have in our heads that just don't seem to have planted themselves yet in our hearts...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bridging the tragic gap

Growing up as the only child of two very different parents, I came to see my function as bridging the gap between them.  Which of course colored my choices as an adult: in a lot of ways, a career in marketing -- whatever the organization or target customer -- is about bridging the gap; helping the organization understand what its customers need, helping the customers understand what the organization has to offer.

But there's selling inherent in marketing, which always made me uncomfortable, and so I went back to school a year or two ago to explore the possibility of bridging a different sort of gap, the gap in organizations between employees and employers.  Unfortunately I found that bridging that particular gap necessitates frequent dealings with conflict, and that made me so unreasonably uncomfortable that I ended up seeing a therapist for a while to get at the roots of that discomfort.

... which brought some interesting revelations and a lot of clarity, but no real resolution.  Clearly, for a variety of reasons, conflict is even more highly charged for me than for many.  But how do I reconcile that with this life tendency around bridging gaps?

Fortunately my reading this morning in Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness is offering a new understanding of the situation.

"To be in the world nonviolently," Palmer writes, "means learning to hold the tension of opposites, trusting that the tension itself will pull our hearts and minds open to a third way of thinking and acting.  In particular, we must learn to hold the tension between the reality of the moment and the possibility that something better might emerge.

"...The insight at the heart of nonviolence is that we live in a tragic gap -- a gap between the way things are and the way we know they might be.  It is a gap that never has been and never will be closed.  If we want to live nonviolent lives, we must learn to stand in the tragic gap, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility in hopes of being opened to a third way."

This statement seemed to me to capture the core, the essence of my particular brand of faith.  But then he went on to explain: "Deep within me there is an instinct even more primitive than "fight or flight," and I do not think it is mine alone.  As a species, we are profoundly impatient with tensions of any sort, and we want to resolve every one of them as quickly as we can."

And here's the kicker: "Ultimately, what drives us to resolve tension as quickly as we possibly can is the fear that if we hold it too long it will break our hearts."  But the breaking of the heart doesn't have to mean shattering into shards, he says; it could mean the heart is "broken open into a new capacity -- a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome." 

"As I stand," he concludes, "in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world's suffering and joy, despair and hope."

In the end, he says, "the people who achieve the greatest good are those who have the greatest capacity to stand in the tragic gap."

Wow.  So much to think about, and so many responses.  A lifetime's worth of work here, it seems.  But I do find myself feeling both greatly inspired and greatly reassured: there is so much in this that resonates with that core self that is beginning to emerge... and to put this all in the context of non-violence offers another dimension of understanding, particularly so because I don't actually think about non-violence all that much, and yet that topic has arisen several times in conversations over the last few days.

Hmm.  Times like this I find myself staring at the Mary statues in my office and thinking, "she kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Productivity vs. Creativity

I TOTALLY get that this is not great art, but boy, was it fun to paint! 

Paint turns out to be very expensive, so I had been putting off buying more colors, but this weekend I broke down and bought some basics, and, omigosh, what fun to have a larger palette to play with! 

I actually did two paintings yesterday, but the other one was NOT fun (I was trying too hard) so I just sat there with a palette knife for this one, playing with all my new colors.

I also worked on several pieces for the upcoming exhibit yesterday, two of which involved pouring on gel and letting it dry, and both of those were miserable failures.  One failed because the gel had been sitting for a while and some of it had gotten lumpy, but the other -- which isn't really for the show, it's more of an experiment I've been working on -- failed out of sheer stupidity: I had moved it out of the dining room (I work at our dining room table) so my husband wouldn't bump it and the cats wouldn't leap on it, but then I forgot it was wet and accidentally set a piece of paper on top of it.

So I was flagellating myself afterward for my stupidity, and I realized that underneath that frustration was a conviction that if I had rendered the piece unsaleable I had been totally wasting my time.  My head knows that's not true, but apparently my heart is still unconvinced...  So now I doubly appreciate the time I spent playing with this piece, getting to know the colors and the knife a little better, because I don't expect to sell it -- I'm not even sure I like it! -- and for some reason in this case it was okay.

What is it about adults, that all play has to have some sort of purpose?  No wonder we get stuck; no wonder we find it difficult to relax into creativity.  Oh, but maybe that's not everyone; maybe it's just my own particular neurosis that says I must always be productive, have something to show for my work.  Perhaps the reason I can allow myself to take time to meditate each morning is because I know that meditation, like the experimentation in this picture, is really a means to an end.  Here it's practice, to understand paint, color, and knife; in the chair it's practice as well, both to understand myself better and to develop coping skills. 

Plus I know now from experience that if I don't meditate, especially for several days in a row, I get really off-kilter.  So it works kind of like my weekly Pilates class; I do it to stay tuned up and flexible.  And -- in case you were listening yesterday when I said I'd try listening to my own soul for a week -- I did try that again this morning, and it was much calmer.  No itching.  Instead I fell asleep!  I haven't done that in a LONG time; don't know if it's because we've been losing so much sleep because of the dog's relentless scratching, or if it was just another clever tactic on my body's part to avoid getting in touch with my center.  Can't wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Feeling itchy

This morning's reading in Parker Palmer's  A Hidden Wholeness was about Clearness Committees; a particular kind of circle of trust, convened by an individual to help awaken insight on a particular issue.

So here's the deal: I sat in on a clearness committee once, and it was not a pleasant experience. So I needed to look at that from the perspective of years (it was several years ago) and through the lens of whatever wisdom I may have gained since that time.  What is it in me that was rebelling -- and it was definitely rebellion I was feeling -- and why?

I found myself reading closely, to understand the thinking behind clearness committees.  And I could see several things that might trigger me: First of all, there are VERY clear rules to be followed: no eye contact, for one (not a problem), only open-ended questions may be asked (that might have been the problem; I did this before I took the coaching course at Antioch, and may not quite have understood what the nature and function of an open question is), and you need to spend an hour and a half asking them.

I hate to say it, but knowing me I suspect that spending an hour and a half totally focused on someone else's problems may have been the issue (though I honestly don't remember).  I'm human, after all, and want at least some of the time to be about me, or I get bored.  I'm not proud of this, but I do think it's true; maybe it's a function of being an only child?

I also suspect I was responding negatively because forcing me to stay other-focused is a bit like putting a muzzle on a dog.  I say this at least partly because there's a storytelling contest coming up here on the island, so even though I'm not entering I'm more than usually conscious of that way of being in the world, and I think storytelling is my natural response to other people's concerns -- you know, the sort of "Oh, I remember worrying about that and this is how I handled it and this is what happened."

It could also just be that I was so new at the questioning thing that I was carrying a sense of failure because I hadn't gotten good at framing good questions yet.  Since I was not socially adept as a child, school was one of the few places I could succeed, so a lot of my self-esteem is tied up in getting it right, doing it right, being quick to pick up and follow the rules.  So to fail at something new I was trying to learn is always threatening (it's amazing I ever learn anything new, although maybe learning new things is the way my soul likes to keep prodding me forward -- and forcing me to face my fears...)

The root of my issues, though, was probably that I didn't understand the purpose of the clearness committee -- which is to allow the focus subject's soul to speak up; something that has a lot of value to me.  Somehow I suspect I may have missed understanding that that was the objective.  Which would explain why it felt like rebellion -- it's rather like making rules for your kids without explaining why; it almost guarantees rebellion because it seems so arbitrary.  And I do suspect I was one of those children who had the unpleasant habit of asking "why?" all the time.  (Something I wish I did more of as an adult, frankly).

So it was with all these thoughts roiling in my head that I sat down to meditation this morning.  And almost as soon as I closed my eyes the thought came to me: what if, instead of opening your heart to God in meditation, you maybe -- just for a week -- chose to spend that time listening to your own soul; being your own clearness committee.

And OMG you would think I had let a dog loose in a henhouse: my leg started twitching, my stomach started growling, my eye itched, my head itched -- EVERYTHING in me was rebelling against taking the time to listen to my own soul.  I tried everything I could think of to calm all those rebellious parts of me down, but they weren't having any of it.

So of course now I'm wondering, what is it my soul wants to say that my body doesn't want to hear?  It seems clear -- given all that resistance -- that I must be on to something.  And I noticed, after typing that sentence, I gave this HUGE sigh.  Something in me really doesn't want to tackle this.  Well, buckle up, kiddo; it sounds to me like this may be a bit of a bumpy ride -- but someone's gotta go there!  It's kind of like this picture: maybe it's time to stop mindlessly following the path; time to open up the trapdoor and step down into it, see what's ticking down there...

(PS: if you notice a lot of dog analogies here, it's probably because our dog is struggling with seasonal allergies right now.  We've got him wearing a t-shirt and the Cone of Shame, we're giving him benadryl, and still, when he's not sleeping or eating he's scratching and chewing at himself and it's driving me CRAZY.  Fortunately, since it happens every year about this time, I know "this, too, shall pass." But jeez, Louise -- what a pain; I feel itchy just looking at him. Sigh.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whistling in the dark

When we first moved to Bainbridge the house next door was occupied by a wonderful 90-year-old woman whom I adored.  She passed away some years ago, and her sons now use her place as a vacation cottage. 

One of those sons is married to a photographer, and since they were out visiting yesterday she called me over to discuss the two shows we're currently working on for our local gallery.

She had recently purchased a new camera, a Leica M9, and had taken it to Italy, so she was showing me spectacularly detailed sepia-toned photographs  of one of my favorite places in the entire world. Of course I was enchanted -- and I was reminded of how much I adore fine black and white photography. 

... which immediately translated into camera lust: you know, the kind where you think, oh my gosh, if I had a camera like that, imagine what I could be shooting. But  I had JUST posted something on Facebook about how MUCH I hate it when people say to me, "What kind of camera do you use? I'm sure if I had a camera like yours I could create fabulous photographs, too," as if it's the camera, not the photographer, that makes the photo.  How insulting!

So I had to stop a second, because it looked like I was saying the same thing...  Oops.  Convicted again! Funny how life has a way of doing that: just when you start thinking that whole "holier-than-thou" thing something comes along to show you you're just as guilty...

Fortunately she knows me well, didn't appear to be offended, and was able to caution me that shooting with the Leica (which, aside from any other considerations, is RIDICULOUSLY expensive) is a very different experience from shooting with the little Canons I've been using lately.  It's manual focus, for one thing (not the best choice for someone with tri-focals); the monitor isn't especially accurate, the sensors are extremely sensitive and prone to dust, and the process is very slow and time-consuming.  Plus, she's printing on a much more elaborate printer with many more inks, on fabulous paper -- all of which I would find daunting.  She knows me well; I just don't have that kind of patience; I'm more of a hit-and-run photographer.

But it was a glorious moment, an opportunity to stop and ask the important questions: Who am I?  What do I love?  What is my way of being in the world, and what do I bring to the world?  Which of course means it was a humbling moment, as well.  One of the challenging aspects of being a creative person is this curious sense of possibility: because we know we can create, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between "things I can create," "things I could create," "things I should take the time to learn how to create," and "things I should just appreciate that others create."

So, yes, occasionally I have been known to produce a finely detailed black and white picture; I think the one above is probably the best example of that.  But there are only a few in my collection, and they don't really work as large prints. The detail is only clear when they're small; my camera's sensors are just not fine enough, and my printer just doesn't have the range of grays you need to do this justice. It's good to be reminded that this possibility is out there, but also important to remember that this is not generally where my heart takes me, nor is it a place I particularly wish to invest my time and money.  Color, bold and simple, is generally more my style; the trick is to remember that that work has value, too.

It's a bit like being on a path, I suppose: there will always be enticing little side trips.  And sometimes it's a bit hard to distinguish -- especially when the going has been a little rough, or the scenery has gotten rather boring -- which path is the one we're meant to be following.  At that point we just have to trust, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  As long as we're conscious about the steps, aware of possibilities, open to guidance, we should be fine. 

But some days that feels a bit like whistling in the dark...

Friday, June 22, 2012

Convicted of fixing

This handsome gentleman was preening himself in our backyard yesterday afternoon when I went upstairs to open some windows.  He kept an eye on me as I raised the shades but soon returned to a careful grooming of his feathers; such a beauty!

Yesterday my blogsister Maureen sent me a link to an article about how the naming of colors "has messed with our brains." So as I watched the heron I tried not to name him; to just see him for the magnificent stranger that he is without putting him into a box of assumptions, just to see what that might be like.

And then, this morning, in Parker Palmer's book, A Hidden Wholeness, I was reading about his conviction that "fixing, saving, advising, and setting each other straight" has to be excluded from a circle of trust if we are to create an environment in which our souls might learn from their deepest wisdom. 

Fixing, it seems, is like naming: it puts things in a safe box so we can move on.  If, as I also learned recently, the brain develops habits as a way of not working so hard, this is one of the habits that does much to create distance, as it interferes directly with the connection and compassion we so long for and need to feel.

I know this.  I also know I struggle with this sometimes: it's hard, when someone's grappling with something I think I understand, not to share what I've learned from my own grappling.  But what I hadn't realized -- at least consciously, though I suspect I understood it already at some deeper level -- is why this response is so strong in me.

"In the face of our deepest questions -- the kind we are invited to explore in circles of trust -- our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side.  If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: 'If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem.  If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough.  If you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could.  So I am covered.  No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.' The shadow behind the 'fixes' we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay... 

"The best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.  But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience.  As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do.  Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life.  Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, 'I tried to help.'  I walk away feeling virtuous.  You are left feeling unseen and unheard."

In the language we used to use back in my born-again charismatic christian phase, I felt "convicted" by this.  Seriously.  So to everyone -- especially my children -- I've ever short-changed by trying to "fix" you and get on with my important life -- my deepest apologies. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The existential GPS

I came across this charming gypsy wagon, hiding in an apple orchard, while driving on Orcas Island.  What is it that's so inviting about this?  Is it the lush curve of the magenta grillwork on the back, or the delicate flowers painted so painstakingly on the side, the dancing butterflies in the field of yellow, the colors?

Or could it be the sense of freedom and invitation inherent in its very definition -- a mobile life, staying when and where it suits you and moving on when you're ready to leave; the curious mix of adventure and safety -- wherever you are, you'll have your own things around you; you've created a life for yourself that is uniquely your own and yet still flexible...

I've been reading Parker Palmer's classic, A Hidden Wholeness, and this morning he's been describing what happens when a group of people explore a poem together.  The poem operates as a sort of Rorschach test, or a deck of Tarot cards: we project onto it the things we most need to explore or understand in our own lives.

And, as I noted yesterday, photographs can work the same way: it can actually be very rewarding to sit with a photo -- even better if you can do it with a friend or two -- and allow yourself to respond to it, to ask it questions, see what speaks to you, and explore the layers of meaning the photo and your responses have to offer.  Which, if you think about it, has really always been the way this blog works: the picture leaps onto the page, and then I listen for what it has to say to me -- or through me -- that morning.

So -- about this photo.  One of the responses it holds for me is a sense of longing for summer to begin.  I mean -- here we are, at the Solstice already, and still the sky and sea outside my window are gray.  Earlier in Hidden Wholeness, Palmer talks about framing the explorations of a circle of trust within the seasons.  Spring, he says, "is the season of surprise when we realize once again that despite our perennial doubts, winter's darkness yields to light, and winter's deaths give rise to new life.  So one metaphor for spring is "the flowering of paradox."  As spring's wonders arise from winter's hardships, we are invited to reflect on the many "both-ands" we must hold to live life fully and well -- and to become more confident that as creatures embedded in nature, we know in our bones how to hold them.

"The deeper our faith," he goes on to say, "the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.  If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love.  But in the spring we are reminded that human nature, like nature herself, can hold opposites together as paradoxes, resulting in a more capacious and generous life."

And yes -- I get that, that if we cut off feeling our lows, we inevitably cut off our ability to feel the highs as well.  But even though Summer is almost here, some part of me is still waiting for Spring.  Like the gypsy wagon, that sense of promise and possibility is beckoning, but it's also hidden, stagnant, grounded; stuck, going nowhere.  There's no strong light source, and barely any shadows.  I don't seem to see any windows, and  I'm not altogether sure it's big enough to hold either my height or my weight.  Something in me is feeling dark, cramped, and crowded; longing to break free...

So now I almost wish I hadn't asked!  But we just have to trust our existential GPS: it's all good.  Like this image, which my dear friend Teresa posted on facebook earlier this week --

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cultivating Wakefulness

I know.  It's not a beautiful image -- if anything, it's a reminder that you should always be wary of photographers who drive with their cameras close at hand: when this pattern caught my eye on the truck in front of me, I grabbed the camera only to discover he was planning to make a left turn when I was planning to make a right turn, so I snuck (is that a word?) up behind him, grabbed the shot, and then moved over two lanes to turn.  Fortunately there was no traffic behind us...

It seems like the perfect image to introduce our newest ECVA exhibit, an open studio exhibition entitled "Intersections," which you can visit here.  But I confess that was not necessarily on my mind when I shot it, though certainly I'd been in the process of preparing for that exhibit's opening at the time, so I was probably primed to be looking for/at intersections.

What I did see was a woman (the chains looked a bit like long hair) braced against opposing forces: she could be holding it together, keeping them apart, or just... hanging in there -- or maybe even pinned to the wall, like a butterfly. 

And isn't that curious?  What do you see in this image?  And why do you see it that way?

So much of what we see is conditioned by what we've just seen, or how we're feeling, or by events and experiences in our lives -- so how, then, can we know what is true, what is real?  Is it possible, knowing how thoroughly our perceptions may be colored by our expectations, to begin to understand that some (and obviously not all) things we assume are bad, or dangerous, or hurtful could simply be misunderstandings?

We were talking yesterday in class about habits, and I found myself thinking about habits of perception, and how they can color so much of what happens to us without our even understanding that to be true.  If -- as I learned recently -- the brain is inclined to reduce its workload, and habits and autonomic reflexes are the structures it creates to simplify life -- then couldn't it be possible that we get in habits of seeing offense or rejection where none is intended?  Couldn't it be possible that we, understanding that, might rebuild our habits of perception to bring about a more open, compassionate, accepting and cooperative lifestyle? 

Jack Kornfield, in The Wise Heart, describes that conscious reconstruction of thought patterns as "the deliberate cultivation of care.  More than refraining from harm, we cultivate a reverence for life.  More than refraining from stealing, we act with stewardship for the things of the earth.  More than refraining from lying, we stand up for truth.  More than refraining from the misuse of sexuality, we respect our intimate relations.  More than refraining from the misuse of intoxicants, we cultivate wakefulness."

Certainly one of the blessings of carrying a camera is that it helps me to cultivate wakefulness.  But what I need is a sort of emotional camera; some way of being present to what is felt as well as what is seen, so that I can have a more objective response in the moment.  Some days I think meditation is helping me develop that.

Other days?  Not so much...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A visitor from the Philippines

Here I am, having just stepped off the ferry after a two-day trip to the San Juans to deliver a few things to my daughter's camp.  Exhausted, been on the road for hours, haven't showered, wearing my favorite Goodwill sweatshirt; definitely not looking my best.

Which is okay, because this picture and story are not about me but about Linda, the beautiful woman standing next to me.  Linda is a pediatrician, mother of two children roughly the same ages as my girls, and for some reason (we never got to discuss how this happened) she began reading my blog some time ago.

Linda lives in the Philippines, and when she learned her sister was getting married in Vancouver BC, she decided to make a side trip to Bainbridge Island to see me.  (Understand; this is not a small undertaking -- there's a border crossing and a bit of flying time involved, not to mention figuring out the ferry system!)  She didn't have my email address, so she didn't know how to contact me; she just talked her husband into paying for a ticket from Vancouver to Seattle and talked her brother into coming along for the trip (because her husband didn't want her to travel so far alone).

So today, while I was still up on Orcas Island, Linda arrived in Seattle and she and her brother Alan took the ferry over to Bainbridge to look for me.  They had planned to hire a taxi or rent a car, but there were no taxis left when they got off the ferry (Allen was using a wheelchair, so they were moving a little slowly) and there are no car rental services on the island.  So they made their way up the hill to Winslow Way, our main street, and ended up at the Chamber of Commerce, asking if anyone knew me.

The chamber didn't, of course (there are some 22,000 people on the island) but Linda showed them my blog (apparently they liked yesterday's parrot) and they looked my number up in the phonebook and she called my house.  My husband answered the phone, Linda explained who she was and why she was looking for me, and Chris (bless his heart) said I was away but gave her my cellphone number.  She called just as my ferry was pulling away from Orcas Island, and somehow we managed to arrange for Chris to show Linda and Allen around the island, and I promised I'd do my best to get back before they had to leave to get back to Seattle.

I have to say -- I made record time coming back, hit a record number of green lights, and the one time I stopped to take a picture my memory card was full so there were no more interruptions after that.  I was the second to last car on the 8:10 ferry to Bainbridge, and Chris brought them to Mora, our local ice cream store, to meet me.  (So sweet: they stepped out of the car, and I walked over to meet them, and Allen gave me this HUGE grin and said, "It's like meeting a movie star!"  Fortunately I understand that was a joke...)

We had time for talk, and for ice cream (turns out Chris and Allen had a lot in common, too), and for photographs, and then rushed them to the 9:45 ferry, put together the wheelchair, got the ferry guy to hold the boat long enough for the wheelchair to make it down the long ramp, and with a hug and a kiss they were gone.


The whole experience was amazing -- that Linda cared enough to make the trip, that my husband happened to have decided to work from home today, that I made it back in time to see her, that the ferry man was kind enough to hold the boat that extra two minutes... just incredible.  But the best part of all was meeting Linda: she's a wonderful human being, with a wonderful story to tell: when her son, who has down's syndrome, was 4, she started a school for children with disabilities, and it has become a gathering and sharing place for the parents of the children as well.  Most of her medical services are provided free of charge for children who can't afford to pay for them.  Her son is now 21, and her daughter has just graduated from medical school.  She is, I think, a living example of the power of prayer, and she just radiates love; I am honored to know her.

Isn't the blogosphere wonderful?

Monday, June 18, 2012

One of the dumbest things...

One of the dumbest things you can do
is backbite an animal,
or a human being.

Reason is: Besides the fact
that an animal who is feeling grouchy that day
might bite you back...

Whenever you speak ill of any living creature
something of their shadow might fall on you.

Some unwanted impressions of theirs
could spill on your floor,
and I imagine you are busy enough --
trying to keep things tidy.

--Hafiz, from A Year with Hafiz

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Time for Silence

The beauty of the mountain
is talked about most from a distance,
 not while one is scaling the summit
with life at risk.

That is the time for silence,
and drawing upon all your skills
so you might return from the cloud's domain
and inspire others
to breathe closer to God,
while still human,
the way you did.

--Hafiz, from A Year with Hafiz

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Remember a song you know

If you are sad, 
remember a beautiful song you know.  
It is really something living.

It can bring you to the place 
where it was created out of light, 
and you can feel that
for a moment.

If you do not wish to sing, 
if you are feeling shy or just too low, 
picture me doing so,
while sitting at a table with you, 
with maybe a drink in our hands ...
toasting something you would like
to clink a cup with me about,
my dear.

--Hafiz, from A Year with Hafiz

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wide Plain of Death

I placed one foot
on the wide plain of death,
and some grand immensity
sounded on the emptiness.

I have felt nothing ever
like the wild wonder of that moment.

-- Rumi, from A Year with Rumi

Thursday, June 14, 2012

If I only had a heart

Your Fidelity to Love

Your fidelity to love,
that is all you need.
No day will then match your strength.

What was once a fear or problem
will see you coming,
and step aside ... or run.

--Hafiz, from A Year with Hafiz

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bump Heads with the Roof

"How can I grow and reach my full height?"
a tree once said to me.

And I replied,
"Dear, sit quiet for a minute each day,
don't let your branches move,

conserve your energy within and without,
concentrate all your strength
on your invisible wings.

Then a fuel that feeds your actions and thoughts
will help your spirit
 to rise and bump heads with the Roof over all."

--Hafiz, from A Year with Hafiz

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This season's moment

You that prefer, as crows do,
winter's chill
and the empty limbs,
notice now this
that fills with new leaves
and roses opening
and the nightbird's song.
Let your love dissolve also
into this season's moment
or when it's over
you will buy lamp after lamp 
to find it.

-- Rumi, from A Year with Rumi

Monday, June 11, 2012

Taking a moment to sit

Our younger daughter was home this weekend with two friends -- one from Australia, and one from England -- passing through on their way up to Orcas Island, where they'll spend their summer helping to manage the counselors and staff of the summer camp that's been such an important part of our daughters' lives.

Which meant I couldn't really tackle any big projects, as I would need to be welcoming interruptions for the duration of their stay.  So I got to spend a little time just sitting in the living room, or the dining room, looking out over the water and watching the wildlife swim, fly, and trot by (the trotting is the deer who occasionally spend their afternoons wandering across the lagoon at low tide).  It's an endlessly evolving vista as the children and birds and rains and sun and rainbows roll in and out and the mountains appear, disappear, and then appear again, peeking out from behind the fog; I found I kept reaching for my camera.

The geese babies have grown up; no longer tiny and covered with yellow fuzz, they now look like slightly smaller editions of their parents, and spend their days learning to move in various formations.  And, like the deer and the loons, the chicadees, seagulls and herons, they're a delight to watch; I found myself thinking I should spend more time just sitting and enjoying the view.

But that drive to create, to do more and be more -- to earn my keep, somehow -- keeps calling me back to the myriad tasks that await me at my computer and beyond: two shows to prepare for, an artist statement to write, prints to mat and frame, frames to re-paint, labels to type up... and through it all, the itch to paint another picture (maybe later in the week, when the bulk of the preparation is over).  I've gotten better at finding a healthy balance between rest and work, but I still suspect I need to get better at allowing myself to just ... sit. To just ... be.  To listen to the hearkening of the soul...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Playing through the fear

Good news!  I was finally able to come up with something that pleased me -- using the second version that I struggled so with yesterday morning.

And so, I ask (after years of listening to my husband deal with our daughters), "What did you learn from this?"

I think I'll just make a list, in no particular order:

It's always darkest before the dawn.

It's important to play through.

There's no harm in starting over. (If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.)

Listen to your heart.

Go with your gut.

Don't be afraid to walk with your demons; they have things to teach you.  Listen.

It's all about the light.  Just follow the light, and the rest will take care of itself.

It's not about perfection, it's about expression.  But expressing yourself takes a lot of courage.

God is in the details.  But accuracy may not be as important as effect.

Learn new skills, but keep the old; you never know when they might be just what you need.

Be patient; the world wasn't made in a day.  It's not done til it's done.

It's really about learning to see.  The difference between what we think we see and what we're actually looking at is greater than you might think.  Which holds true in other arenas as well, of course -- we're all too quick to assume that what we think we see is true when truth may have some altogether different shape.

I might want to do this again. But it's more fun to paint as an expression of self and feelings than it is to copy something that already exists.  Or at least, less stressful.

It doesn't take much to tip me over into the darkness; I need to have more faith.

I am more troubled by aging than I had realized.

I am as plagued as anyone by the issues of growth -- always wanting to be more, do more, have more.  It helps to be aware of that, and to temper my expectations... 

When struggling with doubt, it's always good to go for a walk with a friend (thank you, Joanna!)

(Note: I suspect I'll keep adding to this post... this was QUITE the learning experience!)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

When failure looms

Hmm.  In attempting to do a better painting of the same image, I seem to have fallen victim to something I knew when working in the software industry as "second system syndrome."  According to PC magazine (you can find a longer definition in the Wikipedia), second system syndrome refers to "a condition that occurs after a first system has been implemented. When it seems to be working well, designers turn their attention to a more elaborate second system, which is often bloated and grandiose and fails due to its over-ambitious design. In the meantime, the first system may also fail because it was abandoned and not continually refined."

Perhaps I should have realized this concept might apply to painting, as well.  But my second attempt at painting the image I've displayed here over the last two days was definitely... well.  Actually, now that I'm looking at it again, I think it may actually be truer to the original than the first painting.  But it's still haunted by the frustration I feel about copying reality.  I suspect I was wise to embark on painting with a determination to stay in the world of abstract...

But what's interesting is what all of this is bringing up for me: the painting efforts are triggering -- or perhaps reflecting -- the re-emergence of that old demon, "what are you doing with your life?" (not to be confused with Mary Oliver's famous question...) I look now at the art I've been so excited about these last two years and just groan.  I miss writing the daily poems, but am tired of turning out drivel.  The photographs I'm mounting for next week's exhibit were mostly shot, like this one, years ago. And, having applied for a job, I keep looking in the mirror and realizing that, however young I feel, what potential employers will probably see is not wisdom and experience but rather someone too old to bring the fresh perspective they think they want.

So now what?  What is it about vocation that becomes, instead of a noble sense of calling, an ugly should that rises up, shaking a finger and asking "Why are you wasting your time on THIS?" I am comforting myself with the thought that I've been a really good mom.  But -- and this must be some sort of aging crisis (how trite of me!) -- I can't help but wonder what, despite the gifts and talents I've been given, I really have to show for myself.

... and some other part of me is standing, hands on hips, and asking, "So.  You want some cheese with that whine?"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Shifting perspectives

My family returned earlier than expected yesterday, so I didn't get to finish this, though I did manage to keep poking at it off and on over the course of the afternoon and evening.

But I'm not at all happy with it, and I found my meditation time this morning was much consumed with thoughts about it and where it went wrong.

The first thought I had was that it's my old demon, perspective: I've taken any number of art classes over the years, and for some reason perspective always knocks me for a loop.  I get the mathematical concepts; it's just not how I see. 

I liken the problem to the issue some friends of mine face when they're putting away leftovers, or packing: they just can't figure out what size container will hold what they're trying to put into it.  I don't have ANY problem doing that, and take pride in my ability to pick a container that exactly holds the salad, or the rice, or whatever else I'm dealing with.  But I get that it's one of the skills that doesn't come to everyone.

Clearly there are mental faculties that some of us have and some of us don't.  But what I realized during meditation is that my faulty sense of perspective is not really the root of the problem.  The root, I think, is that I'm trying to copy the image rather than allow myself to be inspired by it.  And it was Louise Gallagher's wise comment on yesterday's post that helped me understand that.  She wrote, "What a beautiful photo -- and yes, it deserves a painting to express it in another way!"

That's really what my job is here: to take the joy I find in this image and use painting -- MY painting, the style I love and the techniques I'm learning -- to express it in another way.  Which is both freeing (I don't have to make the perspectives so perfect; I can just suggest the shapes I want) and scary -- do I actually have what I need, both technique and inspiration, to express something original?

... but isn't that the challenge any of us face when we're attempting to create?  Which is why we do our best to stay in touch with that divine creative spirit -- in hopes that something might be created THROUGH us.  My question these days is just that: what is it that is longing to be created through me?  And the question is always lurking in the back of my mind: what tool should I pick up -- camera? keyboard? paintbrush? a job? something else? -- to allow that to happen...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Que Sera, Sera

I'm mounting a new exhibit next week at a local country club -- a venue I've not been in before -- and they've pretty much given me carte blanche; I can show whatever I like.

It's a bit like putting a microphone in front of someone's face and asking them to "say something funny;" there's a sort of freeze that happens...

But I've decided -- given that I've grown inexplicably tired with all the experimenting I've done over the past couple of years -- to go with what makes me feel good; the shots I've done which bring a softening and peaceful feeling; images like this one -- simple, still, gentle, full of light.

I'm also thinking it might be fun to see if I can create paintings that go with them, though, given that my family will be arriving back from their road trip today, I have no idea whether I'll be able to find time to paint over the next week or so. Things might be a little crazy around here. 

As Doris Day said -- Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The stern critic

Something in me feels best when I am accomplishing things; I suspect it's tied to the fact that my mother's highest accolades for anyone were "efficient" and "competent." So however strong the urge may be to just BE, and be contemplative, the pull to DO is always stronger.

So even though I have three days to myself while my husband and daughter bring her car across the country -- which means I could be spending my time meditating and painting -- some imp in me is keeping me busy accomplishing things; cleaning out closets and drawers; taking things to the cleaners, the thrift shop, and the dump; cleaning and refilling the hot tub; running errands and generally staying busy.  Yesterday I never even meditated -- which might explain why yesterday's post was both late and pretty pointless.

But in the middle of all my busy-ness yesterday I came home to find, not one, but TWO eagles on our roof (the other one flew away while I was going into the house for my camera).  And as I look at that grave face, I realize that for all my determined awareness of the feminine and supportive aspects of the divine, some part of me still thinks God is more like this: stern, critical, looking down on me from some lofty perspective and not particularly pleased with what he sees.

Perhaps it's just that I am reading (for the third time) Paul Wilkes' Temptations, a mystery set in a monastery in Vermont and featuring as its protagonist a playboy journalist who is wrestling with a call to monastic life, aided and abetted by a powerful monk whose demeanor is rather like that of this eagle; a monk who may or may not be driving his novices to madness and self-destruction (I have a gift for forgetting endings, so the mystery is as fresh and unsolved today as it was the first time I read the book).

I'm about two thirds of the way through, and have just come across this line: "One of the adages that I'm sure has been around since the first two hermits decided to cook their humble broth in a single pot was to me the ultimate leveler: Only the weak come to monasteries.  If a man was strong enough, he could live in the world."

It seems to me to be a corollary to something an older woman once said to me when we were remarking upon the fact that neither her daughter nor my husband had any inclination to attend church: "I think it's because they are naturally good.  It's only those of us who struggle so with wickedness who need to go to church."

-- which might explain why church, and the behavior of its leaders, is disappointing to so many.  Perhaps it's not, as we always assumed, a place where true believers can share their faith and support one another on their journeys, but rather a place where people who struggle with the huge gap between their high expectations of their own morality and their actual behavior go in hopes it will motivate them to do better.  I'd like to believe the churches I've served in over the years fall into the former category, but for some reason the churches in the latter category seem to have a lot more visibility.  No wonder our young people are staying away...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When language stinks

This is the edge of a table, seen against a low corrugated wall in a restaurant called Stink, in Tacoma.  The name is a delightful play on words -- Tacoma is known for its paper mills, but also the restaurant serves as a deli, specializing in unusual cheeses.  I'm sure any food critic would love to be able to say the restaurant stinks, but in fact the food is fabulous.

It's another reminder of the power words have to confuse and mislead us; something I've been thinking about off and on lately -- primarily in connection with Pentecost; that moment in time when everyone, however briefly, could understand one another despite the language differences.  Because much of the time it seems that language, though supposedly a way for us to communicate with and understand one another, serves more effectively as a barrier than as a bridge.

But since I'm still a little jet-lagged, I think I'll just leave it at that, and not try to explain or explore.  Perhaps tomorrow my thoughts will have more of the clarity of this photo...

Monday, June 4, 2012

On The Limits to Growth

We are just back from our daughter's graduation, and as I was wandering through the pictures, posting them to Facebook (at her request; she's still on the road, driving her car back across the country with her father and an Australian friend) I found this one, taken across the pond at the beginning of our time together.

This building houses the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, an expensive and very green new addition to the college. I'm posting it here because one of the students I met over the course of the weekend complained that he was very unimpressed with the current president, who has been praised for getting this conference center built. As a result of her expansion efforts and this building in particular, apparently tuition (already high) has risen significantly.  "Why do we always have to keep growing?" he asked; "why can't we use our money to keep tuition down and maintain the buildings we already have?"

I don't know the actual story behind this, but it does make me think of a conversation I had this morning about the expectations we tend to have in this country around growth and attachment: (1) that there should always be more, and (2) that I should be able to keep what I already have.  The problem comes, I think, when one person or organization's need to grow impinges on another person or organization's need to grow -- or at least to keep what they have; in this case, the college's need to grow impinges on the ability of its students to continue to afford an education. 

There's probably some theorem about this, but it's easy to see that where those two things intersect is would generate a certain amount of greed and fear (greed for more, fear of losing what you have) and thus create difficulties.  We know this holds true at the international level (wars tend to ensue when one entity wants what another entity has).  But I'm thinking it creates difficulties at the personal level as well: if A, for example, wants to spend more time with B, then B must in turn give up some time previously spent on other stuff.  Unless there's a conscious negotiation about this, assumptions made could easily trigger some significant battles.

In the 1972 classic, The Limits to Growth, by Donella and Dennis Meadows et al., the authors explored the interaction between exponential growth and finite resources and concluded that without some significant changes we could predict economic and societal collapse by the mid- to late- 21st century.  Their work has been challenged by a number of critics as doomsday material, but it seems important to note that they did arrive at one possible scenario which could actually stabilize growth and NOT result in collapse.

Given that my husband and I have somehow managed to stay together for close to 30 years, I can't help but believe that stabilization is also possible in relationships. So I find myself feeling a little curious about the Meadows' stable scenario, and I'm wondering if and how it might translate into a more personal context.  Hmmm.

... just something  to wonder about on a cold and cloudy Monday...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Like rusty mirrors

When I see your face,
the stones start spinning.
You appear.  All studying wanders.
I lose my place.

Water turns pearly.
Fire dies down
and does not consume.

In your presence
I do not want
what I thought I wanted,
those three little hanging lamps.

Inside your face
the ancient manuscripts
seem like rusty mirrors.
You breathe,
and new shapes appear.

The music of a desire
as widespread as spring
begins to move like a great wagon.

Drive slowly.
Some of us walking alongside are lame.

Rumi, from Coleman Barks' A Year With Rumi.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Inside a country dialect

A human being 
is like the rod Moses held
or the words that Jesus said.

The outer is just a piece of wood,
or mouth-sounds
of a country dialect,
whose inner parts 
can divide the green ocean
and make the dead
sit up and smile.

You see the far-off tents
of an encampment.
You go closer.

There is a dust-shape,
someone walking near.
Inside that, a man,
bright eyes 
and the strength of his presence.

When Moses returns from the wilderness
where he has gone alone,
Mount Sinai begins to dance.

Rumi, from Coleman Barks' A Year with Rumi

Friday, June 1, 2012

The flower's eye

Find me near the flower's eye
that takes in provocation
and begins to grow.

Love is a baby
that struggles and fights,
stops nursing,
then runs out through the door,
escaping as a fire
jumping to the next burn.

Rumi, from Coleman Barks' A Year with Rumi