Sunday, September 30, 2012

Noonday lessons

I don't generally like to shoot in the middle of the day, as the cameras I use have a pretty limited dynamic range.  But every once in a while I make an exception. On this particular day, the sky was so clear and the colors so rich I just couldn't resist bringing along the camera. It was a bit of a calculated risk -- and also an adventure: we were going someplace we'd never been before, although not that far from home. And, as you can see here, my camera did a surprisingly good job of stepping up to the demands of the mid-day light.

I think we often tend to underestimate our own dynamic range capacity as well, resisting both the highs and lows life has to offer for fear we won't be able to handle the voltage -- or the pain. And yes -- sometimes that can be very difficult. But I think we were designed to handle far more than we generally give ourselves credit for. There are for us, as for my camera, calculated risks: moments when we might be stepping out of our comfort zone, but all the signs tell us the potential for joy and success is great if only we are willing to try.

So I like to think of images like this as noonday lessons: reminders that sometimes a departure from familiar patterns and places can bring new clarity, and even peace. But we'll never know for sure unless we're willing to take that risk...

Saturday, September 29, 2012

There's beauty in the mystery

One of the hazards of being a photographer is that you notice the oddest things; art is everywhere.  This, for example, is a reflection in the door of our local coffee shop.  The shadow of the barista is inside; the garden that shares the building is outside shining in from behind him, and there is a taxi waiting outside the door.

I've learned from experience that pictures like this are not generally the pictures that sell: most people prefer to hang something on their walls that's either obviously and boldly abstract or else instantly recognizable. 

I'm not quite certain why that would be true, but I suspect it's another version of a phenomenon we learned about in a workshop we took a few weeks ago on social learning disorders.  And that is that children who are less obviously disabled are more likely to be bullied than either "normal" children or more obviously disabled children. It seems that we get more uncomfortable -- even fearful -- around things and people we can't easily categorize.  We humans tend to prefer to keep things in boxes, predictable, controllable. 

And, knowing that, we tend to want to control what is seen at first glance, to protect that which is different and unique in us from the prying eyes of the bully.  The masking behaviors we all indulge in --the clothes, the hair, the language, the gestures, the makeup (if you wear it)-- are all designed to control that first impression. "See?" say the masking behaviors, "I'm normal, predictable.  You don't need to bully me; I'm just like you." 

Perhaps the purpose of art is to reverse that process, to invite the viewer to stop, to look behind the surface, to see that there is more to the picture -- and so much more to life -- than what is immediately apparent. I'd like to think that when we take the time to look more deeply we'll discover the beauty that wells up out of mystery, and will find it resonates with the mystery which lies within each of us.  Perhaps a few experiences of that will help to lessen our fear of that unpredictable other-ness.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Defects as opportunities

"A tailor needs a torn garment
to practice his expertise.
The trunks of trees
must be cut and cut again,
so they can be used for fine carpentry.
Your doctor must have a broken leg to mend.

Your defects are each opportunities
for glory to be manifested.
Whoever sees clearly
what is diseased in himself
begins to gallop on the way.
There is nothing worse
than thinking you are well enough.
More than anything,
self-complacency blocks the workmanship."

-- Rumi

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Time for reflection

There's a boat show next summer that I'm preparing for, and I tend to take my best boat pictures on those rare foggy mornings that happen in late September and early October, so I try to go down to the docks with my camera whenever there's a fog. 

Unfortunately I slept late yesterday morning, so when I woke to discover a glorious thick fog obscuring the horizon I had to choose between meditation or going out with my camera: missing my Pilates class at 9 was really not an option. 

So I elected to compromise: I said yes to meditation, but left ten minutes early for class and went the long way, down by Manitou Beach, to see if I could at least get a picture of the pilings there.

I was disappointed when I drove by to see there were no cormorants on the pilings, but I stopped anyway and got out of the car with my camera, and while I was walking back to get the picture this one beautiful bird landed and kindly stretched his wings for me.

I did get a photo with a boat drifting lazily in the background -- possibly usable for the show.  But this one was my favorite.  And I have no regrets about having chosen to meditate.  As Garry Wills says, "A very original man must shape his life, make a schedule that allows him to reflect, and study, and create."  I do believe that if I keep my priorities straight, and keep making space for that quiet time at the beginning of the day, there will still be time for whatever needs to be done -- and, who knows? Perhaps the results will be more effective if I bring a more centered self to the task.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Basket of Fresh Bread

A Basket of Fresh Bread  

There is a basket of fresh bread
on your head,
yet you go door to door
asking for crusts.
Knock on the inner door; no other.

Sloshing knee-deep
in clear streamwater,
you keep wanting a drink
from other people's waterbags...

Do not look for it outside yourself:
there is a fountain within.

-- Rumi

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Obligatory cat picture

This is Sophie.  She has just stolen this ribbon from the dining room table (left there after my daughter opened her birthday presents) and is having her way with it, ecstatically shredding it on our dining room rug.

Sophie LOVES to steal things off the dining room table -- her favorites are pens and pencils, which she bats delightedly to the edge and then pushes over so she can watch them drop.

But here's the catch: Sophie only does these things when there's no-one in the house but me.  She's a little bit accepting of my husband (she lives mostly in his office after all) but I'm the only one she really trusts.

We once had a house-sitter who fed our cats for two weeks and never saw Sophie once; she wasn't at all convinced that Sophie exists.  And now that our daughter is home, Sophie's been invisible for days: the only reason she's out this morning is because our daughter spent the night in Seattle.

I think that Sophie's a bit like that inner voice we have -- you know, the one that chatters all the time?  It's pretty jumpy, a little neurotic, and easily threatened, so unless you pay attention to it and are very gentle with it, you might never even notice that it's there.  But it can also undermine your best intentions if you're not careful, either by shredding them like this ribbon ("You can't really do that, you're really not strong/original/smart/creative/charismatic enough to pull that off") or by just knocking all your tools right off the table.

I know.  I may be taking this metaphor way farther than it was meant to go.  But what's a blog without a  cat picture or two?

Monday, September 24, 2012

A life full of blessings

This has been birthday weekend in our family, so life's been a little crazy: we celebrated my husband's birthday Friday because we were putting him on an early plane to New Jersey on Saturday (his actual birthday); he's there to celebrate his father's 91st birthday (which was yesterday), but that means he's missing our daughter's birthday (which is today).

Meanwhile our daughter had some celebrating -- and responsibilities -- of her own to take care of; a college roommate flying in late last night, another friend's birthday yesterday, an apartment to rent, jobs to find... So I thought, once she left for Seattle yesterday morning, that I'd have a couple of days to myself.

I decided to just relax and get some me time, so I'd been puttering around, buying canvases and looking for a houseplant, when around 3:30 I began getting this craving for pizza -- a specific pizza, with homemade sausage and whole roasted garlic (yum).  After resisting for about an hour I hopped into the car and drove across the bridge to Bella Luna.  I thought about getting just a piece and hitting the road, but when our daughter's around there are often surprise invasions of hungry young people, so I ordered a whole pizza and sat down to wait.

And who should drive up but another of the actors from that play I spoke of yesterday -- the very actor who had already decided, as I did, to leave the production.  We have NEVER run into each other outside rehearsals, so the timing was particularly surprising: we'd just been emailing about our respective decisions, and I had sent him a pointer to yesterday's blog -- it was still open on his computer when he left to get his slice of pizza.

So I offered to share my pizza with him, and we spent a lovely hour out on the Bella Luna patio, overlooking the water, talking of plays and life and families and faith and politics; such a blessing!  He was a little astonished that I'd bought a whole pizza; I had to explain the unpredictable nature of our household.  When kids are anywhere in the vicinity, leftovers never last long!

And, sure enough, just as I was crawling into bed last night, the phone rang, and it was the birthday girl, explaining that she and the roommate she'd just picked up at the airport (who had to leave on a 5 am plane for Montana this morning) had decided to spend their time here instead of in Seattle.  So I got back out of bed, finished wrapping her presents, and waited up for the girls, who arrived shortly after midnight.  We watched her open presents, and I finally crawled into bed around 1:30, having wished her happy birthday and hugged her college roommate goodbye.

So that was two wonderful surprise blessings -- pizza with a new friend and getting to see my daughter and her roommate.  When I woke this morning, it was to find two more blessings: a note telling me the directors wanted to keep me in the play despite my perceived sense of failure (!) AND a note from an online poetry magazine telling me they loved a video I had submitted and would be publishing it. Plus, amazingly enough, there was still some pizza left!

So it was purely icing on the cake when the dog scratched at the door to go out and I discovered this perfect roseate sunrise -- and I even had my camera with me.  So this blessing I get to share with you: enjoy!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The other F word

We all know that saying -- "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."  And while it's usually applied in situations where class is an issue, it's equally relevant anytime someone is trying to be something they're not. 

I took this photo in Wisconsin a few years back; it was just in someone's front yard when we drove by, with no explanation, and it just -- struck me.  I loved the incongruity of it, and the facelessness of the bride was just -- eerie.

But it seems particularly relevant to me this morning -- this whole idea that you can dress a blockhead up to look like a bride, but she's still a blockhead.  And that's because I've recently come up against a rather glaring exhibition of my own shortcomings. 

I came to acting fairly late -- only 10 years ago -- and sort of through the back door: I've been doing readings and voiceovers and public speaking most of my life, so it seemed reasonable to assume I could take that talent to the stage as well.

But in reality those are very different skills: while reading requires excellent voice control, an ability to read well and quickly, to unearth the implications behind the spoken word, it's essentially a sedentary act; most of the action takes place in your face and throat.  Acting, on the other hand, requires a great deal of physicality, and you have to be very present in your body.  And I'm kind of -- not that person.

So I signed up this fall to participate in what I thought was a reading, but it's turned out to be a play, complete with costumes and blocking and movement and miming, and I'm definitely not only out of my comfort zone but also out of my competence zone.  So I've spent much of my weekend trying to figure out what to do about that.  I'm not upset or depressed or overwhelmed, I'm just out of my league.  And I feel like a bit of a blockhead: no matter how you dress me up, I'm still going to look like a blockhead.

It's good, I think, to push our limits, to try new things, to stretch the edges of our abilities.  But it seems equally healthy to admit to that other F word: to Failure, to weakness, to incompetence and mistakes.  The trick is knowing when you're in over your head and someone else could do it better.  I've always thought that one of the most important aspects of being a good manager was to be able to hire good people and be willing to delegate.  We can't do it all ourselves, and we certainly can't do everything well, so it's important to know what you can and can't do and let each person perform the tasks they do best.

Parenting has some related aspects: we challenge our children to stretch their limits and try new things to give them opportunities to discover their own competencies, strengths and passions.  But we have to also be willing to say, "Hmm... it doesn't look to me like this is where your heart and your gifts lie.  That doesn't make you a bad person -- it just means you might not be great at this particular thing.  Let's try something else."  As humans, it's important to keep broadening opportunities for one another.  But it's also important to give one another -- and ourselves -- permission to fail without coating the experience with a lot of blame or calling each other names.

Look at it this way. Just because this creature standing here is not a bride doesn't mean she's a blockhead.  Maybe she's just an incredibly beautiful and entertaining birdhouse!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Plus ça change

There's a small power boat that spends much of the summer tied to a buoy that floats out in front of our living room, but this week they seem to be off on some excursion; perhaps to the San Juans? 

In the meantime, they left the kayak that took them out to the boat tied to the buoy, and a group of Arctic Terns -- at least, I think that's what they are -- have taken possession.  They spend most of the day squabbling over position, and the activity and the colors inevitably draw my eye whenever I take a minute to sit down.

Unfortunately they're just a little too far away for my camera's tiny zoom, so you can't get the full effect here, but you can at least get an impression of it.  And as you can see, it's every bit as lovely on a foggy day as on a clear one -- if not lovelier.

The position of the kayak is always changing -- what with the wind and the tides and the passing boats -- and the number of birds resting and in the air constantly fluctuates (that's a gull in the foreground of the lower picture).  And of course the light is always shifting. 

But whatever's going on out there at any given  moment, from where I sit it's still the black and white terns, the yellow kayak,  the striped buoy, the red fender (even if it's hidden) and the sea. 

I suspect the terns are just passing through, waiting until the weather gets cold enough to head south.  But while they're here, they perfectly illustrate that old French saying: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  Funny, isn't it, how much easier that is to see from a distance...

When the tide is low...

I'm in the midst of rehearsals for another play, and last night's rehearsal was really difficult.  The director was very patient with me, but it was clear that no matter how I played the scene he wasn't getting what he wanted from me -- not a problem I've had before to such an extent (though I've only been acting for 10 years), so it was pretty disconcerting.

Some part of me was embarrassed, and wanted to apologize to him and to the other players for taking up all their valuable time and not delivering the goods.  But for the most part I was amused, and more than willing to keep trying different approaches to the scene in an attempt to give him what he was looking for.  It was nice -- and a little surprising -- to see that my inner well of insecurity wasn't being tapped.

Looking at this image this morning helped me understand how it was that I could maintain my equilibrium under fire.  I think it's because, at this moment in my life, my tide is relatively high. I understand that that could change at any moment, but I'm very grateful that -- for the time being, at least -- I'm feeling pretty resilient.

When the tide is low, as you can see in this image, lots of things get exposed; the ruins of elaborate defense structures from the past have a way of surfacing, of poking their heads up and reminding us of what has gone before, of past coping mechanisms and insecurities, of all the ways we've tried over the years to bolster our egos or to compensate for our sense of isolation or abandonment.

But when the tide is high and the basin is full, a lot of those rough edges disappear, and we find ourselves more able to float, to ride with the waves, to relax and let the tides and currents carry us.

I think we humans have low and high tides as well: times when we feel particularly vulnerable, and times when we seem to be able to relax and go with the flow.  And while some of that ebb and flow is inevitable, I do believe that meditation and/or prayer have a way of raising our inner water level, of filling the basin and enhancing our inner buoyancy.  Something about maintaining that divine connection allows us to be more flexible, less self-absorbed, less likely to fly off the handle or sink into despair. 

Not that that's necessarily why we do it.  But it helps...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tethered to the skirt of God

"Liberated from suffering and search 
I have tied myself to the skirt of God. 

If I fly, I look at the summits I ascend. 
If I go around in circles 
I observe the axis on which I revolve. 

If I am dragged by a burden, 
I know where I go,
for I am the moon, 
and the sun is my guide."


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The lessons of affliction

"I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.  In other words, if it were ever to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by the means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo... the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable."

-- Malcolm Muggeridge

... small consolation, of course, when you're in the thick of what feels like a disaster of epic proportions, or coping with constant pain.  But looking back over my own experience, I can see the undeniable truth of this: that the ongoing challenges presented by childhood wounds repeatedly provide opportunities for growth; that I would not have the life I have now were it not for the painful divorce in my past; that we would not be living where we are now were it not for the trials we encountered while attempting to raise and educate our children; that I would not be the woman I am now were it not for disillusionments suffered when devoting my life to the church. 

Each disaster has proven itself to be a gift.  It doesn't make me less fearful of future calamities, but I trust this knowledge will give me the courage I need to survive and learn from whatever lies ahead.  And in the meantime, I am grateful for the relative peace of this moment, and the opportunity it gives to assimilate what has been learned.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Beauty in any beholder's eye

Sunday we spent the day in Seattle with our older daughter, and after a delicious brunch at the amazing Portage Bay Cafe (followed by a brief side trip to my beloved Bedrock Industries) we wandered over to the Ballard Locks, which we hadn't visited since she was a pre-schooler.

The salmon were running, so it was a delight to stand before the windows and watch them follow their ancient imperative to go against the flow (sometimes I wonder if I have a similar imperative!)

But there's also the boats to watch, coming in and out of the locks -- some laden with pirates, some large, some small, some dripping with wealth and brightwork, others, decrepit, being towed in for maintenance by small powerful dinghies.  It's got to be incredibly awkward for a boater, the first time they go through: there are lots of instructions to follow, and piles of tourists lined up on the walkways above to shout words of sympathy, warning, and encouragement as the water rises...

And, finally, there was also a small but charming botanical garden.  I'd forgotten to bring my camera, so was reduced to using my iphone3, not known for its photographic capabilities.  Some things, though, are just so incredibly beautiful even a weak camera can't help but love them.  This is an absolutely unretouched photo of one of the huge tropical leaf plants in the garden; aren't those colors amazing?

My friend Dave referred recently on Facebook to what he calls a "duh" moment, to explain a pottery mistake that led to a beautiful piece.  My forgetting the camera was a "duh" moment, too, but it did leave me free to enjoy the day and my family.  And clearly, when I did really need to capture something, I had all the resources I needed.  Somehow I suspect that's more often true than not; that, left to its own devices the universe provides what's best for us... I wish I could learn to stop worrying and trust that more.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Walking in the high-walled land

"The tragedy in the lives of most of us 
is that we go through life 
walking down a high-walled land 
with people of our own kind, 
the same economic situation, 
the same national background, 
education and religious outlook. 
And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen and untouched 
by our restricted and impoverished lives."

-Florence Luscomb, architect and suffragist (1887-1985)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In case someone is spying

In Case Someone is Spying

I better sound smart 
once in a while,
in case someone is spying.

What if the truth got out
that I really prefer 
silliness and silence
to offering fancy clues 
to the universe?

Maybe I could accomplish both
at the same time,
the way that heron over there
appears to be doing.

 It peers into the water,
looking for a fish...

but at the same time
is really sending out
some covert Morse Code...

-- Hafiz

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Consider the fennel

... and should you ever think
yourself too small,
or God too great to care
for all your piddling concerns,
look on the humble fennel,
growing like a weed:
how delicate the shape
despite its height;
how softly glow the lavender buds
in the tender light of dawn,
how intoxicating the scent...
Could One who attends
to such detail not find the time
to treasure you as well?

Friday, September 14, 2012

What we see, and what we think we see

My husband came out of the shower this morning talking about a piece he'd heard on NPR, about a huge cache of amateur photos discovered, dating back to the 30's.

What particularly interested him was a story within the story, about how the photographer's pictures had changed after a particularly traumatic event in his family.  Why would this be true?

Fortunately I had just begun reading Michael Singer's book, Untethered Soul, this morning, and it seemed to me that the answer resides in a particular phenomenon of human processing which Singer describes:

"When you're just thinking, you're free to create whatever thoughts you want in your mind, and these thoughts are expressed through your inner voice... This inner world is an alternate environment that is under your control.  The outside world, however, marches to its own laws.  When the voice narrates the outside world to you, those thoughts are now side by side, in parity, with all your other thoughts.  All these thoughts intemix and actually influence your experience of the world around you.  What you end up experiencing is really a personal presentation of the world according to you, rather than the stark, unfiltered experience of what is really out there.  This mental manipulation of the outer experience allows you to buffer reality as it comes in.  For example, there are myriad things that you see at any given moment, yet you only narrate a few of them.  The ones you discuss in your mind are the ones that matter to you.  With this subtle form of pre-processing, you manage to control the experience of reality so that it all fits together inside your mind.  Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself."

So of course, if what we see is always filtered by that mental description of what we are seeing, then what we photograph in any given situation could be significantly different depending on the mood we were in, or something that happened to us in the recent past.  This explains how my daughter and I, standing in the same place, usually come up with completely different photographs: we're different people, with different mental filters.

But it also explains how my Republican friends and my Democratic friends, looking at exactly the same ugly economic picture, can come up with completely different conclusions about how we got there and what's to be done about it.  Each of us is seeing through a specific mental filter, which exposes some aspects of the situation and masks other equally valid aspects.

When I looked out the window this morning, the sun was bright pink again, just as it was yesterday.  But because it was rising in a clear sky rather than a cloud-darkened background, my camera could only see it as white -- even though I KNEW it was pink.  Both white and pink are true, in their ways, and so I took yesterday's pink sun and photoshopped it in over the white -- but what emerges is something very round and three-dimensional -- which is ALSO true, but we know we can't actually see that three-dimensionality of the sun, so something immediately tells us this image is false.

All of which, I think, points up the value and importance of a meditative practice.  We need to spend time listening to and getting to know that inner voice and its peculiarly narrow view of the world, and we need to take time to develop a consciousness that lives beyond that voice; to come to know the witness that hears that voice, that part of us which is capable of experiencing the world directly without the interference of all the preconceptions that inner voice brings to the picture it sees.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Helping the dawn appear

Helping the Dawn Appear

Strange the way my shadow began to fall. I
was standing in a field helping the dawn

appear, and when its body, the sun, was fully
lifted into the sky

I was amazed to see my shadow in front of 
me as I faced that luminous candle we all know.

I turned around in amazement, wondering
what could possibly be there;

it was the soul, our soul helping God to find
new horizons.

Strange to some, but not to love evolved, no
longer any shadow... I now cast.

-- Hafiz, from Ladinsky's A Year with Hafiz

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Separation as source

I've been fortunate to be part of a group of extraordinary women who meet weekly to meditate together and to discuss shared readings and how those readings resonate in our lives.  We re-united yesterday, after a couple of months apart, and spent our time bringing one another up to date on the progress of our lives.

This image particularly makes me think of a statement one of these dear friends made, about missing community.  Like me, she's been extremely active in church in the past, and, also like me, she's rarely attending now, and missing that connection.  It's not that our congregation is flawed -- far from it: both priest and parishioners are delightful and welcoming. 

... Which is why this picture brought it up for me: it looks like the cluster of rose hips is not only joyfully engaged with one another, but also reaching out in invitation to the other.  It's clear we're all made of the same stuff, all borne on the same bush.  But one is just -- turned away, living in the shadows. 

I remember talking with a Lutheran pastor about this odd phenomenon several years ago, before the Presbyterian church I was attending at the time fell apart and I returned again to the reassuring rituals of the 8 am Episcopal service.  I was shocked when he suggested that the sense of separation was perhaps my fault, not any matter of conscious inclusion; that perhaps I wasn't choosing to reach out.

Now -- especially as I read about the prophet Jeremiah -- I understand that he is both right and wrong: I strongly suspect that the source of the separation is not in this case due to any actions on the part of the community.  No community is perfect, but when we need them it is easy to overlook their imperfections.  But the fault may also not be my own.

Surely, having grown up as an only child, I learned early to be comfortable with my own company, and, as I grew, to relish increasingly rare moments of alone time.  So to that extent the fault could be mine, in not needing others quite so much, in being reluctant to break from alone time or creative time to take on the inevitable responsibilities associated with being part of a community. 

But I am also beginning to understand that this sense of separateness is an integral piece of how I was made; that God, who says at the beginning of Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you," somehow uses my separateness, just as God uses my gifts and weaknesses, for purposes that may not always be clear to me.  And if I see it that way, then I can begin to understand also that the tension created between the hunger for community and the sense of a separate self serves as a fuel for much of what I create -- both words and images.

It's all good -- really.  It is.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

By any other name...

I love this picture, and probably would have posted it here yesterday, but I didn't know the name for the plant. 

I know -- it's odd that that stopped me.  Clearly it's a relative from the pumpkin/squash family -- you can tell by the shape of the leaves, the stripes on the gourd, and those irresistible little curls.  But for some reason it wasn't enough to know that.  And now I'm wondering -- how often do I stop myself from pursuing a particular path because I can't name it, or because I have no prior experience of it? 

Though our island is accessible by land, the quickest way to get here is to take the ferry from Seattle -- and I'm always astonished at the number of people for whom that is a deal-breaker: they're just not familiar with how the ferry works, or how often it leaves, and that intimidates them. 

I understood that better, of course, when I found myself having to take one of the Canada ferries to Bowen Island for a retreat, and ended up in the wrong line; new things can be confusing.  And it took me three visits to Venice before I figured out the most practical way to get from the airport to Venice itself.

So I REALLY appreciate the amazing courage of my dear friend Linda, who managed to find her way all the way to my island from the Philippines!  It does seem to me that in each of these three cases -- Bowen Island, Venice, and the Philippines -- there was a promise at the end that somehow gave us the courage to push through the obstacles.  And, in each of these cases, the promise was that somehow the soul would be fed -- by time spent in silence with the wisdom of Cynthia Bourgeault, by time spent basking in the beauty that is Venice (those images STILL feed my soul), and by honoring a connection between two hungry souls.

... which is, now that I think of it, the same promise that ensures I will continue to devote 20 minutes each morning to quiet time/meditation/Centering Prayer -- whatever I choose to name it this week.  It's that promise that some of the soul's hunger -- for beauty, for silence, for wisdom, for connection -- will be fed.  And when that promise is there, I don't need to know in advance exactly how things are going to play out; don't have to come up with an exact name for the practice.  I can just step out in faith, and trust that what I need for the day will be there.  For that, and for ALL the things that feed my soul, even the beauty of this humble little plant, I am truly grateful.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Confident, yet educable

My first love was a jazz musician, and one Christmas when I was home from college I asked him to teach me his piano method, which allowed you to play from chord symbols, assigning the root, the third, the melody note and the fifth to different hands.

We went through our first lesson, and at the end he asked, "Are you sure you've got it?" I replied, looking at him askance, "Excuse me, I'm a national merit scholar, and this isn't rocket science."

Of course, the next week when he came back to check on my progress, I'd gotten the third and the fifth in the wrong hands -- and to this day I can't remember which goes in which hand. It was the first of a lifetime of teaching moments: it seems that whenever I assume I know something -- those are the times when I end up falling flat on my face.

How can we have the courage of our convictions and yet remain open and educable? Mother Teresa tells us "It is your duty and mine to speak the truth." But what IS truth? And is what is true for me necessarily true for you? Will what is true for me today still be true tomorrow?

As I age I am more and more aware that my convictions can be challenged, and challenged effectively; that there are things I KNOW that in fact I must unlearn; it makes me uncomfortable and even anxious about ever making any kind of statement -- and yet, even as I question myself, I am more confident now than I was when I was younger.

So I loved what I read in Peterson's Run With the Horses this morning: "There are frenzied efforts in our culture to salvage ruined self-esteem by bolstering people with reassurance and affirmation, by telling them that they are terrific, that they are number one, and that they had better treat themselves to a good time. But the result is not larger persons but smaller ones -- pygmy egos.

How can we become important without becoming self-important; confident without being arrogant, dignified without looking ridiculous

I think the only possible answer is that we need to be constantly aware that the world, that life, that truth is something way larger than we can ever fully comprehend.  We need to understand that our perspective is vital and unique, but not the only perspective; that there is a larger Divine unity that is capable of embracing both my truth and yours, even if they appear initially to be opposite.

In the face of all the vituperation that passes for truth these days, it seems doubly important that those of us who can find a way to stand with confidence in this middle place must speak up, must refuse to spread hate, must deepen the meditative process that gives us strength to continue standing here. 

It reminds me again of the circumstances Yeats described in his poem, The Second Coming:

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

I wish I could believe with him that

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Before as the root of the invisible now

"Before," Eugene Peterson writes in Run with the Horses, "is the root of the invisible now."  So I decided to take that with me into meditation, to do a walking meditation, and to bring my camera.

The sky was fabulous -- clear and bright above, with dark clouds ringing the horizon; it was clear the weatherman's predictions about the end to our long spell of sunny days would be coming true. Everywhere I looked there was beauty of the sort found in early fall: things ripening and dying, intense yellows glowing in the slanting sun against the deep gray sky.

The colors were magnificent; I hope to be sharing some of the images over the next few days to give you a taste.  But this dying sunflower was my favorite of the lot, and much more impressive in black and white than in color.  I've always loved color, but it can also be a distraction.  And it seemed to me that if I were to talk about before as the root of now, this image was a better fit for the subject matter.

We all know what sunflower seeds look like; most of us even know what they taste like.  So we know that one of those seeds led to this enormous flower; they came before.  We also know that that one lacy bit of petal clinging to the center leaves was once large and yellow, bold and bright, and that the dark seeds behind it will both feed the birds and ensure more sunflowers to follow in the spring.

Because we've been through a few seasons, we understand that larger picture of birth, flowering, death and sustenance that is carried in the now of this flower.  What we find it harder to understand, of course, is that the same is true for us.  As Peterson says, "We grow into a life already provided for us.  We arrive in a complex of relationships with other wills and destinies that are already in full operation before we are introduced.  If we are going to live appropriately, we must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another."

It's not easy to step back from our lives and look at the bigger picture, the connectedness to creation that both precedes and follows us.  But if we cannot at least attempt to remain aware of now as a moment on a continuum, of our perspective as limited by where we stand in the moment, and by what came before to form us, we run the risk of never seeing the wholeness of possibility.  And I LOVE the way Peterson describes this problem:

"If we use our ego as the center from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically."

Perhaps this explains why we're all a little eccentric -- it's because just haven't quite figured out yet where the true center of existence lies!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Working at being good

There was a line I read yesterday in Run With the Horses, Eugene Peterson's study of the Book of Jeremiah, that really resonated with me.  He begins by setting the stage:

"It is enormously difficult to portray goodness in an attractive way; it is so much easier to make a scoundrel interesting... In novels and poems and plays most of the memorable figures are either villains or victims.  Good people, virtuous lives, mostly seem a bit dull.  Jeremiah is a stunning exception: The complexity and intensity of his person captures your attention.  The captivating quality in the man is his goodness, his virtue, his excellence.  He lived at his best." 

And here's what caught my eye: "His was not a hothouse piety, for he lived through crushing storms of hostility and furies of bitter doubt.  There is not a trace of smugness or complacency or naivete in Jeremiah -- every muscle in his body was stretched to the limits by fatigue, every thought in his mind subjected to rejection, every feeling in his heart put through fires of ridicule.  Goodness in Jeremiah was not "being nice."  It was something more like prowess."

This line first hit me because when I looked out the window after waking up yesterday, there was a heron on the beach, not far from my window.  I greeted him quietly and then headed down to the coffee pot, but I noticed that one of the thoughts that passed through my head was a sort of pride that he was on our beach.  ICK -- what was that about?

By the time I got downstairs -- having only been up a few minutes -- I was already flagellating myself for thoughts that embarrassed me.  So when I read "every thought in his mind subjected to rejection" I GOT it.  It's HARD trying to be a good person; it's NOT always the easy way, nor does it come easily -- if it did, I probably wouldn't read the kind of books I read: I'm always looking for help because I'm always trying to get better at being good.I have lots of thoughts I'm not proud of, lots of opportunities to get better at this trying to be good stuff.  And some days it's exhausting, like running a race.  I'm not exactly an exercise fanatic or good at sports, so it felt good to hear that word, "prowess" applied to this kind of work.  Yeah, I'm working out every day -- it's just that the only weights I'm trying to lift are my thoughts and intentions.

So then I tried to paint -- and it was the struggle it always seem to be, worrying about each addition of color -- is the color the right color?  What sort of shape should it occupy, and how do I achieve that shape? What if I wreck it?  And then something I did was too much too strong for the rest of the picture, and I thought, well, I'll try gesso again; that seemed to work yesterday -- only it didn't, so I kept trying, and wiping off, and trying again, adding, subtracting... all the while thinking "there's nothing I can do to save this, I've wrecked it, why do I even bother I'm clearly not good at this -- every thought subjected to rejection, every feeling of "let's try this" put through fires of ridicule...

So in a lot of ways, I see now, being a good person is challenging in the same kind of way that painting a good painting, or writing a good book, or composing a wonderful song is challenging.  We have to keep moving toward completion, which involves a continual making of choices, a continual search for what would be the right thing to do next to bring this particular exercise to fruition.  And, in fact, you're never quite there: we're rarely if ever the sort of masterpiece to which nothing can be added or subtracted.  There's always something that could be better, that should be painted over, removed, redone or replaced, something that needs to be tweaked...

I finally arrived at the image you see above.  It's better than its previous iterations, more balanced, not overwhelmed any more by the sudden blob of navy that took over the right side of the picture.  But it's also not perfect.

But then, neither am I...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Self, Contained

I have to admit I've been wondering about this impulse to paint -- I mean, for the most part I have no clue what I'm doing; I'm just experimenting, seeing where it takes me.  It's difficult to give myself permission to just play -- I mean, paint and canvases cost money...  And, hello -- I'm "supposed" to be a photographer.

So yesterday I was painting, and things started to get muddy -- always a risk, with this technique -- so I threw in some gesso to brighten things up a bit, and the end result was this image on the right, which I call "Upward Motility."

I'm trying to honor the work and not judge it too harshly, so I photographed it, intending to display it here, but I couldn't resist playing with the photo in Photoshop.  Two hours later, I've frittered away my morning and all I have to show for it is the image above.  I think it's time to call it quits; I'm just having too much fun!

I can't honestly say one is better than the other, or that either has any particular value.  I like the original because it makes me feel calm; the computer-generated variant feels a bit explosive.  But it IS a pretty excellent representation of my emotional state for much of the day yesterday -- so much energy!  That frame, I think, is me trying to contain it...

Which brings me to this lovely statement from today's reading: "Anyone and everyone is able to live a zestful life that spills out of the stereotyped containers society provides.  Such lives fuse spontaneity and purpose and green the desiccated landscape with meaning...  The question is: How do we encourage people to grow in excellence and to live selflessly; at one and the same time to lose the self and find the self?"

Perhaps that's the difference between the two images: the one on the right has a sort of aimless go-with-the-flow, stay with the crowd quality, while the one on the left has a sort of contained but wild and passionate roar.   Perhaps the reason I'm not thrilled with either is because each is off balance, one too selfless, the other too self-absorbed.  A painting, like a life, needs to be a balance of outward and inward, an invitation to explore as well as an invitation to rest.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Unique and Original Adventure

For some reason this painting cried out for buttons.  I don't know who sews buttons onto paintings, but -- I do try to go with my instincts on this stuff.  So I put on the three in the middle (while the critical voice was saying, "Buttons? REALLY?  Are you SURE?  They don't even follow the Rule of Thirds..." (My critical voice is very rule-based.)

But then something prompted me to add the larger one at the lower left, and suddenly there was a rightness to it, a sense of "from One, many." A feeling of movement, acceleration... hard to explain.

But not surprising, given how my day is going today: piles of intensity (or what passes for it, in a relatively calm life): I put my husband on a plane for a consulting gig this morning, one daughter is in California sending a dear friend back to Australia, the other daughter is in a job interview as I write (keeping my fingers crossed while typing is challenging) and I JUST got news that it looks like one of my favorite pieces has sold.  For some reason it's almost difficult to contain the voltage.

So I was amused this morning (I've started a new book; Eugene Peterson's Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best) to read the following:

"We are convinced that we are plain and ordinary.  The town or city that we live in, the neighborhood we grew up in, the friends we are stuck with, the families or marriages that we have -- all seem undramatic... [but] something very different takes place in the life of faith: each person discovers all the elements of a unique and original adventure... God's creative genius is endless: each life is a fresh canvas on which he uses lines and colors, shades and lights, textures and proportions that he has never used before."

Given the way the rest of my life has gone so far today, I would have to agree: this life is indeed a unique and original -- and wonderful -- adventure!

PS: My daughter just called to say she got the job!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

No escape but stillness

"There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow, and so displeased with his own footsteps, that he determined to get rid of both.  The method he hit upon was to run away from them.  

So he got up and ran.  But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.  

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough.  So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.  

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps."

  -- Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu

This, my reading this morning, seems to mesh beautifully with something my friend Teresa posted on Facebook today:

"We can view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level, as a profound, and very misunderstood, state of deep rest, entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own false story of ourselves. It is an unconscious loss of interest in the second-hand — a longing to ‘die’ to the false" – Jeff Foster

For a deeper explanation of this concept, you can link here.  But at the very least, it seems clear that we will continue to get nowhere when we insist on running from the true self; that it's only when we stop and engage with the root of being that we can finally begin to find peace.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Start your day a little bit better...

I'll be giving a workshop this fall on "Playing in the Digital Darkroom," so as we wandered around the countryside this weekend I found myself, not just taking pictures, but imagining fun ways to alter the images.

This one is an old chevy I caught at a car show in Port Gamble; mostly I've just played with the warp command to bring out the parts of the image I like and de-emphasize the less dramatic ones.

Which is also how I dressed this morning, given that our daughter showed up after midnight last night with some extra house guests: instead of wandering around in my bathrobe I'm in jeans and a baggy shirt, looking a little younger and more approachable than I usually do at this time of day ...

I'm thinking this is also how we look at truth, history -- any experiences or facts we have feelings about: we always tend to emphasize the parts we like, the parts that look good, and downplay the less appealing bits...

What I like about the folks in the world who are NOT all that great at social thinking -- I'm thinking of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, men who have made astounding changes in the way we think about and look at the world -- is that they tend to be less interested in this sort of manipulation.  I'm thinking particularly of a sentence I read this morning in a letter Mark Zuckerberg sent to his investors:

"Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people."

We tend to think of hackers as bad guys, but (since I'm sort of married to one; he just hacks FOR companies rather than AGAINST them) I have to say that, for the most part, I appreciate this clarity of motive.  We do have a family story, however, that illustrates the downside of all that honesty: While at a family gathering, my brother-in-law complimented his daughter on her clothing, and I said, "Wow, a Walker who can exchange compliments!"

"What, your husband doesn't compliment you?" his socially gifted brother asked.

"Um, not really," I replied.

"Oh," he said, "That's because he's an engineer.  Engineers can't lie."


So maybe this habit humans have of dressing up the truth a little is not a totally bad thing.  The question -- as always -- is this: where do we draw the line?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The roots of our madness

Those of us who grow up with difficult, alcoholic or abusive parents learn early to read faces, to (as social thinking expert Michelle Garcia Winner calls it) "listen with our eyes." To be always alert to those around us, to anticipate their needs and moods and intentions, is the best defense in a largely unpredictable environment.

For such people -- for many people, in fact, because these kinds of social thinking adaptations arise early in life, even in healthy homes -- a picture like this can be disturbing: with most of the face obscured, we cannot safely establish the intentions of this individual.  Is he friend or foe?  Is he about to throw the tomato, or is he just showing it off?  We might even conclude that this person is a bit odd, to block his face in this peculiar way.

This ability to look at another individual and assess their intentions, imagine what they're feeling, is not uniquely human, of course; we've all known animals who seem to have an uncanny knack for sensing the moods of the humans around them.  But it is a critical element of compassion: if we are to comprehend and respond to the needs of others, we have to be able to imagine what they are thinking and feeling; how the circumstances of their lives affect them, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  And it can be very difficult to be around individuals who find this particular skill difficult: however bright and original they might be, it can be challenging to sense or establish a connection with them -- which is part of the challenge of dealing with people on the autism spectrum.

I found myself looking at this problem on a larger scale this morning because I read the following in Merton's Chuang Tzu:

"The eyes of all men seem to be alike,
I detect no difference in them;
Yet some men are blind;
Their eyes do not see.

The ears of all men seem to be alike,
I detect no difference in them;
Yet some men are deaf,
Their ears do not hear.

The minds of all men have the same nature,
I detect no difference between them;
But the mad cannot make
Another man's mind their own."

I found myself thinking about the growing disparity of wealth in this country, and the odd disconnects we hear between political speeches and the facts that lie behind the lies they contain, and wonder: have we all gone mad?  How can we not comprehend the misery of poverty?  How can we continue to reduce the taxes of the wealthy while driving the poor into bankruptcy?  How can we dispute the need for universal health care?  How can we accuse our current president of causing the financial problems he clearly inherited?

And yet, I, too, must be mad, because I cannot seem to make this mindset my own; cannot seem to comprehend a mind that believes what seem to me to be patently untrue falsehoods; cannot understand a mentality that continues to support corporate greed, or that believes there is such a thing as legitimate rape.  That mind is as opaque to me as mine apparently is to them.

Have we ALL gone mad?  When will we begin to cross the political divide and find the beginnings of compassion for our opponents?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

God waves like wheat

Watching from the train
as the world speeds by,
I drink from the cup
of summer fields,
glowing in light's embrace;
taste the sweet blue warmth of sky,
roll the clouds on my tongue;
imagine the farmer
stepping from his shed
with scythe in hand...
 God waves like wheat
in a field of wind.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The caress of the Holy

After the success of my painting the other day, I was itching to try again but I was out of blank canvas.  So I thought I'd (okay, I know this sounds crazy) gesso a cigar box I'd picked up at the thrift store and then try painting the box.

As you can see, the experiment was NOT all that successful -- at least, not as a work of art. Plus it was not helped by the fact that I was using leftover paint scraps from the previous work, by the indentations on the box, or by the texture of the brush strokes in the gesso.

But I did notice that as it began to take shape, even though I knew it wasn't done, I was increasingly reluctant to add any new paint for fear of wrecking what I'd already done. I've noticed this phenomenon before, but in this case it was almost tangible, as if with every stroke a wall of resistance was being built, making each subsequent stroke that much more difficult to execute.

At last I couldn't plow through any further -- a couple of the experiments I'd tried in my attempts to break through had failed pretty miserably, and I didn't have the strength or courage to go further -- but I thought perhaps some strokes of a pen might help, so I left the pen beside the box and went away.

But I do all my work on the dining room table, so there it was, waiting for me, as I sat down for my morning coffee.  Sigh.

I'd been experiencing a surfeit of Tao lately -- even if it is translated by Thomas Merton, I found I was craving something a bit more Abrahamic -- so I'd broken out my two favorite day-by-day books, A Year with Hafiz and A Year with Rumi, to see if I could find something that resonated a bit more with my Abrahamic soul.  The gifts came from Hafiz, first in the poem for today, "More Inheritance:"

"Bring yourself, again,
into the presence of someone who knows God,
for more inheritance is there for you.

Hold hands with the Buddha, 
if a living saint's warmth has been forgotten."

Yep, I thought -- that's what I've been missing -- the presence, the language of someone who knows the God I grew up with.  Even Buddha feels closer to my original faith than the sort of ephemeral detachment of the Tao.  Not that I can't love it, and learn from it, but...  I need more.

And then, from tomorrow's poem, "A Woman He Held," in which he describes a man, rowing a boat containing the woman he loves,

"as the wing of a duck,
landing on the other side of the pond,
gently touches her cheek.

... All of God, which is everything, is really so close,
and caresses us now and then
if your senses are alert.

The falcon's wing, on my better days,
crafts these images as I watch."

First the hand of the Buddha, and then the caress of God -- little wonder, then, that when I looked at the top of the box again, I saw a hand's caress.  I didn't think much about it, but began to draw.  And then I looked at the poems again and realized how they had influenced my vision.

It's still not a great image.  It's still not a beautiful box.  But I think I'll leave it, and keep my paints in it -- I've been looking for a better way to organize those tubes.  It will serve to remind me why it is that I paint at all; why I do ANY art, for that matter: it's to feel again the caress of the holy, which is everything, which is close, which, on my better days, crafts these images as I watch.

Perhaps next time I should meditate before I paint...