Thursday, February 28, 2013

Feel the artistry

Muhammed said,
Do not theorize about essence.
All speculations
are just more layers of covering.

Human beings love coverings.
They think the designs on the curtains
are what is being concealed.

Observe the wonders 
as they occur around you.
Do not claim them.

Feel the artistry moving through,
and be silent.

-- Rumi

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In search of peace

I received an email this morning from an old friend, a delightful woman who was one of our wedding party, all those years ago, and who now does AIDS research. Cuts in government funding have forced academic medical centers like hers to take in more patients to try to build revenue, but even then some clinics fail and others have to pick up the slack.

As a result she works 15-16 hour days with a constantly growing patient load and no relief in sight -- and of course the work itself is stressful.  So she wrote asking for a link to this blog as a way to get a quick daily dose of serenity. At the same time, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose Facebook site I follow, posted a prayer this morning for peace. So in honor of the amazing contribution both of these individuals make to society -- and perhaps because I'm feeling in need of a little peace myself -- I thought I'd post a particularly peaceful image this morning.


I know it's out there.

But some days it does seem particularly hard to find. I'm grateful that my camera offers both a reminder that there can be peace and an invitation to return to that peaceful place in my heart.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Never be less furry

I thought God might be willing
to listen to reason,
so I worked up a proposal
that outlined some of my concerns.
My primary objective
in that twenty page thesis
(of sheer elegance,
that I was hoping might impress Him)
could be distilled into this one,
a bit long-winded hoot:
That you -- God -- would never be
any less furry,
and always as accessible
and loving as my cat;
and like her, sleep with your head
on my shoulder. And of course --
don't forget the purrrrrrrrr!

-- Hafiz

Monday, February 25, 2013

Crests in the wind

A flock of mergansers flew in over the weekend; it was great fun to watch them dancing and preening on the beach.  Great fun to watch them fly and swim, as well: they'd take off suddenly, with a great rush of wings, and then turn and land back in the lagoon again with a huge splash and then paddle furiously to shore as if in a race, their crests flying out behind them in the wind. 

I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to be part of a family or community like that, to be instinctively connected, to move together so effortlessly, to communicate so seamlessly...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The call to return

There is, in the midst of gray,
a memory of color,
and in the silence of the fog,
the memory of a song.
If you close your eyes
in a dark room
you'll see the memory of light.

however far away we stray
from center
there is still the scent of home,
a sweetness beckoning,
an invitation,
that calls us back
into One.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My worst habit

My worst habit is
I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.
If you are not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity.
My words tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water?
Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits?
Send me back to you.
When water gets caught
in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out
through the bottom of the ocean...

  -- Rumi

Friday, February 22, 2013

Hungry for color

There's no real mystery around why this image sang to me today.  It's school vacation week here, and most everyone I know has gone off to sunnier climes -- Mexico, Hawaii, Florida, the Bahamas, Capri, Jamaica -- all those places where the sky is blue, the light is strong, and the colors are clear and bright.

I remember learning, when we lived in Vermont, that the suicide rate there is at its highest in February, when everyone seems to get what we used to call "cabin fever."  And I think for all of us, no matter what the season, there come those times when we grow extremely tired of our own company, when life seems gray and colorless and we just want to be somewhere else.

I could say that running away doesn't really help.  Because when we step off the plane a week later, the sky is still gray, the rain is still driving at the windows.  But somehow the memory of the warmth and color can help tide us over into spring.  So -- if you can't skip off to warmer climes, how will you give your heart a break today?  What might feed your eyes and soul; give you the boost you need to weather the rest of winter?  What can you read, or visit, or create today; what kindness can you do for someone else that might bring a burst of color into both your lives?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What feeds the soul

When we first moved to the island I spent many mornings down at waterfront park, shooting scenes like this one.  I loved the still water, the reflections, and the simplicity of these old dinghies. 

I was thinking of that this morning, wondering what changed, and why I don't spend time there any more.  And I realized it's because the prime shooting time -- sunrise, when the light is just beginning to come up over the water -- is now my meditation time.  By the time I'm done, the sun has usually risen and the breezes have begun to stir the water, putting an end to those sharp reflections.

Do I miss that time on the water?  Yes, of course.  But from this distance I see that both practices -- the early morning shoots, and centering prayer -- have fed my soul, have brought calm and beauty into my life, have blessed those around me. Plus, I still have all those pictures I took, back in the years before I committed to this practice -- and they still feed my soul.  Photography -- especially shooting from that contemplative space -- is a gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The gifts of imperfection

About a week ago I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love.  She was talking about nurturing creativity, and one of the points she made that really resonated for me was around the use of the word "genius."

Apparently the original word was a sort of synonym for muse, or creative spirit; an artist was said to "have a genius," meaning that he was inspired by something outside himself.  But at some point we went from saying artists HAD geniuses to saying they WERE geniuses -- which becomes a terrible burden to carry.

One of the things I loved about photography was the fact that I had NOT been trained, did NOT impose my own sense of what was right on the images; they just sort of happened through the medium of my camera, drawn by something larger than my own limited creativity.  My only job was to become technically adept enough to capture whatever was supposed to sing through me.  Clearly the genius was outside of me, and that felt very safe, very freeing.

And now it's beginning to work that way with painting, too: this image, for example, came to me in a dream.  But I had to learn -- or teach myself -- some new techniques to actually bring it to fruition.  And, because I created it first as a photograph (for fear of losing the concept before I could paint it) I now understand that while the overall design came from outside somehow, what gives the painting its character is my own individual style (or lack thereof!); the brushstrokes that are my own unique attempt to execute what I saw in the dream.  It's not perfect -- it can't be --but it's actually the imperfections that make it sing.

Now.  If only we humans could internalize that.  Because we get so hung up on our own imperfections that we lose sight of the gift in the imperfections; the opportunity for learning they represent, and the way they have of making each of us uniquely -- and endearingly -- individual.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Some things never change

Back when our girls were little, we would occasionally take a Saturday or Sunday ferry from Seattle (we lived on the other side of the water in those days) to Bainbridge, then drive over the bridge and through the woods to the Point No Point Lighthouse. 

There was a terrific beach there, so the kids would play happily in the sand for hours.  My husband would visit the little lighthouse museum or take a nap, and I would just... breathe.  I loved the view, loved the salt air and loved the sounds of children playing and gulls squabbling overhead.  It was a deliciously peaceful respite that fed us all.

Finding this picture just brought all that back.  And isn't that the joy of a photograph, or a song, a scent, or a taste?  In the blink of an eye, or a note, we can be transported back to another time, remembering sights and sounds and smells and feelings.  I am not the same woman now that I was then -- and yet I am.  I still love it when the girls are happy; still love it when my husband is occupied; still love it when I can just listen and breathe.  Some things never change...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Good to dream

Unlike my Monday friend, who told me this morning that he no longer dreams of traveling to distant places, I still long to return to Italy.  Yes, of course, there is color and beauty here; I photograph it almost every day.  But oh, what I wouldn't give, to spend another day on Burano, a whole day, free to drink in strong colors like these through my camera, with no bored family members impatiently tapping their feet, itching to get back to Venice.

The good news in this, I think, is that we are shaped, not only by the reality of our lives, but also by our longings.  And so my longing for color finds its expression in painting, in writing, and  in theater.  The hunger for community finds its expression in the groups with which we gather.  The thirst for silence leads us to walks on the beach or in the forest; to retreats and meditation and other opportunities to listen.  It's good to dream -- our dreams have a way of carrying us forward into new life. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The ones that get away

Twice, yesterday, I ran for my camera and returned too late to capture the image.  The first time, I was chatting with my husband in the kitchen.  The sun chose that moment to break through the clouds, and tiny streaks of light began playing around this angel on the wall behind him, creating angelic figures of their own.  Sadly, the sun didn't stay long enough for me to share that delight with you.

The second time, I'd gone upstairs to look for something, and there was another tiny break in the clouds. Looking toward Seattle, I could see there was a rainbow, though just the very bottom corner of it was showing, and the roofs of the houses on the hillside below were gleaming in the late afternoon sun, looking just like the gold nuggets you might see in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Again -- short-lived, but wonderful.

And that truly has been one of the gifts of photography:  I am so much more aware now, after all these years, of how fleeting these beautiful little light shows can be.  Like miracles, they're all around us, but we have to be very conscious, very mindful, to notice them.  They're almost impossible to capture, and, like moments of enlightenment, they tend to fade as quickly and quietly as they arrive. Which doesn't mean they don't exist, or don't matter.  In fact, the memory of beauty often feeds our eyes and souls for weeks and months to come... 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

On hope, optimism, and outcome

"Hope," said Vaclav Havel, "is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

This is not what I set out to paint. It's something I created on the way to something else, and I liked it so much I set it aside and re-embarked on another canvas.  Which seems to me a curious twist on the Havel quote.

When we set goals and intentions for ourselves, it's easy to assume that the outcomes we have chosen are the correct outcomes, and that anything less is failure.  Perhaps the essence of faith is trusting that even when the outcome is not what we'd anticipated, there is still value in the process; in the time we've spent and the lessons learned along the way -- and that sometimes the end result, though not what we predicted or expected, might be better than anything we alone could have asked or imagined...

Friday, February 15, 2013

Connecting with what we love

"Connect with what you love," says my spamming email from Ebay this morning. And what, I wonder, would that look like? I can imagine what Ebay thinks I love. But they don't know about the loon swimming beyond my window, the cat sleeping on my wrists as I type, the husband in the shower I hear running above my head, the painting simmering in my new studio, waiting for its next layer, the music playing softly in the background, the text messages from my daughters, the sunrise peeking through the weeds...

What do you love, and how will you connect with it, now that the hype of Valentine's Day is over?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Escaping to the forest

Some souls have gotten free
of their bodies.  Do you see them?
Open your eyes for those who escape
to meet with other escapees,
whose hearts associate
in a way they have
of leaving their false selves
to live in a truer self.
I don't mind if my companions
wander away for a while.
They will come back
like a smiling drunk...
A nightingale sometimes
flies from a garden
to sing in the forest.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Everything you need
is here for the picking:
rooted deep within,
rich with color, ripe with meaning.
Don’t make Adam’s mistake.
You, too, are a branch of Jesse’s tree;
you came with everything you need.
Don’t assume the truth is somewhere else,
some higher limb you need to climb.
And don’t assume
the knowledge that you seek
is cradled in someone else's branches.
Prepare the way
by tending your own roots,
and feeding your own soil:
do this,
and your fruit will be eternal.

Response to Logion 85 of the Gospel of Thomas,
from my book, Illuminating the Mystery: Photographic Reflections on the Gospel of Thomas

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The water you want

Someone may be clairvoyant,
able to see the future,
and yet have very little wisdom.

Like the man
who saw water in his dream,
and began leading everyone
toward the mirage.

I am the one with heart-vision.
I have torn open the veil.

So they set out with him
inside the dream,
while he is actually sleeping
beside a river of pure water.

Any search moves away from the spot
where the object of the quest is.

Sleep deeply wherever you are on the way.
Maybe some traveler will wake you.

Give up subtle thinking, the twofold, threefold 
multiplication of mistakes.

Listen to the sound of waves within you.

You are dreaming your thirst
when the water you want
is inside the big vein on your neck.

-- Rumi

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mind the gap

For many of us, happiness seems to be defined on a daily -- if not hourly -- basis by the size of the gap between our expectations, what we thought we wanted or deserved, and what we've actually received.  The size of that gap seems to fluctuate considerably over the course of a lifetime, and there are times in every life when it grows so large that it becomes a deep black hole: we sink, deeper and deeper, and it seems impossible to climb out. 

What knits that gap together, for me (and I suspect for many others) are the little unexpected kindnesses we offer one another: the friends who invite us to dinner, the painter who shows up on a day's notice with enough leftover paint to do two rooms, the child who brings us a treasure from the beach, the neighbor who brings flowers.  There are so many tiny gestures we can do to brighten each other's worlds, moments of thoughtfulness and generosity which reach beyond our narrow worlds to soften the blows and knit together the gaps in one another's lives.

What if each of us just did one small kindness every day?  How much concentration would it take, to look beyond our own gaps to heal the gaps of others?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nowhere is uninteresting

This handsome fellow appeared on our beach yesterday.  He's a black brant, also known as a Pacific brent goose, on his way back to Alaska from his summer home in California, and, along with the increasingly early sunrise, he's a harbinger of spring to come.

He's also an unusual sight; the only other time I've seen brants was a year or two ago, when we found about 15 of them, dead and lying on our beach, evenly spaced some 10 to 15 feet apart.  So seeing a live one is particularly encouraging; it's reassuring to know that at least one has survived this far in this year's migration.

I could, of course, look at it another way, and assume he is the only survivor, but by now you know I tend to think more optimistically than that. Not to mention that I never equate being alone with being lonely...

See how much there is to think about, just looking at a single bird? ... which makes me think of a comment someone put on one of my blog posts yesterday.  I don't know who is reputed to have said it, but it's apparently a quotation from the April issue of Mindful Magazine (I didn't even know there WAS a Mindful Magazine!)  "Nowhere is uninteresting to an eye that's wide awake."

... which is why, I suspect, I grow impatient with my daughter when she claims she is bored. Because everywhere I look there are things to wonder about: the world is full of metaphors to explore -- how could anyone be bored?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A blessing for the snowbound

I'm thinking this morning 
of all those who are snowbound, 
who struggle to open their doors, 
who trudge through hip-deep drifts
to feed their livestock and gather wood,
who shiver in the cold
and wait for power to return. 

May winter's chill 
be soon relieved, 
may the beauty of the snow 
feed their hungry souls, 
and may the promise of spring 
keep them warm til it arrives...

Friday, February 8, 2013

To dilate or constrict; that is the question

The tulips brought to us almost a week ago by our neighbors are open now, and beginning to shed their petals.  And I find myself wondering if this is why we humans have so much trouble opening; if watching the flowers has taught us that openness will inevitably precede death and loss.

But theirs is a single cycle, while we are always opening and closing: our eyelids blink, and our pupils dilate and constrict to help us process light. Our chests expand and contract to help us process air. And we are always opening and closing our doors and windows, hearts and minds, depending on perceptions of the weather.

Today I want to pay a little more attention to those places in me that are reluctant to open, and to the fear that lies behind reluctance.  Where am I constricted?  Where do I need to breathe more deeply if I am to feed my soul?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Balancing extremes

Like those weighted blow-up clowns we loved to punch when we were kids, we humans have a way of seeking balance.  When things get extreme, that seeking often manifests as a pendulum swing: I'm particularly aware of that right now, as I'm reading Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus.  It's a historical novel set in Florence at the time of the French invasion, when the heady excesses of the city's Medici era of art and luxury were suddenly lost to the fierce asceticism of the fundamentalist monk, Savonarola.

I seem to be enacting that particular pendulum swing in reverse these days: as the relentless grays of winter begin to wear me down,  I find myself creating increasingly saturated art pieces like this one, a blend of a colorful sunrise and reflections on a blue canoe.  I tried doing something in grays and beiges yesterday and it was a complete disaster; I just couldn't find any way to make it appealing. 

So I reassure myself for that particular failure by thinking that in following my artistic impulses I'm taking responsibility for satisfying my own thirst, finding my own balance, instead of projecting that need outward.  It's a good thing -- and I'll save those gray and beige paints for summer, when I know I'll begin to hunger for those more subtle shades with the same intensity that I crave these now.  Like everything in life, it's seasonal; this, too, shall pass...

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A knack for knots

Our children and close friends all know that I was not all that taken with my husband when I first met him. To say the least. So when I realized on an ill-fated sailing date (on a windy day, in a small boat shaped like a bathtub with a centerboard he forgot to put down) that this guy had a thing about knots, I just put it down to yet another weirdness. I mean -- who cares about knots, right? You learn how to tie your shoes, you're done.

Thirty years later I realize that his gift for knots was a beautiful indicator of what he would be like as a husband. He has a wonderful way of gently but firmly holding things together, so that even occasional storms don't seem to tear us loose from our moorings. And yet somehow it's a perfect sailor's knot, like the one shown on the left in this image: there's never any need to untangle. One quick pull, and everything is just... released.

There's a steadiness and a freedom in that willingness to let go that I find increasingly endearing with time. Not only does it serve as a model, but it also throws my own tendency to cling or toss away into high relief. And, given his relative disinterest in all things spiritual, it may well be what keeps my spirituality broad rather than narrow. He may not talk the talk, but there's an undeniable grace in his approach to the world. And for that I am always grateful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Those conflicting inner voices

Everywhere I look right now there are people wrestling with change, and it's clear the competing voices of their struggles have a way of echoing in the studio as I paint.  There's the Moses -- the J on the Myers-Briggs scale -- who is ready to lead us out of whatever desert we're in, and the Hamlet, clearly a P on that scale, who can see what needs to be done and yet repeatedly backs away from action in hopes of gathering more information, more clarity.  Moses becomes a sort of chiaroscuro, lots of black and white and strong contrasts, while Hamlet has a way of muddying everything.  And somehow we need both to achieve a balanced composition.

My reading in Mark Nepo's Seven Thousand Ways to Listen this morning seems to clearly speak to that tension."We need to acknowledge that we have an impulse of soul that will follow what is true and a change-resistant voice that will adhere to what is familiar... Admitting that we obey these voices and openly allowing the two to dialogue within us is an important practice of being in the world... This isn't easy but necessary.  How do we relate to our change-resistant voice, which says "yes, but" to everything?  Much has to do with choosing to enter life rather than retreat from it... 

We can respond to life in three ways: creatively, leaning into emerging situations that connect us to the life around us; neurotically by retreating into isolations that protect us from the unpredictable; or, more dangerously, by reframing our retreating behaviors as necessary stances in a harsh world..."

It's that last one that worries me the most.  The curse of intelligence is its ability to rationalize and justify almost any behavior.  As Nepo says, we can reframe mistrust as maturity, guilt as self-effacing sacrifice; insecurity as humility, indecision as adaptability, stagnation as stillness, isolation as independence, and despair as a stoic acceptance of reality.  It's amazingly easy to get off track, and the fear of change has a gift for keeping us there...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Escape to freedom

It's like this terrible curse: I go in there with my palette knife and a simple photograph, planning to use it to just inspire a sort of abstract image, and it's like some demon takes over my paintbrush and tries to make a copy.  Not an exact one, mind you, just a sort of odd, childish approximation. It's embarrassing, really; this is the third time it's happened.  I'm beginning to suspect that until I can train myself to ignore all those little details I'll need to just work mostly free-form, away from any suggestion of an image.

We humans are just so desperate for rules and for structure; so eager to do it "right," so terrified of breaking away from the accepted way of seeing or being, of making a mistake or coloring outside the lines.  Which echoes -- yet again -- the beauty and wisdom of that incredible scene in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, in the chapter called The Grand Inquisitor.  The Inquisitor is talking with Christ (who is mute) and tells him that the freedom He offered His disciples with that one simple commandment to love was just a burden; that believers will always prefer the complex rule-based certitude of religion.

All the more reason to view painting as a spiritual practice: it's a perfect opportunity to practice embracing freedom...Of course, my husband tells me the solution may be simply to turn the original image upside down so I don't get so caught up in forms.  Do you suppose that concept translates into religion and/or spiritual practice as well?

Sunday, February 3, 2013


We've had a lot of turnover in our little community in the past couple of years, so we decided to hold a sort of impromptu neighborhood open house on Saturday. It was a perfect opportunity to distribute the new community directories (which had just come back from the printers) but also a chance for the old hands and the newcomers to mingle and get to know each other.

Many of us had been affected by the December 17th flooding, so it was also an opportunity to bond over our various war stories: we're all here because we love living on the water, but we're also very aware that our homes and community are very much at the mercy of the sea, and that we need to be able to rely on one another.

So people wandered in and out over the course of the day, picking up their directories and stopping to chat when they had the time. One couple brought these lovely tulips, which sat in the dining room feeding all our color-starved souls as the house filled up and the day wore on, the men gathering in the kitchen and the women drifting into the living room. It was a lovely time, and connections were forged that I know will stand us all in good stead.

It's such a simple thing, really, to open your house: to put on a pot of coffee, set out a plate of cookies, and invite the neighbors in. We didn't even really clean up all that much, just cleared the dining room table. Kind of makes me wonder why we don't do it more often...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Terrifying, but in a good way...

With my daughter's permission, I have emptied out her old room and turned it into a studio, making the ancient dresser we bought for $20 at a garage sale into a glorified paint tray, installing a real live easel and bringing my growing collection of paintings-that-should-probably-be-painted-over upstairs.

It's terrifically exciting, but also a bit scary, and somehow my meditation practice for the last few days has been consumed by the temptation to look at that fear.  One thing I realized this morning -- in one of my many driftings from center -- is that a canvas contains a world of possibilities.

For some reason that made me think about why it is I used to go to church.  It was because (and this was at a time when I was far more traditional and rule-based than I am now, when God was still a white-bearded judge in the sky) it seemed that I could never keep all the shoulds in my head at one time.  I'd get good at one aspect of Christianity, and then get to church and realize I'd fallen down somewhere else; I thought I needed those reminders because my head just wasn't big enough to hold all the rules.

Apparently I've carried that old rule-based self into the studio, thinking my head isn't big enough; that I need constant reminders of all the shapes and possibilities out there in order to create anything of value.

So now I see that painting has become an opportunity for spiritual practice; that I need to allow it to open in the same way my faith has opened; to listen, not to external rules, but to the invitation contained within each canvas.  It could be, if I allow myself to relax into it, a beautiful chance to practice letting go, to practice trust, and listening, and connect more deeply with the spirit that lives and moves in and around each of us.

It's still terrifying. But in a good way...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Enduring hibernation

Every year, sometime around November, my drive to photograph seems to go dormant.  The first few times this happened I had a tendency to panic, wondering if I would ever photograph again, and the words of my father would begin echoing in my brain -- "You're such a maven: you do one thing for a while, you tire of it, and then you move on."

I loved photography, more than I had ever loved any of the other arts I'd tried (I was a potter for a while, and I actually taught quilting for years), and I was terrified that through some heinous flaw in my personality it, too, would drift away.

But every spring it would come back, renewed and refreshed, like some great brown bear stretching and beating its chest after a winter's hibernation, and always there would be some new dimension -- often fed by the other artistic avenues I explored during the hibernation period.

So now, January has come to a close, and, deep in the hibernation period, whatever I've shot recently has this grayness to it, like the light outside my window, and I find myself pawing desperately through old images each morning, looking for something that sings to me, something I may have overlooked before.  The good news is this: I no longer see this as scary, a harbinger of emptiness to come.  Years of watching this behavior repeat itself have taught me to trust that spring will indeed return, that new energy is slowly building beneath the surface of things, that the gears of creativity, however rusty they may grow over the course of the rainy winter, will slowly begin to turn again as the weather warms, the light grows stronger, and colors begin to sing again.

Souls, too, must learn to trust that spring and dawn will always return, bringing some new possibilities to life.  But in those wintery dark times hope seems to dim with the light, and it's challenging to keep that trust alive...