Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Sonnet Adventure

Lately I've been reading about the work of photographer Minor White, a man who was, like me, a contemplative; who believed as I do that photography is more about what the world our cameras see has to teach us than about the workings of the camera itself.

And I've discovered that -- again like me -- he was an English major in college.  Apparently he set himself the task of writing 100 sonnets, either just prior to or immediately following graduation.  And because sonnets have always been a joy for me to write -- we used to kill time on the ferry inventing them with our kids -- I thought that might be a fun task to undertake. 

I can't guarantee I'll write one every day, but I think over the next year I will attempt to write a hundred sonnets, each inspired by a photo and another famous sonnet.  So today I will begin with one of my favorites:  Shakespeare's "That time of year thou mayst in me behold."

That time of year you might observe in me --
November, gray and dreary, touched with frost --
the sun's light slanting low across the sea
on boats now docked, no longer on waves tossed.

Landlubbers now, we rarely drift from home,
and find our entertainments closer by,
rejoicing in the garden with its gnome,
the cat, the dog, the birds circling the sky,

And with our world grown smaller, I can see
how much there is to learn from simple sights:
the lace-edged glory of a tiny weed,
the dawn, the twinkling spark of Christmas lights...

As eyes grow dim, things seen become more dear:
visions to cherish as the end draws near.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Balancing practicality and creativity

Those of us who are practical are occasionally accused of "playing it safe," as if there were something unsavory or cowardly about that.  But in a conversation with my engineer husband yesterday, I got some new insight into an aspect of my work that's troubled me for years.

Yesterday a friend asked me why I find it hard to motivate myself to walk 30 minutes a day.  And I had to say -- it's because I need to feel I'm working toward something.  "But isn't health a reasonable goal to work toward?" she asked.  And I realized in talking with her about it that, no, it's not enough; I need to have something tangible to show for my time -- it's just part of how I'm made.

And then my husband mentioned today in passing that engineers aren't the sort of folks who go out on a limb, try weird things, take bizarre risks, think hugely outside the box: they're eminently practical.  If they do those things, it's only just enough to solve a problem, to arrive at a product -- preferably as quickly and inexpensively as possible.   And I realized: I am a child of two engineers!  I have engineering in my genes -- which not only explains why I get restless just doing exercise for the sake of exercise, but also clarifies a number of other characteristics.  I am wired to ... produce.

Which explains why I'm so productive: something in me is always driving toward that.  But it also explains why my work is ... well ... safe.  I'm always exploring and experimenting with my art, but I never really push that hard at the boundaries; never go off the deep end, never (and I've always faulted myself for this) come up with anything daringly original.  I'm always trying to improve, but I'm rarely inventing: what creativity I have is always tempered by practical considerations.  Will it sell?  Can I finish this in a timely fashion?  Will it say what I want it to say?  What's the most effective word/color/shape to use to get my point across?  What's the least amount of verbiage/paint/film/money I need to expend to communicate effectively?

It's not that I'm looking for an excuse for how I am.  It's more that I've come to a clearer understanding of the ways in which my internal priorities affect my external behaviors.  It's great, actually, to realize that I value reliability, efficiency and competence every bit as much as I value creativity; that that stuff is in my blood.  It's sort of like another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place.  So what if I've always got a life preserver handy, somewhere nearby?  In a way, the sense of safety that gives me allows me to be a lot more adventurous!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A River Understands

"I used to know my name. Now I don't.
I think a river understands me.
For what does it call itself
in that blessed moment
when it starts emptying 
into the Infinite Luminous Sea,
and opening every aspect of self
wider than it ever thought possible?
Each drop of itself
now running to embrace
and unite with a million new friends.
And you were there,
in my union with All,
everyone who will ever see this page."

-- Hafiz

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Suspending disbelief

Much of what my camera does remains mysterious to me.  How is it that in moving it as I shoot, to create pictures with the light, the staircase and the ferry somehow manage to stay stationary?

But the joy of photography, like the joys of faith, art, and poetry, is sometimes in not needing to know, not needing to be rational, or to explain, but perhaps simply in creating -- as Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said -- "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

There's some of that in the Christmas story, as well.  We know what we think we know -- about the spurious timing of the holiday, about the unlikelihood of Mary's virginity, about the much longer travels of the wise men, and the science behind the star -- and yet we still somehow believe -- and rejoice!

Friday, December 27, 2013

We become what we love

"If you want money more than anything,
you will be bought and sold.

If you have a greed for food,
you will become a loaf of bread.

This is a subtle truth.
Whatever you love, you are."

  --- Rumi

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Love more

When my daughters and I exchange text messages, they're in the habit -- at the end of a conversation -- of signing off with the words "Love you!"  And over the years my response has often been "Love you more :)," so when one of the girls saw this throw, she just had to get it for me for Christmas!

I always throw a blanket over me when I meditate in the morning, so this morning I meditated under my new throw.  And in the course of meditation I realized -- that's really the ultimate message of Christmas: that however much love we feel for God/the Divine/Creation/the Holy -- whatever you want to call that creative unifying force in the world that is so much larger and grander and more generous than we could ever be -- He/She/It loves us more.

And our response?  Because love is an infinitely expandable resource, unlimited by space and time, I believe that however much we love or are loved, there's always room for more.  So that's how we give back to that infinite generosity of spirit that inhabits the universe -- just keep loving more: not just God, but all creation -- family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and beyond, to all beings.  Share the love you have received -- and know that however much love you give, you are always being given more.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Burning to be born

O Holy One,
your loving presence burns so deep within us,
longing to be born into the world...

(Sculpture by Anita Feng)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Keep us mindful

As we enter this season of giving, 
keep us ever mindful of the needs of others...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seeking calm in the midst of chaos

We spent most of yesterday moving boxes and furniture (my husband was making references to deck chairs and the Titanic); re-organizing the house to solve a number of logistical problems involving multiple guests, cat hairs on my paintings, kitty asthma, and our mutual addiction to the printed word... and then I headed off for my final performance in "It's a Wonderful Life."

So, while I would love to share a bit of serenity here for those of you who feel consumed and overwhelmed by the Christmas Rush, I find I haven't much to offer!  Rather than manufacture the illusion of calm where none seems to currently exist, I've elected to share with you a brief video I created a couple of years ago.  Hopefully by tomorrow the chaos in the house will have abated and I'll be "back in the zone" again!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The miracle of kindness

"Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is."

-- Mary Oliver

Friday, December 20, 2013

Radiance of the season

Hanging the lights in this darkest of seasons
we remind ourselves of our own responsibility
 -- to bring light into the world --
while each dawn yet reminds us 
of the Greater Light,
source of all illumination;
that Radiance that emanates from within...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dark fruitless seasons

One of the many blessings of living in a relatively rural area is that you cannot but be aware there are seasons.  Though they may not be delineated by extremes of cold and heat, it is still clear that there are times of growth and times when the land lies fallow, quiet; when the grapes and leaves have been plucked from the vines and trees, by hands or by wind; when the earth is covered in frost and it looks like everything we've loved and watched over has died.

Because we see that devastation and know those vines will again bear fruit, it's somehow easier to bear our own dark fruitless seasons...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Low Key

"... I hold back a lot. Because I like to fit in, usually. Act low-key.
Am I doing so now, appearing normal?
It is getting hard sometimes.
For God keeps oooooooooooozing through my cracks."

-- Hafiz

from Daniel Ladinsky's A Year With Hafiz; December 18

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the world intrudes

This time of year, it's easy to get so bogged down in seasonal tasks that we never look up from what we're doing.

So it was only by chance that I happened to be standing in the kitchen yesterday when the moon rose, and even more by chance that I happened to look out the window; the moon wasn't even in its usual spot. 

My husband laughed as I dropped everything, grabbed my camera, and ran outside. But sometimes the world is just too beautiful to ignore...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Morning meditation

We meditate in the golden dawn,
our thoughts reflected in still, deep waters 
silhouetted against the fog,
rocking gently in the waves of light, 
refreshed by the cool moist air,
and dreaming of adventures yet to come...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Proverbial wisdom

Though Robert Frost was not the first to say "Good fences make good neighbors" he certainly did a wonderful job of bringing that ancient wisdom to our attention.  Having seen what poorly described boundaries and setbacks have done to relationships in my neighborhood, I can't help but think this concept could have made a huge difference in our community.  But I think what the proverb describes is the importance of maintaining a critical balance between freedom and structure, and I believe it applies to the arts as well.

It seems to me that clear boundaries -- "good fences" -- give us enormous creative freedom.  As a writer and poet I love the creative challenge of a predefined framework: a ten-minute play, or a sonnet.  As an actress, I find the structure of the stage set and assigned lines frees me to imagine almost infinite possibilities for interpretation, while improv tends to make me freeze up.  As an artist, whether photographing or painting, if I've been given clear limits at the outset -- through materials and equipment, color choices, location, or subject -- my results are more inventive and spontaneous, often surprising, and generally more satisfying.

I believe the same is true in relationships: clear rules and boundaries at the outset tend to foster a sense of joy, comfort, and playfulness within the prescribed limits. Clearly there's wisdom in this proverb -- so, once again, we have much to learn if we pay attention to the lessons learned from mistakes in the past. You know the old saw: good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment... Which just reminds me of another wise proverb we neglect at our peril: "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

That would be nice...

 "I was hoping something I might have said by now
could have made you stop, get your bearings,
and start traveling in a direction that will yield lots of fruit.
Maybe you are?
That would be nice..."

-- Hafiz

Friday, December 13, 2013

I wish I could speak like music

I wish I could speak like music.
I wish I could put the swaying splendor of fields into words 
so that you could hold Truth against your body and dance.
I am trying the best I can with this brush...

-- Hafiz

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Learn to be silent.
Let your quiet mind listen 
and absorb the silence.

-- Pythagoras

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Awakening compassion

It is human nature, I think, to tend toward self-absorption; to think more about our own wants and needs than those of others; to consider an outcome more desirable if it benefits us.  Having children can expand that circle of desire outward, but however often we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves, for many of us compassion does not necessarily come naturally. 

For me the most effective teacher in this area has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, which works something like this:  whenever I am struggling with something, I sit and breathe in the tension of all the other people in the world who are struggling with something similar.  Yes, that can be difficult and scary, and initially it seems to make things worse, to take that world of pain into my heart.

But then, as I'm holding them there, I look within and find the parts of me that can still find joy, or gratitude, or peace, and I breathe what joy and peace I can find outward, sharing it into the lives of all those who struggle with me.  This practice helps on several levels: it puts my problems in perspective, keeps me mindful of the struggle of others, helps me tap into my own forgotten reserves, and gives me a sense that I am giving back.

And so today I invite you to breathe with me: breathe in your fears and challenges, and add to that consideration for all who struggle with similar issues. Hold that breath, just for an instant, and find the joy that's always bubbling somewhere deep within.  And then breathe out that joy, sharing it with the world. And feel your heart opening -- just a little.  It's all good.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Don't go back to sleep

Don't go back to sleep. 
People are going back and forth 
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. 
The door is round and open. 
Don't go back to sleep.
-- Rumi

Monday, December 9, 2013

Photography as connection

Growing up in a small town north of Cincinnati, I lived at the edge of a small development, next door to a farm. Our house had picture windows, front and back -- living room in front, dining room in back -- and I vividly remember sitting down to dinner in the evening with the cows watching us through the picture window.

So I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the scent of manure is not as unpleasant to me as it might be to some (I am reminded of the inscription on a statue of Mark Twain near the volcano on the big island of Hawaii: "The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.") But what did surprise me, a little, was my experience taking this picture. There's a lovely little red barn nearby, and as many sheep as there are cows. It was a lovely foggy morning, with that sort of blueness coloring the air, so I parked my car across the street, got out, and walked over with my camera.

The sheep -- which I mostly wanted to photograph, as their white coats were glowing in the fog, completely ignored me; in fact, turned their backs on me and continued chewing the grass beneath their feet. But the cows looked up and quietly watched the entire time I wandered up and down the fence, looking for a line of sight between the raspberry bushes. And so I eventually stopped trying to get a good angle on the sheep and shot the cows.

This might sound odd, but in shooting the cows, and in looking at this image afterwards, I felt -- and still feel -- this settling feeling in my heart, a sort of God's-in-his-heaven-all's-right-with-the-world sort of feeling. I think it has something to do with re-connecting with my childhood, that sense I had when I was young, sitting down to dinner with my parents, of safety, of home, of this is where I'm supposed to be and life is good.

And so I thanked the cows, put away my camera, got back in my car and drove away; they watched me, turning their big heads, until I was beyond the trees.

It was quite lovely.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The shape of color

The shape of night, the shape of day,
the shape of color,  the shape of us.  
What holds all this?
Who made this miraculous mold,
and then cast everything?
Imagine the form that poured all forms,
and then try to conceive
the Being that whittled out
the Holy Spirit from a single thought
that took over the Inconceivable.
What can entwine all this in its arms?
What a container there must be
that some, still hung up on names,
call... God.

-- Hafiz

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The danger of those days

The danger of those days
(you know the ones --
when there's way too much to do
and too little time
and nowhere to turn
and the clouds are rolling in
and responsibility churns
relentlessly overhead --)
is not that we won't complete
all our self-assigned tasks;
it's really this: if there are too many,
we may just have forgotten how to live.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Born to love

“No one is born hating another person
because of the color of his skin,
or his background,
or his religion.

People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate,
they can be taught to love,
for love comes more naturally
to the human heart
than its opposite.”

-- Nelson Mandela

Thursday, December 5, 2013

So far away

I'm standing on a dock this morning, in the bitter cold, looking across the water at what has been my home these last 12 years.  And I'm thinking -- I can't help it -- of the email I just received, from my best friend in college, telling me her husband passed away this morning. 

We've known it was coming -- brain cancer has a way of announcing itself -- but the impact still hits hard: I can still picture him at their wedding, Christmastime, SO many years ago; still hear his distinctive voice, still visualize the green velour bell-bottomed pantsuit I wore as matron of honor (!).

There are those who like to say "he's gone to the other side," or "he's gone home," and I can see that's one way of looking at it.  But from this side, that side -- and home -- seem very, very far away...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So much beauty

Stopping my car beside a vineyard,
I step out with my camera to photograph a row of pumpkins,
and then look down to see these weeds beneath my feet.
So much beauty, everywhere I look...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Before you walk away

This place --
this place where you are,
right now (it could be
this dock, this boat,
this crow, this fog,
those trees, that water,
that cabin in the distance)
but wherever you are --
drink it in with your eyes,
breathe the scents
listen with your heart,
taste it all, and learn
whatever is here to be learned.
Accept it;
enjoy it if you can --
before you walk away...

Monday, December 2, 2013

Frustrated artist

After a 4 year hiatus, I returned to National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) for the month of November, writing a sequel to the mystery I wrote for Nanowrimo in 2007.  And because I spent the first week of November in Iowa, I spent the rest of the month frantically trying to catch up -- the goal (which I finally managed to reach by writing 3 or 4 chapters a day last weekend) is to produce 50,000 words in the month.

... Which meant I spent almost no time in my studio.  So I've been desperate to get back to painting, but it turns out that taking a month off has definitely set me back: I'm struggling so much with technique I can't seem to get to the sort of overflow of self-expression that feeds me. It's a good thing, and all part of the process, I'm sure -- and it's an important lesson to learn: that once we get out of a habit it can prove challenging to get back in. 

And the truth is, the paintings do have a way of reflecting my current state of mind: all three of the ones I've done since I finished the novel have this odd combination of boxed in and frantic: I think the artist in me was pretty distraught at not being able to express herself for so long... though you'd think she'd be used to it, given that she didn't even get to start painting until less than a year ago...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Which horse are you riding today?

Just as the best images contain both dark and light,
so, too, we carry, fenced within,
both darkness and the light:
each in its turn may carry us
to new insights and adventures...