Hard to see

Don't worry; I'm still here; we've just been on the road and staying with friends, catching up on old times late into the night and over breakfast in the mornings.  And driving.  Lots of driving.

Which is not so bad; the trees are beginning to turn (although clearly the summer was a wet one; lots of the leaves are just turning brown and falling off, which is what they tend to do in wet years).  For the most part it's hard to see that the colors are changing.  But in parts of the state -- particularly at areas of higher elevation -- you can see some of the trees trying valiantly to blaze before their winter death. 

I love that they're trying so hard: it makes me want to recite that wonderful Dylan Thomas poem to them:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

... which has been one consistent theme of almost all our conversations -- with many different friends in many different communities: dealing with elderly parents and their frustration as their freedoms are gradually taken from them.  Parents who resent not being able to drive, or who live in squalor because they fire the housekeeper and can't smell the gathering mildew; who leave the burners going on the stove,  or clearly prefer some children over others, or who no longer even recognize their children, or repeat the same questions endlessly, or who throw things and swear if you stop listening and answering.

I never thought I'd be grateful my parents died so suddenly and so relatively young, but now I see first hand that I've been spared a lot of heartache.  So this post is for all of you who struggle with these challenges -- and with siblings who refuse, for whatever reason, to participate in or contribute to the burden of care.

Yes, old age has a right to rage -- I'm already beginning to see people not much older than I am who wonder where their lives have gone and what they might have done differently.   I pray, for my own children's sake, that I can have the grace and courage to accept that life is what it is; that it's not what it's not; and it's all good.  Where we are is where we're meant to be -- for whatever reason -- and there are blessings in everything if we look hard enough.

Sometimes -- like the fall colors this year -- they're pretty hard to see.

Just gotta wonder...

Again, the TV is blaring as I write, so I'll keep it short; just thought I'd share this charming discovery from somewhere in Western Vermont.  What on earth inspires people to create things like this?  Who wakes up one morning and rolls over and says to the wife, "Honey, you know that old VW the kids left in the back yard?  Let's build a giant gorilla and hire a cherry picker to put the VW on his hand so it looks like he's lifting the dern thing."

Ya just gotta wonder sometimes... On the other hand, it's very amusing...

Darn.  I really can't write with both the TV and the computer talking in the background.  I'm sure there's a message here: maybe it's that contemporary culture gets in the way of thinking?

I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.  Maybe it's enough to just be amusing from time to time...

Surviving the losses

We spent our day picking our way across the state of Vermont to New Hampshire.  The flood waters have pretty much receded, but many of the rivers are still muddy and very high, and signs of the damage are everywhere, even though we were careful only to take the roads officially cleared for travel.

What I hadn't realized until we checked into our hotel tonight was that New Hampshire, too, was hard hit: there's a shopping mall near here that was completely devastated; stores are struggling, hoping to re-open before Black Friday -- which seems amazingly far away to me right now.

It's another reminder -- as if we need them at our age -- that life is fragile, and all your plans can go up in smoke in a heartbeat.  There has to be more to it than the daily grind, the possessions, the trappings... If spirit isn't flowing through -- even if it's only a trickle, not a rush -- how will we survive the inevitable losses? 

I suppose that sounds a little morbid -- perhaps because a friend wrote yesterday to say her daughter had died suddenly and tragically over the weekend.  She's the fourth good friend of mine to have lost a child; it's just devastating.  I can't help thinking how incredibly lucky we are to still have our girls -- and can't help being a little anxious at the same time. 

And so I just tell myself, breathe, release, breathe, release; breathe in the joys of the day and breathe them out again so others less fortunate may sense that uplift in the air.  Release the tensions, the worries, the tendency to think ahead to potential losses, or to think back on the struggles of the past. We just have to be grateful for what is, and trust that what's to come will have its own gifts to offer -- whatever they may be.  I've watched each of those moms take on amazing challenges in honor of their children, and I'm deeply humbled by their struggles and their faith; a model for us all.

Romance: fuzzy or not

I use a pretty tiny camera these days -- a Canon SX210-IX -- and these swans were far enough away that I had to resort to the camera's digital zoom.  But when I showed the image to the woman at my side (we were taking a break from yesterday's party), she said, "That's so romantic!"  And now I see that the fuzziness contributes to that romanticized look. 

But why is that?  Does romance make us feel all fuzzy inside? (Well, yes...) Or is it that we don't see things all that clearly when we're in love? Or that our partner's minor flaws disappear in the haze of love?

It's probably all of these things and more: we've all known friends who have gotten involved with "the wrong one" who just couldn't see the difficulties clearly because they were lost in that haze.

But what is it that creates the haze?  Is it the love itself, or the longing to be loved?  Is it desperation that makes us overlook -- or accommodate -- those sometimes heart-breakingly serious flaws?  I'm thinking some of the healthiest relationships I know of were the ones that didn't start with that delicious infatuation period but rather with wariness, a strong sense of self, and a willingness to walk away at the first sign of trouble.

That's certainly how my own marriage began -- I genuinely disliked my husband when I first met him, and even when I married him I reassured myself (terrified as I was of being hurt again as I'd been in the first marriage) that I could walk away if necessary.  And here we are, all these years later, still pretty goofy about each other.  But in a clear-eyed sort of way.

Does that mean it's not romantic?  Well, kind of ... and kind of not.  Not in the fuzzy illusory sense anyway.  I mean, sometimes the man drives me crazy.  We're both pretty conscious of each other's flaws.  But at the risk of sounding a little corny -- it looks like, as the old song says, "Our love is here to stay."

The appeal of simplicity

Sitting in my hotel room, I couldn't help but photograph this curtain, swaying in the breeze.  It's amazing how appealing simplicity can be: we are so accustomed to busy-ness and complexity, but simplicity has a way of slowing us down and helping us just... breathe.

It's a bit -- having spent most of yesterday driving the back roads of Vermont and upper New York State -- like what happens when you cross the border from New York into Vermont.  You know right away the transition has happened, not because there's a sign saying "Welcome to Vermont," (was there one? I don't remember...) but because Vermont has a law against billboards.  It's amazing how refreshing the scenery becomes when there's no artifice to distract from it.

It also makes me think of an outfit I found for my daughter at our local thrift store -- a fifties navy wool sheath with short sleeves and a narrow belt, very plain, but with a matching (and outrageous) orange plaid trapeze coat with 3/4 sleeves.  The dress is incredibly simple, but she looks absolutely fabulous in it -- it shows off her figure, her face, her amazing hair, her shapely legs... simply by being simple.  (Of course the coat offsets that; it has a way of drawing a LOT of attention to itself).

So, yes -- by keeping things simple, we allow the beauty that lies beneath to be revealed.  So what, I ask you, could you simplify in your life today?  And what beauty, what breath -- and breadth -- of spirit might be revealed by that choice?

No masking necessary

This evening, at the 90th birthday celebration for this delightful gentleman (the father of my husband), someone suggested I try my collage technique on faces.  So it seemed reasonable to experiment with this, the face so significant to this day.

But I don't think it works. At ALL.  Yes, you can see his warm eyes, his delightful smile, and that fluff around his ears that our daughters used to call "troll hair."  But the skin appears mottled, and you don't get the full effect of the lines and creases.

I think we humans draw a lot of important clues from the texture of the skin, especially those lines and creases.  And though I heard my younger daughter (who turns 23 tomorrow) whining earlier this week about wrinkles, the odd fact is I think they're beautiful: I actually am liking my own face more the older I get. 

To me, beauty, over time, becomes less and less about the features and more and more about what expressions have been burned in by age and experience.  And those expressions tell me important things -- not just whether this person is generally happy or sad, but whether he's wise, or gentle, or intelligent, or curious, or a tease, or engaged in life, or capable of love... and all those things are important to me.

I feel that to mask the face, even a little, takes away from the impact of it; I find myself wanting to rip away the veil over this picture, so that you can see that in fact he is all those things, and more.  This is a dear man -- yes, a little reserved; yes, a little obsessed with history; yes, stubborner than the proverbial mule.  But also wise and gentle and bright and curious, engaged, loving, a bit of a tease -- though all those characteristics have dulled a bit with age -- and he did a lovely and conscious job of stepping in when my own father passed away. 

So here's to you, Dad -- and I hope we get to celebrate a lot more birthdays with you; you're a keeper!

Two to tango

We humans, like these starfish, have a way of pointing fingers at each other when things get rough. The current state of our economy is a lovely example: we all know the seeds of economic collapse were sown long before Obama took office, but that doesn’t stop people (and not just Republicans) from blaming him for our economic woes.

But it happens on a personal level as well: most parents know that when a fight erupts among their children that the one who gets caught hitting is not necessarily the one who started the fight – as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.

But what do we do about that, and how do we stop the escalation? And how do we learn to cope with the difference between ideal relationships and reality?

I’m thinking now of how things went with our daughter yesterday. She was excited to see us and looking forward to introducing us to her roommate. But almost as soon as we arrived the barbs started flying: “Mom, you don’t have to take a picture of the house. Mom, hush, no singing.” Which is okay, at first; it’s teasing.

But when later, at dinner with our friends (who serve as her surrogate parents), she admonished her father for eating a second piece of bread, he fought back by referring to her tendency to run the family, and though this time he was doing the teasing, she got touchy and reserved, and the dinner conversation grew a little stilted. Afterwards she explained she didn’t like us making her look bad in front of our friends.

Of course we wouldn’t have gone down that road if she hadn’t drawn attention to his eating habits (and, by implication, his weight). But that was probably motivated by a genuine concern on her part. Or so she says.

There’s no way we can really know why people say or do what they do – we don’t always understand why WE say or do what we do. Throw hunger (we had missed lunch) or exhaustion (we’d all been up too late the night before) into the mix and everyone is likely to be edgy, quick to flare up, quick to project motives onto others’ behaviors.

Which is why the conscious decision to let it go, to release and forgive, is so important. Yes, there are times when we need to take action, to step away from a bad situation, or to take a stand against abuse. But there are also times when it’s important to just … let it go. Because if things are starting to escalate, chances are that that old bogey, ego, has been triggered again, and is trying to take a stand. Chances are there are two dancers tangoing here, and however justified their explanations may be, the moment comes when it’s better to step back from the fray, stop pointing fingers, and just say, as Richard Fish used to intone on Allie McBeal, “Bygones.” Let it go.

Easier said than done, of course. But easier done if a strong foundation of love and trust has been built. Easier done if we understand the distinction between ego and self. And easier done if we’re constantly working toward a deeper compassion – and understanding -- for our own foibles and those of others.

Peace may seem at times to be an awfully elusive goal. But paying attention, noticing when the ego is starting to get hooked, accepting our own responsibility, practicing compassion, and releasing what’s gone before will keep bringing us ever closer.

It’s all good.

On hats, teaching, and a wee bit of Robert Frost

After a long day's travels, we're now safe and happy in our hotel, having been met at the airport by our wonderful daughter.  She showed us the house where she's living this year with 3 other girls; I am Very Amused to learn that Robert Frost lived in that same house at one time -- particularly since I quoted from one of his poems in yesterday's poetry blog!

But the reason I give you this picture (instead of a photo of Robert Frost's house, which I couldn't take because it was midnight when we arrived) is because when we arrived my daughter handed me a note given her by this young lady, who is one of the children I taught to crochet at the camp. 

She had written to thank me for teaching her to crochet, and it's a note I'll treasure forever.  She writes, "I made an actual beanie! It goes all the way to my ears!  I've made three hats in all and I just finished a finger crochaed (sic) bag.  Please, please, please come next year!  I wish you could of stayed for the whole session."  ... and she drew pictures for me of the hat and bag she made.

Omigosh, SO SWEET! 

And what strikes me about this -- as I think about how much I enjoyed that week of teaching at my daughter's camp -- is that my mother -- who met my dad designing airplanes for the federal government after WWII -- always resented giving up that career to have me (I was an unplanned pregnancy) and hated that the only careers available to her when I was finally old enough to go to school were librarian and teacher (she was clearly NOT cut out to be a nurse).  She hated teaching, and was determined that I NOT grow up to be a teacher, so determined that I never even considered it as a career.

Which is sad, I think now, because it's clear I would have gotten enormous satisfaction out of a teaching career.  Oh, well.  There have been many other satisfactions in my life -- and I'm lucky that I still have opportunities to explore -- thanks to my own daughters, who have encouraged me in so many ways, AND have provided me multiple opportunities to teach, at least on a small scale.  Mothering has been a wonderful job, and I'm grateful -- though I gave up a career for a while -- that I got to do it and concentrate on it. 

(sorry if this seems a little disjointed; there's a TV on in the background, so I'm finding it hard to sustain a thought...)

Anyway, I just wanted to share all this with you, and wasn't sure when I'd get a chance tomorrow.  Thanks for listening --

Anyway -- easy flight, perfect timing, and many blessings.  I wish you all the same!

A moment of peace

Wishing you a moment of peace, wherever your journey takes you today.

Carrying a heavy load

Something about the way the load is distributed in this boat resonates with me at the moment.  I'm getting ready for a trip, and the weight of packing and planning and last minute reservations and readying the house for the dog-sitter and simply trying to be certain all the pieces are in place before we go is really weighing me down  -- and I always seem to feel that tension in my upper back, as if I'm pulling the oars myself.

Times like this, it's good to remember -- we DON'T have to do it all ourselves.  But we do need to ask for help (as the old joke says, it's not enough to pray to win the lottery: you have to BUY A TICKET!)

Hiding place

Ah, there are those days
When the best place to be
Is hiding out with you
Where stillness is to be found
And perspective from problems.
Where hope can be restored
And peace re-enters the mind.
Where joy waits to be savored
And mourning given her due.
Thank you for being my Hiding Place.

-- Joyce Rupp,  Fragments of Your Ancient Name



Your essence is your wealth

"You are haggling about how much to pay
for shoeing a donkey, when you could be seated
with one who is always in union with God,
who carries a beautiful garden inside himself.

You could be moving in a great circuit
without wings, nourished without eating,
sovereign without a throne.

No longer subject to fortune,
you could be luck itself,
if you would rise from sleep,
leave the market-arguing, and learn
that your own essence is your wealth."

-- Rumi, from Coleman Barks'
A Year with Rumi

A morning blessing

May the power and the mystery
go before us, to show us the way,
shine above us to lighten our world,
lie beneath us to bear us up,
walk with us and give us companionship,
and glow and flow within us
to bring us joy.  

--Judith Walker Riggs, in Women Pray

The importance of sharing

I'm still reading Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, and the essay I read yesterday ended with these words:"I can still hear his gurgling, Dutch-colored English as he says to me, 'Don't worry about what to do with the rest of your life.  Just be yourself, and let God love you.' "  That seems to be pretty much the message of all his work, I think.  And a message I really need to hear. (Don't we all?)

But then I read this in the essay that followed:

"From the outset Henri wrote and spoke eloquently of the dangers of seeking success and approval, yet he could never quite manage to stop worrying about the reception of his books and he remained overly sensitive to the approval of others.  There is a very revealing passage in Out of Solitude:
'Once in a while someone will confess in an intimate moment, "everyone thinks I am very quiet and composed, but if only they knew how I really feel..."  This nagging self-doubt is at the basis of so much depression in the lives of many people who are struggling in our competitive society.  Moreover, this corroding fear for the discovery of our weaknesses prevents community and creative sharing.  When we have sold our identity to the judges of this world, we are bound to become restless, because of a growing need for affirmation and praise.  Indeed we are tempted to become low-hearted because of our constant self-rejection.  And we are in serious danger of becoming isolated, since friendship and love are impossible without a mutual vulnerability.'
How true!  But is it not rather obvious that Henri himself was the 'someone' making the confession?  

Henri's life was full of tensions, contradictions, and inconsistencies.  The most tragic yet most creative contradiction was implied in his inability to live out what he wrote.  This was a source of great sadness for him and a reason for some to question the validity of his ideas and his credibility as a spiritual guide.  The paradox is that he would never have become an inspirational spiritual writer if he had lived what he wrote.  Therefore his personal tragedy was also his gift to others.  

Why was it so difficult for Henri to live by his own spiritual directives?" the writer, a close childhood friend of Nouwen's, goes on to ask.  "I am not sure, but clearly his intense need for affirmation was a key factor.  Why was this need never satisfied, despite the overwhelming approval, affection, and love bestowed upon him?...[Clearly there was] a deep-seated insecurity, a sense that he was not securely connected to the people around him... Henri struggled with this insecurity all his life."

Wow.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised, to learn again that those who have the most to teach us can teach precisely because of their own personal struggles.  But what a gift.

You could certainly make a case for the fact that, though my blog stresses the importance of being present and aware and compassionate, those are qualities I really struggle to realize in my own life.  Perhaps the gift of the struggle is just that -- it makes it possible to wrestle with the problem from many different angles, in a public way, that somehow can help others to wrestle with their OWN challenges.

I think that's the gift Henri Nouwen gave the people whose lives he touched.  But that's also the gift each of us can give to those whose lives WE touch: we can share the struggle.  Such sharing can help give other people heart for the journey.  And difficult as it may be NOT to realize the goals we set for ourselves, it can certainly be a gift to others if we are willing to share our failures and our efforts.  In any arena.

Gladys to battle pediatric cancer

Some of you may remember Gladys, the mannequin I acquired a couple of years ago in order to create the chair shown in this picture. I am happy to report that, after two years standing guard over the corner of our living room, Gladys has found a new home modeling for the Bainbridge Bargain Boutique, a Seattle Children's Hospital thrift store here on the island.

I'm hoping the chair -- currently on display at the store -- will soon find a new home as well: this week Seattle Children's Hospital is auctioning her off to raise money for Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month.

I'm writing about this here because the reason I started this blog  -- back in September of 2007 -- was because a close friend's 12-year-old daughter had just died after a long bout with cancer; all the posts here are dedicated to Katie's memory.

The good news is that there is a man -- Dr. Michael Jensen -- who has been brought to Seattle by the Ben Towne Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation to pursue some VERY promising research on pediatric cancer, which is the #1 killer disease among children under 18.  We all know how overwhelming the side-effects of chemo and radiation are for adults, but for children those side-effects can be devastating and permanent even if the cancer is cured.

Dr. Jensen has developed a method of reprogramming the body’s own immune system, genetically re-engineering an individual’s T cells to destroy cancer.  This new technique, which has proven to be safe and effective in the laboratory, promises a future of immunotherapy cancer cures without the devastating side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Dr. Jensen is now working to translate this breakthrough to children with cancer. I got very excited about this possibility, which is why I decided to auction off the chair: all the money from the auction will go to support Dr. Jensen's research.

So -- if you know someone who would love a one-of-a-kind deck chair, has money to spend, and cares about pediatric cancer, I hope you'll send them the link -- and soon; the auction will close next Tuesday morning, September 20.  I promise this is the last I'll speak of it here, and I apologize for the sales pitch, but sometimes the hope for a brighter future gets so intense you just have to speak up.  Back to business as usual tomorrow...

And now I'll let Dr. Jensen speak for himself:

Of calm and the storm

In Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, filmmaker Bart Gavigan tells the story of a crumpled napkin, saved from an evening at an Italian restaurant with Henri Nouwen.

"Henri whipped out a pen, grabbed his napkin, and scribbled furiously.  The dark squiggles, he declared, were the waves of a storm-tossed ocean: our pressurized, stressed lives.  

Yet far below these churning waves, he demonstrated with huge gesticulation, there is stillness and silence in the murky blackness of the ocean floor.  And true peace, Christ's peace, is reached only by plunging down, under the crashing waves of crises that beset our daily lives, to find that eternal peace that is always there, available to us, no matter what is happening on the surface."

The sea in this picture, shot on the beach at LaPush, Washington (where I went with my daughter when she was in the throes of her Twilight fascination) was not all that storm-tossed, but you could definitely see the rain approaching -- which is one of the pleasures of long views like this one.

On the other hand, for my friends who do tend to take the longer views on life, storms ahead seem to be mostly what they see/  They can't seem to relax and enjoy the calmer waters we're experiencing now, but are always bracing for the storms to come. 

"Do you know how many people are buying guns?" says one.  "Do you realize how many gang members there are in Seattle right now?" says another.  "He's living one paycheck away from the street, and he just doesn't get it," says a third.

Somehow we need to strike a balance between the churning that is now, awareness of the storms to come, and the serenity of knowing the deep peace that lies beneath it all.

Not a simple task...


"In every moment lies an opportunity to affirm, support, love, and be thankful or to hide, hurt, run, and resent.  The choice is ours."

--Andrew Kennedy, in Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen

We have, on our street, a pair of feuding neighbors.  One couple pretty much has the support of most of the neighborhood, but as we watch the battle and the stakes escalate I am saddened: the choices now, on both sides, seem to be motivated largely by fury and revenge. 

When do we say, "Enough is enough?"  Or can we?  This choice plays out in countless ways in our community, our nation, and the world: one bully gets out of hand, using power and money to accrete and abuse, and then the righteously angry ones step in to curtail, contain, and ultimately punish,  often descending -- as we saw at Abu Ghraib -- to levels equally heinous in the throes of retaliation.

Choices.  We all make them.  But are we making good ones?

A prayer for unity

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we have bought, because of this suffering - our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of all of this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.”

 -- The prayer of an unknown woman, found on a piece of wrapping paper in Ravensbruck concentration camp; taken from Monica Furlong's book, Women Pray.

The challenge of internal luminescence

At the instigation of one of my readers (thank you, Spencer) I have begun reading Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, a collection of reminiscences celebrating Nouwen's life and works.

This morning I read the second piece in the book, "God's Restless Servant," by an Episcopal priest named Bob Massey.  Massey's depiction of Nouwen, with whom he was friends for some 18 years, is a lively and very believable mix of positive and negative traits, all described with much empathy and love.

And then, when I then sat down at my computer, I found this morning's post from the Spirituality and Practice e-course, "Practicing Spirituality with Richard Rohr," which was about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  Rohr has this to say about Day, which could apply equally to Nouwen, I think -- and to Rohr himself:

"Those with inner authority draw life from within because there is a life within -- not just laws, principles, duties, or fears, but life.  And they know what wisdom has taught them: You can only build on life.  Ordinarily they do not attribute this life to themselves.  They are insistent that the life is gift.  They are anxious to give it away and call others into it since they know it cannot be earned, diminished, or hoarded.  It is not theirs.  They do not possess it as much as it possesses them."

I wonder if what lies beneath that last sentence may be the heart of the challenges that Nouwen faced in his personal life.  We know that old hymn that goes, "They're all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one, too."  Perhaps all of us really are saints, we all have that life within us.  But to honor it, to listen to it, to be led by it, can also mean to be possessed by it -- which means that the all too human social urges -- to be normal, to fit in, to reach out -- may be increasingly at odds with the intense drive to give expression to the life within. 

Perhaps the more strongly we are possessed by that life, that light within us, the more the darkness within us will be illumined as well, simply by the intensity of the contrast.  At which point I hear another hymn, this one of reassurance: "In Him there is no darkness at all/ the night and the day are both alike/ the Lamb is the light of the city of God/ shine in my heart, Lord Jesus."

To entrust our lives to that inner light is not an easy choice; it may leave some of the darker aspects of our personalities more exposed.  But we can be reassured that God's greater light of love will always be there to soften the contrasts within us; that even as our own internal luminescence waxes and wanes,  God's greater light will bathe both dark and light with love.

That urge to share

When I first started using my camera extensively -- as a sort of therapy after my mother died -- I spent most of my time wandering the beach and shooting pictures of driftwood.

I loved taking those pictures, and loved the results: they were like little Rorschach tests, and I had great fun naming them.  There are, in fact, three albums of driftwood pictures sitting in the bookshelves of my living room, all shot before I switched to a digital camera.

I still find the beach fascinating,  though my photography has branched out considerably since then.  We were invited to a party at a friend's house last weekend, and I shot this one on her beach, which is all rocks (mine is a sort of unattractive mix of pebbles, dark gray sand and shells, though I'm not complaining).  It's the first such image I've shot in a while, and I love it -- I just find the forms and colors and textures incredibly appealing.  But what would be the point of sharing it here?  Is there any chance you might like it, too?

There's a marvelous quote from film-maker Robert Bresson (sometimes referred to as the patron saint of cinema; apparently no relation to Henri Cartier-Bresson) that goes, “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”  Back in the day when signature quotes were commonly used in emails, this was mine: it felt like a mission at the time, to share the beauty I seemed to find in the ordinary stuff of life.

Thinking about this now, I realize I still seem driven to do that, just at maybe a different level.  But, actually, I think maybe all of us are driven to do that.  If you think about any two people in an argument, each one is probably trying to get the other to see what they don't seem to see: it's a common passion.  Each of us has his or her own unique perspective on life, and there are aspects of that which we feel are important to share -- so we write, or we paint, we blog or we tweet, we converse, we argue, we create music, we sit in meetings or participate in politics... This urge, to "make visible" -- whether we're drawing attention to ourselves or to our visions or to some issue we think is critical -- drives all kinds of behaviors, both good and bad -- and the entire profession of marketing.

Hmm.  I never looked at it that way before.  And now I wonder, with so many of us driven by a passion to share what we see -- who is it that's listening or watching or taking in or synthesizing all that's being shared?  When do we EVER stop sharing and just listen?  Or -- to take this to a more personal level -- if I'm willing to pay all this attention to rocks on a beach, why am I not spending more time learning from the attention others pay to the things that they have a gift for seeing.  Because I suspect it may be important for each of us to find a better balance between talking and listening; between sharing and learning...

Earth, our mother

Earth, our mother, 
breathe forth life
all night sleeping
now awaking
in the east
now see the dawn

Earth our mother,
breathe and waken
leaves are stirring
all things moving
new day coming
life renewing

Eagle soaring, see the morning
see the new mysterious morning
something marvelous and sacred
though it happens every day
Dawn the child of God and Darkness.

-- Pawnee Prayer, quoted in Monica Furlong's book, Women Pray

Thoughts on control

I spent much of yesterday finding, scanning, and shrinking old family photos in preparation for my father-in-law's upcoming 90th birthday celebration.  Since those photos are foremost in my mind at the moment, I thought I'd share this one: though you can't see my face, I'm the one in the hat, and this is one of our wedding pictures. 

That's the groom's brother paddling up front, looking a little anxious; my husband is in black with me behind him and my father behind me, and my husband's oldest brother's in the stern.  Also in the canoe were his dad and mom, my mom, and his sister-in-law and their baby, Sarah... and the minister who performed the ceremony, which took place -- yes, in the canoe -- in a little cove on the Connecticut River, just a wee bit south of Hanover, NH.

One of the many fun things about getting married in a canoe is that you can't always control how it plays out (not that you can control how ANY wedding ceremony plays out: despite the most earnest efforts of wedding planners, I suspect there are always surprises.)  Our surprises were mostly good: there were three attendant canoes, each with two paddlers and a photographer (that was a surprise, we didn't actually hire a photographer).  There was a family of ducks that went sailing by at one point (so cute!). 

It was way hotter than we had anticipated (high 90's), so hot my mom couldn't wear the dress she'd bought for the occasion, so she spent most of the day hiding from the photographers.  My husband dropped a canoe on his toe putting it into the water and had to wear flip-flops for the occasion. (Begin as you mean to continue, I always say -- he still pretty much lives in flip-flops, even in winter!)

We each chose readings for the day; my husband chose a scene from the play "Our Town" in which the stage manager talks about weddings.  When he handed the printout to his best man (who was in one of the attendant canoes), the guy just tucked it in his pocket, and when the time came for him to read it aloud he recited it from memory; turned out he'd played the role in high school!  I think that was probably the best surprise of the day... but the funniest was the overweight water-skier who went speeding by in his speedo... oy!

As I mentioned earlier, I'm enrolled in Spirituality and Practice's e-session with Richard Rohr, and Rohr's words for today, from his book Adam's Return, have something to say about control that I'm beginning to think only us old folks and mystics really understand:

"A phrase that dominates much of the self-help jargon of our society is "take control of your life." To be in control of one's destiny, job, or finances is an unquestionable moral value today. It even sounds mature and spiritual. On a practical level it is true, but not on the big level. Our bodies, our souls, and especially our failures, teach us this as we get older. We are clearly not in control. It is amazing that we have to assert the obvious. This is not a negative discovery but, in fact, the exact opposite. It is a thrilling discovery of one's fate, divine providence, being led, being used, one's life having an inner purpose, being guided, having a sense of personal vocation, and owning one's destiny as a gift from God. 

Learning that you are not in control situates you correctly in the universe. You cannot understand the joy and release unless you have been there. You come to know that you are not steering this ship. It is essential if one is to feel at home in this world, and it is found in all classic heroes, mystics of all religions, and Christian saints. They know they are being guided, and their reliance upon that guidance is precisely what allows their journey to happen. What perfect symbiosis! (See Romans 8:28ff. if you need confirmation.) The tragic hero, in classic theater, is precisely the one who ignores or denies this destiny or this guidance, because of hubris or pride. "

We had no illusions, in that canoe, that we were steering the ship: his brothers, ever the practical jokers, were in control (though they didn't pull any tricks on us).  And, having been married before, I had few illusions about marriage: I came into this one reluctantly, with a lot of baggage, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.  But for whatever reason we've been fortunate in this life we've built together, guided on occasion into new and troubling waters but always willing to make the best of it.  And it still, 27 years later, feels like an incredible gift.

No, I don't think I'm in control here.

And that's a good thing.

Grieving with Mary Oliver

"So many notions fill the day!
I give them
gowns of words,
sometimes I give them
little shoes that rhyme."

-- Mary Oliver,
from "This Day, and Probably Tomorrow Also"

I finished Oliver's Red Bird poems this morning, feeling on the verge of tears at all the sadness in them.  And still, dealing with death and dying as she was at the time of writing, she could offer up lines like those above --I love the idea of "little shoes that rhyme."

Grief, I think, is like the road in this picture, only turned on its side; lots of up and down moments, the magnitude of which -- both in terms of range and awareness -- does seem to lessen over time, at least until some new grief sets in.  "Now comes the long blue cold/ and what shall I say but that some/bird in the tree of my heart/is singing," says Oliver.  And so it is that those who grieve will catch themselves laughing and then feel guilty for enjoying themselves. Oliver has a way of alleviating the guilt, of accepting that each piece of how we feel is just that: a piece of how we feel.

Grief is, of course -- like all the other fates that fall to us as humans -- a process, a long and winding road that takes us into ever new territory even as we feel ourselves stumbling in the same old ruts.  But it is also a companion, as she articulates so beautifully in her poem, "Love Sorrow."

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see, 

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.

The illusion of ownership

Winter and the Nuthatch

Once or twice and maybe again, who knows,
the timid nuthatch will come to me
if I stand still, with something good to eat in my hand.
The first time he did it
he landed smack on his belly, as though
the legs wouldn't cooperate. The next time
he was bolder. Then he became absolutely
wild about those walnuts.

But there was a morning I came late and, guess what,
the nuthatch was flying into a stranger's hand.
To speak plainly, I felt betrayed.
I wanted to say: Mister,
that nuthatch and I have a relationship.
It took hours of standing in the snow
before he would drop from the tree and trust my fingers.
But I didn't say anything.

Nobody owns the sky or the trees.
Nobody owns the hearts of birds.
Still, being human and partial therefore to my own
though not resentful of others fashioning theirs—

I'll come tomorrow, I believe, quite early.

-- Mary Oliver, from Red Bird.

I know, I know, this isn't a nuthatch, it's a chicadee -- but they do both have that distinctive stripe on their heads...

I read this poem this morning (some 30 pages in, Red Bird with its distinctive sadness about endings and loss is already becoming dogeared as well), and it resonated with that awkward sense of ownership one feels about... well, everything: our homes, our communities, our clothes, our friends, our "look"  -- Do you remember that funny song, "Paris Original" from the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?"

This irresistible Paris original,
So temptingly tight
I'm wearing tonight
'Specially for him. 

This irresistible Paris original,
I'm wearing tonight -- oh, no!
She's wearing tonight
And I could spit. 

Some irresponsible dress manufacturer
Just didn't play fair.
I'm one of a pair,
And I could---oh no! 

This irresistible Paris original,
All slinky with sin;
Already slunk in
And I could die.
And I could kill her.

It's this feeling that makes me risk straining my back to drag that beautiful piece of driftwood up into my yard so someone else won't walk off with it.  It's this feeling that makes me grumble (usually, thank heaven, followed by a self-deprecating chuckle) when I see strangers on my street, photographing my neighborhood (which is so lovely that I've produced a calendar for us all each year for the past 10 years; you'd think I'd be willing to share!).

It's the feeling, I suspect, that drives mankind to wars, and I don't love it in myself.  But at least I can smile at it, name it and claim it and make it my own -- and write a poem of course!

What charges and changes

I finished Mary Oliver's Winter Hours this morning; it's already terrifically dog-eared after only one reading, and will clearly join a handful of other small books that exert considerable influence over me despite their size; books I return to again and again because they feed my soul.

This was the image that wanted to be posted this morning.  And though I'd love to try to read something into it, the fact is that I just find pleasure in it: it feeds my eyes just as those books feed my soul.

"To believe in the soul," says Mary Oliver in the final section of the book, " -- to believe in it exactly as much and as hardily as one believes in a mountain, say, or a fingernail, which is ever in view -- imagine the consequences!  How far-reaching, and thoroughly wonderful!  For everything, by such a belief, would be charged, and changed.  You wake in the morning, the soul exists, your mouth sings it, your mind accepts it.  And the perceived, tactile world is, upon the instant, only half the world.

... who knows what is beyond the known?" she continues. "And if you think that any day the secret of light might come, would you not keep the house of your mind ready?  Would you not cleanse your study of all that is cheap, or trivial?  Would you not live in continual hope, and pleasure, and excitement?"

These are the books I return to, the ones on my short list, that help keep the house of my mind ready, that feed that soul-sense of hope, and pleasure, and excitement:

Winter Hours, by Mary Oliver
Clowning in Rome, by Henri Nouwen
Christian Uncertainties, by Monica Furlong
Stillness Speaks, by Eckhardt Tolle
To Bless the Space Between Us, by John O'Donohue
Notes from the Song of Life, by Tolbert McCarroll
Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton

And, while I think of it, two books of fiction:
As we are now, by May Sarton, and
Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger

Yes, of course there are other books, and bigger books that have also had a lasting impact.  But these are the gems of the collection, the ones that gleam for me like the colors in this image (which is taken, by the way, from reflections on the bottom of an upturned canoe).

Stepping out into oneness

"Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state...What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude...

I would therefore write a kind of elemental poetry that doesn't just avoid indoors but doesn't even see the doors that lead inward -- to laboratories, to textbooks, to knowledge...

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one.  The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list.  The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves -- we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together.  We are each other's destiny."

-- Mary Oliver, Winter Hours

I read this first this morning, and loved it; knew I wanted to share it.  And then, after my meditation, I came to my computer and found this quote from this morning's edition of "Practicing Spirituality with Richard Rohr," an e-course from Spirituality and Practice:

"When we separate the scriptures from history, we are in trouble. When we separate the scriptures from real life, we distort the scriptures. When we separate the scriptures from the people out of whom the scriptures were written, we misinterpret the scriptures.

The Lord entered history. And ever after, history and the flesh are where we encounter the Lord, rather than running from life and history into principles, theories, and the too-quick answers that put us back in control."

— Richard Rohr in Job and the Mystery of Suffering

Why is it that reading these two pieces fills me with joy, and attending church rarely if ever seems to elicit that response?  I think I'm asking this because last night when, wandering around the galleries that stay open late the first Friday of every month on the island for the art walk, I ran into Emily Joy, the pastor who invited me to show my work at her church, and who invited me to lead a workshop on finding God in everyday life.

I hadn't seen her in quite a while, almost didn't recognize her at first (it was seeing her out of context that threw me off, I think) but when she told me she had started a new church "for people who don't like church," something in me woke up and clapped its hands.  I hadn't realized I still felt such a deep longing for some new notion of church, but clearly my heart leaped -- a feeling not unlike that sensation you get in pregnancy when the babe first kicks in your womb.  Something new is being born here, the heart says, and hope rises anew...

After reading these two pieces, I went looking among the week's photos for something that would speak to what I heard each of them saying about the folly of separation.  And this is the photo that called to me: when I looked at it, my heart gave that same little leap of joy it felt at Emily's words. I think the reason this image jumped out at me has to do with the way fog tends to blur the boundaries between things: it's no longer obvious which is sky and which is sea; which is object and which is its reflection.

So somehow two days photographing fog this week, and these two readings, all speak to me of the folly of separation; the allure -- and importance -- of stepping out into oneness.  And maybe I'm hoping Emily's new church will have that same pull, to a more unified experience of spirituality...

Coincidence or providence?

Our gallery has invited me to participate in their upcoming show: it's all about barns and farms and all things rural, and (since it's their December show) its title is "E-I-E-I-Ho-Ho-Ho."

I'm delighted, as always to be invited, but this show is particularly exciting for me because it provides a lovely excuse for me to do three things I'm naturally inclined to do at this point anyway: photograph barns and farms (you may remember I'm headed for Vermont in the near future), to explore the possible images garnered in other photographic excursions to Vermont as well as to our own rural environments (particularly the Skagit Valley), and to continue experimenting with this sort of painterly technique I've been investigating this year.

And is this yet another coincidence -- that my assignment for this fall turns out to be pretty much exactly what I want to do? I don't know; I'm reluctant to declare it either coincidence or divine providence.  And of course I have no way of knowing -- for a while at least -- if what I will be creating over the next month or two will prove at all appealing to the gallery: despite the radical nature of the techniques, the results have a sort of classic, old-fashioned feel that may not fit into the parameters of a collection that tends to lean toward more modern pieces.

So I won't be limiting myself to these explorations: I'm thinking the barns might also lend themselves to some amazing possibilities in black and white.  For now, however, I'm just going to play: one of the best aspects of choosing to explore art is getting the opportunity to create something you would love to own, and this piece definitely falls into that category!

September blessings

I had fully intended to meditate this morning, but first our dog woke us, and then I was distracted by that dark sunrise you see at right, and then there came that poem, burning to be written down, and by the time I'd completed that we were completely fogged in.

Thinking I'd go photograph the fog and then stay in town for my usual Thursday morning coffee date, I stepped into the shower.  But I came out to find the fog had dissipated a bit, and the sun was having a field day staring at her own bright reflection in the soft grays of morning.

It was so lovely -- and so obviously fleeting -- that I threw on my robe and ran outside with my camera, wet hair slicked unattractively back.  But then I found a heron adding her perfect silhouette to the the morning's glories; of course I had to photograph her, too. 

All of which means that by the time I hit the road a lot of the fog on other parts of the island had dissipated.  But I got some wonderful images, both in the process of trying to leave and while wandering around the island with my camera.

So I think you could say I DID get in a meditation, of sorts; I was paying attention, a steady stream of images rolled by, and I came out of my time feeling calm and energized. And best of all,  I ended up speaking with both my daughters in the course of the morning,  so there were, quite frankly, blessings everywhere.

... and, just so you know, it always helps to know that when I get back home I get to share some of those blessings with you!
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