Holiday challenges

There's frost on the boardwalk, and clouds in the sky: it's New Year's Eve, and lined up down the edge of the hallway (so our blind dog won't trip over them) are 25 packages, one for each year of life for our oldest daughter, who was born 25 years ago today.

And as you can see, there's a picture of her from each of those years -- can I just say how much fun I had putting this together?  In that one on the right she's dressed as a shepherd for that year's Christmas pageant -- SO CUTE!!!  Now we're just waiting till she wakes up and opens them -- which may be a while, as her younger sister had a party here last night, keeping all of us up til the wee hours of the morning...

In other news, I created a present for YOU yesterday, as well -- just a short video of the hymn I posted yesterday, because I hated sending you to the River City website with all its ads and clutter.  I've replaced the link in yesterday's post, but you can watch it here as well:

And then a neighbor came over to purchase the last two Sandspit calendars (I make them every year, just for our little neighborhood).  We got to talking about photography, and the end result was I decided to create a video out of a slide show I put together on photo composition and editing for the Episcopal Communicators Conference back in 2008.

So life is full and rich with potential, as always -- and what a great way that is to start out the New Year!  Of course we still don't know how our day will play out, or if there's supposed to be a party at our house, or what the new year will bring: all of us are in transition right now, and so we're just taking things one step at a time; trying not to get too caught up in worries about what the future may hold.

But that does mean -- especially when you add in my husband's new cold and my recovery from that pre-Christmas fall -- that we all have a tendency to snap at each other: nothing serious, but it's not particularly pleasant either. It's a very small scale war, but... well,  I've had to apologize several times in the last few days for losing my temper... so even if I find other family members irritating, I'm not liking myself much either!  I'm hoping we're ready to declare a truce... And, having said that, now I'm hearing that John Lennon song in my head:

"So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young 

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear 

And so this is Christmas War is over
For weak and for strong If you want it
For rich and the poor ones War is over
The world is so wrong Now
And so Happy Christmas War is over
For black and for white If you want it
For yellow and red ones War is over
Let's stop all the fight Now."

For those who wait

"All things come for those who wait."  Does this sound familiar to you?  I thought it was from the Bible, but actually it's just an old English proverb, used perhaps most famously as "Good things come to those who wait" in a ketchup commercial in the 80's...

Whatever the source, clearly it lives on in my brain as if it were the word of God.  And it came to mind this morning as I was mulling over Henri Nouwen's words about the importance of solitude.

Nouwen believes (and of course, as a mildly introverted only child, I HEARTILY agree) that we all need solitude to help foster our spiritual lives, if not our sanity.

For Nouwen, solitude is meant to be an opportunity to listen for the word of God: he believes we need to create a quiet space within ourselves in order that we may be filled with an understanding of our purpose. But as anyone who attempts to create these kinds of quiet spaces knows, waiting is hard: the mind has a tendency to jump in with all the thoughts that preoccupy us during the day.

Fortunately, living on an island, I get lots of opportunities to practice waiting: any time I need to catch a ferry, I get to arrive early and sit in my car, waiting while the lot fills up with fellow travelers; waiting for the ferry to come and discharge its cars; waiting to load, and then sitting upstairs or in my car for the half-hour ferry ride to the city.

If I wait attentively -- always easier to do if there's a camera in the car -- I may see sights like this one, simple but appealing shapes or colors to invite my attention.  If I let my mind drift but continue to steer it away from my usual preoccupations, it frequently fills with music -- which is what happened as I sat quietly in my chair this morning, waiting for Henri Nouwen's words to bear fruit in me.

Today's music was a song from my childhood, sung every Sunday in the Presbyterian church where I grew up in suburban Cincinnati:

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until my will is one with Thine,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

(You can listen to a brief clip of this from River City Music by clicking here.)

What's curious is that I only remember singing the first verse; and I remember the third line as "that I may live as thou wouldst live," so I'm wondering if perhaps someone modified it for use in a particular part of the service, as a response.

Whatever the original words, and whatever the use, I am nonetheless grateful that this appeared in my head as I was waiting in silence this morning: if feels like a gift for the day.

Learning to trust

I suspect all those who attempt to follow the spiritual path -- whichever form that takes -- struggle with certain aspects of that work.

I was thinking this morning that for me the struggles center around the concept of obedience: I remember, when I first began thinking I wanted to serve God in some way, someone suggested I consider getting ordained in the Episcopal Church as a Deacon.

So I read up on it, and realized the centrality (in the life of a Deacon) of Service, and... well, I just cringed.  It seemed my whole life had been spent serving, and I was tired of it.  I wanted to lead, not serve.  And, being me, I felt guilty about that.

I've thought for years that my struggles with that were around the idea of obedience.  But actually, I am an almost embarrassingly obedient person.  Having been raised as an only child by a difficult mother, my particular pattern has always been to assign some person authority and then bend over backwards trying to please them.

No, I think the real problem is trust.  I just don't trust anyone -- even God -- to take care of me, to love me, to look after my needs... and so I never fully let down my guard, even for God.  So Henri Nouwen's words in Making All Things New this morning are both words I need to hear and words that trigger a lot of resistance in me.

If we live the spiritual life, putting God at the center of our existence, he writes, "we are set free from the compulsions of our world and set our hearts on the only necessary thing... we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.

...We realize that we are in the center, and that from there all that is and all that takes place can be seen and understood as part of the mystery of God's life with us.  Our conflicts and pains, our tasks and promises, our families and friends, our activities and projects, our hopes and aspirations, no longer appear to us a a fatiguing variety of things which we can barely keep together, but rather as affirmations and revelations of the new life of the Spirit in us.

All these other things, which so occupied and preoccupied us, now come as gifts or challenges that strengthen and deepen the new life which we have discovered.  This does no mean that the spiritual life makes things easier or takes our struggles and pains away... What matters is to listen attentively to the Spirit and to go obediently where we are being led, whether to a joyful or a painful place.

Poverty, pain, struggle, anguish, agony, and even inner darkness may continue to be part of our experience.  They may even be God's way of purifying us.  But life is no longer boring, resentful, depressing, or lonely because we have come to know that everything that happens is part of our way to the house of the Father."

It all sounds really good.  And I believe it, intellectually.  But when push comes to shove, or the going gets tough -- whether for me or for those whom I love -- this is not where I go.  I long to trust "that everything that happens is part of our way to the house of the Father."  I even strongly suspect that's true.  But that knowledge is not deeply rooted in me; I can't sink into it and trust.  When things get challenging, all my body cells get preoccupied with the challenge, whatever it is.  What's going to happen?  How can I fix it?  What can I do?

It's very hard to stop, to breathe, to know the Spirit is there, supporting and empowering me; to trust.

Doing what we love

Years ago, in New Hampshire, I used to teach quilting at the League of NH Craftsmen in Hanover.  So it's not surprising that the first manipulated image I ever created took the form of a quilt (I created this almost 10 years ago).

Today, in a fabric store, I happened to mention that I taught quilting years ago, but hadn't made a quilt in years.  "Why on earth did you stop?" asked the sales woman.

"I guess," I replied, "because I found something to do I loved even more -- photography."

"Oh, well, that's okay," she said, "at least you're still being creative!" That's true, of course, but it's also true that photography is a lot less work -- and not nearly as tiring.  Although perhaps that's always true when you find a way to do what you love...

Fading light

This morning I received an invitation to participate in a photography contest whose theme is "Fading Light: the tension between wanting to hang on to the light but at the same time welcoming the darkness.  Fading light, shadows, absence of light, twilight, darkness, losing sight, transformative."

Hmm.  I'm not sure I take very many photos that AREN'T about fading light.  And certainly at this time of year that's a pretty consistent theme.  What intrigues me is the link the presenters of the contest draw between shadows, twilight, losing sight and transformation. 

By now I think we mostly understand -- intellectually, at least -- that a step into darkness, however painful, will ultimately become a step into light.  After all, the sun rises every morning, and spring always returns; right?

But yesterday a friend mentioned that what he feared most was to become increasingly disabled -- losing sight, hearing, and mobility -- with no way to afford either medical care or caregivers.  And yes -- as age creeps up on me and those whom I love, it becomes increasingly clear that challenges like the ones my friend describes may well be lurking ahead.  Old age -- as the poster in my pilates classroom reads -- is not for sissies.

And of course, the root of that concern is that, actually, there WILL come a time when spring does not return, and the sun will not rise -- for us, anyway.  We tend to see death, from our limited perspective here on earth, as the ultimate darkness. 

Somehow I suspect that may not be true; that there may actually be another, stronger light, that falls upon us when the lesser light of days and seasons fades, a transformation more complete than any we undergo in response to the darknesses we encounter here.

But that's only a guess; we can't really know.  And to live our lives worrying about whether or not that's true; to divide our communities over disagreements about what that future might look like seems to be the ultimate exercise in futility.  Yes, it's good to be conscious that life can change completely in an instant; that it may not always take the form it's taking at this moment in time.  But to spend so much time worrying about that that we neglect what life and light lie waiting for us here and now, in this moment...

Nope.  Just don't want to go there.  Better to understand that we live -- always -- in fading light, laced with shadows and the possibility of transformation to come.  Better to rejoice in the light that is, to breathe in the shadows when they arise, and to trust the light will always triumph in the end.

Eschew preoccupation

One of the benefits of doing marketing work for the Seattle Children's Hospital thrift store (also known as the Bainbridge Bargain Boutique) is that it provides an excuse to shop there with some frequency.

Last week, while capturing photos of some likely-looking Christmas presents for the store's website, I picked up two books by Henri Nouwen.  And this morning, in his  tiny little treatise, Making All Things New, I read the following:

"More enslaving than our occupations are our preoccupations.  To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there... Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations.... Since we are always preparing for eventualities, we seldom fully trust the moment.  Our individual as well as communal lives are so deeply molded by our worries about tomorrow that today hardly can be experienced."

I hadn't thought of that interpretation of the word preoccupied before, but it really resonated -- and it's a perfect description of what most often derails my meditation practice.  I suspect it's also a phenomenon that contributes to the derailing of relationships as well.  After years of marriage, we have a way of becoming absorbed in our preoccupations, and tend to be less present and less attentive to our mates and children.  "Not right now, honey; maybe later," said with enough frequency, can leave a loved one feeling ignored and devalued...

The problem is -- as a friend said over coffee this morning -- things are always changing.  And if we're not paying attention, we might miss something beautiful, or even life-changing -- like this moment in yesterday's sunrise.  Not life changing, of course, but there might be something going on -- right here, and right now -- that could feed your soul way more than all that worrying...

Merry Christmas!

May God bless you
this day
and every day
and in the months
and years to come.

Advent: Christmas Eve

The presents are wrapped, the stockings are hung, the lights on the tree are sparkling and the cookies will be baking soon.  Now comes the time of waiting: the music caroling softly in the background, the peace and dark, the stable loaded with fresh straw, the animals bedded down for the night, the heads of sheep and shepherds nodding, the wise men following the sacred star, young Joseph hoping they get to Bethlehem before all the inns fill up, chafing at the slowness of their speed, trying to be gentle with his wife...

Advent: Thursday, Week 4

I am feeling particularly grateful this morning: while on my way to a friend's annual Solstice party last night, I tripped over an unexpected dip in the pavement, tearing open some skin on fingers and knees and twisting my wrist and ankle.

It could have been SO much worse, and SO much more painful.  Lying in bed this morning, I found myself thinking there must have been a pair of angels on either side of me, gently lowering me to the ground and carefully cushioning my fall so that nothing was broken.  I feel very blessed.

Of course, if I HAD a harp right now, I wouldn't be able to play it because my fingers are too stiff and my wrist is still weak.  But the thought is there: whatever the challenges the holidays may bring, at least I won't have to meet them with a cast on my wrist or my ankle.  True, I missed the party.  But it seems a small price to pay.

So then -- because, with the practice of Tonglen, any comfort I find in response to suffering I experience, I imagine that comfort flying to others who suffer --  I found myself thinking of the more than 5,000 American troops who've been wounded just this year while soldiering in Afghanistan, and how difficult it must be to suffer so, so far away from home.  How do we find it in ourselves to be thankful for that? We can be grateful to them for their service on our behalf, but it all seems so pointless.

So if you do, in the spirit of the season, find yourself singing, I invite you to spare a thought for our soldiers while singing.  Send them your songs and your gratitude, and any comfort you can muster.  Somehow I believe it has to help.

Advent: Wednesday, Week 4

This time of year, when the light outside grows dim, the inner flame also seems to have a way of dying down, at least for me.

My creativity seems to decrease, my prayer life grows less satisfying, and my Centering Prayer takes me, not to the inner level where I can be silent and listening to God, but  at best only to a place where I can recognize sparks of divine insight, but get caught up in trying to turn them into something.

I suspect, as I age, that this is further complicated by my awareness that my memory isn't what it used to be.  So I no longer trust that the "important" thoughts that occur to me during prayer will still be waiting when I emerge from that space.  So instead of releasing them I find myself rehearsing them, reciting them, hoping to hang onto them  -- both the ideas for poetry that surface and the solutions to the challenges of my to-do list.

The glorious promise of Christmas is that Jesus will be born again; will come back into our lives and fan that guttering inner flame back to light.  Our challenge is to trust that God, the divine presence, is more than capable of surviving our task lists and memory lapses; that we are blessed, that great things will be done for, in, and through us, and "Holy is his name." 

The gift of Advent, I think, is that each of us is Mary.  If we can sink fully into the season, it comes to us that each of us is carrying and birthing that divine spark.  It's planted within us, not chosen, and its time of delivery is not under our control.  Each of us experiences her own version of labor pains, but there is that promise that each of us will have the opportunity to deliver.

Our job is simply to wait.

Drenched in divine possibility

I took my daughters up to Shaw Island for the annual All-Island Christmas Party this past weekend.  The party, thrown every year by my dear friends Carole and Brud, is one of the few opportunities islanders get to really dress up; there are even prizes for best dress, best tie, best shoes, best jewelry, etc.  This year one of the dresses that tied for best had last been worn 14 years ago to the Nobel Prize ceremony (she was a friend of that year's recipient).

It was the first year my girls have been old enough (and interested enough) to go, and they were having some reservations about the idea.  But after the grownups on the island (all of whom remember my girls from grade school) quizzed them for a while about what they were doing now, the kids they'd grown up with started showing up, and though I gave up and went home at 10:30 (still under the weather with this cold) they were out partying until almost 2 am.

... which meant they slept in on Sunday.  So I took that opportunity to walk one of my favorite beaches with my camera, just to see what called to me.  Mostly what called were variations on this theme: the long strands of bull kelp, their sinuous light threads showing bright against the dark wet stones.  I never quite understand why such things are satisfying to me, but I walk and let my camera bless them; letting them know they are a gift to my eyes, and gifting them in turn to you...

It was, in its way, a weekend full of blessings: an opportunity for me to reconnect with old friends, but this time my girls got to do the same.  The cool thing, they informed me, about getting back together with their fellow classmates from the tiny 2-room schoolhouse they attended during their years here, is that "they get it."

What is it they get? I asked. 

They get what it's like to grow up in a really small community, without a television, where everyone knows each other -- and get, in turn, what it's like, having grown up that way, to go off to college in a far more urban setting, surrounded by kids who DIDN'T have that experience.  It's a bond they share, a special one, and as one grownup who had been a consistent mentor for their 4-H program said, "It doesn't matter where you live or where you go; you'll always be a part of the island."

Which was her way of blessing the girls: giving them assurance that they are part of a larger family.  And isn't that always what blessings are about?  I'm reading the final chapter of Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World, which is entitled "The practice of pronouncing blessings."  In it she describes the benefits of the practice of blessing things and people we encounter over the course of our days.  And though she doesn't specifically state it, I find I keep thinking of the practice as God's blessing flowing through us, which gives a sort of clarity and refreshment to those open spaces inside us through which the blessings flow.

And here's the quote from that chapter I loved the most, that helped me see why going up there, connecting with friends, and photographing something as simple as seaweed has such a restorative quality:

"God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not.  When Christians speak of the mystery of the incarnation, this is what they mean: for reasons beyond anyone's understanding, God has decided to be made known in flesh.  Matter matters to God.  The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility.  Pronouncing blessings upon them is the least we can do."

I love that: "The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility."  And I believe it with all my heart.

Advent: Thursday, Week 3

As often happens, Christmas preparations are running away with me. So I think on the days it's a struggle to get to the blog I'll share some of the lessons I prepared for Advent a few years back; I hope you don't mind...

Fluid like the stars

At last: a peaceful night's sleep and a renewed sense of well-being at dawn.  And how perfect is this Rumi poem for today!

"The nightwatchman knows the way
from body to soul, 
how soul moves
in stomach bile, 
in blood and semen, 
in saliva.

Soul works inside those fluids
to keep the body 
fresh and full of energy.

So the stars and the planets and this world
are moving to bring grace here
through the cold night-clarity..."

The challenge of enforced inactivity

Yet another day of enforced inactivity, as the cold doesn't seem to be progressing at all.  So it was amusing (as I watch my responses to both the inactivity and the discomfort) to read Barbara Brown Taylor's Altar in the World this morning: it's as if she's speaking directly to me.

She's talking about the practice of saying no, and particularly about God's commandment to rest on the seventh day.  "Anyone who practices Sabbath for even an afternoon usually suffers a little spell of Sabbath sickness.  Try it and you too may be amazed by how quickly your welcome rest begins to feel like something closer to a bad cold.  Okay, that was nice.  Okay, you are ready to get back to work now... but how will you ever catch up?

... Sabbath sickness turns out to be a lot like other sicknesses, which until now have been the only way you could grant yourself more than one day off from work.  If you flee from the pain and failure, then you run into them everywhere you go.  If you can find some way to open to them instead, then they may bring their hands from behind their backs and lay flowers on your bed."

Hmm, I think to myself.  Did some part of me choose sickness as a way of escaping holiday responsibilities, or because I'm not listening to how overwhelmed I've been feeling?  My family (all of whom were here yesterday) keep asking why I'm apologizing for being sick.  And I can't help but notice what a wuss I'm being about the discomfort.  I did finally get rational about it last night and decide it might be okay to at least take a little Tylenol...

All of which makes me realize how tightly I'm clamped in to the roles I assign for myself.  All the more reason to follow Taylor's advice: 

"At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage.  Close the door to the tool shed and turn off the computer.  Stay home, not because you are sick, but because you are well... Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce -- that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God's sight -- and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required.  This is a commandment.  Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working.  The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth."

All shall be well


What is it about a cold that's so debilitating?  We know they only last a short while; why can't we somehow rise above the sniffles and the cough and the watery eyes and the sleepless nights?

Why is it that the only time I seem to be able to fall asleep is when I'm attempting to meditate?  And why is it that family drama has a way of surfacing just when you're feeling like crap?


Here's where I wish I were right now: basking in the sun, poolside in Phoenix, being waited on hand and foot with no dog to walk, no Christmas errands to run, no cats to medicate and no exhibits to hang.

Oh, well.  This, too, shall pass.  And "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."  Thank you, Julian of Norwich! 

The hunger for oneness

I had actually intended to go to church this morning, but I'm at the sneezy, nose-blowing stage of this cold, so I'm staying home. 

I'm out of fresh images to play with -- or, at least, there's nothing singing to me -- so I decided instead to play with just layering abstracts.  This one is made up of three images: one of graffiti, one of rusted metal, and one treated underwater image.

It doesn't say much of anything, but it pleases me, and somehow makes me think of stone patterns I've seen in places like New Mexico and Arizona.  It also would look great printed on metal and hanging in the lobby of my church.  So I guess, in a way, this is my spirit's way of going to church without me.  There's even a hint of purple to remind us that Advent is now officially underway...

But somehow it also seems to be an echo of the latter verses of the Rumi poem for today in Coleman Barks' book, A Year with Rumi:

The longing you feel for this love
comes from inside you.

When you become the Friend,
your longing will be as the man in the ocean
who holds to a piece of wood.

Eventually, wood, man, and ocean
become one swaying being,
Shams Tabriz, the secret of God.

In it, I see the ocean, and the clinging, and the wood.  And together they somehow become unified in a way that expresses both the hunger for oneness and Oneness itself.

But maybe that's just me...

Full moon meanderings

When I awoke yesterday morning at 5:30 and came downstairs, the moon was so bright in the living room I thought my husband had left a light on.  Now I know there are people who say that the idea that life gets weird when there's a full moon is just hogwash, but I am not one of those people.  I wasn't quite sure where the day was going, but given a moon like this I could at least be certain there would be surprises.

And there were; they just kept unfolding, big ones and little ones; small coincidences and bizarre ones, all of which could, I suppose, be written off.  But I felt like I was held aloft in the hand of the Holy, and it was great fun.  Timing was perfect, repeatedly, in events and in traffic, and when, coming back from the airport, we missed a ferry by minutes, it was more than compensated for by our accidental involvement in a Progressive Insurance commercial.

So later, in the evening, when I came down with a whopper of a cold, I should not have been surprised: this too, I kept telling myself, must be part of the plan.  And when the runny nose was briefly joined by a bout of stomach flu, leaving me weak and headachey for much of today when I had a HUGE to-do list on my plate, was that not part of the plan as well?

Why do we assume only the good stuff means God is walking -- even dancing -- with us?  Couldn't the tough stuff just be a different kind of opportunity to sense the Divine Presence?  I did my best to see it that way, and did my best, as well, to look more closely at that list to see what -- if anything -- might be set aside for a day or two while I recovered.  Unfortunately most everything is stuff I promised as part of my volunteer work, so I'm grateful I managed to perk up quite a bit by mid-day. 

And now the toughest task with the shortest deadline is done, and I can finally sit down and tackle the blog -- always a bright spot in my day!  But I also think I'll pass on poem writing today... yesterday's poem fits this post quite well enough, I think.  More important to rest and get some food into my empty belly!

Feeling maternal

Though she's a grown woman now, our younger daughter hates to fly.  So when she's on her way home -- as she is this morning; I'll leave on the 9:40 ferry to pick her up at the airport -- I somehow always picture her as she is here, all smiles and soft cheeks, with Bear-Bear (her constant companion since she was 3 months old) in her arms. Which he will be, on the plane: though he is a dark and shabby shadow of his former white plush self, Bear-Bear is still a vital member of our family; still bringing comfort and joy wherever he goes.

It's funny.  When you don't have kids, or you're thinking of having kids, diapers seem to be such a dealbreaker; so overwhelming.  But when you do have children you realize each stage brings new, more difficult challenges.  With time, it becomes harder and harder, as Bear-Bear grows shabbier and shabbier -- for him (or us) to fix anything.  But the comfort he brings is still there.  I suppose, as parents, that's all we can offer or hope for.

Go figure!

I got word this morning that prints of this image -- which the gallery decided to use as the postcard image for the current show -- have sold out, and they want more. 

So when I came home from my usual Thursday morning coffee date, I had to leave again and go off to Silverdale to buy more matts, then come home and make more prints of the image, then matt and mount and label and package them, and then drive them into town to the gallery. 

I'm not complaining, you understand; it's just not quite how I expected my day to go.  And I never anticipated that this image would become so popular.  But then -- I'm not a horse person; I just thought it was funny.  Almost as funny as finding myself sleepless in the middle of the night (which rarely happens to me) and coming downstairs to find Mr. Ed on the TV. At 3 am? Who knew!

All of this is just to explain why the blog is getting off to a late start -- and totally devoid of spiritual content.  I barely woke up in time for coffee, so never read, never meditated, and never got to anything on my to do list. 

Some days are just like that, you know?

"Hmph," say these horses. "A likely story; do you really expect us to believe you?"

The creative impulse

Somehow our visit to New Orleans triggered an itch to create an icon.  Well, some sort of cross between an icon and Kalle's art, which I enjoyed so much.  Last week, while waiting for a late coffee date, I found myself doodling on the brown paper that covered my table with the crayons provided; clearly some part of me was still wrestling with that itch.

But I was visualizing it on some sort of long, thin board; where would I find such a thing?  The very next day, while walking the dog, I found a piece in exactly the shape I had drawn, washed up in my neighbor's front yard.  (It's that time of year, when the high tides bring us lots of presents; sometimes right to our door!)

Clearly the universe was conspiring with me, so yesterday I sat down to paint, using ancient tubes of acrylic left over from some high school art project of my daughter's. Here's the result, photographed against my dining room table.  It's definitely not perfect (although I did discover the incredible gift of primitive art: it doesn't HAVE to be perfect!) but it was great fun to create, and it was pure joy to play with paint after avoiding it for so many years.

... so now, of course, I'm thinking of doing another one; just waiting to see what else the tide brings in!  So important, to honor those creative impulses...

God's work

There was a book that came out, back in the late, optimistic, 80's, called Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood.  These days, of course, current economic reality has reduced that optimism to a shadow of its former self; a shadow many recent college graduates can no longer detect.

But I was reminded of that title this morning, reading Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World.  In it she describes her attempts while in seminary to ascertain God's call for her; attempts made high on a rusty fire escape she would climb to pray for guidance. 

And in the end, in response to her persistent plea of "What am I supposed to do with my life?" the response she received was simply this: "Anything that pleases you."  Which makes me think of that wonderful, seminal passage from Romans (8:28): "All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose."

Having once been married to a street musician, I know it's not an easy life; that we were often scraping to make ends meet.  But I also know he loved his work, and it brought joy to him and to those who heard him, just as I suspect these two New Orleans musicians find joy in their work, even as I know it brings joy to those of us who hear it.

I think that 80's book, despite my natural skepticism, cast a long shadow for me.  Over the years that title has continued to encourage me to do what I love -- as has that passage from Romans.  But some part of me is still hooked into the theory that money is somehow a sign of God's favor; that if I were really "doing it right," money -- or at least recognition -- would be the inevitable result.  And, as a result, I keep getting distracted by possibilities ("maybe if I tried THIS it would sell") and find it hard to just stay true to that God-inspired internal prompt of doing what I love.

Which doesn't mean I should drop everything and run after pleasure.  What I think it DOES mean is that I need to honor the rewards that DO ensue from the work I do; the calendars I create every year around this time, the exhibits I'm hanging in hospitals and coffee shops and athletic clubs.  It doesn't matter if things don't sell: what matters is that I enjoy the work, and others derive pleasure from its results.  If a picture honors the beauty in something someone passes every day, so that they stop and take a look next time -- that's God's work, too.

And it's all good.

Art, mystery, and mercy

It's always amusing to me, to see what I discover in my images after I get home from a trip.  In this case, if you look closely at this Mardi Gras mask I found in a store window, you will see images of Venice above her gold scrollwork.

Of course, Venice, too, is known for its Mardi Gras celebration - Carnevale - and for masks; I just hadn't put it together that I might love New Orleans for some of the same reasons I love Venice.  But now that I'm thinking of it, the narrow streets and ancient doorways of the French Quarter do have a Venetian feel to them, so it shouldn't be surprising that I responded as enthusiastically as I did.

Art, and mystery, and always at the mercy of the water... hmmm.  And here, where I spend most of my time; we, too are known for our art, and our street, at least is surely at the mercy of the tides from time to time.  But where is the mystery?  Perhaps we should have our OWN Mardi Gras parade!

Cultivating curiosity

I was out walking with my husband and his brother in New Orleans; we were in a park, tucked in between the Cathedral and the Cafe du Monde, and I had just paused to take their picture beside this plant with huge leaves.

They were already moving on when I spotted this lovely purple fantasia in the plant I'd used as a backdrop.  Isn't it glorious?  Not exactly a burning bush, but I did have to turn aside to explore it -- and there was no way, once I'd seen it, that I could walk past it without photographing it.

What I don't understand is why it's so satisfying to me.  Is it because it's so exotic and unfamiliar?  Is it those glorious colors?  Or is it the way each piece of the plant seems designed to curl protectively around those bright and curious dancers in the middle?

Do I need to know the answer?  Probably not; I suspect it's enough to notice and respond from some non-cognitive space deep within.  Perhaps it captures me because I don't have a name for it -- we humans do have a way of dismissing things when we name them.  "What's that?" "Oh, it's just a table -- or a kingfisher, calling to his mate, or a homeless man sleeping under a blanket in the parking lot."  But until we name it, we're curious.  Wouldn't it be great if we could keep that curiosity?

Listening to that inner child

Having spent most of my adult life in rural environments, I love images like this.  I suppose you could say it's a chicken and egg problem: do I live in rural environments because this is what I love, or do I love these images because this is where I live?

But the fact is, this pleases me.  So I have lots of pictures like this one, and was delighted when I was invited to participate in the farm-centered show that opened last night -- and I had great fun mounting bunches of images like this one on little wooden cradles; they look adorable hanging on the wall, and add charm to some of those odd spaces we all have in our houses.

But I woke up cranky this morning, and I realized, after some thought (why does it take me so long to process these things?) that I was cranky because the gallery chose to display them all flat, on a platform.  No one seemed to understand what they were, and the light totally grayed them out because it bounced off them instead of illuminating the depth of them.

What's odd is that some part of me wanted to sweep them all up into my arms and carry them away, to say, "It's okay, you're not ugly, you're adorable and you are loved; we'll take you somewhere where you are appreciated."  Clearly I am WAY more emotionally engaged with these pieces than I usually am with my work.

So what's that about?  Is it just because they are small (only 3" x 5") and I feel protective of them?  Am I projecting something of myself onto them?  (Well, duh, probably!)  Oh, good (as my neighbor Joanna says), something new to work on!  Thinking about it this morning in my meditation time (my brain refused to release me into peace and quiet), I came to see that the piece of me that wants to be pretty and appreciated was squalling like a 2-year-old: Unfair!  Not Fair! 

Once I understood that, I was able to calm that part of me down and promise I'd attempt to solve the problem.  So I've written to my curator friend to explain this; I'm not sure if he'll do anything about it but at least I've expressed my concerns. It was a perfectly calm note, I think, but I'm not sure it would have been if I'd written it before meditating.

When we have these parts of us that object to things, they have a disturbing tendency to take us over.  And though they're using grown-up words, they're really very small children at heart, and pretty irrational -- not to mention ineffective.  If I hadn't stopped to get in touch with what was driving my feelings, I could easily have written a rather nasty little diatribe -- you know the kind, the angry ones whose sentences start with "You never" or "You always" or -- worse still, "You #$$^^%!"

But the fact is, the gallery is not my enemy. They want these pieces to sell as much as I do.  So if I share the information I have that they may not have had time to acquire, I am doing both of us a favor.  Let's start by assuming we're on the same side here, right?

Which makes me wish, sometimes, that our political leaders would spend some time meditating before they go off on their diatribes, and before they declare wars.  Wouldn't it be better for all of us if each of us took the time to understand that we really do all want the same things -- we just have different ideas and information on how to get them?  Maybe if we could defuse the angry upset children inside us and just speak grown-up to grown-up the world would be a lot more peaceful place. 

But mostly I just have to start right here, with me.  Learn to listen carefully to the part of me that's upset rather than stuffing her down, belittling her, or letting her take over.  She has useful information to share -- we all do -- but I need to take the time to listen -- and let her know I love her and take her concerns seriously.

Cold like me

After 20 years in New England, the Northwest winters seemed incredibly mild to us when we moved here.  So when we realized the previous owners of our house hadn't bothered to extend the forced-hot-water heating system upstairs to the bedrooms, we just left it that way.  The heat that drifts upstairs from below seemed perfectly adequate; surely the tiny electric heaters installed in the walls of the bedrooms would be more than enough to take the edge off any particularly cold nights.

But I am older now, and more adjusted to the winters here; I'm no longer certain I could handle the brisk sub-zero winters I remember from my youth.  And there are nights when our bedroom feels more like this picture than I would like, even though the temperature outside has not yet dropped to freezing.  So I pile on the clothes, put on socks, and pile on the comforters as well -- and as I lie there shivering I think of all the people who are forced to sleep in colder places than this.

As Barbara Brown Taylor says in An Altar in the World, "However differently you and I may conceive the world, God, or one another, physical reality is something we can usually agree on.  When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, I am as cold as whoever happens to be standing next to me.  When I see someone run into a piece of furniture, catching the corner of a table right in the thigh, my own thigh hurts in that exact same place...

... When I watch a perfect stranger open her mouth for a bite of Key lime pie at my favorite Mexican restaurant, my mouth starts watering without my permission.  My body is what connects me to all of these other people.  Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice, but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls.  It is what we have most in common with one another."

And, I would add, it is what we have most in common with Jesus, who was also born into human skin, with all the joys and challenges that has to offer.

Yes, I know -- I don't often refer to Jesus here.  But He's on my mind because I've been working on writing the call to artists for an upcoming ECVA exhibition, to be entitled "Jesus, our brother." I confess, though I still do attend my local Episcopal church with a certain amount of frequency, I am uncomfortable with a lot of the roles the church has assigned to Jesus over the years.  But the incarnate Jesus, the Jesus who lived in a skin and got cold and hungry and tired just as we do; who longed just as we do for courage (for himself) and love and understanding (from those around him); this is a Jesus I can relate to.

This is the Jesus who speaks so beautifully in the Gospel of Thomas, who sees so clearly the Oneness, the connectedness of all life, and the divine presence that lives within each of us, and who longs for us to see that, too.  This is the Jesus who is our brother, and I'm looking forward to seeing the art that comes in to depict how others experience that Jesus...

How interruptible are you?

We all know the story of Moses and the burning bush, right?  But I hadn't really thought about it until this morning, reading about it in Barbara Brown Taylor's Altar in the World

I mean, yes, it's cool that God spoke to Moses.  But "the bush was not right in front of Moses.  It must have been over to the side somewhere, because when Moses saw it, he said, 'I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.'

... What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside.  Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he was supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait a minute.  He parked the sheep he was tending for his father-in-law and left the narrow path in order to take a closer look at a marvelous sight."

When Moses made that choice, to stop and investigate, God dismissed the angel and took over the bush.  It's a wonderful example of what can happen when we take the time to notice. 

But most of us are crusaders, always on a path to something important, always busy with a job to do; many of us are even doing what society has told us is the Work Of The Lord.  And when we're on a roll, the things that get in the way -- the child saying "Mommy, Mommy, look at this!" or the slow elderly driver on the road in front of us, or the cat who gets underfoot at dinnertime or the homeless person blocking the doorway of the building we're trying to enter -- are simply obstacles to the crusade; irritations.  We fail to see them as opportunities for Grace. Our eyes are on the prize, the Lord, the job ahead, and we never stop to appreciate the wonder right here at our feet.

As someone who is especially prone to this kind of preoccupation, I am grateful photography has captured my interest.  Because, whatever I'm doing, some part of me is often alert for the burning bushes of the world. After all, if we don't even register them, we're not going to stop and investigate.  But I have years of history of not stopping, lots of "the one that got away" stories. 

Photography has taught me the fleeting nature of that golden light that can illuminate the bushes along the path.  If I am not willing to drop what I'm doing and explore, but choose instead to finish whatever task is so important to me now and come back later, then in all probability whatever light infused the subject with grace has left the scene. 

So it's not enough to be aware, although that's a start.  We have to be willing to stop what we're doing; to drop the crusade and leave the path, "to turn aside and look at this great sight." 

So how interruptible are you?
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