Failure as a source of connectedness

This morning in Ordinary Magic, I am reading a piece by Carla Needleman on "The Work of Craft," and she says craftsmanship begins with disillusion.

"The object I am working on looks like me.  It is a mirror, an accurate reflection... and contradicts my ideas, my illusions, of what I should be producing, and it wounds my self-love to see it.  I think it should be better, and so I suffer from it.  But it is me.  I have worked as well as I could, and this object is the only possible truthful representation of that work.  Faced with the truth of it, I enter the state of disillusion...

Disillusion is an extraordinarily interesting state of being, having immediate and far-reaching effects...if the craftsman can bear to stay there, not to turn away, he begins to detect an opening in himself through which he can learn.

Disillusion, the recognition that I am not what I thought I was, that I don't know what I thought I knew, that I can't do what I wish to do, opens us to the creative dialogue."

I think this passage struck me because of my experiences with poetry this weekend.  Being surrounded by -- and listening to -- such an extraordinary collection of poets was both humbling and inspiring.  Humbling because they were really good; for the most part their poems were far better than mine, far more carefully crafted, stepped deeper into the human condition, and embraced a more open spectrum of experience.

In the face of that, I couldn't retain any illusions -- positive or negative -- about my own work: I couldn't deny the merit of the particular poem they chose, which I'd been working on for years, but I also couldn't deny that I've been mostly skating on the surface of poetry; that there were some deeper places calling to me.

And so, yesterday, I responded to that call, crafting (not just writing, but crafting) four different poems over the course of the day, all longer, deeper, and richer than my usual attempts.  And each of them, in the way it reflected me and my process, was both a source of disillusion and an invitation to go deeper.  And, in truth -- the whole experience was... exhilarating.

Needleman explains it this way:  "The repeated failure at a craft... wears me down, overcomes my resistance, brings me low.  But unlike any other experiences of being diminished by life circumstances that I may have had, it does me no harm.  I am, if anything, more intact than before.  And I find a new strength in myself coming from an unsuspected place... It feels a bit like the sensation of obedience, although I couldn't say what it is I am beginning to feel obedient to.  It may be that what I perceive as obedience is the first thread of real connectedness, of relationship with the movement of energies both within me and in the world."

What she calls obedience, to me, is more like getting out of the way.  I've often thought of it as a sort of clearing out of the pipes, getting ego out of the picture so that creativity flows through onto the page uninterrupted by our feeble attempts to control what it expresses.  But I do agree that it leads to a strong sense of connectedness -- and what a gift that is!

Poet on a leash

Last night I went into Seattle to celebrate the release of the latest issue of Floating Bridge Review.  I had no idea what to expect: my blogsister (and poet extraordinaire) Maureen had encouraged me to enter their chapbook contest but I'd thought of it more as an exercise, and hadn't realized that poems entered as part of the chapbook might be invited to appear in their review.

I think it's a bit like that thing Woody Allen says in one of his movies: "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member" -- I just assumed that if one of my poems got in, the caliber of the poetry must be questionable?  You have to remember: I may be an English major, I may have studied poetry in college, but as a poet I'm a fairly recent fledgling, and not at all secure -- or even that practiced -- in my craft.

But the poems (I began reading them on the ferry, on the way to the event; the Review had arrived a day or so earlier) were wonderful, extraordinary, exhilarating to read, and I began to understand that this was, in fact, an honorable gathering; that I was extremely fortunate to be invited to participate.

And then I got to watch and hear them read.  What a treat!  What I had thought might be a boring evening was absolutely delicious, rich with laughter and tears, gasps of delight and sorrow, and as I watched the people who read BECAME their poems; it was simply extraordinary.

And so, of course, today, I am just exploding with poetry; I had to write before I could even meditate, had to release a little air out of my word balloon or I would simply burst.  And so, of course, today would be one of those mornings when the dog was determined to go for his walk before I'd even finished my coffee; determined, also, to take a longer, slower walk than usual.

It was a good zen lesson: I stood there, waiting for him to poop, words swirling in my head, when suddenly I thought, "You are NOT really here!"  There I was, on one of the most gorgeous mornings we've had this gray summer, with sunlight sparkling on the shells and last night's seaweed deposit, and all I could think of was getting back to my paper and pencil.  Well, duh!

So I relaxed and gave the dog his head, let him wander down the beach, straining at the leash and sniffing all the latest additions of stinky things, and realized -- my pulling him away from this, the highlight of his day, is not all that different from him pulling me away from the poems, the highlight of my day. Because now that my husband is back from his trip, that uninterrupted hour in the morning is terribly precious again, and I resent the time I spend away from my pencil, my meditation, and my computer.  I am, in fact, a poet on a leash again...

Sigh. There are lessons everywhere, aren't there!

This water-lily world

Every summer the lilies rise
and open their white hands until they almost
cover the black waters of the pond. And I give
thanks but it does not seem like adequate thanks,
it doesn't seem
festive enough or constant enough, nor does the
name of the Lord or the words of thanksgiving come
into it often enough. Everywhere I go I am
treated like royalty, which I am not. I thirst and
am given water. My eyes thirst and I am given
the white lilies on the black water. My heart
sings but the apparatus of singing doesn't convey
half what it feels and means. In spring there's hope,
in fall the exquisite, necessary diminishing, in
winter I am as sleepy as any beast in its
leafy cave, but in summer there is
everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,
the hospitality of the Lord and my
inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body
through this water-lily world.

-- Mary Oliver, excerpted from "Six Recognitions of the Lord"

At the brink of joy

Two days ago I was working on the Contemplative Icons site, trying to develop an image for a poem about the present moment as a stepping-off point into the Divine Abyss.

It's a concept that is deeply meaningful to me,  so of course I couldn't step into either the moment OR the abyss, and trying to develop an image was next to impossible; I'm still not at all pleased with what I came up with.

The good news is some part of me is determined to keep exploring the concept, and remains untroubled by deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise) and believes the image will evolve over time.

But that part... well, it didn't exactly let me know what it was thinking.  So it wasn't until I sat and stared at my growing collection of unused experiments this morning that I realized they ALL seem to be variations on the theme of the Divine Abyss, even though I thought I'd finished that task. 

... which somehow puts me in mind of something a woman (whose name I no longer remember) said to me probably twenty years ago, when I was still working for the Episcopal bishop.  She felt that whatever concerns I had about the job, I needn't worry it would damage my spirit; that when she looked at me she saw what she could only call "a deep water joy."

That remark has stayed with me all these years -- as some phrases have a way of doing (though often it's the negative ones that stick).  And looking at my work this morning I see that the images that please me the most all seem to speak to that deep water joy; I just want to drink them in.  And the ones I've liked least over time have been the ones that seem... well, dry.

It's not always a function of color, but I suspect it may have something to do with depth.  Hmm.  Something else to contemplate!  In the meantime, I'm enjoying the spectacle of all these lovely maidens, poised on the brink of joy...

Love from a distance

I know; this picture has a very odd sort of paint-by-number quality to it -- I suspect it's because I shot it using my digital zoom all the way out to the max. But wow: it's pretty hard to resist doing that, when you can frame the perfect white of the lighthouse with its red roofs against the blue trees and sky and Mount Baker.  Even the wind was cooperating that day, sending the flag exactly in the right direction. (This is from my weekend excursion to Port Townsend, by the way).

So I'm trying to think: what would be the emotional or spiritual equivalent of a digital zoom?  Something that gives us the illusion of closeness, but is in fact distanced, so what we think we're seeing is really not a fair representation?  It's a bit like watching actors in movies: we get those closeup shots that give us the feeling of their emotions, but really we're looking at makeup and acting, not actual humans or actual feelings...

For some reason this makes me think of the Ally McBeal shows I've been watching.  We were living on Shaw, away from a TV, when this show was aired, so I've been wandering through the episodes with Netflix.  And at the end of Season 2, there are two shows where they're addressing the issue of the ideal lover: that romanticized vision some (many?  all?) women create in their heads of the perfect man -- someone attractive and affectionate who "gets" them, who loves them just as they are, finds their quirks charming, supports and encourages and inspires them and showers them with appropriate thoughtful gifts on appropriate occasions.  (Yes, I know there's more to the definition than that but I'll stop there.)

The question that comes up in court is this: is it fraud for a woman to marry a man who doesn't measure up to that ideal if she still carries that dream in her head -- and doesn't tell him that?  How that translates for the men outside the courtroom is this: do ALL women secretly feel they've "settled" for less?  And for Ally the question becomes, does the ideal man even exist?  Is there such a thing as a soulmate?

I'm thinking the answer lies in this image.  The soulmate concept may act as a sort of beacon in the distance, guiding us toward good relationships.  But in the end, if you were actually to get close to the one who looks like a soulmate from a distance, there would always be flaws -- in this case, dirt on the windows, birdlime on the roof -- that light may not even be operating any more.  And the lighthouse isn't anywhere near as close to the mountain as it looks here.

The fact is -- no-one's perfect, not me, not you, and not our children or the men and women we come to love over the course of our lifetimes.  And I think that ideal and perfect love that keeps beckoning from a distance -- well, my guess is the only way we'll ever really get close to that is by getting in touch with our own souls, our inner divinity, that love that's always there at the root of things -- if only we take time to look...

Stopping to see

Much as I loved our two days of sunshine, I couldn't help noticing how glorious the light was this morning in the gray and the fog -- or was that a fine mist, bowing down the dune grass and the rose hips already ripening in the yard?

At any rate I found myself reveling in the luxury of alone time; the thrill of uninterrupted coffee, of staring out the window and really seeing what lies beyond the glass, of grabbing my camera and heading out in my bathrobe -- no workmen to worry about -- to photograph what calls to me.

Not that I couldn't do that otherwise; all of it would be okay.  But stripped of an audience, I feel so much more at ease, so much more willing to listen to the promptings of my own spirit rather than the myriad voices that worry about what others may think, or what they might need from me. 

I keep hoping that other-centeredness will disappear with age and meditation practice, but I suppose I am mostly grateful that at least now I take the time to listen to myself when I'm alone.  I suspect that even 2 years ago I would have leapt from the table to the meditation chair, bent on the safety and ritual of routine, instead of stopping to really see... Just think what I've been missing, all these years!

Let it be, let it be

My internet has been down since yesterday afternoon, so I've spent the last 24 hours dealing with repairmen, cleaning out my office, and moving books around (I picked up a wonderful new bookcase at a garage sale, and am moving books out of our bedroom onto the new case so we can get my husband's books off the floor and onto the bedroom bookshelves -- hazards of living with a book addict).

In between I got to play, making art. Most of the pieces are only so-so -- which usually just means they're not done yet -- but I love this one, and have named it "Mother Mary Comes to Me."

And of course, given the appointments I've had to reschedule in order to accommodate QWEST's repair schedule, which then happened earlier than expected, I'm a little frantic, so I think she showed up just to whisper her words of wisdom -- "Let it be, Let it be."

Of course, given my sense of humor, I look at the image and think "Even if you've been screwed... let it be, let it be."... which reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who felt she was being jerked around by some out-of-town guests who might or might not show up.  I really just wanted to say, "Let it be, Let it be."  The Buddhists tell us we create most -- if not all -- of our own suffering by how we react to stuff; I suspect they're right most of the time.  Which is not to say I'm good at letting it be.  But I am learning to accept responsibility for the role I play in getting myself stressed out. 

And somehow looking at this image, with its soothing blues, warm yellows, and sort of watery quality (though none of the images that are layered in here have water in them) does calm me a bit.  Maybe I need to mount it and hang it over my computer; I bet this one would look really good on metal!

The value of contrast

I shot this image yesterday, and posted it here in response to a terrific photo I saw at the exhibit last night called Kiva (shown at right), by photographer Morley Baer.

Note: "Kiva, San Ildefonso, 1972"
Photograph by Morley Baer.
©2012 by the Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe.
All reproduction rights reserved. Used by permission.

Though you can see how some of the shapes are similar, you can also see what a comparatively huge role light plays in Baer's photo.  He was an avid student of Ansel Adams, the master of light, and that is surely apparent in this photograph.

But the other thing you can see in both photographs is the importance of darkness and shadow: you can't really get the full effect of the light without the balance provided by the darkness and shadow (and isn't THAT a life statement).

And -- just so you know -- a lot of the work of providing that contrast has always happened in the darkroom; it's not just about how we see the original piece; there's also something in how we present it.  It was true in the physical darkrooms of Ansel Adams' day, and it's true now in the digital darkroom -- and just to show how that works (since I was greatly inspired by Baer's photo), I'll share with you the stages of my image:

Original color photo

Black and white conversion

First draft with highlights

... and of course the final is the one you see at the top of the page. They're none of them bad pictures, really -- it's just that the one at the top has more... oomph. So the next time your life is feeling a little gray or dull, just beware: if you want some more life and vitality, light alone won't solve the problem: you're probably going to have to put up with some dark as well!

Seeing Summer

Wow. Two sunny days in a row -- and today was actually warm!  I couldn't bear to sit in front of my computer when summer appeared to have finally arrived (better late than never), so my friend Linda and I took the day off and went to Port Townsend.

I showed her some of my favorite stopping off points along the way, including Mats Mats and its public boat launch, and the Ajax Cafe in Port Hadlock (sadly not open for lunch) and the nearby dock, where an eagle obligingly circled low around us to land on a telephone pole.

It was a wonderful, peaceful, relaxing time with great junk food (waterfront pizza and gelato) and wonderful opportunities for photography (and some pretty fun shopping, too).  There was some great conversation (I've just given her a copy of Ordinary Magic), and, in honor of the piece in there that I read before leaving this morning (by Frederick Franck, author of The Zen of Seeing) we spent a lot of time ... well, just SEEing: really drinking in the beauties of the day -- unusual boats and cars and people; deer sleeping beside a busy highway, a perfectly camouflaged dog sleeping under a tree on a crowded sidewalk, a ferry crossing the water in the shadow of Mount Rainier...

I hope you had a chance to really look at something today, to really see the shape and wonder of it  -- that can be an amazing gift, both to the seer and to that which is seen.  Yes, the camera helps me see.  But sometimes it's good to look without the camera in my hand, too.  And thinking of that made my evening -- spent at my local gallery, admiring a private collection of black and white prints by photography's greatest (Stieglitz, Kertesz, Karsh, Adams, Baer, Weston, Cartier-Bresson and more) -- that much more rewarding, particularly the part where photographer and teacher Raymond Gendreau explained about Cartier-Bresson's theories about the Decisive Moment.

Though Bresson's book is no longer in print (and existing copies start at $435 and go up) you can see a brief excerpt from a speech he gave at the International Center for Photography on youtube below.  And that picture of the boy on the crutches was one of the prints I got to see this evening... utterly amazing.

There is a place

The place
There is a place where words are born of silence,
A place where the whispers of the heart arise.

There is a place where voices sing your beauty,
A place where every breath
Carves your image
In my soul.

-- Rumi

Ah, peace.

Ah, peace.

The hammering men have left, my house is newly shingled, and my time -- for the next few days -- is all my own. 

Yes, I plan to do some extra meditating (though I didn't get any meditation time this morning).  But mostly I just look forward to getting my house in order: cleaning up in all those places that tend to go untouched; getting organized, finally sorting through all my books and papers from school, filing what I need to keep and tossing the rest; getting caught up on some long overdue chores... Simple pleasures.

... and this morning, on my weekly coffee date, my friend pointed out that it's really those of us who can find joy in those simple pleasures who live the truly joyful lives.  When we can find pleasure in a cup of coffee, a morning birdsong, light traffic, a tidy office, time spent in the garden, weeding --instead of scrambling for more and better -- it's definitely easier to keep our spirits up.

So.  Where will you find joy today?  I'm just going to sit here and revel in the absence of the pounding. So lovely...

In a religious quandary

Yesterday I sat in a room with a group of like-minded women, women who have been on the spiritual journey together for several years now, and one of us was struggling with issues of shame.

I remember, during the worst of my first marriage, sitting in the office of an Episcopal priest (I was NOT religious at the time) and struggling with these same issues.  And what I remember is this: that at that moment of deep sorrow and disillusionment, he said to me, very gently, "I know that you didn't want me to bring any religion into these conversations.  But I believe -- and I have to say this -- that this is the gift of Christianity: that Christ's death on the cross was precisely for moments like these.  He took the punishment for ALL of our sins so you don't have to.  Really.  You are forgiven. Already."

... and the amazing thing was that I heard him. Felt the words. And felt the burden of shame lift away.

It was an incredible gift, a seminal moment in my life, and whatever my issues with the church -- and even, sometimes, with Christianity -- that moment has stayed with me for thirty years now.  My faith has a much different shape and texture these days, but that awareness, that we as individuals could be loved so intensely despite all the ways we screw up, is rooted very deeply in me.  I may not always be proud of myself or my actions, but some part of me knows I am loved -- and that makes it a little easier to love myself.

So I felt the impulse to tell the story, to share that.  But even though all of us have Christian roots, even though we've been in Bible studies together, I couldn't figure out a way to do it that wouldn't sound ... well ... evangelical.  Maybe even ... tacky? Awkward?  Inappropriate? And so I kept my mouth shut -- and how sad is that? 

I sit in this odd place -- carrying deep roots of faith but uncomfortable with many of the applied precepts of organized religion -- and sometimes feel I'm walking on eggshells.  How is it that I can know the saving power of Jesus and still have a house full of Buddhas?  What is it in me that feels anxious even writing those words -- "the saving power of Jesus" -- for fear of alienating, of sounding like one of those exclusive evangelical types? And why would I keep my mouth shut, in what SHOULD be one of the safest places I know, in a moment when I could be giving such an incredible gift?

I believe I would have spoken up if it had just been the two of us.  But to say it in a group... I think both of us would have felt horribly exposed and awkward. 

And so I didn't. 

And how weird is that, that I feel safer saying it here?

Rumi on Vocation

Love for Certain Work

Traveling is as refreshing for some
as staying at home is for others.

Solitude in a mountain place
fills with companionship for this one,
and weariness for that one.

This person loves being in charge
of the workings of a community.

This other one loves the ways 
heated iron can be shaped with a  hammer.

Each has been given a strong desire
for certain work, a love for those motions,
and all motion is love.

The way sticks and pieces of dead grass and leaves
shift about in the wind
and with the directions of rain and puddle-water
on the ground, those motions
are all following the love
they have been given. 


The gates of light

Looking into the Creek

The way the soul is with the senses
and the mind, is like a creek.

When desire-weeds grow thick,
your intelligence cannot flow,
and soul-creatures stay hidden.

But sometimes a flooding comes
that runs so strong
it clears the clogged stream,
as though with God's hand.

No longer weeping and frustrated,
your being grows as powerful
as your wantings were before.

Laughing and satisfied,
that masterful current
lets soul-creatures appear.

You look down,
and it's lucid dreaming.

The gates made of light
swing open. You see in.

-- Rumi

Your light fills the ocean

The Oldest Thirst There Is

Give us gladness that connects
with the Friend, a taste of the quick.

You that make a cypress strong
and jasmine jasmine.

Give us the inner listening
that is a way in itself
and the oldest thirst there is.

Do not measure it out with a cup.
I am a fish.  You are the moon.

You cannot touch me, but your light
fills the ocean where I live.
 -- Rumi

The drive to faith

It was raining pretty much constantly, and not all that warm, either, when we got to the coast.  But we still had a fabulous time, and managed to get back in time for me to make the last rehearsal for the play reading I'm in this weekend, a Book-it theater adaptation of Jim Lynch's wonderful book, The Highest Tide.

It seems odd to think that we've had the wettest, coldest spring on record here, and so much of the rest of the country is suffering so from drought and heat; it's as challenging to understand as the way the water carves out some sections of the beach and not others; why earthquakes and freak tides happen (as they do in this play.) 

As my character says at one point near the end of the play, "Do you understand?  That's the thing about the earth: It doesn't stop to acknowledge the daily disasters of the living.  It just keeps on spinning and sucking.  I think that's what drives people toward faith, that unsettling realization that the physical world goes on without them, before them, after them, without recognition of sympathy."

So.  How about you?  What drives you toward faith?

Fierce Courtesy

Today marks our 27th anniversary, so we've decided to wander off for the day, escaping the constant hammering of the men who are re-shingling our house and heading for one of my favorite places.

Though we will be taking the dog with us, we've agreed not to take along our other usual distractions -- books and computers -- and to just spend the time enjoying each other's company.

So I was amused by today's admonitions in A Year with Rumi:

Fierce Courtesy

The connection to the Friend 
is secret and very fragile.

The image of the Friendship 
is in how you love,

the grace and the delicacy,
the subtle talking together
in full prostration, outside of time.

When you are there,
remember the fierce courtesy
of the one with you.

The sanctity of ordinary things

As I believe I mentioned earlier, one of the recurring questions at our Mary Oliver retreat was simply "How?"  How can we integrate our spiritual practice into our everyday lives?

The book I opened yesterday, loaned to me by my beloved neighbor, is a marvelous attempt to answer that question.  It's called Ordinary Magic, it was edited by John Welwood (so I'm hoping he won't mind if I put his other book aside for a bit) and it features writings by a variety of authors on this very subject; on bringing together the sacred and the ordinary.

Though I loved the first reading -- "Sunshine and Green Leaves," by Thich Nhat Hanh (a perfect gem, which I will read and re-read for years to come) -- I was initially skeptical about the second, "Everyday Life as Practice" by someone named Karlfried Graf von Durckheim.  How could someone I'd never even heard of even begin to follow that first gift?

Trust John Welwood to offer exactly what I need to hear: listen to this --

"What" we do belongs to the world.  In the "how," the way we do it, we infallibly reveal to ourselves whether our attitude is... open to Divine Being or closed to it -- able to experience Divine Being in ourselves and to reveal it in the world.

Let us suppose, for instance, that a letter has to be posted in a mailbox a hundred yards away.  If the mouth of the mailbox is all we see in the mind's eye, then the hundred strides we take toward it are wasted.  But if we are on the Way and filled with the sense of all that this implies, then even this short walk, providing we maintain the right attitude and posture, can serve to renew us from the well of inner essence. (Don't you love that phrase, "the well of inner essence"?)

The same can be true of any daily activity.  The more we have mastered some relevant technique, and the smaller the amount of attention needed to perform the task satisfactorily, the more easily may the emphasis be transferred from the exterior to the interior.  Whether in the kitchen or working at an assembly-line, at the typewriter or in the garden, talking, writing, sitting, walking or standing, dealing with some daily occurrence, or conversing with someone dear to us -- whatever it may be, we can approach it "from within" and use it as an opportunity for the practice of becoming a genuine human being.  When this is understood, the truth of the old Japanese adage becomes clear: "For something to acquire religious significance, two conditions alone are necessary: it must be simple, and it must be repetitive."

Okay.  So our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to find at least one simple task, something we do all the time, and ... sanctify it.  Do it consciously.  Practice.

It takes us so long to get the hang of meditation that we are easily misled into thinking that's enough; that if we can meditate regularly, we can become spiritual beings.  But I've been suspecting for some time that meditation is just a way of whetting our appetites for Divine Being: somehow we have to carry that level of awareness back into the rest of our lives; to find a way to "divinely BE."

... not that I'm saying that will be easy.  But we do need to stop talking and wondering and whining and waiting for enlightenment to make it easy, and just... practice.  Work at it.  Notice; be attentive -- I suspect the results will surprise us both.

Where meanings live


The sound of hoofbeats leaving a monastery
where all is timed and measured.
You are that rider.

Someone who does not care very much about things
and results, illness and loss, you are the soul
inside the soul that is always traveling.

Mind gathers bait. Personality
carries a grudge.  You weave cloth
like the moon leaving no trace on the road.

There is a learning community where the names of God
are talked about and memorized, and there is
another residence where meanings live.

You are on the way from here to there.
Your graceful manner gives color and fragrance
as creekwater animates the landscape it moves through.

The absolute unknowable appears as spring
and disappears in fall.
Signs come, not the essence signified.

How long will you be a shepherd singlefiling us
in and out of the human barn?
Will I ever see you
as you secretly are in silence?

-- Rumi

Note: This image, created yesterday, is called "The Parting of the Red Sea"

The hard stuff

This is the image that emerged yesterday -- definitely a departure for me.  It was disturbing to create, actually, but it seemed determined to emerge as something that mixed gritty and industrial with something far more organic that lay beneath.

I thought perhaps it was some sort of ecological statement -- and of course it could be.  And then this morning (Hey, Paula, I cheated and opened a new book before finishing the old one!) I was reading a piece by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he compares meditation to allowing a glass of apple cider to settle, and I thought, well, maybe that's what this image is about -- the sort of churning that goes on beneath the surface of things; the stuff that needs to settle out.

But then I opened my email to find that yet another friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  And though the prognosis appears good, there is still that fear -- that there could be more going on below the surface than initial testing indicates.  So now I suspect that this is what fear looks like.  Or maybe hopelessness, or helplessness.  Of course it was hard to create -- who wants to look at, or feel, that stuff?  And I feel I should also note that this image was created on the 10th anniversary of the day my daughter's best friend (son of my dear friend) committed suicide.  So it's not surprising there were undercurrents of hard stuff.

I keep a copy of Coleman Barks' A Year with Rumi always open on my desk, but  I never got around to looking at it yesterday. Now I see that yesterday's poem goes with all of the hard stuff.  It's called

The Essence of Ritual

Pray the prayer that is the essence 
of every ritual. God, I have no hope.
I am torn to shreds.  You are my first,
my last and only refuge.

Do not do daily prayers like a bird
pecking its head up and down.

Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out
the total helplessness inside.

No.  None of us wants to go there.  But sometimes life makes us go there.  I'm grateful for "my first, my last and only refuge."  Whether you call it prayer or meditation -- sometimes it just needs to happen, to carry us back to the comfort that is God.

Cherishing our differences

We're back in the work zone this morning, with three workmen hammering away at the front of the house, removing the last of the old shingles.

It's a bit like a snake shedding its old skin, or the softshell crabs who walk away from their shells; the house feels a bit vulnerable and exposed with its shingles off, even though we now can see -- having watched the other three sides of the house get transformed -- how lovely it will look when they're done.

What is it about us humans, that makes us so sensitive to appearances?  It's a bit like getting a bad haircut: you know it will grow out, you know those who are dear to you don't love you for your appearance, and yet there is that awkward self-consciousness as you wait for resolution.  How is it, we wonder that we can be so... well... shallow?  And what are we afraid of?  Are we reluctant to have the underlying truth about us be exposed?  Or are we just terrified of being different, of standing out in a crowd, not fitting in?

... which is silly, isn't it.  As it says in today's reading from Promise of a New Day, "We are all different.  Success in life probably has more to do with expressing our uniqueness fully than with suppressing it and trying to resemble everybody else.  Who is "everybody else," anyway? We can't respond authentically to the moment if we're concealing the truth.  The truth for us involves our own unique package of qualities, our own experience and energy, our own way of looking at things."

My reading this morning in Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening had a similar point:  "Individuated true nature" (that which makes us unique and different) "is the unique way that each of us can serve as a vehicle for embodying the suprapersonal wisdom, compassion, and truth of absolute true nature."

That which sets us apart need not be a source of shame: we need to learn to see it as a source of blessing, an opportunity, even a vehicle for expressing the larger truths of connection.  The authors of Promise of a New Day offer an affirmation for us to use today:

"Human beings share many characteristics.  One of the most important is difference.  Today I will cherish these differences as one of the bonds that joins me to others."

Early childhood, art, and spirituality

I created this image yesterday evening, so it seems only fitting that my readings this morning in Welwood’s Toward a Psychology of Awakening address the ego effects of early child-raising practices.

He’s discussing the issue in the context of explaining how it is that psychology and spiritual practice can work together in our western culture, and he begins by talking about some key differences between traditional and modern child-rearing practices.

In traditional cultures, he says, the child was raised, not just by its mother, but by a whole extended family and a community as well. This nurturing structure, says Welwood, helped the child develop an ego structure whose boundaries were more fluid -- more flexible and permeable – which alleviates that sense of isolation modern individuals so often struggle with. This sense of connectedness was enhanced, of course, in the context of a life spent attuned to the rhythms of the natural world.

In addition, he says, in more traditional cultures children were continually held, even sharing their parents’ beds for the first two or three years of life: he quotes psychoanalyst Alan Roland as saying that this intense maternal involvement and adoration of the young child “develops a central core of heightened well-being in the child.”

And, in traditional cultures, families tended to “maintain the sacred at the center of social life.” Which means that children grew up in what pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called “the holding environment: a context of love, support, belonging and meaning that contributes to a basic sense of confidence.”

He also cites a key difference between Eastern and Western cultures: the relative emphasis placed on being as opposed to doing. “Winnicott in particular stressed the importance of allowing a young child to remain in unstructured states of being: the mother’s nondemanding presence makes the experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude possible and becomes a central feature in the development of a stable and personal self.”

Contrast this with the Western practice (and I’m thinking here of Dr. Spock’s insistence) of forcing the child into a fixed schedule of feedings and bedtimes and the child “would naturally become prematurely and compulsively attuned to the claims of others, losing touch with her own spontaneous needs and gestures.”

I’m not saying we’re doomed here, or even that everything about modern western culture is bad. But I can’t help but think that today’s children, many of whom “grow up in fragmented families, glued to television sets that continually transmit images of a spiritually lost, fragmented, and narcissistic world” will face even more substantial spiritual and psychological challenges than those of my own generation…

Perhaps it is that concern that contributes to my own drive to create these new images: it’s an attempt to offer another way of seeing the world, one that is layered, nuanced, grounded in a deep sense of the Sacred and an awareness of the underlying unity and integrity of creation. Through my art, as through my spiritual practice, I am attempting to explore and dissolve the boundaries between real and sacred, being and doing, individual and community.

Hmm. I hadn’t expected this to turn into an artist statement! But it does help to see how all this is connected… Thanks for listening; sorry this post got so long!

A better plan

A friend of ours who is spending a year in Germany explained that the reason she had decided to keep her apartment here on the island was that, for her, Bainbridge was “true North.” I realized, hearing that, that I, too, have a true North: for me, it’s Shaw Island, where I lived when our girls were in grade school.

Fortunately we still have a double-wide in the woods there, and now that I am done with school I finally have time to visit it. So we left home a little after 6 this morning to begin the long overdue trek north, and I’m so grateful: I’ve really missed this place.

The house itself is no great shakes – the grass is all overgrown, and the moss on the roof is thriving. But inside is warm and welcoming, filled with the antiques we collected in Vermont before the kids were born and we moved out west, and the air inside and out is sweet with the scent of the Pacific Northwest woods – the house is surrounded by huge fir and cedar trees.

And the island greeted us with open arms; we ran into two dear friends just standing outside the general store, and expect to see more this evening. But the best part of the day was a tiny piece of total serendipity encountered en route.

Unbeknownst to us, the ferry has a new habit of stopping first at Orcas, and the Shaw cars, who were loaded first, had to get off the ferry and then line up to get back on after all the other cars had been offloaded and new cars loaded on to head back to the mainland.

We’d been struggling for several days to find a way to connect with our daughter – who’s working on Orcas this summer – while we were up north, but the ferry schedule wasn’t meshing well with her free time. So I sent her a text as we sat waiting for the ferry to unload and reload, telling her that we were unexpectedly visiting Orcas, and she called back immediately. “Mom, where are you?”

“At the Orcas ferry landing,” I replied.

“No, I mean, where are you parked? I’m here, too!” she responded.

Turned out, none of our earlier plans would have worked anyway, as she’d been delegated to drive one of the campers to Seattle, and was unlikely to be back on the island until after we’d returned home. So we got to spend a little time together at the ferry dock and on the brief trip to Shaw, sharing hugs and stories; it was lovely to see her.

“You know, sweetie,” I said to my husband as we pulled in to Shaw, “it’s times like this I KNOW there is a God.”

“Why? Because you got to see your kid?”

“No. Because we do all that planning and make everything so complicated, and God has a way of taking all the complications and making it simple so that everyone’s needs are met.”

I’m not sure he understood what I was trying to say. But that really is part of how I came to believe in God in the first place. I used to love to imagine scenarios for how situations would turn out, but God somehow always had a better plan.

It's lovely to be reminded, after all these years, that what I knew then still seems to be true... Guess I'm coming home in more ways than one.

From realization to transformation

I created this image about a week ago, and it's been sitting in my files all week, waiting like a small shy child for me to choose it; to take time to listen to what it has to say.

Yesterday I finished my read-through of the second volume of Mary Oliver's collected poems, so this morning I returned to John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening, which has been sitting on the kitchen counter unopened since I left for the Mary Oliver retreat.

Well, duh!  This image is really about the question that kept cropping up at the retreat: how do we integrate our spiritual practice with everyday life?

It's not like we were the first people to ask this question.  As Welwood says in his book, "Even among advanced spiritual practitioners who have developed a high degree of insight, power, even brilliance, certain islands -- unexamined complexes of personal and cultural conditioning, blind spots, or areas of self-deception -- often seem to remain intact within the pure stream of their realization... How is it possible for spiritual realization to remain compartmentalized, leaving whole areas of the psyche apparently untouched?  Why is it so hard to bring the awareness developed in meditation into all the areas of one's life?

... These problems...since they are almost universal... also point to the general difficulty of integrating spiritual awakenings into the entire fabric of our human embodiment... Because problems with integration are so widespread, we need to consider more fully the relationship between realization (liberation) and transformation (complete integration of that liberation in all the different dimensions of one's life... drawing on this realization to penetrate the dense conditioned patterns of body and mind, so that the spiritual can be fully integrated into the personal and the interpersonal, so that the personal life can become a transparent vessel for ultimate truth or divine revelation."

No, I don't have an answer.  But I do think it's important to ask -- and continue asking -- the question.  However much we talk about oneness and unitive consciousness, no matter how well developed and rewarding our meditative practice, the egoic system still pretty much dominates the mechanics of day-to-day living, and has a tendency to clog the gears and prohibit forward movement.  It just doesn't seem to work to simply "rise above it all."  Sometimes you have to just get in there and poke around at the dirt and the sediment to loosen things up a bit...

On competition and control

I loved watching these two eagles, who appeared on our boardwalk this morning. What was particularly amusing was to watch them jockey for position on the highest section; I guess humans aren't the only animals inclined to compete for position...

And, yes, I have that competitive streak in me, as well, though I do my best to derail it.  One of the many blessings of my marriage is its non-competitiveness: we never get into the kinds of snarkiness that derailed my first marriage.  Of course, it helps that our skill sets are so completely different that neither of us even presumes to know anything about the other's areas of expertise!

But it may also be true the concept of "pick your battles" only comes with maturity: life is too short to be constantly arguing and bickering -- unless, of course, you enjoy that.  I don't, so I'm just as happy not to go there.  And with age, I am less and less inclined to want or need the headaches that come with being on top, in charge, the decision-maker, the chief. 

But that willingness to relinquish control only really works if you're also willing to accept the decisions of the person who IS in control.  If you're constantly second-guessing, badmouthing, or undermining your leader's decisions... well... you could end up not liking yourself very much.  You might consider extricating yourself from that situation.  Then you have several options: you can put yourself somewhere where you CAN be in charge; you can go somewhere where you can actually appreciate the leader's decisions or you can just... not care.  Put your head down, do your job, and don't worry about where the ship is headed.  Sadly, that latter choice has never been an option for me...

In praise of self-actuation

My daughter's grades arrived yesterday (they're always fine), and I was particularly struck by one teacher's remarks.  She wanted to see my child work more out of passion and desire and less out of responsibility; to do what she WANTS to do rather than what she thinks she SHOULD do.

Now isn't that a message most of us have been trying to learn for years!  So I was amused to see yesterday's reading in Casey and Vanceburg's book, Promise of a New Day:

"Often we behave as though we were in other people's power -- as though we were bound to act in certain ways because others expected it from us without their even asking, or our ever checking.

Perhaps we have a deep need to please the authority figures in our lives because we fear we're not worth much.  Let's say, further, that our boss stays late in the office every night.  We may feel compelled to stay as long as, or longer than, the boss, out of some wish to prove our loyalty and productivity.

Most of us realize that a challenge doesn't mean we have to fight; an invitation doesn't mean we have to accept.  But sometimes, especially when it hits a sensitive or insecure area, we find ourselves blindly reacting to someone else's unreasonable actions.  We feel sucked in, manipulated, powerless.

We can depend on our own power when we trust in our innate value as humans, and we will make decisions that leave us comfortable with ourselves."

As always, the passage ends with an admonition to take to heart: "I will remember to guard myself against irrational compliance."  What a great message: don't always be looking over your shoulder, wondering what is expected of you, and don't go blindly over the cliff with the rest of the lemmings.  Have the courage of your convictions: take time to figure out what you think is the right choice, and go for it: be open to suggestion, but don't lose yourself in the response.  And speak up when you think something's not right: as the bumper sticker says, Silence is the Voice of Complicity...

A crack in everything

My husband was away for most of the day yesterday, so I had lots of creative time.  As I think I mentioned earlier, I've been mounting the more abstract images that arise on wooden cradle/panels, so I was very excited when the image at left emerged; it was the perfect companion to two other pieces I'd mounted earlier in the week.

So I printed it off in an 8 x 10 version, glued it to one of the wooden cradles and left it to dry.  But I kept puzzling over that ridge going down the center: how could I make it more two-dimensional?  I finally found some yarn that seemed to work, so I glued that down and then poured coating over the whole construction.

But the glue/coating just made the yarn more obviously scratchy, and this morning when I came downstairs to look at the piece I hated the yarn.

I debated putting more glue over it, because the voice in me that's always terrified of "wrecking" things (and wants every piece to be saleable) was doing its best to keep me from ripping off the yarn and risking a wasted panel. 

So I sat on it for a bit to see what I really wanted to do, and what I really wanted to do was remove the yarn.  I had to first reassure myself that it would be okay if the piece was trashed -- I could always order another panel -- and then I gritted my teeth and ripped off the yarn.

When the paper started to come off, too (I had cut out the center section and applied it separately) I panicked and stopped, but after several deep breaths and more thought I decided to go through with it. (Isn't it amazing what resistance we have to failure?  All my guilt and fear mechanisms were being activated by the simple act of ripping off the yarn...)

But look!  This is what happened: the yarn released the glue's hold on the paper, so I was able to peel it back -- and I love the look.  What looked like it might be failure turned into a marvelous discovery.  What an important lesson -- and isn't this a perfect illustration of that wonderful Leonard Cohen verse -- "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets through"?

One song

One Song

Every war and every conflict
between human beings has happened 
because of some disagreement about names.

It is such an unnecessary foolishness, 
because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.

The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different 
on this wall than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise,
we are pouring them back in.

-- Rumi

Contemplative Icons

I'm excited to announce the launching of a new blog project: it's called Contemplative Icons, and it was begun at the suggestion (and with the cooperation) of Lynn Bauman, the gifted scholar and spiritual sage who translated the Gospel of Thomas and created the Thomas study guides which launched my exploration of this subject; not to mention numerous other works.

The blog will offer brief passages from Lynn's translations of Thomas and the Psalms, mixed in with meditative selections from his book, Recitations -- translations of sacred poetry from a variety of wisdom sources, including Rumi, Hafez, and more.  For each passage there will be an icon to invite you into deeper contemplation of the words, so the blog can serve as a daily meditative practice; the image included here was done collaboratively with Lynn to introduce the first logion of the Gospel of Thomas.

So how did this come about?  Serendipity? Coincidence?  Or just a confluence of events?  What happened was this: while on the wisdom retreat last weekend I created a piece in response to a Mary Oliver reading (see my blog post for Friday, June 24th) and showed it to Lynn, who hadn't seen my new work.  He asked to see more (fortunately all the new work is now in a folder on Picasa, so it was easy to show him) and he immediately recognized something iconic in them, and suggested we pair his translations and my images in a more conscious way.  We talked only briefly, decided our course was clear, and created the new blog on the spot.  Amazing, actually...

Lynn states our rationale for setting up this project as follows: "In this age of division and rigid dogma, what we need now are not more belief systems or a better theology, but imaginal fire: that which speaks to and touches the mystery of the heart and the depths of the soul. Truth needs to resound in images, poetry, metaphor and song so that it can resonate through the whole of our being and lift us beyond narrowness of mind into the unity of sacred Spirit."

I confess I am both honored and terrified to begin this -- something I explored a bit in an earlier post this week.  Having worked on it for a few days, I can begin to see that this is stretching me primarily because of the intentionality of the artwork: In the earlier work in this genre, I would just create as the spirit moved me, and then, in the blogs, explore what the art might have to say; it was a very unstructured process, and seemed to come purely from the heart.

But now I am creating in response to specific words -- Lynn even suggests images to work from -- and so the art -- though it still needs to have a component of inspiration -- requires more brain/heart integration.  It's a bit like the difference between being conscious and present during meditation, and being conscious and present in the world: it requires balance, and discipline, and collaboration. 

And in becoming more conscious as an artist,  I immediately bump up against egoic limitations: you know those demons, with their chants of "Who do you think you are?" and "What right do you have to do this" and "You are not a trained artist; who are you trying to fool," "You don't have what it takes to pull this off," "You can't possibly sustain this level of creativity," etc, etc, etc.

I could see them coming before I even left the retreat -- could hear their Greek chorus beginning to resound in my veins -- so I mentioned it to Lynn; alerting him, I suppose, to the possibility of failure.  "What if this source dries up?" I queried, and he smiled and said, "It never does."

The voice of experience, I suspect; he has been endlessly prolific over these last few decades.  And so I have to trust that the work will continue to flow, that the Source is infinite, and infinitely wise; that this work is meant to be, and will eventually become second nature to me; challenging, but not impossible.

Times like this, I'm glad again that I grew up in Ohio, where the state motto still is, "With God, all things are possible!"  I just have to trust, and believe.

Don't go there

I have to say, when this image emerged this morning, I was wondering where on earth it came from.  But I've kind of decided that this is what prayer used to look like for me -- and I think it captures what people fear about meditation: that they'll go into that inner room of the heart, and that it will be dark and barren; that God is the great interrogator, and you'll be forced to face all your sins and weaknesses.

... and I can't deny that there are days when it looks a bit like this: the dark, the clammy walls, the hint of fires to come that will give no warmth, the shoulds glaring down at us from some lofty perch...

But I suspect this is the cave where, not God, but the Superego -- that critical entity we internalized as young children -- lives.  The good news is, this is not God, this is not where He lives -- though, because the Divine is everywhere,  He can be there if you're stuck there and you need Him.  Bottom line? You don't have to go there. 

For me, the Divine, when I'm really feeling attuned, does not confine, but opens; is not contained but free; is not dark but light; is not gray but full of color; is not cold but warm, is not hard but soft and inviting, like a mother's embrace; is not critical and punishing but accepting and supportive.

That said -- maybe it's good to give some imaginal shape to this room.  Maybe that means next time we wander in we'll notice where we've gone, and step outside again.  Or maybe, in the heat of the moment, when we're tempted to say or do something we know we'll regret later, we can step inside, kneel down and press our foreheads to the cool stone floor and pray the chill will dampen the fires of temper.  Because -- do you see it?  What looks like water, flowing under the light?  I think that's forgiveness -- and I believe it's everywhere, even here.

Not really drowning

Though I didn't notice it when I created this last night, looking at this image this morning I seem to see a person drowning, gasping for breath; a swimmer, perhaps, clutching the lane dividers in a pool as if the race had lasted too many laps and endurance has been depleted...

Which is curious, as I was feeling a bit like that at the time it was created.  I'm working on a new project, collaborating with someone whose opinion I greatly respect, and it's giving me some lovely opportunities to bump up against some inner demons that have plagued me since childhood -- issues around criticism and conflict, and authority, and claiming my truth.

The good news is I can recognize those demons now: I feel their heavy feet trampling my heart, making it hard to breathe; making breath come in anxious gasps.  I feel their all-consuming hunger rise in my stomach, and feel the longing for junk food to stuff them down.  I feel them stiffening my wrist and shoulder, trying to stop the flow of creativity; feel them twisting my mouth, making it difficult to speak up.

What interests me is that I named this image "Play through."  Which is what I'm learning to do: I notice the demons as they arise, I acknowledge them, spend a little time listening, cooperate and respond in ways I choose, in order to honor their concerns, and then firmly invite them to step aside so that I may continue my work.

It's an interesting process, and new for me; I'm not as fully conscious as I would like about noticing them.  And it takes a lot of patience and energy to create and feel the space around them that's necessary to see them clearly and stay present; old habits -- pulling my head down, shrinking into myself -- have a way of surfacing under stress.

And, my guess is, all this was exacerbated by the fact that I went to a former employee's farewell party at my old office yesterday.  I was fine while I was there: it was good to see the familiar faces after so many years, and the building itself didn't appear to awaken old patterns or concerns.  But I suspect some old anxieties deep within must have begun to twitch a bit, adding to the stress of the day...

Today, however, is a new day; the sky is blue, and I woke early enough to get a meditation in before the workmen appeared.  I feel a sense of spaciousness, and openness, and can look forward once again to the creative process.

It's all good!

PS: I just noticed -- the Rumi poem for today in Coleman Barks' A Year with Rumi is perfect:

Stingy Aloeswood

Fear and hurt are lassoes
drawing you through a door.

Lord, Lord, you say weeping.
Green herbs sprout where those tears fall.

Dawn comes: blindness drains away.
Each day is eternity.

Do not avoid your suffering.
Plunge it into the Nile.

Purify your stubbornness.
Drown it.  Burn it.

Your body is a stingy piece of aloeswood

that will not let go its healing power
until you put it in the fire.

Now Shams leans near to remind me,
That's enough sourness.  No more vinegar.
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