Caught in a net of poetry

I pass this little gate occasionally on my way home -- it sits beside the road on one of the alternate routes across my part of the island.  And I always find it so appealing, even though -- as far as I can tell -- it leads nowhere.

I wonder now -- having spent my morning as if in college, reading Mary Oliver's critiques of Robert Frost and Gerard Manley Hopkins in her book, Winter Hours -- what my choice of images in these blogs, and how I choose to speak of them, will say, or are saying to readers now or years from now (should anyone choose to read with that sort of critical eye).

I was an English major, at a fine and fierce New England college, so Frost and Hopkins are hardly strangers to me; in fact I'm certain their influence on my poetry (because I read it so extensively in my youth) is far stronger than that of either Mary Oliver or Rumi and Hafiz, whom I read so avidly now.

In some ways it feels at times as if I'm trapped in a net of rhythm, carefully woven, trochee by iamb, by these two men and all the folks who wrote the hymns that so dominated my childhood: (even now, when I walk for any distance, the words and music of Isaac Watts' majestic "I sing the mighty power of God" seem to carry my feet forward and resonate in my veins.)

The net is tightest, I think, around Hopkins, whose earnest exuberance is so rigidly contained that I now find his work just exhausting -- and sort of painfully over-embellished -- to read.  But I'm not certain I ever understood that tension came from the tension in his own life between his Jesuit understanding "that sacrifice is bliss and self-indulgence is the real death; ... that nearness to God could be brought about by increasingly rigorous behavior, more prayer, more work, more abstinence," and his intense, rejoicing appreciation of the natural world -- "landscapes and waterways and copses, and especially the yearly gift of spring -- in which he read the proof of God."

And though I may have known -- and still think of -- Frost as an irascible old man, I don't remember noticing that "the voice of Frost's the voice of a man who finds life a trial, who finds the physical world handsome but fragile, who finds reality less than his expectation, who finds no easy solution to his desire for solitude and his longing for community, who finds love an agony, who finds no sweet that is not bonded to bitter."

I never thought to notice how that voice evolved over the years in response to public accolade, never saw that "the poems became, in the later books, entertainments and pronouncements... as though Frost felt himself obliged, as a public man, to display a reasonable cheerfulness, whatever he felt privately."  And yet, reading that, I wonder how much my own work may be influenced by the very nature of writing publicly; I worry a lot that each day's piece -- the combined work of meditation and poem -- becomes a sort of sermon, determined, always, to find message and encouragement, to honor the struggle but always to hold it in balance with the larger good, the larger message, the heartening cry of hope...

And so I look at the way this gate appeals to me -- even though it seems to lead only to darkness and confusion -- and wonder (given that what draws me to Oliver, Rumi and Hafiz is the lightness and chaotic charm that permeates their work) if I will ever step past the dark rigidity of those childhood influences, release the oughts and shoulds that seem to trip my writing up, or if  -- because, as the posts these lasts few days have mused, we are so deeply ruled by childhood influences -- my job, like that of these two masters (and let me reassure you that I have no illusions about being in their league) will always be to stand at the gateway, balancing the light outside with the dark beyond and within, caught in those determined verticals of line and structure...

Aching for Vermont

I spent the first half of my adult life in Vermont; covered bridges like this one in Taftsville, a stone's throw from a dear friend's home, dot the landscape and form a vital connection between the hundreds of small communities there.

So it's been hard to watch the videos and photos coming out of that state in the wake of Irene's devastation; we just never expected Vermont to be even affected, let alone so hard hit.

As you might expect, we still have lots of very special friends in that part of the world -- in fact we hope to be visiting many of them soon, when we head east for my father-in-law's 90th birthday.  So I've been contacting them to enquire, hoping things aren't as bad as the news and youtube videos make them appear.

... and I posted some of the photos I've been finding on Facebook this morning, because I'd been noticing that lots of people didn't seem to be taking the devastation seriously.  In response to that post, one of our closest friends wrote the following:

"Over much of the state whole towns and businesses suffered major flooding and/or washouts, houses washed away, communities cut off by complete washouts of major arteries and bridges. That amount of rain in 12 hours over the entire state just overwhelmed the watersheds of all the secondary rivers. It's very sobering."

Sobering, indeed -- and definitely a reminder of the fragility of the world as we know it: how easily the balance can be tipped.  Life was never easy in Vermont: it can be challenging to make a living there, the winters are painfully cold, those charming old houses expensive to heat, and the summers there can be blisteringly hot and humid, with an unfortunately short growing season.

But it is also incredibly beautiful, and a lot of their money comes from the "leaf-peepers" -- tourists who tootle around the countryside in October to enjoy the glorious foliage.  Those tourists may find their travels considerably more challenging this year, and I'm concerned that income already taxed by this difficult economy may be further decreased by the dual whammy of unexpected repair bills and a dearth of tourists. 

As John Cage so often used to say, putting his fingers to his forehead on Ally McBeal (yes, we are still slowly working our way through those reruns) "I'm troubled."

When will those naysayers out there GET that climate change is endangering ALL of us?

The good news (despite one of the comments you'll see in the video below) is that this beautiful bridge survived -- but look here to see the battering it was taking -- not just water, but logs and propane tanks... it's going to be an incredible mess to clean up.

Conscious presence

Here you see one of the highlights of yesterday's travels with my camera: I was just at the end, heading home; had just rounded the corner and headed down the hill onto the sandspit when I caught sight of this mother otter and her baby scuttling across the tide flats.

My kids and I laugh together, saying I was an otter in some previous life: I just adore their little faces, their playfulness, their love of both the surface and the depths...

But the truth is -- as I'm reading in both Richard Rohr and Mary Oliver this morning -- that we are largely formed, not by some mystical previous lives, but by significant experiences in our own lives, particularly our childhoods: where we grew up, what our parents looked like and how they treated us, what the prevailing norms were in our primary communities...

And reading that, I thought -- what a debt I owe to David Redding.  I spent my formative years at the Glendale Presbyterian Church in Glendale, Ohio, and David was our pastor: a handsome man, as I remember, and a gifted speaker, but also a writer.  Two of his books -- If I Could Pray Again (poetic prayers) and The Parables He Told (stories of the parables, retold) -- were like bibles for me as a child, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that my decision, at the age of 8, to become a writer when I grew up, was at least partially based on my contact with him.

He moved on, of course, and wrote many other books; I'm sure he influenced the faith of many other individuals and encouraged many other budding writers.  But what matters here, in this moment, is how he touched my life -- and how we touch the lives of people around us.  We can't know what moments will prove most significant in the long run: perhaps for this young otter the experience of coming up over the river bank to be confronted with a photographer and a camera will give him a lifelong suspicion of purple flowers; who knows!

The fact is, even if we don't pay attention in the moment, our presence can affect those around us.  So how much better if we can be consciously present, consciously compassionate, consciously and beautifully the selves God created us to be...

A departure from routine

When I awoke this morning, the fog was so thick I couldn't see my neighbor's house, so I grabbed some clothes and rushed through my coffee, eager to hit the road with my camera.

These foggy days -- the really good ones -- only happen two or three times a year, and since everything on the island becomes beautiful in fog, I always see it as an opportunity to pick up and go.

I occasionally have second thoughts -- should I really skip my meditation practice? -- but the pleasure and serenity of being out with my camera (I reassure myself) is just another way of getting in touch with the peace that lies at the root of life.

And now that I'm back and looking through the results of the morning, it seems clear the work will be blessing these pages for a while, so - yay!  As I am so fond of saying --

It's all good!


"I am burdened with anxiety.  Anxiety for the lamb with his bitter future, anxiety for my own body, and, not least, anxiety for my own soul.  You can fool a lot of yourself but you can't fool the soul.  That worrier."
-- Mary Oliver, "Sister Turtle," from Winter Hours

For some reason I had trouble falling asleep last night, and I woke this morning to find anxiety tightly coiled in my chest, a troublesome knot of angst that kept sending trickles -- and sometimes surges -- of fear out with every heartbeat.

It took some time to understand that the anxiety was probably not my own, and that in all likelihood I was channeling that of our younger daughter, now in the final days of camp.  She's facing a transition always painful and this year doubly complicated by the lack of processing time: she will leave camp, which she adores, on Monday, and fly back to school, which she does not adore, on Tuesday -- and she's terrified of flying, and especially through storms -- which, given the current weather conditions on the East Coast, must seem inevitable.

It would also not surprise me if I were also carrying anxiety for any number of folks about the impending threat of Hurricane Irene -- after all, it affects so many millions of people, and so many dear friends and relatives of mine.

So I sat with that this morning, holding those concerns in my heart, allowing it to beat with them, speaking softly with the small frightened child within, carefully teasing out what is mine and what is not, honoring and releasing the feelings surging like waves, and sinking gradually to a calmer place.  And there I found something new, something like a crystal: clear, and smooth, unshakeable; a gentle, fleeting reminder that whatever comes, there is that within us that remains steady and true.

And, at the same time, looking at this photo that leaped onto the page, I see that those anxious things, coiled in the dark places within us, are part of the growth process, and in their painful unfurling new life and light emerge.  Still: sometimes it's difficult to watch... and feel.

Promptings of the Spirit: A sequel

Yesterday a new call for artists went out for ECVA, the arts organization for which I serve as exhibitions director.  The call, which is for an exhibit entitled "Imaging the Sacred Art of Chant" features the music of its curator, Ana Hernandez; you can click on the main logo or find the song, "Om Namah Shivaya," here.

I was off at my daughter's camp while they were putting this call together, so I can claim absolutely no responsibility for the lyrical beauty of this call, but I am absolutely delighted with it, and was listening off and on all day to Ana's lovely music.

My husband left around 5 to go into Seattle, and shortly after he left I got an email from my friend Ann, the music director of our local Episcopal Church, inviting me to participate in a sort of impromptu evening of chant. I had no idea what to expect, but there was nothing else on my agenda and he was gone, so I thought, what the heck?

In the parking lot I ran into a dear friend I haven’t seen in months, who was there waiting to pick up her daughter (coming home from a weeklong hiking trip) so I invited her to join us in chant while she waited. We went inside to find Ann seated on the floor in the middle of the sanctuary with a harmonium; there were two other musicians, one playing tabla and another guy with a guitar, and 4 other people seated in the circle. Ann passed out sheets to chant from, and I was surprised (and delighted) to discover that the chants were all Hindu chants from Ana’s book; there was also a quote from the book, and one of the chants was the one posted on the website.

So I squeaked, we talked about ECVA and the exhibition for a bit (apparently it was the call arriving in the mail that had inspired her to hold the evening), and then one more woman arrived and we settled in to spend an hour and a half chanting — with an improvised Namaste chant at the end.

Amazing. And I loved it: a perfectly lovely peaceful evening -- and such a blessing.  Sitting there in my favorite sanctuary, chanting Hare Krishna, I found myself thinking of the Hare Krishnas who stood around chanting in airports, street corners, and other places when I was younger, and how people used to mock them. When I shared the story of my evening with my friend Robin, ECVA's executive director, she responded that she'd wondered about the same thing, and said, "It seems as if we have been carrying those chants all of this time and are allowing them to be born (again, or for the first time). Maybe that's what we do at our age, we give birth again, this time from our hearts and souls."

The evening seemed to me to be yet another instance of that whole going-with-the-flow thing I spoke of yesterday.  I have to say, I'm liking these coincidences -- but I need to be very careful about how I view them.  They have nothing to do with me being "special" in any way; it's all about a willingness to be present in the moment and respond.  There are no guarantees that things will always play out so beautifully: the only guarantee, really, is that where we are is where we're supposed to be.  But somehow that alone is gift enough.

Promptings of the Spirit

Ok, I'll admit it: I bought my first piece on Craig's List last night!  We've been looking for another bookcase for a while, and I've been haunting the local Goodwill with no results, so I finally broke down and checked CraigsList.

There was an almost perfect one right at the top, recently listed, exactly the size I was looking for, and oak to boot, only $50.  So I emailed the image to my hubby, then wandered upstairs to see what he thought.

Now, I happened to be wearing a favorite pair of crop pants (first time this summer, because this is the first week it's been warm enough to shed my usual jeans) and while I was standing in the door of his office I noticed there was something in the pocket.  Lo and behold, $50!  I grinned and told him it was a sign, called the seller, and half an hour later we were on the road to Port Orchard, an hour's drive away. 

The lady was very nice, introduced us to her new dog (a rescued Cairn Terrier, 5 years old and adorable but definitely a handful) and pretty soon we had loaded the shelves into the car and were on our way home.  There was an A&W rootbeer stand on the way out of town (fond memories from our childhoods, so we stopped and had those big glass mugs of root beer, yum; who cares about the diet!) and then paused again along the way to photograph this amazing sunset over the Olympic Mountains.

I know: I get that it wasn't necessarily God telling me to go spend money, I mean -- get real!  But we got to spend a lovely time together, sharing stories, away from our computers, met a new person, played with a lovely dog, got a beautiful drive, a trip down memory lane, and some great photos -- all out of being willing to respond in the moment.

I just love doing things on the spur of the moment; do you?  If you do, I have this theory: you must have been raised East of the Mississippi!  Please tell me I'm wrong if you can, but it always seems to me that West Coast folk are not nearly as spontaneous as East Coasters; everything seems to need to be scheduled in advance out here.

... and yet I think of these folk as more spiritually adventurous.  So how does that work?  How can you listen to -- and act on -- the promptings of the spirit (and appreciate the blessings that arise when you do respond) if you're always on a schedule?

I'm just sayin...

Hazards of meditation

One of the hazards of meditation practice is a growing awareness of familiar thought patterns. I know – it should be considered a blessing. But at times it can prove a bit embarrassing, to see how often certain kinds of thoughts arise.

Yesterday a friend came over for a bit, for a cup of tea and a little sunshine, and somehow we found ourselves admitting to each other the primacy of a certain familiar thought pattern; the need to be thought of as “special.”

Here’s an example: I realized yesterday morning that my new jasmine-scented candle, which has been smoking a lot, had blackened the face of my buddha. One good scrubbing removed most of the blacking, but when I scrubbed again it became clear that the paint was coming off as well.

So I decided to repair him: I took him into my office, got out my paints, and set about matching his particular patina. And even though he looks rather bluish-green, with maybe a bit of yellow and white around the edges, the colors that eventually worked to achieve the match were a silvery purple and a dark brown (go figure).

I was pleased by the result, and as I returned him to his customary post, that “special” thought came riding in on her grand white horse: “Damn, I’m good at color matching! I love color; I’ve loved color all my life. I should get a job at Pantone!”

The heart of this thought is always the same: maybe if I’m good at this, someone will notice and/or reward me. But with what?

As we talked, my friend noted that it happens at work: complete a project, do it well, and wonder if someone will notice, will realize what a treasure you are, will promote you. We've both observed it happening at church: sing a hymn, even just standing in the pews, not in the choir; wonder if someone will notice your voice, will think it’s special… and… what? Invite you to sing a solo, or join the choir? What is it we are hoping for?

What (we wondered, with a certain amount of embarrassment at being caught thinking such covetous thoughts) are we thinking, and why? What is this need to be special, to be better, to be noticed, promoted or invited? Is it universal, or unique to us – two 60-something women, both born and raised on the East Coast, both having grown up in difficult families with highly critical parents? Is this human nature, or just OUR nature?

The blessing we found, in noticing and observing this trait, was a wry amusement, even if it was tinged with embarrassment. And there emerged a sense of compassion for each other, and for ourselves, and, ultimately, for other humans we know, whose efforts to draw attention to their gifts may seem clumsy or foolish: now that we’ve seen that side of ourselves, we’re more likely to look on those traits with empathy.

Monica Furlong, writing in Ordinary Magic, describes it this way:

Meditation practice, she says, offers “a new kind of strength which allows us to admit our weakness to ourselves, and sometimes to others, and live with the weakness of being human, not a superman. This love for the humanity in ourselves and others is perhaps the most costly and humiliating thing we ever have to undertake. We discover that we are “just human,” not saints, not gods, not angels, not devils, not unusual, not special, not “good men,” or even bad men. Progress,” she concludes, "is to grow in respect for “ordinariness” and to learn to live it gladly, accepting our weakness and failure just as much as our strength and triumph. It is the road to wholeness.

The ordinariness, despite its costliness, is disappointingly undramatic, and is a blow to the exhibitionist side of us which would love to figure in some more flattering role. Its value, however, lies in its reality. It is only interested in things as they are, not as they would be if we lived up to our idealized picture of ourselves, not as they may be at some future date. It is the reflection in the mirror before we have put on our best expression, or the photograph of us which was taken unawares.

On seeing a rainbow

My next-door neighbor, who is also a photographer, called last night to say (rather cryptically, I thought) "Look out over the lagoon. Hurry!" So my husband and I stepped out onto the front porch and this was what greeted us: a perfectly beautiful rainbow.  In fact, it was almost turning into a double rainbow as it faded, but I didn't manage to get that with my camera.

I am not, as a rule, one of those people who goes gaga for rainbows, but this one seemed particularly poignant: first, because we lost one of our residents to cancer this week, a woman who had been instrumental in bringing the Race for the Cure to Seattle and who had also started SAMA, the Science and Management of Addiction, as a way of helping parents of addicted teenagers and reducing teen addiction.

But also because our city is in the process of developing a proposal on shoreline management, and one of the options posed by the planning commission was to turn our neighborhood -- and this lagoon -- into an aquatic conservancy.  On one level it sounds like a grand idea, but what it really means is no more power boats or docks or bulkheads (not that my husband and I have any of those things) or decks or home repairs or house sales or mortgages -- the slow and systematic destruction of one of the oldest, most nature-conscious and most colorful neighborhoods on the island.

So I'd like to see the rainbow as a kind of promise that that won't happen; that our neighborhood and homes will be protected, somehow; that we, and our children, and hopefully someday their children, too, will continue to enjoy the waterfowl and the beach and the tides, and continue to conserve it all as best we can.

Silly, I suppose, to read anything so personal into a rainbow.  But we humans have always had a way of looking and hoping for signs that the universe is watching out for us, of thinking that we were, as Mary Oliver says, "born into the poem that God made, and called the world."  Which makes me think of another segment from that same poem (which is in her book, Thirst, and is entitled "More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord"):

"All day I watch the sky changing from blue to blue.
For You are forever
and I am like a single day that passes.
All day I think thanks for this world,
for the rocks and the tips of the waves,
for the tupelos and the fading roses.
For the wind.
for You are forever
while I am like a single day that passes."

... or a rainbow, that slowly fades into the blue...

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Yesterday, after writing my post about preferring my new process because it's more like painting, I watched "The Impassioned Eye," a movie about renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and was startled to hear that in the latter years of his life he set aside his camera and spent his time painting and drawing, because, he said, “Photos are like a stab of the knife… paintings are meditation.

His words were such an echo of what I was trying to say yesterday-- I wonder if he, too, might have enjoyed the painterly options of Photoshop and layering...

On the other hand, his photos are SO AMAZING that I feel it was a terrific loss when he stopped. Here are some of his most famous works:

The mystery of presence

As you could see from yesterday's sailboat races, one of the joys of this new work I'm doing is the ability to create imaginary landscapes.  It's such fun to layer pieces of different images -- trees from one, mountains from another, clouds and moon from still another -- and pile them all into a single image. 

I'm sure those artists who work with brushes, paints, and pastels get to do this all the time, but for a photographer it's a real departure from the norm: we are so constrained by what is that the chance to play with what could be is exhilarating. 

My daughter pointed out yesterday that the folks (like me) who talk most about the importance of presence, awareness, living in the now are (she finds) the ones who struggle most with that, who find it hardest to do.  So perhaps that explains why creating imaginary landscapes is such a treat for me?  Photography has been a blessing in that it allows me to be totally present to what is, but these experimental pieces allow my mind to do what it always seems to want to do anyway; to step forward and dream of a future or to imagine a different sort of past...  So then I wonder; would Rumi approve of this work?

The mystery of presence

The mystery of presence
will not arrive through the mind,
but do some physical work, and it comes clear.

An intellectual gets bound and wrapped
in complicated nets of connectedness.
Whereas the Friend rides the intelligence
that is creating genius at the center.

The mind is husk, and the appetites love coverings.
They look for them everywhere.
That which loves the kernel and the oil
inside the nut has no interest in shells.

Mind carries reams of reasons into court,
but universal awareness does not move a step
without some definite intuition.
One covers volumes of pages.
The other fills the horizon with light and color.

The value of scrip resides in gold
stored somewhere else. The value of a body
stems from the soul.  The value of soul
drives from presence.  Soul cannot live
without a connection there.


Giggles in a butter dish

This morning, instead of meditating after my morning coffee, I decided to go back to bed -- which means that by the time I awoke and came to my computer I was somewhat distanced from my morning reading, so not determined to share any particular wise thoughts.

I decided to revert to my old practice of letting the images sing to me, and this is what emerged -- a photo I took yesterday morning of the last little pats of butter in a dish, waiting to be spread on a piece of toast.  But don't they look a bit like sailboats in a race -- and one a little tipsy?

So I added a couple of layers of water scenes and -- presto chango! (and does anyone remember where that phrase comes from?) we have a sweet little picture of sailboat races.

I know; it's not a great work of art -- but it does have its charm, especially if you know its secret.  And if you think about it, isn't it that sense of familiarity, of knowing, that gives charm to our loved ones, and to our hometowns?  My husband may not be Hugh Jackman, but I found myself smiling as I looked at his beloved face over dinner last night at our local pub. 

Our waitress may not have been beautiful, but she's been working there as long as we've been coming there, and I love to see her freckles and her deliciously curly hair.  The hollyhocks just beyond the window of our booth may not have been perfect, but their exuberance reminds me of all the other summers, here and on Orcas Island, when the hollyhocks have been a symbol of the tourist season and the quaint beauty that draws them year after year. 

(And yes, as an English major, I can see at least two ways of interpreting "draws them" in that last sentence; just call it poetic license!)

Okay -- if I've gone so far as to post a butter dish as a photo, I might as well take this post to its logical conclusion -- are you ready? (My father would have loved the punniness of this) --- familiarity breeds content!  (Aesop would of course have disagreed...)



"Another morning 
and I wake with thirst 
for the goodness I do not have. "

-- Mary Oliver

Written in the throes of grief, these are the opening lines of the title poem of Oliver's book, Thirst; poems written after the death of her partner, Molly.

The scents of loss and hope mingle throughout the poems, and they have a way of awakening the heart to the sorrow that surrounds us, not just our own but that of those we love. 

But at the same time they have a way of reminding us that joy is like the sea, receding with the tide so that the beach grows thirsty in the waiting for its return, sometimes forgetting that return is inevitable.  I know that both my daughters now are grieving for challenges in their own lives, and so I offer up this poem, thinking of them:


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
"It's not the weight you carry

but how you carry it --
books, bricks, grief --
it's all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down."
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard 
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world 
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled -- 
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the step waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Humps and all

According to Jack Kornfield, there is an old Sufi saying that goes, "Praise Allah, and tie your camel to the post," meaning -- yes, pray, meditate, but also do what is necessary in the world; find a way to manifest your spiritual work in the dailiness of life and love.

It bespeaks the same sort of practicality I hear in one of my husband's favorite sayings: "Trust, but verify." And at the root of both these sayings I hear the importance of being alert, grounded, attuned to the world around you as well as to the voice within.

Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of horizontal and vertical axes, the horizontal being time and the vertical being spirit.  Somehow we strive to sit with Jesus at the intersection of this cross, awake to inner and outer promptings of the spirit, centered in the present while aware of the limitations of the past and possibilities of the future. 

It's astonishing -- once you accept this as a goal -- to watch how often the mind strays off point; how easy it is to get caught up in thoughts that pull you away from that complete and total presence.  Though I am not one of those who can say meditation has taken me to new and greater heights, I can at least say it's taught me how my mind loves to wander -- and where it likes to go. 

But I think just knowing that is helpful: if I can learn to observe those tendencies, and pull myself back to center when I'm sitting, then I am better at watching myself respond in stressful situations, and pull myself back to center there as well.  And fortunately I have a lifetime still to practice this level of awareness!

Ultimately I think both these phrases are about that dual pull we feel between the ideal and the real; between dreams of what was or could be and what is now; between the longing for holiness, perfection, all sorts of divine absolutes and the reality that is who we are here, now, in this moment, warts and all.

... or should I say, humps and all?  

We are all "me"

"The self is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of a much larger field of interlocking processes."  -- Gregory Bateson

I found this quote this morning in Ordinary Magic, and it seemed to relate directly to the poem by Baba Afdal Kashan whose translation I posted yesterday on Contemplative Icons:

"Not a thing in this world 
is outside of you. 
Whatever you are seeking 
you will find it already there 
waiting inside of you."  —Baba Afdal Kashani

 I know: it's fairly easy to give lip service to this; far harder to live into it -- to relinquish that egoic self, that conviction that we are separate; that the world and people around us are other; that what happens to them has little effect on us.  In a way I believe it is this conviction that lies at the heart of the most difficult challenges facing the world today -- global warming, war, drought, famine -- they all seem to occur because we don't understand the consequences of our actions, and because we still don't get, after all these centuries, that "whatsoever you do unto the least of these my brethren you do unto me." 

We are all "me," and as long as we continue to misunderstand that; as long as we fail to see -- and live into -- the infinite connectedness of leaf, fish, water, sun, sky and self, I'm afraid we will continue to cause suffering for this precious planet of ours... 

Seal encounter

When I took the dog out to the beach this morning, there appeared to be a dead baby seal beside one of the logs that had washed up in the night.  Since the dog is virtually blind, it was easy to steer him in another direction, but once he was safely back in the house I went back to take a picture, worrying all the while about what might have killed the seal and where I should report it. 

But when I stepped off the boardwalk to take a closer look (thinking I would photograph it) I realized it was breathing.  My initial reaction was delight, but then it opened its huge dark eyes (it's odd how terrifying eyes can seem when there are no pupils) and we both realized we were too close to each other.

I pulled out my camera anyway, trying to get a shot before she skittered off, but by the time I had adjusted the light she was almost in the water.  She did look back at me briefly, but I suspect either my camera or my glasses frightened her; she dove in and swam away.

Later, nursing my coffee at the dining room table, I found myself wondering if I could have handled that confrontation differently -- crept up more slowly, noticed the rise and fall of the chest sooner, taken off my glasses, set aside the camera -- if there were something I could have done to reassure her that I meant her no harm.  And I realized my autopilot had taken over yet again ("get a picture, get a picture"). 

It's amazing how strong those autonomic response/defenses are, despite all our efforts to the contrary.  They seem to kick in whenever we are frightened or surprised -- I mean, think about it: How many times have you reacted in situations without thinking, and then later wished you'd said or done something completely different? 

I keep hoping my meditation practice will defuse those response systems, enabling me to be more present in the moment, even under stress.  And some part of me believes the whole earth would benefit if more of us could achieve that.  But clearly I still have work to do...

Now and then

Part of the charm of this camp where I spent last week was the timelessness of it: this picture could so easily have been taken 50 years ago -- or more.  The girls run around in middies and bloomers, the tents and cabins and surrounding woods seem timeless, and there are no electronic devices permitted, so the children are not constantly texting, or checking email, or playing video games -- though magic cards are very much in evidence.

But because those electronic distractions are missing, the children have an opportunity to actually see each other and their surroundings, to revel in sunlight and shadow and the sound of the gulls and the waves; to relate directly to one another and to their counselors and staff; to learn new skills and perfect old ones.

We are generally inclined to appreciate the new devices that now so dominate our lives, and the enhanced sense of connection they bring: we respond to their little chirps with delight, thinking something good may be coming.  But I suspect it would be good to make a conscious effort to set them aside from time to time and allow ourselves to see and feel the world again as it was before TV, computers and smartphones...

I love the Rumi poem for today -- it's a great wake-up call:

We are being taught like a donkey.
A donkey thinks whoever brings hay is God.

In the same way, we are gnostics,
each with a unique experience
of what binds and what releases us.

We hear the voice of that and our ears
twitch like the donkey who hears his trainer.

Oats may be coming, and water!
What have you been given that is like that?

Confinement, you complain.  Stick your head out.
That is all that will fit through
the five-sense opening.

The allure of contrast

Part of the joy of going up to the San Juan Islands lies in the pleasure of driving through the Skagit Valley.  The long vistas of flat golden fields (covered with daffodils and tulips in the spring; veggie crops in the fall) with the mountains hovering in the distance are just immensely pleasing to the eye, as are the barns and farmhouses that speckle the edges of the landscapes.

It's the contrast, I think, that makes it so appealing: the bright yellows against the soft dark blues, the flat fields against the high mountains, and the contrast between this rural simplicity and the urban sprawl that looms less than an hour away.  No matter how much we humans claim to like things to be the same, we are drawn to differences: if we live in the mountains, we vacation on the beach; if our lives are full of drama we long for peace; if our lives are boring we go looking for excitement... and look at the choices we often make in our mates -- often illustrating the old phrase, "opposites attract."

Sometimes I wonder if the hunger for contrast is part of what keeps us moving forward -- but also part of what keeps us stuck.  If we're always moving forward, we're never taking the time to appreciate what IS, never taking the time to drink our fill of the present, never taking the time to learn what may be learned in this moment, but always pressing eagerly toward the next, toward something different. 

I see in today's reading from A Year with Rumi a hint of that same concern:

"I swear by the one who never says tomorrow,
as the circle of the moon never agrees
to sell installments of light.
It gives all it has.

How do stories end?
Who shall explain them?

Every story is us.  That is who we are,
from the beginning to no-matter-how-it-comes-out.

Those who know the taste of a meal
are those who sit at the table and eat."

Travel lessons

I left camp yesterday at noon, blessed on my way by hugs from both campers and counselors, and spent a couple of hours with my daughter before getting in line for the 5:30 ferry.

Once on the boat, I wandered upstairs and found an old friend from Shaw, and we sat in companionable silence, smiling as the ferry passed this sweet little boat on our way out of the harbor.

It was a wonderful week -- I even got to teach one quilting class -- but I am delighted to be home again, to rest and recover from the rigors of camp life and cuisine.

There were lots of opportunities to be challenged and to reflect over the course of the week, but I think the most significant learning (and I know this will probably sound odd) is that I must never have learned to let my feet do the work of walking.

I am a person who watches the stairs she climbs -- and there are lots of stairs and rough paths to be climbed at camp.  I kept watching the children run up and down the stairs and paths like nimble mountain goats, and I noticed they never had to look at their feet.  So I decided to try to let my feet do the walking for me, practicing on simple and familiar ground, and ... well ... I liked it.  My feet liked it too, and never took a false step (perhaps because I was a bit slow at this).  So I'm planning to give them some more practice.

It really is wonderful to be taken out of our comfort zones from time to time; to raise the sails of wonder and set out for new horizons -- especially if we pay attention to what challenges confront us and how we are reacting.  But it's nice, also, to have a base to return to.  Which makes me ache for all the refugees in Africa right now, torn from their homes and bereft of the familiar.  Will they ever be able to return?

What's primal

I remember when our girls were little all the high end toys and crib mobiles tended to be in primary colors. There was some great theory associated with that – something about primary colors and cognitive development – but of course by the time they were out of their cribs the fashion was to have lots of stark black and white around babies – some other cognitive theory, no doubt.

It makes me think, a bit, about how everyone was eating bran muffins in the 80’s, for health reasons, and then suddenly bran wasn’t all that good for you any more. Or about that wonderful Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, where he’s propelled into a future where cigarettes and bacon are suddenly good for you…

Whatever the theories are, people will always be following new fads, I suppose: Silly Bands, for example – those goofy rubber bands which were shaped like animals, or stars, or whatever – were ridiculously popular at camp last year, and this year “Oh, those are so last year.”

Religion, or spirituality as it’s often referred to these days, seems to go through phases as well: certainly in my life it’s held a number of different shapes and guises. But at the root of it – for me, at least – is something as primal -- and appealing -- as primary colors: a conviction that we are NOT the most important thing in life, that there’s something bigger, more noble, more caring that links us all together in ways we are only beginning to understand. Whatever way I worship, whatever church I attend (or don’t), that doesn’t seem to change.

So I ask you this: what’s primal for you?

Asking for help

Oy.  I hate to think what my cellphone bill will be this month: I've spent way too much time over the last day or so attempting to activate posting from my cell; it's still not working.

But here's the post I've been trying to send from my cell:

If you've been feeling a little deflated lately, I encourage you not to be afraid to ask for help.  Here are some helpful words from Stephen Butterfield, a Zen monk who suffered from a deadly lung disease who writes in Ordinary Magic:

"By having to ask for help, I tune into that inexhaustible bank of kindness that is all-pervasive and unconditional, and feels so good when it comes through us to someone else.  Because of my need, his routine changed: maybe he took another step on the path."

When we ask for help, our need can often prove to be a gift for someone else...


I remember when we left the San Juan Islands – 10 years ago, this month – standing on the ferry as it pulled away and thinking “I will really miss the madrona trees.” Not that we don’t have madrona trees on Bainbridge, but they’re not as prevalent as they are in the islands, where their distinctive red trunks, peeling bark, gnarled limbs and broad green fingerleaves range all along the shorelines.

So it’s always a treat to come back to the madronas; a bit like greeting old friends. And this one, which stands beside the camp’s amphitheater, is a particularly appealing specimen. Like humans, madronas often have parts that go gray with age, but it’s not unusual for the rest of the tree to continue flourishing. And the warts we humans prefer to excise are frequently significant character builders for these striking trees.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure… perhaps I’m just wondering why it is that traits we find endearing in one species are so ruthlessly eradicated in another. I wonder if this is somehow related to my people-watching here at camp. Despite the kindnesses the children extend to one another, it’s clear there’s a pecking order – and, as would be true in any gathering of American children between the ages of 9 and 16, popularity is clearly an issue.

But it doesn’t seem to be completely related to appearances; as usual it’s as much a function of confidence and attitude as it is about appearance. And there seems to be a rather fine line between the kind of confidence that includes and is gracious, and the kind of confidence that drifts into arrogance and entitlement. As a parent, one of course hopes that the former is encouraged and the latter discouraged, but there’s no denying that’s not always the case – here, or anywhere else for that matter.

What I wish, of course, is that we humans could see each other with as much openness and appreciation as we see the madronas; that we could appreciate uniqueness, quirks and originality as well as similarity and shared interests. Sadly, I suspect there’s still much work to be done in this arena…

Timeless truths

On Saturday I taught four girls how to crochet. I know that seems like a really small thing, but I’d forgotten how exhilarating it can be to watch someone learn to do something new. They did beautifully, and were very excited: after the first little wristlet I had them do, two began hats and one began a scarf: they really believed they could tackle bigger projects – and I believe they can, too; they were great!

Isn’t it silly, how much a simple transference of knowledge can mean to two individuals – both the teacher and the student? One of the girls asked when I learned to crochet, and I said probably when I was about their age, in girl scouts. And isn’t that cool, that someone taught me all those years ago, and maybe got this same little thrill – and now I’m passing it on, and maybe someday they’ll be teaching their own – or someone else’s daughters – how to crochet?

One of the counselors told me one of his campers told him, “I like it here, because here I don’t have to be mean. Here it’s cool to be nice.” I so want to believe in the multiplicative effect – that 10 kids who learn here that it can be cool to be nice will each carry it to 10 of their friends when they get home, and it will spread. But instead I suspect that it’s like that rumor game we played this evening: over time and people, something gets lost in the translation and you have to come back for a refresher course.

Which is the lovely thing about crocheting: the stitches are really simple, and will yield the same result 15 years from now that they yield now; kind of the same way that 2 and 2 will still equal 4, not just 15 years from now, but 100 years, or a thousand years.

Perhaps wisdom is a little like that; like crocheting and math – the truths that emerged for one wise man in the desert in one century are really no different than the truths that emerged for another centuries later. The wisdom Rumi and Hafiz observed in the world is the same wisdom that informs the poetry of Mary Oliver today. These truths , unlike the rules and assumptions that humans create when they start organizing religions, are timeless, and hold true whether the Bible is only available to clergy, in Latin, or women are ordained, or homosexuals get to be bishops…

I think – especially now that I’m older – the timeless truths are really the only ones I’m interested in. I don’t need to know how many angels you think can dance on the head of a pin, or what movie star slept with whom. But show me a crochet hook and a ball of yarn, or a poem that awakens my heart to new wisdom – then I’ll know we’ve got something!


Our priest is on sabbatical this summer, and he left a week or so ago to spend a week alone in the wilderness of the Sawtooth mountains. It was good to read today that he had safely completed his journey; but I noticed that in speaking of it he particularly mentioned the challenge of being alone with himself, saying one of the gifts of the time was learning to have a little compassion for himself.

I’m thinking any time we’re in a significantly different situation we have that opportunity – to watch how we behave, to see what triggers us, and where our minds go – and in that opportunity there’s always the potential for self-compassion. I’ve been particularly noticing that for myself here at camp; the number of times I’ve felt insecure or ill-at-ease; not certain what’s expected of me, or knowing without question I hadn’t quite lived up to expectations.

The challenge – for us perfectionists, at least – is to get better at knowing we are enough. It is enough that I made it to the ferry and had money to buy my ticket, even if I didn’t get there early enough to buy it in advance. It is enough to be an extra grownup and just fetch and carry, even if I can’t give specific guidance to budding potters.

It is enough to sit and sort out tangled threads when there’s no room at the table and two teachers already in place to guide the class. It is enough to smile and nod at familiar faces even if I can’t remember their names. And it was enough to keep a table of 9-year-old boys entertained, just by telling them no paper can be folded in half more than eight times; enough to help them learn to cut their chicken with a fork (and to do it for them when it was too tough).

Whatever I do here really is enough. Even if I’m exhausted from the travel and the tail end of a cold, I have something to offer – and it is enough.

Self-compassion. It’s knowing, deep down, that we didn’t just do the best we could do. We did ALL we could do. It was a noble effort.

And it was enough. Just like being able to look out my doorway and see my daughter’s tent… is enough.

A little alone time

I’m back at Four Winds Camp – arrived on Shaw Island around 10:30 last night, then took the 7:15 ferry over to Orcas and spent my morning getting settled in and then helping out with the pottery class (hence the photo of the pottery bench, which despite the sunshine was a little chilly this morning). Lunch (quiche and Caesar salad) is over now, so it’s time for rest hour – I feel certain Rumi would approve, as today’s poem in A Year with Rumi reads:

Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands,
Or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
Will prove more valuable than anything else
That could ever be given you.

From dragons to princesses

One of the things I love most about the camera is its ability to reveal the beauty in the humble and ordinary stuff of life -- so I would of course appreciate the work of this garden designer, who takes the humble stuff of life -- old chairs, driftwood, old toys -- and makes it extraordinarily appealing.

... which may be why this quote, which I'm pretty sure I've shared here before, though I found it in a different source, always strikes me as fresh and new and wonderful.  This time it's couched in Welwood's words, from his book, Ordinary Magic:

"In the most painful corners of our experience something alive always wants to come forth, as the poet Rilke suggests:

'Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love.'

So whatever pain or problem we have, if it helps us find a quality of presence -- where we can open to it, see it, feel it, include it, and find the truth concealed in it -- that is our healing. "

Rumi on Avoidance

Sour, Doughy, Raw and Numb

...Why have cooking pans
if there is no food in the house?

In this world full of fresh bread,
amber, and musk, what are they
to someone with no sense of smell?

If you stay away from fire,
you will remain sour,
doughy, raw, and numb.

You may have lovely just-baked loaves
around you, but those friends cannot help.
You have to feel the oven fire yourself.

-- Rumi

False sunrise

The ocean sits in the sand 
letting its lap
fill with pearls and shells, 
then empty...

Everything begs 
with the silent rocks 
for you to be flung out like light
over this plain.

  -- Rumi

After a promising sunrise, the clouds rolled in again this morning; we don't ever seem to get more than two days of sun in a row, and unless I miss my guess we've not had more than ten days of sunshine since... well... maybe November?

Not that I mind, exactly -- I don't do at all well in heat, and would be miserable in all the rest of the parts of the country where the heat is so extreme this year.

But it's a bit like an engine that doesn't quite turn over, and if it does, it doesn't run long enough to get you anywhere.  We're always suspicious, the first day of sunshine -- will it last?  And then the second day dawns sunny again and we're like, YES! Fists pumping, summer's here at last, now we can get all that stuff done, go all those places we wanted to go...

And darn, if the next day you wake up and it's cloudy again, and you curl back in on yourself, and want to crawl back under the covers; wake me when the sun comes out again.

I know, I know -- do I want some cheese with this whine?

Welcoming whole-heartedness

For several days now I've been out walking the dog in the evening, and have seen this charming vignette peeking out at me from behind my neighbor's woodpile.  I just love the fuchsia chair with the bright red nasturtiums, but there was never enough light to take the picture.

But yesterday morning we had fog, so I slipped over in my bathrobe (no one's out at our end of the street at 7 am) and snapped a couple of quick ones.  It's not great photography -- just a record shot -- but like just about everything else to do with these neighbors it makes me feel good.

I think it has something to do with the whole-heartedness with which they approach the world: almost everything they do, they do with gusto, with joy, with light hearts and playfulness and yet thoughtfully, with consideration and, well -- courage.  And I really appreciate the spirit of that. 

Here's another perspective on those same nasturtiums: see what I mean?  Doesn't this adorable garden just brighten your day?

I hope so -- have a great day!
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