The politics of self-interest

Lin Hui of Kia took to flight.
Pursued by enemies,
He threw away the precious jade
Symbol of his rank
And took his infant child on his back.
Why did he take the child
And leave the jade,
Which was worth a small fortune,
Whereas the child, if sold,
Would only bring him a paltry sum?

Lin Hui said:
"My bond with the jade symbol
And with my office
Was the bond of self-interest.
My bond with the child
Was the bond of Tao.

Where self-interest is the bond,
The friendship is dissolved
When calamity comes.
Where Tao is the bond,
Friendship is made perfect
By calamity."

My first thought on reading these words from Merton's Chuang Tzu this morning was to look to a recent incident and say, "See, she was only being nice to get what she needed."  But my second thought was, "Oh, perhaps she was behaving that way because she felt I had chosen self-interest over HER."

Taken together with yesterday's empty boat, these words can help me better understand that the root of most conflict really is self-interest: we often get into trouble because we get invested in a particular outcome, and, like children, we resent anyone who appears to interfere between us and our desires.

And so the text message I found from my daughter this morning -- as part of our ongoing discussions about the Tao -- seems even more relevant:  "To God all things are fair and good and right, but men hold some things wrong and some things right." (Heraclitus frag. 104)

Were I firmly in the Tao, a true person of faith, I would see with the eyes of God, and know all outcomes are good.  But caught in my own web of self-interest, I get cranky when things fail to go my way.

Imagine how different all our political squabbles would be if every time we felt the urge to attack the other side we stopped instead to examine where self-interest lay for us, then looked beyond to imagine a common goal...  This seems to me to be the root of that common phrase about politics making strange bedfellows: Could it be that the root of politics is ALWAYS self-interest?

Not drifting, just... flexible

"If a man is crossing a river"
(says Merton's Chuang Tzu)
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
but if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you."

I don't see this as an invitation to not be present to our own lives or to abandon responsibility for them.  It's more about not being self-involved, not being anxious or prideful or controlling about where life is taking us, but trusting instead that we are part of a larger picture we may not yet understand.  If we are fully present, listening and acting with as much discernment as possible, bringing what gifts we have and using them as we are guided, things just seem to work.  It's when we begin to push, I think, that we meet resistance.


This image caught my eye as I was browsing today.  It was taken at our hotel in New Orleans one morning last Thanksgiving, and I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. I'm not all that partial to orange and yellow, to squares, or even to symmetry, but somehow this image works for me.  Maybe it's that white coffee cup that makes it come alive -- I do like the human, imperfect element.  I also appreciate the warmth of the space that's depicted here, the sense of invitation.  And I particularly enjoy the way the architect brought a sense of art into this odd little hallway.

This morning, in Merton's Way of Chuang Tzu, I read this:

"We have lost the original simplicity of man.
How did we lose it?  Here are the five ways:

Love of colors bewilders the eye
And it fails to see right.
Love of harmonies bewitches the ear
and it loses its true hearing.
Love of perfumes
Fills the head with dizziness.
Love of flavors 
Ruins the taste.
Desires unsettle the heart
Until the original nature runs amok.
 These five are enemies of true life."

Perhaps this is the clue, the truth about why I will never attain enlightenment?  Because I LOVE color, even if sometimes it's just yellow and orange: color is essential to the way I understand and experience the world around me.  I LOVE harmony, even if it does bewitch my ears.  I can't imagine a life without the scent of jasmine, or honeysuckle; of fresh peaches, or a wood-burning fire in the fall; can't imagine a life without the taste of grapes or a good french fry; love even the thrill of battling with desire.

Why on earth were we put into bodies if not to rejoice in the physical pleasures of life?   I get that it's possible to get carried away, but if the core principle of the Tao is balance, why would we not balance an appreciation of color with a love of gray; an appreciation of sound with a love of silence; an appreciation of scents and tastes with a drink of water to clarify the palate?

PS: My older daughter, who has a degree in Chinese religion and culture, has clarified this passage for me by pointing to a different translation of the original text, which reads as follows:

Now there are five things which produce (in men) the loss of their (proper) nature. The first is (their fondness for) the five colours which disorder the eye, and take from it its (proper) clearness of vision; the second is (their fondness for) the five notes (of music), which disorder the ear and take from it its (proper) power of hearing; the third is (their fondness for) the five odours which penetrate the nostrils, and produce a feeling of distress all over the forehead; the fourth is (their fondness for) the five flavours, which deaden the mouth, and pervert its sense of taste; the fifth is their preferences and dislikes, which unsettle the mind, and cause the nature to go flying about. These five things are all injurious to the life; and now Yang and Mo begin to stretch forward from their different standpoints, each thinking that he has hit on (the proper course for men).

But the courses they have hit on are not what I call the proper course. What they have hit on (only) leads to distress - can they have hit on what is the right thing? If they have, we may say that the dove in a cage has found the right thing for it. Moreover, those preferences and dislikes, that (fondness for) music and colours, serve but to pile up fuel (in their breasts).

So perhaps it's not the preferences that are the problem, but the decision that follows, that the thing we like is good, and the thing we don't like is bad.  And with that I can easily agree.  Just because I tend to vote democratic doesn't necessarily mean that's the right thing to do, or that those who do NOT vote democratic are wrong. It only means that that's what seems to work for me.

But then... well, this is sort of a democratic way of thinking, too; that each has the right to choose...

Reflections on a dead hydrangea

I continued my reading of Thomas Merton's The Way of Chuang Tzu this morning, but nothing struck me in particular.

When I finished meditating, I went to my computer to look for a photo to post here, but nothing struck me in particular.

I realized I was feeling restless, so I wandered through photos from various trips, wondering if I was hungering for a particular view.  But nothing rang that inner bell; nothing struck me in particular.

So I thought I'd head outside with my camera to see what might emerge.  And I realized that everywhere I looked things were dying -- but beautifully: the roses were turning to rose hips, the fennel was going to seed, the pine cones were falling, and this hydrangea, a mother's day gift, was also giving up the ghost.  And though I feel a bit guilty because I couldn't keep it alive, I love the laciness of the florets. Clearly there is beauty in age as well as in youth, it's just beauty of a different sort.

I think I was actually in junior high when I first read Dickens' Great Expectations; it was a favorite of my father's.  I loved the book, read it again in high school, and wrote a paper on it in college, comparing it to another book which had a similar plot; upon closer examination, Dickens' writing proved to be far superior.

I mention the book now because these dying flowers made me think of Miss Haversham, still in her wedding dress at her advanced age, the lace yellowed and torn with wear.  My guess -- though I don't actually remember -- is that there was a bouquet somewhere as well, flowers dried and disintegrating with age.  And so I find myself thinking of some of the themes of the book: the destructiveness of obsessing over past injustices, the foolishness of assumptions, how misleading appearances can be, the way both good and bad deeds can reverberate over time... And then, again, how the process of disintegration has a beauty all its own.

And now I see Chuang Tzu has something to say after all:

"There is a time for putting together
and another time for taking apart.
He who understands 
This course of events
Takes each new state 
In its proper time
With neither sorrow nor joy."

The fire is still burning

We spent our Saturday at the Lemay Auto Museum in Tacoma.  My husband has always loved old cars, and I get a kick out of taking pictures of them, so this is one of those rare activities that we both enjoy.

The museum has several floors of cars on display, and there just happened to be a vintage motorcycle gathering on the lawn outside the museum, so my husband was pretty happy with the day.

I enjoyed myself as well, but I knew the minute I snapped this picture that I'd gotten what I came for.  Not that I'll probably ever try to sell this image -- it's just that most of the photos I took were merely record shots.  You know the kind: they give you something to remember the moment -- I was here, I saw this, it was cool.

But this, for me, was more than that: somehow, for me, it captures style, the essence of an era, suggesting glamor, and grace, wealth, and beauty, elegance, attention to detail, and -- in the slight rumpling of the chrome strip on the left -- a sense of sadness that these days are over, that we will never quite achieve this particular standard of perfection again.

And don't you love coincidences?  So I wrote this, posted this image, and thought -- what possible spiritual significance could this have?  Oh, well, I'll go have my coffee and meditate; see if something emerges.

So I got my cup of coffee, opened to the next page in my reading of Thomas Merton's The Way of Chuang Tzu, and here is what I read:

"The Master came at his right time
Into the world.  When his time was up,
He left it again.
He who awaits his time, who submits
When his work is done,
In his life there is no room
For sorrow or for rejoicing.
Here is how the ancients said all this
In four words:
     'God cuts the thread.'

We have seen a fire of sticks
Burn out.  The fire now
Burns in some other place.  Where?
Who knows?  These brands
Are burnt out."

Isn't that amazing?  So now I see that the photo and my thoughts around it are in fact a perfect opportunity for understanding this passage, for comprehending the mysteries of life and death and continuity, to express my all-too-human response to loss, and to be reminded, once again, of that passage from Job "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Yes, God cuts the thread.  But the fire is still burning, just in some other place.

Listening with the heart

We had been house shopping for months, and finally made an offer on a house we loved, a 70-year-old farmhouse on 2 acres of land, close to an elementary school, with a barn and a stream.  Of the several offers they received, ours was the highest -- and they turned around and sold it to a neighbor for a dollar more.

We were devastated, and defeated, and put an offer on the next reasonable house that appeared on our spectrum, without really noticing that it was down in a valley, surrounded by tall cedars; not really noticing that it was a split level home with a daylight basement, or that the "territorial view" included nothing but trees. 

All we saw was the way the sunlight dappled the front of the house and filtered in to the dining room through the french doors that led onto the deck.  We fell in love with the light -- and then it disappeared.

We hated the house for all the years we owned it: it was dark and gloomy nine months of the year, with ugly textured walls and huge dark wood beams, gold 70's carpet on most of the floor and dark boards elsewhere with little grooves that captured dirt and dust with fierce determination.  Though there were white tiles on the kitchen floor and counter, their grout was impossible to keep clean.  It was so much colder than the towns around us that it would snow there so our car couldn't climb the hill to get out, even when there was no snow elsewhere in the town.

Nothing could grow in the yard but crabgrass, ferns, and some sort of weed with pink flowers that smelled like skunk; everything else we planted died for lack of light -- and in those days, incarcerated with two small children after a lifetime of increasingly well--paying jobs, longing for my husband who was working 12 to 14-hour days, I felt like I was dying, too: the house became a symbol of the darkness in my life.

Now, of course, we live in a house that is all windows, all light, with only two small trees that offer little shade.  But I thought of that old house this morning, when I read these lines from Thomas Merton's Chuang Tzu, which seem to be a continuation of this idea of listening with the eyes:

"Fasting of the heart means hearing, but not with the ear... The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing.  The hearing of the understanding is another.  But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind.  Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties.  And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.  There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.  Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupations.  Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom... If you can do this, you will be able to go among men in their world without upsetting them.  You will not enter into conflict with their ideal image of themselves...

Look at this window.  It is nothing but a hole in the wall, but because of it the whole room is full of light.  So when the faculties are empty, the heart is full of light.  Being full of light, it becomes an influence, by which others are secretly transformed."

I was not completely deprived of light in that old house.  But I was younger then, with little understanding of concepts like these, of listening with the heart or the eyes, and so I felt deprived of light -- and brought little light, therefore, into the lives of those around me.  I wonder now, if I were to go back, I'd find the house had far more charm than I was capable of seeing at the time...

Listen with your eyes

My copy of Thomas Merton's translation of The Way of Chuang Tzu finally arrived this week.  It was pure heaven this morning, after two days of workshops on social thinking and the autism spectrum, to sink into its gentle prose.

"Tao is obscured," the master observes, "when men understand only one of a pair of opposites or concentrate only on a partial aspect of being... affirming this one aspect and denying all the rest."

... "The pivot of Tao passes through the center where all affirmations and denials converge," he goes on to say.  "He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point from which all movements and oppositions can be seen in their right relationship.  Hence he sees the limitless possibilities of both 'Yes' and 'No.'  Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides, he rests in direct intuition.  Therefore I said, 'Better to abandon disputation and seek the true light."

Here's the thing: I can insist to you that flowers one and three in this image are the right flowers: I can claim the light has clearly singled them out.  But in so doing I would be ignoring that the source of light lies, not within the flowers, but beyond the flowers, and that the light is always moving; that even 2 minutes from now these flowers might be sheathed in darkness, whether because the light has moved or a cloud has drifted overhead.

One of the gifts of photography is that we photographers have no choice but to -- as they mentioned in the workshop -- "listen with our eyes." And the first lesson we learn is that the light is always moving, always changing; that in a single instant all might change: the light might shift, the bird might fly away, the baby's smile might turn to tears, the colors of the sunset lose intensity and slowly fade to gray.

It's easier, then, to see that the bright conviction of yes might pale with time and drift to no; that on a foggy day the leaves, so quiet here, not a no, but a maybe, might glow with color, even shout -- "we'll still be here, all year, when the flowers are gone." 

Don't go back to sleep

The breeze at dawn

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill 
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep. 

Rumi, from A Year With Rumi

On the wheel of existence


I've awakened early after a restless night, too early to feed our diabetic dog, who must be kept on a rigid schedule dictated by his insulin doses.  He follows me downstairs anyway -- his hungry stomach doesn't understand this dependence on the clock -- and scratches noisily at his jingling collar every few minutes to remind me of his hunger.

I pour and nuke my cup of coffee, then head to my chair for the morning's reading.  Eventually, after several pages have elapsed and the coffee is gone, the dog settles down.  I decide to go straight into meditation without lighting the candle, so as not to wake him.

But now a bug bite, acquired in Seattle two nights ago (can a theater have fleas, I wonder?) begins to itch on the back of my leg, and a large fly buzzes, noisily, intermittently, banging its head against the window behind me.

It's all good, I say to myself -- "ten thousand opportunities to return to center."   Each distraction, I tell myself (and now the dog is scratching again), is a way of pulling me back into the present, into the presence...

But of course that's not how it feels: I want that deep dark silence within that helps me center my day. Instead, around and around I go, trapped in the wheel: the itch, the fly, the dog... and then even my feet get restless, and I tell myself perhaps I need to feel more grounded, so I slip them out of my shoes to feel the cool wood floor against my skin.

Moments later a huge yawn erupts, complete with a stretch that lifts my arms above my head, and so I think, oh well, might as well give up, at least I tried -- 10 minutes isn't much but it's better than nothing.  And so I deepen the stretch, throw off the blanket, and slowly open my eyes and glance at the clock.

It wasn't ten minutes, it was twenty after all.

I shake my head and rise, feed the dog and give him water and his insulin shot.

Another day begins.

Variety as a delightful spice

Last night we went into Seattle to take our daughter to dinner and Old Goats, a local film that was playing near her apartment as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

My husband had sent both of us links to information about the movie, but (typically) neither of us had followed up on the links, so all we knew is that at least parts of the movie had been filmed on Bainbridge Island.

So I lit up with delight when I saw old friends strolling on to the screen -- including one whose memorial service I had conducted almost two years ago.

Some part of me -- though I was with my family, to whom these things were equally obvious -- insisted on pointing things out -- "It's the Oatmeal Club!" It's Pegasus (a local coffee shop)!  Ohmigosh that's Mike from the Bakery! I've been there!  Oh, look, there's Sue!

If I had waited to see the movie at the Lynwood (the island's independent movie theater) I feel certain I would not have been as excited -- or as verbal.  It's the appearance of familiar places and people out of context that was making me giddy.

 -- which feels like some deeply human reptilian brain sort of thing, not necessarily unique to me.  So then I began to wonder -- what is that about?  Why would seeing familiar people in unfamiliar places -- like the neighbors we ran into in the airport in Germany, or the neighbor who was a steward on our flight back from the Netherlands -- be so exciting that we still remember it years later?

I wonder if it's related to the sort of reverse phenomenon in this picture here: a familiar scene -- heron fishing, houses across the lagoon; something I see every day -- but with a completely unfamiliar sky formation, blues and yellows with those incredible rays beaming down, like some sort of giant spaceship hovering just out of view, preparing to land... I get excited here because it's a different look to a very familiar place.

I'm thinking it goes right back to that issue of balance; of seeking and striking that different note as a way of enhancing the harmony of the present, just as the presence of the heron -- serving as a curvy counterpoint to all those straight lines --  makes this image more intriguing.

Yes, I'm human; I like things to stay the same, I resist change unless I'm the instigator.  But I also like surprises -- I always have.  I don't like it when a balloon pops unexpectedly.  But I do love presents -- like life, like parenting, like my marriage, like the movie last night, like this sky -- that slowly unfold to reveal new delights, new thoughtful touches, new gifts and more opportunities to say, once again, "Oh, wow, look!  How cool is that!"

So much to be grateful for...

So much held in a heart

We went to see Hope Springs last night -- not necessarily an easy movie to watch, even from the perspective of a healthy marriage -- and it left us with a curious mix of joy and appreciation for what we have and a sort of general ache for the human condition.

... which I found beautifully expressed in this passage I read this morning, from a piece by Brian Doyle, entitled "Joyas Voladoras," originally printed in American Scholar and which I found in Philip Zaleski's 2005 compilation of The Best American Spiritual Writing.

"So much held in a heart in a life.  So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment.  We are utterly open with no one, in the end -- not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend.  We open windows to each, but we live alone in the house of the heart.

Perhaps we must.  Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart.  When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.  

You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words 'I have something to tell you,' a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

100 summers ago

Ever since I can remember I've had a passion for island life -- particularly, for some reason, the life on the islands off the coast of Maine.  I read every book Elisabeth Ogilvie ever wrote, loved them all, and when the opportunity came, first to visit, and then later to live on an island out here I leapt at the chance.

It never really occurred to me to wonder why, although I confess I was greatly intrigued, when I first met the man who later became my husband, to discover he subscribed to Islands Magazine; apparently islands held the same fascination for him.

So yesterday the friend we took with us to Shaw Island sent us a picture she had taken of the two of us at the Shaw ferry dock, and I posted it on Facebook.  Apparently my cousin Debbie noticed the picture and for some reason began poking around some of the other photos on my Facebook site, and she found the collage I did a couple of years ago, on Fathers' Day, of the fathers and grandfathers in my family.

Our fathers were brothers, but her dad died young, and so this was the first time she'd seen an image of our grandfather.  She sent me a message asking if I had other images of our shared grandparents, so I spent most of yesterday poking through the photos my mother sent me years ago of all those ancestral personages.  I scanned them in and posted them on Facebook, adding whatever additional information I could find about the pictures, where and when they were taken, etc.

I am not much into genealogy, so, though I've seen the pictures before and know a little of the family history, I hadn't really paid much attention to what was written on the backs of the images.  But there were two images that had been taken in Dark Harbor, Maine, which turns out to have been the summer home of the Boston Brahmin family for whom my grandmother served as a Swedish nanny/governess while in her 20s and early 30s.  And Dark Harbor is on the island of Isleboro -- one of the very islands I have been fascinated by, an island frequently written up in the annual journal of the Island Institute, an organization of which we've been members for years -- even though I've never actually been to any of the Maine islands!

At times like this I wonder again if experience leaves some sort of genetic mark; if my grandmother's summers on a small island off the coast of Maine left a taste for that lifestyle that has carried down through the generations. I know -- it could just be a coincidence.  Or it could be that my grandmother, of whom I remember very little (like me, she started having children quite late in life, and so was quite elderly by the time grandchildren appeared), has maybe been watching over me a little or nudging me from time to time. 

I don't presume to know which of these is true -- but somehow it now seems to make a lot more sense, this odd affinity I have for islands.  And maybe the next time we head east, I'll make it a point to stop off in Maine, to see if I can find this home that she called home almost 100 summers ago...

East Coast vs West

As I was sifting through images this morning, this was the one that called to me; the one that made my heart swell.  As usual, I suspect it's something about the light... And the fact that it calls to mind memories of wonderful visits with my friends in Vermont.  When I look at this picture I can almost feel the warmth and humidity of an early morning sun in June; almost hear the crickets chirping in the fields... and echoes of my childhood. 

I grew up in the south, midwest, and east, surrounded by deciduous trees.  And though we have deciduous trees in the Northwest, they are gravely outnumbered by cedar and fir, which don't filter sunlight in the same splotchy sort of way.

We also don't get as many sunny days, and though you might think there's a lot of humidity here, living on the water with all the rain -- well, it's not true.  Not that it's dry, exactly, it's just sort of... perfect.  It's very easy to breathe here.

I actually don't know if we have crickets, but I'm not sure I've heard them here.  We do get tree frogs -- and the sound they make is sweet and high, like that of the crickets -- but it's not quite the same.

Having now spent half my life on each coast, I can't really say one coast is better than the other: each has its own unique and marvelous advantages; each its trials and tribulations.  So, given an affinity for both, how do we choose to live?  We could spend our time here missing the crickets, the autumn leaves, and the seemingly bottomless supply of sunshine while complaining about the gray and the rain.  Or we could spend our time there missing the lap of the waves, the height of the trees, the scent of salt air and the snow on the mountains while complaining about the heat and humidity, the bugs, and the bitter cold of the winters.

Or we could spend our time -- wherever we are -- rejoicing in what is and smiling at the memories of what was, allowing the counterpoint of light and dark in images and memories and weather to fill our hearts with a tender song of longing and then just -- let it go.

My husband saw a great bumper sticker in the Safeway parking lot earlier this week: "Just say no to negativity!" We were both amused by it, and thinking about it later, it's clear the humor lies in the negativity of the statement.  On the other hand, "Say yes to joy!" would be way too Pollyanna-ish for us former East-Coasters to comfortably place on our car.  Somehow, as in this image, there needs to be a balance, a harmony of deep dark bass notes and the light high song of the crickets.  It's the wholeness of the picture, like the wholeness of experience, that feeds us.

Conservation of light

After several days of glorious summer, sunny and warm, temperatures in the 80's, I woke around 5:30 this morning and noticed, not only that the sky was gray, but also that the sun wasn't quite up yet. Clearly we are well into August now, with its steady, almost painful diminishment of light.

I went to look at the tide calendar, which also gives me the times for sunrise and sunset, and I see we actually only lose a little over half an hour at each end of the day, over the course of the month. But it feels like so much more; could it be that the sun rises more quickly now, so we don't get that long promise of dawn? Or that it sets more quickly, so the light doesn't linger at the end of the day?

Whatever the reason, the days seem to shorten drastically, and inevitably my thoughts turn to Vermont, and the way the light which is leaving our horizon seems to seep into the leaves and grasses there, which will soon be glowing glorious as the sunsets we are losing.

And even though that means that winter's already on its way, lurking around the corner, there's something very reassuring about the conservation of light; the way it moves from the summer sky into the autumn leaves, and then into the bright snow, then back into the leaves for those glorious yellow-greens of spring, and then back into the sky. 

There's always some new light around the corner, however dark the road might seem right now.  This photo -- of my friends' driveway in Vermont -- seems to capture that glorious sense of anticipation; of darkness balanced with the light to come.  And though the view outside my window now is gray and cold, I know the light will be returning soon.  If not -- well, then I'll chase after it: head west to capture another sunset at Kalaloch, or maybe east to drink the scent of ripening apples in Wenatchee.  But I can feel that autumnal wanderlust coming on...

Resting in the light

Morning comes.  I stagger from my bed, feed and walk the dog, grab my cup of coffee, and sit at the dining room table to read.  Despite my best intentions the words flow in one eye and out the other, leaving little imprint on my brain. 

I load the dishwasher and start it running, then settle in my chair to meditate, and despite my best intentions my thoughts fly everywhere, winging their way from children to art to plays and performances and back again until a kingfisher flies into the glass window overhead with a loud thunk, then drops to the deck.  I step outside to check on him, protect him from the stalking cat, but he shakes his striped head and flies away, scolding me as he goes.

Back in my chair, my thoughts are still consumed with unresolved issues; how to parent an angry child; what to say, what not to say; how to find a balance between what I think she needs and what she thinks she deserves.  And then, slowly, the release comes; the tension in my hip loosens, I settle deeper in my chair and the music of the songbirds finds a gentle echo in my heart.  Attuned to that celestial song, I rest in the light, breathing, softening, deepening until at last it's time to rise, to face and plan the day ahead.  The dog barks, and the day begins.

A harmonious inconsistency

I woke this morning to find an email from David Byrne about a new book he's publishing, called How Music Works.  There was a charming intimacy to the note, the enthusiasm that makes his work so unique spilling over the edges as he said, "The physical book is truly a lovely object, so if you like to touch things, this is your best option. It’s large and slightly squishy. I gave my mom my advance author's copy for her birthday. 

The enhanced eBook has short audio snippets embedded to help you understand the kind of music played at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, for example… but you can’t touch an eBook. Each format caters to different senses."

Something about the way he said that caught my eye, even in my pre-coffee morning haze, so that when I read this passage in Soul Making, two sips later, I felt a little burst of ignition in my heart:

"Mozart understood the miracle of unity in diversity. The device of the vocal quartet, becoming a quintet, becoming a sextet, and on and on -- until everyone is singing is a vivid metaphor for the truth that each of us sings our own unique melody, and all contribute to one great and glorious sound: all sounds mix and rise together to become unending music.  It is thus that I find my home in harmony with all all other creatures.  Soul making, in the end, is not an individual affair.  It is concerned with our all being one, and yet each remaining unrepeatable and distinctly unique."

As someone who adores singing and is always searching for ways to harmonize, I found these words incredibly heartening; a metaphor that resonated beautifully within me.  And one of the things it helps me understand is this odd habit I have of taking so many different approaches to photography.  I wonder if it isn't a bit like finding ways to harmonize?

We have this saying in our little family: "You can't put Walkers in a box."  And now I see that it's not that we are rebellious spirits -- though we each have our impish streaks we are, none of us, radical or revolutionary -- but rather that the imp in us is always seeking harmony -- in both senses of the word: harmony in the sense of peace, and lack of conflict, but also harmony in the sense of balance; all sides heard from, high voices as well as low.

Because each situation, each moment, is different, there is never just one way to do that, so it might look to the outsider like we're waffling, shifting sides, inconsistent.  But now I see that there is a deep and resounding consistency to our inconsistency, just as people tell me there is a consistency to my work even though I photograph so many different kinds of subjects.  And the consistency lies in the determination to provide a constant counterpoint, even to our own music; to always be open to another way of seeing, another way of hearing; to give the voice that can barely be heard its moment to shine.

... and omigosh, I just realized that when I created this image last night, from two images (driftwood and sand) I'd collected over the weekend, I called it "Improvisation."  How cool is that?

Practicing equanimity

"My pleasure or the contentment that I may have experienced out of silence and solitude and freedom from all care does not matter. But I know that is the way I ought to be living: with my mind and senses silent, contacts with the world of business and war and community troubles severed — not solicitous for anything high or low or far or near — not pushing myself around with my own fancies or desires or projects — and not letting myself get hurried off my feet by the excessive current of activity that flows through here."

— Thomas Merton in A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals edited by Jonathan Montaldo (courtesy of the Spirituality and Practice E-Course on Thomas Merton.)

A light in the darkness

While I was up in the islands I stopped off on Orcas to visit my daughter at the camp where she's working this summer. Sadly, she was running a fever of 102. I was pretty worried, as was she; we discussed bringing her back to Shaw so I could care for her, but we decided even the trip over might be too much for her, so I left her in care of the camp. The camp has a health center, and the island has a medical clinic (which Shaw does not), so I knew she would be in good hands.

I thought about calling the camp yesterday to see how she was doing, but ... well ... she's 23, and she's gotten annoyed with me in the past for being over-involved. So I decided they would call ME if it was anything serious, and if I hadn't heard from her (she usually checks in once every 2 or 3 days) by this morning I'd call the camp.

Fortunately she sent me a text this morning. Unfortunately it was to say she was still in the health house, now on antibiotics for strep throat, and she was hurt that I hadn't called the camp to see how she was doing.


I remember now, when I was pregnant, worrying about whether I'd be able to handle the demands on my time, the diapers, and the sleepless nights.  I worried about the teenage years, too, and hoped I'd be able to build a better relationship with my girls than my own mother had with me.  But no one ever explained that parenting children once they're grown is every bit as challenging (if not more so) than parenting infants, toddlers, pre-teens and teens.   Not on the same day to day level, of course (at least, not if they're not living with you) -- but certainly on a human to human level.

And the issues, in a lot of ways, are the same: how do we balance their need for independence with their need to be cared for and protected? Not to mention balancing our own desire to love and protect them with our desire for their independence.  Everything is always changing, and we have to be very light-footed about the dance of keeping up with those changes.  And, at the same time, we have to be careful not to get defensive when we over- or under-step those constantly shifting boundaries.

Like this tail-light, we do our best, as our children are growing up, to serve as indicators.  We do our best to let them know when they need to put on the brakes, when it's time to back up and try again, when they need to turn away or toward a stated goal.  We warn them when we're concerned they might be in trouble.  And we try -- as best we can -- to continue to be a light in their darkness.

But just as the electrical systems in cars tend to deteriorate with age, our parental signals for what to do when seem increasingly less clear over time.  Perhaps, at that point, what matters most is just that we continue to serve in that final role; to do our best to be for them a light in the darkness, helping to guide them home.

Ten thousand opportunities

I spent the weekend on Shaw Island, and on Saturday morning we visited my favorite beach there.  The sun was really too bright to get the kinds of images I usually shoot there, but that just meant adjusting my expectations and capturing a different sort of beauty.

Looking over the results of my labors this morning (and there weren't all that many shots from this trip, which was more about people and connection than about photography), I found I really liked this one.  I think it's because the rocks -- which could certainly be perceived as obstacles, interfering with progress toward some distant goal -- are actually marvelous graphic elements; a vital piece of the total picture.

... which, of course, is what obstacles often are, if we can stop fixating on the frustration, step back, and take a look at the total picture.  We found a wonderful book in the Shaw house -- which I suspect may have been left there by some kind, well-meaning friend, as I didn't remember ever having seen it before -- and though I can't quote it exactly, it pointed out that the instantaneous urge to curse when you stub your toe on a rock is really a kind of prayer -- certainly an invocation to the Gods.

So -- it pointed out -- if you were to notice that, you could then turn your second response (after that first aggravated "Goddamnit") into a breath and a blessing -- i.e., breathe, space, and then "Bless, O Lord, my poor swollen toe."  My sense was that if we could get in the habit of seeing obstacles that way it would bring us that much closer to integrating our contemplative practice with everyday life.

... which makes me think of that wonderful Thomas Keating story, of the nun who complained that her Centering Prayer experience was consumed by tenthousand thoughts, to which Keating replied, "How lovely!  Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!"

Merton's Mountains

"Marvelous vision of the hills at 7:45 A.M. The same hills as always, as in the afternoon, but now catching the light in a totally new way, at once very earthly and very ethereal, with delicate cups of shadow and dark ripples and crinkles where I had never seen them, and the whole slightly veiled in mist so that it seemed to be a tropical shore, a newly discovered continent. 

A voice in me seemed to be crying, "Look! Look!" For these are the discoveries, and it is for this that I am high on the mast of my ship (have always been) and I know that we are on the right course, for all around is the sea of paradise. "

— Thomas Merton in Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton edited by Victor A. Kramer; courtesy of the Thomas Merton E-Course from Spirituality and Practice.

Stayin' Alive, Stayin' Alive...

"To keep ourselves spiritually alive we must constantly renew our faith. We are like pilots of fog-bound steamers, peering into the gloom in front of us, listening for the sounds of other ships, and we can only reach our harbor if we keep alert. 

The spiritual life is, then, first of all a matter of keeping awake. We must not lose our sensitivity to spiritual inspirations. We must always be able to respond to the slightest warnings that speak, as though by hidden instinct, in the depth of the soul that is spiritually alive. "

— Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude

from the Spirituality and Practice E-Course on Thomas Merton

Lessons from Kandinsky

This is one of the images that surfaced yesterday when I was trying to decide what to post.  It's a photo of the newsprint I always put down when I'm painting; I found I liked the paint leftovers as much or more than I liked the actual paintings I was creating.

So yesterday I looked at it and smiled, and then rejected it; too rough, too odd.  But then last night we were watching the Olympics and there was an ad on TV that briefly displayed the website for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  And right there on the front page was this image by Kandinsky:

Well, HELLO!  If Kandinsky can do it -- the same Kandinsky who said "the duty of the artist is to bring light into men's souls" -- I shouldn't be ashamed to post this, right?  Although -- why do I need permission?  Why do I not just have the courage of my own convictions?  And of course, Kandinsky spoke to that as well: “The artist must be blind to distinction between 'recognized' or 'unrecognized' conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age.”

Yup.  and immediately I hear echoes of what Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: "The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole.  The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in.  It can no longer swallow us up."

But, she goes on to say, "You can't do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can't find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder....So you have to breathe or pray or do therapy to send them away.  Write as if your parents are dead....You can't get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief.  Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.

-- which echoes something I read in Soul Making just yesterday:

"Doesn't God reveal himself in the areas of our greatest weakness -- in our questioning, our probing, our suffering, and our anger?  I believe he does.  This is why the questions are important.  They stretch and enlarge the heart so that it is capable of receiving a deeper revelation.  They expand our horizons.  It would be strange if we didn't find this enlarging and expanding process deeply disturbing."

And that's always the struggle, isn't it -- to write, to paint, to photograph out of your own unique vision of the world; to follow your own instincts, even if they lead you down into a pit; to trust that whatever is calling to you, however different it may be from what you understood to be "normal," has validity, has meaning, has a gift to offer someone, somewhere, through you. 

Which means that it makes perfect sense that we would struggle when something wants to reveal itself through us that is gritty, imperfect; that speaks of life and its challenges, or triggers our deepest insecurities.  That doesn't mean we don't still offer it to the world.  But it DOES mean we are careful about what we share and how and where we share it... 

Intractable darknesses

With the help of my blogsister Joyce I initiated a facebook page for Contemplative Photography this week.  I alerted all the Facebook friends I thought might be interested to see it, and watched with excitement as the likes poured in.

But I realized this morning that duplicating bits of my blog entries on Facebook is a bit of a mixed blessing.  Those of you who read me here know me, choose to come here, know what to expect.  For whatever reason I feel free to be fully myself on the blog; don't feel I need to have the prettiest photos or the wisest words.

But something in me doesn't feel as safe or as free on Facebook; feels I have to put my best foot forward; feels that Facebook posts have to be the equivalent of an elevator pitch: always brief, always compelling... and as I write this, I see that it's the perfectionist that's rearing her demanding head; the perfectionist with her digital approach to affection and appreciation -- by which I mean, it's either a yes or a no, and if there's anything wrong it's an automatic no. 

Wow.  It was less than a month ago that I found myself blogging about this, and here it is already, back again.  But I think my awareness of it re-surfaced at least partly because of my reading in Soul Making this morning:

"One of the most damaging things about the popular view of love is that it requires being nice all the time... Being nice is closely allied, of course, to being liked.  The two go together.  If I'm not nice you won't like me, and if you don't like me then there is no chance of love springing up between us.  This kind of reasoning breeds dishonesty because it means that "love" becomes a code word for avoiding confrontation or disagreement.  True love requires a strict and accurate regard for truth.  We live in an age that would prefer the smooth lie to the hard truth.  The result is that we are very poor at honoring genuine feelings and hard-won convictions.  In the name of caring for each other we often do everything we can to diffuse one another's passion.  We are embarrassed by strong expressions of emotion."

This passage percolated in the background as I meditated, but at the same time I could see that however peaceful I endeavored to become, some part of me kept frantically turning back to this question: what picture shall I post on the blog today?  I can't remember the last time I worried about that; I've always trusted that the right image would just emerge.  It's even been a while since I've found myself obsessing about what I "should" write about here; again, mostly it just emerges, and I've learned to trust that. 

But Jones' words about being nice, and being liked, clearly stirred up an awareness of that anxious drive within me, so what is that about?  Looking back over the rest of this chapter, I see he also talks about society's preference for problem-solving over contemplation.  "Our gritty society," he writes, quoting Carol Bly, "wants and therefore deliberately trains problem solvers, not mystics.  We teach human beings to keep themselves conscious only of problems that can conceivably be solved.  There must be no hopeless causes."

"Gigantic things," he goes on to say -- "questions about love, death, power and time" -- cannot be solved, and are therefore a threat to the ego.  "But these are the questions that feed the soulThey do not confront us as problems to be solved, but as mysteries to be wondered at, or intractable darknesses to be raged at or endured."

Perhaps what's happening here is that the desire to be "liked" makes me reluctant to share my wrestling with the big questions?  If I am seen to be honestly struggling with stuff others prefer not to think about instead of the small solvable problems of the world, then might I both threaten egos and undermine my own desired persona as a problem solver?  Which then gets tangled with the frustration I feel when people who see me as an artist just assume I have no viable left brain, when in fact my left brain has been dominant most of my adult life.

So perhaps that's where this is going.  Do I just share pretty pictures, the ones like this one that are easy to like, or do I admit to all the other less attractive aspects of life, drag out the challenges and place those on the table as well, so we get to examine the full range of existence? 

I think that anxious self, the one that wrestles with these questions, is not unlike the twinges of pain I mentioned two days ago: it surfaces from time to time, and can lead me down the road to panic.  But the disciplines of meditation, blogging, and faith work a bit like Pilates class, allowing me to understand that those "twinges of pain which used to feel terminal -- as in, Oh God, I've done something that may wreck my life -- can now be more realistically interpreted as, 'Ooh, there's a muscle that might need a little stretching.' "

Perhaps trust and faith are muscles, too, and these momentary lapses of confidence are just signs that they need a little stretching...

Full of possibility

"Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation."

From the Journals of Thomas Merton, courtesy of the Spirituality and Practice E-course on Thomas Merton.

Sounds like more broccoli theory to me!

Trust: a prerequisite for balance?

After all the startling color of yesterday's sunrise, this morning's fog might have seemed dull; anticlimactic.  But I find the beauty of the fog every bit as riveting as that of the sunrise (translate: I am just as likely to run for my camera); the simplicity of this view every bit as compelling as the colorful complexity of yesterday's clouds.

The young woman who was visiting us yesterday was thrilled with the number of gloomy days she had encountered during her visit to the northwest, and is seriously considering moving here just to get more of that, which feels like balm to her soul. But then, she's from Los Angeles; I can easily imagine that a steady diet of sunshine and palm trees might prove wearing after a bit -- just as a steady diet of gray and rain can get to us northwesterners.

It's really a matter of balance, isn't it -- clearly some of us have a preference for one or the other, but I think we can safely say everyone, all creation, even, needs at least a little of both: darkness and light, gray and color, sorrow and joy, adventure and calm, unfamiliar and familiar, challenging and easy...

Which somehow brings me round to a discussion we had this morning about the story of Kerri Strug, the Olympic gymnast who impressed us all in 1996 with the phenomenal vault that left her on her knees and ended her olympic career while ensuring an American gold medal.  "She won that medal before she even started the run for that last vault," said my friend, "because she was able to turn off that part of herself that is devoted to self-preservation."

Is that a good thing?  I confess I frequently wish I had a dimmer switch for that instinct in me; I think it tends to be a bit hyperactive, and if I could tone it down I think I would attempt more -- especially on a physical level.  And, in fact, that's been the gift of Pilates class: I have come to understand that many twinges of pain which used to feel terminal -- as in, Oh God, I've done something to my back and I may be paralyzed for life -- can now be more realistically interpreted as, "Ooh, there's a muscle that might need a little stretching."

So here, as elsewhere, balance has come in handy -- I've learned to balance that hyperactive instinct for self-preservation with an understanding of how much healing capacity our bodies -- and lives -- really have.  But to achieve that balance I had to step a little out of my comfort zone.  And I was only able to do that when I found an instructor and a situation I could trust; someone who knew enough about me not to demand more than I was capable of giving.

So now I wonder -- do we need some measure of trust in order to achieve a sense of balance?  Do I need to stand beside my dresser, knowing I can grab on if I start to fall, in order to get better at balancing on one foot?  It feels like I might be on to something here.

If something is off balance, what fall is it that I'm afraid of?  What keeps me from making the necessary adjustments?  And what is it I need to learn to trust in order to take those necessary risks?

Hmm...  something worth pondering, I think...

PS: a friend just posted this from the Rumi Facebook page.  It seems relevant:

Instead of resisting changes, surrender. Let life be with you, not against you. If you think “My life will be upside down” don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?

All eyes on the skies

Yesterday we received a call from a college friend of our daughter's, a young woman from California who happened to be visiting Seattle and wanted to see where Ali had grown up.  Ali is up in the San Juan Islands for the summer, but we invited her friend to hop on the ferry and come on over.  She arrived with a beautiful armload of flowers (I do SO love flowers!) and we found each other with ease, so I put her in the car, gave her a mini-tour of the island and took her home to feed her some leftover stir-fry and ice cream.

We sat on the deck talking for a long while, hearing of her adventures since graduation and watching the sky fill with sunset's rainbow of color, then took the dog for a walk and came back in to watch the Rover, Curiosity, land on Mars. 

It was a moving and exhilarating experience, I have to say; we all had tears in our eyes as we watched the roomful of scientists get the news that their creation had landed safely. And -- as Maureen mentions in her comment -- for those of us who watched that first moon landing, almost exactly 43 years ago, it brought back wonderful memories of all those men at their computers in the space center in Houston...

And then, this morning, I was greeted by one of the most colorful sunrises I've ever had the good fortune to enjoy.  Between this morning's sunrise, last night's sunset, and the previous night's moonrise, we've been treated to some spectacular displays of celestial glory. It seems somehow fitting that all eyes are being drawn upward just as Curiosity begins her explorations...

Humbling -- but in a good way...

Wouldn't you know it?  Just when I despair of ever catching a shot of that big red moon, just as it's rising -- it happens.  Now, granted, it rose late last night, so everything else was dark.  But still -- you get the chance to see how huge it is, and that fabulous color!

So why am I so obsessed with this?  The short answer could be that one of the other local photographers created a poster with the moon rising over Seattle that hangs at the Post Office; it could just be that competitive thing. 

But I suspect it would be truer to go back in time to a moment years ago, when I was between husbands and visiting Baker's Island, off the coast of Boston, with a dear friend (now deceased) who was a hospital chaplain and later godmother to my oldest daughter.

I was sleeping in a window seat of the living room of a house loaned to us for the weekend by friends of hers, and was awakened in the middle of the night (the house faced east, across the Atlantic) by this huge red THING on the horizon.

I remember going into a dead panic, wondering if nuclear war had come to Europe, and I seriously considered waking Maggie to express my concern -- except I lay there absolutely paralyzed.  I watched as it got larger and larger and then slowly disconnected from the horizon -- was it coming to get me?  And then it sent a ribbon of light across the water as if reaching out to me in my living room, and my pulse finally slowed and I realized it was "only" the moon.  

It was a terrifying and deeply moving experience, one I've never forgotten, and I honestly felt (I was in my born-again evangelical phase at the time) that God was reaching out to me across the water, time and space.

So now, when it happens (though less impressively, because there are houses, and a city, and a hillside between me and the moon) it always reminds me of the odd mix of terror and safety I found in that long-ago moment.

Perhaps that's what both the mountains and the moon have to offer us: that reminder that we and our momentous concerns are actually incredibly small in the general scheme of things.  It's humbling, but in a good way...

And yes, I have just repeated myself:  I just had this feeling, and I checked -- I also wrote about this moment back in September of 2008, almost exactly four years ago -- and it was almost exactly 30 years ago that I was on Baker's Island. 

Hmm.  Lots of ways to be humbled here...

From a mountain to a boson

Though the limitations of a small camera with a long zoom are clearly apparent in this image, for some reason I had to set it here this morning. So now (isn't this part of what contemplative photography is about?) I'm trying to figure out why; what does it have to teach me?

I took the picture a week or so ago while visiting a friend on Orcas.  Her home looks north across the water toward Mount Baker, and when the sun began to set the alpenglow was so spectacular we all reached for our cameras.

... which isn't so surprising, though each of us knows the camera is unlikely to capture the majesty  of the spectacle.  I thought of that again this morning as I was going through the pictures I've taken the last few days, mostly of the moon rising over the sandspit.

Why, I wonder, do I keep taking pictures at moments like these when I should know after all these years how unlikely they are to convey anything like the beauty I'm seeing?  And -- perhaps even more importantly -- why, when I look at the images later and find them so unsatisfactory -- do I find it so difficult to throw them away?

Let's start with the first question.  There could be several answers, each with a little truth in them...

1.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast: even though we know our cameras are small, we keep hoping that by some magic the majesty of the moment will be captured.

2.  The desire to share -- though I suppose there could be good and bad sides to that.  Maybe it's a bit of showing off -- "Look what I got to see last weekend."  But I'd like to think it's more a desire to convey the intensity of the experience to those who weren't there.  Imagine, the photo says, how it might affect your view of the world, to have a mountain this large hovering always on the horizon.  Imagine how humbling that could be, how small your concerns might seem, how inspired you might be by such a vista...

3.  The desire to capture the moment so you can feel it again later and remember those sensations.

4.  The call to respond: presented with such a gift, how can we honor it?

5.  The need to be doing something.  I mean, how is it that we can't just sit before the wonder of it, not pick up a camera or a phone?  Is it that hard to just enjoy, to sit in silence and just drink in the majesty, to let it fill your soul?

And now for that other troubling question, the one I'm wrestling with this morning: why is it so hard to throw these images away?  This one is harder to answer; I'm finding I can only respond with more questions:

1.  Am I afraid that by tossing the image I am somehow losing the moment?  But there are so many other images of the same moment, so that shouldn't be true...

2.  Am I afraid that by culling the images down to the one best vertical and the one best horizontal I might accidentally end up tossing the best ones and saving images that won't meet whatever future need might arise for them?

3.  Am I just reluctant to spend the time sorting through them; eager to get to the more fun stuff (i.e., blogging, or painting, or playing with photoshop)?

4.  Is it that if I spend too much time with all these only half-adequate images I'll get discouraged about my photography?

5.  Is it that I just don't trust my own judgment?  Or is it that each image has value and I have trouble deciding among their relative merits?

6.  And why is it so important NOT to throw out an image that might have possibilities?  What am I afraid will happen?  Who are the "they" that might be disappointed if I don't have those discarded images any more?

I know.  WAY too much navel-gazing to make for an interesting blog post; this is probably why my friend CRJ doesn't read my blogs but just looks at the pictures: way too many words, not enough silence.  But navel-gazing seems to be part of the deal when you begin doing contemplative photography as a spiritual practice.  Or maybe even when you begin to see all of life as a spiritual practice.  You end up back in what I like to call "Broccoli Theory."  (Although I could be confusing intellectual enquiry with spiritual practice...)

By Broccoli Theory I mean that if you consider each moment, if you take the time to examine it closely, explore all its ramifications, it becomes this sort of infinitely branching query -- like a head of broccoli.  You start with that one thick question and it generates all these increasingly more focused avenues of exploration, each branching out itself into ever smaller and more pin-pointed possibilities.

If we had the patience to stay with it, I suppose there's a possibility we could end up just paralyzed by all the choices.  But perhaps we'd end up unearthing that something that unifies us with all of creation, the similarity that lies at the root of all diversity; something like the Higgs-Boson Particle -- or maybe just ... God?

Perhaps all of this is moot.  Which is why we play with images in the first place: a picture is worth a thousand words, right?  Apparently this one was only good for 926...

PS:  My blogsister Joyce Wycoff posted a link to this Ted Talk on Facebook this morning.  I thought I'd share it here, because... well, it speaks to the broader aspect of that first question -- which is, of course, why take pictures at all? -- and because it moved me to tears. I also loved what Joyce said about it: This is, she said, "an incredible example of giving what we do rather than what we have."  An opportunity for which many of us hunger, I suspect.

Adventures in creativity

This is the other piece I've been working on for that upcoming "BOOK" exhibit at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts.

The photos are current, turned black and white, with old fashioned borders added to give an old-timey feel to them.  I then wrote haiku for each of the (ten) pictures, rendering in a dated-looking font, and added a graphic I found in an 1890's encyclopedia. (The photos take you on a rowboat tour around the island).

The pictures are printed on canvas (to look like sails); I put grommets in the canvas to hang the images from the oar.  The oar was originally covered in a shiny varnish, so I gessoed over that and then painted it with a whale to look like Northwest Native art.  The final touch was to wrap the oar in rope and use monkey fist knots to hold the canvas strips to the oar.

I have to say -- I've had enormous fun with this one; I'm not sure if it's in spite of or because of the research required to complete the project!  I originally intended to print these on tyvek envelopes, but had problems with ink splattering so I switched to canvas.  While I was still in envelope mode, though, I had intended to create old fashioned postcards to tell a story of a lumber hand who came to Bainbridge and left his family behind, so I got to do a bunch of research on Bainbridge history for that.  Hopefully that will come in handy some day for some other project...

I also had to learn about "sloppy borders," and wander through antique stores looking for worn paper to photograph.  I had to research native art patterns, and then invent one of my own to match the shape of the oar.  I had to learn how to make grommets (something I've wondered about for years) -- and THEN I had to deal with the fact that the three different manufacturers I had to deal with -- the grommet maker, the punch maker, and the sealing tool maker -- interpreted a 3/8" grommet interior as 9, 9.5, and 10 millimeters, respectively.  Trust me.  It matters.  Grrrr.

The most fun was the monkey's fist -- though to keep these small I did not enclose the traditional marble or golf ball for weight.  I used to have a monkey's fist keyring, which I adored, and when it eventually unraveled I never found another to replace it.  Now I see I could make my own!

The sad news is that in the course of the project my printer died.  It will probably be at least a couple of weeks before it will be usable again, so it looks like I won't be creating any more pieces for this exhibit.  I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to focus my energy elsewhere -- another one of those space-making events described in yesterday's post.  But some part of me is saying Grrr to this one, too.  I just have to trust that somehow it's all for the best...

Giving up good for better

 I spent some time last evening with dear friends who had just put their daughter and grand-daughter on a plane after a two week visit.  The visit had been wonderful, full of joy, and they were in that lovely space, so hard to hold; overflowing with pride and joy and yet bereft at having to face the empty hole their departure left behind.

I, too, had spent the last day or so "being Mom," with all that can entail, both rewarding and challenging,  and so we shared a bit about our hopes and dreams for our children, some of the choices we've made along the way, and what it's like to stand back and let them make their own mistakes.

Alan Jones' words this morning have something to say about that, too; reading this book has been like including him in on the conversation that is life.

"The hard lesson to learn about joy is that we have to choose over and over again not to grasp at the world (the people and the things in it) and try to make them our own.  Joy is not to be had in possession; and of all the choices that we have to make, there is none harder than having to give up something good for the sake of something better.  Giving up a present good for the promise of a greater requires faith and a willingness to risk.

It is suffering of a if God has placed time-bombs inside us, programmed to go off at certain intervals in order to make a gaping hole in us so that we can continue to be open to life.  He is always creating new space in us by means of these explosions."

I have to say -- I find that enormously reassuring; that these occasional blows to the heart always offer an opportunity to turn back toward the Divine Connection, toward the path that leads us home.  But it takes a lot of trust to remember that when we're in the thick of things: the dust of these explosions has a way of obscuring our vision...

Itching to buy

The dog, who has been better lately, woke us at 4:15 this morning with his scratching. I'm thinking that it's a response to the sunrise coupled with a hungry tummy and a hope that food might be on the horizon.  At any rate, my husband got up and gave him a benadryl and then headed off to work.

I tried to sleep, but for some reason financial worries won out and I found myself lying there agonizing over money: how long will it hold out, and what will we do about the several large expenses looming on the horizon?

This anxiety has been hovering in the background, of course, ever since my husband lost his job 3 years ago, but it ebbs and flows; I guess today was a day for flow.  But it's complicated by my continuing urges to buy.

I'm mostly doing well -- I've always been a fairly thrifty consumer -- but some imp in me is itching to have one last financial hurrah before the money runs out.  Which is not only irrational, but also cause for some spiritual concern.  Why this urge to possess?  And why now?  What am I really hungry for? And it's not just purses and boots, it's also food; I'm in a hungry-for-junk-food mood as well...

... so it comes as no surprise that today's reading in Alan Jones' Soul Making has something to say to me.  Interestingly enough, given that this book was published over 20 years ago, he's quoting Rowan Williams, the current but about-to-retire Archbishop of Canterbury; from a book entitled The Truce of God.

"The impure heart is a heart which never wants anything enough to be intolerant of substitutes.  Beneath its readiness to make do with less than reality is the fear of real desire.  For real desire means the candid acknowledgement that I am incomplete and need something in order to be real myself.  Impure desire, on the other hand, assumes that I am solid and important: I take things to myself as my fancies suggest, as much as I want of this or that, so as to keep myself solid and steady.  I consume things -- to stop myself being consumed by real desire, which shows me my lack of solidity, my need to find and nourish my identity in and with others.

Pure desire is desire that longs to grow endlessly in knowledge of and rootedness in reality and truth.  Impure desire desires to stop having to desire, to stop needing; it asks for a state where, finally, the ego can relax into self-sufficiency and does not have to go stuffing bits and pieces of the world into itself in order to survive.  Real desire can live with an unlimited horizon -- which religious people call God -- while unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment trying to gratify an immediate hunger, without accepting that "hunger" is part of being human and so cannot be dealt with or understood by an endless succession of leakplugging operations."

I was particularly struck by the second sentence in the second paragraph, about the need to stop wanting; the hope that by purchasing or eating "just this one thing," that the hunger will be somehow permanently assuaged and trouble me no more.

Ouch.  Been there, done that, have a closet full of t-shirts...

Time for some corrective action, I think; time to notice those hungers, time to see them for what they are -- a need to feed an unhealthy ego -- and time to somehow transform that small hunger into a greater understanding of the larger Hunger at its root.  Because snack food and possessions, however carefully monitored, are functioning sort of like a spiritual benadryl.  There's a temporary relief, but four hours later the itch to consume is back...

(Note: these beautiful purses were seen in a shop window in San Gimignano, Italy, in 2008.  And no, I didn't buy one; I was content to merely admire...)

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