Where is the line?

A couple of years ago I reconnected via Facebook with my best friend from high school, and I've had a couple of opportunities to visit her home; I've probably written about this before.  Her house is full of art, chock full to the gills, and much of it consists of faces.  Many of them were created by an artist in Oregon named Trina Hesson, with colors and styles similar to this one I built this morning.

I was enchanted by Trina's work -- still am -- and some part of me is craving color right now (not surprising, given that winter is still here and spring seems pretty far away).  So given that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" I've decided to give myself permission to play in this zone.  I've always been fascinated by faces -- much of the art on my own walls consists of masks and faces -- so I think I will indulge this urge a bit and see where it takes me. 

Hopefully it will be to someplace not quite so obviously derivative.  We were talking in my spirituality group this morning about deep-seated taboos, and this is one of mine: it's wrong to steal, and copying a style of art feels like stealing.  Even if I'm putting it together in my own way, out of my own surfaces, there's still this sense that this is wrong.  I'm just not sure exactly where the line is between inspiration and theft.

I remember one gallery owner saying to me "Amateurs copy ideas; professionals steal them."  I'm hoping this one is amateurish enough that it will not be misconstrued as stealing... because, quite frankly -- I really like it!

New beginnings

I spent yesterday riding down to Olympia with a friend who will embark on her new career as a legislative aide for a state senator just a week from today.  We were hoping to find her an apartment, and were planning to take a peek at her new office, so we had business to conduct. 

We were successful in finding her a new living space (a lovely aerie with a distant view of the capitol building) and the capitol building (which I'd never seen before) was absolutely gorgeous.  I took piles of pictures, but as it was a typical Northwest January day, dark and rainy, and I was rushing a bit, most of them were hopelessly blurry.  Oh, well!

Despite that, it was an exhilarating and inspiring time, both for my eyes and for my hungry spirit.  And looking back over it now, I see that a lot of the joy I took in the day was the excitement of seeing her new job, her new home, her new office, and her new surroundings and responsibilities.  It's been a long recovery period from her divorce, and to see her life begin anew is just wonderful.

The Germans (bless their dear hearts, I've married them and I'm descended from them) have a wonderful word for "joy in other's misfortunes" -- it's schadenfreude. (Sha-den-froy-duh).  But do they have a word for joy in other's GOOD fortunes?  Because that's what I'm feeling right now -- and it's pure delight!

You are a divine elephant

My husband took this photo with his smartphone at my request: this elephant was on the tabletop at the restaurant we went to on a whim Friday evening.

I am not usually all that interested in elephants, but they had developed a particular significance in a therapy session just that afternoon, so I was amused to see one appear before me.  We hadn't been to this particular restaurant in several years, so it was just -- an odd set of coincidences.

... Made odder still this morning, when I discovered the Hafiz poem for today in Daniel Ladinsky's A Year with Hafiz:

All in All

Could you help me with this? an ant said
to an elephant when a large seed the ant was
dragging back to its nest got stuck between
some grass.

The elephant, looking down and feeling
kindhearted that day, began to contemplate
all that might be needed to render some

but the task just seemed too delicate and
in need of more precision than the elephant’s
trunk or one of his feet or even his tail or one
of his grand ears could handle effectively.

So the elephant began to pray for divine
intervention, and sure enough it worked, or
it seemed to --

a berry on a nearby bush happened to fall
in such a way as to free the seed for its
onward destination.

The elephant’s faith in God was increased,
and the ant, having heard the prayer, was
now less of an agnostic, which he had been
for the last year or so because of personal
reasons... he would rather keep private.

All in all, seems things are moving ahead,
working out for the best.

I went online after reading this, knowing I wanted to post the poem here and hoping I wouldn’t have to type out the whole thing, but I couldn't find it.  Everywhere I looked, though, there was another terrific Hafiz quote,: 'You are a divine elephant with amnesia trying to live in an ant hole.'

Wonderful!  Great message for a Sunday morning, too.

So -- how is this true for YOU?  Have you even begun to realize yet how HUGE the divine spirit is in you?  How will you release it, and give it voice?

And in the meantime, isn't it great to be reminded:

All in all, seems things are moving ahead,
working out for the best.

Dissolving in the infinite

I have opened all the windows
in my house. 
Eagles fly in and out,
as do any words
that are spoken about me.
Anything my ears might detect,
firsthand or second --
I might give that news
a moment's attention.
and then just let it be
the tiny whiff of smoke it is
dissolving in the infinite.

-- Hafiz

The supportive audience

Yesterday two of my blog sisters took the time to encourage me on this new creative path I'm exploring.  It's amazing what an encouraging word can do: it gives me just the pick-me-up I need to keep going when things are getting tough. 

But at the same time there are those other voices that kick in -- the one that says I shouldn't be so dependent on praise (don't you just hate those shoulds?), and the one that is so desperate for approval that it wants to stop right there and keep doing the same thing for more praise, rather than to keep pushing the envelope, and the one that sneers at that eagerness to please...

Overthinking -- and too much navel-gazing -- can be the death of the creative process.  How do we listen through the cacophony of conflicting voices for the one true voice that leads us forward?

I think we need to join our own appreciative audience, and be willing to applaud and encourage our own efforts to step out of our comfort zones.  So it was amusing this morning to read -- in a chapter about the terror of the blank page in Trust the Process -- these words about the importance of a supportive audience:

"The supportive audience that practices Carl Rogers's discipline of unconditional positive regard is critically important.  If I am to be completely present in my expression I cannot be thinking about whether or not it will please or offend people in the audience.  These thoughts distract me and take me away from complete concentration on what I am doing.  Some might say that this method of performing "presence" is egocentric.  I disagree because the artists and the audience are dedicating themselves to the particular expressions that emerge through the performance.  The artist is a medium for their emergence.  The witnessing function of the audience both energizes the performance and creates the safety needed to establish an authentic sense of presence."

I suspect this is exactly why it is so difficult for so many of us to face the blank page or the empty canvas: we are so intensely self-critical that it doesn't feel safe to step out onto that bare stage and express whatever is emerging in that moment.  Fearful of what dark secrets might be revealed, we hide behind the safety of what we know, holding our successes up to mask whatever truths and failures and insecurities might lie beneath...

Stay with it...

I spent most of yesterday experimenting, but the results were NOT particularly satisfying.  I get that I'm supposed to be learning from my mistakes, but all I seem to be getting from this is that this is a rather unproductive road I'm going down: I can't quite seem to cross the bridge between where I am and where I want to go...

Funny, isn't it, how the creative life so often parallels regular everyday life!  But if I just assume that's true, then the lessons from one should carry over into the other.  Which means, I suspect, that I can't give up yet; can't walk away, must keep knocking at this door.  Something is here to be learned, and I just have to stay present with the struggle til I find out what it is.

Grr.  So much easier to cut and run; go back to what's safe...

The gift in mistakes

Back when I was married to my first husband, I used to love visiting his older sister, who lived only a couple of hours away.  She and her husband served as house parents for a prep school dormitory, and I remember she had a poster on her refrigerator that said, "If you love somebody, tell them."

Carol was particularly good at that, so she was truly a joy to be around (and the kids in the dorm loved her, of course).  And though I don't remember the image from that poster, the sentiment stuck over the years, and clearly got passed on to my daughters: I hear them saying those three little words to their friends all the time.

... which is a good thing, because we all need to hear that we are loved.   But I also remember reading a book on child-rearing in the 70s -- Faber and Mazlish's Liberated Parents, Liberated Children -- which emphasized that it wasn't enough to just praise a child: you needed to be specific about what you were praising.  They also introduced me to the idea that it was important to make it clear when expressing anger with a child that you are objecting, not to them, but to their behavior. 

So "I like it when you do that" became a catch-phrase for me, and I tried hard to impress my girls with the difference between a distaste for someone's behavior and a distaste for their actual person.  Because I do believe the world could be a better place if we could all learn to hate the hateful things that people do without hating the people that do hateful things.  (Was that sentence convoluted enough for you?)

This partly comes up this morning because I woke to find a note in my mailbox conveying praise for my performance at rehearsal last night -- and it just made me feel so good!  But it also relates to what I'm reading this morning in Trust the Process about the importance of allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Which is really important to hear when I'm caught in this limbo between what I've been doing and what I'm going to be doing: I really need to be okay with mistakes if I'm going to keep moving forward. 

And I'm realizing, thinking about Faber and Mazlish this morning, that however good I might have been about "hate the sin but love the sinner" with my kids, I'm not all that good at it with myself -- especially with myself, the artist.  If I dislike whatever art I produced that day, there's a litany of accusations that begins dripping away at my psyche in the background, like water torture.  "You're no good.  You're kidding yourself.  You'll never amount to anything.  You're not good at creating, just at copying..." And the most common one I hear from that internal judge, "What were you thinking?  You're an idiot."

Clearly I have some retraining to do of those inner voices -- both the ones that applaud (which are all too quiet) and the ones that are so quick to criticize.  So here.  This is what I created yesterday afternoon; it builds on what I created the day before, though that may not be obvious.  And though some part of me wonders where on earth this is going and what the heck it has to do with where I've been, I like it.  I like the angularity of it, and the sort of Japanese floral effect.  And so I'm honoring that and sharing it here with you. 

I'm trying to learn to be kinder to myself -- and to trust that sometimes the things that look like mistakes could be an entry point into a whole new direction.  I invite you to do the same!

The promise of mindfulness

Our reassuring words for today 
come from renowned botanist George Washington Carver, 
as quoted in Jack Kornfield's book, The Wise Heart:

"Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough."

In the liminal space

Last night I got a small block of uninterrupted time.  And realizing that I'd been hungry all day for the process of creation, I sat down at my computer to see if I could invite something into being.

This is what emerged -- as usual, a combination of several different images -- and I decided to name her "Agnes, preparing," thinking she must be preparing for death.  I had no idea what she was trying to tell me, but then this morning I read this in McNiff's book,  Trust the Process:

"Creation is a process of emanation.  Nothing will happen unless we start working and allow the practice of our particular disciplines to mix with the streams of ideas and experiences that are constantly moving through daily life.  These streams are never blocked.  Therefore, the practice of creation involves the ability to tap into them... 

The experienced creator is forever intrigued with the unplanned results that emerge from faithful practice... As with birthing, the practice of creation requires a continuous respect for that which takes place autonomously and in its own time.  The creator is a necessary participant, but like childbirth the process is not controlled by the person who serves as the agent of delivery.

Creation also has a destructive aspect.  The angelic offspring are accompanied by bothersome demons.  As Nietzsche declared, the artist must break things apart in order to create anew.  Even Picasso felt that every major creative act carries a shadow and its share of negativity. The results of artistic expression may bring relief, joy, and harmony, but the process thrives on tension.  Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.  Creative practice can be viewed as a ritual of preparation, readying the psychic household for unexpected guests and fresh combinations of familiar things..."

The process of creation seems to necessitate a certain amount of time spent in that uncomfortable place we call "liminal space:" the place between what was and what is to come.  We don't get to control our going into that space or our coming out; we just have to trust that truth will emerge when its time comes.

I suspect that what this passage -- and Agnes -- are telling us is that part of our preparation for that which lies within us, waiting to be born, will be to step aside and allow certain other aspects of life to die.  And therein lies the conflict and the tension.  It's not like this is an unfamiliar process: When we enter into relationship, we say farewell to the single life.  A couple expecting their first child must say farewell to the freedoms they experienced prior to childbirth.  A child leaving home must say farewell to the relatively pampered existence of family life.   But the transition between what was and is to come are rarely as smooth as we might wish.

As I write this, I'm hearing Anne Murray's 1996 recording of "I know too much:"

You live and learn to crash and burn;
Come out of the ashes even more alive.
You make your mistakes -- whatever it takes --
But know when to hit the brakes and when to let it slide.

You can come crying on my shoulder
But don't ask me to show you the way:
As I get wiser, as I get older
It seems like I've got less to say

I know too much: I've seen the light
And I've been lost in the shadow of doubt.
I know too much to give up on love
And I know too much to ever try to figure it out

What would I do if I were you?
Take my advice don't take advice from me!
There's no wrong or right no black or white --
Just shades of gray as far as I can see.

Promises, rules and hearts get broken;
Plans and minds and people change;
One door slams and another door opens --
Don't ask me I can't explain

I know too much I've seen the light
And I've been lost in the shadow of doubt.
I know too much to give up on love
And I know too much to ever try to figure it out.

I know these lyrics because I used to sing this song with a group of friends called "Those Guys from Orcas."  I'll post a youtube video of it here so you can get an idea of how the song goes, but I warn you -- we are definitely NOT professionals!

What does it mean to be called?

Standing in the communion circle this morning, after all too many Sundays away,  I found myself thinking about the sermon topic (being called -- when our hunger meets the world's need) and staring at this beautiful and unusual floral arrangement (I apologize for the caliber of this photo, taken after the service with my iphone3) and then at the rug on the floor.

Our priest had mentioned that if our lives are easy and we are, for the most part, content, we are less likely to hear (or even if we hear it, to obey) a call.  Somehow that made me feel better about the sense of vague discontent that fills my heart these days; maybe it's preparing me for a change, for something new...

But I think the process of listening for a call (and I'm one of those people who's always longing for more clarity about that) is further complicated by our (or should I say, my?) assumption that a call, followed, will somehow make us/me more important, more famous; that if we are invisible to most of the world we either have not been called or have not heard and followed the "right" call; that we're just not "there" yet -- wherever "there" is.

But looking at the perfection of this arrangement -- at the perfect balance between grapes, oranges, eggplants and sticks -- I could see that removing almost any element would make it less pleasing.  Looking at the rug on the floor, a very plain grayish green, I can see that the yarns woven through it, though they vary slightly in color, are nonetheless quite similar, and disappear into the overall look of it.  But if any one of them were to be pulled away, or frayed, it would detract from the overall effect.  Each element of the arrangement is where it needs to be, and precious in that spot.  Each thread in the rug is where it needs to be, and perfectly fills the cradled web in which it rests.  What if whatever we're doing right now is what we're meant to be doing right now, and somehow contributes in a vital way to the web of life and community in which we rest?

What if being called does not mean called to stand out, but rather called to contribute; to become an essential part of a larger whole, a perfectly functioning cog in a larger wheel?  But then the question comes -- if you look at that bit about our hunger and the world's need, what if the hunger is to stand out, and the world's need is to see or hear what you have to say?   Does that mean that's a call?

Or, conversely, what if your hunger, like Jonah's in today's lesson, is to stay quiet and invisible, but you're hearing a call to stand up and speak the words no-one wants to hear?  What if following the call means leaving a safe and comfortable life for one where you might get thrown out of the boat to flail and flounder in a rolling sea?  Does the discomfort we suffer in following a call make that call any less valid?

Or what if the hunger is just for something different -- to stand out if you've been invisible, to become invisible if you've been visible, or just simply for a change?  Which hungers should we listen to, and which can we safely ignore?

I can think of several calls I've followed over the years -- the most obvious of which, to work for the church, led to both high visibility and major discomfort (with hypocrisy, not with the visibility).  Does that mean it was not a true call?  I don't think so.  I think it means that's where I needed to be then, and this is where I need to be now, and that was instrumental in leading to this.  But this may not be the end -- AND -- just because I am not doing THAT anymore does not mean I am not following a call or fulfilling my potential.  It only means this is where I am now.  And if I need to walk away from what I'm doing now, it will be just as clear as it was then that I needed to do that.

Sorry, this is a bit of a ramble.  But as I just told my daughter, who is in a new relationship and struggling with her tendency to overthink things, here is where we are.  And so I tell her, and myself --and you, as well, if you, too, are wondering now about what comes next and what we're supposed to do here -- try to relax into it and trust your instincts.  You'll know when the time is right what the next move needs to be, if you just stay open, keep listening, and trust.

When creativity keeps you awake...

In the category of "Be Careful What You Wish For," this little lady wouldn't let me sleep until I finished her last night -- and then she woke me with a song this morning ("When morning gilds the skies, my heart awaking cries...") to let me know I needed to add arms and a border.  So now I'm operating on WAY less sleep than usual, and I have an all-day rehearsal scheduled in a theater with no power.  hmm...

But the good news is I did get some more work done on my presentation yesterday, the most important piece of which is the addition of a slide entitled "What does it mean to play?"
And the answers are: Start where you are, try something new, listen to your heart, struggle with your demons, expect imperfection, and trust the process. 

That may not be my final word, but I'm getting there!

Falling into the unknown

While reading Trust the Process I am also working on a presentation for our local camera club, to be entitled "What if? Artful Adventures of an Inquisitive Photographer."  And, of course, given my annual mid-winter malaise, I am struggling to do any sort of art at all.

So I was encouraged to read this morning (how many different ways and times does this need to be said before I will hear it?) that perhaps instead of starting the creative process with a particular goal in mind, I need to express what I'm feeling, go with the flow and see where it takes me. 

This is relatively new territory for a photographer: so much of what we do is already in place; we simply have to find a way to capture what we see.  But to approach my work in this way is more equivalent to an artist approaching a blank canvas or a writer approaching a blank page. 

As a writer, I have learned to trust the process implicitly, but as an artist I really struggle -- quite possibly as an inadvertent result of having a critical artist mother -- with fear of failure.  But today I decided (despite constant intrusions from various family members dealing with car/weather/grocery/travel issues) to just start with what appealed, paint from image to image, and see where it might take me.

The end result is a combination of 6 different images in colors considerably more saturated than I generally prefer to work with.  But there's a tenderness here that tells me not to worry; that I am supported and loved as I struggle through to whatever new artistic endeavors may emerge -- or at least, that's how I'm seeing this.

So now I think I need to go back to that presentation I'm working on and somehow add this understanding to it: that there will inevitably be dark periods and struggles and failures, but that, as McNiff says in Trust the Process, "When I enact my angst and fears in an artwork, they become my partners in creation, and my relationship to them is transformed... By falling into the unknown, we can arrive at a new place in our life and work....Falling becomes a release, an immersion in the process of life.  Trusting the process brings a realization that miscues, mistakes, and failures make important contributions to the creative process."

Trust the process

Several hours after I created and posted yesterday's video, I looked out my living room window and saw this intrepid fellow surfing the waves in the cold and wet.  He seems a fitting symbol for today's message, which is about a book I began reading yesterday, entitled Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go.

I'm only two chapters in, but already the book has given me two gifts: 1) It's important -- and even essential -- to repeat yourself, and 2) "Creativity cannot flourish and reach its deepest potential without the participation of its demons as well as its angels."

One of my earliest memories dates back to when I was in second grade.  I'd been repeatedly drawing pictures of a house in a yard, with a tree, and a pond, and a bird in the tree.  And my mother (who was a watercolor artist) said to me, "Why do you keep drawing the same thing all the time?  Can't you paint something different?"

To be honest, I don't remember drawing or painting much of anything after that -- but what I do know is that, like many grownups in my generation, I grew up believing I couldn't draw.  I've taken numerous drawing and art classes over the years, but they've mostly confirmed that impression... Which is why photography has been such a gift, because with it I can create art without having to draw -- plus, with photography, it's TOTALLY acceptable to shoot the same thing over and over until you get it right.  This image, for example, is one of five different shots I took.

But I do still have this deep-seated reluctance to repeat myself.  And if you mix that with a need for perfection, well -- you've got a powerful cast of demons to inhibit your creativity -- demons I've definitely been struggling with lately.  It's incredibly helpful to name them, but even more helpful to be reminded that the demons are just as vital to the creative process as the angels which flutter around when things are "working."  Because understanding this not only gives me permission to struggle with my demons, but reminds me that ultimately that struggle will deepen my work.

But what if we take this out of the context of art?  Isn't the spiritual path ultimately, like creativity, a matter of opening the channels between ourselves and the Divine, to allow what is being born in us to flow through?  So then repeat actions -- reading, praying, meditating, returning to center, breathing -- all become an aspect of our spiritual discipline, and the demons we struggle with along the way as we attempt to open are a vital part of the process.

It is, of course, a delicate balance, and one that takes a great deal of practice to perfect -- not unlike what it must take for this windsurfer to find the perfect balance with wind, wave, sail and board.  When will we learn it's okay to fall down once in a while?

... Or should I say, when will I learn?

PS: A friend just posted this 7 minute TED talk on Facebook.  I think it perfectly captures the value of repetition as a discipline -- plus it has two thoughts that I TOTALLY agree with: "Words are really flimsy messengers for the fullness of experience"; and something about the way time expands and re-forms itself around a daily practice like singing, meditation, or blogging...  just wonderful.  Thank you, Margaret!

Fear sells

For days we've been hearing about this horrific storm-to-come.  And though we've learned to be a bit skeptical about weather predictions in the Northwest, we did make our dutiful trip to the grocery store to stock up (the parking lot was utter chaos with people cruising for spaces, and all the shopping carts were in use).   But so far -- as you can see from this brief video shot on our back deck -- this one seems fairly tame, though of course we're at sea level, and tend to get less snow than the higher elevations.

As 20-year veterans of New England winters, we tend to get amused by the hype for snow here, but in this part of the world even a light snow has a way of bringing everything to a standstill, because drivers have little experience coping with snow and people don't tend to have chains or snow tires (we went looking for snow tires for our daughter's car and no one even carries them).

In addition, the cities don't tend to have very many snow plows (why invest in all that equipment to use only once or twice a year?), and they don't salt the roads, they just sand them, so if it's particularly cold things get very slick and icy.  This year the city of Seattle decided to switch to salt; hopefully that will make a difference (for them, at least).

But news is slow this time of year, so the TV stations are full of dire predictions and helpful suggestions, and they're busily resurrecting images of past snowy crashes to raise the fear factor.  I suppose at some level the intention is good -- they're trying to ensure that people who don't know how to cope don't venture out unnecessarily -- but it seems a shame to use fear to attract viewers and sell products.

I remember, back when I was working in an ad agency in Boston, that was one of the first things we were taught: figure out what potential fear the product might alleviate, and then capitalize on that.  According to an article I read in a recent issue of The Economist, it was a Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter who was responsible for having introduced this idea into the American marketplace.

In a book published in the 1930's called The Strategy of Desire, he said that"marketplace decisions are driven by emotions and subconscious whims and fears, and often have little to do with the product itself... Dichter's radical approach to goading shoppers, called 'motivational research,' was considered so successful that he was even accused of threatening America's national well-being.  Sociologist Vance Packard, in his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, claimed that Americans had become 'the most manipulated people outside the Iron Curtain.' "

... which might explain both the Iraq war and our current economic situation... I'm just sayin'...

At any rate, I think where I'm going with this is that we don't have to allow ourselves to be manipulated by fear.  We may not always be fully rational, and our choices may not always be the best ones.  But I think any time we get that panicky feeling we may very well just be responding to forces outside of us that are not necessarily acting in our best interests.  So stay calm, breathe, and see if you can get back in touch with what is real, what is here, what is now, and what is wise.

As my 7th grade history teacher used to say, "Illegitimi non carborundum."  I'll leave that for you to translate so I don't have to type in  any expletives...

PS: My daughter just sent me this video, which beautifully describes what happens when snow comes to Seattle; enjoy!

The call of the Beautiful

This beautiful coptic processional cross served as the centerpiece for the altar created for us as part of a separate chapel/meditation space.  The proportions of the cross are deliciously pleasing, and the glow of the iridescent ribbons in the candelight had an additional appeal.

When my eyes are fed by sights like these, my soul is fed as well.  I find myself wondering, is this true for all people, or only for artists?  I know that Beauty becomes something of a sacred quest for those of us who are Fours on the Enneagram.  But quite frankly my love of beauty often seems more a curse than a blessing -- it both triggers an urge to possess (of which some part of me cannot approve) and a critical eye that gets in the way of my being to open to possibility. 

Yes, it's true -- it drives me to create.  But it also pushes me to reject much of what I create, and, even if I don't, to anticipate rejection by being all too aware of imperfections.  The critical eye keeps me improving, but at the same time it means it's terribly rare for me to settle into an awareness of success or completion.

Ah, we humans -- such complex creatures we are!  At times like this I am grateful for all the Ones who have gone before and considered these questions.  Today, as I continue addressing this issue (which played a huge role in my Soul Collages over the weekend), I find solace in the words of Sr. Joan Chittister, from her book, Illuminated Life:

"It is Beauty that magnetizes the contemplative, and it is the duty of the contemplative to give beauty away so that the rest of the world may, in the midst of squalor, ugliness, and pain, remember that beauty is possible. Beauty feeds contemplation, and Beauty is its end. A sense of Beauty evokes in us consciousness of the eternal in the temporal. ...An encounter with the beautiful lifts our eyes beyond the commonplace and gives us a reason for going on, for ranging beyond the mundane, for endeavoring ourselves always to become more than we are. 

In the midst of struggle, in the depths of darkness, in the throes of ugliness, beauty brings with it a realization that the best in life is, whatever the cost, really possible. Beauty takes us beyond the visible to the height of consciousness, past the ordinary to the mystical, away from the expedient to the endlessly true...To be contemplative we must remove the clutter from our lives, surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, persistently, give it away until the tiny world for which we ourselves are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God."

I wish you blessings and beauty today...

Resting in the heart of God

Can you see the heart in this picture?  This was the view from the dining hall at Camp Huston, where I spent the last two days photographing snow (we got almost 10 inches over the weekend) and creating some new Soul Collages.

It was a lovely time: there was a terrible snowstorm as I was driving up, but I drove the last 20 miles or so directly behind a snow plow, so I was as safe as could be. 

My bed was comfy, the room was cosy, the food was delicious, and the liturgies and services (conducted by the Reverend Gail Wheatley, priest of St. Andrews, Port Angeles, who I had not met before) were totally refreshing: I felt like I was resting in the heart of God.

I am terrifically grateful for my time away, and I look forward to sharing some wonderful new images with you...

Gift of the moment

When we first moved to Bainbridge Island, this bush was a huge and lovely beach rose, covered in white flowers for much of the summer.   It sat beside a path that led to the boardwalk, and in the fall and spring was often covered with birds.

But the second year we were here was a particularly bad year for gypsy moths, and they took over the rose bush.  My elderly neighbor said spraying it with Formula 409 would kill the moths, so I kept going out there and spraying, but the moths were very prolific and soon the bush had been nibbled down to a nub.

The rosemary bush beside it was of no interest to the gypsy moths, and it continues to thrive (and is now quite large) but I thought we had lost the rose bush altogether; certainly we've had no roses in that spot in years (and it's all become very overgrown with dune grass.) 

But yesterday I went out there with my camera, to photograph the boardwalk, which was covered in frost, and I couldn't help but be enchanted by the christmasy contrast of red, white, and green on this bush, which now thrives in the spot where the rosebush once lived.  I have no idea what it is -- it might even be a beach rose, for all I know of plants (I am not known for my green thumb) -- but it really is quite lovely, and it occupies the space where the beach roses once bloomed.

I've been reading this morning, in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart, about the impermanence of things, and the importance of holding both that awareness (which looks beyond the now) and presence in each moment; of understanding that we are both unique and infinitely connected to all that is; that life is both full and empty at the same time. 

And somehow this bush helps me with that: the frost sits so lightly on these leaves, throwing their serrated edges and bright red stems into relief.  If it were to sit there for too long, it would surely kill the plant, just as the gypsy moths killed the rose bush it used to be.  But the frost has the same ephemeral glow the lovely little white roses once had, and the bush is almost as large as the rosebush once was.  Yes, things pass away, but things are also reborn.  One kind of beauty dies, and another rises in its place.  The gypsy moths come, and then they leave; the frost comes overnight, and then it melts away -- and each moment, even the woven tent of the gypsy moth, has its own beauty to offer.

It's challenging to hold that tension, between now, and past, and what will come.  But I continue to try, and am learning to trust, day by day, that each moment -- past, present, and future -- has its own gift to offer. 

Glowing in the morning sun

Another beautiful clear day (our last for a while, according to current forecasts, which are predicting storms and snow for the weekend), and I began outside, taking pictures of the mountains, glowing pink in the sunrise.

Later, when I rose from meditation, my beautiful Bodhisattva (made by Anita Feng) was glowing in the morning sun.  I'm taking it as an omen -- further enhanced by the thought of going off to the mountains for a mini-retreat this weekend, and the unexpected pleasure of finding myself alone in the house this morning. 

I'll begin this creative day by cleaning up the spaces that have been driving me most crazy, and see if that doesn't inspire me... But first, the dog is begging for a walk...

When the batteries run low

Something's going on.
I'm not liking my photos, and I'm discouraged about my poetry, too.  I can't seem to create any intriguing new collages (though I've been trying).  I'm not interested in going out shooting.  And of all the sunrise pictures I've taken in the last few days (we've had some glorious ones) this is the one I chose to put here -- and it has an ominous feel to it -- or at least, it feels that way to me.

I think these are my normal post-Christmas blues.  And it IS coming up on Martin Luther King weekend -- which I've traditionally spent going off somewhere on a retreat, usually with some sort of artistic component.  Last year I went over the mountains and came back with these wonderful collage inspirations; the year before that I spent a weekend doing Soul Collages (which felt fabulous at the time, but now I look at them and go "what were you THINKING?  These are CRAP!")

I've not made any plans for a retreat this year because I have a rehearsal on Saturday.  But maybe I need to re-think this; see if I can get away, just for Saturday night and Sunday?  Because something in me needs to get re-charged. 

Just out of curiosity (this is the advantage of keeping a diary) I went back and looked at my posts for this time last year.  The post for January 11 talked about a similar feeling, and the last lines said this:

"Sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to go off-line.  Take a deep breath.  Vedge out.

Just do it!"

Hmmm.  I guess this IS some sort of seasonal malaise.  Sad to be so predictable, isn't it!  And yet, at the same time, it's reassuring: this is a normal transition phase, usually followed by some new surge of creativity.  So.  What can I do to jump start that?


Touching the earth

This image is made up of a photo of light patterns inside an elevator, reflections on the side of a canoe, and a mountain hillside; I think it came out looking the way it did because my daughter's driving back from Montana today.  Fortunately the weather's looking good, so with luck the broken window at the start will be her only incident.

But I did wake up with my mother radar going off, so it was a relief to get her call and hear it was just that the window had gotten stuck down (it's been sort of fixed; it's duct-taped up and hopefully that will hold).  

It didn't help, though, that most of what I was reading in Jack Kornfield this morning was about the inevitability of loss and grief: I found myself wanting to slam the book shut -- I really don't need to be reminded of stuff like that when I'm already a bit anxious.

What did help, though, was tomorrow's poem from Coleman Barks' Year with Hafiz, entitled "When his foot touches earth near me:"

Not like a lone beautiful bird,
these poems now rise in great white flocks,
startled by God,

Breaking a branch,
when His foot touches the earth...
near me.

Not like a lone beautiful bird 
need be your heart when I am close,
like this.

It's a bit of an awkward read.  But once I slowed down and read it through again, I found myself thinking of something said in my spirituality reading group yesterday, about this spiritual journey -- especially if you're taking it apart from a church community after years of church involvement -- being a lonely one.

Maybe it doesn't need to be quite so lonely, and the anxiety can be relieved a bit, as well -- if we can just understand that that foot is touching the earth, quite near; quite close...

Battling perfectionism

Yesterday I completed the project I promised to begin back on December 31; that of creating a short video based on the composition workshop I gave at the Episcopal Communicators convention in Seattle back in 2008.  You can find it on Youtube, if you're interested.

I'm pleased to have completed the project, but not all that pleased with the results: this is a huge subject, but I only tackle some of the basics, and I don't illustrate all the points I make.  The narration was constructed piecemeal, as I was frequently interrupted during the work and there was a lot going on around me, so it's a little slow (can you spell "soporific?") and it seems clear to me that it was added after the fact; I'm not always sure what I was thinking when I put the slides together in the first place.

Can you hear the perfectionist in me speaking?  She has a way of surfacing any time I dare to make any statement that might indicate I have important information to share; I believe her job is to apologize in advance for any imperfections, in hopes no one will sneer at my work.

Sometimes I would like to shoot her, but I suspect it would make more sense for me to sit down with her, thank her for protecting me so assiduously, and ask her exactly what it is she's afraid of: after all, she is the single biggest example of that desperate need for approval that seems to take over whenever I'm feeling like I may have overstepped my bounds.

I suspect the image here this morning is my attempt to defy her: this is a photo taken in Boulder of scraps of paper in a trash can.  I suspect the part of me that chose to display it here is trying to say (as protection against my perfectionist -- what complex beings we humans are! --) see?  I can create art out of TRASH.  So BACK OFF! 

If it weren't time for me to head off to class, and if my husband weren't floating around the house, I might take time to sit down with these two protagonists and get them to work out their differences.  I have a wonderful new book on family systems therapy that my friend Joanna recommended -- Self-Therapy, by Jay Earley -- that should be good at helping me deal with the squabbling children inside me.

If only I could find a bit of quiet space and time to do that!

Looking good, looking good

One of the fun things about coming to the theater late in life is that you tend to get some really juicy character parts.  The stage manager for our local theater posted this picture just yesterday: it's from The Secret Garden, in which I appeared a couple of years back as an evil headmistress.

Roles like this are fun -- a chance to channel unexpressed parts of the personality onto the stage -- but (as I noted on Facebook) it was particularly hard for my husband to watch me in this one because I was SO unattractive -- all the way through to the bone.

So it was amusing, having come face-to-face with this side of myself yesterday, to read the following passage this morning in Jack Kornfield's classic, The Wise Heart:

"To be wise we need to be able to enter each role fully, with awareness and compassion, and to let it go when our part is done... We can be free only if underneath all these temporary roles we do not forget that they are not who we really are.

In the same way that we identify with a role, we can identify with a self-image.  Do I look intelligent, attractive, strong?  Usually we worry in this way because we also feel the opposite qualities in ourselves.  So to compensate, we create a self-image.  A colleague of mine found these compensatory thoughts so frequent in his meditation, he began to humorously name them each time they arose: 'Looking good, looking good.'  In simply seeing the constant struggle to look good, he felt more compassion and ease."

It helps, I think, to see that others struggle with issues around appearance.  Because -- now that I'm in rehearsal for yet another minor character role -- I feel those old demons beginning again to rear their ugly heads: how can I keep this character from slipping into ugliness?  How can I keep her appealing and amusing?  And of course, beneath that, "How can I keep the audience from seeing me at my most unattractive?"  And perhaps, below even that, "Who is it that lives beneath all these roles?"

As Kornfield's old friend Ram Dass used to say -- it's all Grist for the Mill.  Or, in the words of Garrison Keillor, "To an English major, everything is material."  Yet another opportunity to explore the workings of the spirit...


When the violin 
can forgive the past
it starts singing.

When the violin 
can stop worrying
about the future

you will become
such a drunk laughing nuisance

the Sun will then lean down
and start combing you 
into its hair.

When the violin can forgive
every wound caused by others

your soul --
your soul will start singing.

  -- Hafiz

Creating interior space

I spent much of yesterday taking down the Christmas decorations, which means that the Buddhas in the living room are stepping forward again and making their presence known.

I get the feeling my belief system works a little like that, as well, taking on a more flamboyant Christian tinge as the year draws to a close and then shifting back into a more Buddhist understanding (tempered by the Sufi influence of Hafiz and Rumi) as the New Year begins.

I do know that there's always a sort of desperate longing for retreat after the craziness of the holidays has passed; a hunger for quiet, gray skies, still waters and more nourishing food sets in; an urge to pare down and live more simply. Perhaps that's what leads to that phenomenon known as Spring Cleaning: airing out the cupboards, clearing out possessions, creating a little space in the brain...

His hand is near

I'm delighted to report that my daughter's drive went without incident, and she arrived safely in Montana.  So all that worrying was fortunately for naught.

... But then, isn't ALL worrying really for naught?  In my reading in Henri Nouwen this morning he talked a lot about how much we fear death, seeing it as "the great enemy who will always get the better of us against our will and desire."

Nouwen, of course, has another way of looking at it:

"Even though I often give in to the many fears and warnings of my world, I still believe deeply that our few years on this earth are part of a much larger event that stretches out far beyond the boundaries of our birth and death.  I think of it as a mission into time, a mission that is very exhilarating and even exciting, mostly because the One who sent me on the mission is waiting for me to come home and tell the story of what I have learned.

... With this vision, death is no longer the ultimate defeat.  To the contrary, it becomes the final "yes" and the great return to where we can most fully become children of God... when I listen to that small soft voice calling me the Beloved, I know that there is nothing to fear and that dying is the greatest act of love, the act that leads me into the eternal embrace of my God, whose love is everlasting."

The root of all worrying, I suspect, is an inability to trust that all will somehow turn out okay; that we are beloved, that everything is an opportunity for learning, and that all will indeed result in a return to the most desired state: that of union with the Beloved. 

The poet Hafiz seems to understand and explain this beautifully:

If you knew the end of your story,
nothing on any page --
not one of your dramas,
could bother you as much.

If you knew the glorious end of your journey,
at least half of your attention could be lifted
from anything you can now focus on
that may cause you pain.

His hand is like that,
when it is realized near,
it will always turn your gaze 
in the direction of more light.

I'm hoping, as time goes by,  that I'll get better at realizing that hand is near, and that my gaze, in turn, will be ever more directed towards the light...

Traveling across the mountains

Whew!  Busy day yesterday: old friends came over to the island to visit for a day, rehearsal last night, and our younger daughter was busy prepping our ancient Eurovan for a trip across the mountains to Montana to visit her college roommate.

But she and I did manage to find a little time at bedtime last night to re-connect and share observations on some of her struggles and the ways our family dynamics sometimes play out in her life.  And at one point she voiced a concern I remember feeling myself at her age; that she didn't have much to offer people who might be meeting her for the first time.

So I smiled when this morning's reading in Henri Nouwen's Life of the Beloved brought me this passage:

"Our life itself is the greatest gift to give -- something we constantly forget.  When we think about our being given to each other, what comes immediately to mind are our unique talents: those abilities to do special things especially well.  You and I have spoken about this quite often.  'What is our unique talent?' we asked.  However, when focusing on talents, we tend to forget that our real gift is not so much what we can do, but who we are.  The real question is not 'What can we offer each other?' but 'Who can we be for each other?'...It is the gift of our own life that shines through all we do.  As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being.  When I ask myself, 'Who helps me most?' I must answer, 'The one who is willing to share his or her life with me.' "

So I read it to her over breakfast -- and she didn't even roll her eyes at me!  Amazing! 

... and now she's off, traveling alone for 12 hours across the mountain passes between here and Bozeman, equipped with Goldfish and 5-hour Energy and a box full of cassette tapes of me reading children's stories, from the radio shows I was doing when I was her age.  I hope you'll join me in surrounding her with blessings for her trip; I'll be thinking of her often today.


One of my favorite places in Italy is Burano, the little island near Venice where lace is made.  All the houses are brightly colored, and most of them seem to be back to back, facing onto canals; it's really a photographer's paradise.

Every once in a while there are alleys between the homes, and tucked into many of the alleys, just above and inside the arched entrance, are wee altars like this one, placed there to bless those who travel through.

I post this one today because in my reading this morning Henri Nouwen is speaking about the importance of blessing: of understanding that we are blessed, of noticing blessings, of listening for blessings, and of blessing others.

It seems to me that this is one of the tragedies of our now primarily secular society: that we no longer fully understand the value of blessings -- or even how blessed we truly are.

I need to run off and get ready for class, but in the spirit of blessing I thought I'd share one of my favorites with you:

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O'Donohue ~
(Echoes of Memory)

Becoming beloved

This morning in Henri Nouwen's book, Life of the Beloved, he was talking about the difference between being the beloved and becoming the beloved -- which is really the difference between knowing intellectually that we are chosen and blessed and tenderly cared for, and actually believing that, feeling that, and operating out of that deep inner understanding.

I am blessed, I think, with the intellectual understanding that I am beloved.  But it seems to me -- and it's clear Nouwen agrees -- that the job of becoming the beloved, of knowing it at the deepest level of being,  is always going to be a bit of a work in progress, and perhaps one of the key challenges of life on the spiritual path.

That said, I will also add that there's something about giving that helps propel us down that path.  This is the quilt I created for my daughter's 25th birthday.  And there was something about re-visiting each of those years of her life, remembering both the difficulties of those years and the wonder of them, and then stitching it all together, that not only helped me express my deep affection and gratitude for all the gifts she's brought into my life, but also helped me understand how I too -- with all my flaws and challenges -- might be beloved.

... which makes me think of those final lines in the prayer of St. Francis:

"For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

... and somehow that, in turn, makes me think of the last time I had that most amazing sense of feeling beloved, which was when I found myself on my knees in Assisi, in front of the tomb of St. Francis.

Hope I get to go there again someday...


You are the beloved

"Ever since you asked me to write for you and your friends about the spiritual life, I have been wondering if there might be one word I would most want you to remember when you finished reading all I wish to say. Over the past year, that special word has gradually emerged from the depths of my own heart. It is the word "Beloved," and I am convinced that it has been given to me for the sake of you and your friends...

All I want to say to you is "You are the Beloved," and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being -- "You are the Beloved."

... I am putting this so directly and so simply because, though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: "You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests."

That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices,  saying: "Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire." Meanwhile, the soft gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard, or at least unconvincing.

... Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: "I have called you by name from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother's womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.

I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse ... yes, even your child...wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one."

-- Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

Happy New Year -- and may this be the year you finally come to know your belovedness...
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