Let consciousness flow

This morning's reading in Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth confirmed what I learned from my experiences over the weekend.

"As you become present and thereby total in what you do, your actions become charged with spiritual power... Your primary purpose is now to enable consciousness to flow into what you do.

... The world will tell you that success is achieving what you set out to do.  It will tell you that success is winning, that finding recognition and/or prosperity are essential ingredients in any success...

The conventional notion of success is concerned with the outcome of what you do.  Some say that success is the result of a combination of hard work and luck, or determination and talent, or being in the right place at the right time.  While any of these may be determinants of success, they are not its essence.

What the world doesn't tell you -- because it doesn't know -- is that you cannot become successful.  You can only be successful... When doing becomes infused with the timeless quality of Being, that is success."

What you don't want to see

Okay.  You might not want to read this one.  And fortunately it's Sunday, when not that many folks read this blog anyway.

Today I have decided to blog BEFORE I meditate.  Because there's something I need to process, and if I don't do it before I meditate it's sure to eat up my meditation time.  Which is a problem because processing is more of an egoic, thoughtful activity, and when all those brain cells are this busy looking back and analyzing it's very difficult to step into the sort of refreshing spacious awareness that meditation brings.

So here's the deal.

As I mentioned earlier, I was invited to read a poem to start off a city council meeting earlier this week.  And it went well -- I felt really good afterwards.  My husband asked what it was that felt good (he always asks such good questions!) -- was it the thrill of reading aloud and doing it well?  At first I said yes, but then he pointed out that must mean I enjoy reading for the blind (one of my volunteer activities) and I realized, well, not exactly (I have to read the local newspaper aloud to my computer, and it can get rather tedious and time-consuming).

So then, he said, it must be the thrill of performing before an audience; the attention.  Well, yes, I thought, there's certainly some pleasure in that.  And at first that felt a little creepy -- am I just looking for applause?  I thought about it some, and it felt like it was more about the invisible connection I feel when people seem to "get" what I'm saying; when something in the air or in a face indicates that something I've said has resonated, or opened up some new perception.  But perhaps I was just refusing to face the truth of that need for approval.

And then, yesterday, good friends had come to visit, and my husband pointed out that they videotape all the Council meetings (can you tell where this is going?).  So of course my friend wanted to watch.  I found the site where the videos are stored, started up the session, and there I was, right after the pledge of allegiance.  And even though she was sitting there, enjoying the reading and the poem, doing all the same things the audience had done, I was in agony.

I couldn't hear the poem at all.  I could only see that face: the receding chin, the sagging jowls, the crooked teeth; the contortions of expression as I responded to the emotions of the poem and shared those responses outward.

It was excruciating.

So last night, when I was slated to read the poem again with all the other poets whose poems were posted in store windows around the town, I found I was wrapped in a gray fog of self-absorption.  I couldn't step beyond "me" to interact with the other poets (none of whom I knew).  I could hear and appreciate their poems.  I was calm about my own reading, not anxious or stumbling or blushing.  But I couldn't step outside my fog: as I read, even as I projected my voice and made eye contact with the 60 or so people in the auditorium, there wasn't that flow that had so exhilarated me on Wednesday.  I could only think of what they must be seeing as they watched me.  And cringe inside.  After the reading I hurried back to my car, not staying to interact.

That's how caught up I can get in appearances.  Still.  Sigh.

But as I write, I can see the good news, too: The reason the first reading felt so good was not so much the appreciation, or the being in front of an audience, because all that was there last night, as well.

The reason the first reading felt so good was because the poem, the spirit of the poem, was flowing through me, from Source to the audience, and I was -- as a conduit, a channel -- energized by that flow.  It was presence in the moment, the LACK of ego, the OTHER-awareness that was exhilarating.

I'm still carrying those mental images of my face.  But I am reassured to think that the pleasure of that first reading was engendered, not by the need to win approval, but by the love that poured through me to the audience.

Perhaps I should watch the video again and see if I can forget the face and feel the love.

Maybe not today, though.

Tapping into Divine Joy

Like the three volunteer tulips in this field of daffodils, three gifts came to me from Eckhart Tolle this morning.

1.  Stop every once in a while and just notice your breath.  Even just one breath. It's a way to suspend all that thinking, all those voices in your head; gives you a little break, an opportunity to tap into the infinite space within you.

2.  If you struggle with an addiction -- to the internet, to snacking, to TV -- or some of the more dangerous substances and behaviors out there -- when you feel that temptation, stop and breathe. Take a few conscious breaths, and feel the energy inside you that wants whatever substance or behavior troubles/soothes you.  Then take a few more conscious breaths.  You may not feel the urge subside the first time, but with time just awareness may help it pass.

3.  Take time to feel the aliveness within you.  I like to start with my hands, and feel the sort of tingly aliveness in them.  Then see if you can feel it in other parts of your body -- feet, arms, legs, chest, head...  Taking time to do this keeps you present, stops the flow of thoughts and emotions.  And (I find) it also helps you feel more alert, more responsive to what's happening around you, putting you in a sort of spacious, receptive state.

I get the feeling that Tolle believes doing these things regularly would be just as effective as a meditation practice, in terms of helping us be more attuned to the Divine Joy that resides within and around us.

I'd like that.  And even doing it just this morning, in response to the reading, I feel more... alive.

Like the old commercial -- Try it!  You'll like it!

Soul food

Earlier this week a friend called to ask if I'd be willing to ride with her to Anacortes to deliver one of her paintings to a gallery there.  And -- oh, by the way -- would I like to visit the tulip fields in the Skagit Valley.

So I spent yesterday in a car, driving through the rain to Anacortes.  To be honest, once we had dropped off the painting we decided (given the weather) it would be more fun to go gallery hopping in La Conner than to struggle through the muddy fields.

But I did get to do a drive-by shooting or two.  And I got to spend some time photographing old metal and barns as well.  Best of all, I had the opportunity to converse at length with a gifted artist about painting, and I think that's given me the impetus I need to go back and try again.

I really want to do that.

And, yes, it was great to get out with my camera, too; it's been too long.  Don't these colors just feed your soul?

Befriending joy

I come to you this morning with a heavy heart.

... and doesn't that statement sound like the beginning of some major announcement -- the death of someone or something important, some life-changing event?

It's not, though; it's just... I woke this morning with a heavy heart -- all the more noticeable because yesterday was a deliciously light-hearted day, full of laughter and fun.  I laughed with my husband over breakfast, giggled with my daughter on the phone, got good news from my other daughter, spent the afternoon making costumes with friends... all good stuff.  Even the poem reading (which also included a chuckle or two) went well.

But none of that changes the fact that too many people I care about are suffering right now.  Pneumonia, surgery, losing a home, losing a job, losing a mother, marital problems, relationship problems, illness in the family... the list of trials and tribulations is a long and serious one, and I found myself lying in bed, holding each one up in prayer.

Little wonder, then, that when my husband read a sweet story to me over breakfast (about a man who bought cheap barn boards to build himself a desk, then discovered they were curly cherry and built a gorgeous piece of furniture that's been all over the world with him and grows lovelier every day) I found myself tearing up.  At one level it's a silly thing to cry over.  At another, it's a gentle reminder that there is still sweetness and joy in the world -- and that is often found in small things.

The fact is, caring makes us vulnerable.  The trials and tribulations of our friends become our trials as well -- and so I'm doubly grateful for all the little joys that yesterday brought.  Not because they remind me that some things in my world are going well (though that's always nice to know)  but because I believe that happiness gives us the fuel we need to send positive energy out to those in need. 

So when Eckhart Tolle tells me this morning, "Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself" I am listening. 

And then he says, "Many poets and sages throughout the ages have observed that true happiness -- I call it the joy of Being -- is found in simple, seemingly unremarkable things... Nietsche wrote, 'For happiness, how little suffices for happiness! ... the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard's rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance -- little maketh up the best happiness.  Be still.'"

Yes, there will be sadness.  But there is joy, too.  Perhaps joy is like a wild animal: you need to be patient, and still; to wait for long periods with your hand stretched out.  Eventually it will venture closer and allow you to befriend it...

One woman's portal

I'm not certain how satisfying this image is to look at, but it sure was fun putting it together!

... which of course raises the age old question: what is the purpose of art?  Eckhart Tolle says the purpose of all great art is to serve as a portal to the sacred.  But what might be one man's portal could be another person's wall -- and does it matter if it's a portal for the artist, or for the viewer?

We were talking today, in my spirituality class, about those pre-cognitive "truths" -- the knowings that we took in before we were old enough to evaluate them for actual truthfulness; the things that guide our daily decisions in ways we often fail to understand.

For example -- I have a pre-cognitive assumption that I only have value if I am efficient, useful, and accomplish things.  So something in me thinks everything I paint must be saleable -- a rather tall order for a relatively untutored artist -- and that something keeps me from just slapping paint around (efficient implies I don't waste much, you know).

So I thought, well, to circumvent the cost of paint and the fear of creating something not saleable, I'd copy paint from graffiti surfaces and slap that on a photograph instead -- it's easy enough to undo this sort of digital collage if I don't like it.  This way I get the freedom of throwing paint around on a surface without the mess or fear of wasting -- PLUS it doesn't matter if it's not saleable, as all it cost was time.

The fun and the sense of freedom I felt doing it -- because it was totally random, exploring, being silly, not worrying about a sale, and not wasting anything but time -- well, that felt almost sacred; creating as a bond with Creator.  So even as something as goofy as this can be a portal to the sacred for an artist who is trying to break through her blocks.  But I can hardly assume that this image will be taking you, the viewer, to that sacred space.

And I think that's how I've been operating; that I have a sort of sacred duty to create art that serves as a portal to the sacred.  Maybe this drive I've been experiencing, the drive to step from form into formless, is an attempt to assign value to finding my own portals; to strike a better balance between what pleases me and what pleases my viewers.  And something in me thinks there's a sweet spot... no, not thinks, KNOWS there'll be a sweet spot, a place where what gives me enormous satisfaction will satisfy a viewer as well.  I've found those moments before.  Maybe I'll find them again in new places?

It's worth a try...

When the heron heralds spring

It was a glorious day here yesterday, so I decided to take a break from labeling photos (I'm getting ready for our gallery's annual Almost Perfect Sale, and everything has to be labeled with the original price and the sale price) and walk to the mailbox (which is a 15 to 20 minute round trip).

I spotted this heron fishing in the lagoon on the way back; he was actually quite close to the driveway, and didn't take off when I edged around the car to take a picture -- I'm thinking it may have been because I had the Wailin' Jennys playing on my iphone to keep me company.

I had brought the iphone along in case a friend called; she'd gone in for some minor surgery that morning and was keeping me updated on her progress.  I've actually been a bit slow about adapting to the constant presence of my cellphone; this was the first time I'd ever taken it on a walk with me, and I had already reached the mailbox and turned back before it occurred to me I could have music to walk by.

But I discovered I liked walking to music -- I might be trying that again -- and I got the sense the birds appreciated it, too.  Although, maybe that was just because it was the Jennys; other choices whose pace is more suited to mine might be less palatable for the birds...

Today the sky is gray again, and the weather back to its typical April chill.  But I'm grateful I had the chance to breathe in a little warmth and sunshine; it makes the gray more palatable somehow, knowing it will soon give way to more of yesterday's beauty.  Spring is coming; the end of winter is in sight.

Invited to a poetry reading

This morning I received an email inviting me to read one of my poems (entitled West, toward Friday Harbor) Wednesday evening at the beginning of this week's City Council meeting on the island.  I'm lucky to be one of the many poets selected to have their poems printed and posted in store windows this month (in honor of Poetry Month) (one of the benefits of living in a small community); and delighted to be chosen to read the poem aloud. 

This year's theme (selected, I suspect, because our community -- and especially the city government -- has been rather publicly dysfunctional in recent months) is transformation; I thought I'd share the poem with you and include a picture, since the phenomenon described in the poem is not a particularly rare one but perhaps hard to visualize if you haven't been a regular ferry rider. You'll just have to imagine yourself at the back end of the boat (which looks exactly like the front end) with that last bit of light pouring through onto the car deck...

West, toward Friday Harbor 

The air is chill, but I sit steaming in my car, 
cheeks burning from a recent argument, 
rehearsing all I might have said, 
when the ferry turns -- west, toward Friday Harbor -- 
and in a farewell burst of light 
a patch of sun streams through the clouds, 
all colors joined to carve a bright white path across the sea. 
Reflections sparkle, bathing the arch above, 
and presence pours over worn gray metal 
like water over a baby's head. 

Awash in light, we chuckle together -- ferry and water, 
baby and I -- reveling in the radiance. 
Pulse slows, and temper fades as colors drift apart and dim, 
preparing for their nightly spin into darkness. 
Twilight hangs her orange wash --one last brief flare -- 
upon the line that splits the sea from sky, 
then drops from view as rain begins again, 
and on that final glide into the slip
flourescent lights blaze forth, announcements blare, 
and spirits rise like engines, re-ignited, roaring into life. 
As cars pour off onto the dock, 
 all final residue of anger’s wiped away; 
windshield stroked clean, and then again, and then again.

Cheating time

Yum.  For some reason I love this one. 

I am still exploring -- both through painting and photography -- this tension between form and formlessness, between "things and no-thing-ness" (as Eckhart Tolle puts it). 

This one began with an old metal door that had been repeatedly covered with graffiti and painted over, so I just played with the colors until I found something that pleased me.  Unfortunately there were four buttons across the top that just weren't working for me; just not having the impact I wanted. 

So I went back to the folder in which these images are stored, and there was another door image, different door, also with four buttons, but I liked those buttons better.  So I cut them out and pasted them in, planning to erase the work around them and just leave the buttons. 

But I like that rectangle.  And once I'd gotten the colors to a point where they felt right with the other door (the two doors are actually very different colors) I really liked the effect of the light on the lower left of that bar.

So why is it that I'm better able to achieve effects I like through photo collage than through painting?  The obvious answer is that I am a far better (and more experienced) photographer than I am a painter.  But also -- thank you, Photoshop! -- I can play more, and there are ALWAYS do-overs.  If I don't like one direction, I can step back and try another.

Obviously life doesn't work that way (for some reason I'm hearing that old hymn in my head: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they lie forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.")

So perhaps the joy I find in Photoshop -- even though it has a way of eating time! -- is that it's also a way of cheating time; of going back and working and re-working "until you get it right" -- kind of like that wonderful movie, Groundhog Day.

Still staring at this image, I also realize that at heart its beauty is really quite random; some person just slapped paint on a door, trying to cover up obscenities.  They weren't attempting to create a work of art.  So maybe there's a clue in that, too: I'm just trying too hard.  Maybe I just need to slap some paint around and see what happens.

Somehow, though, I can't imagine the end result of anything I would paint could possibly compare to this...

Dorian Gray in reverse

"Look up in the sky," says Eckhart Tolle in my reading this morning from A New Earth.  "What do you see?  Objects floating in space.  So what does the universe consist of? Objects and space." 

"The twofold reality of the universe (he goes on to say), which consists of things and space -- thingness and no-thingness -- is also your own.  A sane, balanced and fruitful human life is a dance between the two dimensions that make up reality: form and space."

The two things that make up any work of art, therefore, must also be form and space.  So if I look at that objectively, and look at my art objectively as well, then I can see that my preference is for space.  The balance in my pictures tends almost always to be a little tipped toward space.

So you would think that means I'm a sort of peaceful person, right?


I'm in a play this weekend, just a reading, at the library; it's Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, and I'm thrilled to be in it, having seen it on Broadway almost 30 years ago with Christopher Reeve and Swoosie Kurtz.  And there's a line in the play I'm sure the audience won't really catch (I'm not sure the other cast members do) where one character says to another about a third character, "He looks fine," and the other character responds, "Isn't it amazing?  Somewhere there's a portrait of him that's really going to hell."

She's referring to Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a man's portrait mirrors the slow degradation of his soul.  And I thought of that this morning when -- having just read Tolle's statement, "Nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment are the three aspects of true freedom and enlightened living," I got a telemarketing call on my cellphone.  As soon as the guy started talking I yelled at him, saying, "Who do you think you are, calling me on my cellphone?" and then hung up on him.

My husband was taken aback.  "There's no need to be rude," he said, "just ask to be taken off his list... you get so engaged in these things, and you're still steaming afterwards.  You need to just let it go."

Yup.  I may do all the reading.  But he's the enlightened one.  My pictures depict, not the serene soul I am, but the serenity I long for.

Sigh.  I've still got a LONG way to go to enlightenment.

Oh, well -- one step at a time.

Beware of the hidden should

Several people who are dear to me are struggling with difficult "stuff" this week -- new medical challenges, new relationship challenges, job challenges -- so, again, I am having mixed reactions to Eckhart Tolle.

In today's reading, he says, "People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness, that is to say, dependent on form.  But what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe.  It changes constantly.  

They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn't have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have.  And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself, a perfection that is always already here, that lies beyond what is happening or not happening, beyond form.  

Accept the present moment and find the perfection that is deeper than any form and untouched by time;... the joy that emanates from the formless dimension within you, from consciousness itself and thus is one with who you are."

In my spirituality class last week, someone asked what enlightenment feels like.  My guess is that if I were truly enlightened I might be able to say and believe this and live this way; to be this sanguine about the vicissitudes of living.  But I'm not, so I'm not -- and while I do occasionally get glimpses of what it might feel like to be able to rise above (or sink below?) the challenges, it would be cruel, I think to quote this to my friends who struggle.

We can hold this up as an ideal -- and I do -- and work toward befriending each moment as best we can, trying to look beyond what makes a moment good or bad to the "isness" of it.  But this kind of statement contains a hidden should that can be very hard to achieve, and therefore could so easily turn into a platitude.

Better, I think, to be as still a pond as possible, and instead of offering advice to simply listen and be present.

Befriending the moment of Now

I've shared this beautiful Kwan Yin, created by Anita Feng, with you before, but I've placed her here again because I felt as if she were speaking to me this morning.

I was sitting at my dining room table reading Eckhart Tolle's New Earth, and came upon this passage:

"Once you have reached a certain level of consciousness, you are able to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with the present moment.  Do I want the present moment to be my friend or my enemy?

The present moment is inseparable from life, so you are really deciding what kind of a relationship you want to have with life.  Once you have decided you want the present moment to be your friend, it is up to you to make the first move: Become friendly toward it, welcome it no matter in what disguise it comes, and soon you will see the results.  Life becomes friendly toward you; people become helpful, circumstances cooperative.  One decision changes your entire reality.  But that one decision you have to make again and again and again -- until it becomes natural to live in such a way."

So I sat there, hands folded, looking out through the living room and across the water, listening to the birds, watching the loon dip for fish, befriending the Now, and this Kwan Yin was just off to the left in my field of vision.

A friend had come to visit late yesterday afternoon, and had remarked upon how lovely the little statue looked, glowing in the late afternoon sun, so I was more aware of her than I usually am.  And as I looked at her, I felt her as a kind of Madonna, but with empty arms held out as if to receive me in the Divine Embrace; as if -- in stopping the relentless mental hopping from past to future and befriending the moment of Now -- I had stepped into her arms and was cradled there in love.

I suspect there's room there for you, too...

Multi-layered questions and answers

The issues raised here over the last few days have sparked a good deal of discussion, much of it around the question of "how do we know?"

How do we know, when things aren't going well, how much of the problem is something we're contributing, either with our own nature, our thoughts, or our projections?

How do we know, when it seems a decision needs to be made, whether our judgments are sound and rational or based on avoidance, discomfort, or -- again -- projections?

And there are as many answers to these questions as there are people in the world: it's a problem each of us has had to solve at one time or another, and we each bring different assumptions to the challenge -- even assumptions about the results; whether the choices we made were good or bad, whether the outcomes carried blessings or curses...

So I am amused to read the following in Eckhart Tolle's New Earth this morning:

"The deeper interconnectedness of all things and events implies that the mental labels of "good" and "bad" are ultimately illusory.  They always imply a limited perspective and so are true only relatively and temporarily...there are no random events, nor are there events or things that exist by and for themselves, in isolation.  The atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars, and the causes of even the smallest event are virtually infinite and connected with the whole in incomprehensible ways."

"Sooner or later," says Tolle, "disorder will irrupt into everyone's life no matter how many insurance policies he or she has.  It may come in the form of loss or accident, sickness, disability, old age, death.  However, the irruption of disorder into a person's life, and the resultant collapse of a mentally defined meaning, can become the opening into a higher order."

I confess I find these words both reassuring and irritating: Having been raised a Presbyterian, I like thinking it's all part of some divine plan, that "all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28).  But at the same time that thinking seems hopelessly idealistic in the face of pain and loss.  It was all beginning to feel terribly muddy, so I thought I'd try to create an image that might help me understand better.  And this is what came.

This image seems, like this problem, rather hopelessly muddy and dense.  And yet, when I try to heighten the contrast, I'm not sure I like what I see.  No surprises there!  But maybe that means that at some level it's good -- and appropriate -- for things to be a little confusing?  There are actually four layers in this picture, and that seems appropriate.

The first layer, which has that seam and the silver buttons on it, is a photograph of the insulation wrapped around heating pipes on the ceiling of the car deck on the ferry.  It's a very simple picture, of something easy to understand, even easy to imagine creating, and yet it's actually masking, protecting us, from heat and danger -- even as it keeps the heated pipes hot so they can do their work.  So that's kind of fun to think about (and no, I didn't plan this going in, it's just what called to me).

The second layer, which contributes the horizontal streaks of light and the smear of red in the upper left corner, is the wall of the ferry turned on its side (that red smear is actually a NO SMOKING sign).  So that might be something about the rules we create to protect ourselves?

The third layer is reality -- a driveway, grass and trees in Vermont -- and gives us a sense that we're going somewhere, that life has a purpose, that there are things we can touch and see and understand; it feels sort of familiar, encouraging, inspiring, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world"-ish.  That sense we have when things are going well and we stop -- even if only for a moment -- and see that all is well.

And the fourth, top layer, is a piece of art that somehow evolved back when I was playing with Citrasolv.  It's very abstract and colorful, and makes almost everything I put it on seem beautiful, magical, artistic, mysterious, impressionistic...  And I think maybe that represents spiritual awareness, that sense of connection, wholeness; the faith that somehow things can come right; an acceptance of mystery, that there is much that just lies beyond understanding, that we just have to trust.

I'm not saying this is great art, or even that I like it, or that you have to like it.  But in constructing it, I get this sense that all these questions have a lot of layers, and that its okay to accept that complexity as a gift, something mostly beyond understanding which somehow conveys a depth and beauty without any kind of concrete answer.

In the end, what I like is Tolle's line, "the atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars."  It makes me want to go back and add a little sparkle to the picture.  But maybe we don't need to; maybe we are the sparkle that makes it beautiful -- like those lights on the wall in yesterday's image...

Concern for the have nots

"Whatever you think people are withholding from you -- praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on -- give it to them.  You don't have it?  Just act as if you had it, and it will come.  Then, soon after you start giving, you will start receiving.  You cannot receive what you don't give.  Outflow determines inflow.  

Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you already have, but unless you allow it to flow out, you won't even know that you have it.  This includes abundance.  The law that ourflow determines inflow is expressed by Jesus in this powerful image: "Give and it will be given to you.  Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap." 

The source of all abundance is not outside you.  It is part of who you are... Both abundance and scarcity are inner states that manifest as your reality.  Jesus puts it like this: "For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." -- Eckhart Tolle, from A New Earth

And again I find myself thinking, mightn't there be situations where this is NOT true?  Aren't there relationships, jobs, situations where one person pours out and receives nothing in return?  How do we know when the fault is ours and when it is not, and time to extricate ourselves?

I haven't been in one of those situations in years, but I remember how it felt, how much of myself I poured in, and how hard it was to finally separate myself from that.  And I see how difficult situations like that are for others.  So some part of me rebels when I see this sort of "not getting enough? Give more!" advice. 

On the other hand, in both of the situations I'm remembering the root of the problem was my tendency to undervalue myself.  And the fact is, when I continued to give, it eventually became clear, even to me, that I was worth more than I was getting in return.  And it was that awareness that allowed me to extricate myself.  So perhaps this IS good advice?

Still -- some part of me worries: are we blaming the victim here?

Balancing the dry spells

I've probably mentioned this before, but back when I lived on Orcas Island I used to sing in a group called Those Guys from Orcas.

This picture reminds me of a song we used to sing, something that had been performed by an old group called "Sons of the Pioneers," entitled "Cool Water."

"All day I've faced a barren waste
Without the taste of water, cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool, clear, water

This image -- and the song -- bring to mind the sense of clarity I associate with "things being right" -- those times when I feel in tune with God, the earth, my family, my body; when I've been eating well, exercising lightly, meditating regularly and smiling a lot.

I'm not sure if it's because I'm getting older or because I'm more attuned to things, but it seems to me that when things get to feeling a little dry I can fine tune myself back into this state by stepping outside, or breathing deeply, or holding a cat, or smelling certain perfumes, or hugging my husband.

Back when our girls were little, my husband would notice when I was getting a little dry and take us on a ferry ride; it always seemed to help -- and still does.  Creating art, having coffee with a friend, taking a walk, looking at a stained glass window -- any number of things can bring me back to that clear state, so I try to make space for those things to balance the inevitable dry spells.

What sorts of things create that sense of clarity for you?  And are you making time for them?

Why alienation?

My older daughter and I did a quick run up to Shaw Island this weekend and found it a very restorative experience.  We brought along our favorite foods (stopping at the Shaw Store for breakfast milk and Lopez Island Creamery's fabulous Coconut ice cream), and after dinner we spent a lovely evening with old friends, catching up on each others' lives and community affairs.  

Saturday morning included a trip to the Shaw Library (where I used to serve as librarian) before heading down to the ferry; we each took pictures of the daffodils before heading in to check out the latest additions to the collection.

I'm still thinking about what Bamford says about starting out as one, and then the fall into separation; wondering if the separation he's describing is what Eckhart Tolle (in my reading this morning from A New Earth) calls alienation.  Tolle says people trapped in the egoic state "are alienated from themselves as well as from others and the world around them... They are not present in any situation, their attention being either in the past or future, which, of course, exist only in the mind as thought forms... Alienation (Tolle goes on to say) means you don't feel at ease in any situation, any place, or with any person, not even with yourself.  You are always trying to get "home" but never feel at home."

The implication here is that the alienation is kind of a choice; that we allow ourselves to get caught up in our thought patterns, and that's what alienates us.  But is it entirely a choice, a function of selfish decisions?   I'm trying to understand how it is that, though I've lived where I live now for over 11 years -- longer than I've EVER lived ANYWHERE in my entire life -- I still feel separate here.  And yet when I go back to Shaw, even though I only actually lived there 3 1/2 years, I feel so very much at home, as if people there speak the same language I speak, and care about the same things I care about.

When I'm on Shaw it's very easy to be present.  Partly because there's no internet or TV to distract me, of course.  But I feel engaged, included; something that continues to elude me here, despite some dear friends and participation in several different groups within the community.  Perhaps it is just a choice, but could it at least be a mix of possible reasons; that the kind of people who would choose the sort of rural existence Shaw offers would have different approaches and values than those whose lives involve more exposure to more urban expectations?

Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that alienation or separation -- whatever gifts it may bring, either in terms of a "school of empathy" or in terms of creativity (Tolle cites some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century -- Kafka, Camus, Eliot, and Joyce -- who "recognized alienation as the universal dilemma of human existence" and "show us a reflection of the human predicament so that we can see it more clearly") -- may also be a function of displacement; that for each of us some places may just feel more like home than others, and some people may just feel more like family than others.

Or. Maybe it really has been some sort of unconscious choice, some invisible barrier I've erected to protect a growing need for privacy...  ah, well.  Fortunately (as Tolle is quick to tell us) "To see one's predicament clearly is a first step toward going beyond it."  Maybe it's enough to recognize the problem and be more conscious about the choices I make...

The wound of our fallenness

I should back up here and say that a friend found a book for me at the thrift shop where I do some volunteer marketing; it's called The Best American Spiritual Writing of 2005, and it's edited by Philip Zaleski.  Bamford's Parabola article is the first article in the book, and it continues to capture my interest, as I spent most of Lent exploring the concept of call and response.

Today's reading... well.  I'll just quote it for you:

At first people are like angels, bathed in light and goodness.  We move without separation, as if all beings participated in a unique identity, a communion of perfect understanding.  Somewhere, neither within us nor without us, we still hear the echo of the single name we all share.  Echoing in the depths, it calls us to the common task of playfully, joyfully cocreating the world.  We are busy with it.  We understand the mutuality of being, of our interdependence.  The world is a marvelous piece of music, and like an angelic choir we busy ourselves with performing the heavenly composition, knowing that everyone is playing the same score.

Then comes the fall, which, like the call itself, appears gradually yet in fact, paradoxically, has always been there....It seems that we are not only always called, but also always fallen.  We know this because though each of us experiences the fall subjectively, we also know that we are not alone in our pain.  We are hurt, but as we turn our attention from our own pain, we recognize that the world is in pain, and that fallenness is a universal condition.  Individually we may feel violated or betrayed in different ways, but whatever the circumstances of our falling, we recognize the bitter teaching that the world is riven by violence and deception and that we are all complicit in it.

Fall and call belong together.  As the web of deception and death appears and the golden world fades, the memory of that world, which seemed once so safe and whole, continues to call.  Nature remains beautiful. Though we no longer see its invisible source, we still intuit it at the edge of our perception...  The wonder and reverence that surrounded us, haloing parents and playmates alike, does not disappear.  Transformed into curiosity, it becomes interest.  People call us.  They draw us.  A glance, a smile, a touch, are now redolent of the mystery the greater world once held.  

The wound of our fallenness becomes a school of empathy.  We learn sympathy and compassion... Art, literature, and music become messengers, intermediaries of the call.... Meaning still occasionally pierces the clouds of fragmentation, drawing us on.  The call, which seemed perhaps to echo from the past, now sounds from the future.... The unity experienced in that first love of beauty seems now to foreshadow the unity we could achieve by realizing God's identity with creation through the work of conscious human love and suffering.

The call to Beauty

Again -- the beauty of this natural stone formation astounds me.  And calls to me in a way that Christopher Bamford (in the Parabola article I cited yesterday) explains:

"Often the call sounds first in childhood, through nature and the senses, when the world is new, shining with the glory and the freshness of a dream...

First memories are frequently of light and color, or darkness and light, shadows, moving on the wall, or of pastel silks swaying in the breeze.  The world seems luminous... Experience is unified...there is already a sense of a numinous other, though the ineffability is only intuited, not yet known.  

Beauty lies at the edge of consciousness, in the warm, dark, mothering embrace of a world in which we are one with all there is.  Only later, when we have fallen into separateness, does beauty begin to draw us consciously from our isolation into the light...

The call of beauty is always intimate, one on one.  She is our mother; she raises us to our feet, so that we may see her face to face.  She gives us language and thought, whose first form is imagination, so that we may praise her in our hearts and proclaim what we have found."

Is that the nature of the call -- to proclaim what we have found?  And if that's true, then how we are called -- whether to sing or play, write or paint -- may well be less important than the proclamation itself; the goal is simply to communicate in whatever way best expresses the magnitude of our response.  And that is something we can only know if we are fully present, awake to the pull without and the drive within to give voice to that pull.

The invitation to respond

It's spring, and like many people I tend to go into cleanup mode.  So last night I thought I'd walk through some of my images, tossing stuff I'm unlikely to use.

Easier said than done, of course.

I started at the bottom of the alphabet, a file labeled "wood, stone, rust and sand." This was in the stone folder.

Looking at it, I wonder why I would ever bother to paint when the created world is this beautiful -- but of course, we don't create because we're trying to make a more beautiful world; we create to express our response to this beautiful world -- or this ugly world, or this tortured world... what's important is the response.

Facing beauty of this magnitude, I confess I am struck dumb.  It's a bit like those times as a child when I would struggle through my piano lessons and then my mother would sit down and breeze through some Rachmaninoff Concerto.  Very discouraging. 

But here's the good news: I don't have to be divinely creative.  I don't have to be God. I am, however, invited to respond to Creation's glory.  We all are -- and we can do it with a shout, with a dance, with a hug, or a photo, with a painting, or a speech, with a well-cooked dinner or with time spent on our knees (whether praying or scrubbing) or even with a crusade for justice...

It's really about call and response.  According to Christopher Bamford, writing about "The Gift of the Call" in Parabola, one of the meanings of anthropos, or human being, is "to look up," as one looks up when one hears one's name called.

Think about it.

Have you looked up lately?

Open to everything

My husband brought home tulips for Easter; I've been enjoying watching them open their sweet faces to the spring sun.  Makes me think of the opening verse of that wonderful song by the Wailin' Jennys, Bird Song:

I hear a bird chirping up in the sky,
I'd like to be free like that, spread my wings so high.
I see the river flowing, water running by,
I'd like to be that river, see what I might find.
I feel the wind a-blowing, slowly changing time,
I'd like to be that wind, I'd swirl and shape the sky.
I smell the flowers blooming, opening for spring,
I'd like to be those flowers, open to everything.

You can watch and hear them sing this here:

Still smiling

Our older daughter came home for Easter, and called in advance to see if she and I might attend an Easter service together.  This was QUITE amazing, as the two of us hadn't really attended church together since we moved to Shaw Island in 1996 (the community church on Shaw had no child care program, and she had no patience for sitting).

I hadn't actually been planning to attend an Easter service: I generally have the same prejudice about Christmas and Easter services that I had about best-sellers when I worked as a librarian: if everyone else is doing/reading this, I'm not really interested!
But we discovered that the older Episcopal church on the island was planning to hold a Great Vigil service on Saturday night, complete with bells and incense.  It didn't seem likely that it would be very crowded -- the Great Vigil is a LONG service with lots of long Bible readings and hymns -- so we decided to check it out. 

The Great Vigil (I should add) was at one point in my life my very favorite church service: back when I was in my early 30's and living in a college town, it included a bonfire, a procession, a very dramatic shift from light to dark (always timed to coincide with midnight) and then some liturgical dancing and a dessert feast afterward.  So it was truly a magical experience; sadly, no GV services I'd attended since that time ever really measured up.

... but this service tried, using many of the same elements, and we were both pleasantly surprised to find ourselves experiencing a significant uplifting of spirit as the evening wore on: by the time we were belting out "He is Risen, He is Risen" we were pretty much beaming at each other. 

Yes, we were outsiders; we didn't know a soul at the service, and clearly didn't know "the right way" to do stuff.  Yes, though we are both VERY knowledgeable about Christianity we are wary of its mythological components and the ways they have been used over the centuries to separate and exclude.  But there was this joyful sense of participating in a sort of universal Rite of Spring; a feeling of connectedness that continued to sparkle long after we had left the parking lot.

So, yes -- it was worth the trip! ... and I'm still smiling.

Moving on...

Part of the reason I embarked on the Praying Through Lent series was because I had an experience just prior to Ash Wednesday of feeling totally blocked.  So I thought it might be good to undertake a shift; to try creating multi-layered abstract/formless images (because photography tends to be so form-based), and to try keeping my words to a minimum (personally, I think my columns tend to ramble on a bit, and I wanted to pare that down.)

So -- now that's over -- what am I left with?  Well, eventually the frustrated artist in me decided to try painting.  Results are mixed, but show some promise.  It's surprisingly stressful -- rather like singing a solo; painting makes me feel very exposed and vulnerable.  But it's good for me, I think.  I promise not to subject you to too much of this stuff...

The frustrated Buddhist in me was frequently uncomfortable with the unabashedly Christian nature of this adventure -- not unlike one of my readers, who wrote me a note saying, "I can't say I've been a big fan of your Praying Through Lent series as I just don't seem to fit into the Christian mold; but your words and images have touched me nonetheless." It was easy, on some levels, to fall back into "the Christian mold," but I did find myself chafing a bit; the mold seems too small to contain the faith that has evolved over the years.

But the best part of Lent this year was sort of the flip side of that; re-connecting with people and beliefs and faith experiences from my past.  It's been good to see that parts of my life that are no longer living at the surface of awareness are also not lost, but continue to serve as grounding elements for whoever it is I am becoming.  And how fun is that, to understand -- at the ripe old age of 62 -- that I am still becoming!  I don't know WHAT I'm becoming, but I have to say I'm enjoying the journey.

And it's all good...
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