This morning I picked up a book I'd ordered some time ago, sort of by accident; one of those Amazon things where "people who ordered this book also purchased..."
It's by Sera Beak, and it's called The Red Book: A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine Spark. Beak appears to be a member of my daughters' generation, and she has the wonderfully refreshing and open approach to spirituality that characterizes much of her generation, but also a good deal of wisdom about balancing exploration with good sense and not getting too caught up in the Spiritual Buffet.
So I've been skipping through the book to get a feel for what she's offering, and happened upon a chapter entitled "Divine Winks: The Universe Wants Your Attention. Will You Wink Back?" which begins with this: "The divine is slapping your ass right now. It happened yesterday. It will continue tomorrow, even if you try to avoid it."
Basically her point is that there are signs and wonders everywhere, but we need to learn to read them, to listen and respond. And one of her first points is about prayer. She firmly believes "that if you ask the divine for a response or a solution, you'll invariably get it. Always. That's right, ALWAYS. Ask and ye shall receive. But here's the catch: It's often incredibly tricky and sometimes damn annoying to try to hear the answers. Because the answer almost never comes in a form we expect, we often swear we've heard no answer at all. Sad but true."
"Most of us," she goes on to say, "hide from the responses to our prayers because they demand change -- emotional, physical, or some other kind. And let's face it, change freaks us out. It takes guts to pray creatively, but it takes even more guts to be able to truly see, understand, and act responsibly on the answers we receive."
Yup. I would have to agree. Chances are, if there's something we've been praying for, the answer's already been given. It may even be staring us in the face -- we just can't (or don't want to) see it.
And here's the corollary: just because you follow some divine instinct and step off your current path into some completely new undertaking, that doesn't mean that's where you're meant to stay. It might just be that there are some important lessons to be learned in the process of stepping away and stepping forward; lessons that you'll end up carrying into some new place altogether -- or back into familiar territory for a new approach to old problems.
It's all an adventure, to be sure -- and she's right: it takes courage. It also takes a willingness to examine your own stuff, which gets very tricky: it's so much easier to drift from fun exploration to fun exploration --"to pick and choose what you want... only taking what you like, what feels good or looks good or matches your life the way a nice painting matches your couch while possibly missing what you might actually need" -- than it is to buckle down and learn what you need to learn.
Beak has advice for that, too: "It all comes down to a simple, but absolutely essential reminder: As you explore, be exceptionally careful not to use spirituality as a cocktail, as just a quick high or a mere inebriating distraction. The point is to use various spiritual practices, beliefs, teachers, and even deities as self-empowering refreshers, to help you sober up for a more authentic divine connection."
So. What divine possibility is lurking in your life today -- and what will it take for you to act on that?
"To practice the discipline of reverence... means that we remain always secretly ready to receive the words that could illuminate our destiny." John O'Donohue
You've seen this lovely Kwan Yin on these pages before; she's one of Anita Feng's wonderful clay creations (I see there is another one of these in her shop this week) and lately she's been perched on the table in front of me as I meditate, reminding me of the importance of receptivity and openness.
I'm getting lots of practice today: my PC-based husband has purchased an iPod and is busily loading books on CD into iTunes so he'll have something to listen to while he and our daughter drive her car back across the country.
As anyone who has ever loaded CDs into iTunes knows, not every CD labels its tracks the same way, and this is doubly true in the world of books on tape. Which means that finding them once they're loaded in and making playlists of them becomes a rather complicated exercise, requiring a certain amount of flexibility; you have to dance lightly through the process.
But there's a reason my husband is a software tester: he's not particularly light on his feet, and though he's flexible about a lot of things and very generous, he's also extremely logical, so when things are not logical, well... he kind of breaks them. It's a gift, when you're looking for flaws, to have someone be so good at finding them. It's not such a gift when you're just trying to accomplish a simple task and things keep "breaking."
And meanwhile, of course, I have my own complex leaving-on-a-trip to-do list which requires a certain amount of concentration, so I'm not quite as gracious as I might be about all the interruptions (thanks to my daughters I am somewhat of an iTunes expert -- at least, relative to him -- so whenever something doesn't work he comes to me).
But if I am practicing the discipline of reverence, I really need to understand that something about what is happening here -- the interruptions, the training, the intermittent listening required to decide whether this is track one of the book about libraries or track one of the book about island history -- may have, hidden somewhere in it, those "words that could illuminate our destiny."
I had never quite thought of reverence as a discipline before, but of course: if we believe God is in everything, and that there is divine purpose in everything, then it follows naturally that the reverence we reserve for "things of God" must in fact be a reverence for all of life -- good, bad, ugly or irritating; it all has the potential to enlighten.
Hmm. Well, every discipline takes practice. And today I'm getting lots of practice in this one!
For the first two years we lived on the Sandspit there were masses of bright california poppies on the little hillside leading down to the boardwalk, but for the last several years they've not been showing up.
This year they're back, though not necessarily in the same places or in the same bright profusion; this charming patch has perched itself on a neighbor's septic system.
It's yet another reminder that things tend to go in cycles, and that just because some facet of our lives has faded, that doesn't mean it won't return again.
I'm thinking that we who are mortal assume without really even thinking about it that things once dead are gone forever. And this despite all the evidence to the contrary: days, seasons, politics, faith, love, even health -- so many things go dark and then return to light again. Not always in the same shape or guise, but much of life, like the cells in our bodies, is constantly being reborn.
As I said to one of my daughters earlier this week -- one door slams, and another door opens. Yes, it's trite -- and it doesn't mean we don't mourn for the doors that close. But it seems to me that with age and perspective we cannot help but come to understand there will always be new doors opening. And I believe the reason for that is that we are always growing and becoming; that there is a sort of divine compulsion to become more fully what we were born to be, and that whatever happens -- whether loss or opportunity -- is a way of bringing us closer to divine fruition, to becoming a more perfect expression of the divine idea that led to our creation.
John O'Donohue says, "Creation is always in the heave of growth and becoming, and when a thing journeys towards its own perfection or fullness of life, it is also secretly journeying towards the divine likeness. The integrity of beauty is that inner straining towards goodness and completion. There is a wonderful urgency within things to realize the dream of their individual fulfillment; nothing is neutral, everything is on its way."
Yes, of course, there are limits to growth. But perhaps those limits are only to human concepts of growth? Maybe the only end to divine growth is perfection, and that perfection is somehow intimately connected with balance -- so there is some sort of automatic cutoff that ensures things will never get too far out of balance?
I don't know. But it's a fun thing to think about on a Sunday afternoon...
I was standing on the deck yesterday evening, taking pictures of the sunset over the mountains, when my husband came out to give me a hug. We ducked under the roof to avoid a sudden rainshower, and then turned to go in and I noticed my garden buddha was glowing red beneath the tree. And it was one of those divine moments, when you feel your heart soften...
It's amazing, isn't it, what gifts the sun brings to us each day -- light, and color, and power, and warmth. But then, perhaps when you live in the Northwest you just appreciate it more because you go for so many months without it.
After writing this I turned to the Hafiz poem for today from Daniel Ladinsky's A Year with Hafiz; it seems to work...
The Heart's Coronation
The pawn always sits stunned, chained, unable to move beneath God's magnificent power.
It is essential for the heart's coronation for the pawn to realize
there is nothing but divine movement in this world.
You know, it is not beyond God to take pity on many down here. He might just surprise you -- someday -- and grind a few million tons of opium into a fine dust and then sprinkle it over your house so that you stop complaining.
You might have to shovel your way out, as if a big snow came along, smoking it -- breathing it in all the time... -- Hafiz
This is a shot of my office window, taken in the late afternoon or early evening a few nights ago, before the sun began to set.
For some reason that dozy period after I wake but before I get out of bed is ripe for dreams of art projects, and this morning I got an image of a painting of a window, mostly in blues. Since I hope to paint what I saw in my dreams this afternoon, I decided to post this picture as a sort of place-holder, to remind me of another window to come.
But, looking at this image and sitting here this morning, staring out at the rain, I can't help but notice how different this same scene looks. This time all the light is outside, but it's very gray, so the colors you see are more natural but there's less definition of the interior, even though there's actually more light in the room with this picture than with the other.
In the first image you're struck by the blues in the water, but that small strip of view is framed by the appeal of the curtains and the driftwood mobile. In the second image the outside has more definition but the curtains have become more an obstacle than a frame, and the balance of the image is lost.
The scene itself hasn't really altered at all; only the light has shifted. Which makes me think of another one of the truths in last Monday's Mothers' Day advice list: Pain is inevitable, but you can control suffering.
So maybe suffering is somehow like light? Perhaps that phrase, "See it in a different light" is connected somehow to this thought, and also, "things will look better in the morning." It's not really that the situation we're observing has changed, but how we see it has shifted. It makes me think of that Jack Kornfield story: if a man plunges a knife into another man's chest and he dies, isn't that murder? Well, not necessarily: not, for example, if the first man is a surgeon and the other man is a heart patient he's trying to save...
So what situation is in your view this morning? And what's the state of your inner illumination? How are you seeing things today, and what might bring more light in to help you see things differently?
One of my favorite things about living on an island is riding the ferry, which I get to do again this morning; yay!
I'll be heading to St. Hilda-St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Edmonds, where a former student of mine (from back when I taught at our Diocesan School of Theology), Cynthia Espeseth, is now rector.
The church has a wonderful lobby which they've turned into an art gallery, and I'm delighted to report that the pieces in my Contemplative Photographer's Alphabet exhibition (which have been sitting, boxed up, in my garage for the past year) will be mounted there today for display.
Over the past several years the exhibit -- which is lightweight and boxes up easily -- has traveled across the country to be shown in several other dioceses. It will be fun to have it out and visible again, and I'll be taking along copies of the accompanying book in case anyone might be interested in purchasing a full set of the images.
Anyway -- back to the ferry rides -- not only are the views from the windows -- of Seattle, and Mount Rainier, and the other boats we pass -- spectacular, but the inside of the ferry is beautiful, too (at least, I think so; reflections like those shown here just make my heart sing!). Add to that the gentle rocking motion and the sense of destination and adventure, and you have just a dynamite combination.
Something I read recently talked about "destination as midwife to the soul." At the risk of being a bit too graphic, I can't help but draw a parallel with the ferry, and the way the cars spill out into the destination when we arrive... It's just a lovely way to say "Today is a new day, and anything might happen. Can't wait!"
Returning home yesterday from some late afternoon errands, I rounded the corner onto the Sandspit and saw, in the distance, my house bathed in these beautiful rays of light.
I had taken my camera out of the car to download some pictures, unfortunately, so I had no way to capture my house in its moment of divine beauty. And so instead I drove home and rushed out to the deck to shoot the rays there; I knew they wouldn't last long enough for me to get back to the top of the spit and catch them bathing my house.
One of the many blessings of photography is the way it keeps you so squarely in the present. What is here? What is now? Because the beauty of an image is so dependent upon the light, and because light is always shifting and changing, we come to understand over time that carpe diem has to be the name of the game. There might be a place where once I saw an amazing burst of beauty, but chances are that no matter how many times I return to that spot and wait for that moment of beauty to re-occur, it will never happen in quite that way again.
I suppose it's a bit like being a parent: the miracle that is your child's first word or your child's first step will never happen again. To be sure, there will be other miracles, but those particular ones, once past, are gone. And if we spend our time looking inward, grieving missed opportunities, or looking ahead to what we imagine might be the next significant developmental milestone, we might miss the miracles that are right here in front of us. And so we learn to release the moments of the past, stop dreaming of the future, and watch instead for what is beautiful and miraculous in the now of the present.
So -- the weekend is here. Presumably you are somewhat released from your normal daily grind. Will you take some time this weekend to be present, to observe? What wee miracles will you see?
It's lovely to watch how the brain responds to stimulation. Last night I had the chance to revisit those fabulous high school art and photography exhibits, as I'd agreed to hand out the photography awards.
The students' work was so inspiring that it's no surprise to find that in my last dream this morning I imagined a really unusual work of art: giant pieces of what looked like beach glass, mounted on posts on a wall, superimposed on an image of a beach and water which was actually a video projection: the water was rippling slowly, and occasionally a boat would pass by, or a bird or fish would disturb the surface...
So of course, when I awoke, I began imagining how something like that might be done on a smaller scale, without the video component, with normal size pieces of beach glass (did I mention I have jars and jars of beach glass?). So I layered up several images, including a painting I did earlier this week, and began planning how I might mount beach glass onto the resulting piece.
Fun, yes. But just as exciting to me is that my brain had clearly integrated into the dream an experience that had temporarily marred the evening for me. There was a young man who won several awards for his photography, including a first in the state contest. We gave him a couple of awards, too -- though not for the piece that won that first; none of us were particularly drawn to it. I was pleased to see he was a bright and lively person, delighted with his awards but humble at the same time; the kind of likeable kid my daughters used to bring home back when they were in high school.
But afterwards, as I was walking out, taking one last look at all the wonderful images, the mother of one of the other award winners came up to me and began snarling about his piece, the one that had taken first in state, first making nasty remarks about the judges who selected it and then attacking the piece itself -- the picture was worthless, the mat was crooked, the kid couldn't draw a straight line... the venom was astonishing -- and this despite the fact her own extraordinarily talented child had also won several awards.
I left the building with all senses humming, fight or flight in full play, some part of me itching to share the story and name names. But as I drove home I remembered the comment Ann left on my list of Mothers' Day advice on Monday: "Be kind. Be compassionate. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."
And so I began to imagine what might drive the mother's behaviors; began to think about the pressures that would lead her to spew such venom; began picturing her held and comforted in a sort of bluish-green light like that shown in this image; picturing her calm, and cool, loved and supported on her journey. And poof -- all that stuff zinging in my veins subsided, and I was able to release the tension it had created completely. By the time I was back home the incident had lost all its power, and had completely faded. Not only that, but now I can clearly see that the light I had imagined surrounding her then came back and illuminated my own soul as well.
What a beautiful case for the healing power of compassion! Even if I wasn't able to make her life easier (there's no way I can know; I just have to trust), by choosing a compassionate response I was able to defuse her negative influence on me and even feed my own creativity.
This morning I find I am still haunted by four of the images to which we did NOT give awards yesterday: two extraordinary portraits by the same artist, one of a beautiful face and one of a young girl with an amazing smile; a spectacular landscape, perfectly balanced in light and composition (when I remarked upon its perfection one of the other judges sneered, "Yes, if you're shooting for National Geographic"); and a very sweet sepia-tone photo printed on textured paper of a hand holding a baby's feet.
Yes, I suppose you could say they were trite. But must we always award those things which push the boundaries of what is currently considered beautiful? Is this part of our society's commitment to growth; to always be expanding our definition of what is considered to be appealing or attractive?
And what of the extraordinarily competent young photographers who shot these photos and received no recognition for their work? Will they be encouraged to step beyond their current (and some might say trite) notions of beauty or will they just abandon this field in which they have clearly established expertise?
As my thinking moved along these lines, I found myself remembering a quote I read somewhere that said if you removed beauty, she would, in revenge, take her two sisters, truth and goodness, with her, and found myself traveling a way down that road -- an old folks path, to be sure -- mourning the loss of traditional values. But it's only a step from here to "the world is going to hell in a handbasket" -- a favorite lament of a particularly crotchety 50-something I know -- so I looked at that quote more closely.
... And remembered that there's an exhibit opening this coming Sunday of photos taken of women over 50, wearing no makeup, necks and shoulders exposed, hair wetted down. I am, I confess, dreading the opening of this exhibit: it's in a very public place, and one of the images in it is mine. I don't mean I took the photo, I mean the photograph is of me. And though I haven't seen it, and though the photographer's point in shooting this exhibit was that we older women are actually beautiful without the disguises of clothing, hair and makeup, I am quite certain that in my case that will not prove to be true. So it's hard to think of that photo being out there, my non-beauty exposed for all to see.
But why is that? Do I believe people will love me less when they see what I really look like behind my hair and turtlenecks? Or is something in me convinced that beauty, truth and goodness are inseparable; that people will no longer see the truth or goodness that lies in me?
Or is it really true that beauty is quite simply in the eye of the beholder? Certainly the young men my daughters find attractive, and the young men who seem to be getting the leads in today's movies, have very little claim to the sort of classic features my generation deemed appealing. Some part of me finds that fabulous (and enormously reassuring), that people are now more intrigued by talent and character than by beauty.
But does that make beauty any less desirable?
Like Mary, I keep these things and ponder them in my heart. And meanwhile, this little scene -- neither spectacularly beautiful or particularly original -- greeted me this morning. And because it sang to me and settled my heart I share it here. Those characteristics may not make it prize-worthy, but I'm not sure winning has anything to do with creativity or the life of the spirit. If, as I wrote in the Mothers' Day truths on Monday, happiness has little to do with success -- well then, I think I just chose happiness again.
I just opened an email from Marry Your Muse author Jan Phillips in which she included this quote from Hafiz, which seems the perfect conclusion for today's post:
Any thought that you are better or less Than another Quickly Breaks the wine Glass.
I know: I'm coming to the table pretty late tonight. But it's been a pretty intense day, and I needed some downtime before I sat down to write.
It started with Pilates class -- first one in a while, as our instructor's been away -- but I learned one of our favorite class members, a truly wonderful and inspiring man, a photographer who has been encouraging and promoting my photography for years, is dying of pancreatitis. It was a shock; I had thought he was in recovery.
Still reeling from that news, I met with the folks at the Parks and Rec department to plan out a workshop I'll be giving about playing with Photoshop (so exciting!). After that I grabbed a quick lunch and headed to the high school to judge the annual student photo contest.
I spent the rest of my afternoon debating the merits of photographs with 3 other photographers, all gifted, competent, opinionated and willing to compromise: amazing discussions, and my first time ever judging by committee -- quite an experience! Challenging, exhilarating, exhausting -- all of the above.
Just after I got home an EMT truck came down the hill onto the Sandspit; it's never easy to see that happen, as we have a number of elderly residents on our street. But we later learned one of our residents had taken a fall down some stairs; nothing life threatening but a little TLC was in order.
And then I received an email with some more sad news, about another friend whose cancer has taken a turn for the worse; another case where I'd thought things were on the mend only to find that they weren't.
So I knew I wouldn't really have anything brilliant to say when I sat down here; I just needed to process a bit. I checked recent photos to see if any of them spoke to me, and this one seemed to want to come out and play. I like the blues, because they're calming, and at the same time inspiring. But I found myself looking at it and thinking, well, if this had been on the wall today, it wouldn't have won any prizes; it's NOT particularly original.
Because that was one thing I took away with me: there were pictures these high school kids had taken which were amazingly competent, appealing and saleworthy. But they were not the pictures that won. And when I said, "But a HIGH SCHOOL kid shot this, this is incredible!" the answer was always a variation on "yeah, but it looks like a magazine cover."
... which takes me back to the woman (I think she ran a gallery; not sure -- it was so long ago) who was judging a portfolio review I went to years ago. "Well of course these are lovely," she said, "but they're just ... well ... Getty Images." Implying, of course, that I was certainly competent, but not particularly original, and definitely not gallery-worthy.
Hmm. I wonder if that's somehow been driving all this experimentation I've been doing these last few years. Have I just been trying to prove I CAN be original? I'm sure that's a piece of it. But mostly -- I'm just having fun, exploring, creating things I like to look at, moving on when the well dries up.
But you know what? Water, boats, mountains... they may not be particularly original. But that's a well that never seems to dry up for me; these images still feed me after all these years, just as riding the ferry feeds me, and living on the water feeds me. Plus -- on days like today, they sing a bit of soothing music to my soul.
So it's all good. Even the hard stuff. It's how life is -- ups and downs, good and bad, joy and suffering. But boy, when it's all crammed into the same day?
At some point, while painting yesterday afternoon, I discovered I could make my brushstrokes look like they were interwoven, and there was this sort of "Aha!" feeling. At last, I liked something my brush was doing. And, at the same time, something I was painting was giving voice to something inside me.
It's actually sort of a variation on the boundaries issue I mentioned on Saturday, and also relates indirectly to a couple of things in my Mothers' Day list, and it has to do the Declaration of Independence as well: it's all about equality, and about equal value.
If we take seriously the proposition that all people are created equal, then differences of opinion don't need to become divisions, and certainly don't merit contempt; they simply become opportunities to listen, another chance to explore how we might move from "us vs. them" to "we," to move beyond "light is good and dark is bad" to "we need both light and dark; how can we weave our differing visions together to find a balance?" How can we build a whole out of disparate parts?
The actual picture I painted was not quite as successful as the one you see here. The ingredients were all there, but the proportions were a little off -- to my eye, at least. But it was fun to start with a photo of the painting and see where it had gone wrong, to play with the ingredients of it to achieve something that more fully articulated this thing my heart and brush were longing to communicate.
This week in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart we are reading about the compass of the heart and the importance of setting intentions. That word -- intentions -- has come up in several other books I've been reading as well. So I thought about it: what exactly IS my intention? For now, at least, it seems to be about allowing the spirit to communicate through (and infuse) my work. So I was heartened to see a little of that happening -- even if I'm the only one who can understand what is being communicated! Here, by the way, is the original image: to me it just seems a little... well... tipsy!
As if to honor Mothers' Day, my neighbor's garden burst into poppy flames yesterday; so glorious!
In fact, it was a glorious day all 'round -- beautiful weather, great conversations with my girls, and some quality time with my hubby, spent driving to one of my favorite destinations: Port Townsend, WA.
While we were driving, he had me read from a Linked-in page where parents had been invited to answer the question: If you could only tell your children three things, what would they be? ... which, of course, led to a discussion of what we most want our OWN children to have taken with them from their association with us.
So I'm kind of building a list. It's not in any particular order yet, and certainly neither complete nor narrowed down to three. But here are some of the things that came up for us, and are still coming up for me:
Figure out what you love doing, and find a way to do it.
Work hard, do your best, and don't be afraid to risk or fail, but keep asking: What did I learn from this?
Don't stay in a relationship with (or marry) anyone who expresses contempt for you or anything you care about.
Success doesn't bring happiness: happiness is more of an attitude than a result of what you've done or what you have. Smiling helps.
Listen: to yourself, to the people around you, to nature, to the promptings of the spirit... Pay attention!
Try to find balance -- between body, mind, emotion and spirit; between alone time and time with others; between working and playing, between criticizing and celebrating, between left and right (in brain, politics, and religion); between blaming others and guilting yourself...
If you have objections to something someone is doing, tell them -- don't whine to the rest of the world. Give them a chance to work on it; secrets like that destroy relationships.
Pain is inevitable, but you can control suffering. And running away from it doesn't make it better.
Put the oxygen mask over your own face first -- you won't be able to pour out of an empty cup.
Breathe. Breathe deeply and often. And in times of crisis, well -- keep breathing!
Enough pronouncements for today. But I welcome any you have to add!
... and here's my first addition (which belongs somewhere near the top, I think, if not at the top; thanks, Ann for reminding us of what's really important!)
Be kind. Be compassionate. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
Ooh. And -- related to that -- try to live as if there is no "us" and "them;" there is only "we."
Coming home from Seattle Friday evening, after having dinner with our older daughter, we were sitting in the car on the ferry, talking quietly of this and that, and everywhere I looked I kept seeing abstractions -- on the walls, on the floors, in the reflections on the cars around us -- it was such a rich environment that I couldn't help getting out my camera and shooting.
Does that mean the images were fabulous, or shareworthy? Not necessarily. Does it NEED to mean that? When do we give ourselves permission to enjoy the call of the moment without thought to what might emerge later? And why don't we do more of that?
I think those images were calling me because I was more present than I've been able to be in a while. Even though some part of me was listening to my husband and some other part of me was reaching for the camera, my eyes weren't just looking, they were seeing. And the camera, in times like that, becomes a tool for capturing and rendering what my eyes have seen; for storing it to explore later, and, in this particular case, for showing my husband what I was seeing, for isolating it from the surroundings so he, too, could see the possibilities in that particular environment.
It was as if there were another level of perception, or perhaps another level of beauty, shimmering just below the surface of things, peeking through in a kind of invitation to look more deeply; to see what is beyond seeing; as if the ferry were somehow alive and engaging with me...
A foolish fantasy, I'm sure -- to be playing hide and seek with the ferry spirits. But the joy I felt in discovering the beauty there was very real, and the sense of engagement was very refreshing. I suspect that if I could be that present more often, that sense of joy and refreshment would begin to pervade more and more of my life. I wonder if that's why enlightened people always seem so full of joy...
Several years back I discovered the art of Angela Wales Rockett through ECVA, and ended up purchasing one of her pieces. So over the years I've continued getting occasional email updates from her, showing me what she's working on now.
Three or four weeks ago she sent another email, containing this image (which I adored) and the sketch (see below) from which it emerged. The two images stayed with me, in the way images and movies and books and music sometimes do, haunting our dreams and tickling our memories with hints of a larger understanding. And though I no longer remember which came first -- this urge to paint abstractions, or Angela's images -- they somehow became intertwined.
So when I went for a drive with my artist friend, Gillian Bull, and she helped me realize it might help if I found a teacher, I thought of Angela, who lives a little more than an hour away. She was receptive to the idea, though we each agreed a teaching relationship might not be what was called for, and yesterday she drove up for a visit.
We spent a marvelous day together, much of it outside in balmy weather, walking the beach and exploring the island, and the conversation ranged all over the map from food to books to relationships to art and faith -- a truly wonderful and inspiring time. And (bless her heart) she brought her sketchbook and showed me the sketch from which that wonderful image emerged. I was fascinated, and spent a good deal of time examining it closely, trying to see how she got from dark to light.
Thinking, this morning, about that sketch, I realized that the struggles I mentioned having two days ago, when I was trying to paint with so little success, are intimately entangled with the current guiding issue in my spiritual life: it's really all about exploring the boundaries. The enchantment I found (and actually often find) in Angela's images is the way she has of making the boundaries between colors, and between light and dark, seem permeable. And the consistent underlying theme of my meditations lately has been about the dissolution of boundaries between self and other -- between inside and outside, between me and the cat on my chest, between present, past, and future; between myself and the people around me, between republicans and democrats, between religions, and, ultimately, between the Divine within and the Divine without.
Which explains the struggles I had with the painting you see here, the one I had such issues with on Thursday. I really liked the initial effects I got in the large blocks of light and dark. But I couldn't seem to get the transition to work properly, couldn't get the colors I wanted, couldn't get the textures to resolve the way I wanted, and in trying to achieve that transition I ended up wrecking the big blocks of color, too, arriving at the sort of uniform boredom you see here. So finally I just -- quit.
But now I see -- that's exactly where I NEED to spend my energy; that's exactly where my soul WANTS to spend its energy right now, and it's entirely appropriate and understandable that there will be failure, because dissolving those boundaries is the work of a lifetime.
AND -- that space between is exactly that liminal space I feel I've been in for simply ages, the space between what was and what is to come; the space I write about so often in my poetry and have been feeling so intensely of late. There's no way that problem will be solved quickly or easily, because it's all about staying completely present to each prompting for color, for brush stroke, for form; about listening. As Kandinsky says, "the artist must watch only the trend of the inner need for expression, and hearken to its words alone... The inner need is the basic alike of small and great problems in painting. We are seeking today for the road which is to lead us away from the outer to the inner basis."
And now I see that boundary is also the heart of the little play I wrote (for a local play competition) a few weeks ago, and the heart of all our struggles with creativity. And I could imagine an exercise that would go something like this -- perhaps using elements of collage?
It would start with three boards of some sort, and a lot of magazines.
On the first board, using paint, or markers, or crayons, or things you find in magazines, build a collage depicting what it feels like to be blocked and/or all the things that block you, and/or the dark night of the soul, and/or your inner critic.
On the second board, build a collage that somehow conveys what it would feel like to be at your most creative: might be favorite colors, words, shapes and forms, favorite images... You might even begin by imagining "your happy place," a place you where you feel totally at home, fulfilled, the most "you" you can be, and then somehow depict that.
And then -- and this is the hard part -- put the third board between the first two boards and build something -- some set of words, or images, or colors, or shapes -- that connects the two outer boards and builds the three into a single cohesive image.
Wouldn't that be fun? Well, maybe not for you -- I don't know. But I'm thinking I would find it a marvelous exercise -- but something that would take some concentrated time, maybe candles and music, and no family in the house. So -- since it's the weekend -- I'll have to wait. But it's something I'm looking forward to; can't wait to see how it comes out!
For some reason this photo -- a local dock, reflected in the water -- has always appealed to me -- except for all the rusty colors; I'm really not that fond of those. But I love the structure and composition of it; it feels like a painting to me.
... and it leapt onto the page this morning for some reason -- I think perhaps in response to something I read in Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art this morning: "Purely abstract forms are beyond the reach of the artist at present; they are too indefinite for him. To limit himself to the purely indefinite would be to rob himself of possibilities, to exclude the human element and therefore to weaken his power of expression.
On the other hand, there exists equally no purely material form. A material object cannot be absolutely reproduced. For good or evil, the artist has eyes and hands, which are perhaps more artistic than his intentions, and refuse to aim at photography alone.
...The impossibility and, in art, the uselessness of attempting to copy an object exactly, the desire to give the object full expression, are the impulses which drive the artist away from "literal" coloring to purely artistic aims."
Well hmm. I guess that explains why I'm wandering down this particular path -- and, at the same time, why it's such a struggle. I did break out the paints yesterday, but... ugh. I seem to be getting worse, not better. Thank heaven I have someone coming to help today!
(And, okay, it's on my mind: I went to see the opening preview of our local theater's production of The Full Monty last night, and it was absolutely incredible -- I sat with the cast from The Women -- the last show I was in -- and we laughed and cried and screamed our throats out. So. Much. Fun! I wish I could do with my art what they did with that show -- expose, touch, move, thrill, and awaken faith in the resourcefulness and joy of humanity. It was awesome!)
I realized yesterday afternoon that I really wasn't done with that image. So I played some more, inverted the colors, added some things... and I actually like this version much better.
But why? Reading further in Kandinsky this morning, I'm learning that he sees color as "a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."
All of which may explain my frustrations with painting: I have always been fascinated by and attuned to color -- I've probably mentioned here before that my mother spent a lot of time in fabric stores, and as a child I would amuse myself by sorting the colors of thread in the bins, removing the ones in the wrong row and returning them to their fellows.
With the computer, achieving a shift of color is usually quite simple; there are sliders I can adjust to get the exact shade I'm looking for -- or, if I don't have one in mind, it's an easy matter to test a variety of options and see which ones sing to me -- which is, for the most part, what happened with this image. But I've been finding that doing it manually -- mixing paint and testing colors (which I had thought I would find immensely satisfying) is a laborious and frustrating process. Perhaps I am just lazy, and prefer the easy way out -- certainly my mother accused me of laziness frequently when I was growing up!
I am amused to see (speaking of my mother) that the end result you see here reminds me of a raincoat she had which I coveted madly as a child: it was olive green with tiny lavender tulips scattered over its surface. Clearly those colors still resonate with me; you can see variations on those themes throughout my house.
Which leads to one of those chicken and egg questions -- which Kandinsky also considers: do we respond to particular colors because of things we associate with them? Or are there colors that particularly resonate with certain aspects of our particular souls?
Yesterday afternoon I decided to try painting again. The experience was... well ... actually painful. I couldn't seem to get the colors I wanted, the brush strokes showed when I wanted them to blend; it felt like I was fighting with the whole experience.
And I found myself thinking, why on earth am I doing this if it isn't even fun? I mean, I already have a skill/gift through which expression flows easily; why attempt to move into another arena when the time between decision and actual faithful expression will be so huge?
I drew some consolation this morning from Wassily Kandinsky's words in Concerning the Spiritual in Art: there is, he says, "this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated."
But still there was this question: Why? Why am I doing this? What am I doing? Where is this going? So when I sat down to meditate more questions kept coming up, things I wanted to ask -- how do I get that color? What colors do you find yourself using most?
Each time I would realize I was consumed by the questions and would then return to the breath, the heavy purring feel of the cat on my chest, the sound of the birds, the hum of the refrigerator, the life force tingling in my hands, chest, and feet; the sense of connectedness -- and then off again my brain would go, trying to solve the problems I'd encountered.
To forestall the questions, I asked myself, what is it that you are trying to achieve? What is it that wants to be created through you? And out of that question there emerged this image. The soft yellows I was trying to find (and hadn't yet found) would dominate the top; the blue I've come to love would dominate the bottom; there would be texture in both; and there would be some excitement, including the red I have not yet found, at their intersection.
And then my husband's shower was done, so I rose from the chair, let the cat out, doused the candle, and came to my computer, fully intending to just check my mail and then head off to Pilates class (it's been two weeks, as my instructor's been on vacation, and my body is seriously missing the stretches).
But some evil genius prompted me to try and express what I'd been seeing using the tools I know. And though progress was minimal, when the moment of departure arrived, I elected to stay and work rather than head off to class. Even though some part of me questioned the wisdom of that choice (was I just avoiding exercise?) another part of me decided it was now committed to making this work.
Many many steps, images, layers, flips, inverts and adjustments later, I have the image you see here, the image I was seeing in my head -- and I have to say it was a MUCH more satisfying process than painting, and NOT just because I like the end result. It became a problem to be solved, an objective to be reached with tools I know and love -- my hands, my computer, my images, my eyes; all working together for a common goal. And I love it.
My husband and I had a very serious conversation this past weekend about skillsets and comfort zones. It may be a function of age, but at this point in our lives we would each prefer to be doing the things we're good at. There was a time when we were sponges, soaking up as many new skills as we could possibly acquire. But now we prefer to be fountains, spilling out our gifts for others to soak up and use. The trick, of course, is to find a way to make that work, a place that allows, welcomes, and ultimately encourages that sort of overflow. Neither of us is quite there yet. But I'm thinking that just understanding that shift will help us move forward.
Perhaps the function of my excursion into painting has been simply that: to help me better understand and honor the wealth of knowledge and experience I have in my chosen field, and to encourage me to explore that further. Doesn't mean I'll stop exploring painting. But maybe now it won't be quite so excruciating, because I'll understand the function of the exercise is not to paint a masterpiece, but simply to gain a better understanding of what I DO have, and a new perspective on ways to use it.
I was looking for a boat image to fade between the layers of a more complex piece, and I found this one buried in my sailboat folder. So I copied it and added it to the piece I was working on (it fit perfectly with where that piece was going) but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I liked this image better. I'm just so drawn to the stillness and simplicity of it.
Having heard from Rumi that "Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart," I then had to ask -- why was I doing the other piece? Was it just for the thrill of creating something new? So I went back to it, took out the boat and the other layers and just tried to stay with the base of it -- which was exceedingly abstract, based on a metal boat hull I had photographed.
And as I was playing with that base image, I found myself thinking about a blog post I'd read yesterday on Angela Rockett's blog, about disappointment, and somehow just acknowledging that there have indeed been disappointments allowed the darkness of that to roll into the picture.
... which, in turn, improved it enormously (in my eyes, at least: I'll post it off to the right once it's up on the poetry blog with a poem). It turns out, I didn't really need all those other layers; they were just there to cover up something that needed to be seen. So (and thanks for staying with me as I process this) I can now acknowledge that this questioning about what art I'm supposed to be doing is even more complex than I had thought.
Because it's somehow gotten tangled up with expectations, with what others want, or what I think others want, or how I think others might feel about me or my work, or what might sell; with a determination to push through disappointment; with a desire to be creating art that may not actually spring from my own definition of art, or maybe even just trying to find a way to be original, or to fit in, instead of just listening to the promptings of my heart (even though I thought that's what I was doing?)
And through all this there's this need for the questioning to be GOING somewhere. I want to get past this to the conclusion so I can start DOING whatever it is. But I don't think that's the point. As Louise Nevelson says, "The very nature of creation is not a performing glory on the outside; it's a painful, difficult search within."
And still something in me asks, is it this, or is it that?
Well hey, you guys, you squabblers within: why can't it be BOTH?
Yesterday, having given voice to my creative frustrations, I was feeling pretty low, worrying that I might not be doing what I was supposed to be doing -- whatever that might be.
Interestingly enough, several people dropped in during the course of the day -- one even brought dinner. And, having escorted one couple out to video wave patterns in the sand, I was walking back on the beach, just crossing up to the driveway, when I spotted a plastic bag, encrusted with seaweed, just beside my path.
And inside the bag was this spinning heart you see here.
Now how bizarre is that?
The heart is about 7 inches high, and very shiny. Some water and debris had gotten in the bag, but the heart was undamaged, so I took it in to the kitchen, cleaned it up, and hung it up from one of the hooks outside on my deck; I can see it spinning, tossing rays of color, from my dining room table.
Both the friends who stopped by later in the afternoon and evening remarked upon the significance of the heart. I mean, even if you're not spiritual or particularly superstitious, it would be hard not to draw some reassurance from this.
This morning, in my reading in Jan Phillips' Marry Your Muse, I found a wonderful quote in the margin from Martha Graham that sort of cements the deal:
"No artist is pleased... There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than other human beings."
I'm not certain I'd claim to be more alive than other human beings. But I've realized once again what I keep forgetting: that this malaise, this frustration, these transitional urges are somehow a vital part of the process. As one of my visitors said to me -- a woman I knew only as a writer and videographer, who turns out to have been an abstract painter for many years before developing her current skills -- "It's all about the black."
And can't you see that here? It's the light (actually late afternoon sun) outside the picture that makes the image come alive. But it needs the black inside the picture to set off that wonderful glow. So then, if we are divine images ourselves... the black inside clearly has an important role to play.
So I just need to breathe my way through this, and let that divine dissatisfaction work its magic.
The emails began pouring in a day or two ago: Watch for the Super Moon, they all said, and so 8:30 last night found me, not at the monthly Improv performance, or at a bar drinking to Cinco de Mayo, but on a neighbor's deck, waiting for the moon.
It's still pretty chilly here, so we were in our down parkas, perched on the edge of a picnic table, looking out over the lagoon, not quite sure where the moon might rise. Plus, there were clouds over Seattle, so we didn't get to see the moon at its largest, that spectacular moment when it first crests over the horizon.
But as we waited in the cold and the sky deepened from light to dark, my neighbor strummed his new ukelele, making up poems of invitation to the moon, and the geese who flew over to warn us away from their babies bobbed their heads in time to his music. It was perfection, actually, even before the orange moon finally peeked out from behind the clouds.
And yet there's still this sadness. Our older daughter came for a visit this weekend (we had a truly lovely time together), and there was a lot of time spent texting and on the phone with our younger daughter (still struggling with a roommate crisis). So I was being mom for much of the time, and rejoicing that the girls and I can communicate now as well as we do. But some other part of me feels lost, bereft, at sea, and it seems to be somehow about art and purpose.
Usually by now I'm well into some new passion, some new project, with a clear goal or an itch to create... something is driving me or pulling me forward. But this year I'm just not there yet; sort of suspended in this weird state, not really creating (though I long to) but just going through the motions. The well is empty, or has gone dry; something is off-kilter, and something worries that there's some destiny beckoning that I just can't seem to see.
It was lovely to talk about that a little with daughter number 1 -- she's a superb listener -- but we both wonder if it's just that so many people whose lives matter to me are in transition that my soul can't help but echo those reverberations.
It's curious to me that one soul can hold it all: the prayers for all who struggle, the hopes for all who face imminent change, the sadness around the empty well, the joy of geese, and ukelele music, good friends, and an orange moon. I feel like the path has slowed somehow, or shortened, and I have to step very carefully; be mostly attentive to where I am and not to what lies ahead. So I'm doing my best to stay present to this. But it feels very odd not to have a goal, a direction.
There was a phrase that struck me in my reading this morning in Jan Phillips' book, Marry Your Muse; something about being a child of the present and mother to the future. So perhaps this is just an unusually long gestation period?
Having just spent my morning on the phone with my daughter, helping her to navigate some tricky social issues around friendship, responsibility, guilt and repentance; helping her figure out which expectations are reasonable and which are not, I find it curious that the poem for today in Joyce Rupp's Fragments of Your Ancient Name is this Guide to Repentance from the Qur'an:
Lead me to see clearly When I need to truly repent and when the guilt I feel Is not helpful for my growth. Guide me to change my heart When I have gone astray. Draw me into genuine sorrow For my deliberate wrongdoings. Strengthen my inner resolve To be a person of great love.
Hmm. I think I need to let her know about those last two lines...
I'm excited to report that I've been invited to do a workshop on creativity -- which means I'll be spending time for a while exploring that topic and watching to see how it resonates in my own work. So yesterday I spent some time painting (nope, nothing worth sharing here, though I did learn some important things about surfaces) and then poked around the images I shot in the Skagit Valley last week to see what potential might be there.
This image started out as the cement wall shown at right -- which just tells you, doesn't it, why it is so hard for me to throw any of my images away; you just never know what they might become! Not that the result is necessarily fabulous or sale-worthy -- but how do I get from this to that?
I think, for the moment at least, that the answer has something to do with engagement, and paying attention. I look at the image, I notice the parts that appeal to me, and I try to bring them out -- rather like a conductor emphasizes themes in a symphony, or a director encourages the characters in a play.
To some extent I do that when I am painting, as well: once there's something on the canvas, I try to see where it might be going. I do pay attention, try to watch and listen. But the difference, though I've painted off and on most of my life, is that I really don't have the skillset to bring to the process.
Working with Photoshop has become somewhat like driving a car -- I automatically have all these resources at my fingertips. I don't have to think about technique; the possible actions are all embedded somewhere in my lizard brain after all these years, so I can kind of "go with the flow."
But with painting everything still works at the conscious level -- mixing paints, choosing brushes, dealing with surfaces -- so I'm more like a teenager learning to drive, having to mentally rehearse or challenge each decision along the way.
Does that mean I shouldn't learn to paint, or keep trying to paint? No -- I still think there is something vital to be learned from that process.
But watching all of this, I am forced to admit that there is more of my mother in me than I realized. Mom was a gifted watercolorist -- not fabulous, but definitely good -- and it drove me and my dad crazy that she insisted on painting in oil. Because her oil colors were dreadful, really. I have several of them stacked in my hall closet: believe me, they have little redeeming value other than that her hands created them!
I never understood why she wasted her time creating bad art when it was so easy for her to create good stuff. But now I am watching myself do the same thing. Which makes me stop and think: what can I learn about HER from watching this echo in myself? And how does her choice inform my own? Are we just exploring boundaries, challenging ourselves? Or are we still trying to be something we're not instead of honoring the gifts we have? And what do questions like these tell us about creativity and the creative process?
As Alice said in Wonderland -- "Curiouser and curiouser..."
Today's reading in Eckhart Tolle was about enthusiasm: I love that the root meaning for the word is "in God."
I do enthusiasm easily and well, always have; I even had a friend in college who once said to me, "Diane, you'd be really attractive if you weren't so damn enthusiastic." That friendship obviously didn't last, but those words had a staying power; there's still some part of me that feels guilty and embarrassed when I lose myself in enthusiasm.
Which I think must explain why I hated watching that video of myself so much (hey, I promise, this is the last time I'll mention this!). I was, at the time, lost in the throes of enthusiasm, doing something I genuinely loved.
One of the things Tolle said in today's reading was that the ego hates enthusiasm, because it's out of the ego's control. So of course my ego, watching that video later, would be horrified. So okay, ego; get over yourself!
Enthusiasm is also my excuse for images like this. It's just the side of an old boat that's used as a dry dock. But I love it; it's just -- cool. But maybe it actually isn't; I just get excited at the way simple things like rust and old boards and driftwood can lead to such delicious compositions...
I also get enthusiastic about coincidences and connections. So it was great to discover that Hafiz's poem yesterday, in A Year With Hafiz, also addresses enthusiasm:
What is true enlightenment? It is knowing everything is rave-worthy, but having the balance, the discernment, to withhold your applause at times, when there are young souls near... or people trying to sleep.
Yeah. That's the problem. I just haven't quite figured out yet how to hold the applause.
I have -- in case I haven't mentioned this before -- a happy marriage; we're in our 28th year now, and still seem to enjoy each other, a fact (I'm sure) some of the folks who knew us when we met would find quite mystifying, as we are very different people.
I am, I confess, still processing that experience of watching the video of myself (ugh, who likes to look at pictures of themselves, anyway?) and so this morning, somehow, the question of "settling" arose. It dates back to a rerun of "How I Met Your Mother" my husband and I watched a while ago, in which marriage partners fell into a debate about which of them settled, having been told that in EVERY relationship one of the partners has "settled" for something less attractive than he or she merits.
Neither of us has a particular claim to good looks -- not that we're ugly, or unappealing, but in a society where appearances are important we would never attract attention. So I wondered aloud if that made us happier -- that we are each grateful that we've found someone to love and be loved by, whereas if we'd been drop-dead gorgeous we'd always be wondering if there was someone cuter out there; be players, always trading up, never settling down.
He thought it had little to do with appearances, and more to do with attitude -- so I of course took that opportunity to read aloud to him what Eckhart Tolle was saying in my reading today: "If you are not in a state of either acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm, look closely and you will find that you are creating suffering for yourself and others."
What, then, he asked, does acceptance look like? Could it include the sort of depressed Eeyore/martyred take on life -- the "This is all I'll ever get, I guess I'll just put up with it" sort of attitude that can so easily erode joy in longterm relationships or jobs? Because that sort of SOUNDS like acceptance, but it doesn't feel very positive.
So I read on. "Acceptance," says Tolle, "means: For now, this is what this situation, this moment, requires me to do, and so I do it willingly... And (he goes on to say), if you can neither enjoy or bring acceptance to what you do -- stop."
We agreed that willingly must be the key word. Which, if you think about it, takes us right back to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Pain may be inevitable, but suffering is a choice, an attitude, a way of looking at the pain that can create misery simply through patterns of thought.
We've certainly had our rainy days. I know my husband isn't perfect; I'm not perfect, either. I could choose to dwell on those imperfections -- either mine or his -- and make both of us miserable. But (though I do occasionally gripe) for the most part I just enjoy the man; rejoice in the goofiness that is our life together, laugh at our differences, and thank my lucky stars that he is the stable, bright, generous and supportive soul he is.
I remember what it was like to be miserable in a marriage. And I know how easy it was at the time to point a finger at my now ex-husband and say he was responsible for my misery. But the truth is more complex than that, and I understood even then that I had a choice. Whatever his contribution may have been, I am the one who was responsible for ending that relationship, because I was the one who just could not find a way to accept that situation. I wanted joy, and could not find it there. Eventually I found the courage to stop; to refuse to settle for less.
For whatever reason, in this marriage I seem to have found the joy I hungered for. My husband likes to suggest from time to time that the pleasure I find here is at least in part relative, a simple matter of comparison: because that former marriage was so uncomfortable, this one looks great just by being less painful. Implying, of course, that this marriage works, not because we are so perfect for each other, but because I've learned acceptance.
Maybe. There might be some of that. A willingness to put up with flaws I might have grumbled more about before. But mostly this just works. For whatever reason, whether it's his particular combination of personality traits or my ability to accept, it works. All I know is -- I'm grateful, every day, for the wonder of that.
In our culture we're terribly caught up in appearances, and somehow that means we fail to find aging attractive. We prefer fresh and pretty, or the illusion of fresh and pretty, to broken down and imperfect.
Thinking that, as I looked at this picture, I made an immediate leap to "Oh, THAT's why you photograph old broken-down things; it has to do with aging."
I suppose that might be true, but I've been photographing broken down boats, barns and faces for almost 20 years now. Of course, I've also been aging for 20 years. But still.
I find something enormously appealing in these images, and I think it has to do with the power of nature. No matter how perfect, or beautiful, or huge the masterpieces we create, wind and rain can slowly turn them to decay. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and along the way a kind of beauty we might never have predicted.
I think I'm supposed to find that discouraging, but actually I find it reassuring.
Which somehow ties in with the difference between painting and photography. Painting is sort of scary for me: it's a responsibility, to create. But photography is much easier: you simply see and appreciate... Maybe I just find it easier to be present and attentive to what's outside me than to be present and attentive to what's inside me? Or maybe -- since writing is a way of paying attention to what's inside -- the problem I have with painting is simply performance anxiety. It's far easier to see and appreciate than to render a likeness. But does that mean it's all about appearances?
I seem to be thinking in circles today; time to take a break!