Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Lent Well-Spent

Lent is approaching. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. I have long ago stopped observing this season in "traditional" ways. But I do see it as a contemplative time, and I try to focus on those things that will bring me closer to God, or that will help still my soul in some way. I was raised (but no longer am) pre Vatican, ethnic Roman Catholic. As a kid I recall very clearly having to "give up something for Lent". But it was associated with such a punitive community of belief that I still recoil from the thought.

As a sidebar, when I was about 6 years old the nuns trooped our Sunday school class into the church, and lifted us up one by one so that we could reach the bloody feet of the painted plaster larger-than-life-sized Jesus on the cross. We were told to kiss the wounds, and after we did the nuns said to us individually as they were lowering us down, "See what YOU did to our sweet Jesus? YOUR sins drove those nails into his feet. And all He wanted to do was love you! And look what you did! You KILLED him!"

I was terrified. Guilt ridden. I wept at home, blubbering to my parents what had happened. To my mother's credit, a few heated calls were made and I was taken OUT of Sunday school forthwith. My mother was even more formidable when she set her mind to it than the nuns.

Messages that warp children and adults are certainly not unique to old-line,old-fashioned Catholicism. I know many adults that were warped right out of faith from any tradition you can name. It seems to me that whenever we organize around a principle, that we corrupt the principle - so I have this lover's quarrel with organized religion of almost any stripe. But that's a post for another day.

Today I have to set what I will/won't do during Lent to mark the season.

I have spoken earlier on this blog about images that keep coming up for a reason. Lately I have been coming across any number of things about forgiveness. I turn on the TV and that is a topic. I open a book, same thing. I read someone else's blog,there it is. But when I read this essay on Forgiveness on the Chabad site, (the site of the Lubavitcher Hassidic Jewish community) I felt that scales began to fall from my eyes.

Here is a tiny bit of it, but I encourage you to read the whole beautifully written and touching essay yourself :

I don't want anger and blame to ruin any moment of my life nor rend me from the unity with which G-d has created the world and that only I have the power to destroy. ...He knows that both He and I, and all those that He and I love, will eventually, continuously do unforgivable things to each other. And despite the pain we will cause each other, we will need to forgive each other. To not forgive would be an unbearable breach of the unity of creation.

So I have decided that every day of the 40 Lenten days I am going to forgive someone for something -- maybe someone else, maybe myself, maybe even God -- maybe a big thing, maybe a small thing, maybe a tiny thing -- maybe something that happened today, maybe something that happened 40 years ago. But every day I will forgive.

It will teach me a great deal about what forgiveness is, and what it is not -- and with luck it will change me. I think you can probably expect to be hearing more about this over the next 41 days, and I welcome your thoughts and your prayers.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Violets and Frances

As I mentioned in the prior post, Frances was my mother's name. She passed away almost exactly 11 years ago. She loved violets. When I was a little girl, she would take me into the deep New England woods to find wild violets to transplant to her garden. We were always careful to only take a little from a clump, leaving behind enough to multiply in subsequent seasons. They came in every color - from the deepest most mysterious purple to a spritely periwinkle blue. There were white ones, white ones with purple edges, yellow ones, pink ones. But of all of them, we loved the plain everyday purple violet with heart shaped leaves the best.

After years of transplanting, the violets had spread beyond the various gardens' edges, and had begun to provide the odd purple dot in my parents' lawn. This was a source of great joy for my mother, and great consternation for my father. While she lived, the violets stayed. On Mother's Day every year, from childhood into my 40's, I would pick my mother a bouquet of violets from her garden. It was this treasured tradition between us, a ritual between women.

My Mom passed away one year in late February. By late April that year it had started to warm up. The weekend before Mother's Day, my father announced to me that he had put a special weed poison on the lawn that was "guaranteed to get rid of those damned violets". I was in shock, and hurt that my father would do that. I told him so, but he was stolid. Lawns were supposed to be green, not purple.

We talked about Mother's Day and agreed that neither of us wanted to be alone. So I offered to drive up and spend the weekend with him.

As I got out of my car, a week after my Dad had poisoned the violets, he met me in the driveway. He grabbed my hand and said "Come with me" and headed for the back yard. I expected to see some vast expanse of green and to get a lecture on green lawns.

Instead what did I see?

A SEA of purple.

The lawn was covered in blossoming violets -- light purple, dark purple, white with purple and on and on. Everywhere you looked -- violets! There had never been so many violets in the yard. The violet count had increased by easily 1000%.

I started to cry. My father just said, "I guess your mother had her say. The violets stay."

And stay they did. They were never as abundant as that one year, but then again, they no longer needed to be. We had gotten the message.

The Nose Knows : Scent Memory

While making morning coffee, the scent suddenly brought back a memory of the kitchen in the old house where I grew up - and the scent of coffee cooking its merry way along in my Mom's percolator. I think of memory as being stored in my brain, and while I know that is true, the reality seems like it is sometimes stored in my nose! There are lots of scents that can bring me back to my New England childhood - the scent of strong brewing coffe -- the scent of newly mown grass -- smelling the sticky sweetness of cotton candy -- the tangy smell of burning leaves -- the scent of air in freshly washed sheets that have dried out-of-doors. Then there are the elementary school scents - library paste, purple mimeograph fluid, crayons.

My Great Uncle (who was more like a grandfather to me) always smelled like a mixture of tobacco and Aqua Velva.

The scent of gardenias will forever link to my high school prom. And that new-puppy-smell will always make me recall Princess, our black cocker spaniel.

My mother had a whole raft of scents by which I can recall her now, years after her passing. She loved several colognes. But her favorite was Yardley's African Violets. Yardley's stopped importing it years ago, but I found a store that sells it online .

Memory is so fluid. Here I am, sitting at my computer, and the smell of coffee briefly re-locates me back about 40 years as I type. If I didn't know better I would expect to next be inhaling the scent of violets as my Mother walked in the room.

I just checked my calendar. I have been thinking about this scent thing for a few days now. I am stunned to realize that my mother died 11 years ago February 24th -- the day I started thinking about scent and memory and her wonderful violet cologne.

Her name was Frances.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cafe Nepenthes

About a million years ago I used to hang out in a place called "Cafe Nepenthes" a great little bohemian coffehouse/folkmusic/jazz/vegetarian restaurant in the old Larimer Square area of Denver, Colorado. The walls were a rotating art gallery. In addition to the booths and tables, it also had a small stage with musicians playing for tips. Like many places of those years, it has passed into legend.

Lots of young musicians were starting out in Denver at the time,and most of them played Nepenthes at one point or another. Many went on to be part of groups like the original New York Voices or to play sessions for jazz and cabaret greats or even to end up with their own recording careers like Jim Ridl or Jimmie Wright or my friend Tom Gruning who ended up with a musical career and a PhD. Once a week was poetry night with a series of wild and tame poets holding forth and the traditional wars of the egos battling with words and only the occasional menacing pistol.

The Cafe was a fine old down at the heels joint with the traditional veggie-hippie menu of smoothies, various iced teas (one called "Iced Spice" was my favorite -- it was an orange and cinnamon tea served with a wedge of fresh orange) and an assortment of pita bread sandwiches . I loved the "Chile Jack" sandwich -- jack cheese, green chiles, dijon mustard, onions and sprouts all hot, bubbly and toasty. The soup of the evening was whatever the cook of the evening decided to conjure up - miso millet, vegetable tomato, veggie pea soup, cream of carrot, tofu surprise....

The woman's room boasted some excellent graffiti - my favorite was a note tacked up next to the toilet paper holder that read "Wait Here!" and was signed "Godot". Some other woman had decided that a woman's most private parts of the anatomy should be called a "Jam Tart" and had written various suggestions about that.

But it wasn't the food or the iced tea or the frothy capuccinos or the graffiti that kept us all coming back. It was the sense of community. A bunch of us were regulars. We all knew the waitresses and their stories, and they knew ours. To this day, 25 years later I still remember Stan and Diane (the owners), and the waitresses Phyllis, Jan, Amy, Peg, Brenda, Jane -- and how grand it was to have a place to sit and write, to know that friends would be stopping by, where the music was good and where in Cheers-like fashion , "everyone knows your name".

Online venues seem to have taken over that role for many folks. And while I would be the last person to denigrate electronic community, as I have made many dear friends online -- I do miss places like the Cafe.
It was a zesty blend of art, drama, music, experiments, friendship, intrigue, and the best cuppa coffee in town.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Ya' Gotta Suffer If Ya' Wanna Sing Da Bluez

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I really do not understand attitudes about suffering. I very much hope people chime in to this discussion.

I was raised in the 1950's ethnic Roman Catholic traditions. Suffering was almost revered in that tradition. It was seen as some badge of virtue, some sign that one had endured the fires to have the impurities burned away.

Paul in the New Testament talks about "being made perfect through suffering."

Buddha would say that the suffering that is part of life comes from clinging to illusion.

I recently received an email from a friend in Israel who is a Lubavitcher who said "May your suffering be a cleansing and an atonement for you that makes room for bigger and brighter things..."

Moslem and Hindi ascetics believe that suffering can bring them even closer to God.

Part of me understands all of that, and understands the desire to attach suffering to some sort of larger purpose. But then I see people who suffer because of injustice - babies who starve, children with AIDS, victims of war, casualties of economic corruption, tsunami victims, people displaced by flood or natural disaster - and I cannot imagine they have been singled out to suffer so that they may find some larger spiritual closeness to God. I see their suffering as real and senseless.

So how is their suffering any different from anyone else's?

We live in a world where some cultures romantisize suffering, some ignore it and some just endure it.

I feel like my brain wants to split a seam when someone says in response to some tragedy --"well, there must have been a reason..." or "It is all a part of the Larger Plan..."

I think half the world has twisted their souls into pretzel shapes trying to balance the idea of God and the idea of suffering, believing the two to be causally connected.

But I have come to think that suffering is random. Our response to it should not be. But who gets to survive cancer and who does not -- how can any sane person think that the life of the survivor was any more valuable to God than the life of the one who died? How can anyone even allow the thought that the Holocaust was part of some good divine purpose?

So here we are pulling up on Lent. I would like to make a Lenten observance of some sort -- but it brings up all the vestigial Roman Catholic 1950's suffering-as-saintly energy. I'll be sorting that out for a while, I think. Right now it all feels a-jumble - suffering, sacrifice, legitimate pain, imposed pain...

So talk to me about suffering.....and about what you think...or about what others think...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Father/Brick Wall/Father/Brick Wall

My friend Teresa used to say that the difference between living in Denver and living in New York City was that in Denver if you felt like hitting your head against a brick wall, you'd go outside, take a walk and get over it. "In New York," she'd say " if you feel like hitting your head against a brick wall, you go outside; and there is some poor bastard hitting his head against a brick wall." Her theory was that the population of NYC was so dense that there were an infinite amount of things happening at once, so one of them happening outside was sure to mirror what was happening inside.

It's rather like being pregnant and suddenly noticing all the other pregnant woman in the world that you didn't see before. Or, conversely, getting a divorce and suddenly being acutely aware of all the happy couples in the world that one never noticed before.

But there is, it seems to me, some larger relationship between what we see and what we feel. I do not think it is all volitional. I don't think it is in our hands alone. I know that we bring a perceptual grid to the world, like a filter, that is colored by our history, and which allows us to see some things and not see others. Yes, that does happen, and we do, but that is not what I am talking about here.

As I mentioned in my first blog entry, my father died recently. Our relationship had been complicated. Suddenly I keep seeing/hearing/noticing things about fathers and daughters. Television shows about fathers and daughters. Books. Magazine articles. Paintings of fathers and daughters. Songs. Poems. People. If I tell you it feels like an image deluge since his death in December, I would only be approximating its impact.

Whatever "it" is.

To use the image I began with today, it is as though I went outside and saw a dozen people banging their heads on brick walls.

I've spoken about images on this blog before. I am coming to sense that the universe, or God, is actively presenting us with images, pushing at the doors of our senses and telling us to work with something, or to resolve something. There is, it seems to me, an Intentionality of Image.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Right On The Mouth

If a bud blooms, gather it, Lest you but wait for an empty bough.
Chinese saying

In the days before email, I once owed my friend Becca, who was living far away in Hawaii, a letter. I kept putting it off, thinking I would get to it soon. She died of cancer that I didn't know she had before I answered her letter. I have never forgotten what it felt like to know that she died with me owing her a letter. That I missed that last chance to tell her how much she mattered to me -- and for no good reason except my own inattention.

Life is so unexpectedly fragile. We learn this through loss, or through our own bouts with illness. Life can wink out in the moment it takes to draw a last breath. But that is the truth of things anyway every day, in every circumstance. But we seem to only feel this when we have been forced to face it.

But what I want to say is beyond Becca -- because there are piles and piles of things that matter enormously to all of us that are undone, unacted upon, waiting.....

What keeps us from living deeply into the corners of our lives, from doing what we truly want most and value most in life? What feeds this illusion that we have forever to do this or to say that? What keeps us from kissing life right on the mouth?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Of, By and For

Presidents' Day. I remember when we had two school days off as a kid -- one for Washington and one for Lincoln. Now someone got efficient and combined them.

About eight months ago I was in South Dakota, cruising through The Badlands. It is the place that the rocky and mountainous part of the West begins to taper off and begins, slowly, its transformative and inevitable crawl into lowlands, across farmlands and plains to the East. At various points on that journey I had bemoaned the disappearance of so many Mom and Pop motels, and so many "Roadside Attractions". Where had they all gone, the Lazy J Motels, The Dew Drop Inns, The Shady Rests? They had become historical artifacts like the Famous Three-Headed-Snake which one could see for a mere 25 cents, the petting zoos attached to gas stations, the large painted concrete statues of cowboys and dinosaurs and blue oxen standing at the roadside as lures to gas stations of restaurants.

But I digress.

Back to the Badlands of South Dakota, where I was driving. There it was, appearing in the mist -- a 25 foot high white bust of Abraham Lincoln, at the entryway to something called "President's Park", a park in which there is a 25 foot high bust for every US President. Now there is a place to celebrate Presidents' Day, that amalgamated efficiency that takes all the distinctness away from Washington and Lincoln.

I never had much of a sense of George Washington, but I like Lincoln - that sad-eyed champion of freedom. I don't want to celebrate his day cheaply or as part of something else. I want this day to matter, to instruct us, to build upon what is fine and good in America. So today I turn away from the hype and the roadside attractions, and plunge my heart into the words of Abraham Lincoln - spoken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863. Please, I askyou to read them aloud softly to yourself as you follow along:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Friday, February 17, 2006

What is Faith?

A friend of mine who comes from a different religion than mine asked me,"What is Faith?"

That is a big question, and I welcome your views, folks.

I said that faith is, at its core, trusting.

My faith tradition helps me understand some things I can trust - that I am loved by God is one. That is a big thing for me. That I am forgiven. Also big. And that I do not have to (nor can I) merit either that love or forgiveness, that it is given to me as an outright gift. In my faith tradition we call that "the grace of God". So, leaning into that with both shoulders is a part of trust for me, a part of faith.

Beyond trust, what is faith? What is the differnce between trust and intellectual assent? Is faith a gift, or can one "will" faith?

Chime in folks -- please!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Gift of Image

© Laura Marshall 2006. All rights reserved.
This painting is called The Gift, and is the work of Laura Marshall who has been very kind in allowing me to use some of her art in my blog. Stay tuned over the next weeks for more. Some of Laura's work can also be seen in card form at Pomegranate Cards, in addition to private collections around the world. She has also been a dear friend of mine for almost 30 years. Laura's work always makes me sit back on my spiritual heels. She makes me wonder. Her work has hidden stories, mysteries, layers.

One of the things I wonder about is how certain artists "get" a certain vision that is not shared by anyone else. Laura gets some kind of wild and wonderful taproot into the archetypal universe. Georgia O'Keefe got to see the secrets of flowers. Guernica could only be done by Picasso, and once you have seen a Magritte you pretty much recognize the next one you see by him.

What is it that gives certain artists, poets, musicians, writers, architects some unique and identifiable take on the Universe? Georgia O'Keefe followed the image she had of natural sensuality - or did she? Maybe it gripped her and would not let go until she honored it.

This is more than just cultivated style.

Is there a relationship between our artists and our prophets? Does God gift each of them with a specially focused view of the world? How does the life lived alter that image - or does it?

I am coming to believe that images are gifts -- that certain people are given one set of images to see, and others are given an entirely different set. I'm willing to bet that my friend Laura couldn't see her way to paint Guernica any more than Picasso could see his way to paint the image above.

If this is so, is it true for more than just the creative among us? What if each one of us is given a gift of a fragment of the universe to see that is uniquely our fragment? What obligation do we have to telling our truth?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bristlecone Pines

The bristlecone pine tree is the oldest known living thing on earth. The oldest one is in the White Mountains on the CA/NV border and is estimated to be over 4,700 years old. That would mean that it sent it's first shoot through the earth over 2,600 years before Christ was born. The bristlecones on Mount Evans in Colorado are young 'uns, and are thought to be slightly under 2,000 years old. These trees grow in inhospitable places, under savage weather conditions, and at significant distances each from the others. Their needles can stay about 30 years before they fall.

What odd rule of Nature is that? This Methusulah-like tree is not one that has been nurtured, cared for, watered regularly, fertilized,protected in all ways. It is the rugged, scrappy, twisted-limb artifact of stoicism.

There is nothing playful about this tree. One cannot imagine hanging swings from it, or sitting with a lover beneath it. These trees are rough, determined, square-jawed. If they were people they would wear boots. Simple and sensible boots. They would be frugal. Home before curfew. No between meal snacks. No one would accuse them of being jolly.

Yet they have an almost mystical beauty. There is something in a bristlecone's gnarled perseverence that is almost artful. There is a grace to survival that comes through. Is Nature playing with us or trying to teach us or both?

I wonder, as I drive down the mountain, whether on the coldest of nights, when all the people are gone, and the elk and mountain goats have found shelter at lower altitudes, if these ancient pines do not start chanting to themselves, in deep voices holding the secret rumbles of time.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Shortage of Joy

Take a look around you. We are at war. Bird flu epidemics loom. Terrorism is at our gates. People have lost trust for all the old institutions that used to be bulwarks of the American Experience. Crime is up. Students have to walk through gun-detectors in high schools. Mere children have to make adult decisions about drugs and sex. Divisions between us all seem to grow larger every day. Justice seems like a vain hope.

What on earth am I talking about joy for? Am I some sort of deluded Pollyanna who has dustbunnies for brains? Shouldn't I just put my shoulder to the wheel and soldier on crusading for what I believe in?

My life gets serious. Very serious. I read a quote from Lily Tomlin - "No matter how cynical you get, it's impossible to keep up," and I find myself agreeing. There are days when I start reading the paper and watching the news, and can almost feel myself spiral into that place where the world feels irredeemably tainted and dangerous. I feel helpless in the face of it, sucked into a vortex.

This is no way to live.

This is a way to die.

I know that to do what needs to be done - to provide help where I can - to be a woman who lives on different terms from the machines of evil - that I need to not be coming from a place of despair. If I try to root in rage, there will be no moral profit to it. If I try to root in anguish, the roots will not hold. I need to be coming from a place of joy. Defiant joy, perhaps, but joy.

If I spend my days not seeing what is good, and right, and whole, and valorous, and beautiful, and healing and hopeful -- and if I spend my days not celebrating that -- well, then I have surrendered to all those forces in the world that prosper from chaos and fear and anger and hopelessness.

And, Oh Lord above, I have struggled too hard to come this far to do that.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Rumi Rumi Rumi

On this day I happily surrender my blog to a poem by Rumi, a Turkish mystic from the 13th century. On the site run by his family, they say "While he was a devout Muslim, his doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love."

These spiritual window-shoppers,
who idly ask, "How much is that?" "Oh, I'm just looking."
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.

What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.

Where did you go? "Nowhere."
What did you have to eat? "Nothing much."

Even if you don't know what you want,
buy something, to be part of the exchanging flow.

Start a huge, foolish project,
like Noah.

It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Mushroom Hunters - Long ago, far away.

When I was a kid, my parents and I would go mushrooming with a few of my mother's cousins. None of us knew for sure which were the good mushrooms and which ones would kill us, but my Great Aunt did.

She was a wonderful old Polish lady who wore sensible Enna Jettick black tie shoes, and had her grey hair done up in a bun at the base of her neck. During the weekdays she wore a babushka (scarf) on her head if she went out. On Sundays she wore her fabulous black hats. We all called her "Mamu" which means "mother" in Polish.

On sultry summer days when it rained in the morning, we would go out that very afternoon and hunt for mushrooms in the air still thick with after-rain energy. The woods of New England are densely carpeted with fallen leaves and pine needles. The mushrooms grow up from beneath them, so to find them when they are young and tender, one often has to uncover them.

The way to find hidden mushrooms is simple.

Go into the woods.

Still your senses.


Walk into the forest a bit further, and inhale again.

Wait for the inhalation to come that is different, slightly musty. The air will start to carry the slightest scent of mushroom. Follow it. Your senses will guide you to treasure if you just get out of the way.

So there we would be -- several very quiet people heading into the lush deep blue-green Massachusetts forest walking, stopping, breathing. Paying attention. Then someone would catch the scent, or sight the very tip of a young pink mushroom poking out from beneath the pine needles and a chorus of happy shouts would echo through the woods as we all ran to the spot and gathered up the bounty into big cloth-lined baskets.

We knew a few to stay away from - but just to be certain that we had not collected anything dangerous, we would take the whole batch to Mamu who would sit on her front porch while we dumped the contents of one basket at a time into her aproned lap. She would patiently sort through them, commenting all the while, admiring good finds. The good ones were then threaded on thick thread with a needle and hung in the cellar near Mamu's old coal burning furnace to dry. We would not see those mushrooms again until Christmas Eve when they reappeared in Mamu's delectable mushroom soup.

I bought a small package of shitake mushrooms today in the grocery store. Domesticated mushrooms - fungi with all the wildness taken out. Safe, sterile mushrooms that one does not have to hunt for. There is no sense of discovery in the taste. No connection with experience, adventure, family. It may have well have been a plastic sponge or a clothes hanger.

I came home missing the scent of the wet woodland, longing for the smell of humid woodsy green (which really is its own smell), the subtle catch of secret mustiness. I saw all those hunters before me again -- my mother, my father, my cousins, Mamu -- all gone from this earth now. The comfort of memory came with an aftertaste of yearning.

It is going to snow here tonight. There will be no musky scents on the wind. Tonight I pray for tender dreams of pine needles, scrub oak and maples, of careful breathing steps through the trees, and for the slender, fragile hope of old discoveries made new.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Riding the Eternal Thread

What is it that makes our brains jump around from one idea to another -- or one image to another? How do those gray cells turn into magical gymnasts in infinitely branching protoplasm?

Is there some sort of meaning to any of it?

Today I was wondering what to blog. My mind kept landing on the image of the three monkeys of "Hear no evil. Speak no evil. See no evil," fame. Could this be because I have been so aware of my need to not contribute negativity to the world (as much as I can avoid it anyway)? I have given that a lot of thought of late - wanting to make my own lifespace as peaceful as possible, as reflective of love as possible. Is that why I have this image gripping me?


I do trust that images will unfold their own intent, so I proceeded to just "ride the thread" of thought to see where it took me. I went to the web looking for images that I could use of the 3 monkeys. I found this one through sheer chance taken at the Toshogu Shrine in Japan. The shrine was built in the early 1600's and is meant to honor the 1st Shogun of Japan. That's all well and good -- but here is the ironic part.

Almost to this exact day, 20 years ago, I was standing in front of that very carving at that precise shrine in the midst of a snowy day in Japan.

Is that day calling me for some reason? Is there something there in the past that I am supposed to learn from now? Or, is the connection a way that the idea of the monkeys gets emphasized or undescored as being important - like the Universe hitting me over the head with a cosmic frying pan "just to get my attention" about the image. Is this how God sends messages, coded into the fabric of ordinary memories?

Or, is this just a random connection?

A friend of mine who is an artist says that she gets certain "image hits" that she follows to their conclusion until she feels they have revealed what they are meant to. An "image hit" for her is a fascination with one sort of image that won't let go. Like my monkeys. She says that usually they end up unearthing something of value.

Let's say that every memory is a collection of images and feelings. And each image and feeling is deposited in the brain, or the body, as some sort of electrochemical imprint.

What if the memory lands there and then starts branching out to anything that references it - so for me, the monkeys branch to Japan, and to a spiritual position, and to the little brass monkeys my Uncle Mac used to have on his shelf, and to every other memory about monkeys that I have.

What if I share a memory with other people? What if my memory of these three shrine monkeys is shared by everyone else that has ever seen them, and those memories are all linked up somewhere in the great Collective Unconscious. Then when I think about the monkeys, a little blip gets ignited which lights up my monkey-mind and connects me with every other person's monkey-mind.

Maybe I was thinking about monkeys because somewhere in Japan, 20 years ago, a woman stood next to me who today is looking at her old pictures. There I am, over to the left, in the corner of one of her pictures of that day.

I am waving. Hello Hello Forever.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mount Evans Epic

Mount Evans in Colorado is one of my favorite places in the world. It has the highest auto road in the US, climbing to the summit at over 14,000 feet. For about 14 miles it winds precariously around one hairpin curve after another, without guardrails, through a variety of ecosystems, past timberline and with a sheer drop of many thousands of feet off the rim of the road. As you can see in the above picture (taken from the driver's seat of my car while parked in the middle of the road) there is no emergency shoulder. I compensated for the narrowness of the scary road when I was driving downhill by driving on the inside lane whenever I had enough forward visibility to do so.

It was June. I was alone and it had started to snow. Storm clouds started to look threatening, and a sort of pre-snow fog was starting to roll in. The day had started out beautifully in Idaho Springs, with no sign of what would be brewing at higher altitudes. This was the kind of weather that would close down this road. The air had that ominous slightly electric feeling that precedes a snowstorm. The temperature was dropping fast.

There is a danger in getting too flowery about the natural world - about romanticizing it while ignoring its very real dangers. The snow and the mountains and the sheer drop of the cliffs did not give the slightest thought to my well-being. There is a time to be alert, to understand that peril is peril. I turned my car around at a lay-by near a glacier-fed lake. I had almost reached the summit, but not quite. As I reached the gateway at the bottom of the climb, it was snowing hard, and the Forest Service was closing the road.

Risks. When to take them. Why to take them. I struggle so with this. On the one hand I would love to just cast my cares to the wind and do what takes my fancy. On the other hand, I am a sensible soul, wary of making a large blunder. A friend described me as living a "Bold" life. Wow, that sure isn't how it feels on the inside.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Watching of Wilson's Pharalope

Now here is a sweet little bird. Wilson's Pharalope - about 8 inches long and the funniest swimmer you ever did see. When they want to stir up some food from the marshy places they hang out in, they begin to swim around in dizzy little circles. It is like they are spinning tops just whizzing around on hidden underwater gyroscopes. Watching 20 or so of them doing this all at once is hysterical. They look like toy wind-up birds gone blissfully mad. They are the bird world's whirling dervishes.

Then they stop, eat for a while and decide to swim a bit further down the pond -- which they do by doing something like a bow, something like a stretch of the neck back and forth to propel them forward, stretching their shoulders back and forth as they do. They become little mechanical birds bobbing their heads, like the rolling wooden duck we used to pull around on a string when we were toddlers.

I love how charmingly foolish they seem. I love that they make me laugh and giggle with joy. Seeing them spin and spin immediately gets me chortling and grinning. I wonder if they watch me, saying "Look what we can make the silly one without feathers do!" And with a sly wink across the pond to eachother they spin..and spin...and spin...

Ah, Wilderness

This is the Painted Desert of northern Arizona. It is certainly wilderness. I have been thinking about Martha's comment on a previous post, where she mentions Jesus in the wilderness. I used to think of Jesus's time in the wilderness, or the Jews' long sojourn in the wilderness, as a time of cruel deprivation, a period of deep suffering. And while it certainly is not a place with traditional creature comforts for us or for the Biblical sojourners, a time spent in the wilderness is not the stark exile many fear it to be. I have noticed that a lot of my blogging this far has been about getting quiet, being in Arizona, listening, being mindful, aware.

My guess is that Jesus was relieved to be in the wilderness - no crowds, no demands for his attention.

It may be that we go in cycles- needing to balance silence and sound, people and solitude, obligation and independence. Deny access to part of that balance and it will eventually cry for primacy.

Yet here we are in the 21st century of the Western (translation:privileged) World, overstimulated, overcrowded, overfed, overindulged. What happens culturally when we all wake up to the need for silence, for respite? The world we have built is rapidly catching up with us. The pipers will need to be paid.

In God's Country (U2's Joshua Tree album)

Desert sky
Dream beneath the desert sky
The rivers run, but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me

Sleep comes like a drug in God's country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses in God's country

Set me alight
We'll punch a hole right through the night
Everyday the dreamers die
To see what's on the other side
She is liberty
And she comes to rescue me
Hope, faith, her vanity
The greatest gift is gold

Sleep comes like a drug in God's country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses in God's country

Naked flame
She stands with a naked flame
I stand with the sons of Cain
Burned by the fire of love
Burned by the fire of love

Monday, February 06, 2006


Tonight I watched an episode of Globetrekker on PBS, a show in which intrepid young people do budget travel in remote areas of the world. In this episode, a young woman traveling in Egypt visits a monestary.

Egypt was one of the earliest places where Christianity took hold and the monastery at St Antony's, three hours to the south east of Cairo, was reputedly the very first monastery. St Antony lived as a hermit in a nearby cave for twenty years. -- Taken from http://www.globetrekkertv.com

Father Lazarus is now a hermit monk in the Egyptian desert. Earlier in his life, he was a lecturer at a university. He says that he used to be an atheist in Australia, but his mother's deathbed experiences convinced him there was more. He lives in the middle of a vast desert area in a cave in the same mountain in which St. Anthony lived as a hermit. He has one tiny area that is his dwelling, and one tiny adjacent area that is a sort of shrine hollowed out into the rock. He commented that "prayer does not just evaporate" and described the mountain as "saturated with prayer".

Can a place be saturated with what is done in it? Are there places that are considered holy because they have been prayed in so often? If prayer lingers, what else lingers?

Can a place become saturated with war, or with love or with joy or rage?

I have been in a Jesuit retreat center. It felt different. Intentionally contemplative space feels somehow qualitatively different from merely quiet space. Can it be that the intentions felt in a place linger and touch us, affect us? A friend of mine who is a Rolfer is fond of saying that "intention is healing". Can it be that is what it means to saturate a place with a given energy or feeling or prayer -- that we somehow communicate our deepest intention, even after we leave? That what we feel impacts more than just our feelings?

I have felt this at fleeting moments in Nature, in sacred places, at places like the Vietnam War Memorial Wall -- that somehow the feelings of others who have gone before me linger in a way that I experience the very edge of them. Or it may be that these feelings of others that saturate an area, draw forth like feelings from me.

If it is true that what we feel or what we do, leaves some sort of intangible "footprint" on an area, we may all need to be more focused about our intentions, for our sakes and for the sake of others.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

But At My Back I Always Hear - Time's Winged Chariot Hurrying Near

Well, that is what the poet said - he always heard Time's rush behind him.

I don't.

I actually find Time to be mystifying on every level. I look in the mirror and see a 19 year old with a 56 year old face. I don't mind the years adding up -- I just do not understand them. I was reminded recently that I have less years ahead of me than I have behind me, and I suppose, even optimist that I am, that is true. That very fact has left me befuddled.

What is one to do about that fact? Will I have lived a wasted life if I do not have a novel published? If I do not fall madly in love again with an unbridled passion that makes the very air crackle? If I never see Portugal? If I never learn to make a decent pie crust?

I am, as I said when I began this blog, the last of my family. After I die, the name that I carry as my maiden name winks out of the universe. I have looked for it everywhere and never found it. Does that actually mean anything? I suppose I have always felt as though I should not take this name into oblivion with just a whimper. But what sort of bang makes sense? And do I have time to assemble the ingredients needed?

And who gets to judge what is or is not of value? Do we wait for some sort of heavenly after-life scorecard to be sure? Do we hope that like Jimmy Stewart in "A Wonderful Life" that before our little lights blip out that God finds a way to show us the value that we did not even imagine was there?

Or should we just plod on, getting through our days as compassionately as possible, with an ear and an eye open to possibility? I find myself humming "....the love you take, is equal to the love you make."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Keys. Birds. Mindfulness.

Last week I loaned my front door key to someone I know who was delivering packages to my front door. (long story) The packages were delivered and the key was returned. I put the key on a bureau.

Fast forward a few days.

Now I am leaving for a friend's house in Massachusetts. As I am dashing out the back door I notice the key, which I have yet to re-attach to my keychain. I stuff it in my pocket and head out, thinking that I would reattach it when I got to Massachusetts.

Fast forward a few days.

I remember the key. But I cannot find it. It is not in my purse, not in my pocket, not on the keyring, not in my car, not in my luggage. I check the floor in the room I undressed in. No key. I email my friend in Massachusetts asking her to look for the key, please. No luck.

A total of two weeks pass.

Then I am walking to my car, taking the back stairs, as I have every day for two weeks. There, on the pavement at the very base of the stairs, in a place so obvious one would have to be blind to miss it, is my key. I should point out that other tennants use these stairs. It seems that all of us just plain missed it. For two weeks.

How bizarre is that?

I was reading some of Thich Nat Hahn's writing on mindfulness. Could it be that I missed the key over and over because I was not being mindful? I am a birdwatcher. I know what happens when I shift focus and begin to watch for birds. Suddenly I see them where they always were, but my being mindful of them allows me to see them. Yet in the course of a busy day I am likely to not notice them. On a busy day a bird could land on my head and I would almost miss it.

How would my day change if I mindfully watched for peace or joy or love?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Fighting the Angels

When I get the blues, everything in my life seems to be enshrouded in some sort of fog. It becomes impossible for me to see the larger vista of my life, as my focus is only on what is lacking, or what is painful, not on what is abundant.

Twenty-five years ago I was sitting in an old apartment of mine and I felt so happy that I had shelter, and a pleasant living room that felt cozy and warm and inviting. The next day I had a tough day at work. I came home and sat in the same chair, in the same room in the same apartment. I looked around -- gee, the sofa looked old -- and the walls needed repainting -- and that carpet really was the wrong color. NOTHING had changed in that room from the day before except me. It hit me then that I could actually choose to see the world in a variety of ways.

I have a couple of friends, both of whom have been through seminaries, who remind me when I am low to start counting blessings -- to literally sit down and create a "blessings list" on which there must be more than 10 items.

I hate it when they do that.

The depressed part of me wants to rise up and just scowl and sputter at them. Don't they SEE how miserable things are? Don't I have a right to feel sorry for myself?

I do have a right, even a responsibility, to feel my pain. But it is foolish and ungrateful of me to imagine that is ALL that is in my world. Yet at the moments I need to write out that list the most, it is hardest for me to remember to do it, hardest for me to actually set pen to paper and do it. The vortex of the blues is not a trifling thing.

So there they are, dear friends, making me understand that my life is not all sorrow and suffering. So I write out my list. I generally start crying before I am done, out of thankfulness, out of the rich and fruitful reminder that there is abundance in my life, that I am so deeply blessed. I fight like hell with those angels, then end up singing their praises.

Go figure. It's a funny old world. Even on a good day.

If you are reading this, I ask you to take a couple of minutes. Do your list. Don't argue about it. Just do it. Wrestle with your angels.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What Passes As A Road

If you look very carefully into the dark part of this photo that I took by leaning out of the truck window, you will see a sort of path through rocks. This is what passed for a road in Hack Canyon (see yesterday's entry). It wound about, occasionally disappearing. For some odd reason I was not anxious, not a bit worried about being approximately 80 or 90 miles from pavement, let alone people. It strikes me that one of the joys of being in the wilderness, is that it presses us into The Now. One has to be alert, vigilant, wary for where the paths do and do not lead, on the watch for peril and beauty all jumbled up together in a sort of Magnificent Demand. At that point I cannot fret about the past or worry about the future. Nothing exists but the moment. When this picture was taken I was entirely there - the only part of my life about which I had any awareness was unfolding as the seconds passed. Each second that passed vanished from my attention. Psychological literature has quite a bit to say about why people who have experienced great trauma often withdraw and live in remote areas. They usually attribute it to a need to be somewhat anti-social. But I think it is something else. I think that in places like Hack Canyon, there is no past. There is no future. There is only Now. And Now happens without having to try to get there. It is the only choice, so there is no choice to be made. And in the Now, all that matters is the immediate experience of the day. It is at once a great freedom and a great obligation.
Site Feed