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Barely Grateful

The branches of the oak trees surrounding this Oasis are nearly bare now.

And so am I. Stripped of assumptions and suppositions about how the world works. The gratitude notebook I launched with such fervor last year has become largely forgotten. It’s been that kind of year. For for many of us.

But there’s good news on the horizon (At last!)
We actually have a holiday dedicated to celebrating gratitude! (Hooray!)
At a table loaded with rich foods! (Oh boy!)
With people who sometimes have different ideas than ours! (Groan!)
For all these things I’m barely grateful.

There’s a probability that Thanksgiving didn’t go so well for you last year, at least in the Family Peace and Politics Department. In addition, this year many of us have been closely touched by things that seem to be happening way too fast: Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfire. Shootings. So unless we’re very careful or prayerful (or both), we’ll be bringing some stress to the table.

The magic of any yearly ritual, like Thanksgiving, is in the way it just keeps regularly rotating in, year after year. When we stop and gather, often with people unlike ourselves, there is a comfort and a perspective to this yearly rhythm. Despite everything, the seasons keep turning.

A year ago I committed myself to “grateful seeing,” as a spiritual practice. This means that, as I remember, I shift my lens and find gratitude in the current moment. This re-focusing accompanied me through the decline and death of my mother, the shootings in Las Vegas, and a wildfire evacuation. The practice of writing has anchored it all.

My blogposts of the last months are reflections on miracles and disasters and the life that holds it all. They are a gift of gratitude.

I gratefully raise a glass to Life…and to each of you.

To Life As It is!

Me Too, and Us Together

The courage to tell the truth and then to live it is at the beating heart of my understanding of feminism. I can still clearly recall the precise moment that this knowledge was born.

I was a newly married 21-year-old who had moved from the Midwest of the early sixties, through a time warp and straight to the hive of the counter culture that was Eugene, Oregon in 1969. The university town was becoming a growing refuge for a motley collection of hippies and yippies and draft-dodgers. Many of them had fled north to get away from the dark aftermath of Haight-Ashbury’s famous Summer of Love.

I, on the other hand, was just fleeing my sorority in the Midwest.

On our first day in Oregon my brand-new husband George and I were unpacking our wedding gifts and settling into our first apartment when a scruffy-looking guy came up the stairs to introduce himself. …and to check me out. Somehow I was surprised because I had thought that marriage was going to change all that, to keep me in a safe bubble. A couple of days later he showed up at my door when I was alone. But George happened to show up about that time, and my “admirer” did a quick about-face.

About a month later, Vanessa, one of my new friends, was raped as she was walking alone on campus at night by someone who jumped out of the bushes at her. Within the next week the same thing happened to two more female students. Vanessa was already a timid and shy person, but now she was even more quiet and withdrawn. Our small group of graduate students made sure she never walked alone. One evening while I was walking her home from dinner, I stopped to say hello to my downstairs neighbor and “admirer.” My friend kind of shrunk, becoming almost invisible. When we got home, she said that “that guy” seemed eerily familiar, that he might even be the perpetrator. She agreed to go to the police. We were there for several hours. They took polite notes but said they couldn’t go further “because the other two victims had already left for Christmas and couldn’t be interviewed.” We never heard anything back.  As far as I know, the case went unsolved.

This is one of my many “me too” stories, but it’s also a kind of “her too” story. Or an “us too” story, as I soon discovered.

Women’s Rally for NOW, the poster said.  Something about it caught my attention, some unresolved feeling left over from my friend’s rape.  This was that new group I had vaguely heard about.  I was no “women’s libber,” a label the people around me had always used with an eye-roll. But something about the poster, on the heels of my friend’s rape, beckoned me to move straight out of my comfort zone.

I went to the rally by myself because I was pretty sure that men weren’t invited. Never before had I been in such a large group composed entirely of women, and these women were so loud. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about the word “oppression,” but when these women gave true-to-life examples of women’s victimization, I just knew these things. Then some of them started talking about men as “chauvinist pigs.” But there was a funny feeling in my body, like something was popping. It was a bodily sensation that started in the bones and seemed like truth. Each time a new example of the social injustice of being a women was described, I felt the same feeling.

A flush of realization took over. What I saw in bold relief, was the oppression in my own mind.  I could see so clearly how I had shrunk to fit the people around me my whole life. And there were other ways I tripped over myself, too. And I couldn’t put it all on “them.”

It was “me,” too. Somehow I knew that THIS was also a part of what needed to change.  I knew clearly that I could do something about this, starting right then. All I knew was that the voice inside my head was strong.

I’m not a mic-grabbing kind of gal, but something was different that night. My voice shook, a reverberation that started with my knees and moved up. I was sure what I had to say wouldn’t be popular. But when someone handed me the mic, I said whatever needed to come out. I talked about my own internal obstacles, and made the commitment to starting with my life and cleaning up the ways I sabotaged me, before I started blaming the men in my life. The crowd cheered. Right on, Sister! I was stunned at their response. I had expected an argument. All I knew then was that something was happening, and I was a part of it.

I’m pretty sure I had never heard of the “personal is political” idea, which came to define the “second wave of feminism” which began that year. I’ve since learned that this move toward awareness was happening all around the country at the same time, like seed pods popping. The consciousness-raising groups that followed were “me too” groups, but we were all in the same room. Geographically limited compared to a Facebook movement, but it had its advantages.  We told our stories. We held each other’s hands. We also held each other’s feet to the fire, naming and questioning the internal obstacles to being a Strong Woman. Assertiveness groups were born.

Since that day I’ve been in more consciousness-raising groups than anyone I know. And those groups were followed by other women’s circles, book groups, spiritual growth groups, and artists’ and writers’ groups: probably twenty in the last fifty years. I created classes on women’s history and literature studies at high schools. During my 25-year career as a teacher I listened to hundreds of young women. So by now I have heard thousands of stories from women of all ages, describing the ways they have been discounted or humiliated by men.

But what I noticed is that sometimes in the telling and re-telling, people didn’t seem to move on. As they repeated their story, they seemed to rehearse a plot with themselves as victims. All the energy that could be used for real change, to create powerful lives, got lost. They were shrinking to fit.

This is a price that we can’t afford to pay at this time in history. The time is right for abuses to be named and for abusers to be exposed. As we tell our stories and stand together we stand taller. But the vital question is this. Where to go from here? Will the Force within us and among us give us the personal strength to step out, to keep going, to question and change a culture that shapes us in so many ways to lose our inner knowing and strength? Will we make this work so important that we will have the strength that we never admitted to before, starting inside ourselves and manifesting in how we show up in the world? Will we then continue to be moved to act as one, a force of survivors?

Yes. We do need to tell our “me too” stories. This is how we are becoming an “us too,” a collection of women and men who will demand respect for all. We will run for office, we will support our sisters. We will stand tall… taller… together.

And, most important, we will not shrink to fit.

Holy Drifting

For me autumn is the holiest of seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter and the slanted light captures the vibrant riot of colors as the leaves drift downward. I like to drift, too, during this time-out-of-time, as the dark gradually takes over and allows more room for silence, for the coziness and candles and comfort from the growing chill. I celebrate these holy days quietly, allowing time to expand, to create enough space to observe the subtle and slower inner movements that draw me into the coming mystery of the dark time of year.

I store it all up as an antidote for the coming racket and good cheer of conventional holidays. Once the calendar moves through the passage we call Halloween, all that inner focus becomes more difficult. It can take considerable focus to keep the “holy” in the busy-ness of the Holiday Season as it expands to fullness and finally spends itself on New Year’s Eve, two months later.

I spent the last couple days in the old growth forest of the Oregon Cascades. Thankful for the opportunity to hang out with the “elders”, I drifted here and there, taking in the brilliant gold of maple leaves that slanted sun rays had lit up on the forest floor. The creek tumbled, and the cedars broadcast their perfume. I let myself be astounded by the vermillion vine maple in front of me, the cedar and pine giants around me, wondering about their long view of the short-living species of humans. Now that the fire danger of the last season had passed, my usual problem-centered brain was taken over by the rhythm of the hike, the gentle musing mode of the unfettered mind.

For a couple of days, I gave up the problem solving mindset, making room for a satisfying substitute, long rambling walks. I immersed myself in The Hidden Life of Trees, a book with enough scientific information to open me wide to the magical ways of the forest and to the perspective of time that two- and three-hundred-year-old trees might offer, as I slowed down and listened. The forest became a wonderland of subterranean mycelium with their slowed-down synapses and immense towering giants, holding court as they absorb the sun’s rays.

When I returned to the cabin from one of my rambles, I sat down to tea by the fire and opened a new book called Devotions, a sweet collection of Mary Oliver’s poems, selected by the author. Immediately, the poem “Drifting” jumped off the page. It’s wonderful to walk along like that, not the usual intention to reach an answer but merely drifting. Once again, one of my favorite poets has captured a moment, a day, a life in just a few words.

Drifting, by Mary Oliver

I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path
wherever it was taking me, the earth roots
beginning to stir.
I didn’t intend to start thinking about God,
it just happened.
How God, or the gods, are invisible,
quite understandable
But holiness is visible, entirely.
It’s wonderful to walk along like that,
thought not the usual intention to reach an
answer
but merely drifting.
Like clouds that only seem weightless.
but of course are not.
Are really important.
I mean, terribly important.
Not decoration by any means.
By next week the violets will be blooming.

Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.
What was it actually about?

Think about what it is that music is trying to say.
It was something like that.

Today I share this with you, as I return to a world which screams of “problems to be solved,” both personal and political. I can no more block these out than the cries of my children as babies. But whatever actions I take will be informed not just from the problem-solving mind, but from the answers that have come from the holy state of drifting and listening to the elders.

People-Watching at the Mandalay Bay (& Beyond)

A week ago yesterday I sat at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, immersed in my hobby of people-watching. It was the perfect, calm finale to a colorful week of nature and hiking with lifetime girlfriends in Utah’s brilliant landscape.  A couple of us had decided to soak up a few more hours of sun while waiting for our evening flights, and my friend suggested we have lunch and loiter at the resort across the way.

While we hung out, I got curious. I had no idea what brought all the fresh-faced young people there. They didn’t fit the image I’d always had of Las Vegas, which I’d only visited once before in my life.  I felt blessed by their happiness as they lined up with big inner tubes to float in the pool. I like to think I blessed them back with my eyes as I appreciated their humanity. To me this is the essence of people-watching. It’s like a blessing, a basking in the joy of sharing the planet together in a particular moment, because that’s all we have. Later Sunday I got proof of that.

As we returned to the airport after a couple hours, our Lyft driver Javier pointed to something that looked to me like a construction site.

“There’s a big country-music festival here this weekend, with big stars,” he said.

“My wife is so excited about this guy tonight with a deep voice . . . Jason somebody. She’s going to be in the front row, she says.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at a chain link fence with warning signs. It looked like your basic construction site. Apparently the venue was in a deep pit, I thought.

The next morning, in my bed in Oregon, I began to get texts checking on my safety. One of the first reports described a shooting “like fish in a barrel.” I thought back on the “construction site.” As tuned in as I like to believe I am, I’d had no warning that it could also be a “destruction site.” I wonder still about Javier’s wife.

Disbelief. Shock. And then a parade of the faces from the day before. More disbelief. Tears. A deepening grief. When I told someone about it, my refrain was, This is not about me.  My “thoughts and prayers” went into overdrive as I imagined each person I had seen there, now possibly dead or struggling for life.

Next day I saw a drawing of the shooter’s window. That was when I realized the courtyard where I had lunched was a direct shot. Twice as close as the amphitheater. Suddenly my world began to seem less predictable, less like something I would want to take for granted. There have been waves of grief, anger, and shock since then, mixed with tiny flashes of understanding. I’m guessing that insights and perspectives will continue to pop.

It’s too big, too close still for a landing place or a Tidy Take-away. I sit still in “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. I’m not done looking for the best way I can make a small difference when it comes to violence within our country and outside it. But I am committing not to forget or get so fogged in by all the stories and distractions swirling around me in the culture at large.

I truly have no idea why bad things happen. I’m just not in charge of that. But one of my life practices is to find some wiggle room in even the worst of circumstances.  It’s sometimes enormously challenging to find a slight break in layers of dark clouds. But I have lived long enough to understand that sometimes something good, some healing comes from tragedy. I put my faith in that. Because from that margin of wiggle room I am more likely to embrace my own life, to embody a loving presence in the dark face of ignorance and insanity. I’m by far more likely to take an action on behalf of wisdom and sanity. And, most important, I’m far more likely to have unclouded judgment about what that action will be.

Photo “Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas,” (c) Erin Khoo, used under CC by 2.0 license

“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went.  Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.

The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way:  A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.

An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory:  Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world.  In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.

The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.

I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.

So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.

“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.

The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.

“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.

This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.

They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.

This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened.  In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.

Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change.  Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.

It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.

And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.

Fish, Fowl, and this Waiting Time

I’m not usually a political junkie, but this year seems more like a morality play than an election, and I’ve been hooked, finding my equanimity tossed around by the story line as well as the political implications. It’s a biting-your-nails kind of time for me and for so many others in the world.

Action usually helps, so the first thing I thought to do was to vote. So I did. And mailed it in. It’s something we do here in Oregon without polling sites, voting booths and lines. But I’m still not done with this democratic ritual we call an election. First, there’s more to do. And second, a guilty admission: I’m a little too hooked on the dopamine of the Barnum & Bailey sideshow that has characterized this year’s election.

There’s something familiar here, I think. I’ve always found the stories of ancient and universal human experience helpful in such times as these. So I wasn’t surprised when a couple of words pop through the fog: liminal time. These are the words I’ve often used to describe the state of being neither fish nor fowl, having left the old life behind but not yet having arrived at the new one. In anthropology it describes “a threshold during the middle stage of a ritual when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” Neither fish nor fowl.

So I gave my Inner Researcher a job, and she turned up a gem. “Liminal time” is usually characterized by a quality of ambiguity or disorientation. During these times “continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.” Of course! We’re all in liminal time!

My researcher went on: “There’s a lack of the usual order of life during this in-between time. However, with a more fluid situation, new institutions and customs are able to emerge.”

Now I’m back to a turf I know for real. I’ve seen so many times how important a time of not-knowing seems to be for personal transformation. And so here we are as a culture, not knowing the future for a couple more weeks. Preparing for something new to emerge. I have seen this process again and again. Enough that I trust it completely. Now I know the territory.

When I work with clients, I remind them that this state of waiting can seem excruciatingly long. But again and again my peeps have found that the results are worth the waiting and the not-knowing.

This seems to be always the case. Patience and trust are not necessarily my strongest character traits, but I know I can do this.

We can all do this. Together. Not fish. Not Fowl. But some seaworthy and airborne combination of patience and determination worthy of what is to come.

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

My Mother, Myself, and the Shoe Worship Lineage

Today I’m packing for a pilgrimage back to the Midwest. First, I’ll be connecting with lifelong friends at a big number high school reunion. There’s always news at these events, but mostly it’s a simple celebration that we’ve made it through life’s obstacle fields and we’re still here.

As I put my turquoise shoes into the suitcase, my 87-year-old mother is already with me. She’s the biggest reason for the trip. Living far away from her as her memory fades, I’m reminded of a line of a poem by Lyn Lifshin: She was like a kite whose string I’d lost hold of, getting smaller and smaller.

I’ve been feeling a bit untethered myself lately, living halfway across the country from her.  So this trip I want to remember every minute the gift it is to spend any time together. We have so few opportunities left. This brings me to the subject of shoes. They’re the one thing that’s guaranteed to tether us to the present moment, to strengthen that string. Last spring, my mother fell in love with the very shoes I just packed. I mean serious love. These love affairs run deep in our blood, a part of our ancestral lineage.

Or it could be that it’s a little vein of rebellion within our sturdy German peasant ancestry.  My German-speaking great grandmother wore black lace-up oxford heels, a style that looks far more chic on models in magazines now than they did worn with her cotton stockings. Her mother was “Grossie” and as a child I thought this was a mean comment about how she looked in the photos, in dowdy flower prints and crocheted collars and lace-up boots. I later found out the name was commonly used in the German farming community as a form of respect.

My grandmother, her daughter, bought shoes of every color and style to show off her slender legs and ankles. We all called her Imelda, especially when we were packing up her pumps and heels in every style and color. Vanity was something she never surrendered during her ninety-plus years.

My mother should wear Mary Janes or tennis shoes that she can count on as she pushes her walker. But she’s not satisfied with these when I visit. Lately she’s insisted on getting exact copies, in style and color, of whatever shoe I’m wearing. Tan sandals with ankle straps, red slip-on wedges. Without the support at her arches, they fall…or she does, which might mean the dreaded breaking of a hip and all that entails at her stage of the game.

I’m torn between practicality and pampering as I think of savoring the time we have together.  So maybe during this visit I’ll wear straps and laces, red, purple, or pale, pale yellow. And maybe we’ll take a long, slow jaunt to her favorite shoe store and look for some turquoise.

Finding Carrots, Finding Hope

It’s officially Autumn. The slanted light cuts through the sky to wash the world in gold. This year, more than many others, I’m remembering to stop and notice. It’s easy for mind to get tangled in the muck of the newsfeed . Sometimes it takes all I have to remember what’s right in front of me. But the other day I stood as a friend dug up root vegetables from the soil, where they were growing tucked into the dark.

I decided to stay focused on what’s in front of me (as opposed to the stories in my head: the latest tweet or outrageousness to emerge from the news). At first look, the clump of dry brown dirt was kind of ugly, just like so many of my stressful beliefs about how things aren’t right. But (I reminded myself) my job was to watch. And it seemed like these particular carrots gradually appeared to remind me of something important. Of hope.  I wrote this right afterwards:

Finding Carrots

It doesn’t take a lot of watching for the beautiful, gnarled, brilliance of carrot to Become.

What happens below the soil line in the depths of the darkness is an alchemy that we come to trust.

When the swollen roots are unearthed, sheathed in dirt still, even then the miracle of beauty remains hidden.

In a handful of dirt and a few undefined rheumatoid clumps.

But beneath that ugly surface there they are:  waiting safely until the time is right,

until the right hand comes along that will carry them to light, to water, who will dice through their tender hearts and reveal

the glowing fuse at the miraculous center of life.

That Tall Distance Between Something and Nothing

Here on the planet floor, all the particular somethings of an autumn morning beckon me to stay here, now:
chipmunk balancing on snowberry bush, fawn tiptoeing through the green ferns, even a prayer of a very specific bird in flight.
Mind catalogues the beauty, the metaphors.

And how high would I need to rise to find the answer to the riddle of grave importance:
Where does something stop and nothing begin?
Above the clouds, I think.
Above the thoughts of species or meaning, I think.
Or don’t think.
Because now that I’m at this rarefied altitude maybe thought will fall away. So what of it?
Without thought, in this tall distance, I approach the intersection of Something and Nothing.

Here, without context, is the true Final Frontier.
I move in the spaciousness of Nothing.
Of not knowing, not imagining a future or a memory of past.
I float lightly in the freedom of space. Not just above but below, around this moment and leading to the farthest stars.

This is the Tall Distance I’m not thinking about now.
Very high. Fat. Open horizon.
Where nothing is no longer ignored but embraced.
In an opening this large
Anything is born of absolute and sacred freedom.

Remedy for Lost Souls (Labor Day, 2016)

What if you couldn’t lose your soul?
What if your soul just sometimes lost you?
What if it just couldn’t compete
With the list of what must be done,
Couldn’t be heard
Over the light speed whizzing of freeways,
The invisible waves of information,
Of entertainment and stimulation
Couldn’t find you, caught as you were
In the death squeeze of entrainment.
What if it’s looking for you right now,
Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?
Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.
It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.

How about making it easier on your poor soul?
Just. Stop.
Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under  a tree. Any tree.
Take nothing but a blanket.
Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.
Move in or out of the shade, as needed.
Sigh once. Sigh twice.
Stare at a leaf.
Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.
Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.
Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,
Purple clover or hairy yellow bumblebee.
A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.
Hear the soft murmuring in the trembling leaves.

Now listen for the sound of your breath fully released,
Catching in the throat at your own shuddering surrender
Remnant of a sob.
The elusive soul’s welcome home.

The Rhythm of the Heart, as One

Our Hearts Beat As One says the T-shirt I pulled on this morning with pride. The logo and words come from a CD by my daughter. I’ve worn it before as I’ve sung the words along with her at various musical and spiritual events. But today was different. It was really true! During the last couple of years, as much as I wanted it, relaxed into it, imagined or envisioned it, my heart has not been beating as one. Not at all.

At first I barely noticed, what with all the things to do and people to see. Sometimes I could feel it going kinda fast, and sometimes it felt like there were little fishes flopping around inside, but I was totally shocked a couple of years ago when a hospital admission screening turned up A-Fib. I asked the technician to give me some time to meditate and calm myself, thinking this was the shift I needed, the one I knew how to do. But the results were still the same. Twice.

This year I’ve been investigating this tricky heartbeat and putting together the pieces, looking backward.  I’d been feeling generally sluggish for more than five years. Then I started running out of breath when hiking (at first) or, say, climbing a flight of stairs (later). I had chalked it up to the need for new knees and the getting of them, which had meant that I’d lost (and not yet found) most of my conditioning. I set reasonable goals and began to get back in shape.

But still my heart was not finding its own rhythm. In a nutshell, lots of the little confused triggers throughout the heart were overworking, trying desperately to do their part in keeping things going. It turns out there are lots of undesirable long-term outcomes, over time, when this isn’t corrected.

My electrocardiologist stopped and restarted my heart (twice). The second time, there was a steady beat for a few days. It got lost, and my doctor said the next step would be an ablation, a procedure which uses electrical energy/heat to wipe out the troublemaking triggers. He also suggested I go to an internationally celebrated doctor and researcher in another state because these little buggers have been around a long time, which makes them harder to eradicate.

I know a good metaphor when I see one. I started noticing all the triggers in my life, the “gotta do this NOW!” trigger, a habitual reaction to the urgent “needs”  around me. Then there’s They need my help. Or I must have that….. (fill in the blank. Junk food, coffee, whatever…) so that I can keep going. Or This problem in my face must be solved right now. By me.

I’ve been looking closely at how each one of these impulses takes me away from my own flow, away from the regular pulse of living my own life in an integrated way.  So I flew to Texas a couple of weeks ago for a cardiac ablation, where the rock star surgeon who was recommended by my local doctor has a clinic. That story is for later, and I’m still full of gratitude for all I learned and how well I was treated.

Today I’m sitting on the other side of the adventure, and my heart (and body) are slowing me down to the speed of healing. Which seems to require me to move slowly, eat almost nothing (for now), in a word: to stop.

Last weekend I spent in silence as I joined a retreat led by one of my wisdom teachers, Byron Katie.  Sitting in some very deep questions for long periods of time requires incredible patience, deep listening, lots of curiosity. It requires staying, digesting, trusting that reality, without being forced or pushed, will find its way to Unity. It also requires not knowing how healing will happen. In other words, a new surrender to reality, letting it have its way with this body while my opinions get out of the way.

This is how I spent my birthday week. And it is this practice that will continue to lead the way during the next year. A year of unification and steadiness in the face of an unknown future. And here is my birthday wish: May all of our hearts beat as one, and may we not forget this shared heartbeat as we move forward into an ever-more uncertain world. And may we place our faith in this, the vast intelligence that soothes our grief and guides us forward.

Deep Conversations in Cool Pools

The medium-sized college town in the Northwest where I live could be described as homogenous. It’s a “cookie cutter” kind of place, which is to say there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. A few years ago I was a part of a gospel choir led by an inspiring African American campus minister who had been raised in East St. Louis, where the cookies were a different color. It took him a year to teach us to sing, sway and clap at the same time. I called it a remedial choir for white folks like me.

I caught most of the news about last Friday’s fatal shootings in the airport as I was on my way to Austin, Texas, just an hour from Dallas. Like most of the people around me, I felt sad and powerless, confused, a little angry and deeply tired about all of it, from mass shootings to racial violence to hate crimes. It felt more poignant somehow as I landed in a community that seemed to have more racial spice than my own.

So on Sunday I started searching for a way to connect with a local Austin black church or a gospel choir the next day. I may have missed it, but nothing jumped out at me. I assumed I was out of luck, so I headed for the hotel pool. The only other people there were an African American couple. In my segregated childhood I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to share a swimming pool with the black people in my community. It was a few years more before I learned to have conversations that transcend the racial divide.  This was several decades ago, and yet images contrasting the past and present popped up in my memory as I slipped into the water.

I asked my pool mates where they were from. Dallas. Much went unsaid as more disturbing images, from the north of our country to the south, crowded into my mind.

“Just a getaway,” they answered. I got it. They knew I had. We began to talk about many of the deep gaps in understanding and fissures of misinformation that lead to the violence of gangs, to fearful police, and to psychotic gun toters.

I told them about all I had learned in my remedial choir, and we all laughed at our fumbling attempts to understand each other.

When they left, the gentleman of the couple turned his head back and said, “Praise Austin. You can find it on the radio.” It seems this local cathedral offers a weekly gospel service called Love. With my limited vision, I hadn’t even known where to look.

My heart landed at home again, a little expanded from the exchange. And I realized I needed to share this experience, which I think has been happening throughout the country this week. None of us can truly get away from the suffering brought by misunderstanding and bigotry, but we CAN have deep, kind conversations in pools and lakes and rivers all around the country this summer. We can let the coolness wash over our fear and mistrust, heal our hearts and bring us clarity; as we continue the difficult work of learning to sing, sway and clap together. This is how the world changes.

Seeking the Jewel of Memory

My mind is unfathomable, and becoming more so as I age. Not just when it comes to the words or names that I used to be able to access instantly. This is happening to all my friends. We have learned to continue with the conversation and wait for the words to pop up. This works. More or less.

Seldom have I applied this principle to objects. Until last month.

When I returned from vacation, my very favorite jewelry (two pair of pearl earrings, a beloved bracelet, a hand crafted necklace) went missing. I didn’t notice for a long time, since I hung out with the flu for a while. With no occasion to dress up, and severe flu-related memory gaps, it was nearly a month before I started missing them.

But once I did, I became a creature obsessed…going over and over the moment I last saw them, searching and re-searching my drawers and my bags, my hidey places. Not just once. Again and again. I imagined the splendor of my pretty pretties. I felt very sad.

I decided this was a problem I could solve if I just tried harder. I started imagining every possible place they could be hiding. On and on. The more fruitless the search, the harder I tried. I have no idea how many times I repeated the superstitious and hopeful pattern. After a few days of ongoing hyper-focus, I surrendered.  I went to local shops and shopped Etsy, for the first time, hopeful again. But nothing compared to the memory of my faves. At this point, the only reasonable choice was to surrender to the loss, if only to make peace in my mind.

Then I went away for a short trip. While I was there, gazing at the enormous mountain outside my window, meditating on the glories of nature, surrendering to the power of the scene, up popped a clear picture of a traveling jewelry bag. I recognized it as my own, one I had seldom used. First thing when I arrived home, I tried one more time searching in my new suitcase. A hidden compartment!  My treasured items!  Waiting for me safely all along.

Along with missing words, now even my treasured things are playing hide and seek. Apparently good focused attention and determination don’t work like they did, with objects as well as words. I’m just now starting to love it. Just as I’m discovering I can’t always count on the verbal skills I’ve taken for granted in my life, I’m now offered the opportunity to surrender even more deeply to simply not knowing. I’m discovering some other mysterious part of the mind that I can count on. To be able to trust the reliability of my own intuition and guidance to find what is mine what is mine to find in life: this is my pearl of the very highest value.