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The Path of Totality: Where Sun Meets Fire

Eclipse Fever collides with Wildfire in my environmental newsfeed this month. In only ten days, my abnormally “normal” town will become a swollen version of itself. As the planetary wheel turns, we’re one of the very first and most reliable viewing places for the total eclipse, given that the Oregon Coast has a foggy and questionable personal history. Frankly, we see it as the most charming place from which to watch, bar none. But just how charming is something we try to keep very quiet. Notice I’m not being very specific or dropping its name.

The jig is up already up, though. Most of us with empty rooms in our homes have long had them booked with long-lost family or friends. The Willamette Valley floor is sprouting campgrounds in abundance, at $200 to $750 per site. We’re stocking up as if a snowfall were imminent, aware that our town will likely double or triple or quadruple in size. We’re also tuning up bikes so we can stay on the bike paths and out of traffic snarls, the ones that we’ve we’ve been warned about since April.

This will be the second total eclipse I’ve witnessed. The first one was in 1979. As I was recently reading the mystical accounts of eclipse stalkers, I reached back to remember…very little. Popular culture seemed far less interested in things celestial back then. The path of that total eclipse was a Nike-shaped swath over Washington and up into Canada so there was almost no Eclipse Hoopla. My husband and I and baby Ben simply drove the night beforehand a couple hundred miles to the rolling hills of southern Washington and parked our VW van on a wide spot in the road. Across the gentle hills a smaller version of Stonehenge was visible. Despite the dramatic location, there were only a few of other cars in the nearby parking lot. The sun was just up, and it was a showery February. The sun did break through the clouds to cast shadows over the hills as it chased a sweeping line of darkness. In my mind now it’s another subtle and rich life moment, thanks to my somewhat intact memory and a beautiful painting by my friend Jan that still hangs over my bed.

Meanwhile, right now, there’s another more pressing emergency situation in my other summer world, one that could (literally) eclipse the actual eclipse. Across the valley and up in the mountains lies our summer cabin, also in the path of eclipse totality. A wildfire has been burning on the shoulder of nearby Mt. Jefferson, and it’s only a couple of watersheds away. At risk are the old growth forests that are such a global treasure. Lately it’s been growing some days and sitting relatively still others, and there’s a staff of over 200 professionals on the case. Ironically, when the smoke is thick enough, the fire slows down, since it feeds on the heat generated by the powerful summer high-altitude sun, among other things. This whole area will thankfully be closed to Eclipse watchers because of the serious increased risk of fires.

The preparedness required here is a little more complicated than stocking our Valley home with beer and barbecue supplies. We’re clearing out brush to make the area less hospitable (my interpretation of the official fire containment plan). Unlike the solar variety, this crisis won’t likely be all over in a week. For that we’ll need to wait until the rains come in late October.

We’re fortunate to be able to soothe sore muscles at the hot springs retreat center down the road, where my husband is a big support of the BFD, or the Breitenbush Fire Department. We hear that the risk of the fire reaching here is miniscule now. We return back to the valley, a hundred miles away. The winds have blown the smoke from the Whitewater fire in the mountain to settle right outside our window. Sunsets here are rubber ball red. There’s little chance that the eclipse will actually be eclipsed by smoke here, but there’s a sizable risk of other fires, what with all the increased human activity.

So much for Oregon laid-back summers. Living so close to the awesome power of the sun brings a sense of aliveness here in the path of totality. We plan ahead to care for our visitors and our residents, in and out of the forest. We work prudently to protect the lives around us. We live in the traveling light shadow of not knowing what the future will bring, even as we savor the summer breezes. It’s an incandescent time. There’s a totality, a presence, to it all.

I want to remember this, I think, when I start believing that life is dull or boring. This sense of being fully engaged and awake, of being “all in.” Perhaps this is the real awe-inspiring nature of the eclipse, or of wildfire. For the moment all the murmurings and distractions of our daily lives cease and we can see the magic inside the enormous power of nature, so far from our actual ability to control it.

Only totally.

Managing the Moving Target of Summer

I’ve been taken captive by the sheer beauty and the energy of the first true days of summer. It’s a season of wonder, this short and brilliant burst of color and light after an unusually dark and wet winter. Farmer’s Markets thronged by pale people baring themselves to sun, to heat. The scent of promise in the air as festivals and fairs bloom. Mountains Rainier, Hood, Jefferson, Shasta on their thrones, reigning over it all.

Summer here is a quickly moving target, reliably launched in mid-July and lasting for a couple of months. With an urgency driven by my mother’s recent death, I delight in the good fortune of having the energy to experience so much of this Life Force. I move through forests, mountains, and beaches here in “God’s country,” trying my best to savor every little drop out of the season. But the more I revel in the beauty and activity around me, the more I move,  the more I long for the the still center of an actual target.

Each year I set my sights on my birthday, smack dab in the middle of the season. For most of my life it’s been a perfect day to gather with friends to celebrate with sour cherry pie or peach ice cream, a time to cram it full of love and gatherings.  I’ve celebrated at fairs and festivals, from the Oregon Country Fair to Bastille Day. It’s been a big pay-back for the times in my childhood when I missed celebrating with my schoolmates because of my summer birthday.

But about twenty years ago I decided to declare a day (or week) right around July 15 as a time for personal retreat. It was counterintuitive, but I was desperate to land somewhere. Since then, this date has become a still point right in the center of all the goings on, a quiet place where I can gather the fragmented parts of myself, where I can see the silver and pearls that I carry inside myself, those parts which often go unheard and unattended. I spread them out on the carpet of time, slow it all down, and listen.

That first year I heard a name change as I immersed myself in a tide pool: Susan Grace. I listened. I changed my name to two names, just to be reminded of what’s truly at the center of the target. Not me. Not Susan, with all her personality and accomplishments. Grace. Which does not belong to me. This has come to mean a deep trust in the greater Mystery, in the stillness in the center of movement.

When I remember this, when I honor this, the target stops moving. There is the still center. This is what is true. And so, once again this year I gather the fragments of self and stand for a few minutes in the stillness. And this life makes a deeper kind of sense.

And you, Dear Reader. How can you find stillness in the center in the midst of all the moving parts that summer offers? You don’t need a birthday to declare a time out, whether it’s for a day or for a few minutes daily. Whether you go big with a silent retreat or small with daily meditation, it’s time to slow the target down and find the center, in the bullseye hidden in stillness.

Why I Don’t Hate Facebook Anymore

Facebook became a Real Thing around the time I began my late life career of coaching and mentoring. I welcomed all comers, thrilled to connect and/or reconnect with kindred spirits from near and far. In the ensuing years, I’ve stopped by FB infrequently, and I hardly ever pulled up a chair to stay a while.

Why? My Friended Folk list is a bloated blend of more than 65 years of friendships, extended family, interesting people I met at a retreat or on a shuttle bus, or others I’ve never met but who are a part of my tribe of Wayfinders or coaches or yogis. It’s a weird mix of public presence (meaning I may not know the friend personally) and a longer friendship or deeper connection.

Over time, my more private and introverted self has been getting hives even THINKING about the trip to Facebook. At the root are many old stories in which I protect my internal life from public inspection. I would be overwhelmed. Then I would lose my inner life. They wouldn’t like to know this about me. On and on.

I’ve also had many opinions about all the promotion I need to wade through to get to authentic connection on Facebook. And this was all before the political climate of the last year. It’s been getting so that a trip to FB is like enduring a visit to my great Aunt Mabel’s house. All the clutter made the air too heavy to breathe, so I stayed away.

Then last week my mom died. My first thought was to keep my grief close in, to pray and meditate and watch for dreams and listen for her presence and create little grief rituals for myself. This has long been my way of dealing with deep stuff. But in this case, there were so many demands and arrangements and people to inform that the first couple of days I spent most of my time on the phone. I could barely feel that particular frozen feeling of tears waiting to escape.

After the first day, I had the house to myself.  I had intended to bathe in the solitude. But something led me to Facebook. Amazing luck, distraction, divine guidance. Who knows.

I posted a question about why people describe the loss of a mother as “huge.”  And, sure enough, I was overwhelmed. A good kind of overwhelmed. I read each response and every little heart emoji, and I imagined their faces in front of me as I read.  Each time, the tears flowed freely in the privacy of some inner Oasis.

My FBF’s surrounded me in a blanket of love. They shared their beliefs and experiences.  Some were so grateful that she was in the bosom of Jesus. Others envisioned the Light of Pure Being (which, in my mind, is Jesus). There was always such wisdom and kindness in their words.  Something deep and true was triggered, a kind of thawing. Tears flowed in awe of the powerful bond that transcends time and space.

One of my FBF’s and deep friends from long ago wrote This is Facebook at its best.

I agree.

Deep Spring

I seldom share my poetry in my blog, but this one belonged here, a thumbnail sketch of my year so far.

Deep Spring

I.

Dark rainy days of river-flooding March.

Muddy twilights of brackish pools and raindrop rhythms.

None of it touches the tears that won’t fall.

Some days are too small to contain this me I think I am.

Because that one hangs on the cross-hairs of not-knowing.

As the one who came before me prepares to leave

And the job of being here, that job,

Reminds me

That it’s not my time to go but hers.

II.

It could go either way, I think.

The sky, an indeterminate steel gray.

Light is suspended in the balance between seasons

On the cusp of some new life,

I linger in the colorless dawn

Which might also be dusk.

I hold the early swelling of buds as they begin their inevitable festival of life

Next to my mother’s certain march toward nonrenewal.

I long to be broken open, to flower.

To give birth to new life.

Or two of them.

One for her, one for me.

I sit in the space between worlds, in the not-land of unknowing.

For this moment, enough.

III

Spring is undoing me, flowering tree by tree.

I prepare to kiss my mother goodbye

Or not my mother, but some confused absence of her.

I imagine holding her hand, and without words

giving her permission for something or other, as if it’s mine to give.

A thousand little tasks steal my attention,

And then I remember the green, greening and greenest

Spring spilling all around, demanding to be seen and heard.

My feet touch ground, even as my mind ricochets,

So I breathe three extra deep breaths to take to her bedside

And return, again and again, her sidekick, as always.

The Princess and the Best Season of Your Life

I was a child during the Pleistocene era, television was a new thing. Howdy Doody time was a special time for a whole generation, as we were clumsily ushered into the age of media by a freckled puppet (he had one freckle for every state, which meant that there were 48 back then).

One of the main characters on the show was an “Indian maiden,” Princess Summerfallwinterspring. Since the host was Buffalo Bob, presumably she was a part of the Wild West theme of the show.

From my current perspective I can see this with a critical lens. The commercial culture was minimizing the ancient wisdom of many tribes. I’m guessing her name was even intended as a spoof of the Native American connection with the Earth. But in my six-year-old imagination something took root, buried deeply, perhaps. I’m still a big fan of the turning of the seasons.

A couple of days ago, along with hundreds of people in my town and millions of people on the planet, The Super Blood Moon eclipse captured my imagination. It was an astronomical event that got more press than anything in my memory since the Total Eclipse of the sun in the early 1980’s. But it’s not the hype that got my attention. It’s the simple fact that so many people would gather to watch something so slow, so silent. That fact is as rare as the event itself, given the attention-grabbing, high-stimulation lifestyle most of us can’t really escape.

Only poetry can capture this, I thought. Then yesterday I shared dinner with some dear friends who are embracing the last few days of one of their lives as brain cancer takes its ultimate toll. Her birthday is this weekend. We remembered the fall season as a series of the birthdays we’ve shared in the process of aging together. The meaning of autumn, of the eclipse, of the seasons hit me in the center of my heart.

Maybe it was a visitation from the seasonal Princess of my childhood. But I was immediately hit with the connection between the loss of my friend and the autumn season. And at a deeper level I began to see autumn’s special moon as a way to mark the passage of time. Once again I was nourished by the rhythms of nature, when closely observed. When I returned, I found an ancient Chinese poem I’d nearly forgotten:

Ten thousand flowers in spring

The moon in autumn

A cool breeze in summer

Snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

This is the best season of your life.

– Zen Master Wumen
11th Century

May you bring the moon of autumn into your heart during this season of your life. Be here for it. And feel the richness of a life lived as it passes. Don’t let it pass without notice.

When do I Shrink to Fit?

During my early years, 501 Levis were the only game in town. Shrink to Fit was their slogan then. It’s still their slogan. I was a roundish twenty-something, but I believed in their advertising. I desperately tried to see myself as a long, lean, hippie who could just slip into a random waist size and make it work around my thighs. Although the jeans didn’t fit me perfectly, the slogan did, in other ways. Having been raised in a large family, shrinking to fit has come easily. Too easily. It may work for denims (sometimes). But it’s not a great life plan.

The phrase has been running through my mind the last few weeks. During my daily self check-ins, planning my calendar, balancing my roles, working with clients, and talking with friends; it just keeps coming up. And as I’ve listened to my peeps during the last few years, I’ve discovered that this isn’t unique to me. It seems pretty ubiquitous. But my best point of reference is, as always, my own experience.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. If I’m not paying attention, there’s a tendency to make sure my plans fit others’ needs before my own. It’s so subtle it’s barely a whisper. And most of the time it works just fine. Because the reality is that I prefer peace and harmony to almost anything else. But I’ve often used my gift for blending in and making things fit as a short cut.

I’d be the last to dismiss compromise as a strategy. But I sometimes think I can read the mind of the other person and then simply fit into their thinking as I have imagined it. I’m not even stopping to ask me. But when I sit down to talk about a difference of opinion, having already compromised, I tend to take on more than is good for me, or I otherwise cut myself off at the knees.  And when I’m not able to take care of all of me, I end up hurting others, because eventually I get resentful. And let’s just say it’s not pleasant to be me or to be around me when that happens.

The cost of being out of my personal integrity isn’t always immediately obvious. But over a lifetime it’s had a cost. The last couple of weeks I’ve been taking part in a class offered by one of my teachers, Martha Beck. She calls it the Integrity Cleanse. Her approach has been helpful in recognizing some of the places (or relationships) where my jeans are still tight.

The Cleanse is an extreme version of clearing out places where you’ve been shrinking to fit, and you can look it up next time it comes around, but there’s nothing that works better for me than noticing moment-to-moment. When I bring the light of awareness into the pattern, it shifts. This is where the magic resides, ultimately. And this is my invitation to you.

Notice where you shrink to fit in your life. Just notice. Where do you say “yes” to get along, even as your gut gets tight and you hear a little voice saying “no?” Pay attention. In the moment, you might do what you’ve done before, which is fine. Or you could buy some time by saying, “I’ll get back to you.” With that time, you’ll be able to get clear about what fits and what doesn’t, and you can take the next step toward your own truth. No drama is necessary. Just the kindness of truth and a voice that can begin to say, “that doesn’t fit for me.” From this simple act of courage, everything can change over time. I trust this process as much as I trust the water in the stream near here to wear down the rock. Truth (and integrity) have a power of their own.

The Message

“I know I said I just wanted a house on the water,” she intoned.

But…How would she put it so that he could hear her?

She tried again. “You know, darling, how much I love our little Cape Cod cozied into the bay.”

But…

Maybe she should just come out with it.

She craved open waters, longed for the growl of surf. Her body needed it like air, like water. She was shriveling in the dreary, forested coziness of it all.

Now she had little memory of the end of her daily two-mile constitutional.

She was on her way to the open beach. She knew that much.

Her headstrong Cadillac simply knew what she needed. It was headed there of its own volition.

Soon she was filling her nostrils and lungs with the salty, sweaty, fishy wind of the ocean as her ears filled with the deeply repetitive rhythm that had brought her here.

One foot followed the other as her eyes embraced the full scope of it all. Nothing but silver movement and driftwood sculpture forever. She had the sense that she could be dissolved in it all and die empty, happy.

Now her feet took her further, stronger, longer, straight out toward Japan, she thought.

That’s it. She’d tell him,

Honey, you know how I’ve always been drawn to Japan? I’d like to move a little closer, dear. Right over there…on the horizon.

She was so drawn to the unknown edge of things that she stubbed her toe on it, just as she felt the moisture seep through her light canvas slip-ons.

It was nothing more than a green lip of something hard. Her fingers scratched through the wet sand, just as the tide reached her ankles.

A pull toward the sea. A yank toward land.

No. It couldn’t be. A bottle.

Seriously? A bottle with a cork?

By now she had it firmly in her hands. She had won the tug of war.

And what a prize!

As she rinsed off the sandy water, another surprise.

Really?

No way.

There seemed to be a message inside.

This was hers. Hers alone. Here was the sign she’d been praying for.

She looked over each shoulder to make sure she truly was alone.

Broke the neck of the bottle on the black basalt rock looming nearby.

As she shook it hard, a yellow paper tumbled into her open hand.

Her hands trembled, full of hope.

The figures were beautiful, exotic zen symbols of some kind.

A long, curved line. Something that looked like a roof of a house, and a figure that looked vaguely human, and female, walking away.

Catcher in the Smoke

There’s another woman inside me, I’m discovering. Or, to be more accurate, other women. They tend to take over my dreams, ready to show me what I’m not seeing in my waking life, if I look into their depths. And lately they’ve been showing up in my writing. I’ve decided to share them here because each one seems to come with a gift. And they seem ready to be exposed to light.

And that’s what I invite you to do. Hold them up to light. See what each might bring to your inner self, those parts of you that don’t often get noticed. What other selves are living in your dream life or imagination? The offering is free, and if you feel like sharing your thoughts or reactions, well, that’s good too. 

I wrote this  piece a week ago. Last weekend, four days later, at a meditation retreat, I met a woman who had been evacuated from her home a week before. She lost everything. In retrospect, the similarity is shocking. Who knows where “she” might show up?

She was hot. She was smoky hot. Yes. Smoke was in her eyes. But more. They burned, but there were no tears. The tears hid in a secret recess of her too-large heart. Even though her heart was stitched to her sleeve most days, the tears stayed hidden.

She desperately wanted to cry. The forest fires that raged nearby, the sheer force of the burning, the helplessness as the distant hills were swallowed by the haze. All of it. It brought back each loss of the last years.

They paraded through her mind, one after another, each loss. She ticked them off.  Death. Check. Betrayal. Check. Money. Check.

And yet. No checks by loss of partner, loss of child, loss of faith.

Her faith was in the world that she could not see. It was in the Force that had showed up again and again. It was that Force that had been there every time she had taken a leap into the unknown.

Her faith was in that. Yes.

Mostly, she thought, it was faith in that which always seemed to catch her when she got to the edge of what she had thought she could bear.

Call it The Catcher, like the Catcher in the Rye, she thought.

The Catcher in the Smoke.

That’s what it was. Just when she had given up on believing anything, just when she thought she would always suffer in a drought of the soul, her heart ticked a little extra beat. It took a leap.

What it felt like was surrender.

She thanked the smoke for the tears that slowly wandered down her cheeks.  And for the veil that cloaked her as she allowed herself to be taken by the depth of her grief, trusting the Catcher to hold her sorrow as she dissolved into it.

There’s another word for the Catcher, she thought. I think I’ll call it Grace.

Bubbles of Freedom

This summer Byron Katie, a long-time teacher of mine, offered a worldwide 4-Day Silent Retreat. During the sessions, she posed her classic questions as a meditation. As I participated from my home; my answers, when I was able to ground them in stillness, were deep and wide and free.

During the Retreat, she reminded participants to take their time, to take one thought at a time: “It’s a practice.” This became a mantra for my own mind. I re-remembered the clarity that comes from regularly including inquiry in my daily spiritual practice.

It’s not like I haven’t been asking, “Is it true?” about my stressful beliefs for a very long time. It’s not like I’ve forgotten to question my mind in my mind as I go through the day. My respect for the professional practice of supporting others in inquiry has continued to grow as minds pop open, and open, and open.

It’s just that over time I’ve gradually moved away from regular investigation when something’s a little off in my world. Compared to the ways I used to suffer before I began to inquire into my thinking, I’m almost an Ascended Master (at least most days). Life has been so much more peaceful, kind, and rich as I’ve gradually experienced what it is to have a (stressful) story “drop me,” as Byron Katie says.

But this summer I’ve seen what’s left. Little thought bubbles have been drifting in and out of this water where I’ve been swimming. Little internal rants about the people around me. Thoughts like “They can’t be trusted (to do it my way) so I’ll just do it myself.” Even though these thoughts usually don’t disrupt my peace of mind in the moment, they tend to have a long-term effect.

And then there are the bubbles of self-doubt when I act out of integrity with myself in how I eat or treat my body.

So I’ve come back to Deep Practice. I’m investigating what happens when I actually write out my frustrations and investigate, on a daily basis. The early results are in: It DOES make a big difference to give time and attention, and trust in the process of inquiry. From the resulting clarity, I’m much more capable of listening to my body’s directions and acting on my own behalf.

If you want to explore this deep practice with a group this fall, click here. 

Loving the Bubbles of Freedom.

The Silence Beneath the Chatter

I just completed my fourth day of an at-home retreat. It was supposed to be silent. I truly intended it to be silent. After all, my home is in a forest-like setting near a park in a quiet neighborhood, with towering trees bearing silent testimony from every window. My ever-understanding husband took off for our cabin in the woods so I could have silence and the Internet for a couple days at a time. (I was participating in an online retreat that featured silence except for six or seven hours of inquiry a day with Byron Katie, a teacher of mine).

Back to the Sea

Mother, carry me,
Child I will always be,
Mother, carry me
Back to the sea

My sister and daughter and I wind our voices together in a song new yet ancient, returning from the Oregon coast. It would be the last trip I would take with my sister. My daughter, at eleven, was a skinny sprite who invited her aunt again and again to come back with her sand castles and stick-writing and cartwheels.

Is Your Ex REALLY a Narcissist?

Guest blog by my friend Linda Carroll, Marriage Therapist and author of Love Cycles, a book I highly recommend to clients

“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.

“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.

“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.

Commencing with Summer

Summer abounds with opportunities to notice our place on the Great Wheel of Life. And it all begins with June. Graduation. Weddings. Reunions. We gather to acknowledge movement from one part of life to another. For just a few minutes we come together like a tribe to remember, to catch up with ourselves. Read More>>

An Impatient Patient Surrenders

It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.