Posts Categorized: Noticing

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.

Peekaboo Checkmate

I’ve always found the peekaboo stage of development fascinating in babies. Right around a year, they’re so easy to entertain with no props but a blanket or scarf. Developmental theorists have a lot to say about what they’re learning, things like fear of abandonment by adults or “object permanence.”  First lesson: People go away and then come back. I’m safe. Second: Things (and people) exist even when I can’t see them.  I’m guessing it was hysterically funny when my mother played it with me as an infant, but I can’t say that I remember it.

But who knew it’s a lesson that deepens over time? My mother is coming and going now, mostly going. Sometimes when I get in her visual frame and wave she doesn’t see me…or anything outside of her, apparently. Then I move a few feet and come back and there’s instant recognition.

I’m no longer disarmed by this. Our roles have shifted in this “Now you see me, now you don’t” relationship. The other day I greeted her without a reaction. Then I walked around her back and waved again as I sat down by her other side. She grabbed my hand and said “Did I ever tell you what a beautiful child you were?” I was stunned. This is the first sentence she had put together in three months. (And although I’m not sure she had ever told me, I’ve never needed or even thought about that subject.)

I have so many questions about this late life peekaboo. On the top of the list is: who is it who sees me, who remembers to say things, when her brain is obviously so scrambled from her stroke that she strains mightily to just utter a word?

My mind has finally given up trying to make sense of it because at one level it makes perfect sense. There’s a way she and I connect that is beyond words. It has always been like that.

AND there’s something very familiar about the way our minds work. When I pay close attention to all the places my mind comes and goes (Oh! The places it goes), I see my non-stroked mind is much the same. It cycles in and out of thoughts, creating a trance of its own making. Past. Future. Fears. Things to solve. It’s an ongoing practice to call it back to the current moment.

It’s so sweet to have this in common with my mother. We have minds that are simply not trustworthy. Without relying on our minds for connection, the game is over. What’s left is deep, soulful, and simple. For want of a better word, I’ll call it love. Straight up.

Holy Micro-Moments for Sanity

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and all the toasts and blessings have been offered, I’m left with a familiar feeling of letdown. Although I savored the time with family and friends, the Holiday of Gratitude doesn’t find much of a footing in my heart, especially during the challenging time of division and fear that has followed the election here in my country.

Regardless of the external circumstances, I’ve never been a big fan of generic gratitude lists. My mind just doesn’t seem to settle on vague concepts. The kindness of people seems way different than the very specific memory of watching a hurried person slow down and hold the door at the gym patiently for someone struggling to get his walker out of the rain.

To save my sanity this month, I launched my own personal Holy Micro-Moments project. I’ve been stalking the little magical details hiding in plain site as I take daily walks or run errands. A certain slant of light, the children at the bus stop, the cashier at the grocery store. Early on it was the mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard.

Mushrooms

What I’ve noticed, without a big investment of time, is that nature seems to conspire to get our attention.  As does human kindness, when we see it, when we let it in.

Even in the midst of all the hubbub in the world right now, holiday or otherwise, there’s that moment of perspective, a deepening of breath.

Join me in exploring the art (and the relief) of finding holy moments in ordinary time.

Take two or three minutes each day to stop, breathe, and savor a moment. If you can, take a photo or jot a few lines in your journal to remind yourself. Share it with the world on Facebook or tuck it away for just you. I’ll do the same.

Gratefully,

Susan Grace

“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

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.