Posts Tagged: Coming home

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!

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.

Evacuation & Return

Six weeks ago I spent a quiet weekend at our Cascade cabin, and the first smoke of the overwhelming fire season to come caught my attention. Like the animal that I am, I began to scan my surroundings with the focus that a whiff of danger brings. Instantly I was aware of what was at stake, something I’ve taken for granted for the thirty five years that I’ve visited this old growth forest. I looked up, as if for the first time, and I silently jotted a few words in my journal.

Who are these enormous beings I’ve categorically referred to as trees? I look up. Up. Up. 12 stories up are their heads. Western red cedar, grand fir, yew, mtn. hemlock, chinquapin, from babies to snag-headed old ones. They haven’t moved anywhere all this time, steady. Where have I been until this moment to have missed them?

I went home to the suburban oak savannah where I usually live. The smoke followed. I thought often of the trees in the forest around the cabin and sent a prayer. Then I came across this poem:

 Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner (1999)

The next month took a certain rhythm. Fire reports every morning. Stair-stepping through the levels of evacuation as the fire approached, less than a mile away. After a while, the cabin didn’t matter any more. I just missed the trees. I imagined them turned to charcoal.

At the end, in a neck-and-neck race between the fires and the rains, the rains came, for five straight days. Just a couple of days ago we got word we can go back. My own particular trees survived. And now, as I prepare to return, it’s to a new landscape. Even though the surrounding forest hasn’t physically changed, I have.

I re-read the poem I stand still, at home with the oak trees, seeing this grove for the first time, each individual tree. Here. They were surrounding me all along, making a place while I worried about the forest in the mountains. And when I do return to the ancient forest, I will pay attention to the breath of the forest, to the answering that says “Here.” And I will listen.

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.

What’s Beyond Love?

How would you answer that question? Finding an answer stops my over-eager mind, momentarily at a loss for the right words. My first thought was the Mystery, or That Which Has No Name.  Then, a flood of others: God, the Infinite, Christ-consciousness, which makes me think of Krishna, and before you know it, the intention of the meditation is somewhat lost in the word avalanche of deities and attempts to name that which has no name.

Pretty soon I’ve forgotten what I already knew, which was the simplest possible answer to the question.  Or not. Hint: It’s love.

Did you guess? See what I mean by simple?  Or, given the nature of that big word, not simple at all?

Beyond Love: Soothing Songs for the Soul is also the title of a CD that my daughter Johanna has been working on for the past year. She’s a yogi and singer who practices her meditations musically around the country in participatory concerts called kirtan.

When she was a baby my favorite book was Love is Letting Go of Fear, which pretty much explains itself. Johanna was the child who loved going down the slide face first. I joked that “she never learned a decent sense of fear.” I coped and nagged and guided, which was my job at the time, apparently.

As a woman, even though life has handed her challenges and accidents, Johanna has learned caution and bravery. She discovered the power of singing for healing after being hit by a drunk driver. Her early risk-taking has transformed into single-minded focus and bravery on her own spiritual path. This music is a result.

I know sound like a proud mother. I am. And I’m also a proud daughter. Two weeks ago I sat with my mother, who is slowly dying. She seems to be in her own process of letting go of fear as she lets go of life. I played the CD to her with my ear buds. She has little speech left and doesn’t respond to much lately, but when the phrase “Beyond love…is love” played, she looked in my eyes and nodded.

I figure she should know.

Stitching a Quilt that Holds

My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now.  I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.

This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past.  And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.

I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.

I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts.  After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.

The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old.  Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.

After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19.  But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.

Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.

But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.

And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.

A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54. 

A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.

A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.

My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.

What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.

Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.

But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.

There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.

Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.

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.

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.

Worry Beads, Worry Dolls, Worry Worry

What comes to you when you see this guy? A denial based on ignorance? A cultural symbol for the naïve? For stupidity?

An excuse for burying your head during an election year?

I’ve been wondering: Why is it that “worry” is such a universal?

I’m not against taking life and the big decisions seriously. Trust me. But sometimes Worry seems to be a force unto itself. Without noticing, in a nanosecond, a fearful thought becomes a clench in the jaw, a knotting of the brow. A tightening of the gut, of the world.

Sometimes it’s called Anxiety (or panic). Even without a real reason, the mind can become totally crazy when it has the playground of an imagined future to worry about, especially when it’s got proof from the past that bad things will happen.

At that point thoughts begin to cluster. The YouTube of the past offers movies, either real or imagined. Catastrophe. Once there, all the thoughts that scare you come out to have their way with you. This is what I call worry.

Some situations just bring it on. Accidents or illness can set off a worry cycle.  Today I’m reflecting on my time with my son at the Burn Center when the entire staff was surprised he survived. And on and on through the litany of family crises.

The last couple of years we’ve had more than our share of auto accidents, and the physical injuries seemed to land me right back into my worry-go-round.

Now I’m remembering those ubiquitous worry beads called kolikoi that I noticed every man fingering while backpacking through rural Greece forty years ago. They originated with monks, much like the mala beads of yoga.  I’ve discovered a half-mala is just about what it takes to manage the inner worry wart when I’m meditating. Why not some kolikoi to jazz things up?

Mala beads also bring to mind my daughter. She’s a yoga teacher and chant leader. After being hit head-on last December, she’s still struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She’s an adult and doesn’t live with me, but she’s needed a check point as she goes about her normal life, as well as her musical career, these last few months. This keeps me busy enough that I’m not so likely to worry.

Sometimes to keep from worrying about worry, I look at it with a magnifying glass to discover its true nature. And my initial theory gets confirmed again and again. Worry seems to be an act of imagination. In a perfectly lovely present, my mind races forward to the future and imagines a frightening outcome. If I don’t believe everything I think, I’Worry dollsm way ahead of the game.

But just in case, I have some little helpers. Did I mention Worry Dolls from Guatemala? These tiny figures listen to our worries, take them off our hands, and go under a pillow to work their magic and dissolve those worries while we sleep. There’s nothing like tucking my worries away like they’re ultimately that little. They usually are in the greater scheme of things.