Posts Tagged: Crafting clarity from chaos

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

Emergency or Emergence-y?

I’ve long been a fan of adrenaline. I’ve thrived on it.  Months and years of my life have been spent in one emergency or another, guaranteeing an adequate flow of juice. I’ve been wondering whether the human animal just needs this shot in the arm to move from complacency to Awakeness and do what needs to be done.

But lately my inbox has been filled with the word “emergency,” and I’m beginning to recognize the signs of overwhelm. I take a random buckshot approach for a while, but the next stage for me is adrenal fatigue. It’s not that I lack commitment to acting on my principles. But I’ve learned a few things, and I’m interested now in a more sustainable, long-range approach.

Last weekend I returned to my Oregon home from my mother’s bedside just in time to take a walk with 100,000 of “my best friends,” as my husband George described them. During the last couple of months there have apparently been “emergency” altercations in Portland, when the police have used the tools of their trade for crowd control. Having just returned, I didn’t know this. What I experienced instead was a sense of Emergence-y.

Throughout the walk, insights kept showing up from my family emergency of the last weeks. My mother had a serious stroke a month ago. The first three weeks of the year we’ve focused on her post-stroke recovery. While I was with her, the focus gradually shifted to her quality of life. When dealing with the primal reality of birth and death, and birth into death, everything has always seemed crucial. Urgent. An emergency.

But this time I waited. And Life always presented the next step. The miracle of ordinary life (and death) just kept flowing. Each action had a simplicity. The faith that accumulated as I turned “my way” over to something greater just kept building. This culminated with the exact right chaplain showing up during my last visit with my mother. The one who hailed from her German/Lutheran childhood home spoke her Lutheran language. He offered the most beautiful prayer for her journey and mine just as I was stretching “my schedule” and heading to the airport. My mother, who has frequently been lost in Stroke-land, emerged enough to nod and say “amen.”

The Women’s March was a lot like that. A step or two. Waiting. A few more steps. As we merged, something was also emerging. All over the world. We don’t know exactly what it is. Many of us (no matter where we fall on the political spectrum) are birthing something. It’s coming. We’re striving to be awake for the death of something that has passed and the birth of whatever is emerging. Both require labor. But without the Emergency state, when we allow things to Emerge, we’re more likely to take just the right and unique action for us, one at a time.

As many of the protest signs said, we’re awake now. Let us stay awake in ordinary life and do the next thing, and the next. The thing that must be done for the new to emerge.  Let us discover whether it’s possible to take action without emergency by making the deepest commitment to attend this Emergence. Day by day.

Kindness. Peace. Love. And committed action on behalf of these principles. This is what is left. I have a renewed trust that this is the Way of things. Steady. Slow. Like water on rock. These are the principles that are Emerging. May we keep drawing, again and again, from that deep well.  And may it sustain us for the times ahead.

The Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude

In the time before Thanksgiving I was drawn to take a deep inner dive into “grateful seeing,” declaring a practice of slowing down for the micro-miracles of daily life. There’s been ample nutrition for the soul in this deepening practice, as I peeked beneath the clichés about gratitude to find my own deeper experience.

Honestly, Universe (or God, or whatever you call it), it’s been really fun. And in my humble opinion I didn’t really need more of a challenge.

However, as it turns out, my opinion about these things seems to be just that. My. Opinion. Reality never fails to show me my real job, whether I approve or not.  Reality brought a stroke to my brother first about six weeks ago and then my mother just before Christmas. All of us (and another brother) have A-Fib, which makes strokes more likely. Since I was scheduled in Texas for proactive surgery for the problem, I was unable to cancel and fly to manage the crisis.

So we all puttered arrhythmically along, in and out of surgeries and hospitals and emergency rooms.  My brother with the recent stroke somehow kept up with my mother’s crisis and his stroke rehab, while I texted and called and did everything I could to not wring my hands into ribbons of worry. The multitude of Care Givers and angels all along the way earned a place in my gratitude pantheon. And yet the reality and the stress of it all has been there all along, lurking in the background. I just returned back to my home for a few days of rest and rebooting before I climb on another plane and head “back East” to my mother’s nursing facility.

So I just today returned to my grateful seeing project for 2017. It’s one thing to make a commitment to living into a “year of gratitude,” imagining quiet moments in nature with birdflight and windsounds. But it’s quite another to welcome all of it, the “full catastrophe,” as Zorba called it, and find the Gratitude Spot somewhere below the apparent disasters.

The small savings account I’ve built up through the practice of micro-moments of gratitude have carried me a long way. But then has come the big challenge of knowing that those you love are struggling without you. That your mother, already confused, has lost her ability to speak. That hospice has been advised.

During the last two months I’ve also been more deeply committed to questioning a myriad of upsetting thoughts and beliefs about everything, including the future of the world. This radical discipline, one that I have been practicing for about ten years, has delivered me again and again to humility and peace. While I’ve learned to question my mind’s assumptions, I’ve also been preparing me to be with my mother, to help make decisions about her future. Without the discipline of pausing and questioning my mind, I’m not much help to anyone.

But with a little pause comes the realization that I really have no idea what will happen next. The relief and acceptance that follows this recognition brings me the deepest acceptance. And from this calm and open mind comes guidance. Again and again. The next thing. For this I am eternally gratefully.

This is the Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude.

“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.

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.

This Longing. This Advent. This Future.

She was brought up in a Southern Baptist church, where Catholics were widely believed to be a bigger danger than Communists. So she’d never heard of advent until someone gave her kids a cardboard calendar with chocolates. This seemed vaguely suspicious and sophisticated in a European way. It intrigued her.

So on the first Sunday of that December she woke up curious. She looked up Advent on a couple of Google Sites. The words left her with a couple of impressions which seemed vaguely mysterious and therefore attractive:

Ritual Time for Patient Waiting.

The Beginning of a Deepening Relationship with the Divine.

Longing for Union with the Possible.

Remembering.

She’d never liked the idea of waiting, and when the virtue of patience was handed out, she’d come up short. She had no interest in longing either, but apparently she had no choice. Even with all the gratitude journals, the positive rewiring and the inner work at Letting Go, she wanted. There. She’d said it. Even though she hadn’t wanted to admit it before.

In truth, there really was something she truly wanted to come true, something she longed for, as long as she was giving herself permission to long for anything. She needed a solution. Now that turkey soup was running out, and she could see it coming. The holidays. They were looming near, like a tornado about to pick her up and to drop her off who knows where? What she did know, if the past had anything to do with the future, was that it would likely be a disorienting month.

Then she saw it. There was the longing. She wanted it all. The jingle bells and authentic holiday joys of family and friends, the making merry, the too-muchness. And she also wanted to find and hold the peace. Now that she thought about it, she wanted more yet. Even while she was in it, there was a longing to be on the other side of this holly and mistletoe storm.

A pull of hope stirred from some mysterious inner source. A longing for a deeper connection with something deep and wide inside, a wanting to know herself as more than she had ever believed she was, as something she didn’t even have words for. She could feel confusion stirring. And then there was a slight hint of a trust she had never known before. She listened closely. And it was at that moment that her body whispered a memory of another time in her life. And then she remembered.

There was a birth she was waiting for. This was the longing. Her mind relaxed as if it had figured out the answer to some complicated puzzle. And then a breath. A new hint of confidence from some deep pilot light. It was as if a new faith in possibility was born. There it was. An answer key had showed up from some unknown source. She simply knew that she could trust her inner directions as she listened. That this was the way to discover what she could do for all of those who suffered around her. She could almost see it coming, this new faith in healing, in forgiveness, in the future, in the possibilities hidden inside and beyond herself.

And she lit a single candle for advent.

Resting in the Grace of the World

It’s been an unsettling time. A time when unpredictable acts of violence make it hard to make any sense of things. The mind can’t comprehend, and I notice myself caught up in the detailed accounts, trying to figure it all out. Trying to find the kindness in the Universe that I have come to trust. There are times that Grace seems like a highly abstract concept. I turn to words of wisdom and poetry during times like this.

Today I came across one of my favorites, a poem by Wendell Berry that has always given me deep comfort when I was ready to settle into it, like a warm bath. And then these words emerged, like very irritating instructions: “Rest in the Grace of the World.” What? Impossible. Where’s this so-called Grace right now? My mind raged.

And then. Then. The day-blind stars reveal what I’ve been missing all along. Peace has once again become possible. From within, from that place where all wild things reside: inside. From the place that holds this poem.

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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.

The Wildish Truth

Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar. We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.