Posts Tagged: Lessons of the seasons

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.

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.

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.

Finding Carrots, Finding Hope

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

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

Finding Carrots

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

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

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

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

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

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

the glowing fuse at the miraculous center of life.

Surrendering to the Force

All around us, everything small and buried surrenders to a process that none of the buried parts can see.  We call this process seeding and this innate surrender allows everything edible and fragrant to break ground into a life of light that we call Spring.
~ Mark Nepo

Spring here in the Pacific Northwest is slowly unfolding its many layers of stunning beauty. It can last for five months. This year began with the arrival of the snowdrops in mid-January. Then one daffodil volunteered for a walk-on role in my kitchen garden. Now the long act of March opens the stage with the bulb brigade, filling yards and fields with daffodils, accented by  jewel-toned hyacinths. It’s a cacophony of color all month as the season of the blossoming trees begins with camellias, and ends with the final bow of rhododendrons in June.

But there’s a backstage and hidden part of spring that I forget when I’m distracted and delighted by the pastel heaven of the show.  It’s easy to forget the seeds still in the ground, patiently waiting for their cue. The earth is bursting with potential, but each little seed or root must be allowed its full time to be nurtured.

Late winter’s gift is just this: the sweet energy of deeply resting and growing strong roots. I trust the dark to do its magic with the seeds and bulbs still nurtured by the earth. I would no more dig up the seeds to check them in the light of day than I would unearth my partially-dreamed future. I’m not ready to leave behind the peace of the surrender to “the part we cannot see.”

And so I need to remember that these gifts are still accessible, beneath the riotous glamour of early spring. In my inner world, this is what I long to savor: the mystery, the miracle of rest, the not-knowing of how or why I’m growing, or even which way I’m growing.  I want to linger a while to appreciate this, even as my attention gradually shifts to welcome the prologue of summer.

I have learned not to dig into the dark earth and expose the seeds that are still gathering strength and readying themselves in the dark of soil and earth. The same is true for my deepest, quietest inner life. It is still imagining into its next creation.

No me moleste, Leave me be, my soul sings. The deep invitation of winter surrender must be respected fully before I’m ready to move forth. I turn my faith to The force that through the green fuse drives the flower (to quote Dylan Thomas). It is this force that I’m trusting to bring it all on, in all the glorious manifestations of spring and summer. When the time is right.

From the Chaos of Love to the Practice of Remembering

The past month has been a blur of reacting, creating, learning, reacting again. And those words don’t even begin to describe the chaotic, warm loving mess of the Holidays.  A quick glance back at the circumstances helps me give myself kindness and credit. About two weeks before the holiday, my daughter was hit by someone making an illegal left turn. Her safe car and its airbags saved her, but she’s been spending time with us to heal, with the help of the amazing body workers I call my friends. Just before that, one of my best friends died of a brain tumor that had haunted her (and her loving family) for years. On New Year’s I flew to LA to be inspired by Byron Katie’s World Summit. Then back to daughter and client support. Lots of intensity on both counts.

And then last night, a dream. I’ll spare you the details, but in summary I was lost and searching for my dorm room, at a writing conference, of all things. Once I got that figured out, I discovered some lost earrings on the floor of the hallway: very specific earrings I that I had treasured fifteen years ago, with a rose-colored flower and a crystal. I had found the Place of Lost Special Tiny Things that I Love.

Seldom has a dream seemed more obvious, and so I sit myself down and write it this morning. And what comes up for me is how deeply powerful it is to Remember when I’ve been caught in the trance of life’s circumstances. And then I remember that the very act of Remembrance is the source of many rituals from the world’s religions, from Christian Eucharist to Sufi Zikar. And that the contemplatives in most traditions, Eastern and Western, excel in preparing the mind so that the voice of Remembering can be heard. So that what’s truly important CAN be remembered.

Every year but this year, I’ve reserved a day in the first week of January, as close to January 6th as possible, to celebrate my private version of Epiphany. It’s a time after the holiday hubbub when I choose to focus on this process of clearing. And remembering.  And deep listening.

This year I gave myself a Sabbath to return to Winter’s quiet, and the magical right-brain work of dreaming showed me the way. Instead of moving headlong into my day, I grope my way from the dreaming to the lighting of candles and the writing of it. I get very quiet.

And here I am again, where I was a year ago, and a year before that, in an Epiphany of the mind, and I remember what I had forgotten for a while. I collect the tiny jewels I sometimes forget and spread them in the light of Remembering. And there it is, my hidden jewel of a soul is revealed.

And I remember. I can allow. Let go of the strain of trying to control the uncontrollable. Trust the beauty of the process that seems to come without pressure.  Come to be.  I breathe a deep sigh and my mind settles in. I write these words as a part of the sacred and time-honored process of Remembering.  Life can be trusted. Gentle. Kind. It shows the way.  And my own private ritual of listening, of writing this right now, helps me remember .

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.