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Remembering the Inner Sanctum

6 am. November 10th. Silence. Solitude.

I creep around my room in the worshipful dark, lighting beeswax candles and placing the last of the season’s peach dahlias on the windowsill altar. The first real fog of the season has newly landed on the hills outside the window.

For this moment, before the fog lifts, I embrace this inner sanctum. 

There’s a big breath and a sigh as I surrender to a deeper peace than I have felt for months.

I create a little altar for the family cabin which burned to the ground on Labor Day:

Altar to Breitenbush cabin
And then I remember what I’ve forgotten during the tumult and strife of recent life. Something ancient and deep and comforting. A peace that has been here all along, beneath the screaming headlines and the pandemic fear. And like a spell has been broken, here I am, with all my parts. I am Re-membered.

The Remembering Thing is big enough to be the basis of ritual in nearly every world religion. It’s the prime directive that enables the words of sages to resonate through the ages.

I understand this now in a whole new way. So much is forgotten when I’m in reactivity, no matter what spiritual tools I use to maintain peace of mind. And so, today, this morning, I’m welcoming myself back home with an act of remembrance, perhaps as simple as lighting a candle. Or creating a little altar to remember something I loved and lost.

Because fall is the time for remembering what we have, what we’ve lost, and what is never truly gone. 

Join me?

SgB

 

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary from Trip Advisor/HappyMunching

Poem: “Sanctuary”
(for Breitenbush, 2020 )
They say the firestorm took the Sanctuary.
The vaulted wooden arches, the soft carpet
built to receive the deep bows of a child,
windows opening to the sound of
roaring river in the gully below.
The setting small enough for quiet whispers
Or the sound of voices meeting voices in song
Yet big enough for rampant drumming,
under tall tall trees and blue bowl sky.

Here this winter morning,
within this home sanctuary,
the big beyond exposes herself,
draped not in smoke but only a mauve whisp of cloud.
Here the slow dawn reveals
glimpses of the great beauty.
Here candles greet morning light, 
gently waking up the far hillside.
And love of what was shines bright,
Tucked close in this heart 
and in little altars Everywhere.    

Crappy 2020 Holiday Letter

About a month ago a friend sent me this meme. It was right after my husband and I escaped the firestorm in the ancient forest that melted our two-story cabin AND outhouse into a pool of scrap metal. Some might have thought it insensitive or in “poor taste,” whatever that is. I laughed a full belly laugh, for the first time in weeks. It fully captured everything words couldn’t.

I haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one to COVID or fire, so perhaps it’s easier for me to tap into a sense of the absurd. Lately, I’ve been thinking of writing a holiday letter for the first time in years. Instead of the cringe-worthy shiny happy facts of the classic letter, I envisioned a month-by-month list of unpleasant surprises, with various non-lethal outcomes.

For instance, this past month, after the fire, we planned on a do-over of the night of our actual anniversary, the day we were evacuated from our summer home. We chose my husband Geo’s birthday, and a friend offered us a couple of overnights at their cabin on the Oregon coast. A few days before the trip Geo began having severe nerve pain in a tooth. We thought we’d leave right on his birthday right after his visit to the endodontist to relieve the pain. Which couldn’t happen yet, apparently, although he was given something to relieve the symptoms. We went on our getaway to the coast anyway, and when we arrived we decided we could just peek at the first presidential debate that first night without spoiling the mood. Bad plan. We came home a day early, with tooth and heart pain active.

This was a week ago and so much has already transpired on the world scene that I’ve lost count. When I’m too tuned in to all the crazy bad news, fear just seems to follow and I quickly lose my sense of humor. I figure these experiences are a tiny sampling of what people around the world are experiencing during this longest year in recent human history. Our situation is different (and luckier) than most. I’m no longer responsible for the education of my children, grandchildren, or teenage students. Not caring for an elder with precarious health. We are healthy and virus free. We haven’t lived in lockdown for months, and we have tons of green space and good air, now that the smoke has cleared. For all these things I am truly grateful.

A new tally begins as I savor the lingering beauty of Indian summer. There’s a slant of light on the garden. A colorful green, gold, and orange backdrop as we circumnavigate the hills and town on our bikes. Gradually I let go of the Crappy 2020 Tally and the fear of the Dark Days Ahead. Tonight I’ll sit down to write a few letters encouraging my fellow citizens in Georgia to vote. I’ll call a friend whose father was just moved to hospice care. And maybe I’ll tune into a soothing escape show (Looking at you, Great British Baking Show.) Without the tally, it’s all just life, following the directions, one step at a time.

May you relish the absurd and the beautiful, of this entire messy world in this stressful but crucial season.

Be the love,

SgBDivider

 

 

Poem: Grandmother Snag
Redwood Snag

You were there in your place last Monday
before the fire winds spiraled in.
Half of you, anyway,
the top part ripped away long ago
leaving only
your red cedar shell,
small protection for your ancient heart.

Held fast to the hillside
by spruce, yew, fir cousins.
I showed you to my human mother
while she still had legs and heart
and she loved you too.
And now you are both with me,
still and rugged as ages
untouched by time or by fire

Susan Grace
Autumn, 2020

 

A Battle Cry for Love: Noli Timere Part 2

Love is Letting Go of Fear. I read this book over and over while nursing my daughter Johanna in 1982. Home on maternity leave, I made it a focus by asking myself every so often throughout the day when I was operating from love or from fear. (I’ve often thought this may have been my worst parenting advice ever for reasons involving safety. She was the kid who went down the slide face first while I stood by, no doubt meditating on fear and love.)

Today, adult Johanna continues to throw herself into everything she does. She has been deeply drawn to the yoga of Bhakti, the path of devotional love. How wild is that? I’m getting my comeuppance, shall we say.

I’m wearing my Nolo Timeri (Be Not Afraid) button for many reasons these days, and she’s one of them. Johanna has made her living for the last five years singing and teaching yoga at studios and churches and festivals throughout the country. I’m guessing you know what this means in COVID times. I’m still coaching myself about love and fear and reciting Nolo Timeri.

What does my “fearless” offspring do during quarantine? She finds a mantra online from some teacher in India, chants it daily, and adds her own twists. She asks all of her friends and colleagues to join her in a global mantra for healing. (Did I mention that she thinks very big?) She spends the summer, with the help of my bonus daughter Lyris, setting up an online studio and editing the videos sent in from dozens of Bhakti musicians. She’s hosting a new channel, One Heart TV, to unveil the new music video. And all profits will go to a foundation I love focused on helping children in Nepal, like my other bonus daughter Priti, who is still under lockdown there.

And Johanna is doing all this and going through with the formal release during an unprecedented conflagration of forests all around. Maybe this is what love looks like when you’re not afraid.Healing Mantra Sangha Cover Image With Names

What I do know is that watching the video and chanting this mantra along with Noli Timere bring me a sense of equanimity during a dark and smoky time.

This Tuesday, Sept. 15th at 5pm PST, you can join in the live premiere of this new music video, “Mantra Sangha: Health & Healing,” on Facebook and YouTube, or join the Zoom call to participate in the artist meet and greet. All the details are here.

Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid,
Susan Grace
 
P.S. I’ve discovered that Noli Timere were the last words of Irish poet/playwright Seamus Heaney, in a text message to his wife minutes before he died in 2013.

A Battle Cry for Life: Noli Timere Part 1

On Feb. 5th, just before the pandemic took over life as we knew it then, my friend Susie gave me a button that looks like this (Noli Timere is “Be Not Afraid” in Latin). I left it on the console of my parked car during the lockdown months. When I discovered it again a few weeks ago, its message took a deeper hold, amidst this summer of confusion, infection, and political craziness.

I decided it was just the message I needed to share in my world and made it my campaign button for the duration. And so I put it on my jacket last Sunday as we headed over to the mountains for a 51st anniversary trip to our summer home in Oregon’s old-growth forest. That evening as we sat in the deep greenness over the creek with some neighbors up the canyon, I shared my new campaign button. We talked about fear, mostly focused on Portland and the election. We slept the deep sleep of the forest. Twenty hours later, we were ordered to evacuate our cabin. I slipped on my jacket, along with my campaign button.

Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid.

Evacuating the cabin

Evacuating, looking back at the cabin

Breitenbush wildfire 2020

Driving away, looking back

 

 

We drove the two hours back to our year-round home, chased closely by gusty yellow, hurricane-level winds. Calvin, our dog, began trembling and hiding before we even left the cabin or smelled the smoke, and he shook all the way home. That night the firestorm burned the entire summer home community of about 70 cabins. This morning I slipped on my jacket once more, and there it was: my campaign badge, Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid.

These words come from the highly acclaimed 2019 epic novel Overstory, which encompasses the sacredness of all trees, all families, all beings. Much of the story is based on the timber battles of the 80’s here in the Pacific Northwest. I was here to witness that battle, that cry for the life of trees. I have since come to see the ongoing devastation of our forests and delicate climate caused by greed, ignorance, and selfishness, even as I savor my time at our little refuge in the forest.

Smoky Oregon airNoli Timere. Be Not Afraid. A Battle Cry for Life. Today I glance at the message as I slip on my jacket. We receive the news that most everything is gone. I look at the images of all the fires and furies attacking this land that I love.

We are safely sheltering from the heavy smoke in our year-round community now, unlike the thousands of my neighbors who lost everything a few days ago. Evacuees are everywhere here in this valley, and they are met with a truly astounding generosity. This outpouring has little to do with fear. I’m moved by the simple offering of human comfort, people to people, masks on and distanced socially, delivering blankets and food, knowing that our hearts know no distance.

P.S. Let me know if you’d like a Noli Timere button and I’ll let my friend know.

A Birthday Madrone & A Manicure

I keep forgetting and remembering and forgetting everything I know to be true. In the rapid flow of things, keeping track of habits that no longer serve me is often beyond my mindfulness capacity. But when I take time out of my life to slow things down, an insight almost always emerges that allows me to remember again.  And so for many years I’ve used my mid-summer birthday to do just that. This year I indulged myself in an introvert’s delight: a (mostly) silent retreat dedicated to quieting down.

I joined a very small group of women, blanketing ourselves in meditation and yoga and nature.  I took slow walks, determined to  steer my thinking back to these things: A lake. A hillside of rhododendrons. A blue ceiling peeks through the giant fir and cedar trees. But it was a little madrone tree that caught my attention.

The Pacific Madrone is native to a small swath of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s a bit exotic to a not-native Oregonian. At first I was struck by its sheer beauty, its shedding paper-like layers exposing a rainbow in a natural palette. As I stood in quietude, I reflected on the layers and layers of life I have lived in the last seven decades, the last fifty years of marriage, the last forty years of householding and family. The papery bark was splintered and worn, even more beautiful contrasted against other times, other layers.

Then I learned that the madrone sheds its bark every other year, and I wondered whether this was its birthday. As I walked along, I came across another tree, a smaller and older one, with a grey body and leafless limbs. I looked closer. Inside the carcass a hardy green stem was volunteering. Soon the old limb would fall away to make way for the vital green center. Life was already beginning to renew itself.  I stood still for a few minutes, my mind further silenced by the Way of Things.

In the days that have followed, returning to this everyday world, I have forgotten and remembered and forgotten many of the things I learned. But the beauty of those layers and the brilliance of the green core of life have stayed with me. I begin again, a little shabby from wear, but retreaded and ready for the next year.

But just for good measure, when I return to my everyday life, I take myself out for a manicure and pedicure. I quietly celebrate the layers I continue to shed, and I choose a color that reminds me of the newness waiting to be discovered.  For a time, these often-busy hands will remind me of what I might forget.  

Birdsong Solstice

As solstices go, the winter one gets most of the press here above the equator. Perhaps it quells the primal need for the comfort and serves as a cosmic reminder that the darkness of the season is not a one-way ticket into forever darkness. For whatever reason, nearly every culture north or south, the longest night of the year is met with candles, lights, fires.  We gather in the cold and dark for the warmth of the human community and to remind ourselves that the sun (or son, however we spell hope for the future) is once again being reborn.

But Summer Solstice is like a younger sibling that doesn’t stand a chance here in my hemisphere. After all, there’s so very much to do in the warm weather. Graduations. Weddings. Festivals. Road Trips. Air Trips. Home Improvements. Family Reunions. Not to mention Gardening. Swimming. Hiking.  And then there’s the summer Beach Reading List, somehow closely tied to the imperative to relax! Quick!  And on. And on.  Most of us are so carried up in the joyful whirlpool and the busy-ness of summer activity that there’s no time out until fall.

This is the exact opposite of the actual source of the word Solstice itself (rooted in Latin for “sol” or “sun,” combined with “sistere” for “standing still.”)  Especially at Summer Solstice, ancients observed that the sun seems to stand still in its seasonal movement before reversing direction and moving on in its inevitable trajectory to the next season.  Situated as we are in our whirlpool of activity, we tend to forget the “standing still” part.  Whether or not it’s possible to set aside the actual longest day of the year for some stillness, most of us can use a little time out sometime during this week to catch our breath (if nothing else) before jumping back into the whirlpool.

I write this now as the sun stands still above me for a few minutes, as I reflect on sundown two days ago, on June 21. For the very first time this year I was privileged to honor the season in a way that fit me just right. I’m a member of Jubilate, a choir of women of all ages. This year we sang at a benefit for a local wildlife refuge, to celebrate the upcoming full dive into summer. During rehearsals last week, we listened between songs, inviting migrating birds to join us as we sang. The quieter we got between practicing our parts, the more willing they were to show up.

Then we gathered on Solstice itself to sing and celebrate nature under a canopy of tall trees. The resulting performance/ritual was a potent combination of praise for the earth and a plea for justice in the world. As we sang and listened and sang and listened, poetry of birdsong and woman-song merged, and the movement of the earth seemed suspended in the stillness. What emerged was a deep gratitude for this world, punctuated by birdsong. And so it is that I’m doing my own personal re-branding of Summer Solstice. Birdsong Solstice. A time out. A sweet pause in this greenest of seasons to thank the world for continuing to spin.

After the Fire: The Kindness of Truth

Spring Cleaning this year has a vengeance all its own in my home. We decided to go for it, and to (get this) remove everything from our under-the-house crawl space/basement. Did I mention that we’re digging out the floor so we can stand erect? Did I mention that the ceiling is fiberglass poking out of sagging chicken wire? Did I mention that it contains the overflow of 40-plus years of living? That we’ve raised two kids, helping move their stuff in and out with regularity through various ages and stages? That this includes their twenties?

When we consulted with a company about replacing the ceiling, a very concerned contractor pointed out a fire-blackened suitcase, worried that we had an undetected fire down below. We opened it and found it stuffed with the singed and charred remains of a life. The life my son lived before his apartment hit flash point in a fire about twelve years ago. Living alone, he defied medical logic, waking up instead of falling prey to oxygen deprivation.  He got himself out alive, and his place hit flash point a minute after he walked out the door, wrapped in a neighbor’s blanket. This qualifies as Number 1 on my personal list of inexplicable and miraculous life experiences.

Opening the suitcase, crouched in the basement, we discover a curious collection of items: old tech manuals, a social security card, a few priceless mementos: post cards, birthday cards from family and friends. These are all that’s left from the period we now refer to as “before the fire.” When I called him in his “after the fire” life to share my find, he said he remembered where he had kept these: in his file cabinet. Apparently, the thin metal frame was an over-achiever at its job and functioned much like a strong box, keeping a tiny bit of his past away from the flames.  

I salute its loyalty as I stand here now, holding a birthday card blackened around the edges. It’s an old Far Side cartoon card with a caption on the front that reads What really happened in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn on the night of the Great Chicago Fire. There’s a cartoon drawing of a goat, a pig, and a cow. The goat, holding a match just behind the pink pig’s butt, says to the cow, who is looking on, Ha! That was a real flame thrower.  Now it’s your turn to light one up!

Get it?

On the inside the card says Hope that your birthday’s a real blow out. The card was signed Johanna, and she gave it to him six months before the fire. Inside she had written, “on second thought, I feel I may need to clarify that. I do not mean it literally. Please.” This was followed by her birthday promise, the offer to make curtains for his entire apartment. She doesn’t remember how or why she chose that particular card or wrote those lines. And the curtains were never made.

I don’t know how this kind of thing happens. But it’s not the first time I’ve been humbled by the unexplainable way of things. As I look at the card today, posted right here on my bulletin board, I’m left with no logical answers. Mind is stumped, as it is every single time I come face to face with events that defy logic and yet have the audacity to still exist, rocking my world a little off its certain center.

The big miracle, of course, is his survival. And then after that is a trail of little ones, always shyly hiding at life’s edges, the reminder of an unseen world that I often don’t notice.  But when I do remember to trace the thread of Mystery, I discover a truth that is stranger (and kinder) than the fiction we create from past memories. But I am grateful for all of it.

“F”ing the Ineffable

I am 5 years old. For a brief moment, I’m alone, on a break from my usual job of making sure everybody in my family of five is fine. Sitting under the locust tree on a hot summer afternoon, I look up at branches, then sky. And I suddenly know something I had long ago forgotten. A voice, in my bones;

You are not your name.  You never were.

I repeat the syllables over and over: Sue Son Hi Sner (Susan Heisner). They fell like nonsense. And then there was Big Feeling, a very very big one, this world place beyond the name. Past this place they called the world.  It seemed like I was there, too, with that voice that told me about names.  I knew right away that this was the greatest and biggest feeling ever. I made a note in my little-girl self, “Remember. Think about this every night. Right after the prayer that says I might die.”

And then the words stopped.  I had no idea how to even try to describe this to my ever-present mother, who knew everything about me. Even as a chatty and loquacious child I knew no words to describe how big this territory was. It became my secret, this deep sense of enormity and unity.

If not her, then who am I?

I would forget and remember and forget and remember this for the next sixty-plus years. And yet this one moment, one of my very few memories from childhood, would guide my curious and inquiring nature.

Each time I try to describe it, I’ve come to the edge of language and been forced to leap into metaphor. I’ve landed on a continent often lost, but one that I knew to have always existed inside, beyond, around, and below and above this name, this particular “me.”

It lives in the land of the Ineffable, The Home to Everything That Doesn’t Know or Need Language.

The land of mystics and poets and artists.

The land of forever. And yet also the land of now.

Always ineffable.

And yet…I keep trying to “eff” it. I’ve dedicated myself to finding the words, images, sensations, definitions, stories, reminders of what is truly true.

The light and indescribable and ineffable and nameless essence of me.

The landing in the subtle and wordless silence of all that is.

Which does (and doesn’t) have a name.

Because that is the mystic’s path, and, like it or not, that makes it mine.

Unstuffing My Double Stuffed Life

Oreos may be my favorite cookie, and cookies are my biggest weakness. That’s why I’ve banned them from my life, my home, my conscious awareness for the last twenty years. But nowadays I’m figuring out how to live beyond harsh restrictions and trust my relationship with any food. And so I’ve become slightly more open to questioning my assumptions.  Oreos pose a slippery slope of temptation that I haven’t honestly been able to trust myself to climb until now.

I was surprised the other night when a comedy spoof about Double-stuffed Oreos caught my attention. I was never the kind of kid who opened them up and slowly licked off the gooey white center. My strategy was to pop half of one in my mouth and chew them up quick while nobody was watching. So this new sticky, lard-like development in food technology called “double stuffing” was no big challenge of will power for me.

But the image of being double stuffed has caught my fancy. I see the evidence of overstuffed lives all around me. This is clearly a big deal in this hyper-stimulating world, and I’m hardly immune. Even though it’s been on ongoing practice for me to de-clutter possessions and clothing, I sometimes feel like I’m holding back an avalanche. And then there’s my schedule. It’s carefully curated and controlled so that I can keep all my commitments to everybody else and still include myself.  My tendency when overwhelmed is to just try harder and do more, and I become the best CEO of my own life possible. All in an attempt to hold all the stuffing.  After that, I revert back to my Type E woman self, a hangover from my thirties not completely resolved by a wonderful self-help book of that time. The subtitle is Everything to Everybody, and I don’t think I’m alone in this unconscious pattern.

My life becomes dedicated to a complex net of support and care-taking, community, relationship, family, spiritual practice, exercise. And then there are the “hobbies” like singing, reading, and writing. Not to mention the work that I love, supporting and challenging my clients as they grow and thrive.  Sometimes this life feels triple-stuffed. And, it’s no coincidence that my body feels the same.  Because when my life is too stuffed, I use my “got-to” of eating for comfort or to get some instant energy or to fog out the feelings of overwhelm.

All these warning signs tell me it’s time to unstuff my life ASAP. I’ve learned that the best course of action at this point is non-action. I double down on meditation, longing for a permanent retreat from it all. But by the time my stuffed life is at this stage of overflow, long silent retreats aren’t the immediate resolution I need. Short-term solutions are my best response as I move through this ordinary life. This might be as simple as locking the bathroom door and breathing deeply for a few minutes. Or sitting down each morning to meditate for ten minutes or to fumblingly write my way to the light of clarity, a practice which goes by the wayside when I’m so busy with Everything and Everybody Else.

Ironically I’m finding a Rescue Remedy in the very technology that creates the overstimulation. I’ve become a podcast junkie in the last few years, and I’ve had to learn to curate my list to avoid over-stuffed ears. A couple of these which have made the cut because they’ve been a balm to the nervous system are Nocturne and Nothing Much Happens Here. The last one is my newest love, offering Sleep Stories that are such a refuge and antidote for the too-muchness that is sometimes my life.

I’ve also been trying out a couple of apps to refine my meditation practice and to drop into sleep more easily: Calm and Waking Up. Both of these are beautifully designed and both involve a monthly subscription fee, so they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for everybody, including me. Starting today I’m participating in a two-month “online retreat” with Adyashanti, a teacher for whom I have great respect, to refine and reinforce my commitment to unstuffing my overfull brain. My clear declaration of  intention, as God (and you) are my witnesses: To Unstuff my Overstuffed Life.

Photo by Flickr user “theimpulsivebuy,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, cropped

 

Prayer…?

What is prayer? This is a question that has followed me for years. The answers have shifted with my relationship to the mystery of life. I’ve explored it in my personal journal, with my spiritual advisors, within my meditations. I’ve tried to summarize all of this in an essay and failed miserably. Which led to more questions, and a few heart-known answers. My mantra, my prayer nowadays?  Show me what I’m missing.

I did my best to summarize the process in this poem, partially written last spring. I offer it to you on this cold January morning.

 

Prayer …?

I no longer kneel because my newly minted knees don’t like it.

Not bowing, I forget humility sometimes.

Bedtime prayers so I can face another day

Breath and mantra to calm the lizard,

To welcome Hypnos, invite Orpheus

Any spell that would let me finally let go.

 

How good it once was to lay my burdens down.

To surrender to that mysterious Force.

There’s an urgency these days

A desperate need to not waste a precious prayer

When so much is at stake. I stop, frozen.

 

How to say something real and true?

Caught by a familiar undertow of confusion,

Help! Something inside cries out.

Then words arrive.

May I stay with in the Tempo of My Own Understanding

Yes. That’s it, I think. The Big Ask.  A place where help is needed.

How very fragile the temple of my Understanding seems from day to day.

I listen again. More words:

 

Not temple. Tempo, you lame brain!

Don’t bore me with your philosophy.

Listen to me.

There are things that need solving.

So many.

Interesting problems.

With staccato solutions.

Do this. Do that. Be clear. Be here.

 

Good point,

I think, lost in the list.

But then this morning arrived.

The sun woke the birds.

Slowly. The stream bubbled hello. Flowingly.

Then, caught in a faint rhythm from this solid turning earth,

For one second.

Quiet.

 

This is what I keep forgetting, I remember.

The world reveals her beauty despite its warts and blemishes.

And then a new prayer arrives:

May I see what I’m missing?

I listen again.

For any tempo, perhaps a quickening.

A tiny double beat here, a giddy possibility there.

 

Solid but with a trill.

Along with the constant constant constant beat

Of the pulse that holds it all.

Now. Now. Now. Now.

Not then. Or When. 

Only now. Now. Now.

Epiphany, Resolutions, and A Sideward Step

Many years ago, I sat down with my calendar almost a week after the new year. A cup of coffee in my hand and a pad of legal-sized paper by my side, I was all set to write down my New Year’s resolutions. Always determined to work on myself, it felt like my best shot for self-reflection in my hurried life to write that list. My kids were back in school and I had a whole two hours after my teaching job with an empty house before the school buses showed up.  The cookies and party mix were out of the cupboards, and the Christmas tree was at the curb, so distractions were minimal. But instead of writing resolutions, I stared out the window at the dreary weather.

January had scared me for years, ever since I endured a serious depression right after the holidays, a heavy cloud that lasted an entire year. I gradually filled my life and my home with children and friends and good work. Not to mention discipline, which is why I was making these resolutions in the first place. Over time, when I had the time, I had done some journaling, but this was a List, not a daily diary entry. These were my important yearly goals, after all.

I sat looking back at the calendar. Next to the date, January 6, was one word: Epiphany. Something shifted. This was different. I LOVED epiphanies, just like any other good English major.  So I picked up the pen, hoping to catch some and write them down. I immediately dropped into a sense I could only call “home.” I took the first full breath in a month. My whole body sighed in layers, like after a good cry, followed by an ineffable sense of peace. Glimpses of possibilities for the next year just sort of occurred to me, so I wrote them down. One after another, ideas popped. A subtle sense of illumination accompanied each pop .

Later I looked up the liturgical holiday. Epiphany. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist church, I had never even HEARD of such a calendar. This was Three Kings Day. The day the sages of the East arrived in the West, following a star. A day for celebration and giving to children in Latino cultures. Never having been a Latina or a Catholic, I immediately felt a kinship through the sheer beauty of this holiday. For me it felt like a coming home, this pause, this sideward step in time. I decided to make it my own little secret. And having decreed this then, it has been so, throughout the following decades, except for one thing.  I kept telling my friends. Many of them adopted the holiday for themselves. One of them led a beautiful day-long workshop on the theme of epiphany. I kept writing about it on this blog. This year I received a text with a photo of a friend’s daughter with a big slice of “Three Kings Cake,” a celebration they shared on Twitter as well. In some ways it feels like a secret society. Just you and me and a few million others.

This year I decided Epiphany is too short, so I’ve decided to extend my personal holiday for a year. Because what it offers me is a Pause button. A Sideward Step into spaciousness, kindness, awareness. A short cut to the simplicity of being.


The Sideward Step
There’s a sideward step
in this decade,
this moment of life.
A letting go of the ways
I’ve learned to walk love
here on this planet.
There’s a choosing of something quieter
than the doings of fear
for future, for world.
Way calmer than this apparent chaos.
It’s a huge place just outside
the old magnetic pull of habit.

In the nanosecond inside a pause
When I remember
I take a micro step
to that parallel place
just on the other side of the dark carnival of
Politics, pop culture, personality.

Each day I celebrate
the epiphany of remembering
To take the slight leap
To land safely inside sanity
I come to the way of this knowing.
Always here. Always has been .   

Solstice Retrospection

“Life itself will be my Art,” I told my friends late one night in the profound philosophical depths of my sophomore year in college . Even as I said it, I felt the truth of it. I was up to the challenge of it. Life would give me my lessons and I would respond artistically. Easy. That was as specific as I got. A pretty vague sense of surrender there, I now see.

In the 50-plus years that have followed, the specifics got real. For the first ten years I thought I would have a charmed (meaning easy) life. Instead of that hopeful and naïve view, my life has been marked by untimely deaths, suicides, drownings, fires and general disappointments. The losses have been far more than I bargained for.

And yet… the blessings of life’s challenges have also rained down. From retrospect there is a sense of the rightness of those things I couldn’t control (like the Universe itself). Always, always I was carried safely to some understanding. But I’ve only known this when I’ve looked into the rearview mirror with an open mind.

I have many artist friends who are hanging retrospectives of their work at this time of life. As I sit in my study and look around and within, my life of art shows itself in a more inner landscape. Solstice brings me that gift every year, on exactly this day. It’s almost my favorite holiday because it’s the day of my own private Ritual of Retrospection. I arise before dawn or sit in the dark following sunset in a warm candle-lit room. All around me are icons that take me to that deep place inside. A painting of Mother and child, crystal waves and labyrinths, sacred hearts, a copper Saraswati, and the divine Sacre Coeur. In the soft golden glow I ask to see the what I haven’t seen before, what I’ve been missing in the rush of the year. I ask forgiveness from my inner critic for my human failings. And then I count on Grace to show me what else I’ve missed: the beauty that I have been in the perfection of all that has passed.

With that soft lens I go back further in my life, reflecting on all of it, the ways I have showed up and haven’t, how I’ve learned to refine the art from my mistakes, and the ways I’ve allowed my light to shine as a result. I see myself as the truly innocent child and when the candle light is just right, I see the perfection of this incredible woven tapestry.

And because my heart is so full of gratitude for all of it, I write you this morning and invite you to do the same for yourself.  During this season may you find time for reflection, to be kind to yourself alone in a room full of soft candle light (bath and bubbles optional). May you meet your kindest self. May you find the art in all of it, all of this thing you call your life.

Walking into the Deep Mystery of Sleep

Sleep has been elusive this past month. First there were the two weeks of jet lag, when I unpacked my bags and waited for all my cells to arrive back home. As I tried to drift off, rich sensory images of the East re-visited me, providing entertainment. But not sleep. I have long had a habit of mining the in-between of re-entry to arrive home with new eyes, to notice what I might have missed before. So my mind has been plenty busy with that a good part of the night.  

This is largely because I immediately realized that my home itself had changed in my absence. The jitteriness all around me was immediately palpable, and this feeling of being on tenterhooks has led up to the election that is taking place as I write. This contagious worry and fear and dread has circulated like an arctic current for the last month, and the hope is that some of it will be alleviated when the polls close tonight.

For me, soothing has come from Medieval mystics, like Julian of Norwich, who famously wrote “all will be well, and all will be well, and all matter of things shall be well.” Except she didn’t write those exact words because she was the first woman to write a book in Middle English. Who knew? What has helped is knowing the world around her was far darker and crazier than ours, and yet her vision was of an unseen future far more hopeful than the plagues and burnings happening all around her.

And then there are visionaries from our time, like Arlie Hochschild, whose interview on On Being has sustained me through this election cycle.

These are the things I remember when I’m writing this, upright in the middle of the day. But the way into sleep is far more mysterious. I wrote this right after my first good night’s sleep, as a way to remember how the back door works. And where the story REALLY begins. It’s a deep story of dreaming, of healing, and of mystery. May you find yours.

 No. Don’t start there. What can dreams tell us anyways?

Some woman. No. Two women following a man climbing a tree.

What? I said: Don’t start there.

Something else beckoned. Some place she could start that was warm.

No. Not warm. Warmer and warmer. Warmest.

Where is that place, a place fit for starting? She wondered aloud this time.

Damn fools in the world, always wanting to get started, she thought, staring up at the faint glow of dark reminders above her head. She had carefully placed them there many years ago as a frazzled young mother, needing a hint, a small spark, some reminder of the dark mysteries just on the other side of the roof.

But now, on her fourth night of lying there flat on her back, she needed not one more freaking reminder of possibilities, mysteries, or anything else. Her brain was already in a lawnmower loop, starting, starting, like someone found the cord to get it going and just kept pulling it again, again, again. What she needed, longed for really, was a way to get herself stopped. To unpull the incessant over-pulled cord of her demanding imagination.

What advice could some dream give me that would resolve this state of affairs? She wondered aloud again. Oops. There she was pulling that same damn cord again.

The cord, the cord, the red cord, tied like a bow, or maybe a fishing hook, dangling just beyond reach. She moved toward it, felt herself sliding down toward the water, shimmying back up, sliding down again.

She let herself drift, and she landed on a raft, a blue, blue raft in a dark grey sea, then holding on to it and bobbing in the warm warm water. The water that held the whale with the warm warm belly, which is where this story really begins.

Shopping for Secrets in Two Worlds

Her oversized suitcase was open: a yawning, yearning invitation. She wanted to fill it with trinkets, with Mardi Gras beads and crow feathers and toys for the children, puzzles and sweets and crayons. They had told her to bring nothing but Tylenol and repellent and filters and probiotics and Pepto-Bismol. All the rest would be hers for a song at the marketplace, they said. 

Why go to a marketplace when all I want is the rarest thing: the silence of no sound, no humming lights, the quiet of my own life? she thought. Why even fill a bag or go to some faraway overpopulated country for that matter? I already know that everything I need is right here. Inside this bubble I call me. In my life as it is. Available.

The silver panel light flickered on at that exact moment. She felt the beckoning of the sleek, square machine, open and ready, offering everything. Her fingers began to itch. All you need to do is cross the room. Tickle the keys. Find the marketplace right here. Easy as that. In no time, new hip packs and bras and wicking socks were on their way. Done.

Four days later, in Kathmandu, the marketplace was all around her, a bazaar as old as a birthing room for a millenia or two, the center of the Tibetan-India trade route. She started out for a walk with friends in Thamel, the old town, with the usual air bubble around her intact. Then two horns converged behind her, having reached a loud agreement that she was wrong, wrong wrong, weaving as she was between rickshaws and motorcycles and people and motorcycles and dogs and motorcycles and broken pavement and motorcycles and still more motorcycles.

Life itself, with all its technicolor terror and magnificence entered her and her private bubble popped. There was nothing to do about it but keep on. Day after day she ventured out into the too-muchness. Her dreams filled up with cacophony and incense and pashmina scarves. She began to long for an escape, and yet still she went forth.

One day she followed the labyrinth of narrow alleyways to the very center and found herself at a bookstore for pilgrims, a site made famous and prosperous by the Hippie Trail of the Sixties. It was deep and tall and stretched back, back , back, filled with esoteric books and tools for the seeker. From what she had heard, it was more humble, more hidden, following the earthquake three years ago. She fumbled around and then requested a title from a small, dark man with wire rim glasses. He nodded, disappeared up, up three flights of stairs. Just when she was about to leave, he returned with a pink paperback. It was a stripped-down version of the beautiful antique illustrated one that she had hoped to find, like the one she had given her own daughter as a teenager. But she had always secretly known that her daughter had never read it, would not. She didn’t find pleasure in long afternoons of reading, preferring to sing and dance instead.

This one was for Preeti, the girl she had come to know only barely, but one whose education she had supported from the other side of the world, one month at a time. She had longed to give her everything. But most of all she dreamed of giving her a way out from the fear and disappointment of her alcoholic stepfather and her sad quiet mother who had escaped with broken teeth and no home or room to claim as her own.

As she paid for the book, The Secret Garden in Nepalthis treasure, she felt right, right right. But when she gave it away she felt even better. A pink, paperback copy of A Secret Garden. Hardly an object to be worshipped and savored, in her country of used book stores and garage sale finds. But Preeti grabbed it, kissed it, refused to offer to loan it to the other children who were already asking. She clung to it in every photo, proudly announcing that it was hers, hers, hers.  

 

Top image by GTMDreams Photos, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license