“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.
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.
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, this 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.
I used to think that my legacy as a daughter centered on shoes and clothes. But, in all fairness, there is more to the story. Years ago, after my father’s death, my mother started sponsoring little girls in developing countries. Mother never knew that she was a feminist, but it sort of oozed out through the seams of her Midwest life. Letters from Mexico, from India, from points unknown to her festooned her bulletin board and fridge, along with colorful photos of weddings and celebrations. She doted on her girls.
When she had a stroke a year and a half ago, I knew I wanted to continue another of her traditions. I began to research programs for girls in developing countries. That’s when I came across a troubling TED talk about the tragic consequences of the pressure we put on young girls when we expect them to save the world: see it here. Amy Benson, the speaker, is also a film maker who filmed a promising young female scholar for a year, only to discover that the girl had swallowed rat poison when she couldn’t find a way, as an educated young woman, to fit into her village in Nepal. Some of us pin our hopes on young women from developing countries, but that’s a whole lot of pressure in itself. The kind of support needed to truly prepare these young women to be leaders involves more than an education, I learned. I continued with my research. I later discovered that Amy, the film-maker, did her research, too. She went back to Nepal and sponsored the girl’s two sisters in a program that wraps its arms around the whole child.
So we both landed on Mitrata-Nepal, a small but thorough program founded by a therapist from St. Louis, one child at a time. It provides complete services for their children to enable them to make a leap into leadership once they get their education. Here’s the latest video from Amy. A happy ending. I’ve been donating 10% of every session for the past year to support the foundation. And I’m also sponsoring Preeti Lama, a fourteen-year-old from rural Nepal who is studying in Kathmandu. I’ll be meeting her myself in just a week when I visit her in Nepal. So soon my fridge will be full of exotic photos, too.
But this is a story about my own matriarchal lineage, and about finding ways that women can support other women to raise their children up out of poverty. This is where my daughter Johanna comes into the picture. These last months she has been traveling to spread the word about Shakti United, founded this year in the spirit of feminine power and sisterhood. She’s launched a Facebook group, a festival, and several other events with other women, in the spirit of sisterhood. The goal is to celebrate the female voice, literally, with yoga, mantras, chants, and songs. And all of this beauty also helps to support the education for girls in Nepal.
And so…in less than a week, I’ll be in Kathmandu connecting the dots in my lineage as I meet Preeti Lama. And each of you who I have coached will be there with me there too, in the spirit of strong, committed, caring women.