Posts Categorized: Radical Kindness

Mermaid Life / Walrus Life

Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be a Mermaid.
Then Always Be a Mermaid.

Every morning these words, carved on a plaque directly across from my meditation space, greet me. I’m in my Ocean room, a space dedicated to my Orisha, Yemaya. Some explanation: In 2003, I visited Cuba to learn about Afro-Cuban folklore and music. While there, I discovered Orishas, archetypal guardian spirits who guide your life, according to the Santeria faith. Curious about who my archetypal fairy godmother might be, I requested a formal divination. I met with three Babalaos (or priests), who chanted and tossed black and white stones on the floor. After some discussion, their conclusion was unanimous: Yemaya, the ocean. My Orisha.  

Returning home and sponge-painting a room blue to create an underwater cove, I remembered the Santeria priests’ warning. Yemaya must have an anchor. In the mythology, her other half is Okulun, who lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Unseen, he anchors her so the waves don’t tip her over. Since then, every time I go near the ocean I take a small blue jar of water with a tiny anchor inside. In a tiny private ritual, I fill it with ocean water and take it home to place on my altar.

Also in my meditation space is an altar with objects that serve as totems, or wayfinding symbols to take me back to my essential self. When I light a candle, I see the blue bottle and I’m reminded to be anchored in the mystery of that which cannot be seen. I often see meditation as a time to dip into a watery, less linear state of mind. It helps me remember a different self than the one who navigates the daylight world and reacts to the challenges served up by everyday land-bound reality.

In that dreamy underworld space, I can swim with purposeful abandon, gracefully flip my mermaid tail and dive to clean underwater castles and shipwrecks. My inner life as a mermaid is pristine, uncluttered with daily compromises and responsibilities. I treasure this mermaid world. It’s a place where I can commune with the ineffable essence of the deep unknown and still stay anchored to my inner world with equanimity. But then there are the twists and turns that real life brings up. The troubling feelings and thoughts that keep coming back for examination, requiring a look at less charming aspects of my inner life.

That’s where the walrus Walrus comes in. Long ago in Anchorage, I spent hours in a tourist shop seeking a totem, a “power animal” to call my name. My eyes kept coming back to a tiny walrus, carved from ivory tusk. This attraction definitely wasn’t what I’d planned. I had in mind something sleek (say, a wolf) or something sturdy (like a bear or a moose, even). Definitely not a large, blubbery animal who’s mostly stationary.  

But there she was, refusing to let go of my imagination. I bought the tiny icon and brought it home. Then I did a little pre-Google research on walruses.  They feed in the mud and muck, excavating for their food by using their extremely sensitive whiskers, “mustacial vibrissae,” as detection devices. I can relate to that, I thought as I placed my tiny totem on a small craggy rock on my altar. And there she has perched for thirty years. A reminder of the nutrition to be gained from the darker challenges that life offers.  Over time I have been reminded that what is pretty or acceptable or even graceful or fun may not take me to my deepest truth. My walrus amulet reminds me to be brave and to learn to have compassion for less attractive or appealing parts of myself.

She serves as a reminder that, as much as I love the pretty mermaid dive, sometimes her song may be a distraction fueled by denial.  Over time I’ve learned to trust something I think of as the walrus dive. I’ve learned to value shadow work, which has taken me into (and through) the troubling, ugly, unacceptable things in the world and in myself. Through extensive inquiry, I’ve discovered that even the pettiest or most troubling thoughts and feelings deserve respect.  The walrus world may not be as pretty or pristine as my imaginary mermaid world. But when I dive into the muck and messiness of my thinking, I often discover the innocence of even the darkest recesses of the psyche,  I return feeling truly anchored in the truth and kindness of the deepest mystery.

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.

The Long View: Give Your Love Away

“In the long view, the best you can do is give your love away.” 
These song lyrics have been echoing in my being ever since last weekend. That’s when my local community celebrated the work of my dear friend, master musician and songwriter Neal Gladstone. There’s not enough space or time to describe his music or his being and its impact on everyone in the vicinity. He’s no longer able to perform because of advancing Parkinson’s, but his work lives on and on in our Ordinary Lives.
His lyrics span a dizzying array of ages, stages, moods, and topics. But in this particular time of life, the long view looms large. As I looked around the bulging auditorium at the audience, I saw people I have known since we were in our late twenties. I see in layers nowadays, remembering each face as it was ten years ago, twenty, thirty, and more. I see our youthful exuberance and our randomly failing bodies. Life has become three-dimensional, or, zooming out, multi-dimensional.
“Meanwhile, the world keeps turning around,” as the lyrics continue. Lately I’ve been experiencing the same multi-layered vision as I’ve supported the recent movements of sanity and kindness. Zoom in: a face, a particular face, one that I have seen before in other rallies and marches through the decades. Savor these close-ups by my good friend David Bayles. Zoom out, and we’ve always done this, always moved together with a sense of unity and gentle strength. From a deep love that says No to destruction in its many forms and Yes to life.
May each of us remember the long view as our paths intersect in the world. As we make the calls, write the letters, argue for sanity (no matter our political alliances), may we not forget our purpose.
Love. Give it all away.

 

“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.

The Message

“I know I said I just wanted a house on the water,” she intoned.

But…How would she put it so that he could hear her?

She tried again. “You know, darling, how much I love our little Cape Cod cozied into the bay.”

But…

Maybe she should just come out with it.

She craved open waters, longed for the growl of surf. Her body needed it like air, like water. She was shriveling in the dreary, forested coziness of it all.

Now she had little memory of the end of her daily two-mile constitutional.

She was on her way to the open beach. She knew that much.

Her headstrong Cadillac simply knew what she needed. It was headed there of its own volition.

Soon she was filling her nostrils and lungs with the salty, sweaty, fishy wind of the ocean as her ears filled with the deeply repetitive rhythm that had brought her here.

One foot followed the other as her eyes embraced the full scope of it all. Nothing but silver movement and driftwood sculpture forever. She had the sense that she could be dissolved in it all and die empty, happy.

Now her feet took her further, stronger, longer, straight out toward Japan, she thought.

That’s it. She’d tell him,

Honey, you know how I’ve always been drawn to Japan? I’d like to move a little closer, dear. Right over there…on the horizon.

She was so drawn to the unknown edge of things that she stubbed her toe on it, just as she felt the moisture seep through her light canvas slip-ons.

It was nothing more than a green lip of something hard. Her fingers scratched through the wet sand, just as the tide reached her ankles.

A pull toward the sea. A yank toward land.

No. It couldn’t be. A bottle.

Seriously? A bottle with a cork?

By now she had it firmly in her hands. She had won the tug of war.

And what a prize!

As she rinsed off the sandy water, another surprise.

Really?

No way.

There seemed to be a message inside.

This was hers. Hers alone. Here was the sign she’d been praying for.

She looked over each shoulder to make sure she truly was alone.

Broke the neck of the bottle on the black basalt rock looming nearby.

As she shook it hard, a yellow paper tumbled into her open hand.

Her hands trembled, full of hope.

The figures were beautiful, exotic zen symbols of some kind.

A long, curved line. Something that looked like a roof of a house, and a figure that looked vaguely human, and female, walking away.

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 Silence Beneath the Chatter

I just completed my fourth day of an at-home retreat. It was supposed to be silent. I truly intended it to be silent. After all, my home is in a forest-like setting near a park in a quiet neighborhood, with towering trees bearing silent testimony from every window. My ever-understanding husband took off for our cabin in the woods so I could have silence and the Internet for a couple days at a time. (I was participating in an online retreat that featured silence except for six or seven hours of inquiry a day with Byron Katie, a teacher of mine).

Back to the Sea

Mother, carry me,
Child I will always be,
Mother, carry me
Back to the sea

My sister and daughter and I wind our voices together in a song new yet ancient, returning from the Oregon coast. It would be the last trip I would take with my sister. My daughter, at eleven, was a skinny sprite who invited her aunt again and again to come back with her sand castles and stick-writing and cartwheels.

An Impatient Patient Surrenders

It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.