Posts Tagged: grace

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.

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.

Open my Eyes

Open my eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key / that will unclasp and set me free.

Open my eyes. Illumine me. Spirit Divine!

These words, along with the very old tune, haunt me once again, refusing to let go until I listen. It’s a familiar evocation that has become a sound track of my life’s changes. There’s the quiet comfort of a childhood hymn, embedded even before thought or awareness. I sit in humbled silence, grateful that, on this somewhat rare occasion, most of the words and messages of my Southern Baptist past aren’t requiring a lot of translation to speak to my soul as it is now.

It’s a birthday and a passage for me as I begin my (yikes!) eighth decade of life.  I’m spending a couple of days in solitude, on a seaside personal retreat. And then there’s the tune, paired with a certain deep plea of the heart. I feel humbled by the resonance of it. And then so many memories kick in, cataloguing the incidents of the past when the song came to me as a prayer at different stages and ages of life.. I’m momentarily grateful that I still have a memory for this reason alone. And when I don’t, I’m grateful for my sidekick Google, who’s always waiting nearby for a new case to solve. I’m amazed to discover the hymn, over 130 years old, was written by Clara H. Scott, the first woman to publish a hymnal.

My mother would be so proud, I think. She died last year, but for years she was way ahead of me when it came to feminism and hymns (or religion, for that matter).  When she got involved in the “inclusive lyrics” movement for church songs, I had left all of it far behind, all of the crap from my childhood religion. Or so I thought. Years later, sitting by the ocean with the refrain wafting through the sounds of the waves, without my mother’s living presence in my life, I’m not so sure.

There’s a glimpse of the truth of the first stanza.  I think about how meditation and inquiry have unclasped and set me free during the last decade. I think of all the ways I have come to understand at the deepest levels the true inner workings of the stories and scriptures and prayers of my childhood. As I sit in contemplative silence on this momentous birthday, I notice the unique (and yet universal) presence of Spirit, at all ages and stages. Always there, when I notice it.

And then the very last stanza pops into my mind.  I realize I don’t even need to know what to call it or where it comes from, that voice of truth, but I celebrate it by singing aloud a song from my soul to the sea in front of me:

Silently now I wait for thee,
ready my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes…ears… heart,
illumine me, Spirit divine!

An invocation. An intention. A celebration.

A prayer for a decade.

Following the Glimmer, Not the Glitter

Midwinter at my home means a fire in the wood stove, a stew or soup bubbling on top, and a hover of crows cawing and landing in the meadow behind my house. Fitting subjects for contemplation. Like a crow, I’ve spent a fair amount of my life grabbing the next shiny object. I’ve collected experiences, workshops, credentials, books, and teachings like any good spiritual materialist. No regrets. Sometimes there’s been a huge pay-off for my curiosity, and sometimes I’ve gotten myself in some pretty tight situations. All of the resulting course corrections have taken the form of a learning curve. But at this stage of life, something a bit more subtle is operating.

Instead of grabbing onto the glitter, I’ve been leaning with curiosity into the glimmer and also suggesting my clients learn the difference.

When I get a little quiet with myself, my mind begins to imagine all the exciting and glittering futures it could create. This is when catchy YouTubes and online classes take me right into the sink hole. Next I wonder where the time has gone and how I’ll ever find the time to read the next self-help or spiritual book. And whatever time I’ve scheduled for writing or self-reflection is over. Carpool time, dinner time. Once again the taste for glitter has taken over.

But…when I remember that I’m not a crow, that I have a choice of where to put my attention, I’m more likely to spot a time-sink wormhole and bring myself back to what truly soothes and uplifts me. I’m more able to listen for something else, for a slight uplift in my body. If I slow down and look, there’s sometimes a cinder left from the past, some longing or inner curiosity. I can ask my heart to find it. Remembering the fire I built to keep away the chill, I can blow on the glimmering coal.

Staying curious, I watch for the glimmer to grow. Sometimes a slow, steady flame is ignited, and sometimes it’s an ember that dims and becomes an ash. I notice where it sparks, find some appropriate kindling by taking the next step. Only that one. After that I watch with curiosity, see what happens next, what resonates in the heart and the gut as true. After that, I keep it simple. I take the next small step that occurs to me.

I continue to watch, find a little piece of kindling, gently blow. On and on. Keeping it simple, I watch for life to show me the way. Then perhaps I sign up to sponsor that child in Nepal; perhaps I make some calls to a policy-maker, perhaps I take up tango or salsa.

It’s a subtle art, much less dramatic and stimulating than the shiny object approach, but instead of being stuck in tight places of my own creation, instead of being over-committed to everyone else or to the wormholes competing for my attention, over time I have a glowing life that sends new sparks and glimmers and offers new possibilities. But, best of all, I have a place to warm my hands.

Epiphany for Us All

It’s Epiphany today. For thirty years I’ve taken this holy day from the liturgical calendar as my own private day for solitude and reflection.

Will you join me?

This year I’m reflecting on this poem written by Pulitzer-prize winning Buddhist poet Gary Snyder during another dark time in history. I had two calligraphy versions scribed many years ago, and I framed and posted them near the door of my home and (later) in my mountain cabin. It continues to give me direction, comfort and support during these challenging times. May it inspire your days now.

 

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes

of statistics

lie before us,

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

Stay together

Learn the flowers

Go light.

-Gary Snyder, 1974

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.

Wonder Woman Meets Wondering Woman: Summer of Wonder

I was never Diana Prince, exactly, with her random collection of skills and her athletic-yet-flirty costumes. But she was my main goddess when I studied and taught archetypal psychology during my middle-ish years, as a young, energetic woman with a mission of upholding peace and justice while raising a the next generation with an even hand, healthy nutritious food, solid values, and all other things good and true. Revisiting her in film form this summer was much more thrilling and significantly less exhausting.

Long before the concept of “online retail” was born, Amazons inhabited a room in the mind for women so committed to their own skills with bow and arrow that they wouldn’t let a breast (or two) get in the way. It was that time of life, that state of mind. I needed every bit of that sassy fighting spirit to cut through the complexities and obstacles of my life. Artemis is still a part of me, ready with her quiver and bow when I need to write a letter or make a phone call.  No matter what’s going on in the world around me, I too put my faith and energy into the power of love over hate, a story plot acted (and acted out) many times daily on the world stage.

Artemis stepped up recently to plan and prepare and hunt and gather the resources before the total solar eclipse in my neighborhood. She awoke early the morning of the event, to check out the newest world situation, and to put together the food and gear for visiting friends and family. Just the way she has helped me manage life so many times before.  But then another Shero took over. I’m calling her Wondering Woman, and Her superpower is (you guessed it) a sense of wonder. Just before the day got rolling, she whispered that it was time to step back from the fray and listen.

Watching the glowing new honeylight where I have awakened to the meadow in my own little orbit of friends, family, community for the last 40 years. Dove calls across the way to listen. Knowing the sun will soon be nearly erased by the moon, I’m trying to understand what that might mean, even astronomically, but my mind can’t hold it. Anticipation in wind. Cars speeding by to find the right spot in a couple of hours now. Three. Two. One. Breath filling body, staying in the miracle of this infinity. Inside and Out. Moving deeper and deeper into wonder. They say this and that about experiencing totality. Anticipation rides the air currents. I wonder. I’m open. I’m watching.  I’m wondering.

Wondering Woman has stayed with me ever since. After the experience of “totality,” like millions of others stopped in my tracks by Something, I’m still wordless and deeply curious about the power of the concentrated absorption of so many humans, waiting together in a deep communion with the Unknown. I stand in wonder at the power of millions of us willing to be struck with awe by something infinitely bigger than our usual frame of reality. We were united by a collective openness to the irrefutably bigger picture. For a few minutes there, as the unimaginable happened and the daylight world was lit by a mere glimmering parabola, I found my tribe, the Wonderers. And we are amazing. Amazed.

And so in this time of my life I’m bowing to my new archetypal heroine, Wondering Woman. She’s a mature Pandora, this one (and I am not referring to the online music distribution site). She’s a Wise Elder-Goddess, one who holds space for the invisible, who bridges the inner and outer worlds with skillful attention and vast curiosity. She’s the Goddess of open and curious mind and heart.

Woman of Wonder. The sequel. I’m curious. Welcome to the tribe.

Photo thanks to my friend David Paul Bayles and the miracle of photography

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.

What’s Beyond Love?

How would you answer that question? Finding an answer stops my over-eager mind, momentarily at a loss for the right words. My first thought was the Mystery, or That Which Has No Name.  Then, a flood of others: God, the Infinite, Christ-consciousness, which makes me think of Krishna, and before you know it, the intention of the meditation is somewhat lost in the word avalanche of deities and attempts to name that which has no name.

Pretty soon I’ve forgotten what I already knew, which was the simplest possible answer to the question.  Or not. Hint: It’s love.

Did you guess? See what I mean by simple?  Or, given the nature of that big word, not simple at all?

Beyond Love: Soothing Songs for the Soul is also the title of a CD that my daughter Johanna has been working on for the past year. She’s a yogi and singer who practices her meditations musically around the country in participatory concerts called kirtan.

When she was a baby my favorite book was Love is Letting Go of Fear, which pretty much explains itself. Johanna was the child who loved going down the slide face first. I joked that “she never learned a decent sense of fear.” I coped and nagged and guided, which was my job at the time, apparently.

As a woman, even though life has handed her challenges and accidents, Johanna has learned caution and bravery. She discovered the power of singing for healing after being hit by a drunk driver. Her early risk-taking has transformed into single-minded focus and bravery on her own spiritual path. This music is a result.

I know sound like a proud mother. I am. And I’m also a proud daughter. Two weeks ago I sat with my mother, who is slowly dying. She seems to be in her own process of letting go of fear as she lets go of life. I played the CD to her with my ear buds. She has little speech left and doesn’t respond to much lately, but when the phrase “Beyond love…is love” played, she looked in my eyes and nodded.

I figure she should know.