The tight pink buds on the tree outside my window and the daffodils everywhere are broadcast spring here in the early warning channel that is the Northwest. Diminishing Covid numbers bring hope, and it feels like an enormous cloud is about to lift. It’s not lifted yet, but patches of blue are now visible. In related news, on Friday I’ll get my vaccine booster shot.
Words from my gospel choir days come to mind: There’s another side of through/ the whole world waits for you. You got to hold on, hold, on, till you’re on the Other Side of Through.
I loved swaying back and forth, belting out these lines when I was in the midst of wave after wave of turmoil in my life. There was a long time there when I just needed the reminder that there WAS another side. I clung to the thin refrain and did just what it said. I kept on.
Then one day, one week, one season, I began to notice it was true. I was no longer in the eye of the storm. I was on the other side. I was through.
Next another image comes to mind from up the hill in the ancient forest where my family had a cabin for years. There’s a trail sign that reads Here 2, marking a trail, one that ends at a There sign at the bottom of the hill. Funky hand-lettered signs marked the start and the end. All of this went up in smoke last September, including the forest and all human habitats. What was left behind is scorched earth, memories, and at least one good insight: It was not possible to be either “here” or “there” at once. And there was a whole wooded hillside to navigate between those two points.
That’s how it feels this early spring. Not yet There, to the end of this pandemic and all the cautions it entails, but not Here 2 either, focused every day about each detail of quarantined life. We’re somewhere on the trail to There, and we are still moving to the Other Side of Through.
I’m keeping in mind another memory: The trail of soft forest duff wound gently down a hill, one careful step at a time.
We human creatures are moths drawn to the magic of light. We have always come together during these short days to celebrate light and to remind ourselves that the dark will not last. So the final insult of 2020 is not being able to share that comfort at a time when so many of us are facing loss, stress, and disconnection. And yet here we are. Groping our way through the unknown without the traditional comforts of celebration, song, laughter, and prayer within our larger human community.
From Christmas celebrations of nativity scenes and candlelight to Dewali’s Festival of Lights in India to neo-pagan solstice celebrations, we have always derived comfort from the light during the darkest time of year. (Even the anti-holiday Festivus, which began knee-deep in the irony of Seinfeld sarcasm has quickly become a holiday with its own rituals and an invitation to create new ones, which will probably involve twinkling lights.)
If there was ever a year for a light in the darkness, this is it. But while we may long for the nostalgic holidays of our real or imagined past, the reality is that, no matter how we struggle to make this season the same, it’s just not. The shared repetition of our little and big rituals is missing. And it’s tempting to just skip it altogether. But that’s even sadder. However, there is some good news, a little glimmer of light. Now that the mold is broken, we have a chance (and every excuse) to slow it all down, to simplify, and to create something more personally satisfying.
I don’t usually pay much attention to the liturgical calendar of traditional Christianity as I’m not a traditional Christian (whatever that is). But I have found deep meaning in two of the less familiar rituals of the season. One, Advent, anticipates the season, and the other, Epiphany, closes it. I first discovered Advent because it involved chocolate and ticking off things on a calendar, two of my favorite things. But while I was frequenting a monastery during this season a few years back I realized there was more to it.
During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a ritual time of patience, a time of waiting. Each week focuses on a theme: hope, peace, joy, and love. As the candles burn the light gets brighter by the week until Christmas itself, when the Light of the World is celebrated. I’ve heard it described as a deepening of the relationship with the divine, of that which passes way beyond human understanding.
I find myself returning to this practice with a new focus this year. The beauty of this ritual is that it doesn’t need crowds of people. I can meditate alone on these things or share with my pod or my family. And because Advent is ultimately about “Longing for Union with the Possible,” when has there been a better time to do that?
As I light my candle to peace this morning, I notice that it’s already here, and I say a prayer that each of you will find hope and patience in your lives each day while we wait for the light to return.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
“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 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!
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.
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 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,
But holiness is visible, entirely.
It’s wonderful to walk along like that,
thought not the usual intention to reach an
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.
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Let this be the day you declare peace on yourself.
Deep Listening. Deep Questioning. Your answers. Your life.