Posts Tagged: Meaning

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.

Between the Living and the Dead

The Halloween fear factor stopped grabbing my attention years ago. Adrenaline shows up enough in my life at irregular intervals without my courting it. The allure of tiny candy bars and packages of promising an immediate sugar lift has taken a little longer. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s something even more primal than cortisol and sugar about this time of year.

The slant of light. The rapid encroaching darkness. The allure of a good bonfire. It’s bone deep. And so for a while I‘ve settled into Celtic New Year or Samhain, which better fits the feel of the season for me. Bonfires. Pumpkins. This ancient pagan tradition honors the thin veil between the living and the dead, and it also falls exactly between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice on Oct. 31st. It’s a time when the mysterious space between the two reveals itself. The next day, All Soul’s Day, in many Christian traditions, a time to pray for the dead. I’ve done all of the above.

For many years I’ve heard about The Day of the Dead in Mexico. I love the Mexican people. I loved the Coco movie. I’ve been particularly intrigued for a long time by the indigenous cultures in southern Mexico. Then a few weeks ago a friend offered us his place in Oaxaca, Mexico next week for the festivities. It’s a city full of art, life beauty. So how could I say no Muertos?  I’m delighted as a metaphysical tourist, but I’m intrigued at a much deeper level.

Lately my life has been reminding me of the encroachment of the ultimate Mystery, as loved ones leaving this world one by one. My brother. A beloved healer and friend. There’s a sense of loss and grief and then a wondering. The numinous space between worlds has beckoned in recent poems I’ve been writing,. Some of my buddies have called them my “Bardo poems.”  (In Buddhism, Bardo refers to the transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth).  

And so next week I’m extending my curiosity about the season celebrating the living and the dead by traveling south to Oaxaca City to share in the joyous reunion of families. We plan to walk in cemeteries, appreciating the beautiful connection between families alive and their departed. I plan to admire the beauty of the family ofrendas and build one for my own dearly departed.

There’s a certain soft, numinous beauty in anticipating it all. To be continued…as life and death seem to just keep playing on the edges of my everyday reality.

Biting, Pinching, and Love

I have two younger brothers. I only bit one of them. Honest. It was during a heat wave mid-summer. Mother spread a quilt in the yard under the locust tree. I was five, and my baby brother was four months old. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the cutest, sweetest, softest thing ever. I wanted to pinch his cheeks. No. An urge came over me. I wanted to bite him. Just like in the Gingerbread Man story. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so much. And so I took a bite of his little thigh. He wailed.  Mother searched for clues. a bee? A diaper pin? I put on my already perfected innocent face, and I got by with it. Good job, me.

For years I secretly believed that this impulse made me abnormal. But it turns out that even regular people barely contain their urge to pinch cheeks or hold cute things a little too close. Or bite them, even. Social scientists have labeled this “cute aggression.” More about that here.

About forty years later, I got word that the same brother was entering end-stage liver failure.  I took a red-eye from Oregon to Missouri. When I got there, the doctor said he had about 48 hours to live, so we all went about saying our goodbyes. At first he was non-responsive, and then at one point he asked me to call his friends. He talked to each of them and told them he loved them. His daughters, ages 9 and 11, were in the room with us.  I mopped out his mouth with a swab, a palliative care practice that the nurses had suggested.  There was a sense of completion.

His eyes popped opened and he looked at me straight on.

What’s going on, Susan?

I decided there was no point in hiding the truth.

You seem to be dying, Mark.

He pointed his finger at me and said,

Bite me.

Seriously? I thought. How did he know?  This was spooky. I imagined that his life had flashed in front of him and he had finally seen through me. The gig was up, I thought, after all these years.

I can’t die. I’ve gotta help raise my girls, he said.

I stayed with him as he went in and out of a coma state for three weeks.

During visiting hours I was assigned to the corner space.

Then he’d point at me and say, My sister says I’m dying. But I’m going to be around for my girls.

Bite me.

I was glad to serve as motivation, and he did rally. All grown-up, instead of biting him I gave him lots of shoulder and back rubs. And he was able to get a new liver, thanks to the donor and many angels along the way. It lasted him 16 years.

And he did indeed raise two amazing young women.

But last week it was time to really say goodbye, as organ after organ failed. I will miss him, but I find solace in knowing that he completed his mission. Without biting or being bit again, as far as I 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.

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.

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.

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