Posts Tagged: Lessons of the seasons

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.

Epiphany, Resolutions, and A Sideward Step

Many years ago, I sat down with my calendar almost a week after the new year. A cup of coffee in my hand and a pad of legal-sized paper by my side, I was all set to write down my New Year’s resolutions. Always determined to work on myself, it felt like my best shot for self-reflection in my hurried life to write that list. My kids were back in school and I had a whole two hours after my teaching job with an empty house before the school buses showed up.  The cookies and party mix were out of the cupboards, and the Christmas tree was at the curb, so distractions were minimal. But instead of writing resolutions, I stared out the window at the dreary weather.

January had scared me for years, ever since I endured a serious depression right after the holidays, a heavy cloud that lasted an entire year. I gradually filled my life and my home with children and friends and good work. Not to mention discipline, which is why I was making these resolutions in the first place. Over time, when I had the time, I had done some journaling, but this was a List, not a daily diary entry. These were my important yearly goals, after all.

I sat looking back at the calendar. Next to the date, January 6, was one word: Epiphany. Something shifted. This was different. I LOVED epiphanies, just like any other good English major.  So I picked up the pen, hoping to catch some and write them down. I immediately dropped into a sense I could only call “home.” I took the first full breath in a month. My whole body sighed in layers, like after a good cry, followed by an ineffable sense of peace. Glimpses of possibilities for the next year just sort of occurred to me, so I wrote them down. One after another, ideas popped. A subtle sense of illumination accompanied each pop .

Later I looked up the liturgical holiday. Epiphany. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist church, I had never even HEARD of such a calendar. This was Three Kings Day. The day the sages of the East arrived in the West, following a star. A day for celebration and giving to children in Latino cultures. Never having been a Latina or a Catholic, I immediately felt a kinship through the sheer beauty of this holiday. For me it felt like a coming home, this pause, this sideward step in time. I decided to make it my own little secret. And having decreed this then, it has been so, throughout the following decades, except for one thing.  I kept telling my friends. Many of them adopted the holiday for themselves. One of them led a beautiful day-long workshop on the theme of epiphany. I kept writing about it on this blog. This year I received a text with a photo of a friend’s daughter with a big slice of “Three Kings Cake,” a celebration they shared on Twitter as well. In some ways it feels like a secret society. Just you and me and a few million others.

This year I decided Epiphany is too short, so I’ve decided to extend my personal holiday for a year. Because what it offers me is a Pause button. A Sideward Step into spaciousness, kindness, awareness. A short cut to the simplicity of being.


The Sideward Step
There’s a sideward step
in this decade,
this moment of life.
A letting go of the ways
I’ve learned to walk love
here on this planet.
There’s a choosing of something quieter
than the doings of fear
for future, for world.
Way calmer than this apparent chaos.
It’s a huge place just outside
the old magnetic pull of habit.

In the nanosecond inside a pause
When I remember
I take a micro step
to that parallel place
just on the other side of the dark carnival of
Politics, pop culture, personality.

Each day I celebrate
the epiphany of remembering
To take the slight leap
To land safely inside sanity
I come to the way of this knowing.
Always here. Always has been .   

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.

A Landing Place for the Soul

It’s not too late. Even within the rushing movement of summer, here we are mid-August. Which is still summer. Gosh darn it!

This is what I keep reminding myself as I watch the “doing” pace increase: It’s still summer. The best month for tree-staring. The rest of the season seems to have whirred by like scenes from the bullet train in Japan. Blurred but going somewhere.

But . . . it is still August. Quiet is possible, I remember, even for a few minutes a day. That’s when I find the deeper, quieter parts of myself that I sometimes call my soul. Soul-Retrieval is a “thing” I guess, but I see it as a DIY job. With that in mind, a late summer invocation for your soul.

Remedy for Lost Souls

What if you couldn’t lose your soul?

What if your soul just sometimes lost you?

What if it just couldn’t compete

With the list of what must be done,

Couldn’t be heard

Over the lightspeed whizzing of freeways,

The invisible waves of information,

of entertainment and stimulation

Couldn’t find you, caught as you were

In the death squeeze of entrainment.

What if it’s looking for you right now,

Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?

Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.

It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.

How about making it easier on your poor soul?

Just. Stop.

Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under a tree. Any tree.

Take nothing but a blanket.

Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.

Move in or out of the shade, as needed.

Sigh once. Sigh twice.

Stare at a leaf.

Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.

Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.

Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,

Purple clover or hairy yellow bumble bee.

A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.

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

Barely Grateful

The branches of the oak trees surrounding this Oasis are nearly bare now.

And so am I. Stripped of assumptions and suppositions about how the world works. The gratitude notebook I launched with such fervor last year has become largely forgotten. It’s been that kind of year. For for many of us.

But there’s good news on the horizon (At last!)
We actually have a holiday dedicated to celebrating gratitude! (Hooray!)
At a table loaded with rich foods! (Oh boy!)
With people who sometimes have different ideas than ours! (Groan!)
For all these things I’m barely grateful.

There’s a probability that Thanksgiving didn’t go so well for you last year, at least in the Family Peace and Politics Department. In addition, this year many of us have been closely touched by things that seem to be happening way too fast: Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfire. Shootings. So unless we’re very careful or prayerful (or both), we’ll be bringing some stress to the table.

The magic of any yearly ritual, like Thanksgiving, is in the way it just keeps regularly rotating in, year after year. When we stop and gather, often with people unlike ourselves, there is a comfort and a perspective to this yearly rhythm. Despite everything, the seasons keep turning.

A year ago I committed myself to “grateful seeing,” as a spiritual practice. This means that, as I remember, I shift my lens and find gratitude in the current moment. This re-focusing accompanied me through the decline and death of my mother, the shootings in Las Vegas, and a wildfire evacuation. The practice of writing has anchored it all.

My blogposts of the last months are reflections on miracles and disasters and the life that holds it all. They are a gift of gratitude.

I gratefully raise a glass to Life…and to each of you.

To Life As It is!

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.

Evacuation & Return

Six weeks ago I spent a quiet weekend at our Cascade cabin, and the first smoke of the overwhelming fire season to come caught my attention. Like the animal that I am, I began to scan my surroundings with the focus that a whiff of danger brings. Instantly I was aware of what was at stake, something I’ve taken for granted for the thirty five years that I’ve visited this old growth forest. I looked up, as if for the first time, and I silently jotted a few words in my journal.

Who are these enormous beings I’ve categorically referred to as trees? I look up. Up. Up. 12 stories up are their heads. Western red cedar, grand fir, yew, mtn. hemlock, chinquapin, from babies to snag-headed old ones. They haven’t moved anywhere all this time, steady. Where have I been until this moment to have missed them?

I went home to the suburban oak savannah where I usually live. The smoke followed. I thought often of the trees in the forest around the cabin and sent a prayer. Then I came across this poem:

 Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner (1999)

The next month took a certain rhythm. Fire reports every morning. Stair-stepping through the levels of evacuation as the fire approached, less than a mile away. After a while, the cabin didn’t matter any more. I just missed the trees. I imagined them turned to charcoal.

At the end, in a neck-and-neck race between the fires and the rains, the rains came, for five straight days. Just a couple of days ago we got word we can go back. My own particular trees survived. And now, as I prepare to return, it’s to a new landscape. Even though the surrounding forest hasn’t physically changed, I have.

I re-read the poem I stand still, at home with the oak trees, seeing this grove for the first time, each individual tree. Here. They were surrounding me all along, making a place while I worried about the forest in the mountains. And when I do return to the ancient forest, I will pay attention to the breath of the forest, to the answering that says “Here.” And I will listen.

The Path of Totality: Where Sun Meets Fire

Eclipse Fever collides with Wildfire in my environmental newsfeed this month. In only ten days, my abnormally “normal” town will become a swollen version of itself. As the planetary wheel turns, we’re one of the very first and most reliable viewing places for the total eclipse, given that the Oregon Coast has a foggy and questionable personal history. Frankly, we see it as the most charming place from which to watch, bar none. But just how charming is something we try to keep very quiet. Notice I’m not being very specific or dropping its name.

The jig is up already up, though. Most of us with empty rooms in our homes have long had them booked with long-lost family or friends. The Willamette Valley floor is sprouting campgrounds in abundance, at $200 to $750 per site. We’re stocking up as if a snowfall were imminent, aware that our town will likely double or triple or quadruple in size. We’re also tuning up bikes so we can stay on the bike paths and out of traffic snarls, the ones that we’ve we’ve been warned about since April.

This will be the second total eclipse I’ve witnessed. The first one was in 1979. As I was recently reading the mystical accounts of eclipse stalkers, I reached back to remember…very little. Popular culture seemed far less interested in things celestial back then. The path of that total eclipse was a Nike-shaped swath over Washington and up into Canada so there was almost no Eclipse Hoopla. My husband and I and baby Ben simply drove the night beforehand a couple hundred miles to the rolling hills of southern Washington and parked our VW van on a wide spot in the road. Across the gentle hills a smaller version of Stonehenge was visible. Despite the dramatic location, there were only a few of other cars in the nearby parking lot. The sun was just up, and it was a showery February. The sun did break through the clouds to cast shadows over the hills as it chased a sweeping line of darkness. In my mind now it’s another subtle and rich life moment, thanks to my somewhat intact memory and a beautiful painting by my friend Jan that still hangs over my bed.

Meanwhile, right now, there’s another more pressing emergency situation in my other summer world, one that could (literally) eclipse the actual eclipse. Across the valley and up in the mountains lies our summer cabin, also in the path of eclipse totality. A wildfire has been burning on the shoulder of nearby Mt. Jefferson, and it’s only a couple of watersheds away. At risk are the old growth forests that are such a global treasure. Lately it’s been growing some days and sitting relatively still others, and there’s a staff of over 200 professionals on the case. Ironically, when the smoke is thick enough, the fire slows down, since it feeds on the heat generated by the powerful summer high-altitude sun, among other things. This whole area will thankfully be closed to Eclipse watchers because of the serious increased risk of fires.

The preparedness required here is a little more complicated than stocking our Valley home with beer and barbecue supplies. We’re clearing out brush to make the area less hospitable (my interpretation of the official fire containment plan). Unlike the solar variety, this crisis won’t likely be all over in a week. For that we’ll need to wait until the rains come in late October.

We’re fortunate to be able to soothe sore muscles at the hot springs retreat center down the road, where my husband is a big support of the BFD, or the Breitenbush Fire Department. We hear that the risk of the fire reaching here is miniscule now. We return back to the valley, a hundred miles away. The winds have blown the smoke from the Whitewater fire in the mountain to settle right outside our window. Sunsets here are rubber ball red. There’s little chance that the eclipse will actually be eclipsed by smoke here, but there’s a sizable risk of other fires, what with all the increased human activity.

So much for Oregon laid-back summers. Living so close to the awesome power of the sun brings a sense of aliveness here in the path of totality. We plan ahead to care for our visitors and our residents, in and out of the forest. We work prudently to protect the lives around us. We live in the traveling light shadow of not knowing what the future will bring, even as we savor the summer breezes. It’s an incandescent time. There’s a totality, a presence, to it all.

I want to remember this, I think, when I start believing that life is dull or boring. This sense of being fully engaged and awake, of being “all in.” Perhaps this is the real awe-inspiring nature of the eclipse, or of wildfire. For the moment all the murmurings and distractions of our daily lives cease and we can see the magic inside the enormous power of nature, so far from our actual ability to control it.

Only totally.