Thanks to Those Who Inspire Creativity and Delight

Sailboat skyThe wise, wise Painter of Blue at Art of the Spirit posed the question:

“How much natural creativity would flow out of us if we just opened completely to the One?”

Immediately I felt the power of that question, the way in which, if followed to its conclusion in the depths of my being I might reveal a new face of possibility I had never dared envision. At the same time, perhaps because her site is graced with such amazing artwork, I could only imagine fulfilling that vision with a paintbrush in hand. Though I suspect that buried somewhere inside me there may be a creature who could fill canvases, she is generally too afraid of making a mess and spoiling a perfect white plane with mistakes and wasting money on paints and paper. This fear seems to be related to the same sort of mysterious trepidation that made me afraid of ruining my shoes when I was young, causing me to leave too many trees unclimbed and too few mud puddles explored.

Of course I know that deciding that such a flow of creativity did not apply to me is just another way that I obstruct the flow of the Divine through my life. I was able to only see my chosen mode of expression – these written words – to be instantly limited and less. Words are cheapened currency – used to curse and abuse and sell fabric softener and describe nuclear missiles. Instantly I longed for a more profound method of conveying whatever it was that the One was trying to say through me, because clearly I had chosen an inferior medium. It had nothing to do with a basic refusal to just open myself up and listen, to become liberated from distractions like my addiction to my own inferiority. No, no, I just careened off in the direction of all I ought to have done: should have stuck with dancing, or the violin of the flute or the saxophone, or invested myself more in art classes, or reveled innocently in nature when I had the chance. And off I wander down a path of regret, negligently slamming the door of my heart shut with a thud that reverberates all the way back into this gloomy past of my own creation.

But I can spot such foolishness and avoid such wasted thought, right? I am too smart to be enticed by such dark detours now that I read the right books and dabble in a new vocabulary of the soul. Sure.

If I have learned anything so far is the intense difficulty and absolute simplicity of opening myself to the One. The process can be forgotten the instant I leave the books or meditation chair. So today I am going to try something simpler and less plagued with the wisdom of the ages. I take a cue from Christine Kane who talks about delight.

How much more creative could I dared to be if I let myself truly feel overcome with delight at:

– kittens finding new comfortable contortions to sleep in
– snoring creatures in my bed (husband included) who just prove to me I am surrounded by trusting love
– a stretch that makes me sigh “ahhhhhhh”
– an unexpected letter from a friend
– the smell of snow
– the glow of the rising sun on my tea kettle
– discovering a new love of classical music and cellos
– the poem that suddenly makes everything clear
– nicknames
– a smile of recognition in a face I barely know
– those free flowing moments of joy when I forget I am on any sort of a journey at all

Journeying Under the Cloak of Epiphany

As one might expect, my blog has been coming up on a lot of people’s Google searches and the like since today is the Feast of the Epiphany. I hope that a few people were not disappointed to find that my sorts of epiphanies include Rumi and Irish poetry and talk of global warming and will venture back here even after January 6. Truth be told, my knowledge of this date on the Christian calendar is limited to my Nanna’s tradition of giving us a little gift and taking down the tree on this day.

I wished that this day upon which Christians celebrate the revelation of the one they considered to be infant savior to the Magi, Christ’s baptism, as well Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana seemed to offer more epiphanies to me. On this day at home we were taken with dogsitting for my folks’ wonderful fool of a black lab, Saoirse, and with discussing the shape of our lives in the year(s) to come. Undoubtedly we were planting seeds for eventual bursts of wisdom, but it seemed to simply be a day of snow melt and the sense of standing at the beginning – or perhaps the middle – of a great transitional state.

* * *

In the last moments of daylight I took the dog for a walk, the sense of feeling largely bereft of epiphanies heavy my mind. Instantly I was grateful for the excuse to walk the soft snow in the gloaming, the path glowing white through the gathering gloom. It was yet another moment of deep recollection, the glory there is to be found when disconnected from flickering screens and long lines of words, the uncharted space in my head beyond recorded language that longs to be explored. A body kept bound by obligation and injury and forbidding weather remembered what it was to move, to feel an expansion across her shoulders, an opening of her heart from an unexpected place in the middle of her back.

The sky was neither iron nor pewter – none of those usual winter words to describe these dense clouds that seemed to glow from a place deep within as the snow reflected back the last of the dying light. It was infinitely softer, a sweeter canopy over this temporary thaw. The first image that occurred to me was that the world was lying beneath a great wizard’s cloak – a magical garment made of sun and snow and atmosphere in silver and gray that hinted at blues and pinks and a place beyond color. Then I recalled that there are in fact three wizards abroad this day: the three magicians, the Wise Men of the east who were said to have followed a star that must have glinted like an even more mysterious prism than this northern evening ever could.

After toying with whispers of despair as I felt this day to be devoid of concrete promise, lacking the sort of thoughts and realizations worth committing to a page, it seemed that hope refused to be denied. A day about which I assumed I knew so little, whose name I have used so liberally revealed itself to me in a symbol that enveloped my entire world. I am left to understand the constant, universal journey toward Epiphany.

The Degree To Which We Feel the Chill

Jan 1 snow

A quick trip to the mailbox in the moments between moving from a toasty car to an almost cozy house gave me a few moments under the stars tonight. Our neighbors’ woodsmoke hung heavily in the air and the snow squeaked under my feet as it does when the temperature threatens to linger at zero. Even here on the fringes of the “country” a great stretch of the sky from the horizon to Orion’s edge (perhaps his elbow?) was shaded pink with the lights of the nearby town, but still the constellations stretched with such glory across the top of the world, all at once chilled dignity and ecstatic brilliance.

This was the end of the sort of day that almost everyone complained about. It was cold, truly cold, and though the sun shone brightly, it was difficult to find the place between suffering from the frigid air and sweating under the layers of woolen compensation once you made it inside. During the drive home, I was listening to NPR as usual and heard a piece in the “You Must Read This” series. The contributer was talking about the solace she found in reading Chekhov in Syracuse, New York while she was a teenager. I don’t have much affection for Chekhov, particularly, but we don’t live all that far from there and certainly I understood her talk of the cold. What hit my artistic sensibilities (and my general refusal to use two words when twelve might have the particular lilt I am hoping for) was her description of the climate: “Some years it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us.” Clunk.

Alright, so I might have said that differently (the way the cold seemed to bent on exchanging our bones for icicles or something, but I’m not working with a three minute time limit and well, no one has asked me to broadcast my opinion of books on National Public Radio), but her word choice really just got my attention about what seems to be a broader (and less nit picky) issue.Jan 1 snow

To personify the cold as an agent trying to kill you is to plant yourself (and your city) smack at the center of the universe. It is to take the movement of atmospheric currents and the tilt of the sun personally. Somehow, that just seems a massive waste of energy (the question of climate change aside in this situation, of course). What sort of state do open ourselves to if the weather becomes such an adversary even as we sit comfortably behind the windowpane, teacup in hand? Are we so mentally and spiritually fragile that the cold can penetrate places a parka cannot protect us from?

As soon as I say this, I realize that a week ago I was dissecting the way the darkening days leading to the Solstice set me to contemplate death. Though I did not suggest that the absent sun was in on an assassination plot, I certainly offered my fate to be influenced by waning daylight and other unearthly agents.

Perhaps I am not exactly certain what I am trying to say here, beyond attempting to call for a balance between recognizing that we are creatures constantly affected by our natural world and getting tangled up in blaming nature for its crusade against our personal comfort. How do we understand ourselves to be inextricably bound to the web of all creation and yet maintain a centeredness that means we are not thrown off balance every time the wind blows?

The only answer I can begin to offer is to practice acceptance, to be present to the world around us yet know that we bear stillness within. Since my topic here is winter, maybe I do not drag the metaphor to far to think of the castle that stands firm even after one shakes the snow globe – one steady force amidst a shower of white?

Our Adventurous Vision For the New Year

New Year's roses

Blessed be the road that does not end
Blessed be each minute that borrows us
To witness its eternity

We are old: a species gone to seed,
Run wild under the stars;
And our talk is old talk

While we watch our brazen children
Clutch at memory of when the land
Was waking to a young and lusty sun.

– Paula Meehan
The Man Who Was Marked By Winter, Epigraph

Perhaps this poem is a bittersweet way to begin 2008, but there must be worth in looking at a new year with a broad perspective strong enough to bear all of the hope that will poured into its freshness while still acknowledging the strains of fear that accompanies any beginning. Even as we look to the glow of a fresh calendar we must bear witness to all that we have been and all that we will carry into this infant January.

I feel as if I am one given to Meehan’s old talk since I look at a new year with a whisper of trepidation, glancing at past Decembers that have melted into Januarys only to reveal another December lying in wait. But despite this wisdom, or perhaps because of it, I still cling to the brazenness of a child and seek the waking earth, the waking consciousness. All of us who know hope in this time that can seem a desperate age must know what it is to be worn thin by a scorching sun, but remain willing to forget the burns as we long to dance in the glow of noon.

Last night, my husband and I celebrated the holiday at our favorite restaurant with a toast to “adventurous vision.” We shall make this phrase our guide and our strategy in the new year and look for what blessings we can on the road that does not end. Undoubtedly there are tremendous changes ahead for us in 2008 – where will we live, what will constitute our livelihood, how will we structure our living. I can only pray that we move through it with the wide-eyed intelligence and well-intentioned good sense so that we are present for every precious minute we are granted in our little piece of eternity.

Blessings for the new year – may the seeds you plant in the coming months grow wild and beautiful under the stars.

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.

Life Changing Philosophy and Bumper Sticker Ethics

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”

– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)

I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.

One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.

Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!

As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:If it's not fun why do it?

To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…

But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.

And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.

Courage in the Gathering Light

Because I am still trying to work with this unique period that I described yesterday, when we are swirling through celebration even as we are plunged into the darkness of the dying year, I sought out a yoga podcast that is rooted in this particular time. Over at Hillary’s Yoga Practice I found a class from December 23, 2006. I needed to find words that were wrapped in winter, offering the wisdom of this season. Her topic was courage and I realize that it was exactly what I needed so that I could establish the proper perspective as we move away from the Solstice into Christmas and then onward to the new year.

Upon examining my preoccupation with mortality over the past several weeks, I realize that though such emotions were valid, I was walking a line between exploring such territory and wallowing in the darkness. I allowed myself to become unmoored in my ruminations and I forgot to call upon the resources that can protect me from sliding too deep. Now, it appears that the element that eluded me was courage.

Caroline Myss speaks often about our addiction to victimhood and the ways that we allow our “wounds” to control our experience as well as manipulate those around us. I see such patterns in my own life, and I know that they were at work when I invested in bleakness disguised as contemplation. Something as organic as courage would have been the lamp in the night that saved me from becoming entranced by the waning cycle rather than looking to the hope on the other side. It just seemed too difficult to flex that sort of muscle at the time, however. All too often, courage seems to go out the window when it is most required because acting courageously would almost certainly upset the mundane balance that marks the lives of so many of us.

Yesterday I was taken with the way the joyful, bustling holidays are at odds with our animal instincts that demand we honor the absence of the life-giving sun. Today I am less interested in that paradox, in dwelling on how hard it must be for us to deal with the conflicting messages of nature and culture. Instead, I am drawn to that very human emotion called courage that causes us to seek and create light from darkness. Beyond that, I am awed by the power of the Divine that roots such a power in our hearts and shows us again and again the constant rebirthing of the universe.

Solstice: Returning from the Darkness

This week I have been pulled into an unsettling spiral that set me to thinking about darkness and death even in this season of joy and franticness. Despite the piles of Christmas cards and the antics of a kitten discovering his first box of wrapping paper supplies, I felt oddly bereft and adrift. I was not sure what scared me more – the emotions themselves or the fact that they should set upon me during this time of year when it is all about extending oneself by dragging through stores and baking that extra batch of cookies and generally “being in the spirit.” There is nothing worse than being called a Grinch or a Humbug in the weeks before Christmas, but sometimes it seems we slap those labels on one another because we are so terrified of acknowledging that we are having trouble hearing those distant sleigh bells ourselves.

One reason I started this writing project in the first place was because I became aware of the way so many things I thought I already knew had a way of sneaking up on me to appear as a totally new burst of wisdom. So here’s another epiphany that I have “known” for years but clearly never found a meaningful resting place in my soul. Today we have reached the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the earth stands still for a moment before tilting back on itself to reveal to us in the northern hemisphere longer, sun-kissed days. The weeks approaching the Solstice are full of darkness both in the celestial and spiritual sense. We feel called to slumber and reserve our resources in this bleakest time. I celebrated Midwinter for years, but I do not think I really understood that stillness of the earth that stands so close to death until now, and I certainly never felt its pull like this before.

If we are as connected to nature as I believe, it is inevitable that we should be affected by the slow winding down of the world around us. Of course, the reason I can speak of death so blithely is that it is just one turn in the cycle away from the rebirth that means an earlier dawn and an inevitable spring. We honor the birth of Christ at this very moment exactly because of this return of the sun. This sense of celebration sets us in a great paradox, however, as we fight our animal natures that tell us that winter is the time for hibernation and the contemplation of mortality. Human nature seems set to defy the wider rhythm of nature in so many instances, and this is no exception as we distract ourselves from the shadows with a festival of light. Wait, that sounds too critical, because I love that we are such ingenuous creatures who recognize the need to kindle a fire rather than curse the night. I just think it necessary to recognize that something more primal than western style consumerism or religious holidays may be at work on our souls right now. Some of the Scrooge impulse is certainly born of burn-out and weariness, but some of it may be that the secret parts of our spirits that have always listened to the sun and the moon and watched the trails of the stars are now yearning for quietude.  We all feel the loss of loved one who have passed on more keenly in December.  Part of that sorrow is the bittersweet memory of how they my have looked by the glow of a Christmas tree, but this remembrance of how death has touched our lives may also spring from the Earth itself as it whispers to us in these moments of deepest darkness.

An Adventageous Snow

http://www.imageafter.com/image.php?image=b3_landscapes016.jpg&size=full&download=noAfter a long drive home in the snow this afternoon I spent a while glancing through other blogs and websites as I waited for the plows to come by (only then would it make sense to shovel the driveway so my husband could park when he got home from work well after dark). Out of the tangle of ideas that flickered over the screen, one word kept rising to the surface: Advent. Even as my interest in Catholicism has resurged over the past year, I don’t think I even remembered that the Christmas season used to mean something other than the mall was open later and the cats would invariably get into the wrapping paper.

Glancing at my post from yesterday, I realize that I included a photo of a single candle flame and spoke of “inner light.” I am amazed both by the dancing, overlapping layers of meaning that flow through all aspects of this life and by my own obliviousness to a tradition that would have been interlaced throughout my childhood. The anticipation of opening another window on the advent calendar… Vague recollections of purchasing an advent wreath engraved with Celtic knots for a high school boyfriend’s parents… The circle of candles at the right side of the altar every December… I suppose because it is about celebration rather than deprivation, Advent was easier to forget. “I’ll give that up for Lent” has been a catch phrase for years (I generally stick to my grandmother’s abstention from watermelons), but Advent? That’s kids’ stuff.

I will not demean this time of religious observance by drawing too many parallels to my own life, lest I seem to co-opt the anticipation of the birth of Christ only in order to explicate my own sense that I am waiting for something (something that is much less universal than the arrival of the savior, I must admit). Instead, I will simply celebrate the fact that the light that so eluded me yesterday and left me to see only the limitations of my situation has filtered down today despite the snow choked sky.

Two guys who jumped out of their pick up to push my less than intrepid vehicle up a hill. Enjoying a few hours outside of time when the world has to stop because the Mother declares it time to cover all of creation in a blanket of white peace. Returning to my sources of inspiration and finding them more valid and enlivening that ever.

Yes, it is indeed possible to believe that a light that is the presence of the Divine dwells within us all and can shine as brightly as one might wish – in fact, I think it just might be the only way.

Inner Light and Other Dangerous Business

Candles 1 - greyman stock.xchng“Your task? To work with all the passion of your being to acquire an inner light, so you escape and are safe from the fires of madness, illusion, and confusion that are, and always will be, the world.”

–Rumi (trans. Andrew Harvey)

Inner light. What can seem more distant as we push through our daily lives, confined to routine and obligation, trapped by the illusion that there is not enough time or energy or resources to effect change? It seems no less that the human condition to dream of transformation and simultaneously cherish the belief that altering one’s situation is inherently impossible. Certainly there are the rare few who can truly be the change they wish to see, and we read their books and celebrate their vision, often with national holidays. The rest of us, however, seem mired in the world of dashed hopes and shimmering mirages.

Am I too pessimistic tonight? I only write of this sense of shared stultification because I am so afraid that I am just another victim who reads all of the right books and says the right prayers but forgets them as soon as her trust in the beauty of the world is called into question. At work the other day we discovered what seemed the perfect e-mail signature: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.” The unspoken sentiment that we all might prefer to be home with husbands and cats and perhaps even a Lord of the Rings marathon hung in the air as we drifted back to work. We just might like life better if we were not confronted with the madness and illusion that experience and the Sufi poet tell us are inevitable.

Recently I have found my capacity to walk through Rumi’s fires of confusion to be in serious jeopardy. I claim despair at the ugliness and cruelty of the world and the pettiness of the people around me. When I can call on the greater inner voice of wisdom that so often gets drowned out by my victimhood I can understand that such whining about everyone’s else’s attitude is as boring as it is useless. Perhaps it is just an adjustment period as I try to find my bearings even as my perspective begins to shift in light of all that I am learning. Or maybe it is a sign that I have to finally step up and make some of those changes that I imagine in the moments before I fall asleep each night. At any rate, I guess it is time to redouble those efforts to actually practice walking in the paths of those saints and visionaries who seem to be able to make dreams manifest. It is as simple and as tragically complex as cultivating that inner light that I know Rumi would say is already there, glowing within us all.