Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Whoa Nelly

by Donald Revell

Yellowbird here for one day only,
I'm telling you
The trees here
Are children of themselves.  You can see it:
The deadwood in mid-air
Departing into mid-air,
And just below it,
Bright circles of emerald-green new growth.

The day is long when it is blind.
This morning, I find only darkness in me
Where yesterday I saw through countless eyes.

Yellowbird, I pray for change.
I dream about it,
The wild transformations,
Even as each day
The changes prove more terrible,
More set upon death and humiliation,
Even the humiliation of mountains.

I want celestial light, but not apocalyptic.
The end of the world is an old story.
I'm starting a new one.
Yellowbird here for one day only,
These emeralds are trees.
Fly fast.

This poem comes from a book called The Bitter Withy, from which I had the pleasure of hearing the author read not long ago.  I bought the book because it has a bunny on the cover (from Titian's Virgin of the Rabbit (Virgin and Child with St. Catherine) which we will all now go to Paris to see, okay?).  I also bought the book to remember the apocalyptic passion of its author, creator, reader.  I tell you, the next time I do a reading, if my bangs are not flapping like mad crow wings, I will not have done my job. 

Nevermind that I don't have bangs.  Or that no one has asked me to read.

I hate to start off like a bad thank-you note, but I cannot believe so much time has passed since the last post!  And yet, I can.  I realized this week that March was a subtly-declared Artist's Month, wherein I bought cheap art supplies, modge-podged everything in the house, stayed in my pajamas far too long, and baked lots and lots of sweets.  (I am so grateful for my hungry friends, and this is in the oven right now.  Mine slumps in a misshapen way that makes me feel great love for it and my whole life.)

I have also been reading Dr. Christiane Northrup's books and gobbling up her elegant wisdom.  She kind of reminds me of a sane Martha Stewart - someone with an intense amount of focus which she points toward nourishing subjects and pursuits.  Not that making your own crepe paper carrots is a waste of time.  I'm sort of serious here.  I read a blurb of a book that is coming out soon (by Sara Avant Stover, whom I have often mentioned), and here is what Nischala Joy Devi says about Sara's book:

"From the first page of The Way of the Happy Woman, I breathed a great sigh of relief. As women we are told to be warriors, smart, sexy, successful. We can have it all, but at what price? It seems all we really want is to be happy. Thank you, Sara, for helping us remember our true divine nature and making it so accessible.”

That part about all women really wanting is to simply be happy made a lot of sense to me.  (See also: The Pajamas All Day section of my personal handbook, filed under Crepe Paper Crafts.)

What am I learning?  Whatever creates happiness = Good.  Period, the end.  As long as it's not causing harm to others, I guess is the caveat.  No shooting bb's at passerbys, etc etc.  That's what fiction is for.  Which is maybe why I write?  Cause, come on, sometimes it's really fun to shoot bb's.

My friend sent me an article on writing advice recently.  In it, Geoff Dyer wrote:
Don't write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les caf├ęs . . . Since then I've developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

I'm not sure I agree with him that one should never write in public places but I crack up every time I think about it being a lavatorial activity.  Writing is sooooo personal, and I do find myself muttering to myself, scratching my head like a dog with fleas, and employing other such unattractive habits, that maybe Dyer has a point.  (I just want to clarify: I want to go to Paris for the Titian, in addition to the cafes.)

Because Roddy Doyle's advice won my heart, and I have little understanding of copyright laws on the web (joking joking) I think I will post them here:
1 Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2 Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–

Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job.

Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don't go near the online bookies – unless it's research.

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said".

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It's research.

Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

Do not search for the book you haven't written yet.

Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – "He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego." But then get back to work.

And with that, I'm off to a piping-hot loaf of puffy, croissant-like cinnamon-pull-apart bread (I did this?), a novel that wants to call itself mine, and the whole month of April!  Which I have ambitiously declared Career Girl month.  I am still waiting to understand what I mean by this. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Poem 1: An Entrance
by Malena Morling

In the city
     of leaks
and ghosts
     just past
The Casket
on Van Rennselaer
there is a
with its front
And just
     above it
are the words:
     "No Trespassing."

Poem 2: Sunflower
by Federico Garcia Lorca

If I did love a cyclops
I would swoon
beneath his stronger gaze
sans eyelids.
O fiery sunflower, ay!

Poem 3: Sheba's Hesitation
by Rumi (of course)

Lovers of God, sometimes a door opens,
and a human being becomes a way
for grace to come through.

I see various herbs in the kitchen garden,
each with its own bed, garlic, capers, saffron,
and basil, each watered differently to help it mature.

We keep the delicate ones separate from the turnips,
but there's room for all in this unseen world, so vast
that the Arabian desert gets lost in it like a single hair

in the ocean. Imagine that you are Sheba
trying to decide whether to go to Solomon!
You're haggling about how much to pay

for shoeing a donkey, when you could be seated
with one who is always in union with God,
who carries a beautiful garden inside himself.

You could be moving in a circuit without wing,
nourished without eating, sovereign without a throne.
No longer subject to fortune, you could be luck itself,

if you would rise from sleep, leave
the market arguing, and learn that
your own essence is your wealth.

Hi!  It is a three-poem night, which you may or may not be glad to know differs a little bit from a Three Dog Night.  I have been reading a piece from Shambhala Sun, which my father once jokingly referred to as my "lesbian buddhist" magazine, because he didn't know what to do with its cover photo of a shaved-headed female teacher.  I'm guessing it was Pema Chodron, a favorite speaker and writer of mine. (Just to be clear, no lesbians or Buddhists were harmed in the making of my family.  It was a joke. A joke!  At least, that's what I'm telling myself.)

I have been interested in Eastern teachings ever since I can remember.  I don't know if it was passed down from my brother, or if was always something we both leaned towards.  I remember calling him once and asking what he was reading.  He replied, The Art of Happiness, by (His Holiness) the Dalai Lama.  The next time I called, I was delighted to learn that he had put down The Art of Happiness for a finance book that in my mind was, How to Get Rich and Retire Young, although I can't actually find a book with this title.  I may get in big trouble for writing all this, but this combination of true heart and honest earthliness is one of the reasons I love my big brother so, and find his company genius.

Anyway, that was a sidebar.  The real reason I am writing is to share the tiniest image in this article I read tonight called "Smile at Fear: Teachings on Bravery, Open Heart & Basic Goodness."  In the article, adapted from talks Pema Chodron gave on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's book, Smile at Fear, Pema Chodron says, "Fear is like a dot that emerges in the space in front of us and captures our attention."  She goes on to say that it is like a doorway that go one of two ways: to awareness or to more fear.  Actually, you should read the article to see what she says about it, because I lost focus when this image of fear as a tiny dot was introduced.  It sort of blew my mind, to see fear as this pin prick of a black dot in the air, something so tiny that it is almost a dust particle, but something that, when focused upon, expands and expands until it opens up like a rabbit hole and our mind jumps in, followed by our sweet body, and our whole heart and all of our good intentions, and everything gets tumbled and scrambled and sort of lost.

The article actually talks about befriending our fears - "touching" them, as a path to befriending and loving ourselves unconditionally, as you would a friend. (But how many friends do you really love unconditionally?  As I contemplate this, it occurs to me that I might have some work to do in the unconditionals department - for myself and others.)  Instead of thinking about befriending fears, however, I was thinking about that damned dot, and how completely humongous I can let my fears become.  Pema talks about the pointlessness of running away from fear, or disguising it, or numbing ourselves from it.  But I just kept thinking about how small that dot could be, and how big I sometimes make mine.

I was talking about fear with a friend today. We said, "Why so hard to stay in the heart?  Heart, why you so hard to befriend?"  The truth, of course, or it seems this way to me, is that it is MUCH harder to be out of the heart than to be in it, but it is more acceptible to be out of it.  If we aren't watching, acceptability - rather than sincerity - becomes our training.

I want to pause to say that, of course, this isn't everyone's training.  The majority generally rules in the world, but I know children being raised with the most intentional, supportive parents, children who are truly wild and open beings, and I know LOTS of open, loving teachers - including my own family members.  I want to be very clear about this.  World, I believe in you!  It's verrry easy to bemoan, bemoan.  And yet, I come for something different.  A little sumthin called LOVE.  Just kidding.  About the tone, I mean.  But otherwise, I'm very serious!

Pema Chodron gorgeously defines spiritual warriorship as "working on ourselves, developing courage and fearlessness and cultivating our capacity to love and care about other people."  Wowwee wow.  So lovely.  At the end of the article, there is an exerpty- thing from Chogyam Trungpa's Smile At Fear book, which describes "The Tender Heart of the Warrior." He writes, "Warriorship is so tender, without skin, without tissue, naked and raw...You have renounced growing a thick, hard skin.  You are willing to expose naked flesh, bone, and marrow to the world."  

Now that I write it, that last part sounds a little alien-movie/Die-Hard 3: lots of flesh and guts and face parts ripping around everywhere.  But I really dig the emphasis on tenderness, and that word itself is so tender.  I also am taken with the image and idea of renouncing your shield.

The whole article is an address of unconditional friendship to oneself.  Holy hard task, batman!  But worth a shot, right? What else are we here for, but to love.  And how can we fully love another until we can give the same grace to ourselves?

It is time for bed, but before the dreams begin, I leave you with an image and a lyric from my favorite band in the cosmos (zee Wilco).  No laughing at my grandma-like understanding of how to post pictures on this blog, please.  The lyric is somewhat risky, because if you think of your emotions as the seat of your heart, the lyric sounds like a betrayal.  But if you think of your heart as the seat of truth, and emotions as the dust particles and sea waves that are part of the whole kerblanging cosmos, then it can be like a renunciation of panic with eye toward the pie, everything a remembrance of peace, peace, peace.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

After Midnight

by Louis Simpson

Ed was in love with a cocktail waitress,
but Ed's family, and his friends,
didn't approve. So he broke it off.

He married a respectable woman
who played the piano. She played well enough
to have been a professional.

Ed's wife left him...
Years later, at a family gathering
Ed got drunk and made a fool of himself.

He said, "I should have married Doreen."
"Well," they said, "why didn't you?"

I have loved this poem ever since I stumbled upon it, years ago when a friend gave me Garrison Keillor's Good Poems.  (Suppose it isn't rightly his - or is it?  Is this an interesting question--maybe only in Intro to Feminism courses: if someone compiles something, do they get their name on part of it...?)

Soooo, it's late and I am on vacation with family, and I just wanted to post this poem because I've been thinking a lot about why I delay my freedom/happiness/delight and how, really, no one cares what anyone else is up to.  I often give this as advice to sensitive (read: paranoid) friends that most people are so self-absorbed that they don't pay much attention to other people's flaws. 

Or is this self-absorption thing just a problem of mine? 

Seriously, I think a lot about binds - mostly the mental sort, and how to get free from the obsessions around which I wrap my bliss & power, rather than going with the flow, intuition, divinity, grace, etc. etc. 

(I just wrote grave instead of grace, which is up to something, too.  Sometimes I am blown away when I remember that I will die.  It sounds morbid but awareness of the short stay on earth--in this here body--is possibly the most humbling and liberating force there is.) 

Let's all go sky-diving, say?

Admittedly, this post is all jumbled, even the punctuation. I've also been accidentally setting the font on some posts to GINORMOUS and it makes me embarrassed to see but also reminds me of my friend whose emails arrive in two-story-high font, and it feels like she is cheering her hellos through my computer with a bullhorn. 

So, a big bullhorny shout to passion, to whatever it is you are reaching for.  And if it is hidden in a closet (guilty, guilty), to all I say: What are you waiting for?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Road River Tree Stone

Happy New Year!  But it's almost February!  Where did January go? 

Mine went to recovering from travel, sleeping and eating, plotting out the new year, cleaning out the old year, day dreaming, night dreaming, drawing, singing, praying, all with a little work sprinkled in.

I have been chewing on lots of quotes lately, and these have sustained me as much as beloved poems. The poems I hear have been wisping off the wings of black birds, creaking in the frozen pond I've been walking, and rolling down the loud and clear mesas along the shy blue reservoir in town.

I went to an Acro-yoga class last night where I touched other people's feet, received Thai massage from a stranger, and wobbled as the base while "flying" another stranger above me.  It was unnerving, revealing, and ultimately expansive. When I got home, I rearranged my whole office, so something must have cleared in the hour and a half class. 

My goal for 2011 (the word resolve seems to involve something more organic, where this choice is certainly deliberate) to be more vulnerable. This little Sut Nam station is part of that exercise, as is befriending perfect strangers, talking about my flaws and paranoias, asking for what I really want (i.e. a pair of red cowgirl boots as well as world peas), and flinging myself (or walking boldly) in the direction of my dreams. 

If my goal for 2011 is to be more vulnerable, then my resolution is to have fun. Having gone over some 2010 goals and seeing ones that missed the bar by a mile, I think the trick is to take the work out of homework and just see about the home part. To me this means making peace with my place on the earth, and just kicking around (hopefully in new cowgirl boots) in that space. Whatever this brings will be what needs to be. Right? This is my hypothesis, anyway.

So, what has your heart resolved to create in this gorgeous new year?  (I may be biased but it looks so bright to me now - my friends are: pregnant, new mothers, women contemplating babies, women birthing books, art projects, steaming platters of food...ok, they aren't actually birthing steaming platters of food. That would be disgusting. But there is a whole lot of inspired creation everywhere I look!). As you contemplate your goals, here are some words from the wise. Or, at least, the published :)

"I believe that one of the secrets to happiness is to work within the parameters of the reality of your life."  --Kenny Shopsin, in Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin

Eat Me is newly arrived at our house, given to us by a dear friend.  I hear tell it comes by the suggestion of Amelia, who has this really great blog

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men--that is genius."  --Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

I had the very excited but erroneous thought at work today, Was Emersom, Lake, and Palmer inspired by R.W.E.?!  Prolly not, huh.

"The Creator made us for honoring Him (insert Her if you wish).
(insert comfy pronoun) put in us the ability to work for the good of all.
One of the things He
(ahem) did
Was give us ears, and ears are not mouths.
Ears were put on the side of our heads
So that we would hear all that goes on around us.
That's to let us know things before we talk.
Our mouths are on the front of our face
So that our words can be directed.

We're to use that gift of speech for specific purposes.
It should be limited, otherwise we can be mislead."
--Chief Leon Shenandoah, in a beautiful book called To Become a Human Being: The Message of Tadodaho Chief Leon Shenandoah, by Steve Wall, who also did a book called Wisdom Keepers

"Yoga is the rule book for playing the game of Life, but in this game no one needs to lose. It is tough, and you need to train hard. It requires the willingness to think for yourself, to observe and correct, and to surmount occasional setbacks. It demands honesty, sustained application, and above all love in your heart. If you are interested to understand what it means to be a human being, placed between the earth and sky, if you are interested in where you came from and where you will be able to go, if you want happiness and long for freedom, then you have already begun to take the first steps toward the journey inward."  --B.K.S. Iyengar, from Light on Life

I find it really really interesting that Native American elders and yoga philosophy talk about "being" or "becoming" a human being, as if it is not enough to be simply animal.  It suggests the choice we have in bringing about the human potential in the human body. In terms of the Christian tradition, I think about the fact that the most loving and compassionate teacher in this tradition (Hey-Zoos) is sent by God in human form

And lastly, "I set off in yoga seventy years ago when ridicule, rejection, and outright condemnation were the lot of a seeker through yoga even in its native land of India. Indeed, if I had become a sadhu, a mendicant holy man, wandering the great trunk roads of British India, begging bowl in hand, I would have met with less derision and won more respect. At one time, I was asked to become a sannyasin and renounce the world, but I declined. I wanted to live as an ordinary householder with all the trials and tribulations of life and to take my yoga practice to average people who share with me the common life of work, marriage, and children. I was blessed with all three, including a long and joyous marriage to my beloved wife, Ramamani, children, and grandchildren."  --B.K.S., Life on Life

This last one gives me such comfort. When I first read it, my jaw dropped open. It said exactly what I was hoping for in my life with, and helped me reconcile my desires for a family with my desires for a spiritual life. Now I see the two as beautifully intertwined. This quote perfectly introduces the yogic possibility of living ordinary days with extraordinary love.

Tim just came in jokingly singing Sheryl Crow's "If it makes you can't be that baa-aa-aad...," which reminds me of when my college roommate and I used to screech out that song at the top of our lungs while being transported around town in other people's cars. 

To friends, to exuberance, to happiness!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Little Statues

Summer Meadow
by Tomas Transtromer

There's so much we must be witness to.

Reality wears us so thin 
but here is summer at last:

a large airport--the controller brings

down planeload after planeload of frozen
people from outer space.

The grass and the flowers--here's where we land.

The grass has a green supervisor. 
I report to him.

I went to a friend's gathering on Friday night.  Heading in to her house, I grabbed my journal.   Was I planning to free write on a trip to the bathroom? I didn't try to make sense of it.  I just listened to the journal, which all but screamed, Take me with you!

We were gathering to celebrate a beautiful story my friend wrote.  Each of the women present shared a little piece of her own, personal story - the one we carry in our hearts and scribble on all day long.

When it was my turn to speak, I realized why the journal was there.  I was supposed to talk about my writing, how I have turned a corner of insecurity in my life and, still in the dark when it comes to the future, feel a subtle but significant decrease in fear.

Someone asked me to show something from the journal so I flipped to three drawings and passed them around.  I was somewhat embarrassed.  More pressing, however, was the very sweet and unashamed voice inside that said, Yes!  Share something.

The act was akin to stripping nude for me because I draw pictures like this: 

I think of myself as a dark and brooding person, because I experience my emotions very strongly.  But when I draw, I get a glimpse of something very sweet and innocent beneath all the turbulence: (fyi, the  purple elephant is not mine!)

When I was little, I loved to sit in my disheveled closet and sing.  I still love to sing, and, much to my own dismay, I still create disheveled spaces in a matter of minutes.  I was reminded of this when I passed my journal around, showing the frogs and rabbits and snakes that, at 32, I still love to draw.  

In a moment of vulnerability, I opened the doors I had built around what brings me great joy.  In doing so, I revealed what was beyond constraint.  I held up to the light that which wants to be seen.

The moral of this story?  Go forth and embarrass yourself!

Okay, m
aybe we shouldn't all run out to embarrass ourselves.  Maybe expose yourself is a better phrase, but we all know that's not a perfect one either.  Determining the right spaces and times to expose your underbelly is perhaps one of the dances of this life.

I am reminded of a poster that my friend's mother hangs in her kitchen.  It is of a man in a trench coat flashing a statue on the street. The text reads, Expose Yourself to Art!  I love the absurdity of the poster, and the underlying loyalty it proposes between the individual and the receptive abundance of art. Finding a safe space for all my emotions is, I think, one of the reasons that I write.

In the circle of people sharing their lives, I was reminded that when one person crosses a threshold, we all do. 
As Susan Piver says of the vulnerability of a broken heart, (or in this case, a vibrant whole one that I want to hide): That's where all the good stuff is. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Behind the Veil

What Is Real

Flesh or cloth or water or wind
hair or feathers or rock
jumbling completeness
curve of the horns
our reaction to anecdote

There are trees, flowers, crags 
there is a river
a spring with rocky basin
full of crystaline water
understood in its essence

the cult of chastity

I began this post the day after Thanksgiving, when my world had returned to its normal pace.  Already I miss the slow ease of Thanksgiving day, the mysterious quiet outside.  Tim joked that everyone he saw when he walked the dog that day looked shady.  It is a small puzzle to think about who is outside on the day when most people are lounging on couches, munching peanuts, catching up with each other, everyone waiting for the feast. 

Enough talk about food!  Although some would say there is never enough.  And since I find myself curiously attracted to Italians and partial Italians in this lifetime, most of my reading audience may feel this way. I don't know what this friends collection of mine is about.  Also weird is that almost every one of my best friends went to Catholic church growing up, a fact that I find eerily wondrous.  I mean, what is it about saints, or guilt (ha!) that attracts me?

Okay, enough talk about Catholicism, too. After my previous post about gospel music, Jesus, and activism, I feel a little sheepish.  It is always a little difficult for me to own my fascination with religion, for a number of reasons.  The first is that religion is such a personal topic, and is often handled so clubbishly - by which I mean, people either swing it around in a threatening way, or bonk you over the head with it, with their literalism, or lack of subtlety.

But I know that my objection to too much discussion of religion has something to do most of all with the technicalities of language. In pre-wedding counseling sessions, my dear family friend, Molly, the Presbyterian pastor who married Tim and I, told us that one of the biggest challenges in any relationship is finding the right language so that you know what the heck the other person really means when you are talking.  Every couple has to do this, she said, but for two writers (writers being something both Tim and I consider ourselves, on good days), the challenge of finding the right words will possibly be even more difficult.

I love this woman.  I always have.  She has snow white hair and the bluest eyes, and has painted the dining room of her house an improbably deep royal blue.  Some things easily impress me, like the fact that she put out cheese straws and bourbon-coated pecans during one of our pre-wedding meetings, and, when Tim and I squeezed in a cross-country trip to her mountain home in North Carolina in order to make it to one of our three required counseling sessions, and arrived at 9p.m. in time for a black-out, we were greeted by Molly and her husband, who was fresh from an ice-cold shower.  We all warmed ourselves by a fire and talked in the dark until it was time to turn in for the night. 

I willingly admit to being skittish about marriage.  I am skittish about most things I really care about - yoga, writing, even friendship - anything that forces me to put my tender heart on the line.  But when I start to focus on the perils of marriage, moments like this one line up in my mind, rows and rows of grace-filled artworks bearing witness to the magic I've stumbled across by the moonlight of my relationship.

Back to semantics, for a pinch.  I now recall that even Molly and I disagreed about the wording of one line in our marriage service and we debated it for nearly thirty minutes one day.  This was the day before Tim arrived at the wedding site, so it was just Molly and I seated in her home study.  (Well, Molly was seated.  I squatted on the ground in Malasana, propping my elbows on the inside of my knees, crouching my hips close to the ground so that they would not lock up in all the stress of planning, negotiating schedules, and balancing the various visions for the wedding day.)

Molly and I went back and forth, back and forth, trying to edit the last line of the final prayer so that it resonated with my...I want to say beliefs, but truly, it was my sense of poetry.  We couldn't get it right.  We couldn't rewrite it so that we were both happy with it, and every time I said, Oh, just go with the original, and she read it back to me, I made a face like a child forced to eat spinach.  We finally gave up and just cut the line entirely.

In B.K.S. Iyengar's book, Light on Life, he says that he avoids using the word "soul" before a certain point in his writing because, he writes, "The word Soul usually has such strong religious connotations that people either accept or dismiss it without reflection."  Aside from Mr. Iyengar's jubilant mug plastered on the front cover, his caterpillar eyebrows and warrior-like necklaces, there is much to admire about this book.  (Though I admit to using the book as a poster of sorts in my kitchen.  When people call, I say that I'm having tea with B.K.S. and will have to call them back.  The book cover is also inspiring me to someday rock three initials plus a surname.  So badass!)

In this one statement, Mr. I. has said it all.  He has especially summed up how I feel about discussing church and using the words Jesus, Christian, even words like Yoga or Vegetarian, in casual conversation. Because if we don't have all the minutes we need to have to go into our personal definitions of those words, are we really having a conversation?  Or are we throwing out words like rockets, that may shoot past someone's head, their eyes glazed, or shoot right into their heart, making accidental friends out of a misunderstanding.

When I say the word Jesus, I know it means a very different thing to some people than it does to me.  I realize that sounds incredibly, stupidly obvious.  But I think that is one of the miracles of life - that meaning is so personal, that language is both pliant and historical.  That the bible can be alive, so to speak, just as any book of poetry can be.

I didn't realize that I wanted to talk so much about my wedding experience, but another anecdote comes to mind.  Nearly a year before the wedding itself, my mother bid on a cake for us.  I don't know how it worked, exactly, except that a very talented woman offered her services at a silent auction.  I like to picture my mother lunging for this particular sign-up sheet like a crazed woman at a sample shoe sale.  In any case, Tim and I had our cake made by this very talented woman, and when I met with her at her home, along with my mother, to discuss what kind of cake I wanted, she sat me down and looked me in the eyes.  I also like to pretend that she held my hands at this moment, but that's not true.  It was just a very intense moment.  She held my gaze and told me in  stony dedication that she takes the sacrament of marriage very seriously, and that she treats the cake as part of the wedding day sacrament.  I nodded along, imaginarily took my hands back from hers, and went back to the photo album of cakes she has made throughout the years.

When we got into the car and pulled away from the house, my mother apologized to me.  "I had no idea she was going to say all that about the sacrament," she said.  My brain was awash with cake flavors, icing patterns, and big fondant bows.  Then I remembered the weird intensity of the hand-holding moment. (See? I can't let it go.)  But it hadn't bothered me.  I have learned to translate the language of Christian tradition to something that makes sense in my life, in my heart.  Sometimes it doesn't take much of a change to make sense of the wording, but it is this translation that feeds me in church services, that makes it possible for me to even attend many. 

At this point in my life, I would not be caught dead using the word sacrament, because it doesn't have a real meaning to me.  It is a hand-me down word, one given from formal elders that I don't know well enough.  But I also take very seriously what happened during the service on my wedding day.  I think of it as an alchemical transpiration. All the things that were ostensibly the same after our wedding were, internally, undeniably different. 

And it had to do not just with the words that we exchanged, or the blessings Molly bestowed upon us, or the music that swelled in my body as we sang, although of course it had to do with all those things.  But it had just as much to do with the rows and rows of relatives and friends lining the pews of the church, and with the eyes of my little cousin (now a big man, and a father himself) watering as my father and I walked down the aisle, and with the flowers spread like a garland forest around the choir loft, and my sweet sisters trembling in the line next to us, perhaps remembering their own vows, or simply bearing witness to the divine frailty that braids with love in commitment.  Whatever you want to call it, something holy filled the room.  Even if it was the promise of chilled wine waiting for us in the garden when the service ended. I count it all holy.

The poem above is a found poem, one owed to my dear friend Corinne, for whom I once made a collage and, embarrassed, never gave to her.  It is in a pile of things to send out to friends across the country.  What can I say?  Things happen slowly for me.  But it is a relief that the things I care about keep circling and circling in my heart.  I only wish I could gather them all at once.  But they are patient, so patient.  They stand when they are finally called.  I am starting to understand that the heart cannot betray us.  It is only the other way around. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Offering

What I Have Learned So Far
by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?  Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just,
the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?  I don't think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance.  The gospel of
light is the crossroads of -- indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Here is the promised Mary Oliver poem--hallelujah!  I came upon this at a church book sale, during a fellowship hour between services.  I drank the obligatory cup of coffee before the service, but left once it began. I am a lady who loves her church, but I have been very discriminating when it comes to worship lately.

There is one church that is always my home, however.  The thing I look forward to most about Christmas this year, is not spicy gingerbread, or sinking into conversation with my sisters-in-law, or stealing away to my mother's living room, twinkling with white lights.  These are all things that feed my soul, but what I look forward to most is the Christmas Eve service at my parents' church: the church where I was baptized as a baby, the church where I was married just this year.

This church, as much as the skin on my back or the cozy den I have found in my heart, feels like a real home to me, one of the few places where I walk in and feel completely known.  Like no words are necessary, only song. I get goose bumps when I walk in, like walking into a room I dreamed of once and never thought I would make it back to.  And on Christmas Eve, when I make it back to that place, with my brothers packed into the pew beside me, all the lights in the sanctuary turned out, the bodies in the room like shadows, faces flickering with candlelight we pass to each other, everyone singing verses of Silent Night, everyone retreating silently into the cold electric night...the experience is a purification for me--a celestial event, a rebirth.

I suppose it is natural for me to lead with the subject of church, although I had not intended to.  I meant to start in with the image in Oliver's poem of sitting on a hill watching the resplendent sun rise in its field.  But I've been hooked on Mavis Staples' music lately.  And if any of you have listened to Mavis, you know she has some things to say about Jesus, among some other incredible figures in history.  She has a new album out, produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who I am also pathologically addicted to at any time.  (Yay melancholy, yay beauty.) 

As usual, I have come late to The Staples party.  (Today I bought note cards that say, "Be not afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still" to affirm my eternally slow process.)  The good thing about good music is that it truly is timeless.  I have been blowing out the speakers on my car, on my computer, on my home stereo (am I the only one who still has one of these?) listening to Mavis, her songs, and her voice like an angel who starting smoking at eight.  I am especially obsessed with, Jesus Is On the Main Line, and Wrote a Song for Everyone.  The first is on the Ry Cooder-produced cd, We'll Never Turn Back, and the last was written by Tweedy for Mavis, and performed with Wilco (hallelujah again!) on the new album, You Are Not Alone.  It contains the lyrics: “Wrote a song for everyone/ Wrote a song for truth/ Wrote a song for everyone/ And I couldn’t leave it up to you.” 

Although I believe in art and music as much as I believe in the need for every person to draw breath, the real reason I want to talk about what I've been listening to on my metaphoric I-pod lately is because I've been getting those same home-church-entrance goose bumps from listening to Mavis sing her songs.  Her voice is a force, so full of passion, compassion, honesty, and grace.  And the heart of her songs singing about the fight for civil rights, and for freedom and justice for all people, has been shaking me to the core. 

Returning for a moment to the band, Wilco, (which I am always returning to, over and over), I used to put up with their political activism and Tweedy's involvement in different causes as a girl might put up with her beau's excitement over a new book.  A book about Grover Cleveland.  Good for you, I thought.  Glad that topic does it for you.  Now shut up and play me song (give me a kiss), etc.  Admittedly, I didn't really get it.  I knew that I didn't, and I knew that was kind of a bad thing, but I plainly couldn't relate.  I tried, sort of.  But I knew my heart wasn't in it.  (And I really hoped Tweedy didn't know.)

Sometimes I am afraid that people see the practices of yoga as navel-gazing.  And as someone who struggled through spiritual practices in her twenties, I can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of navel-gazing.  But yoga is founded on the tenet that we are All One.  It is sometimes hard to accept that the radiance you cultivate on your mat, or the forgiveness, or the discipline, is not only important to you personally, but that it literally lifts the world's vibration.  But it's true.  When you sit down on your little pillow to meditate, you are having a tangible energetic effect on the rest of the world, and certainly on those closest to you.  

It is also true that I have met some greatly self-centered people who religiously attend yoga classes.  But I have also met those same personalities in bookstores, coffee shops, and on paths in the woods, too.  Getting caught in the ego of self-study is part of the perils of a spiritual path.  Some might even say it is the path.  The challenge is to get through or around all of those tendencies, to the connect to the great heart that feeds us all.

I had the opportunity to take a class with Seane Corn recently.  Holy fire, batman!  That lady is charged.  I was surprised to say the least by the class, which was Vinyasa-based and a little rote in its postures.  But Seane weaves prayer and deep intention into her classes, and at one point she paused everyone in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and asked everyone to ask themselves what hurts their hearts more than anything else in the world.  She then offered the chance to make a dedication to ourselves, to take a step toward changing that thing within the next 40 days.  (Now that I write this, it sounds exactly like something I experienced at a Christian youth camp when I was 15.  Ha ha!)

Out of nowhere, I was overwhelmed by sadness I feel about people mistreating each other.  And I began to weep.  I wept through the next ten minutes of poses, tears dripping down my nose and onto my hands and mat, making it hard to keep from sliding.  I was thinking about a particular outreach program for people in prison - something I have been thinking about, in fact, for almost ten years.  I've never followed through on my desire to bring my passion for writing to prison programs.  It's been on to-do list after to-do list in my life, but I have rarely done more than mentally strategize about it, and shelve it again and again. As I stood on the mat with Ms. Fire asking me to ignite my compassion and to stand in its ring, the seeds of my original idea awoke in me with their need to offer light in the darkest of places, and tears just poured out with the compassion. 

I came home from the conference--where I took Seane's class--with dozens of new resources, with the buds of beautiful new friendships, and a whole mess of unknown changes that are still making themselves known in their quiet, surprising ways.  (I promise I will someday soon write about something other than this conference!  Maybe.)  I wanted to tell a friend who believes that yogis are hopelessly self-centered that every master teacher I studied with talked about bringing the lessons you learn on your yoga mat back into your community.  But I didn't.  I just  drank in the advice, the generosity, the wisdom rolling around in my memory of the weekend, and tucked the point away for further exploration.  I am much less interested in convincing my friends of anything lately, than of just getting into the things I care about, and letting others do the same for themselves.

Action--the understanding of it, the voice of it, the hands and feet of it--pops up to follow me like a dog in the morning now when I wake.  I still have moments of lethargy, and self-pity, and plenty of confusion about what steps to take to honor my heart and art, but I stand as an amazed witness that songs about civil rights have me crying on the freeway.  This is new.

On November Second, I voted at the poles for only the third time in my life.  And I wore my "I Voted" sticker like a heart on my sleeve all day.  Because that's what it was.  Someone I work with said, "Of course you voted," when he saw the sticker, as if voting was a no-brainer for me.  But it wasn't.  It was a personal victory.  That little sticker was the sign of a big shift of consciousness: a bud yawning open, hoping to see the sun rise.