Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From Paris to a Deck Called "Paris"

We spent the last two weeks of September in Paris--two magical, glorious weeks in a city that, much to our surprise, totally captured us. And then we came home.

I returned with the worst cold I had had in years, one of those stay in bed kind of colds. We returned to a dead car battery and a lost internet connection and changes at work. The morning after we returned, I fell and bruised/cracked/broke a rib. After walking at least 10 miles every day on cobblestones much of the time and always while gawking at the beauty around me, never tripping or stumbling, I returned to familiar territory and I fell.

We also returned to warm, glowing fall days, similar to what we experienced in Paris, and I decided, because the energy and the physical stamina were severely limited, I would listen to my body and rest. If I could no longer sit for long unhassled periods of time at a Paris cafe, savoring croissants and chocolat chaud, I could retreat to the deck off our dining room. The deck we call "Paris."

I've called the deck "Paris," since we first moved in the house. Looking out over the rooftops of our neighborhood, I imagined myself standing on a French balcony, greeting the morning. Never mind that I had never been to Paris and had no idea what I would see from a French window and now that I have been to Paris, I realize the view from my deck bears no resemblance to the view from our Paris apartment.
Never mind, I have a great imagination.

Our summer was full with many fast turn arounds between events, along with big chunks of time devoted to Paris preparations. Plus, prolonged hot weather prohibited sitting on the deck. Now was the perfect time. I read. I dozed. I gazed. I remembered. Yes, I did what had to be done--laundry, bills, phone calls, emails--but each day included Paris time. Each day more leaves fell and I was further away from our time in Paris,  but I allowed Paris to sink into my being. I let Paris roll around in me. I let myself uncover Paris within me.

While in Paris we discussed with our travel companions what we have taken home from our various travels. Not just treasured objects like the large pottery pitcher perfect for sunflowers we bought in Florence, but lifestyle or attitude changes. Not an easy question, but a good one to ponder on the Paris deck.

I loved the pace I encountered in Paris.--the acceptability of and encouragement to sit in a cafe for as long as you want to observe and marvel at the fashion parade, to reflect on the sights, big and small. To recall what You've learned and what questions you have, such as "What is the criteria for being buried at Pere La Chaise?" and "Is there a law against carrying 'to go' coffee while walking?" To sip a glass of wine or two at lunch. To talk or not. To savor a pastry, slowly, really tasting it. To breathe and feel gratitude for all of life.

To experience what Richard Rohr calls, "deep time" --past, present and future all at once.

I want to live that way. I want those parts of Paris to live on in me.

Phil Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage lists five excellent practices for travellers on sacred journeys.
Practice the arts of attention and listening.
Practice renewing yourself every day.
Practice meandering toward the center of every place.
Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts.
Practice gratitude and praise-singing.

This is what I want to bring to my deck called "Paris." And to all of my life.

Stay tuned for more thoughts about Paris.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Obsession: New Notebooks

Which came first? The love of writing OR the love of notebooks, journals, and paper? Am I a writer because I love words and ideas and the act of sharing with others OR because I want an excuse to acquire notebooks of every size? Have I adopted journal writing as my main spiritual practice because writing clarfies my feelings and my thinking, as well as leads me to a deeper understanding of the person God created me to be OR because I can't resist displays of journals in bookstores, stationery and gift shops or even Target? A favorite memory of our trip to Italy was discovering a small shop with Leaning Tower of Pisa stacks of inexpensive, but beautiful composition books--ferns and leaves and flowers and birds on the covers. That was in Florence and then in Rome I bought a new fountain pen, but my favorite fountain pen remains the one I bought in a closet-sized shop in New Orleans. My heart beats faster just thinking about what I might find during an upcoming trip to Paris. 

And then there are the  accompanying accouterments of folders and memo pads and paper clips in bright colors and sticky notes of varying sizes and shapes. I adore my Dymo label maker like some people treasure a hammer or a paring knife. The right tool is crucial for a job well done. Of course, my laptop and my iphone are key tools for my writing and communicating life, but they function alongside pastel covered notebooks and ones with playful designs of suns or hearts.

The first thing I do upon registering for a writing workshop or a class is discern which notebook to bring, and when I contemplate a new project, I carefully decide which notebook is the right fit. Which notebook will I take to Paris, I ask myself, and I must admit I have not made a decision yet. I have one with an Eiffel Tower on the cover and that's where I have been jotting notes about shops and restaurants and other places to visit. But which notebook will be my journal to record impressions and experiences and feelings? And which one will be my writer's notebook and hold drafts for future blog postings or other projects. OR should I wait to find a little shop down a narrow street not listed in any guidebook, not even Rick Steves, a shop where Parisians go to find the right paper for love letters and and the right notebook for secret daily musings?

I must remember, however appealing my collection of notebooks are to the touch and sight, the real value is the content within. Eric Maisel in A Writer's Paris, A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul, says, "It is never someone else's fault that we aren't writing," and I add, "A notebook does not make you a writer. Only writing does that."

A notebook is merely the container for one's writing practice--and heaven knows, I have a sufficient supply of containers. Time to write!     

Friday, September 2, 2011

Summer Sweeping

I was Harriet Housewife all day yesterday, cleaning every area of the house, except the garage. A satisfying day. As I swept and dusted and scrubbed and vacuumed, I thought about the lines in Gunilla Norris's book, Being Home, A Book of Meditations.
              Time to caress my house
              to stroke all its surfaces
              I want to think of it as a kind of lovemaking
              ...the chance to appreciate by touch
             what I live with and cherish.

True, the house needed a thorough cleaning, but my soul did, too. I needed to restore some order in my head, sweep away the cobwebs from neglected corners in my heart, and polish what had become dull. September 1 seemed like the perfect day to renew the space that shelters me and welcomes friends and family.

The summer has been a social one, rather than a solitary one, with few slots on the calendar available for writing or reading or silent journeys inward. Days chugged along with ins and outs through the screen door, ups and downs with baskets of sheets and towels for the always willing, thank God, washer and dryer, and back and forth to our "urban cabin" in downtown St Paul and here and there for event after pleasant event. All good, but so different from last summer when I spent a month in Door County, writing daily, feeling both productive and luxurious in the easy time. This has been a peopled time--new friends, dear family, history friends--and I regret not one shared minute.

As I turn the page of the calendar into a new season, however, I feel familiar tugs toward my writing. Ideas have not stopped flowing--only the fingers. Little pieces of paper with notes to my writing self stuff folders on my desk. A desk, I might add, once again orderly and ready for my presence. The arrival of September signals a return to, a resumption of what has been set aside during this summer sabbatical. And my house is clean.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times (Sunday, June 12, 2011) Bruce Feiler, author of  Abraham and Walking the Bible, gave advice about what to say and want not to say to someone diagnosed with cancer or other serious illness or loss. Feiler was diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago and has survived. I agree with most of what he said, including an admonition to refrain from recommending various "miracle tonics" or questioning your treatment decisions, and I also agree that a sincere "I love you," and "I'm sorry you have to go through this" is always appreciated. However, I take issue with one "never" he included on his list: "My thoughts and prayers are with you." Here's what Feiler said: In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they're sending "thoughts and prayers" are just falling back on a mindless cliche'. It's time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside "I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family," or "It's not you, it's me."

Am I defensive because I've made that statement many times? Perhaps, but here's what I think. When I say or write "my thoughts and prayers are with you," I am thinking about that person, praying for that person right then in that present moment. Saying it, writing it, is praying. That counts. That matters. I think it is a bit presumptuous of Feiler to assume that the majority of people don't do what they say they will do. True, many people may never give you another thought and may not have an intentional prayer practice where they lift your name to the Divine, but I believe when someone thinks of me anytime in a loving, empathic, caring way, they are praying on my behalf. When someone I know is in the midst of a crisis, thoughts of them drift across my heart while I'm making the bed, folding laundry or driving to the grocery store, as well as times when I'm writing them a note or preparing a meal to deliver. Those are all moments of prayer, even though I may not stop and fold my hands and say, "Dear God, please..."

Could it be that being the recipient of thoughts and prayers makes us uncomfortable? Do we perhaps not want the attention or do we get a bit itchy when presented with someone's testimony of faith, especially when their belief system does not match our own? It may feel easier to dismiss the statement as a meaningless platitude.

As I write this, I think about a dear friend with cancer, of a new friend with her third cancer, of many others who have been in remission for years and of others I knew only fleetingly when I led cancer support groups. I pray as I think of them. Do they know that? Maybe they will feel a little nudge of sweet energy--I hope so. Whether they recognize it or not, I have sent forth love and hope and an acknowledgement of connection and a belief that what we think and feel matters.

Here's the deal, however. When you make that statement, you are signing a contract and entering into a covenant with the person in need of prayers and thoughts and also with the Divine; however, you envision the Divine. You've said it--now do it. Follow through. Be intentional. Set aside time. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe. See your loved one's face. Say her name. Open your heart and be with her. Also, I invite you to pay attention to the times you say "My thoughts and prayers are with you." What are you actually feeling and do you truly mean what you say? Is there something you can do, along with whispering prayers? Perhaps your prayers are the entry way to a deeper connection with the person in need and with the Divine.

 Oh, and by the way, when someone says "My thoughts and prayers are with you," why not say a heartfelt "Thank you," followed by "I hope you will. Knowing I am in your heart matters to me."

Being in my 60's seems to mean I am sending many more sympathy cards and writing more notes of encouragement and reflection.  The opportunities to respond to people facing serious challenges are increasing as I get older. Feiler's article reminds me to be conscious of what I say and what I do. He reminds me to bring my best self to all who are in need of Divine attention, and so I say, "Bruce Feiler, my thoughts and prayers are with you, too." 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Who's On Our Roof?

Sunday morning, and I breathed into the quiet of the day. Ah, no trucks rumbling past the house, and no roofs being reshingled. Early this spring our neighborhood was bombarded with hail, and now roofing company signs seem to be multplying like weeds on every block. Including ours. For two days last week, we had men on our roof.

I took pictures off the second floor walls, pulled the shades, and left the house for as long as I could. Not only was the sound, the ripping and the pounding, intense, but seeing a circus act on our steep, multi-level roof made me queasy. I like my feet on the ground, thank you very much.

When I was in a Tai Chi meditation group, the leader always positioned me across from her in our circle because she said I was so grounded. In the opening pose we stood with our feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent--mountain space. Many things happen to mountains--rock slides and snow slides and volcanos, a special breed of mountain, can blow their tops, but how often does a mountain fall over or drift away?

The trick to being grounded and steadfast, it seems to me, is to know what grounds you, what keeps you from floating away like the fluff from the cottonwood trees. What keeps you from falling off the roof? Being grounded can sustain you in shaky times, uncertain times, times when you have no choice but to relinquish control. No doubt, we will face such shaky times as we get older, and being grounded can serve us well. The year I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and my mother was dying of colon cancer, I didn't always have the physical or emotional stamina to write in my journal, the spiritual practice that has grounded me most consistently over the years, but knowing my journals were just off stage, sustained and grounded me. I wrote details in my head, made notes in my heart about those last days of my mother's life. I observed and I willed myself to remember. I was present.

However, being grounded has its shadow side --being stuck.  I know when I write in my journal about the same thing over and over and over and over again and when, rereading those many entries, I see no change, no surrender, no forgiveness or intention to forgive, no new thoughts, no acceptance, I'm stuck. Big time stuckness! When are you unable to move or imagine another way? When does being grounded translate into stubborness, limiting you to one way or the high way, instead of a range of possibilities? When does being steadfast no longer serve you? When does the ground become quicksand sucking the energy out of you?

A spiritual practice done frequently and intentionally, such as writing in your journal, walking a labyrinth, meditating, whatever you choose, is both a way to stay grounded and to clarify what grounds you and leads  you closer to the person you were created to be. A spiritual practice can also be the tool to help you recognize when you are more stuck than grounded. 

Spiritual refreshments are sometimes just outside our windows. Or on our roofs. Roofing is hard work, dangerous work, and I am grateful this job was completed safely. Watching the crew moving agily, confidently across the roof, reminded me that I can stay grounded, but I don't have to be stuck in one place or in one way of thinking or responding or being. Like the roofers, I can touch the sky.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

The View From the 23rd Floor

Recently, Bruce and I decided to rent an apartment downtown St Paul. Instead of going to a lake home on the weekends, we now have an "urban cabin," and in true Agneberg style, we have settled in quickly--pictures on the walls, shelf liner in the kitchen cabinets, and books in a new bookshelf. We have even entertained for the first time, although I am telling everyone I am not planning to do much cooking there. The grandkids gave me colorful measuring cups and spoons, however, so I do think an occasional batch of cookies will be in order. 

We have decided to take this step for several reasons.

1. I anticipate needing and wanting to go to Minnesota more frequently, as my father, who is almost 88, begins to cope with more issues of aging. Having our own place will make the coming and going easier. We have always stayed with our daughter and her family, and we loved doing that and never felt we were imposing. They have always been hospitable and thoroughly welcoming, but we take over our granddaughter's room and while she appreciates the $$ tip I leave under her pillow, at some point her room will be her castle, her sanctuary from little brother and disagreeable parents and friends she can't quite figure out. They have incredibly busy lives and having Mom and Dad come and come more often and maybe more spontaneously adds more to their schedule and To Do list. 

2. Our plan when Bruce retires is to move back to St Paul where we raised our kids and where the majority of family and friends still live. Having an apartment is a way to begin re-establishing a life there; a transition stage to fulltime life there and life as a retired couple. A way to get to know the metropolitan area again and what it has to offer us now that we are in our 60's. Having an apartment is a step up from "visiting," although it is still not quite living there. It is a way to road test what will be right for us and for our family when we do make this permanent change. At this stage of our life the opportunities for "do-overs" are not as obvious or as easy, and this decision feels like a way to become more sure of later and bigger decisions. When we lived in Ohio and more recently in Madison, our visits were jampacked and we never saw all the people we wanted to see and never had the chance to explore the area--go to the Guthrie Theatre or the arboretum, for example, but perhaps that will change a bit now that we have a home base.  

This is all quite new still, but Bruce keeps saying how right it feels, and I agree. At the same time I feel a bit cautious, for I don't want us to let go of our good life here.  My circle of women friends has increased and deepened in the last few months, and I am beginning to feel at home here in a way that is more profound than knowing my way around and having our home decorated the way we want it. I am not ready to let go of what we have been establishing in these 3 and a half years. When we do move to Minnesota, I want to miss Madison, our life here and our friends here, just as we miss our son and daughter-in-love and friends in Cleveland. I want reasons to return. 

An ongoing theme for me is finding the right balance. What I am balancing changes with time and situation, of course. Family and career. Time with friends and time with family. Exercising or reading a book. Solitude vs time with others. This is one more opportunity to listen and respond to my inner voice. 

3. Oh, and one more reason. It's fun !!! We are good at moving in and creating a homey space. We enjoy doing that and already our "urban cabin" feels like home.   

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Day on the Porch

Yesterday I sat on the front porch for almost the entire day. Now that's luxury. Even though the wind was almost visible in its unrelenting strength, I was protected on the porch. I had no need to go anywhere nor did inside the house tasks beckon me. I could spend the day on the porch--and I did.

After my usual morning routine of going to Curves and then walking throught the neighborhood and finally taking a shower and dressing for the day, I gathered my morning meditation materials and my breakfast smoothie (Blend 1 cup frozen strawberries, 1/2 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt, 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/4 cup water.) and settled in.

Always eager to discover what message my devotions would deliver, I often forget to center myself, to find the even rhythm of my breath, to become present to my body and to my environment. The wind, however, reached underneath the eaves and swept over my body and reminded me to become still. The wind was in charge of movement for the moment. Not me.  I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths and then with soft eyes I drank in the green of the tall grass among the trees across the street.  The whole range of greens, light and baby new greens, lettuce greens and Easter greens and "I just learned how to be green" greens.. Not quite the mature greens of summer yet.  I was ready to receive. I read the day's entry in Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening, and the next chapter in a book that is not a typical devotion book, but one that is giving me new perspectives on  speaking out and solitude and friendships,  A Life of One's Own, A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. The only problem with this book is that now I  yearn to return to Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and other books by her as well. Just when do I think I will do that? I wrote a brief entry in my journal, but most of the time I sat quietly and listened to the wind.

Soon my spiritual direction client arrived, saying as she came up the stairs that she hoped I would be on the porch enjoying the day. Instead of going to my office for our session, we sat on the porch aware that we were not alone, just as we are never alone, but this time the Creative Presence was the wind, whispering words of encouragement as we explored ways our spirituality is deepening and ways we are called to live a more spiritual life. Our time was blessed by the wind.

Later while I ate lunch and read, a young couple walking by stopped to chat. "Do you know anyone who is planning to sell their house soon? We are looking." Few homes are for sale in our neighborhood right now, but I thought what pleasant neighbors they would be, and I wished them well and remembered my many days of walking these blocks, hoping we could sell our farmhouse in Ohio and land here ourselves. Now here I am on our front porch.  May they find their home, too, I prayed.

The day progressed. I wrote a letter. I moved my laptop from my office to the porch and wrote some emails and did other miscellaneous desk tasks. I watered the plants and swept the porch floor. I watched children coming home from school--how many  days till school is out for the summer? I waved at people walking their dogs, and I overheard passing conversations from my almost secret location. A few days ago Bruce sat where I was now sitting and heard someone say, "I love this house. It looks so loved." High praise.

We ate our supper on the porch and caught up one another's days. Bruce finished planting his purchases from our trip to nurseries on Sunday. I returned to my reading--a book that may land on my "Favorite Books Ever" list, The Paper Garden, An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. I am 63. Perhaps my life's work is still ahead of me. The porch is a good place to have those kinds of thoughts.

Later, when night was falling, I went for a walk, returning to the "welcome home" porch lights. Reluctantly, I went inside and shut the front door.  My day on the porch was over.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Delicate Balance: The Past and the Present

What a weekend! Family and friends gathered at separate events to celebrate our granddaughter's first communion and our youngest niece's graduation from high school. Each event was joyous and marked a transition from one stage of life to another. In our granddaughter's case, she is now participating more fully in the life and practice of her church community, and as she said, "I get to have wine every week now." Our niece is leaving home and childhood and venturing forth bravely and enthusiastically to her college years.

The words from the Lutheran communion liturgy fill my heart:
"Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing. Gather a harvest of the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life. Gather the hopes and dreams of all; unite them with the prayers we offer. Grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come."   

Each celebration was an acknowledgment of the hopes and dreams we have for these special young women whom we love and adore. We gathered at not only the communion table, but at buffet tables, eating and drinking together as a sign of our connection to each other. We looked at each of these loving presences in our lives as hopeful signs of the future  and prayed whatever they encounter that they may always be surrounded by such visible love and support.

In the midst of the festivities, however, a question kept nagging me. How do we continue to live fully in the present when so much of our life is in the past, when we have so much to remember? What do we do with all the memories of past events, events that we have lived before more than once, and now the event is here all over again? Different people. Different times and settings, but the same event. High school graduation. First communions and confirmations and baptisms. Weddings. Births and deaths. Changes and transitions.

I was flooded with memories. For example, as I stood in my sister's dining room, I recalled our own dining room when our daughter, the mother of our granddaughter now, was graduating from high school. My sister was pregnant with the child who we were now celebrating.   I felt pulled back to that same event only all those years ago when I was the mother who had been baking for weeks and had been cleaning and redecorating in anticipation of a houseful of guests, using the occasion as the excuse. I thought about that whole senior year when I had been in tears for every last event. How was it possible that my daughter was old enough to graduate from high school? How is it now possible that she has a daughter old enough for first communion? How is it possible that the unborn child is now graduating from high school and that my younger sister is now facing empty nest? Did anyone notice as I oohed and aahed at the array of treats and the "Oh, the Places You'll Go" decorations in the dining room that I was not fully present, that I was in the past?

And then I walked into the family room, and there was my father sitting in what is known as the Papa Chair, and he seemed to be quietly observing all the fun and fanfare, just as he had sat and watched earlier that day at the lunch after church. I realized how much more the past dominates his days.  I don't know if he was thinking about other celebrations, the open houses he and Mom hosted for each of us  kids or others he attended over the years. Perhaps he was thinking about his own high school graduation. There is a lot of past in his present and who knows how much future.

One of the challenges of these added years is to stay engaged with the present. The memories and lessons of the past are valuable, for sure, and should not be discounted and in fact, can make us enjoy the present even more, but I think it is tempting to lose ourselves in the past with its memories and stories. One clue perhaps is to realize that this present moment is transforming itself into the past right now. In order to remember it all--how our granddaughter glowed as she received the cup of wine, and how surprised she was to receive presents, and the sound of our niece's voice as she said "This is my Aunt Nan and Uncle Bruce" to her friends, and how our young grandson was so at home in my sister's house--I need to stay present. I need to open my heart, along with my eyes and ears, and rejoice in the now.      

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Discernment II: The Gifts of Sun, Water, and Warm Breezes

True, I had many tasks to do at home, but when isn't that true? The nudging inside my head was getting louder, more agitated, scratchier, itchier, and I knew this day without rain, this day of sunshine,was calling me to the water. I packed up pens and colored pencils, my journal and a couple books, including Natalie Goldberg's Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, and the big sheets of sketching paper where I had brainstormed options for my next writing steps, and a new composition book with these words on the cover, "Then swing your window open, the one with the fresh air and good eastern light and watch for wings, edges, new beginnings."  I headed to the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace on the shore of Lake Mendota, where I could choose the color of my table (green) and the color of my chair (orange). A place where I could sit among students and professors and alumni and enjoy bits and pieces of conversation, but be comfortably anonymous. A place of accompanied solitude. A place where I could pick up the strands of my discernment process.    
What drove me to create this "set-aside" time was the desire to uncover my purpose in my current life. To move closer to knowing what it is I want to do, am supposed to do. To examine the questions rolling around in my head and heart. To reflect on responses from friends and family. To clear the way for answers, direction, the next step.
I began by just sitting. Breathing and allowing myself to enjoy being in this favorite place. A light breeze created ripples on the lake. A hazy sky obstructed the view across the lake, encouraging me to focus on what brought me there. I started writing all the questions, the options, muddled in my head, including "Should I continue trying to write for publication or should I write only for private and personal use?" "If I decide to continue to try to write for publication/for the public what form will that take?" "Should I focus on doing spiritual direction?" And many more. I could hardly write fast enough, exploring these questions. I wrote without rereading, and the time was productive, but not in the way I expected.
I thought I had so much to uncover, so much more that needed to be revealed, a need to dig deeper, but what I discovered instead was that it is time to lighten up. I remembered the words on my easel, "Wait, The light will come," and there I was siting in brilliant light. Lightness seemed to be the key.  My normal MO is to create a plan with clear cut steps and timelines and deadlines and that works well for me--most of the time.  But right now I am willing to take a lighter, easier approach. I know I want to continue to write, but the product, the outcome, feels less important right now. I feel less driven, less rigid. I am willing to let go of the book I have been working on for a long time--for now at least. I am more willing to think about that book as the way I worked through issues of grief and loss and was also the path to writing in a focused way. And for that I am most grateful. Therefore, I don't have a major plan. I will let a plan or plans emerge. I will live lightly with my writing. That doesn't mean NOT do it, but to do it within the context of my whole life.
I left the Terrace feeling a sense of abundance and buoyancy and of being and having enough. If I let go, there is still enough, and maybe even more.

Here are some questions for you:
* What do you do to discern?
* How do you make decisions?
* What helps you clear the space?
* How do you know when you have the answer?
* How do you know the difference between AN answer and THE answer?
I would love to hear your discernment experiences.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Discernment: A Controlled Burn

         Last summer I spent a month in Door County and along with the pleasures of being in a place I love and having friends and family come visit, I set aside that time to contemplate the next step in my writing. I was having doubts about the book I had been working on for such a long time. Should I continue or not? One question. One simple question. I brought the essays with me and the chunky notebook with ideas and notes and plans and bit by bit I reread everything and wrote in my journal and sat and thought and walked and thought. And prayed. 
Much to my surprise, the answer appeared quickly. "This is worth doing, but you need to write more essays than planned and you need to make this your focus." I wrote and edited while I was there. I started working on a book proposal, and I returned home with high hopes and energy. I cleared the space, and the fall and winter were productive times for me.  
Well, it is discernment time once again, and this time there is more than one key question. And this time it doesn't feel as simple. I submitted my book proposal to a publisher and have been in conversation with the vice president of editorial and production, and her suggestion is to totally restructure the book. Now, first of all, let me say, how thrilled I am to even have someone take an interest in my material and to have a door open even a little bit, but her suggestion plummeted me into a muddle of questions--some were obvious (Should I do as suggested or not?) and some were hidden in some foggy place where I didn't want to go--about myself as a writer and about the material. And about purpose.  I allowed myself some time to wail and wallow and then moved into a time of intentional discernment. 
Fortunately, guides appear when they are needed. Most notably, two books. One is The Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit by Christina Baldwin and the other is Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way by Nancy L. Bieber.  These books offer gentle words of wisdom ("Move at the Pace of Guidance." "Wait. Let the light come.") and strategic questions ("What do you want me to do?" and "How do I need to change in order to do it?"). An attitude of willingness is encouraged. I am willing. Not I am willing to do x, y, or z, but simply I am willing. 
          "I am willing. What do you want me to do?"  
No answer. Darn it!  So many questions and possibilities were percolating in my head--popcorn kernals getting hot and ready to pop. Reading, meditating, and writing in my journal are my preferred strategies, but I needed something more.  
I spread several pieces of large sketching paper on my desk and got out my colored pencils and started mapping, seeing where one idea led and what other ideas opened up in front of me. Arrows and circles and lines and stars flowed across the papers. Lots of ideas. More questions. But no clear answer.
          "I am willing. What do you want me to do?"
A few weeks ago a controlled burn was conducted across the street from our house. I watched the team set underbrush on fire, dowsing the flames almost before they were allowed to burn, preparing the space for desired new growth. Already it is hard to tell where the burn occurred. I think discernment is like that. The burn needs to occur. The brush needs to be cleared away in order for there to be new growth and when the next step or steps are known, there will be only memory of what was there before. I'm trying to remember that. I am trying to be willing.   

Friday, April 1, 2011

And Then There Was One

The van pulled up in front of the house and the doors slid open and out popped energy in the form of our two grandchildren: Maren who is 8 and Peter who is 3. Mom Kate seemed more relieved than energized to have arrived and who could blame her, for four and a half hours is a long time to be the only adult in a car with two children, but they are excellent travellers, and she was fully prepared with snacks and entertainment. They had listened enraptured the whole time to a CD of Charlotte's Web, and Peter immediately told me about the pig and the spider. Maren was a bit more blase', pointing out that this was Peter's first time to hear the story, but she, of course, had read the book before. Hugs and kisses were shared all round, and the unpacking and settling in began. Within minutes, the house was full of books and toys and games and happy voices and movement--and shoes and boots. 

Then after a fun-filled weekend, Kate packed up the van with Pete and some of the boots and shoes and left Maren here for her week of spring break.
Over the course of the next few days we went to the zoo, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa ( a real treasure) and the Children's Museum here in Madison. Bruce and Maren became the puzzle masters and put together a 1000 piece puzzle on the dining room table. Since the weather prohibited much outdoor time, we created our own film festival and watched Night at the Museum II, The Parent Trap II, Miss Potter and a Little Women--thumbs up for each one. We even went to see the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie. The week was full of activities along with plenty of reading time and sleeping time and just plain hanging out time. Pure delight. Eventually, it was time to return the girl to her rightful owners and on Monday morning Bruce was back at work, and the only shoes in the entry way were mine. Sigh!

Since Maren has gone home and I have returned to my solitary routines and tasks, I have been thinking about my own grandmothers, Grandma Hansen and Grandma Jensen. My memories of my grandmothers are more vivid than those of my grandfathers, even though they were both alive when I was growing up. Perhaps it is because both men were quiet. I was the first grandchild on both my mother's and my father's side, and I was blessed to have lots of grandparent time. I loved spending time with them, but to some extent my experiences were quite different than Maren's. Before she comes Bruce and I brainstorm ideas--where should we take her and what should we do? He schedules vacation time, and I try to finish projects before she comes, for I know I won't spend hours at my desk writing. We eagerly await her arrival and can hardly wait to tell her what we have planned.

When I visited my grandparents, I was quite simply folded into their lives.The work days proceeded and I was just there. I sat on the steps to the cellar while Grandma Hansen crated the eggs she would sell. I picked strawberries in her garden and took lunch out to the field where Grandpa Hansen was working. When Grandpa died and Grandma moved into town, I walked with her to the drugstore where she worked and to the cemetary where Grandpa was buried. We baked cookies and cut out paper dolls and made Christmas ornaments--hundreds of sequins on styrofoam balls. I remember grocery shopping with Grandma Jensen and sitting next to her in church and on a hot summer evening having a special treat, a Black Cow, root beer with vanilla ice cream. I loved her pecan rolls and her pile of magazines. In the afternoon she would stretch out on her couch and read and I would sit on the floor and read, too.

Ordinary events, but an extraordinary feeling of being loved and protected and cherished. That's what I want Maren and Peter to feel, too. I want them to remember being wrapped in love and acceptance. More than the special field trips, I suspect what they will remember most about times with us are the ordinary times--all of us reading in the living room or walking to the park and hearing the sandhills or snuggling in bed in the morning or playing Sorry or Clue after supper. Maybe Maren will remember how she arranges the vintage holiday candles on top of the cupboard in the kitchen or that there were always homemade cookies in the apple cookie jar. Pete will soon have his own set of memories.

The Big Events are great fun, but the real gifts come in the little touches, the soft conversations and the teasing and the giggles, and simply the time to be together. May there be many more of these times.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

Re-Entry: Reflection and Integration

I'm home! After a week of varied activities and sleeping in three different beds, I am home. I have unpacked my bags, done the laundry, read the mail and newspapers, grocery shopped, and answered emails. This morning I resumed my normal morning schedule--went to Curves, walked the neighborhood, and spent time in meditation and devotions--and now it is time to return to my writing life. I love the rhythm of re-entry with its restoration and reinstatement of routine, but the context for the routine has shifted slightly, for there are now additional memories and experiences to integrate into who I am and what I do.

During this time away I wore many hats: friend, daughter, sister, mother, GrandNan, student, and writer. A lot was packed into one week, and even though I am grateful to once again have quiet time here at my desk, I miss the vitality of those days with their interactions and conversations and especially, the hugs and sweet kisses from the grandkids, Maren and Peter.

The world is not the same as it was when I loaded my car and drove to St Paul a little over a week ago. The infamous budget bill here in Wisconsin has been passed, but the protests have not ended, and Japan has been rocked by earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant destruction. Suffering and death. Transformative shifts. Endings and beginnings, although not immediately apparent. High emotions and less than obvious next steps. Feelings of helplessness and also awe at the resilience of humanity. Opportunities to express compassion and to realize our best selves. How do we do that? I am not sure, but I offer the metaphor of the kaleidoscope, thanks to an anonymous writer at the "Awakening the Soul of the Writer" conference I attended this weekend.

"The kaleidoscope is a wonderful metaphor for the creative process because this instrument allows us to twist reality into new patterns. In the kaleidoscope a set of fragments form a pattern, but it isn't locked into place. Reality, the kaleidoscope tells us, is only a temporary arrangement. Creativity consists of rearranging the pieces to create a new reality."

The pieces have been rearranged. Pieces are rearranged every day. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, too. In that awareness there is hope, along with mystery. In that knowledge there is opportunity for renewal, repair, and even rebirth. Each change, each rearrangement is a kind of re-entry, a chance for reconciliation and resurrection. How we each choose to do that is an expression of essential creativity.

Monday, February 28, 2011

From Artist Date to the Capitol Steps

As is often the case, going on an Artist Date leads me to the next step. In this case the Wisconsin capitol steps. After my afternoon of watching eagles play above the gleaming, glowing water, I knew it was time for me to be a participant, instead of just observer and commentator. It was time to go to the capitol myself and be part of the crowd. I wanted to be counted. I also didn't want to look back in years to come and know I was there, but I wasn't THERE.

As I approached the capitol and saw the throngs of people and heard the drums and chants and saw signs waving and noticed the diversity of people, I felt tears form. I was proud of each person who had made the decision to be part of the number. An old couple, 80 or so, I suspect, holding gloved hands and walking slowly on the edge of the marchers. Children, some in strollers who will have no memory of being there, but their parents and grandparents will tell them about their first march on the capitol. Firefighters led by bagpipers. Students, immigrants, teachers, teachers, and more teachers and workers for whom this is not the first struggle. I heard Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, leading the crowd in I Had a Hammer, his voice thinner and not as strong as in years past, but the heart beating for justice is just as steady. I heard a speaker wonder why it was ok for the governor to accept money from contributors outside the state, and yet he is opposed to people from other states coming to support the protest.

We may not have all chosen to be there for the same reason, and many have immediate and personal concerns that need to be addressed, but I suspect we all would agree on one thing. We were there to peacefully, but clearly reinforce our belief in democracy and to participate in our rights as citizens to remind our elected officials that they work on our behalf. I look forward to spring when I will again walk around the capitol square buying fresh produce at Madison's amazing Farmers' Market, but Saturday, February 26, 2011 was a good day to be there, too.
NOTE: A comment for this post refers to the word "KILL" on the sign in the picture. I almost didn't use this picture for that reason and should have explained the sign. The sign says "KILL the Bill," but that isn't clear in the picture.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An Artist Date for Politicians and Protesters

This morning I printed the second draft of the essay I am currently writing, and the temptation to begin editing and revising, cutting and scratching and red pencilling and pacing and sighing and tearing my hair out is high, but I promised myself that I would step back and take a break from the thinking and the writing. Julia Cameron in her famous book The Artist Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, recommends--no, insists on--a weekly two-hour block of time set aside to nurture your creativity. The Artist Date. The purpose of the Artist Date is to open yourself to inspiration, insight, and guidance--and to do it alone.

That's what I am going to do today. I have decided to drive along the Wisconsin River to a small town with a little restaurant I enjoy where I can see the water and I hope spot some eagles while I have lunch. I am taking my journal and a book or two (or three) and a couple letters to answer, but maybe I will just sit and breathe and see what I see and hear what I hear and open to receive. I will probably eat a cookie, too.

I think that's what all the politicians and protesters and I might add, all the media people, too, should do. And they should all do it at the same time--and no cheating. A moratorium. A time to meditate and turn off the noise and find some peace and calm and listen for guidance. I am convinced nothing truly wise can come from the current confusion and overload of messages and points and corrections and "he said, she said." I suspect not much listening is happening across the battle lines--certainly not deep listening with the intention of understanding. Listening well takes time, skill, and a willingness to slow down, to let go of expectations, judgments, boredom, self-assertiveness and self-righteousness, and defensiveness, and that can't happen unless we clear the way inside of ourselves for the room to listen. That's where the time-out comes in. Without the time-out exhaustion will overwhelm and the consequences of exhaustion, the inability to think clearly and act prudently, are dire.

Kay Lindahl has written what I think are the definitive books on listening (The Sacred Art of Listening and Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening) and her view is that when people experience being listened to in a spiritual and deep way, they also begin to listen that way themselves. Wouldn't that be a good thing?

Obviously, I know an Artist Date holiday is not going to be declared here in Wisconsin, but you, my friend, can declare it for yourself and who knows what possibilities, what answers, what next steps, what enlightenment will occur because of it. Time for me to go--I have a date, an Artist Date.

PAUSE. I am back feeling refreshed and content--and thrilled, for I saw many eagles enjoying the sunshine perched in a tree on Eagle Island and soaring their own version of a flight plan over the water and into the hills beyond.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading Newspapers as Spiritual Practice

I have not always been a faithful newspaper reader, except for an addiction to the Sunday New York Times, especially the book review. I prefer to get the bulk of my news through National Public Radio, both local and national programs. However, depending on what is happening in the world, I do spend time reading daily newspapers, but I have never been someone who starts the day with coffee and the paper. Typically, I spend a chunk of my morning reading a selection from a spiritual text, writing in my journal, and praying or meditating. Well, given what is happening in Wisconsin right now, it feels imperative to include time for reading both our local paper as well as the Times.

This morning as I was reading the paper, I found what I was looking for in an op-ed piece by Phil Haslanger, a Methodist pastor in Fitchburg, WI. He quotes Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads Sojourners, a national network of progressive Christians working for justice and peace. "When I read the Gospels, the narrative is clear: Defend the poor and pray for the rich. But our political leaders have taken to defending the rich, and if the poor are lucky, they might get a prayer."

I sat with those words for a few minutes, closing my eyes, breathing slowly in and out, holding all those who suffer in my heart. When I opened my eyes and returned to the moment, an ordinary Wednesday morning sitting at my kitchen desk, I realized reading the morning papers was becoming a spiritual practice for me, the Christian practice of lectio divina or "sacred reading." One of my favorite spiritual writers Jan L. Richardson in her book In the Sanctuary of Women, A Companion for Relfection and Prayer says, "Lectio invites us to take a small bite of a text--a few verses or perhaps just a few words--and slowly chew on them, ponder them, and pray with them until they give up something that will provide sustenance for our soul and nourishment for our work in the world."

Most often lectio is applied to the reading of scriptures, but it need not be limited in that way nor does it need to be practiced in a Christian context. We can each read more mindfully, allowing the words to move within us, becoming alive for us, transforming into a new or changed or augmented perspective. This kind of reading can lead to new understandings as well as additional questions to be explored. For example, I have pulled my copy of Jim Wallis's book God's Politics, Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It off my office shelves and opened it to "Part IV, Spiritual Values and Economic Justice. " I will study more, knowing that often a result of practicing lectio divina is commitment and action. It seems to me practicing lectio divina can also lead to deeper listening; something that seems to be missing in the heat of the current crisis.

A blessing from Richardson, "Among the most familiar words, may God open you to new worlds."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Maintaining Peace in Wisconsin

I am no longer surprised to see stories about the protests in Madison, WI on the front page of the New York Times or to hear reports about the day's activities here in Madison as the lead story on national broadcast news. After all, marches and demonstrations are not that unusual here in Madison since both the the state capitol and University of Wisconsin's main site are located here. I am not surprised that feelings are high on both sides and that emotions are sometimes disguised as facts. The issues are complicated and the stakes are high, and I have no idea what the solution should be, but I know that even in this time of attacks and counterattacks there is room for peace and compassion.

Saturday my women's spirituality group met, and the topic planned long before the protests started was "Maintain Peace of Mind," based on a chapter from Christina Baldwin's The Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit, a book I reread frequently for its deep levels of wisdom. Our group was eloquent in sharing distress and concerns about the current situation, and I was grateful to have a safe place for reflection and exploration. To open our discussion we used a breathing exercise. One breath to let go. One breath to be here. One breath to ask now what? For some the exercise was difficult--hard to let go of the turmoil and the sadness. For others it confirmed the need for commitment and action. For others it raised questions of how to respond. I had been immersed in writing most of the previous week, working on an essay about the spiritual invitations of illness, and barely lifted my head away from the computer screen to think about my own response. However, I knew I supported the teachers and other public workers, and that I believe in the ongoing need for collective bargaining. My morning prayer time included petitions for both sides to dialogue with each other and heartfelt gratitude for the lack of violence, especially as the number of protesters and the days of no school increased.

Almost as if I were on retreat, I had kept silence most of the week, staying at my desk for hours on end. At the end of the day when it was time to emerge, I unconsciously felt I might lose the words and the thoughts waiting to appear in my essay if I interacted, if I broke silence. I was listening for the right words, even as I chopped and stirred ingredients for dinner and even as I turned on the news, I found it difficult to turn my attention away from my writing. During the breathing exercise in our group, however, the word that came to me was "enough," as in "You are enough." "You have enough." "There is enough to go around." I have never been a good multi-tasker, and I prefer to finish one thing before starting another--not very realistic, I know. What the breathing exercise helped me unpack was how often I operate from a place of lack, of shortage, of not enough to go around. Instead I was reminded of the abundance of peace even in the midst of uncertainty.

Baldwin says, "Peace is all around me; my job is to bring my mind to peace." I tend to think that peace is an inner quality only, and I fear losing the ability to stay peaceful and focused and to do what I have chosen to do and yes, what I feel is a call. Baldwin reminds me that peace is also external and urges us each to define a practice of inviting peace of mind into our lives, our world. "That's the thing --to extend the invitation for divine sensation to present itself; to remember to prepare ourselves to walk the day in a spiritual manner, and then to listen, and to the best of our abilities to do as we are told. "

Even as conflict seems to predominate, peace is present in some form. It is our task to recognize it, invite it, integrate it, and magnify it. And then there will be enough.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winter Invitations

True, we are experiencing a major thaw here in Madison with temperatures of 50 degrees, but it is still February, and we know winter will make another strong appearance sooner rather than later. Therefore, it is not too late to think about how winter can enhance your spirituality. I am working on an essay right now about the spiritual invitations of sickness and what spiritual practices might be possible and helpful during a challenging time. In reality spiritual practices are not limited to a particular time of life or season, but the beginning of the year and the winter months suggest possibilities for expanding one's use of spiritual tools. Here are some ideas.

Create a collage to discover the year's focus or themse. Title and date your collage. Write your reflections about the process and note what was revealed. (See my earlier post about my end of the year collage.) HINTS: Take photographs or collect images, words, and other matierals and objects for additional collages during the coming year. Use a bulletin board or your refrigerator foor as an ongoing collage.

Consult your calendar. Each time you check your calendar, electronic or paper, pause to express gratitude, offer a blessing, or recall a memory. Consider adding a brief note of explanation on the calendar itself. For example, write "healthy teeth," in appreciation of your dentist's skills when you note your next appointment. HINT: USe that extra gift calendar as a mini-journal.

Study. Select a topic, such as compassion and expore it deeply, reflectively, contemplatively. What interests or puzzles you? Forgiveness? Happiness? World religions? Eating locally? Current child-rearing theories? Do you have a spiritual hero? Gather a variety of materials and open your heart to the topic's spiritual lessons. HINT: Create a space to use as your study sanctuary. A comfortable chairs with a good light will do.

Build a fire. Bake bread. Cook soup. Wash dishes. How does your body feel as you carry the wood to the fireplace or punch down the risen dough? Be aware of your senses as you stir the pot and steam blurs your vision or when you immerse your hands into hot, almost prickly water. Do memories arise? Breathe in the fire, earth, air, and water energy. In what area of your life do you most need renewal and how can these homely tasks restore you? HINT: Invite guests to share a meal. Relax and tell stories in front of the fire.

Open to winter. Watch and feed the birds. Invite them to be your spiritual teachers. Bundle up and walk. Notice winter changes. Winter's beauty. Respond to people who sent you hoiday cards or check on those who didn't communicate this year. Try a favorite childhood winter activity, such as ice skating, sledding or make a snowman!FINAL HINT: Most any activity or experience can be a spiritual practice when you approach it with mindfulness and a commitment to deepen your spirituality. My prayer for you is that winter is a time of many blessings for you.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bringing Mom Home

A Warning: I am feeling a bit muddled, a bit conflicted, and a bit sad, and I suspect this post will reflect all that, but I know that writing helps me clarify my tangled emotions and also helps me clear a space for a next step. Thanks for your patience.

After my mother died almost 8 years ago, my father wanted me to take a number of my Mom's treasures, and I was happy to do so. As she was dying, she told me about some specific things she wanted me to have, including a collection of brown and white English transferware dishes, which I have showcased in an old painted cupboard in our dining room and use lovingly and carefully. In fact, there are touches of my mother throughout our home--many antiques she and Dad collected over the years, and I love having them as part of our decor. Well, Dad is now urging me, and I assume my sister and brother also, to take more things, saying he wants us to have what we would like to have now. Before, when Dad has urged us to go through her purses or the Christmas decorations one more time, I have suggested we say "thank you" and then take something and put it in a bin and not worry about it. This time I had a hard time following my own advice. Now why is that?

* I am a major collector with excellent antiquing buddies, including my husband. Bruce and I have loved roaming back roads and finding small towns with antique shops. Over the years we explored Ohio that way and now are doing the same thing here in Wisconsin, although not buying to the same degree because--you guessed it--WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF! Not only do we have too much stuff, but we don't have a barn where excess can be stored. The summer before we moved to Madison, even before we knew that was a possibility, we had a series of garage sales and worked hard to eliminate, to strip ourselves of some layers. Even so WE HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF! True, my stuff is well organized and I love to decorate for the seasons, but still I am overwhelmed by the width and depth of what I have. Instead of this being a time of acquisition, I prefer to think of the 60's as a time for shedding and sorting and simplifying. Now how do I do that if I add additional layers? Plus, we anticipate moving to St Paul in a few years when Bruce retires, and we know that move will mean a smaller home. Where will I put the bins of Mom's cut glass and handpainted china?

* Yes, I know --this is not just about stuff. This is about grieving. As much as it sometimes bothers me to see how stuffed Dad's house is and what a shrine to mother it is, I guess I don't want it to change. As long as I can open the closet in what used to be my room and see the few remaining party clothes Mom wore for special occasions and as long as I can still catch a breath of her Estee Lauder smell, then I can pretend for just a moment that she is still present. Over the years my sister and I have made a few changes in the house, not to erase Mom, but to bring more of my Dad into the house--his books in the family room book case, and his collection of Kuchina dolls on the mantel, and for the most part he has appreciated those efforts, but I still want to walk into the dining room and see the collection of colored glass pieces--cranberry, pink, green, lemon yellow, purple--reflecting the day's sunlight. I want to peek into the living room, which was only in use on holidays, and see the little enamelware boxes on her desk, a desk never used for writing letters or paying bills. I want her there, and furthermore, not only is my grieving unfinished, but I am anticipating the loss of my father. I can hardly bear that thought.

I did as my Dad asked, not wanting to hurt his feelings, and I picked out a few more things to bring home with me. Yet another purse, a beautifully framed print of birds which I hung in the guest bathroom, two figurines, two plates, one with a sticker on the back that said "Nancy," because we gave it to her once, a cut glass perfume bottle from her collection on her dresser, and a couple framed pictures--one of her as a little girl and one of mom and dad when they visited us at the farm. None of these treasures are hidden away in a bin in our storage room. I have somehow found places for them all. That will not always be the case, I know.

What am I learning? Well, for one thing I am relearning the lesson that the grief is simply always there, lying in wait for me to notice it. Most of the time it is a shadow and sometimes even a comfort that I have not forgotten, but sometimes it stabs me and I know how real it is. So be it. That's the way love is.

I am also more determined to clear my own decks; to make good decisions about what I really want to keep at least for now. That is an ongoing process, but one that needs to be in motion all the time. The new blouse in and two out rule, for example. Furthermore, I want our kids to have what they want, but I don't expect them to love everything we have amassed. We've loved decorating our home with our treasures, but that's the key, they are OUR treasures.

Sometimes help comes in unexpected places. On our way home from St Paul this past weekend I read a recent Better Homes and Gardens magazine while Bruce was driving and read a hint: take a photo of an item that may have sentimental value but you no longer want and put it in a scrapbook and then dispose of it. Sorry, Mom, but at some point I am going to have lots of photographs!!!! In the meantime, I will say "thank you," and bring a bit more of Mom home.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Place to Write

This morning I sat at my Lady's Writing Desk in our bedroom to write a note on a sympathy card. This past month I have started my Saturday mornings sitting at this desk and writing letters. I use a fountain pen I bought many years ago in New Orleans, and I choose a note card and complementary writing paper to fit the occasion and the personality of the person who will receive the letter. Because of my extensive email exchanges, I don't spend as much time here at this desk as I have in the past. I used to pay bills at this desk, but I tend now to do that at the desk in the kitchen. I used to write in my journal at this desk, but most of the time now I sit in a comfortable chair with books piled around me. This is also the desk where I wrote the first drafts of essays for a potential book, and where I have planned content for groups I have led and classes I have taught, but now the majority of my writing time is spent at the harvest table in my lower level office. That's where the laptop and printer, files, and, of course, my library are located. But somehow handwritten correspondence, especially a note of sympathy, requires sitting at my Lady's Writing Desk.

I suspect part of the reason I don't sit more frequently at the writing desk with its slots for files and papers and its cubbies for inkwells and pens and pencils and other treasures is its current location. In our farmhouse in Ohio, I sat at my desk and looked out at our front gardens with roses and lavender and peonies in the summer. I kept track of the season's transitions, thanks to the impressive willow tree across the road. The last tree to let go of its leaves in the fall and the first to hint of spring with whispers of yellow on its wispy branches. I noted footprints across the otherwise unbroken snow--rabbits and deer. Occasionally, I glimpsed the albino red-tail hawk whose territory we lived in. I stopped whatever I was doing when I caught sight of a white wing dipping and then soaring, for hawk is a messenger symbol, and I would pause to listen for inner guidance. While sitting at my Lady's Writing Desk, I could hear Bruce open the back door home from his day of work, and I could see a spiritual direction client arrive for a monthly session and have a moment to inhale and exhale a prayer for openness.

Now when I sit at my Lady's Writing Desk my back is to a window and my view is limited to the master bedroom. Recently, all the rooms on the second floor were painted, and I wondered without success if my desk could find another location. This truly is the best place for the desk in this house, and that is fine, for when I am at this desk now I am accompanied by memories of all the previous hours sitting there. I think about all the letters written there--all the relationships in my life. Those that remain and those that have ended for one reason or another. Once an intuitive told me that when I sit down to write at that desk that a Victorian English woman stands at my right shoulder. She had wanted to be a writer, but now wants to encourage me in my work. I ask for her blessing every time I write--no matter where I write. I think she likes the Lady's Writing Desk the best, however. I like being there, too, and decide to spend more time in that quiet and comforting space.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Further Notes on Compassion

The title of the book makes it sound easy, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. However, "Twelve Step" programs of any kind are never easy, can't be easy, and having read many books by the author, Karen Armstrong, I know this book will be no superficial 1,2, 3. Armstrong is one of my spiritual heroes, a former nun, who has dedicated her life to the spiritual practice of study and writing about world religions. Reading her books is always an intellectual exercise, but her books also lead me to deeper, wider places in my spiritual life. This book is no exception. Last year the word of the moment seemed to be "happiness," and many books appeared on that topic. Perhaps the new word is "compassion" --may it be so, and may Karen Armstrong lead the way.

A memory of Karen Armstrong. I have heard her speak at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York many times and have always been moved by her content and her clarity and conciseness. One hot summer afternoon I was also moved by her compassion. After her talk, a man came to the microphone to ask her a question, a question that included reference to her personal appearance. His comments were not kind. A rumble of shock and disapproval moved through the audience, audible murmurs of "What has this to do with anything?" I could sense a group intake of breath, waiting for Armstrong's response. I can't recall specifically what she said, but I know it was tolerant. It was kind. It was gentle. It was compassionate. Armstrong seemed to listen below the words, to go beyond what was said to what was meant, to the meaning she could extract in relationship to her topic. Interestingly, I have no memory of what that topic was. Instead, I only remember that man and his rashly unkind remark. I felt no compassion for him--only for Armstrong who appeared not to need my compassion. What she felt in her heart, I have no way of knowing. Perhaps she struggled with what he said and the fact that it was said in front of a large public audience, but my belief is that she called upon her better self and rinsed the words with compassion. I suspect she used that incident to learn about and integrate compassion into her own life.

So far I have only read the introduction and two chapters in Armstrong's new book; a book she encourages the reader to read in its entirety and then go back and apply the steps to one's own life. Here are two key points from the first two chapters, "Learn about Compassion," and"Look at Your Own Word":

Each of the world's religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos. You will find that this in itself will enable you to expand your sympathies and begin to challenge some of the preconceptions that separate us from "the other." (pp. 63-64)

...the family is a school of compassion because it is here that we learn to live with other people...nearly every day there is something to forgive. Instead of seeing this as an irritant, we should see these tensions as opportunities for growth and transformation...Creating a compassionate family life is one of the ways in which we can all make a constructive contribution to a more empathetic society in the future. (pp. 68-69, 71)

I invite you to become a student of compassion. Resources abound. Begin by reading the excellent and thoughtful comments to my previous post. Check out Armstrong's website Another excellent book is Compassion, Listening to the Cries of the World by the Buddhist teacher, Christina Feldman. Note when you feel compassion and when it is lacking.

"We all have the seeds of love and compassion in our minds, and we can develop these fine and wonderful sources of energy. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Let's continue the conversation.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Learning Compassion

Ah, how painful and shocking the reports from Arizona have been and how we rejoiced yesterday with the news that Gabrielle Giffords has opened her eyes and squeezed her husband's hand. Unfortunately, the deep grief known by the families and friends of those who died will not lessen any time soon, but also, unfortunately, such events will happen again. We experience violence over and over again and wonder publicly and privately what we can do. Yes, we should express our desire for a change in the gun purchasing laws and we should hold our politicians and media professionals accountable for what is said and written, but I know I have deeper inner work to do; the work of developing a broader, more encompassing, more accessible compassionate heart.

The other morning while I was working out at Curves, the topic of worry was discussed. One woman knows she is a Big Time worrier and another said she is at the other end of the worry scale. She stated that she is able to accept people and situations as they are. I congratulated her, but she wondered if she lacks empathy. She is not often judgmental, but on the other hand she says she lacks compassion.

I try to be aware of when I am in a judging mode--and we hear a lot of that when there is a human tragedy that upsets and startles us. Why didn't someone...? Shouldn't they have...? How could this have happened? My hope, instead, is to decrease the amount of top of the head judging I do so often, and my assumption has been that if I can just be less judgmental I will automatically be more compassionate. I haven't thought enough about how to activate the compassion I know is in my heart; how to cultivate compassion as my standard operating procedure. I do believe, however, that by eliminating the prison of judgmental thoughts, we make more room for compassion, but it is then up to each of us to develop the skill of being compassionate.

Here's what Joyce Rupp in Open the Door, A Journey to the True Self offered me during one of my morning meditation times this week:

The further we enter our authentic self, the greater the contribution of our presence in the world. Within the confines of our inner sanctuary, fuller love arises and keener awareness grows of how intimately connected we are to all that exists. We become a nonjudgmental, listening, caring presence. Rather than engendering fear or animosity in us the vast diversity of people with whom we engage enlarges our compassion and broadens our enthusiasm for the complex and mysterious nature of humanity.

She further encourages me to "anoint the world with your love." My prayer is that we all become students of compassion, extending it especially when it is hardest to give.

Artwork by Jan L. Richardson