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

Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Year Ritual

I was itchy the last few days of 2010. Perhaps it was the weather. What sounded like rain was actually snow dripping from the roof ,and even though the temperatures were mild, the air was damp, and the piles of snow were dirty and crusty. Used. This was no March wind, however, no wind of change announcing a just around the corner spring, and that was fine with me, for I love winter, but WINTER--not whatever this was. And so I scratched and paced and did a little something here and a little something there. I contemplated putting away the Christmas decorations, but didn't really want to move into that worse before it gets better stage just yet. I read. I wrote thank you notes. I ironed. I walked to get the mail. I waited. I was waiting for the new year, 2011.
It's not that 2010 is a year I want to forget and leave behind--far from it. Instead, I simply felt "in-between" with one foot in 2010, symbolized by the house's Christmas wardrobe and one hand extended towards 2011, new calendars within reach and resolutions and intentions forming on my lips. How often we talk about the need to open a new door, to step across a threshold, and in fact, one of my current devotion books, The Open Door, A Journey to the True Self by Joyce Rupp, is devoted to that topic, but she doesn't ignore the need to close some doors as a way to enhance our transformational process. In order to open the door to 2011, I needed to pull 2010's door shut behind me. It was time for a ritual.
I have a bulletin board in my office and over the year I tack up cards, and pictures, and sayings and any this and that with appeal to my creative or reflective side. By the end of the year the board is layered and only hints of color or shape indicate what was placed there in January and February. The accumulation, the haphazard composition, begged to be transformed into collage.
Angeles Arrien says ritual is "recognizing a life change, and doing something to honor and support the change," and Barbara Biziou says ritual means taking the time to "stop and bless what we have." Stripping the bulletin board of all the visual reminders of the year gone by and then creating something new and tangible and permanent was my way to honor the past year and to reflect on themes and avenues of discovery along the way.

I lit a candle and got out the scissors and glue sticks and spread everything from the bulletin board on my harvest table desk. I looked at each item. The reason some things found a place on the memory board was obvious -- pictures of friends and family, notes from my granddaughter, birthday greetings--but sometimes not. Was the picture of tulips included just because it was pretty and if so, isn't pretty enough? I remembered and enjoyed and paused to give thanks, and as I cut and then pasted into a large looseleaf sketchbook, I engaged with the gifts and pleasures of 2010.

Eventually, I filled 4 pages and now have a picture of the past year. Not a complete one nor an objective one and not one that will be recognizable to anyone else, but pages that remind me that each year adds to who I am. Each year moves me to the next one, like turning to the next page, or starting with a clean, bulletin board.

More and more life is becoming one of endings, of saying goodbye, of surrendering, of letting go, and beginnings are a bit harder to come by. Creating a year-end collage is a way to transition--to note the pleasures, along with the pains and to remind myself that the emptiness, the receptivity of the clean bulletin board with its room for growth and discovery and yet more memories is just as sacred as what has been.