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.