The Season of Black and White

DSCF3627Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to process a few photos taken this week and realized there was nothing new coming from my camera. The late winter landscape still offers the same colorless views.

DSCF3632The occasional red of cardinals is startling. There should be some kind of protective eyewear to withstand it. When cardinals flash in front of me, it reminds of the Polaroid bulbs of my childhood. I stare and readjust my eyes as red spots continue to superimpose themselves on everything, then dissolve, and my eyes readjust to the safe, known, black and white.

DSCF3718Regardless of one’s theological beliefs, this season’s lack of color seems to draw the spirit deeper within, the invitations for exploring our journeys and straightening their flow, or clarifying how and why they turn and twist, and where we’d like them to self-correct follow a natural path, in accordance with nature. The absence of sensuous distractions offers peaceful encouragement and the thoughtful presence of silence to companion our introspection.

DSCF3629As winter pulls us into deeper stillness, how natural it seems to devote greater effort to cleansing, reaffirming, and lightening our spirit through honest examination, forgiveness, and a recommitment of our energy to the gifts we’ve been given, and a journey that more honestly offers them, in service, to the world.

DSCF2459This is my time of year for assessing my journey’s progress and charting where I’d like my spirit to grow and flow in the months ahead. All around me, others are steering their own crafts, according to beliefs that guide them through the great ocean of life.

DSCF2481May we forgive ourselves and each other the grievances caused by our shortcomings and any clumsiness, rigidity, blindness, or cruelties that have clouded our ability to offer love or receive it.

May we hear the invitations for introspection and self-correction offered in these seasons of black and white, and bless the world with the colors they will resurrect in our hearts, allowing our own and other’s spirits to be authentically renewed and to blossom, fully.

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Joyfully Wrinkled

unnamed (1)Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.  ~ Mother Teresa

We receive a weekly magazine that rounds up the news of the world, condenses it, offers helpful graphics, and adds a collection of art, film, restaurant and book reviews in a reasonably tidy and fairly impartial fashion. On one page, in a sidebar, it offers a few tidbits from tabloids, I think in an effort to leaven all the “serious” updates reminding us that the world is dark and dangerous.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a paragraph about a British woman, now 50, who has avoided smiling “for the last 40 years…to ward off wrinkles.” She says she didn’t smile when her child was born, nor at family celebrations or gatherings with friends, insisting her lack of facial wrinkles has made these efforts worthwhile.

I guess this silliness, which I might otherwise have dismissed with a laugh (deepening my own considerable wrinkles), has lingered in my thoughts because it’s reminded me how many times smiles have made a difference in my life.

DSCF6412Like many women my age, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy offering care to dependent, or dying members of my various tribes, those chosen and inherited, and I’m so grateful for the times a smile has saved my spirit, utterly.

It’s hard to believe in a world where people insist everything costs something, but a smile has more potential power to change a life than few things, if any thing, money can buy. I know this was true for my mother, during all the long years she cared for my father following his stroke. She would tell me story after story of the kindnesses friends and strangers had offered that brightened her days, which could be very dark indeed. And when a nurse, or doctor, or insurance adjuster or gas station attendant–whoever intersected her hectic, often harrowing days—shared a smile, it seemed to ease her burdens so profoundly that she’d “save” these stories to tell me when I visited her.

013Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.  ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

And there are so very many times each day that my family, friends, 4-leggeds, students, observations, memories, and views from the window or along the trail invite my smiles that I can’t imagine holding back the impulse in order to prevent wrinkles. Smiling makes me happy, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, or perhaps makes me appreciate more deeply all the sources of joy that exist here and now in my life.

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DSCF3582Keeping vigils at a hospital bedsides, feeling overwrought with worries, enduring losses, suffering harsh treatment by someone for something…we all have moments when a passing smile would ease our hearts. We walk and drive by people every day in need of our smiles. And so often, it seems, our own concerns prevent us from making the effort to offer this gift, which can relieve our own miseries as well. If only for a moment, a smile offers breathing space to both giver and receiver.

2.26.11 002It reminds me of Jacob Marley’s despair, when he realizes, too late, the differences he could have made in the lives surrounding and connected to his own:

 “It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness… Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Late August to late September 09 026So the unsmiling, unwrinkled woman will, I guess, look very beautiful when she dies, appearing years younger than she actually is, but how sad that no one will recall how her smile brightened their day, changed their lives, or lifted their spirits.

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Let us go forth and smile, joyfully wrinkled and wrinkled by joy!

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February Celebrations

DSCF3572A typical February day, both in my memories and today’s experience, is gray, muddy, and moist. Puddles and the sound of melting snow dripping on the deck are a constant, as are the imprint of paw prints across the wooden floor, requiring several quick swipes with the mop each day.

DSCF3423 For variety, such days alternate with sudden freezes, like the one forecast for later this week, that turn every walkable outdoor surface to ice, and every necessary navigation to a dance with death, or at least a possible broken limb or two. In November, I look forward to snow and ice for all the magic they bring; by February, the melting of all that snow and ice, and then the freezing of all those puddles, become less and less enjoyable. The garden catalogues have become so pawed through the ink has blurred and “gardener’s impatience” begins to mount: Let me out! I want to plant seeds, and weed weeds, and caress the earth.

Garden End of May Early June 2010 036Of course, imagining spring and summer, I project only future bliss. In my fantasy of the coming months, there is no humidity; no chiggers or Asian beetles terrorize me or my gardens; no drought threatens to choke green lushness, nor will constant rains drown it. It is the promise of perfection that contrasts so sharply with the utter dreariness of February, a month whose name means “purification,” not a great selling point. It’s also been called “mud month” and “cabbage month,” also not terrific slogans were we advertising its virtues.

DSCF3547We northern natives survive this challenging month, knowing it leads to the perfectly-placed season of Lent (Yay! Six weeks of spiritual purgation!), by having winter celebrations, heralding the longer days, making fun and sport where clearly Mother Nature and the Catholic Church intended none to exist.

DSCF3562This week, we’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day; the following week, Mardi Gras, and, locally, the Knickerbocker Festival exists solely to celebrate celebrating, I think, although it’s ostensibly dedicated to winter’s unique offerings, of which I am a devoted fan. I love snow and ice, snow-shoeing and hiking, skating, and the way the winter atmosphere and the many crystals it creates refract light like no other season.

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DSCF3542For the local festival this year, some men built a small scale version of Stonehenge, using ice from the lake. Icehenge generated some media attention, and the day I walked down to take a look and some photos, I met people from the Madison and Milwaukee area, who came for the adventure…as I said, it’s a tough month, and any excuse to get out and do something different is welcome.

DSCF3425February celebrations save our sanity just long enough to last till the first mosquito bite.

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Sing, Anyway

DSCF3146Here at Full Moon Cottage, we have been singing up some glorious sunrises this week.

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DSCF2909I should correct that. Riley and Phillip have been singing, gloriously. Clancy and I bark, enthusiastically.

DSCF3089As for the cats, Murphy only sings like Johnny-One-Note when he’s locked himself in another room; Mulligan and Fergus have lovely voices; Finny has an eerie pre-furball ejection song, and Fiona apparently believes life is a silent movie.

But Clancy and I sing, anyway. We enjoy it. We bark at the sunrise and at the dogs’ nemesis, Bertie the Squirrel, and his Gang.

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I was thinking about this during today’s howling blizzard. We felt sorry for Bertie, so we didn’t bark at him today. In fact, we tossed a few extra sunflower seeds out there, in an effort to keep our nemesis going strong.

DSCF3277So, no visible sunrise this morning, but we’ve been cozy, hanging out and making art. I was asked to teach art class to our after school group this year, grades 2 – 5. I love it, although I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a visual artist. (Which is why I love photography; I can [try to] capture scenes that take my breath away, but that I can’t reproduce with paint or any other media.)

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DSCF1553I can design; I can teach about talented artists; I can come up with fun lessons; and the fact that my examples are less than stellar removes any intimidation factor: the kids have responded most enthusiastically and with amazing gifts. They can tell how much I enjoy fiddling with color and pattern, and how little I care that I’m not the “best” among our group. We just have fun.

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DSCF1534For many years, I denied myself the joy of playing with art materials because I knew the end result would fall so very short of what I imagined. I had a great, but rigorous elementary education, and it remained rigorous when we had “art class,” once every week. By the end of September during my first grade year, I had learned I wasn’t an “artist.”

But time kind of strips away such self-judgment  and doubts, doesn’t it? And life is so much more fun, as a result. We’re all as capable of making art as we are of making love, and the results needn’t be measured or judged in either undertaking, so much as deeply enjoyed. The pleasure derived from creativity, or making something unique (and therefore, holy) from nothing but love, is a gift no one should be denied.

Today I made some Kandinsky-inspired circle trees, a chalk cityscape, and a paint-blob creature.

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DSCF3215Oh, and—inspired by the storm–I painted these tiny owls in a tree “printed” with bits of cardboard. I can’t wait to see what my students create from these ideas!

DSCF3206And I designed a barn wood caddy to hold these twelve cream jars I bought at an antique store last summer. I wanted it for my dining table, so I can put garden flowers in the jars as a centerpiece. In-between shoveling and snow-blowing, Phillip used our blizzard-day to finish some carpentry for clients, but he also took time to create this for us:

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 Perfect! Hooray for the artist!

DSCF3280I’m grateful for the snowy day and the time it afforded us to make art. Actually, Clancy and I prefer to think we barked down the storm. Who says we can’t sing? We love it, and we’ll sing, anyway.

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Walking Each Other Home

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“We’re all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass

We learned this week that Clancy has cancer that can, for a time, be managed by medicine. He is able to walk the trail, bark at squirrels, eat, drink and be merry, and we will guard against allowing him any loss of these sources of his joy. Timing is everything; stumbling is human, but, of course, we want to spare our beloved useless suffering.

DSCF2051Every day still begins with our Morning Party, to consecrate whatever adventures come our way. True companionship, which, after all, means breaking bread together, has woven our sacred bonds with each of our 4-legged friends.

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DSCF2772Our walks have become even more precious. Thousands of miles covered, over and over, for 14 years, have inscribed our love, our stories, our chemicals, and our spirits on every particle along the way. Our story of deeply-shared love and companionship accrues and circles us; we breathe it in and out with every step. It clings to Full Moon and to every part of the path we’ve covered, day and night.

DSCF2707We have seen the seasons come and go, the river rise and fall, the trees and wildflowers bud, bloom, and die back, and now we face–most compassionately, but authentically–our own family member’s dying and our transforming.

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DSCF2796Clancy knows changes are occurring and seems more determined than ever to keep Full Moon Cottage safe from invading squirrels and perceived threats. We bark along with him and Riley at times. I think we are singing our joy, our memories, our fears, and our grief together. The cats look askance, but forebear these concerts.

I’ve always enjoyed Clancy’s help in the kitchen, although his preference has been to plop down right at the intersection of oven, sink, fridge and dishwasher, so I have learned to be a nimble dancer in my culinary activities. I wonder if, after he is gone, I’ll leap over his imaginary presence. The Clancy Ballet.

DSCF2808I find myself wondering a lot about life without him; perhaps that’s a way to try and soften the reality we’re facing…it doesn’t work, anyway. Images of Clancy-less space and activities fade away before I can get a purchase. Which is good, I think, because I’m pulled back to the moments before me, precious and finite and burnished by the utter gift of loving and being loved.

And I take comfort in knowing that when Riley and I one day walk the trail without him beside us, Clancy will be everywhere we are, forever inscribed on our hearts and walking us home.

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Cirque Du Squirrel

DSCF2596Our sweet Clancy-Dog has been having some health problems this week. He is almost 14 and unable to tell us, of course, exactly what he’s feeling, so the vets and animal hospital are narrowing the source of his troubles down. And we are all trying to listen and wait in patience, but it is hard when one we love suffers and cannot be healed quickly.

DSCF1008Unsure of whether or not Clancy’s time with us is coming to a close–full circle, so to speak–a cirque of another kind has offered diversion and re-balancing.

DSCF2639The forest squirrels are plentiful this winter. Our neighborhood owls, hawks, and foxes seem to have wandered further afield and the resulting abundant squirrel population is enjoying its winter holiday quite thoroughly, if the antics at our “bird” feeders are any indication. The squirrels become especially athletic and amusing when the feeders are almost depleted and they need to work a bit harder to earn their seed.

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DSCF2655This morning, Clancy and I watched the show for several minutes. His almost-constant barking was music to my ears. He has always taken his job as protector and defender of Full Moon Cottage and her inhabitants most seriously.

DSCF2570Eventually, the squirrel tired of his quest and ran off towards the woods. Clancy settled down into a peaceful nap. He didn’t see the smile of gratitude I shared with the squirrel, who looked back and—I swear—winked.

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From Festive to Restive

DSCF2363The long exhalation of January has begun… the Christmas decorations are stored away for another year and have been replaced by new piles of gardening catalogues, decorating magazines, novels, and cookbooks.

DSCF2040And cats. More cats than I’ve recalled tending over the past few months.

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DSCF2406I always liked having two cats. It seemed sensible and within the bounds of social propriety.

DSCF2059But five? Five seems borderline crazy, yet what are you going to do? They each came with a sad story of a now-or-never need for a home; tiny Fergus even followed me all the way down the trail in the cold rain of a dreary November day, as if determined to prove both his worthiness and desperation…He may have paused to wheeze a bit, very Oliver Twist-ish, to tug even more deliberately on my heartstrings. My “Foolish for Felines” sign must have flashed extra-brightly that day. And I do have a weakness for them: I think I carried Fergus the last 20 yards home. (“Sanctuary!” he cried.)

DSCF1116The house is big enough that they usually roam and catnap wherever they like and they seemed to disappear amidst the festive Christmas brilliance. I guess they hid under the Christmas tree or in their strategically-placed cat beds all during the holiday season. But now, in January, they seem to have multiplied and become very present along the back of the couch, or standing near windows, or strolling through the living room and hallways. They remind me of the nuns in my childhood who always seemed to glide around together in groups of two or more. Cat-clusters.

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DSCF2349Not a problem this past week, when frigid temperatures and snowy gales kept schools closed and all of us huddled indoors, except to dash out and refill the bird feeders. 

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DSCF2323Even the dogs, it seems, have been comforted by the cats’ added body heat, content to lie at the window or in front of the fire and tolerate the feline members of the family with mature grace.

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So, we’re settling in for the restive season: time to read, and nap, and dream of gardens-to-come, and soups we’ll have to make, and projects we’ll have to tackle. Cuddling with each other, a couple dogs, and a company of cats, life seems cozy indeed.DSCF2152

 

Green Christmas

 

 DSCF1625It’s been an unusual sort of year’s end. Inside, it looked a lot like Christmas.

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DSCF1617We watched several incarnations of Ebenezer Scrooge’s resurrection to a life of hope and compassion, and caught up on rest and reading, and finished remodeling the guest room. Friends visited and festivities ensued. But outside, the world remained in perpetual autumn. On Christmas Day, after our long walk with the pups, we stayed outside to weed the riverside gardens. An utterly new experience for Christmas Day.

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DSCF1730It was lovely and warm, but we both enjoy winter and missed her coming. I worried about my bulbs and perennials, who depend upon the blanket of snow and the frozen earth; the cold triggers the biochemical process they need to flower in spring. Birds were singing spring songs and everything seemed a bit fantastical. Confused. Out-of-the-norm. I missed the patterns I love and have come to honor: the four-season journey of life into death into life. Then it rained again, and we battled the incessant mud tracks our walks produced, another winter anomaly. But it was our valued vacation time, so…we relaxed, indulged in treats, and watched Harry Potter choose between the light and dark, enter suffering and loss, and live into the new world he’d help create.

DSCF1816A few days later, the temperatures lowered considerably, seizing rain puddles, however slight and visible, and freezing them enough so that my car’s brakes locked and slid through an intersection on a busy county highway. I almost “carked it,” as I heard someone say in an English movie, although at the time and for a few days afterwards, I wasn’t able to laugh about the adventure. I was glad I’d said, “I love you” to a friend before I left home that day, but I was disappointed by the fear I’d felt in the endless seconds it took to be missed by the immense SUV barreling towards my tiny VW Bug. I was bothered by the tears that followed the incident: I’d like to meet death with more equanimity.

Another friend visited that night and we talked about many things, as we always do. She mentioned a wise old nun she knows, who recently remarked on the current death throes of so many of our institutions: healthcare, education, political, economic…all seem to be undergoing the stages of dying, “…and it’s right that they should,” said the woman. Everything dies, including human-designed systems, when they no longer serve the welfare of humans.

DSCF1896And I’ve been pondering these ideas, wondering how to best serve the process of change in my small life/world with the little time left to me…When I helped midwife my dying patients, it felt as though I’d made a tacit engagement with mystery. Beyond faith, there is no tangible proof of what came next for my companions’ spirits. I ushered them to the doorway and remained present while they passed through. More than a witness, less than a dance partner…what a midwife is, I expect.

Sometimes they responded like I did, in the car: not yet ready. Like the weather this Christmas: clinging to autumn. Like the institutions, clinging to their power and its threatened transformation. Fear is natural, even, I suppose, a healthy response to the unknown, but I feel it can’t be the last response.

DSCF1484In all the experiences I’ve been graced to share and engage with death, I can only remember one time that a woman resisted her dying all the way through, and it was the hardest, most wretched death I’ve encountered.

Thankfully, most of the spirits I’ve accompanied to death– my loved ones, patients, animal companions, my trees and gardens–eventually, they breathed into acceptance of their dying, even perceptibly entering a deep peace as it came nearer.

DSCF1630I hope I can help midwife the coming changes, in whatever small ways expected of me, and again trust mystery, the pattern of life into death into life, and have faith that spring will bring flowers. I’m grateful for my many wise-women friends; I’m certain they’ll be beside me, in discernment and in bringing new life to birth.

DSCF1975This weekend, the weather turned cold once more.

DSCF1925And sweet snowfall blanketed the earth. Winter is here.

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DSCF1989Next breath.

DSCF1944Wait.

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Holy Night

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Last June I celebrated my 59th birthday and, as I began my 60th turn around the sun, I felt a need to be present to my life in ways that wouldn’t have made for interesting blog posts, or at least not in ways I wanted to explore in public.

I could say 60 is “just a number,” but I think it’s a number that represents a life shift and certainly signals a new decade is beginning, a kind of chronological beacon reminding me of life’s finitude.

I wanted to assess and set my course into “elderhood” with deliberate and authentic thought, rather than just allow my energy to drift into life’s next stage without purpose or clear intent.

I’ve made some decisions, set some demons running and made peace with others. I’ve gathered in joys, winnowed through relationships and sorted through possessions…I’m feeling lighter and clearer, but am mindful there are six months left to prepare for inaugurating my next decade, and whatever years I have left to “still become.” So, I continue to listen, sift, question, name and chart…

But it’s time for me to re-engage with sharing ideas and unveiling feelings and thoughts in my writing. I enjoy it and am ready to renew my practice.

The daily round has unfolded in darkness and light this past year, as it does every year; perhaps the darkness seems stronger and the blessings more precious because of the scrutiny I’ve brought to bear upon them, but I’m choosing to end the year on this, its holy and longest night, in gratitude and joy.

Despite the anger and violence that swirls through this old world and receives perhaps too much of our attention, I believe there so many, so very many reasons to be hopeful, to celebrate light and to share it, especially with the children inheriting what comes of our choices.

So on this Solstice Night leading to our great celebrations of Love’s rebirth, I choose to honor the light that has shone in my life and throughout the world this year, and pray that the New Year will be even brighter. How else can love set the world on fire but through our choices to share its light, moment by moment, day by day?

I’m grateful for those I love and with whom I celebrated some of my life’s milestones this past year.

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I’m grateful for friends who share their arts with the world and surprise me with gifts.

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I’m grateful for companions who share my days and illuminate even the smallest moments with their spirits.

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I’m grateful for my home and the gardens we’ve tended and the harvests we’ve enjoyed.

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I’m grateful for the wild things who bless my life and teach me deep lessons about presence, coexistence, conservation and compassion.

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I’m grateful for former students who check in and let me know how hard they’re working to tend their many gifts and keep the light shining.

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I’m grateful for the many, many people I know or know about, who share their gifts, their energy, their arts, and their wealth with others, who speak truth to the cruel, the wasteful, the fearful, and the angry and so diminish their power.

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I’m grateful for the children with whom I’m able to spend my days. They keep me young in spirit, creative, joyful, and ever hopeful.

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And I am most grateful for a partner determined to be as honest and intentional on his path as he is in supporting my own journey. I’m especially grateful for the laughter we co-create.

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May we light the fires of joy around us in the coming year; may we love wildly and laugh often; may we be quick to forgive, and to feed upon hope.

And may we be kind.

Blessings upon your gatherings, your partings, your celebrations, your prayers, and the creative use of your energy. And may your New Year be light-filled, delightful and joyful.

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Gliding Into Green Time

DSCF7654We’ve come (finally!) to the time of year when all the gardens, in a brilliance of greens and tender spring blossoms, flash back only beauty and promise. No pests, no droughts nor floods, no diseases have yet appeared to divert our belief that this will be the best summer ever for a perfection of blooms and abundance.

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DSCF7743Sweet friends have returned to Full Moon Cottage, annual visitors who bless our days and inaugurate a new season of life as the year rolls round her journey.

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DSCF7055There is no better time to celebrate life, is there? Last week, my colleagues came to Full Moon Cottage to toast the end of another school year, and my husband’s staff will be here next week to do the same. It’s grand to have guests, and motivating as well. Nothing like scheduled company to get us out to re-design, weed, plant, thin, and clean the gardens!

DSCF7666In July, family and friends will come to help us celebrate our wedding anniversary, so we’re looking at projects indoors and out, that may or may not come to fruition, given the time and money necessary to accomplish them. I’m an inveterate list-maker and recovering perfectionist. I’ve noticed age has helped me better—and sooner—identify the borders between desire and reality. How good it can feel to welcome the loosening, letting go, and blessed release of expectations to allow what will happen to happen. I don’t always manage this with grace, but I can say I’m better than I used to be. I can even manage a “whatever,” once in a while, and mean it. At least some of the time, I’m able to suspend my definition of perfection and see what’s already perfectly perfect.

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DSCF7712More importantly, we’re excited to be taking time to gather with people we love. When you reflect on parties and festivities you’ve attended, what do you recall in their afterglow? Not the hours of work and attention to detail that went into planning and organizing them, but the time spent sharing, listening, laughing, relaxing, affirming love and being affirmed as a valuable and integral part of other lives.

Henry Memorial 7It’s such a lovely time of year to recognize, toast, and encourage creation and recreation. Two years ago, we suffered through a devastating drought, and its effects continue to unfold. Our maples let loose an impossible number of seeds last autumn, in part a response to the prior year’s drought. A flurry of rebellious possibility rained down to establish life before drought could again assail the right to regenerate that is claimed by every living thing.

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DSCF7327The behaviors and choices of humans and their leaders so often deny Nature this right. In spring, her resounding Yes-always-yes-to-life, and the reminder she will likely outlast our stupidity and short-sightedness is both illuminating and humbling.

DSCF7612And worth celebrating, as we glide into another summer and its green possibilities for creativity, for gathering, for affirming life, for knowing when to allow what will happen to happen, and for the gift of entering it with gratitude, knowing too, that the impulse to regenerate never dies.

DSCF7063May you be blessed with long, happy days of recreation and the company of loved ones to share them.

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Entertaining Angels

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.  ~ Hebrews 13:2; KJV

DSCF5803Winter lingered. Just when we thought it had taken its last breath, it gasped and continued to test our hospitality.

DSCF5765But for well over a week now, despite chilly nights, the days have been warmer, or rainy, and coaxed out the greens this late spring offers up as gift to eyes surprised by anything other than black, white, and gray.

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DSCF6145Spring’s winged and 4-legged angels, arriving with all their usual and new messages regarding reasons to hope and deepen our love for the earth and each other, have been sailing, trotting, hopping, or crawling up and down the river bank. Choirs of blackbirds and spring peepers, with guest soloists—grosbeaks, robins, sand pipers, woodpeckers, ducks, geese, pelicans, warblers, finches, and cardinals—alert us to miracles daily and hourly. Today, my first sightings of a Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak set my heart dancing. The silence and solitude of winter are definitely over; whatever dreams and seeds were planted in the dark have been called forth most dramatically this spring. It took a while for the stone to be rolled away, but the light is now shining like a drama queen. “Grow!” it seems to command.

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DSCF6820We emerged, tentatively and cautiously, peeking out from under winter’s blanket like the proverbial groundhog, and then began to meet, socialize, fill in the calendar, haul out the garden tools and dig into life with the vigor only pasty-white winter people can summon when spring returns in the fullness of her resurrection power.

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DSCF6612Our pups, Riley and Clancy, who will celebrate 13 years of being next week, had a dicey winter. Age-related health encounters gave us some sad and frightening moments, which time and our saintly veterinarian helped us through, gently. We’ve all made adjustments and adapted. We feared their loss (knowing it will come, but please, not yet, not now) and are therefore utterly grateful they’re still here and again able to amble down the trail with us. Their kennels have moved upstairs; our walks are shorter; their schedule is a bit more closely monitored; at night we protect each other; and—if possible—we celebrate our funky family even more than ever. I guess my years tending dying parents and elderly patients have readied me for this, as well. If so, Full Moon Cottage will be the best damn nursing home for elderly 4-leggeds we can imagine.

DSCF6332One evening we had company visiting and the night became so merry and so filled with heady conversation and children and music that our five-year-old guest crawled into his mother’s arms and softly cried. His mother held him and asked about his tears. “I feel so happy,” he said. So much joy, some needed to spill out a bit, I suppose, to re-balance his mighty little spirit.

I know exactly how he felt.

On Earth Day, my students and I cleaned up the school grounds, washed bits of the refuse we collected and then made art…their sweet hearts and lively spirits feed me, daily. I’ve come to a time in my life where most teachers arrive, if they’re lucky and as blessed as I’ve been: we know that teacher and student are the same thing.

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DSCF5817As are life and death.

 I’m trying to gauge my wealth differently than financial advisers might counsel: How engaged with life, how open to its invitations have I been this day? To what degree have I given and received as I’ve circled through the daily round? How often did I pause and connect with all the angels and their messages streaming towards and through me? How freely did I share those messages with others?

DSCF6708In my life, angels, or messengers who remind me, “This is it! Now! It’s all holy!” have never been pretty men with wings, though some of my angels have been men, and many of my guides have had wings…Only look and listen, they’re everywhere: winged, legged, fluttering, croaking, singing, blooming, dying, laughing or weeping. See! These unique and sacred collections of particles gathering and forming, dissolving and reforming: Be moved to dance, to hobble, to wheeze, to weep with joy by all the ways Love calls you out, every moment, into resurrection and new creation.

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Clancy questions whether he must entertain his sibling cats as angels, especially if they appropriate his kennel.

Clancy questions whether he must entertain his sibling cats as angels, especially if they appropriate his kennel.

 

Winter Spirituality: To See What Is Before Us

DSCF5119Sometimes I wonder if the constant complaints about winter—the cold, the snow, the darkness, the inconvenience—are a form of resistance to winter’s spiritual invitations. They’re challenging; they’re scary, they’re brutal in their honesty. 

DSCF4925They’re so worth engagement.

DSCF4626I’ve come to love the austere revelations winter offers, as I’ve come to recognize the wisdom of loving what I resist, opening to relationship with perceived obstacles, problems, roadblocks and impediments. Limiting my journey to summer’s merry, easy road limits my journey.

DSCF4622In summer, my vision is attracted by everything at once, overwhelmed by the impression of colors, mingled patterns and textures. A summer spirituality allows my mind to perpetually skip from pleasure to pleasure, one sensuous delight and self-affirming thought after another. But, as the season of winter allows me to focus on the singular beauty and unique mystery of the particular and specific, entering a winter spirituality allows me to be with my darkness and find that its augmentation to my spirit, if initially frightening, is eventually healing. Shadow and light are needed for the picture to be full and the spirit to be whole.

DSCF4827I appreciate the generous cloaks winter creates to isolate color and form. I can photograph one tree, one bird, one sunrise, over and over, and always see something new. In winter, it seems the world tells me who it is at its core and asks me if I can respond with my own true name. “Who are you?” asks winter, over and over, paring away, in loving patience, all the usual answers that satisfy such a question in polite, superficial society.

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DSCF4677Winter spirituality helps me meditate more and more deeply on the gift and uniqueness of each part of myself and my life, each partner with whom I dance, each question with which I struggle.

Long years, a lifetime, of encrusting these relationships with projections and desires and hopes and discharged emotions and learned reactions and one-sided memories, can be stilled by winter’s gift of silence and long hours to re-visit and re-vision, The external shudders away, baring what is real, teaching me again that meaning is fluid but essence eternal.

DSCF4817The local meteorologists call this the “coldest winter” in 35 years, and people complain, some unceasingly, about the hardships of enduring it. But I’ve learned to love winter as I love my shadow. They are beautiful; they bring wisdom; they lead me to rare and vital presence. And they are crucial to the springtime’s arrival; crucial, as in “cross,” as in the bloom of synthesis bursting from the thesis-antithesis of winter’s black and white…

DSCF4962I love winter and the spirituality she engenders for helping me to see, even a little more clearly, the truth before—and within—me. By uncluttering all the other seasons’ competing imagery, I can eliminate the chaos of color and form surrounding the pure beauty of a solitary squirrel, by muting all the rival noise muffling one blue jay’s cry, I can hear its once-in-a-lifetime once-ness, by stilling all my swirling mental and spiritual dissonance, I’m guided to focus solely on where I am in relationship to the Holy and all her streaming invitations. 

DSCF5111Spirit speaks uniquely in all of life’s seasons, in all of life, every moment; disregard this, and we miss vital communication, like tuning out another’s conversation. Only listen, says the Spirit, in winter’s guise; listen, and be led to silence.

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DSCF5084And when I can listen more deeply, winter is the one who whispers to my heart those essential truths that keep it beating: I am loved and lover, created and creator, co-conspirator (helpmate of Spirit) in fashioning these sewn-together moments called my life.

Peeling away the layers of projected need, repeated story, and entrained patterns of response, winter teaches me to see what is before me. To see what is. 

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DSCF5121I am still becoming.

 

Counter Posture

DSCF448640 years of yoga practice have yielded gifts I never expected when I started down the path, much, I suppose, like any long-term relationship one consents to pursue will continue to surprise the heart and spirit if attention is paid and the relationship is bound more by love and flexibility than a rigid repetition of steps learned long ago and in all the years since rarely or never opened to inspiration.

DSCF4550Consider, for example, the wisdom and elegance of counter-posturing, balancing in-breath and out-breath, uniting a backbend with a forward bend, marrying a reaching with a contraction. The unfolding understanding of a counter-posture’s gifts has broadened my ability to remain increasingly present and mindful to my life and its core of mystery, to its blessing and suffering, and to its continual flow of dying and rebirth. Life, at its essence, is an unending exercise in counter-posturing. Over and over, life asks that we disintegrate and reintegrate, from our birth, through the breaths enclosing each succeeding moment until our death. If we can enter our life mindfully, co-creating equanimity and balance, how much lovelier our experience of its gifts can be.

DSCF4531Counter-posturing is inherent to the flow of yoga, as it is to the philosophies and theologies we recognize as our guiding wisdoms. For example, it forms the holistic essence symbolized by the yin and yang’s embrace of both the empirical and transcendent. It is expressed beautifully in the Hebrew Ecclesiastes verses that tell us everything must have its season. It pulses at the heart of every line forming the beautiful Prayer of St. Francis.

It is revealed throughout nature’s perfect balance, offering the rounded whole of existence to guide our spirits towards their own rounded fulfillment: Summer’s outward energy and exuberant volume, winter’s inner withdrawal and soundless stillness, the expansion and retraction of spring and autumn. Every force has its equal and opposite force that, if embraced, creates a perfect marriage of balance.

DSCF4544The universe conspires to teach us the wisdom of counter-posturing, to help us choose paths, practices, and actions that keep us balanced and centered, which is to say authentically healthy and whole. When life is flowing easily, these practices may heighten its joy. When life is overcome by suffering, the ability to counter-posture becomes as necessary to our spiritual survival as oxygen is to our body.

Our first breath is an in-breath; our final an exhalation. Whatever we choose between these, whatever existence offers, life originates and concludes in perfect balance. Our choice to counter-posture—or not—all those moments between our human beginning and end determines the degree of elegance, the trajectory of growth, the depth of meaning, and the awareness of the Sacred that infuses our life. 

DSCF4513My beloved brother-in-law died last week.

Days were circumscribed by his rapid decline in health, an accelerated rhythm of swirled energy and emotions, rising hopes and dashed hopes, long vigils and sleepless nights, the gathering and parting of family, the brutal lack of equanimity often offered by the hospital ICU, the sense of everything heightened and held out of time, and moments when reality screamed with unrelenting heart-slamming truths, grounding us in medical minutiae and the process of dying.

By training and inclination, the camera of my perception continually moved in and out, assessing the degree of shock and anxiety within and without each participant, and, of course, myself. When the life of one we love is so suddenly compromised, our emotions, bodies, and spirits are thrown out of coherence. Numbed engagement is often the best that can be managed and also serves to protect us, and so we offer automatic responses that cushion our completely exposed vulnerability from jarring contact with more than this moment, and now this one. 

S0044332If we can listen deeply during such times of spiritual, emotional, and physical trauma, some inner knowing will tell us that our spirits are trying to catch up with us, and if we can hang on, and intuitively counter-posture each moment’s invitations and assaults, we will again find our way home to our center. Until then, we travel with sails tossed by raw emotions, and if we are blessed, love is the one we allow to carry us through to journey’s end.

Years of accompanying others and their families through such experiences have taught me to seek, support, and encourage the counter-postures that will renew balance for all involved in the drama of dying and loss. As a midwife to the dying, I have witnessed myriad responses to the invitations this final journey offers to the one who is dying and to those who accompany him or her. I have felt and considered them all myself when I have lost someone I loved, as I did last week. Every new wave that crashes against us can either be met with love or rejected and futilely battled in anger, fear, anxiety, and despair. 

DSCF4206Here is how it might happen when we surrender to the experience and meet it with intentional equanimity: We can recognize the horror of our individual and collective journey and choose to translate it into sorrow by meeting it with love. We can counter-posture our howling pain by acknowledging that mystery and grace are also our companions. We can embrace our fellow-passengers on this journey of stunning transformation, and through the energy of our words and silence, our actions and stillness, our in-breaths and out-breaths, comfort our own and others’ hearts, subdue the storm, and steady our spirits. We can focus our energy and gratitude upon the one who is departing, on his comfort, his peace, his need to know we will be alright, and that our love will go with him.

These are some of the choices we can make to counter-posture the energy created by such profound storms in our lives, and so guide our spirits back into a substantial presence where they can eventually rest in weary peace.

My brother-in-law was blessed, as he was blessing. His wife and children never once let themselves be unmoored by the ferocity and velocity of invitations to let go into fear, anger, or despair. They embraced each other and all who joined their circle, shining light on their beloved and holding him in love through his final exhalation. They intuited elegant counter-posturing and preserved the fullness and wholeness of this loss and every moment of gratitude and community it offered.

Hallowed life, hallowed death: oh, such gifts we can offer ourselves and others if we choose intentional equanimity and balance.

DSCF4418And as we enter our grief, I am consoled by the beauty of our gatherings to be peacefully present to the death of our beloved one, to his burial and commitment to Love’s turning circle. I’m heartened, too, by the sense that together and alone we’ll dance with our grief, counter-posturing sadness with joy, weariness with rest, sharing with conserving energy, breathing in with breathing out, deepening our recognition and understanding of all the ways our loved one’s death opens his life to our sustenance.

May we continue to honor this great loss and use this great love to create sacred balance in our lives and holy equanimity in the lives of those we love and meet. May we counter the world’s brokenness with our loved one’s example of creativity; may we help heal the world’s hatred with his lessons of love, may we counter the world’s joylessness with his model of enthusiasm, and the world’s sadness with his encompassing delight. May we always hear the invitations to discover and use our gifts, as he did, to bless the world and to assure the Earth, over and over, that she is precious, loved, and worth saving, in all her infinite variety, and work to make it so.

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Energetic Legacies

DSCF4030If the eye of the heart is open, in each atom there will be one hundred secrets.  ~ Attar

We’ve had a lovely holiday this year, slow, together, and merry…a welcome sabbath. It began in deep frost and snowstorms, but mellowed, offering warmer days to snowshoe in companionship with the 4-leggeds. 

DSCF3881We hiked up the road to Aztalan State Park, a geography that to me always feels suffused with the spirits of the ancient people who inhabited this region. Snow-shoeing around the perimeter and then entering the vast spaces where the Woodland people and Mississippians lived brings me to stillness and contemplation.

DSCF3891The views are stunning and the quiet allows my imagination to see these ancient people planting, harvesting, gathering together for rituals…over there, two friends stand together, sharing their stories and village gossip, watching their children run and play. Individuals, families, a society, all the dreams and acts played out upon this stage so long ago seem to be present here still.

DSCF3853The essence of places, how they become saturated with the joys and sorrows that have been lived within their confines, have always attracted me. I’ve entered churches, homes, museums, hospitals, and battlegrounds where I’ve felt powerful energies washing over and through me. Specific emotions are often attached and sometimes jumbled. It doesn’t have to be an “obvious” place of personal or historical importance; I’ve been stopped in my tracks walking a forest path or an otherwise nondescript city block. Something happened here; what is it? Past and present both unfolding and overlapping: something or many things happened here, the energy of it/them is still moving here and now.

DSCF3342It’s taken a lifetime to master the effects of sensing and entering this residual energy: to name it, recognize its power, and stand peacefully within it, holding my place with humility, awareness, appreciation, and an understanding of how to maintain the integrity of my own energy while honoring the stories lived out here, perhaps unfolding still.

DSCF3945It seems to me that where our lives are lived and experienced vividly, and where intense, or just authentic emotions are named and shared, we are more likely to imprint the space with “memories” of these feelings. Perhaps that’s why so many modern office buildings and shopping malls fail to make an impression altogether; the people moving through these spaces are often numb, hurried, and out of touch with their hearts and spirits. More driven than present.

DSCF3922Take more time; cover less ground, wrote Thomas Merton, and over and over, I chant his words and notice my breath, and look again at the world around me, sensing the energy that’s passed, or that lingers and shares the space with me. How does one live fully? Wholly? How do I bless the world around me? How do I alter the energy here or amend it? How can I heal it? Where have I damaged it, and can it be mended and made right?

DSCF3879Hallowed spaces continue to bless us; those places still in need of healing deserve our blessing in turn. And the places where we live and move and have our own being need gentle vigilance regarding the energy we’re creating right now.

DSCF3696We weave our being into the earth and lives with which we share space every day. Or not. Our choices and actions, the degree to which we participate in our lives and connect to others, the devotion we give to conscious awareness of our world and its balance, the gifts and gratitude we offer openly, and the ways we shut down, avoid, deny, and disconnect–these create an energetic legacy. Whether our name is recalled or not, our energy affects what others feel now and will feel in the future.

DSCF3940I wish you a new year of grace and gentle peace; of wisdom and merry-making; of holy surprises and opportunities to share your gifts; of living from a joyful center; of good health and plentiful art; of laughter and holy tears and all the rounded offerings of being human; of the deep knowing that you are held by Love; of finding yourself in places sacred, and made more so by your presence; of creating energy that feeds your spirit and those spirits you love and those spirits yet to come.

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Holy, Holy, Holy

DSCF3174Advent, despite all earnestness, is a time of refuge because it has received a message. Oh, if people know nothing about the message and the promises any more, if they only experience the four walls and the prison windows of their gray days, and no longer perceive the quiet footsteps of the announcing angels, if the angels’ murmured word does not simultaneously shake us to the depths and lift up our souls–then it is over for us. Then we are living wasted time, and we are dead, long before they do anything to us.  ~ Father Alfred Delp, Source: Advent of the Heart

DSCF3178Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.  ~ Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B

DSCF2698Only when we tarry do we touch the holy. ~Rainer Maria Rilke, In Praise of Mortality, translated and edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

DSCF2758Being extravagantly generous is an enchanting way to become holy and Godlike, for God is awesomely extravagant — as is revealed by even a casual glance at creation. ~ Edward Hays

DSCF2555The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.  ~ Terry Tempest Williams, from Talking to God: Portrait of a World at Prayer (anthology)

DSCF2948…We live in a world alive with holy moments. We need only take the time to bring these moments into the light.  ~ Kent Nerburn in Small Graces

DSCF3128Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. The garden door is always open to the holy. ~ May Sarton, Source: Gardening by Heart

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…All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds…

~ Source: “Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton, Dancing With Joy edited by Roger Housden

DSCF3031To bless a thing is to remind ourselves that the very object is one of God’s gifts given to bring us to wholeness of life. Once we understand that, we also realize it is the way we respond to things that makes us holy. Then nothing is for nothing in our lives.  ~ Joan Chittister

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Let my small story
connect to your larger one.
May we breathe with one breath.
May we make the day holy together.
~ Nita Penfold, Pocket Prayers, collected by June Cotner

DSCF3113I think over again my small adventures, my fears, those small ones that seemed so big, all those vital things I had to get and to reach, and yet there is only one great thing: to live and see the great day that dawns, and the light that fills the world. ~ Old Innuit Song

DSCF3172The world is a holy place. Venite adoremus. Come let us adore.  ~ Teilhard de Chardin

DSCF3131Ways to Miss the Hidden God

1. LIVE life at high speed. No exceptions. Run hard.

2. STAY scattered and distracted. The more clutter and activity, the better.

3. TAKE everything personally. Never evaluate. Agree.

4. USE blame liberally. It’s so invigorating. I wasn’t responsible, you were. Everything’s your fault.

5. DON’T laugh, especially at yourself.

6. STAY tied to your past. Elevate it to greatness.  Live remembering and longing. Or missing. Why do it halfway? Go for it.

7. USE the word ‘because.’ ‘I can’t change, because.’  Because is so little appreciated as a solvent for responsibility. Try using because. This will work.

8. NEVER question or think for yourself. Just keep moving and accepting. (Refer to #1 and #3.)

9. CONTINUE to think of God as invisible and distant. Surely not present in this room. At this moment. Not while I’m reading a book.

10. REINFORCE the belief that your life is going to happen soon. This is not it, not yet. But one day. Maybe when I finish reading.

 ~ from: Sacred Threshold: Crossing the Inner Barrier to a Deeper Love, by Paula D’Arcy

‘Tis the Season

DSCF2361Full Moon Cottage has been dressed for Christmas over the past week. Objects encrusted with memories have been scattered around the rooms, and spirits we love have been fully welcomed back into our midst, not just those of our parents, who are always with us, but all those characters and places that populated our childhood stories: great-aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends, teachers, janitors, cafeteria ladies, bus drivers, piano teachers and the neighborhood personalities who bordered the edges of our days. DSCF2145 DSCF2212DSCF2201I can see the Park and Market grocery, and the ice skating rink, where tinny Christmas music blared as we glided round and round. I remember how Santa rode through town on a shiny red fire engine, so loaded with lights that I never stopped to wonder at the absence of his sleigh and reindeer. I never stopped to question any of the incongruities and obvious fallacies offered to us during the Christmas season. Every year, we were happily willing to be drenched in magic and readily surrendered our doubt to exist wholly in a world of fantastical impossibilities. Because they were true, at the heart level, where children seem to more easily live and breathe and have their being. DSCF2161I had a happy childhood, and at no time of year am I more grateful than during the Christmas season, when the flood of memories, visions, and smells mix with the magic of nostalgia, sparkle of winter, and the natural tendency to gather in towards light and warmth. For a month or two, I revisit those times and places that created me and allow me to treasure the present with greater depth. DSCF2465I’ve always loved Lent and its invitations to whittle away and purge in preparation for spring’s rebirth, but the rituals and traditions of Advent cheer my heart. They seem to counter and balance the season’s darkening and chilling environment so tenderly. The cinnamon, chocolate, orange, and anise smells of seasonal baking, the glitter of ornaments, the soothing and jubilant sounds of Christmas music, and the focus on the excitement of anticipation and joy: what could be better? DSCF2475So many spiritual traditions seem to center on light and gift in winter; it’s encouraging (“heart-centered”) that many humans get it all perfectly right once a year, anyway. DSCF2442 DSCF2193I wish we could resist the urge to allow corporate marketers to dictate the meaning of this season to us and their attempts to drive people into greater frenzy and stress and spending, instead of slowing down, gathering in, cherishing each holy moment. The heavy burdens of pragmatic doubt regarding the magic of the world, the pain of self-judgments, and the accepted need to replace our innate value with things, things, and more things we must endlessly buy, may be set down; we did not need these rampant desires as children and certainly do not benefit from them as adults. DSCF2178Christmas helps us retrieve the gifts of childhood, if we listen. A friend posted on a social site that she’d enjoyed a four-hour lunch with an old friend: Just to read it made me hopeful and happy for both of them, but for all of us as well. I know they pushed back against demanding jobs and demanding lives to make way for this time together and yet did so, valuing friendship above tasks. So, for now, I abstain from the entreaties to constantly shop, and from what is called “news,” and instead rest in the Good News always coming, always here: we are made of Love, embraced by Love, and asked only to Love in return, until to Love we return and with Love we merge. And that is enough. And that is everything. DSCF2096May the deep peace of the season gift you with a warm heart, clear vision, and a community of family and friends–and four-leggeds–to see, hear, hold, and enjoy. We are called to be merry; let us do so, drenched in magic and readily surrendering our doubt. Love reminds us we already exist wholly in a world of fantastical impossibilities. Joyeux Noel! DSCF2191 DSCF2183

Thanks Be to Love

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The daily round has been crammed with life, guests, listening, and activity of late. How lovely it is to have a day open before me without a list or template circumscribing and defining its hours…just a blank page to fill as I am called…I think I’ll take the pups and my camera out to the trail and return home to make that cup of hot cocoa I’m always promising myself.

Tomorrow will be filled with preparations for our Thanksgiving weekend, and that, too, cheers my heart. There are few better feelings, for me, than the anticipation of joyful community with people and 4-leggeds I love.

And so, I raise my cup of cocoa and toast us all: May we be blessed with a peaceful and joyful celebration of all that inspires deep gratitude in our lives. May our patience and humor abound.

May we forgive ourselves of all those errors and lapses in love that arise from our humanity and so more generously forgive others theirs.

May we ease expectations and judgments of ourselves and others so as to better perceive the blessings waiting for us right now, right here, and may we be present to the lessons they have come to teach us about the ways we are infinitely loved.

May our willingness to isolate and name these gifts allow us to cherish them more deeply and share them more profoundly.

Dona nobis pacem.

Gratitude is something of which none of us can give too much. For on the smiles, the thanks we give, our little gestures of appreciation, our neighbors build their philosophy of life.  ~ A.J. Cronin

Gratitude is so close to the bone of life, pure and true, that it instantly stops the rational mind, and all its planning and plotting. That kind of letting go is fiercely threatening. I mean, where might such gratitude end?  ~ Regina Sara Ryan

Gratitude is the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos. When we offer thanks to God or to another human being, gratitude gifts us with renewal, reflection, and reconnection.  ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight. ~ Joan Chittister

Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted–a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.  ~ Rabbi Harold Kushner

If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.  ~ Meister Eckhart

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.  ~ Denis Waitley

You have been given a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say “thank you?”  ~ William A. Ward

Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty. ~ Doris Day

Gratitude is twofold – love coming to visit us and love running out to greet a welcome guest.  ~ Henry Van Dyke

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November

DSCF1501 And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.  ~ Kurt Vonnegut (b. 11.11.22)

A long walk on a gray day in November can be a walk through heartbreak, through all the heartbreaks of your life, even those that haven’t happened but are yet to come.

Nostalgia, recollection, memories, loss: they all swirl like the leaves and slowly settle as peace returns and new patterns of connection and understanding rise. November’s invitation is to gently and deeply mine the gold of our lives. There is heartbreak, but so perfectly balanced by gratitude.

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DSCF1504I wouldn’t call my November walks depressing; instead, they’re healing, gift, and necessary. My unconscious provides the mental video; it flips the scrapbook pages of my life and decides where to pause; I only attend, watch, feel. Walk and watch and allow what rises to be honored.

DSCF1548Any walk, any time of year can provide such healing, but November’s backdrop of rust and brown and black and fading yellows, and everything vital slowing and dying back, and all the animals gathering, burrowing, or leaving: it all seems to gently remind us of our losses and our own mortality, and to invite our own time of clearing and harvesting. What to hold, what to release?

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DSCF1540Maybe it’s my Celtic ancestors’ love of wisdom and acceptance of sorrow and the ways I hear them calling to me in November, or the deep pleasure of sudden red and green wagons interrupting the monotonic browns and golds, or all of these and the veil of mystery clearly cloaking everything revealed, shimmering, as at no other time of year, but I’ve come to treasure the month and its pervasive atmosphere of spiritual retreat.

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DSCF1517And, then, of course, the great gift waits before me: the shining present and the peace to discern, like Vonnegut, how wide it is, how deep it is, and how much is mine to keep.

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Life Review

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The circling world has returned me to the time of thin places and the Sacred has certainly permeated my past month, or perhaps age and effort have finally brought me to the place where the numinous is more apparent and the liminal invitations—to see thresholds into deeper ways of being—are more accurately and peacefully encountered. Of course, there are days I’m blind as a bat to the light surrounding me, and as out of touch with my spirit as I’ve ever been, but they are less, and since presence, listening, deepening, gratitude, and forgiveness have been qualities I’ve valued over material gain, I’m happy to examine my life periodically and discover if those traits I’ve treasured and quests I’ve set as worthy are being integrated into my life.

DSCF0634Maybe it’s autumn. There is something about its particular colors and quality of light that makes me more pensive than other seasons. It seems always to begin with a low-level anxiety, probably ancient, and I catch myself worrying if I’ve “gathered” enough to last a winter…and then the questions about precisely “what” I need to store and so be sustained come calling at my heart’s door.

DSCF0987Life review is a spiritual practice too often saved for the end-of-life journey. At that time, it’s a guided journey through life’s highs and lows, regrets and blessings, gains and losses, named by the one who is dying and explored deeply in order to bring greater peace and closure to the dying process. Rituals help ease forgiveness and augment gratitude, or opportunities may be revealed to heal wounds carried as painful burdens over a lifetime. I loved traveling the life review journey with my patients when I worked as a hospice chaplain, but often people are too weak, confused, or unable to complete the practice as they approach dying, and its benefits are lost.

And so I highly recommend we engage with this practice long before we face our final breath. A daily examen, a monthly meditation, or at least an annual dedicated time for reviewing our dreams and life goals, and whether the choices we’ve made are in alignment with our named purpose or will lead to imbalance, can help us live more fully and in tune with Spirit. And after the assessing, and emptying, comes the time of deep listening: what messages does Spirit bring to us for our encouragement and possible redirection?

DSCF1233Retreats can also help with this process, and so can a monthly meeting with a spiritual director. A friend of mine is currently writing her life Manifesto, and others have created Mission Statements to guide their journey…these are not carved in stone and can always be altered, but they serve a purpose in making their authors aware and committed to remaining spiritually aligned and awake during their time on earth. What, finally, is our Credo, and are we true to it?

Certainly, autumn brings me round to look again at who I’ve become and how true I’ve been to my gifts and spirit. The pull of the ego to conform, to “win,” to be the center of attention, to be perceived as successful by all the false measurements the world offers rather than the self-assessment I know after all these years will reveal the honest answers I need and treasure is relentless, but worth resisting. And every year, it gives me joy to see the path I’m on, the place I am, is where I’ve always wanted to be. Not that I have all the things I’ve desired, or perfect relationships, or a life without pain and disappointment, but that what I have is precisely enough and fulfilling.

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DSCF1011So I give myself time to sit, to walk, to be alone and realign myself with those goals I hold dear. I note my success and forgive my errors, and surround myself with friends who treasure their own paths and tend their gifts. I recommit to offering back the best of what I have and look for ways to contribute to the world more of what I believe it needs to come into balance. I listen.

DSCF0776The worries triggered by the autumnal urge to gather and store ease as I relax into the awareness that my life is rich. The sky shines silver and the leaves glow, burnished bronze and gold, calling me forward into mystery. I embrace it, knowing my life invites my continued growth and unfolding.

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Island Vacation

DSCF0470My husband and I wanted a break. Together. After so many years together, there is little we want or need; instead, the best gift we can give each other is shared time, away from the rutted routines we walk each day. New views help to create new outlooks, and the shared imaginings we have for this slow life we’re co-creating can be stimulated and renewed by travel. The weather’s been warm and the fall color is blushing its way down the state, so we decided to take 4 days and head a bit north, to the state’s largest Cranberry Festival.

DSCF0310Wisconsin produces most of our country’s cranberries and festivals are held every autumn to celebrate the harvest. I’d read something about “1200 booths” participating at this festival, and thought this referred to artists and flea-market/antique vendors. I knew there was a cranberry-focused museum and bog tours, so it sounded like a perfect adventure.

 We drove up the night before the festival opened and met other festival-goers when we checked-in to our hotel. “Oh, we come every year; you’ll love it!” they assured us. We woke up early to head from our hotel to the little town, Warrens, where it’s held. This is what we saw:

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DSCF0394A tiny town crammed with thousands of people lugging carts around to booths that lined streets and sidewalks, and narrow, narrow “alleyways,” everywhere. Claustrophobic doesn’t begin to describe it, and the merchandise was largely made-in-China mass-produced schlock. Little art, no antiques. Disappointment…I could feel my anticipation swirling down and drowning in one of the numerous stomach-turning vats of frying fat preparing decidedly non-cranberry food.

It wasn’t a complete or epic fail: We appreciated a brief bus tour of some cranberry bogs and enjoyed the town’s museum, but then exited the noisy, packed town. Quickly.

DSCF032610:00 A.M. and three days left to our Cranberry Festival vacation. Hmmm. Luckily, my travel partner makes me laugh, easily and deeply, and did; all would be well.

Happily, this part of the state is rich in geological and environmental history. The almost 44,000-acre Necedah Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles from the over-crowded shopping spree of the cranberry festival, called to us.

DSCF0399When the “local” glaciers retreated almost 15,000 years ago, they left a vast, low-lying wetland, called the Great Swamp of Central Wisconsin. For centuries, Native Americans lived in this area, which they called “Necedah,” or “Yellow Waters.”

DSCF0420Then Europeans arrived, and their farming, which necessitated draining the marshes, cutting trees, and battling the wildfires which had long nurtured the prairies, eventually destroyed the natural landscape that had endured for thousands of years.

In 1939, President Roosevelt’s administration, through the Civilian Conservation Corps it established, reclaimed burned-out land, restored prairies, oak savannahs, and wetlands, and created the wildlife refuge. Among others, a restored whooping crane population is welcomed to its acreage each year.

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DSCF0437We hiked along raised planked trails in silence, feeling cleansed and at peace. A lovely breeze carried the calls of geese, herons, eagles, frogs, and songbirds through the air. It was hard to believe thousands of people preferred what the “festival” offered to what was available at the refuge, but there you go.

DSCF0401The next few days we explored nearby lakes, rivers, sandblows, and the bluffs, mesas, and buttes that are actually former islands in Glacial Lake Wisconsin. We hiked around state parks and climbed for hours, grateful for glorious weather and views.

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DSCF0486Sunday morning came too quickly, but we were able to ride into the sunrise and stop at Roche-a-Cri State Park to see the petroglyphs and pictographs of Native Americans, and those who came later. (Note the “A.V. Dean. N.Y. 1861” carving.) 300 steps up, and we had an “island view” that took our breaths away.

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DSCF0603For us, vacations are times to “be” together, center our spirits, listen to our feelings and hearts, create new dreams. We like adventures and surprises, and generally don’t over-plan, but the Cranberry Festival that became an island vacation was completely different from what we expected. A perfect gift.

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