Framing Life

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The theater of living provides an endless array of delights, an intriguing jumble of conundrums. A panorama of mystery that goes blood deep and beyond. It throws me for a loop at times, can wound me, but I relish again a brighter state of being. It is a numinous realm that we move within, if only we can stay awake to become more intimate with it. Or I should say, it is magic, the sort that is the real stuff, unadulterated.

I would guess living with someone who thinks like this is not simple. There are pros and cons of working at living a creative life propelled by a spiritual bent. My days and nights are underpinned by deep roots of belief in a higher power whom I call God for the purpose of easier communications. (I don’t know what God’s true name sounds like but I feel it often, everywhere.) For as long as I can recall, I have sought to tap a source that is omnipresent, if often constricted by human definitions. It makes me not content to skim the surface of things, as there is no impenetrable “surface”–the exterior I see beckons and what lies beneath is a richer extension of it, a spiraling variation, another chain of possibilities. And guiding me is the constant sense of being connected to earth and to humanity while being tethered to the universe. To the great knowns and unknowns.

As a young person, I assumed everyone thought this way. How could they not? It would be like not realizing lungs were the organs of distribution for crucial air to be carried into our blood, to our sinews and brain–and for releasing CO2. And that trees et al have a vital part to play. But by adolescence I at least realized we each experienced existence uniquely–furthermore, developed different ideas and ways of using them. What I see from my little window on the world may appear to encompass all but, of course, it does not–it likely cannot encompass much of who you are unless you invite me to your window awhile. Or I request information and then try to fill in the blanks, at best. So I’ve continued to watch, feel, think, sense, listen, take mental notes. And what is revealed is often amazing to contemplate.

Like the neighbor many years ago who I liked in a general sort of way but worried about. She was very well spoken– held a Ph.D.–and was guarded sometimes pleasant. But she also who kept us up at night, seemingly rearranging furniture, opening and shutting file cabinet drawers (we thought). She talked loudly to herself, placed alarming political messages on her car windows. I asked her many times to please be more quiet so we could get some sleep. I once banged on her door the next morning, demanding silence…she said, “Then call the police!” I felt perhaps she was mentally ill. I wanted to know her story and I cared–I was a mental health clinician then–but she wasn’t telling it. She was a powerful person who felt lost.

One day she packed up and left with her son, and the key to her distress and fear was shared with me. She had been a teacher in a school across the street from the federal building in Oklahoma City when it was bombed by a domestic terrorist. She was a witness and a victim. She never really recovered. She lost many; her survival was a nightmare day and night. I went to my place and wept, for her and for myself, felt ashamed of my lack of patience and acceptance. It hurt to meet my shortcomings face-on. But she had made an impression. She helped me see I always need to think a gain–not react but think and sense what the bigger truth might be.

So you never do know, until you know more. We live with one another in a world that seems prone to catastrophes more than ever. But we still have beauty and wonder. We can share tenderness and courage with one another. There are terrible things, yes, but there still is goodness and we must not forget that, either.

I suspect many who do not feel part of the entirety of life manage to frequently and temporarily disconnect. From themselves and others, global life and the universal ball of wax. There are so many ways to do it. I certainly once tried–I drank or used various drugs, I worked too hard, loved too much or badly, slept less than sensible, tried to lose myself in a multitude of ways. I had my memory jogged a few harsh times and fortunately recalled that to be awake was far more rewarding that sleepwalking through life. The last time–decades ago–it finally “took”. More or less, most of the time.

So, to go forth and embrace–a good intention tempered by caution as needed.

I might appear hobbled by an insistent interest in too much, a magnetic pull to whatever is perceived. For example, walking with me may require forbearance. I start out fast, prefer to go quickly, yet move in fits and starts, pausing to take a closer look at a vine against a fence, a white porch with a green chair, a tree branch with three yellow leaves against a cloudy sky, a scarlet flower that lies amid crispy curling leaves. Then comes a lady in a bulky coat and floral scarf. She bends over to pet a grey Persian cat who has chosen to rest at her feet. The sun emboldens the space; the cat languishes. It shoots a glance at me as I hesitate behind the woman; it has green eyes. The lady and I smile, nod, move on. I feel good. I liked how her eyes warmed, the woman’s not the cat’s. The cat is gorgeous, tolerant, regal and now addresses more important matters than my admiring words. We have, afterall, already exchanged flick of energy, that recognition by one being of another.

My husband waits a few steps apart. He looks on the ground for the odd rock, interesting sticks, the bit of detritus worth a moment. He, too, is present in experience but the wide arc of scanning, a review of everything does not move him in the way it does me. I want to absorb the lovely strangeness of life, its willful and predetermined responses. To be open to its vagaries. Let it all trickle through me as if I am a sieve, catching and savoring the choice parts amind the  big picture.

One way to immerse myself in this buzz of daily living is taking photos as I go. I carry a camera (other than phone camera) everywhere. I seek to frame the richness of territories and persons within it. Grand or humble designs of civilization and the natural world that may open like secret chests when I attend them. There is a vibrant energy inherent in any moment, a tableau, an object. The life force is a basic phenomenon; it animates all living things. I like how the French put it: esprit de vie, or life spirit. It emanates from all things in some way or another. My camera takes charge as soon as I push a button. What I see again in the resultant photograph is not always what I think I saw. I am often surprised by the more or the less of an image, but in the meantime, I have chosen to focus in the here and now. To be open to what crosses my path and vice versa. And most often it shimmers with something, a vibrational presence, a welcome, a dazzle of curious joy.

It is simple and exacting at once to take pictures. But I don’t worry about becoming a great photographer; I expect different things of this happy habit. I do aspire to note and capture some essence of a thing or being. I want to see and find truth, the one nestled within another. What astonishes is how much variety of life there is, how what is similar, especially human beings, can be so alike yet distinct. All this patterning and deviation from pattern arranges a vivid criss-crossing, a panoramic verve. And I value the peculiarity of being human, that we have personal identity, a spirit we can claim as ours due to DNA, group culture and life circumstances as well as our relationship to this greater picture. To an ever-evolving and sacred map of infinity.

Earth. The plant and animal life it sustains is a freakishly complex yet flexible work, in process of being born, growing and living. Dying. Rebirthing. That little remains static is essential to the scheme. We witness its suffering, too. I give my attention to this composition of energies. I don’t want to be distracted or seduced by spectacles that lack substance. Fabulous work is going on quietly beneath our noses; dramas unfold in nature and lives that we barely can imagine. We inhabit this place with minds intent on other things, on the minutiae of daily routines, demands of work, wants and basic needs. We rather too often take our beating hearts for granted until our living is under siege. Unpredictable events are spawned by weather or political conflict, or disharmony between friends or strangers, misunderstandings within our own families. How can we allow ourselves to be waylaid when we have brains wired to make choices–smarter ones? It happens so easily.

So begin again, I think.

I awaken and come back to the body’s reign. I sit down at our too-cluttered table, drink tea, welcome another chance to survey more unfolding of events. I pray for opportunities to learn and love, to better trust my instincts, my evaluative skills. I hope for rain and sun; both are necessary and appreciated.

I do value my traditions, principles and insights, yes. But I also keep strong my desire to learn more of what I do not know or understand. I want to honor these moments I am given. That includes clarifying a more thorough view of what being alive means to people, to me. I care not only about what works, symmetry and a flawless synchrony but about errors and anomalies. It all is here to explore and consider. Life is a empowered by its essence of one sort or another. As creatures set upon this globe, we do not have to do much more but stay alive in the end, I suppose. But it flourishes with our contributions, hopefully for the greater good, not just our own. Experience is truly transformative when we participate in the creative actions that occur each day.

So I watch, I listen, I aim and I click the camera button. The photographs tell me generous stories. I am filled up as I enter the moment and share it. They give me a way to better understand. And the taking of a picture also gives me freedom from this nattering self. One moment is suspended, is a gift, even as it is already moving through and beyond me. I am important enough but so is all that is before me, incandescent with matter and spirit.

Discover and believe. Live and strive. Do not forget to offer your beauty and help to one another. Become your own best witness to the smallest of miracles.

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The Great Unknowns

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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen but it isn’t going to be an event you desire? Something you cannot even imagine? Or you can, and that’s the problem, or will be sooner or later.

Your throat tightens as though a vise has gripped it, your breath is  squashed by the fancy architecture of your ribs. What was once your important and strong core, i.e., your diaphragm, is now a puddle of bad jelly. Your heart? It has its own agenda and it is not listening to reason. Your autonomic system is responding to a three alarm fire and you can’t even see the smoke. Then you realize what is happening but it leaves you quaking anyway: anxiety attack! If only there was somewhere to run for cover.

Or perhaps it is a malingering you feel, a daily burden, a sensation that nothing is ever quite right or something will go wrong no matter what is done. A deep sense of unease keeps you company, heightened by some circumstances, lessening a bit in others. But it is like your shadow, never vanishing once and for all.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue noted in the U.S. At least eighteen percent of the population suffers enough to seek help according to one report. I can testify to how widespread it is after counseling clients for over twenty-five years. I estimate that seventy percent of my clients have anxiety. They have said it is the primary reason (grief and loss is second, tied with depression) for abusing drugs and alcohol. And they also complain that they’ve developed a host of symptoms related to anxiety (and the stress and tension it brings) from insomnia to nausea to migraines; avoidance of the company of others; and becoming blocked in achieving lifelong goals. It can kick-start depression. Anxiety can stop you from going out the door for milk or to a holiday party.

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Anxiety is the buzzing static in your head that is louder than a city at full-tilt. It makes things feel harder. Relief is the goal for those who know its redundant tune. Anxiety can hold you hostage. And all you want is freedom, if only the very thought of it wasn’t so anxiety producing.

But my disclaimer: this post does not offer a perfect panacea. There are already good ways and means to address anxiety disorders if that is what you experience and need professional help. At the local bookstore are a wide variety of books on how to manage anxiety. There are physical and spiritual practices (meditation and prayer, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and so on) that ease symptoms. Therapists have skills that enable them to treat anxiety in all its manifestations; they make a decent living due to so much need. Pharmaceutical companies profit from designing and selling medications that may or may not help.

What I want to talk about is that it is possible to de-fang and de-claw much of our anxiety. I don’t even think much of that word; it lacks even a utilitarian flair. I am certain that decades ago “nervousness” was just another emotion to experience and cope with; now it has become a major diagnosis. But it is here to stay, it seems. So this is an essay about how I have increasingly avoided an emotional stutter that forces a time out from life. Because that’s what anxiety feels like to me: going into a corner, facing a wall for more than a tolerable few minutes. As long as anxiety can breathe my breath for long, I’m not living the life I need to live: full-on, intrigued by what comes my way and how I get to respond. What I get to next create.

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I’m not easily thrown by challenges though I’ve had some doozies. But I learned a few useful things along the way. Painful events are equal opportunity: we all get to experience them, first off, because we’re born with human bodies. Bundles of nerves and powerful chemicals that create chain reactions set the stage. Each emotional nuance helps us to better know ourselves and others. Our potential and limits. Sometimes we get into something we didn’t foresee at all. Or too late. And it has sudden impact.

Like the one I stumbled into when almost fifteen.

I was walking by a city park, above it, actually, on railroad tracks. The sun beamed down on all. I loved trains, being in them or not. I’d once jumped one for a slow ride as it came into town, hanging on with one hand, the wheels’ rhythms travelling up bone and sinew. So I kept my eye on the far point and my ear attuned to a mellow whistle. It was Indian summer in Michigan. There were children down below playing, adults sharing a last barbecue, and their shouts and laugher drifted up the hill. No train made itself apparent. I wasn’t worried if one did start barreling toward me as I could easily scramble up the incline to the street. There, just out of reach, were gracious homes with broad lawns that overlooked the Tittabawasee River and the park.

I was thinking of little when I heard them. Footsteps. They  closely matched mine but fell heavier, then a bit faster. I threw a glance over my shoulder, thinking it was another like-minded person enjoying the day, waiting for a train. But no. He was not much older than was I, maybe younger, wiry with dark hair and no smile. No words. He felt…wrong. Discomfort did not creep up on me; it hammered me with a surge of adrenalin that was critical. I started to run; my legs chose how fast.

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Not fast enough. Hands grabbed and I was down, blows catching my chest, face. I kicked and hit back and when my jeans were tugged I bit the hand that tried to silence me. I screamed at him. He wasn’t giving up easily but I was raging. My only defense was words because below me in the park no one could or would pay attention.   I said exactly what I felt with a force that shook me.

“Who do you think you are? God is more powerful than you and He will get you for this! Stop!”

He pulled back, stunned, eyes wide. He went a little slack so I  shoved him off. He fell over and I dashed up the hill and into the street. I heard the train whistle, that low, full-bellied moan that builds into a forlorn and beckoning call. I could not stop running running running. I did not tell anyone what happened but said I had fallen hard and split my lip. Telling that sort of truth was not encouraged in my mid-sixties town.  I pondered if I made the error, wrong place and time. I decided it might not be the best place to walk alone but nothing was my fault. Yet,  self-doubt lingered. Anxiety found a way in, cutting me off from the known world, weakening my confidence.

I survived that attack; in the future even worse would waylay my life. But countless people can and do survive terrible things every day. Living is a complicated ride where treachery and wondrousness can share a seat. Large and small tragedies make us ask: what is safety, really, in the end? We come into this world with hearts and spirits ready to be dazzled and they are. But they’re also turned inside out.

How does one live beyond the bruisings and wounds? Was I to be dogged by paralyzing fear whenever I left a familiar sidewalk, town, country? Would I battle nightmares the rest of my life, only to enter each day expecting the same or worse? Did I fashion an armor so fail proof that I was distanced from others? How to find a way back to ease? It was imperative to learn how to thrive in altered territory, both interior and exterior. It took time. I patched things back together with help, same as anyone who desires to live better. Anxiety, which is a gnawing worry over loss of control in our lives, was not my real problem. I already knew I could have control taken away, with pain left in its stead. So my thinking had to change so I could “live life on life’s terms” (as AA informs recovering folks). Peace was the prize I coveted.

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So facing up to the fact that our lives are unpredictable but resilient  helps. Safety is, in actuality, often relative, fluid and shaped by our viewpoint. How do I determine not the future but the way I will greet it?

So we can adjust our perspective. As a youth I tried to ignore spurts of anxiety (why feed something I didn’t like?) with some success (denial can give us a break). I tried blotting it out with substances. I distracted myself with work, achievements, loved ones. I was busy first and last, being constructive in my life. But nothing yielded good results until I found another way. It was imple acceptance. Of the real sense of uncertainty. Of randomness and sudden changes in the scheme of things. Anxiety accompanies our living; nerves are conduits of information to apprise and use all our systems. Without some adrenalin I’d not move from a chair, after all. I had to make a friendly alliance with anxiety. And, sad human creatures that we sometimes are,  we also need great, unswerving compassion. I give you and myself full permission to heap this on ourselves whenever we feel small. Vulnerable. Then go out there; walk in  kindness.

Not everything needs to ring the alarm. It can ring a small bell. There can be silence. Times can feel harrowing but others are  tender, exquisite. Battling old or unseen adversaries–phantoms on the railroad tracks–keeps the bloody fight going. It took the spunk out of me, which I refuse to allow again. We cannot reasonably fight the unknown. I can learn how to be a dragon slayer, just in case, but why? Surprise is a valued element in my life story as well as acceptance. I do have trust that I’ll keep on walking to the end of this road. That it will stay lit up by ordinary and Divine Love and the next turn will proffer extraordinary things. I am, simply put, allied with my humanness and with my faith. I have surrendered so that I can dwell in my personal power; fear will not own me. And if it gets to me anyway, I remind myself: I am like a sieve as emotions flow through, morph and retreat, rise then fall. Things change once again.

I open the door wide. I look around as my animal senses pay attention. This is automatic and also prudent. I step out and breathe lungfuls of fresh air. Today it is chilled and rainy; I welcome it. Tomorrow? Who knows how the winds will blow? I’m as ready as I can expect to be. There is not time or inclination to give the vast unknowns so much attention. Life calls to me, even the world, and I am enthralled. I just get on with it. You can, too.

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Attending to the Essence

DSCF7871There are surprises that occur while living with a disease that may have exclusive rights to my final demise. One is that life is still a great open stage and I can do with it what I want. And I am still granted opportunities to decide what stories to direct and participate in. This is noted despite the fact that I realize I can be struck down any moment.

I had begun to think I was a bit of a puppet, as we can at times suspect. It seemed I was not infrequently subject to the unreliable winds of life, the whims of confounding, surly natured, occasionally dangerous people who crossed my path. It appeared I shared these experiences with many others. But I wondered if I was purposely situated in poorly designed scenarios despite my goal to explore only the very best. By my late teens I decided I had been duped. Too many hard things occurred, and not only to me, to convince me otherwise. What was this being human?

Victoria Trip 7-12 398But, then, I grew up in a world of culture and classical music, Sunday dinners generally shared with intelligent, kindly people. Duly civilized and all. There was much to love. But it was also like being a hothouse flower (with a few toxic influences thrown in) and then set outdoors, exposed to the rawness of real atmospheric influences. My first visits to Detroit and Chicago were terrifying and fabulous. I suspected there was much more to learn and wanted to get to it. And gradually I figured out bits and pieces, some useful and others discarded. Then I started to lose power along the way. I misplaced that critical, pervasive sense of a life-sustaining essence. The thing that gave me both gravity and joy. One can come to doubt enough that rescue has to occur; a decision must be made to stay alive. The years seemed full of exigencies and I did not understand as much as I believed.

Not everyone is fortunate to have more than a couple of cracks at life. But people who cared, along with a few angels (reader, you know I claim them), dragged me to my feet before I went down for good. God waited until I found a better foothold so transformation could begin. I gathered clues to better living long before that forest hike commandeered my heart and took me down to the dirt. It’s a good thing I had helpful life skills because employing any victim stance again required more energy than I could squander. But it shook me up, that ton of pressure on my chest that left me reeling. I barely, with my husband’s help, made it out of the trees. I have decent intuition, sometimes very good, but it took me until the next morning to understand my heart was getting ready to kill me. And I needed a lot of mental and physical stamina to devise a new game plan. When I cold-called cardiology offices and found Dr. P., who listened and knew exactly what to do, I found liberation. A damaged heart, yes, but freedom was in the making.

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My scheme included full-on healing. Not the sort that exercise, heart medication and diet support. All very good, but not enough. I took three years off work and began to re-learn how to be fully present in my body, in the moment, in my life. Dare I say it? Prayer and surrender. Expectation of health. Call it meditation if you like, call it conscious development of an awareness of Spirit. Call it Step 3 if you attend AA. But I needed a reminder and I had gotten it: personal power begins with surrendering stupidity. Well, perhaps more accurately the tyrannical ego that is constructed from lifelong illusions. What a mess it can make.

So, if my heart was to become strong, harmonious organ, didn’t it make sense to heal it from the inside out? The bitter words still echoing in the night, regrets that soured more with time? What is the value of vilification in the end? How about the lost passionate teen-aged love that was just that–a love that served adolescence, not this time, this person? Or the worst of the lot: nightmarish assaults and a legacy of addiction that hurt my family, my several failures to thrive and achieve, the grief that bound me still to the burden of living, not the sheer joy of it. The list of things that haunt and damn us. In truth, we are missing the ancient campfire to swap our troubles and then sing it all away.

Still, you wouldn’t have seen this at a glance. You would have found a woman competent and quick, hard-working and accessible. You could count on me. Yet I was a woman also driven to exhaustion, bruised to the marrow though a believer in hope–which was given to others, not so often to myself. I had to unclench my hands and let my own tears flood them, then fall away. I had to make a nest in mercy. Room was needed for the purity of wonder left behind in childhood. Space big enough for the essence, for life-giving light. I did not want a life lived and coming undone, like ruined skin peeling off. Impotence did not appeal.

I had to change, fast, before there would be three, not just two, stent implants or worse. Work began in earnest, because that is the only way I have ever known how to live. Intensely. Now. The panoramic experiences that wanted my embrace lay before me. I felt I was asked to take a step into, at best, intriguing but hazy possibilities. And because I have always needed to see what is around the next bend, I stepped forward despite becoming unmoored from my known life. Oh, the beauty I found. The way life insinuates the fibers of our being with its beneficent force. The elegance of faith that will not shake loose despite setbacks. When in mid-stream and the water keeps rising, float. What I have found is that there is no end to what we can manage and discover and in the process of discovery, act upon and give.

I did go back to my chosen field, counseling the mentally ill and addicted. Some folks advised against it–too stressful, they said. But the truth is, it has always been a calling. It was a fulfillment of a promise made long ago to be of good use to those with too little hope and resources. After more years I stopped working and threw caution to the wind again. This time to write every day. Stories were intruding on work, or perhaps it was the other way around.

Our hearts know us first and last, beat to cavernous beat. It knows us best although we try to hide. It will remind us important things we have forgotten, secrets we thought we might never know, avenues to God and ways to live on earth in full, unadulterated color. Every moment has potential magic. I feel this in its primal rhythm as I rest, sweat, play, ponder. So when I awaken, I do wonder what scenario will unfold today. What will I bring to the fore and let recede? Maybe directing is not so much the need but narrating the story is. As a child I wrote plays and poems. I rounded up a motley neighborhood cast and crew and we threw it all together for ticketed performances, all in the name of fun. It was so easy to create and share the pleasure. So now, here, I will hold on to this recaptured essence that infuses my living, without hoarding the wonder.

Let me traverse the path with eyes wide open, unflinching; look for the whole truth which can be perfected only with compassion. I want to hold an ongoing conversation with humanity as well as the starry canopy and beyond. I care to live within the transducing power of life, its wild center, until the very last moment here. Let me not hold back one good thing.

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When All is Said and Done

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It is surprisingly quiet in my world this afternoon, and it creates a mild state of reverie. The dryer stopped tumbling. I ignore it. Marc is on the couch, designing a Sudoku puzzle. Our busy street has emptied itself midday. One of our five children left with her partner to meet/talk/eat/coffee with friends, and in three more days they will journey back to the place where she attends grad school. Two more live in our city; we will see them sooner. Two others and a grandson reside back East, and for a moment I feel the  shape of their absence and want to curl up in it. To have them all here would be a miracle.

I drift and follow one thought-picture to another. The last two weeks are a mental collage of people, places, objects. Mounds of bright wrapping paper and ribbon figure heavily in the picture, and a meticulous gift list to which I referred until the last minute. Bits and pieces of conversation slip in and out of my mind. They are accompanied by a chorus of laughter, eyes closing and opening, hands that wend through the air as though independent messengers of the real story. There have been candles, at least twenty of them, lining up on the coffee table, throwing light from bookshelves, casting a steady glow over several family meals. I think that each child and grandchild is like those candles, aflame with life, softly or boldly. Beautiful fires. In the center of the oak dining table is an angel chime powered by four miniature candles and its sweet dingdingdingding is a background accompaniment to this Christmas imagery.

Christmas Eve and Day 2012 007There were gifts upon gifts; the fir tree presided over such abundance. I admit to a tendency toward extravagance. It has little to do with money and more to do with an intense desire to offer surprises and items of use for both external and internal possibilities. I still want to nourish this family although they move away from me daily as they design and administrate their own lives. I wish to give their children ways to support dreams, stretch the parameters of mind. And encourage opportunities for fun. I think I did alright. No one sneered or let escape a sigh, at least in my presence, which is appreciated in an increasingly uncivil world.

The candlelight service at church replays against the greys of this waning Saturday: songs luminous and familiar reaching the rafters; prayers for the living, those leaving or gone; communion, that mysterious melding of earthy and divine. It was good to  see people gathered, knowing we each harbored complex humanness rife with needs and wants yet came, anyway. There was a moment when members of the choir took places among us, and music enveloped us, entered my blood, connected my spirit with all. Moved us to tears. Then, finally, we took small candles and all those vivid points of light were ignited from person to person, then raised in the wide canopy of darkness.

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But here’s the thing: it finally ends, the fanfare and bustle, the gorgeousness of this season. That pause wherein the holy is made more palpable and the contrasting secular is given its due is left behind. It all has a prelude and finale. We take up our workaday posts as family members and friends, workers, students, dreamers and doers. The gifts may or may not figure into anything we start and accomplish. We learn early on when the toy breaks we can’t count on things, and before the new year begins they may be forgotten despite our best intentions.

What we are finally left with is something else. What we snared from the feasting and communing will help define the tone of the coming weeks. The light is fanned and fed or allowed to fade. Perhaps even the angels breathe quietly and wait and watch.

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There are few days between this old year and the new one we try to envision. As they pass, my home will be emptied of the once-gallant tree. Trimmings will be hauled to the basement. My children will have again departed. I will have more work to do, projects to consider, worries to corral as will we all. And yet I will sit in the middle of each new day and night, and I will surrender to them, and to this, an essential solitude. There is reassurance in this. In the end, when all the trappings are gone, I have my own self within these moments. And even though I keep intimate company with a failed will, flaws and errors, I am still at home with the truth of who I am. And with God, in the most pedestrian ways. What I make of things remains up to me as I sort through odds and ends.

Let this year, this time pass, and come what may, let the living continue with expectant gratitude, a savory dash of merriment. Let us be captivated, made more present. Alive.

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Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.