Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Bowl, Waiting To Be Filled...

"This story is about a bowl.

A bowl waiting to be filled.

If what I have just written makes no sense to you,
I am not surprised.

If I had known in the beginning what I was looking for,
I would not have written this story.

I had to trust there was a reason I had to write,
and I didn't have to have it all figured out in order to begin.

I would find what I was looking for
along the way."

~ Sue Bender ~
The Preface to Everyday Sacred

It is during this kind of time that I return to one of my favorite books. In fact I'd say that this book is in my top five lifetime favorites. As a woman who has read non-stop all of her life, this is saying a quite a lot. I have all of Bender's books and cherish them, but I have 3 copies of this one book because I always need it near me. I need to remember about the empty bowl. I need to remember that I don't need to have it all figured out in order to begin. I finally realized that I only had to begin.

I feel very soft and tender right now, and naked, like a Hermit crab just out of her old shell and not yet sheltered by a new one. Or perhaps like an oyster taken out of it's shell and laid on a plate, its edges quivering. Exposed. That's what happens when you write a book about your life. And I have been waiting to write this book for a very long time. It never seemed the right time. Now it seems I cannot stop.

Sometimes the words cut me like broken glass. I made the background of this page a soft pink tonight because I needed to have that cloud-like softness to cushion the blows of my own truths. It is a challenging and yet necessary thing to come up against all that you have denied, all that you have hidden, all that you have made excuses for, and look smack dab at the center of your own life. And so you pack a picnic basket and head out to a grassy knoll. You spread out an old worn quilt, set the picnic basket down, and lie on the quilt, running your fingers delicately through the blades of grass just off of the frayed edges. A ladybug lands on your nose. You take this as a good sign.

Today, you see, is part of my ritual when writing a book. I have to lie down in utter silence, save the sounds of Nature all around me, and look at the clouds, watch the shapes and forms and billowing pillows against the blue sky, I watch and I watch and I watch and then I see my life taking form. The clouds become chapters, they become people, they become a series of stories like prayer beads on a string. They become my life and the shape of the book itself.

I am a visual artist as well as a writer and when I write a book I don't just have an idea, a theme, a story I want to tell, no, I see it, geometrically. The words on the page, the shape of the paragraphs, the line breaks, the ellipses. I must imagine the drawings that will be at the top of each chapter. I must reach inside of the clouds with my eyes closed and feel my book, the paper on the cover, the lighter paper inside, the circumference, the container that will hold my words. Is is strong enough? I am not sure. I think I will write my book in a bowl and then ladle out the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters onto the pages. I like that.

I have begun to see my life as soup. I have often remembered, and told my students, and shared with friends in melancholy moments, the old tale of Stone Soup. A gentle man was hungry, as were the poor villagers, and none of them, individually, had much to eat. The man started an enormous kettle of water to boiling over a fire and put a stone in it. That was all he had. Watching, the villagers went to see what they had. One had a carrot, one a piece of meat, one some herbs, and others came along and brought what they had and added it to the kettle. By nightfall there was a great soup, enough to feed the whole village, and they ate well and warmed themselves, together, by the fire. They learned a lesson that night, and I learn from them. It takes a village to write a book.

For me, the village is a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, moments of rapture set against times of despair. Joyful, dancing, whimsical moments, the miracle of birthing my three children. The sorrows and fears of my childhood set against the times I was sailing happily through the air over five foot jumps on the back of my horse, windswept hair, his mane blowing in the breeze. Glory, it was pure, unadulterated perfection. I was not happy in school though I got good grades, but I have been an ecstatic autodidact all of my adult life. I read and study non-stop, everything from literature to horticulture, the study of ancient art forms and how to grow African violets. I study Navajo weaving, and freeform crochet, dumpster diving for junk art and I study old houses and their history to try to find the past I never knew as an adopted child. I long for an old house with an interesting history. It will connect me back in time.

I like spaces between paragraphs and spaciousness in my life. Encounters with people, trips out into the wide wide world must be buffeted by a tremendous amount of silence and solitude. Time in the garden, a soft snoring pug in my lap. All of these things will go into my soup, the soup that will sustain me as I write my book, as well as the contents of the book itself.

It begins to rain softly and I stay on my quilt and watch the clouds cry. Suddenly the raindrops become the drops of ink from my quill pen. I love to write with old fashioned dip pens, and I collect old, non-functional fountain pens because you can also dip them and write with them. I will write words in my books. Hand write them. My drawings are watercolor plus pen and ink. Like the writing of my books, the colors drift onto the page creating a background, and the pen, dipped in the bottle and tapped gently on the side, finds it way through and around the color, intuits the forms and shapes and images in the swirls of color. The picture is there, the pen need only go on a scavenger hunt to find it. I am the pen, the paper, the writer, the watercolors, the water, the brush, the bottle of ink, the sketchbook, the air around me, the clouds overhead. I am the bowl that holds the words. I have been adding ingredients to the soup for fifty-five years. It's time to set the table.

Set your bowl on the table. Ladle in the rich soup you have made with your family and friends back through time. Gather them to you, if only in your mind, those living and those who have passed. Break off a piece of crusty bread and dip it in the soup. Savor your own life.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Moving Toward Patience, Simplicity, and Compassion...

“I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

~ Lao Tzu ~

When I came upon this quote late last night I typed it in here, but was too tired to write this post. I found, what for me, seemed the perfect image -- a table, a chair, a bowl, a spoon. I long for that kind of simplicity in this small cottage impossibly filled to the hilt, and I have been too overwhelmed to get a handle on it.

I've been feeling overwhelmed lately anyway, as I have written about my mother's impending death, made harder by the fact that she is just dangling at the crossroads, and I can't stand to see her suffer. It is suffocating and paralyzing, but still, one must do the daily round of tasks and keep moving forward.

Then I found a free download designed by my magical friend, Leonie, "12 Key Zen Habits," inspired by the work of Leo Babuata and I heaved a sigh of relief... ahhh ... you mean it could be this simple? Leonie says that you can download it for your desktop (which I have done) and it is an inspiration, it gives one hope, and I am going to practice it every day. It breaks down tasks into tiny nuggets and Leonie's wildly colorful, whimsical art is worth having as a daily inspiration all by itself. You can click on her link above to go to her amazing website to download the poster, (You need to scroll down a bit.) and click on Babuata's link to go to his inspiring blog. Simplicity, patience, compassion, and I would like to add to that, synchronicity.

Lately I have been having the most amazing happening and connections, synchronicity abounds. I was so sad that my best friend Jeff was moving, it was the impetus for me to begin to make plans to move to Asheville, NC, a place I've wanted to move for some time. After long thought I realized that I could move, but not yet. Patience. And then hours later I heard from Jeff that he was not going to move now either for a number of reasons. We both still plan to move, in different directions, but the timing was not right for either of us. I was startled that evolution and dissolution of our plans happened just hours apart. That's one example, there are many more.

And unbeknownst to me, something unimaginable happened. The two large parrots I had been caring for, having rescued one over a year ago and keeping Jeff's for a couple of months while he sorted some things out, left within days of one another. Maya, the macaw, went home with Jeff, and Blossom, the beautiful Greated Sulfur Crested cockatoo went to a beautiful and perfect new owner who has already begun to give her an incredible life. And when those two gigantic cages moved out of the living room, and the quiet of the two birds now having moved on, I was almost startled by the silence I had not had in over a year.

The carpet has been cut out because it was so old and my elderly rescue pugs were having "accidents" and despite my best efforts to clean up after them it was, well, not pleasant in here and the carpet was easily twenty years old. The floor was cleaned and painted and walking on the smooth, cool concrete was a revelation. It is so simple, and now so spacious in here, finally I can no longer bare the clutter, and I have started to clear up little areas. I don't want to move and carry the clutter with me. My mother always said I kept everything but dirty kleenex. Sadly, I think she might be right.

Patience. I have a tendency to make up my mind and when I do I move quickly and get it done. This has not always served me well, in fact, it's created some pretty awful messes. The older I get the more I am slowing down, and the last few years I have created little signs all over the cottage with a snail and the little phrase, "How slow can you go?" This is especially important now, because I think I wanted to move to rush through and past the pain of my mother's death, but there's no way to do that. My mother will die, I will have to work through my grief and whatever comes thereafter, and to move in the middle of it all is most certainly not the way to go. Rushing through something is never the way to go, and at 55 there are many considerations to take into account. It will be a good move for me, but rushing won't make it any better. Being prepared will. Making a simpler life here will make for a simpler life there. Being patient now will teach me patience for the future.

Compassion. This is what I teach. This is what I live. But it is so much easier to give to another than to give to oneself. I took the name Maitri legally because I wanted a reminder, every day of my life, of the teaching. Loving kindness and compassion for others, but first... first, we must have compassion and kindness for ourselves. We cannot give from an empty well. I have been the empty well that tried to keep running and running and running until my motor burned out, and it's time to be quiet and let the table rise. This is the way to plan a move and it will be the first time in my life I have done so. Moving slowly, with patience, compassion and grace will make for a far better life ahead. To plan, to clean out this cottage so that the dross doesn't hang onto my coat tails along the way. And to take my time doing it. To revel in the cleaning out. To celebrate the making spare. To finally be free.

The last decade, during my separation and divorce, my life has become simpler and simpler out of necessity. Less money, less space, the life I had had no longer accessible to me in any sense of the word, and it was scary, and it was hard, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

We are used to cushioning ourselves against the pain of living in the world that all too often seems impossibly hard. We don't look at life as a series of chances to grow spiritually and become more, we feet lost, alone, even in a houseful of people that we love, we wonder where we went wrong when what we are doing is following our hearts for the very first time in our lives, to make the hard choice, and then we have to live with the consequences. That's what happened to me. And it's taken me a decade to really, truly understand who I am and what I want. And it's the deciding that matters. Knowing where I'm going, not how fast I get there.

And so I will simplify my life. I will be patient. I will not only have compassion for the world around me, but for myself. I will celebrate the decade of pain and sorrow, of almost drowning, of being so lost I didn't imagine I could ever have a life, and slowly, ever so slowly, I will climb the mountain toward my dream, and it will be all the sweeter for the waiting. Yes, I will move, I will find my little cabin in a pocket of a mountain with my animals and garden, writing and art, and I will re-enter the world, a world I thought I'd never be part of again, and even that will happen slowly.

One of the most important lessons I've learned in my life is rooted in that saying, "Wherever we go, there we are." We can't go some place else to get away from who we are and the life we have. We have to make the life we have, here and now, as beautiful, peaceful, serene, loving, and fruitful as we can. If we can attain that, we really will have something to carry with us, and the years ahead will be all the richer and more fulfilling because of it.

I am making many changes in my life right now and it feels good. Even making this page white instead of clouded with color gives a kind of clarity and brightness that lifts me up. It's the words that matter after all, and they seem to have more weight, more impact, on a white page with no distractions. That's what I want for my life. I am seeking it. I will find it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What If You Had A Dream?

What if you had a dream, a dream you never thought you would see into reality? What if you believed enough in yourself to follow that dream, unafraid, wherever it would lead you? What if you planted a seed of a dream, and watered it and fed it and watched it grow and it changed you forever after and created in you oceans of love to give to the world around you because your cup was brimming over? What if? I am creating a dream, in fact, I am creating several dreams...

You can click above to see a larger, more readable image...

Since the closing of Dragonfly Cottage awhile back, the website that had been my home, the home for all of my work, many lists, thousands of friends made over a decade, and a very significant time in my life that spanned ten years, I have known that I was on the threshold that I would one day, when the time was right, cross, and enter a whole new world, a whole new life. I have always followed my heart, very often shocking others. I have risked much and gained more. I have loved openly and freely and been loved back tenfold in return. I feel so blessed by this life of mine.

My life is a pilgrimage. Currently, and for the last few months, there has been so much loss and more is coming. I have been paralyzed with grief and fear, from the losing of my beloved Henry, my grey parrot, hand raised by me and the great love of my life, always on my shoulder, a part of my soul, to the events of the present.

And I have been saying, I realized, in the last few days, "My mother is dying," for over four years now. She was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in February of 2005, and given a very short time to live. She was told to go home and put her affairs in order, and she did. She has fought an amazing battle and gone through so much in these last few years I couldn't begin to list all that she has been through, and as I have written here before, her attitude has been astonishing, uplifting, and inspiring to us all. She is a woman of great faith and from the outset has not been afraid to die. And through the worst of her various treatments, becoming very ill, in a lot of pain (that she has never complained about), going blind, she told everyone she spoke to anytime they asked her how she was doing, "Every day's a good day, it is what you make it." We are all in awe of this loving, gentle woman, a mother that I have had many ups and downs with in my life, and feel that the greatest blessing of all is that we had time to mend our fences, really open our hearts to loving one another, and most of all, I opened my whole being to allow her to teach me things I wasn't ready for before.

A week or so ago she told me that she had had enough, that she was going to stop all medical treatment. Her doctor begged her to try one more trial and she went through the tests but was refused for the program. Her white blood cell count is pretty well non-existent, and she knew going in that there wasn't much hope. I think she did it to appease everyone around her, in essence, that she did everything she could. I hated to see her go through one more thing, knowing almost certainly that the outcome would not be a positive one. But positive is relative, after all.

On Tuesday of this last week we spoke. It was the day after having all of the tests and being turned down. She was told that she had perhaps only a few weeks, perhaps two or three months. No one can tell for certain. It knocked the wind out of my sails, and broke my heart. My mother has been dying in slow motion for over four years, but the end is now very near. The family is all having a very hard time, but my mother is completely at peace, I think even relieved, and we have expressed our love for one another in a thousand ways. I stay very up and positive for her on the phone, and I get off the phone and cry. But I am the daughter of the woman who has, through over four years of cancer, gotten up every day and said, "Every day's a good day." How could I do any less?

She has said that she worries about me. I tell her I will be fine, and that it would make me happy if she didn't worry about anything. I have quoted to her over and over the quote by Dame Julian of Norwich in the 11th century... "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." And it shall. She has told me she wants me to be happy, to do what I need to do to be happy. When you are listening to the wishes for you from a dying woman, you take them to heart. (Of course she also told me that she would be watching me and talking to me from the "other side" and that I'd better listen! That's my mom.)

And so my Henry is gone, my mother will be gone any time, and my best and dearest friend, who has sustained me in so many ways I can't even count them now, through this last tenuous and painful decade, my Jeffy, is moving. He is following his dream and leaving Wilmington and everything here to follow his heart. It is a bold thing to do and won't be an easy one, or wouldn't have been in the mindset he was in even 3 months ago. I felt the earth fall out from under me when he told me this, and yet at the same time, I felt tremendous joy for him, and pride. I am so proud of him. I told him that it is very hard for me to see him go, but that if we are really loving and caring friends we wish the very best for them, and send them off with love and celebration. Jeff is about to begin a new life a few months from now, and so am I.

I am turning inside out and outside in over and over again. I am coming back to life and beginning to believe, truly, that I can have things that I never thought possible, and I want to do these things and spend my life with a joyful spirit, spreading loving kindness, compassion, and a bit of whimsy. On the card above you will see the direction that I am headed in. I have tried to limit myself too much, my focus was too narrow. My vision is far too big to put in a box. And when I say, "Writer For Hire," I don't mean paid posts and blogs full of affiliate ads (... though I have some ads, to be sure, the kind that form a network...) No, I meant a rather tongue in cheek, "Have pen, will travel." I can travel around the world in my mind, I can write many things. I am an artist in many directions. I have realized that in the past few years I have either tried to limit myself far more than my spirit will allow -- I had given up on my dreams -- and I was going in wrong directions. But now, even as my mother is dying, and my best friend is leaving, they are shedding light on the path ahead so that I can see my way. Even this week Jeff has helped me plant a seed, and I can't tell you yet because it's a secret, but it makes me feel over-the-moon, ecstatic. Nothing earth-shaking to anyone else, but to me, miraculous. No one knows but Jeff, and for the time being it shall remain so.

Life is, at times like these, unbearably painful and unimaginably lovely at the same time. The glow of the fire as the coals go out. The Phoenix crashing and burning and rising again. I have crashed and burned many times over in my lifetime, and I have been so filled with sorrow these last months I could hardly bear to breathe at times, but now, the sun is rising on the horizon and I am glowing, filled with love and tenderness. Even as I shed tears over my mother I am watering the seed of the dream I have just planted, and this is exactly what she would expect me to do.

To that end I am in the process of setting up a new website. The one on the card above, which is not active yet but will be in the next few week. It will bring together my blogs, my writings and other work, my art, my dreams, lessons about compassion and loving kindness, and much, much more. I will eventually have a little shop on the site to sell my art to help me to live. I will carry this with me and expand upon it in the years ahead, and I will take it with me when I go where my dream will be taking me.

Stay with me on this journey. I will help light your path as well. My work now is helping others see their dreams made manifest, and help them find joy amidst sorrow, and love amidst hate, and compassion, welling up from underground, spreading over the land and farther than the eye can see. I want us all to dream and hope and love and cherish each day. My mother will be living her life as wholly and joyfully as she can in the time she has left. She, the dying one, is the candle in the middle of the darkness we all feel. In the midst of our sorrow she reminds us of the goodness in each day.

I'm listening mom. I'm learning. I will honor your strength and love and faith and life as I travel through the rest of mine. I will follow my dreams and never lose hope. I will open my arms and my heart to the world, and offer the work of my hands, and make people laugh. I am my mother's daughter, and I can make it so.

Follow your heart, follow your dreams. It's time to plant your seed. I'll be right here waiting to hand you the watering can. What will you plant?

Every day's a good day. I won't forget mom. And I'll remind others too, and yes mam, I will listen to you as you talk to me from the other side. I'd better mind my p's and q's!