Sunday, September 26, 2010

Napping with Cats

Yesterday afternoon I took a delicious nap with my cat on my stomach, providing weight, like a blanket during savasana. (Well, 15 pounds of blanket, but still.) Something I have learned from a lifetime of cats as pets, is to let go of expectation, at least when it comes to the cat. A cat may or may not sleep in your lap while you read, watch TV, or nap. And if she or he does and you shift your weight ever so slightly in an attempt to keep your lower extremities from going completely numb, they jump down and go back to sleep under the coffee table. When you try to coax them back, promising not to move again, they open one eye and look at you like you have completely lost your mind. With a cat, you get what you get when you get it. There is no use expecting anything. And so I don't.

I wish I could do as well with humans. I try, but I cannot seem to get over expecting them to behave like I think they should, or be who I think I need or want them to be. Expectation is disappointment under construction. Most of us build house after house of disappointment with commendable consistency.

I used to have great expectations for myself--primarily that, along with being a gift to humanity and the world, I would live happily ever after. I still expect to live happily ever after, but my vision of what that looks like is constantly evolving. Like an amputee, perhaps, who expects to walk on two legs all their life but has to adjust the vision to moving on wheels or with a manufactured leg. Maybe my great expectations were really someone else’s assumptions. My new more modest expectations may be lower in some senses--reality brings us a bit closer to our knees. But from our knees we can see more of what is above us--the people who walk with us, the faces of those who depend on us and on whom we depend, the One who lights the way.

Speaking of expectations, in the garden I expected to be observing the inhabitants dying a natural death this time of year. But, no; they are suffering--as am I--from five weeks without rain and, as of yesterday, 91 days this summer of temperatures above 90 degrees. Just a few facts from the record books: this summer broke the record of days over 90 set in 2007, which blew the previous decades-old record out of the water. Raleigh is fourth on the list of states in the nation with most days this summer of temperatures above normal--at 68. I don't know the origin of the term Indian summer, but I think it is supposed to be a good thing: a welcome stall of the relentless march toward the winter cold, not an uninvited lingering of an already oppressive summer. The grass is brittle, the breeze rattles in the dry leaves in the tops of the still green trees. A tree partly on my side of the property line has lost all its leaves. From drought stress or death? I guess I will have to wait until spring to know. The branches that fell on the neighbor’s garage several weeks ago are still there, brown and ugly. I would have expected them to remove the debris by now.

I have one outdoor water spigot with two hoses attached, two watering cans, and two rain barrels--empty. I have tried to keep things watered, but I can't keep up--partly because I am loath to use precious water on plants, and partly because it just is not possible to adequately imitate Mother Nature, and I don't have the patience. I struggle with not knowing when to press on--at least keeping them just barely alive until it rains again--and when it is time to let them go. (I have the same issue with people, now that I think about it.) And do I use the precious water on annuals, that are going to die anyway, or on perennials, that will come back anyway? And do the perennials come back if they go underground too soon, or are they dead under the surface, too? I guess I will find that out next spring as well.

On the other hand, an unexpected delight has been the plant that has looked all summer like a weed. And it is, I suppose. It grows wherever it wants to, mostly along the edges of beds in part shade. The wimpy leaves have holes in them that look like the work of insects. I pull some of them from time to time, but they come back. Some of them I have left alone. I don't know its name, but now, when everything else is wilted and without blooms, these "objectionable" plants have beautiful feathery purple blooms on them.

There was a super harvest moon Wednesday night. That is when the autumnal equinox and the full moon come close to coinciding. The “stars” are aligned, so to speak. It happens only once in about every 20 years that they are within hours of one another, and results in a unique twilight illumination. I didn't know that until Thursday, I had never heard of it until Thursday; but thanks to a dear observant friend who called and told me to go out and look at the amazing moon with her, I did see it. I wish I had known that I was looking at a phenomenon. The not knowing has given me an opportunity to muse on what might have been different had I known. Would I have looked at it differently? Probably. But the moon would not have been any different, it is my eyes that would have been different. Is it a reminder to look at everything as phenomenal? Absolutely. My friend knew it was phenomenal without the internet telling her so.

Speaking of phenomenons, it rained last Sunday afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I noticed this while reading under the dogwood tree. There were white bits of plant matter lazily floating about, illuminated in the light of the sun slant.  And there was something else falling fast and straight down, as only raindrops can do. I moved out to the open and stood in it with out-stretched arms to increase the body surface; I laid down on my back spread eagle to further capture whatever it was; and sure enough, tiny drops hit me softly--with nearly imperceptible wetness. There were no sprinklers on; and as it had not rained in four weeks, it was not blowing off trees. I noticed it again yesterday. Something to do with humidity, I suppose, but I really don't need to know the explanation.

I know not everything is a sign, or even a metaphor (though if you are a regular reader of my blog that is probably news to you); but I cannot help thinking about how such an unlikely thing as raindrops from a cloudless sky intersects with my life. At a time when I am feeling empty, and as though some of what I want in my life will not happen, the raindrops remind me that we just never know. We just never know what will come out of seeming impossibility. It gives me hope.

I just finished reading a new novel by Anne Lamott. It is very disturbing. One of things we parents maintain great expectations about is that if we love our children and care for them as well as we possibly can, they will survive adolescence and become whole adults. This story shatters that bubble. Some teenagers are hell-bent on destroying themselves, and it takes a parent who is willing to do everything that feels wrong to have any hope that the child will turn a corner and save themselves. We want so badly to stay in our bubble, even when we know that we are living in la-la land. And those whose self-interests are best served by our residence within our bubbles, are very good at keeping us locked up in them. But bubbles can be imprisonment. Only when we burst them do we set ourselves free.

At any moment we can be born all over again. When we let go of our expectations and embrace what is, we free ourselves to move on to our true life. “It’s love and gratitude that change people [including ourselves], not laws and expectations.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Running on Empty

A hole appeared in my yard early in the summer. It is four inches in diameter and, I discovered when I recently got up the courage to put my arm in it, elbow deep with one small outlet--or inlet--at the bottom. I have observed no life in it. It is empty. And bound to stay empty until I fill it up.

I have been working nearly around the clock since the end of August on a work project (along with my normal duties). It is a creative project that I enjoy; and includes the frustration--and thrill--of a hefty learning curve. There has been no time for boredom. I am pleased, so far, with the results of my hard work. But last week I realized I was running on empty. How is it that when my days are the most full, I can feel the most empty? I think it is because there is no balance. And it is bound to stay empty until I fill the hole up. But not with just anything. I need to find the balance.

My friend Bob says there is a difference between soil and dirt. Dirt, I suppose, is sterile at best, and contains elements of things undesirable at worst. Soil has nutrients and fertilizer and things that will encourage and enhance growth. I have the choice to choose either dirt or soil to fill the holes in my yard and in my life. In my yard I will probably just scoop up a shovelful or two of the closest thing available--probably dirt. However, easy as that would be, I have not done it. Something called to me to observe the hole--all summer. It is as if the hole was waiting for me to discover its implications for my life. I think I can fill it up now. It will take more time to find the right soil for my soul. I might have to remain empty for a while, too. Empty to observe. Empty to discover what will bring balance. I believe it is in the emptiness that the One who is More enters our lives.

Empty is not a bad state of being, and yet we rush to fill the hole because it feels bad. And we feel like everyone is looking at us, wondering what is wrong with us. Or we wonder why they go about their own busyness without noticing we are empty. It's easy to miss. It's easy to miss ourselves, because we have so much going on. It is not the same as sad, often recognizable by tears and difficulty carrying on; which is why filling the holes with dirt can mask it.

Last week a friend sent me a story making the internet rounds. It is about a professor of philosophy who shows his students how to fill up a jar. When it is first filled with golf balls it appears full. But he demonstrates that there is still room for small gravel. They then agree that it is indeed full. But then he pours in sand (or dirt), and there is room for that, too. And after all that filling, still there is space for a cup of coffee. The point is that if we first fill our life with that which is most important to us, we can still fit in things that are, perhaps, necessary (like our jobs), but not the most important. And after all is said and done, "There is still room for a cup of coffee with a friend." Unfortunately, most of us fill up first with gravel and dirt--the have to haves, but not that which gives us life. We save what is most important for the room left over; but there is no room. So we do without the golf balls, and then wonder why we are empty.

I am thinking, now, about what my golf balls are: my garden, family and friends, yoga and walking, mountains, solitude, someone to love. Some golf balls are unattainable, though. I have a tendency to think life is empty and out of balance when one thing is missing. And it is not true. There is more room for extra gravel; or perhaps for a golf ball that would not fit before. Last night, as I sat in my garden, I found myself noticing the small things that fill me up. Things I miss for the golf balls and gravel. It is not always what we put in our jars ourselves, but what is already there for the seeing. A picture sent on my phone of my grandson ready for his first ever soccer game. A raccoon running through the garden. Two friends who love me enough to feel safe saying they are experiencing a low spot, (which makes me aware that it’s not just me feeling that way, and it is not just about me). The setting sun slanting through the trees onto the garden sanctuary, and the time to sit with it. Pizza made with whatever is in my refrigerator and garden. A new novel by Anne Lamott (albeit it, as of page 36, a depressing one). The approach of the autumnal equinox, and another night of sleep with open windows. My cat curled against my legs, softly snoring. A quartet, then a trio, then a duet of little brown birds sitting on a cafe table; the duet turning their heads from one side to the other in perfect synchronization. The soft morning fog giving way to sunlight. And all of that in just 24 hours.

I spent 36 hours in the mountains this weekend and observed holes in nature as I hiked. Perfectly symmetrical ones in rocks, presumably made by drips from the overhanging rocks falling for decades into the exact same spot. They fill temporarily with leaves and other debris, only to be worn back empty by the drips. Holes between roots that fill with more permanent moss and other vegetation. Holes of blue in the dark sky that constantly shape-shift here and gone and here again. Rotten logs than become ever so gradually more of a hole.

Without dwelling on it, I know that there are holes or empty places in my soul that are permanent; that can only be worked around. Other holes can be refilled with things equivalent or even better than what previously existed. And some holes shape-shift, filling and emptying and filling again. And so it is true for all of us. What I know for sure is that it does not serve us well to continue to run on empty. We must take time to stop at look at the empty. To rearrange and reassess our golf balls and our gravel and our sand. Our life depends on it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Supta Baddha Konasana

One year ago this month I took my first yoga class. Today, in the supta baddha konasana pose--one of my favorites in which the body is reclined with the soles of the feet touching and the knees splayed to opposite sides of the mat--my knees are six inches closer to the floor than they were a year ago. My hips have opened up, as have my shoulders. My flexibility, balance, and muscle tone have improved. Sometimes when Julie says, "One more breath here," I don’t suddenly remember to breathe; I have been breathing. At a time of life when bodies begin to shrink, I am ¾ of an inch taller than I have ever been--I attribute it to better posture, and better self-regard; both gifts of yoga. Perhaps this will be the year my always-tight hamstrings will loosen. And this week I learned that the English name for the supta baddha konasana position is "The Goddess." And that is all I will say about that.

I am opening up.

The other day I went out to check on my three volunteer cantaloupes, the ones growing far from their roots that do not seem to be maturing, but for whose growth I remain hopeful. I lifted the first one, and discovered it was cracked open, exposing its inner flesh and seeds. I lifted the second one and it collapsed in my hand. It was nothing but the shell. The third one is still intact. As I sat with my three cantaloupes, I thought about my fears of cracking open. I have spent the past five years becoming strong within myself. I have learned to live, and to love living, in relative solitude. I have explored who I have been and how I got there; who I want to be and how to get there; and, most importantly, I have learned to love who I am today. Now, as I explore tiptoeing out into the world again, and being open to new relationships, I am looking fear in the face. What am I afraid of?

The cantaloupes provided a clue. Am I afraid that if I open up myself to outside forces, all that I love about my life and who I am in it will come slithering out onto the ground? Perhaps to be trampled under foot by someone who may not appreciate me as much as I do? Am I afraid I will become an empty shell, or discover I was empty all along--exposed for a fraud? Do I fear that I will go right back into my enneagram nine tendencies and compromise myself away? Or, will I discover that I can let someone else in and still be true to myself; just as they let me in and stay true to the best that they are? We cannot ever just sit back and rest in who we are. The mature cantaloupe is worthless if it isn't at last cracked open and shared. A whole, tender, flavorful cantaloupe thrown onto the compost intact is no different from the cracked open one or the empty shell.

In my last post I said that I didn't know who read my blog. There is a comment at the end of the post, left by a woman in my beloved Pacific Northwest. She found my blog when she googled something that happened to be one of my label words. Email conversations have followed this past week. We discover that we have led, in some regards, parallel lives. I have enjoyed reading her blog. Friends can be found far from the root. My sister also left a comment, referring to my reference to something she had said a few years ago that hurt me, but that I had never been able to talk to her about. (We learned from the cradle in our family to avoid conflict.) In the last 24 hours we have begun to talk about it. Of course, I heard only the words of her original comment, and made it into a whole piece of chick-lit fiction, when actually it was a book of philosophy of which I had missed the point.

Just as I discovered that through the wonders of the internet all kinds of relationships can be found far from our roots, I am learning to accept that beauty in the garden can be found in other people's gardens. I can try to grow it in mine, but sometimes it is not to be a part of my garden. We need others to be whole. Two of the plants I planted that have not bloomed are alium and passion flower. I thank the One who is More that just as people are diverse, so are gardens. It would be a dull world otherwise.  

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the United States in the name of Islam. A "Christian" "minister" threatened all week to burn the Qur'an on the anniversary because "it is what God wants." (Fortunately his fifteen minutes of fame were achieved without having to carry through his threat to destroy that which is sacred to a body of people.) Yesterday my church hosted a gathering of Christians, Muslims, and Jews for readings of the Qur'an and for expressions of love for one another, even in our diversity--or because of it. We came together to crack open. I had intended to go for thirty minutes of the two hour service. Afterall, I needed to get an oil change and get my dirty car washed and vacuumed. As a young blond boy, dressed in a brocade robe and thick yellow socks, sang sections of the Qur'an in Arabic, I remained in my seat, weeping. I did not know the words he was singing, and it didn't matter. The strength of his love for his God--our God--rose out of his heart and soul with a passion beyond my understanding. For two hours I did not cross and uncross my legs; I did not shift in my seat. I did not move other than occasionally wiping the tears from my cheeks. One of the speakers, a Muslim, said that "on September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked the Islam faith." On September 11, 2010, a Florida minister hijacked the Christian faith. That he didn't do the deed doesn't matter. He professed to speak for all Christians in the name of God; no different from those attempting to speak for all Muslims by doing cowardly deeds in the name of Allah. I cracked open yesterday. Cracked open in the name of the One who is More, no matter what that name is.

E.B. White wrote, "Creative writing is communication through revelation--it is the self escaping into the open." And so I write. I write to crack open. Supta baddha konasana. We are made in the image of the Goddess--one name for the One who is More--it is our calling and our responsibility to open up and let ourselves out.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

In the Fullness Thereof

It is an oddly wonderful time of year, September. Some of the garden inhabitants are at their fullest glory, and others have begun their descent back into the earth. Puffs of breeze release yellow leaves to swirl through the air to the ground, a promise of the coming change of season. And my heart is feeling the fullness of this growing season, while my soul is ready to return to the inwardness of the season of reflection.

When I awoke this morning, wrapped in my covers––at one with the blessedly cool air drifting in through open windows––I was filled with the joy and potential of the new day. Five half sun salutations thanked the day for being and the one who is More for the opportunity to be alive in it today.

My soul work all year has been letting go of what has ended or not worked and making room for what might come next. I am learning to do the same in the garden. Why am I so reluctant? Three weeks ago I finally pulled out the cosmos that has not bloomed well this summer, but whose healthy vegetation was taking up space––above ground, certainly, and probably beneath the surface as well. Overnight the denuded antique rose sprouted leaves and now has two small blooms. The Gerbera daisy that hasn't bloomed since June has an opening flower and two more tight buds. The passion flower vine has doubled––perhaps it will yet bloom.

There are butterflies in my garden. Have they always been there, and I didn't notice? Or have they just discovered my habitat? The large ones float from tree to tree, and the small ones from blossom to blossom; all dressed in royal garb. I began noticing the small ones after I harvested the sunflowers and pulled out the cosmos. Could it be we don't notice the small bits of beauty around us when we are focused on the star-power of that which is large in the garden and in our lives?

For the past two decades I have wondered when I was going to start my career; and, as the train rattles down the track at breakneck speed toward 60 years of life, what I have missed by not having done some kind of amazing work. When I was young I thought I would save the world, and now I feel that I have done nothing toward that modest goal. As several of my friends, though, have begun struggling with an inward calling to slow down, but wonder who they will be if not a rock star, I have become grateful for my not-so-big life. I have grown slowly and steadily with no stage to have to jump off of. There has been no one to promote or push me along, but myself. A few years ago, my sister asked me if I had ever thought about having a career. The question both puzzled and angered me. I have made a career of piecing together a life of what is important to me. Was I to feel my life is less than because there is no title (or paycheck) to easily define what I do for those who don't want to listen to the long litany of that and this, which define my life? In Voltaire's Candide, after a long struggle to save the world, the lead character concludes that one must cultivate one’s own garden. (I read that somewhere, I have not read Voltaire--another shortcoming, I suppose.) I have cultivated my own garden--that is my career. I have finally realized that I don't have to do something gigantic to better the world. I can carve out one small thing, and in the one thing, find the universe.

My grape tomatoes have been experiencing blossom end rot. I have learned that it is caused from not enough moisture to release the calcium in the soil. After the rains a couple of weeks ago the tomatoes are healthy again. My tears, too, have brought back health to the blossom of my soul. "There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief...and unspeakable love." (Washington Irving) Why, when we can see how important water is in the garden, do we see our own tears as weakness? Why do we hide from them and hide them from others? Why are we so uncomfortable in the presence of others' tears? Holding one another's tears is, for me, the deepest expression of love. And the beauty is that the deep-felt connection of tears doesn't have to be confined to the kind of love-making shared only with a lover. If we can open our blossom end to experience the fullness of all that love can be, we can have many lovers.

Under the tangle of grape tomato vines, I have three volunteer cantaloupes. I don't think they will mature, but I continue to watch them, and to persist in believing that I might be surprised. As I watered this week, I became fascinated by the fact that the fruit is so far down the vine from the root. I have been accustomed to believing that relationship can only be found at my backdoor. At least for those of us who are not frequent travelers, we find friends at our workplace, our church (which are one and the same for me), perhaps in the cafe we frequent every weekend; but that is the extent of opportunity. This summer I have given in to technology as a way to connect and to stay connected. It was not an easy shift. There seems still to be something regressive about it. I long ago gave in to email as a substitute for putting pen to paper or phone to ear to stay in touch. The truth is, I have never been a good letter-writer, and I don't like to talk on the phone. Email really has increased connectedness with those I cannot see face-to-face regularly. And those between-time connections have made me work harder to look for opportunities to spend time in person.

But this summer I succumbed to facebook, texting, and computer dating. (I had a Glorious day yesterday, by-the-way, with a new friend met on On facebook, I have shared in the lives of friends and relatives who live far away--or at least not in the radius of my living. And I have let people know via texting that they are on my mind in that moment. No response needed; just a quick connection across cyberspace. We really can meet new people and stay in touch with those far down the vine from our root. And, best of all, I have discovered connection through this blog. In the past, this writing has been confined to the journal that lives very close to my root--my heart center. I don't know who reads it, but it has brought new meaning to my writing to send it far from the safety of the bag where my journal lives, to where it just might touch a soul with something that could change a life, save a life, even shift a world.

As this growing season comes to a close, I broke with my habit of leaving the garden to its own devices in my eagerness for fall. I watered in September. And the flowers I thought I didn't care about anymore have rebounded from drought droop. Between the water I provided and the cooler evenings, it appears that there is a second bloom in them. We are so quick to give up on ourselves and our relationships; we don't often give the second bloom a chance. Several large violet plants that I refuse to label as weeds quickly succumbed to the heat back in June and dried up. Rather than pull them out, I cut them off close to the ground. Within days they were back up and have been large and beautiful all summer. Summer is not their bloom time, but the green beauty of their heart-shaped leaves has provided fullness to the garden. Our relationships do not always bloom, but sometimes if we cut our expectation back to the essence, they can maintain solid beauty to fill our lives.

In the fullness thereof.

     And God will continually guide you,
     and satisfy your desire in scorched places,
     and give strength to your bones;
     and you will be like a watered garden,
     and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.

                                              -Isaiah 58:11