Sunday, December 30, 2012

Weaving with New Colors

I have struggled in recent weeks with what to write in this blog. My garden was my inspiration, and gardening is in my past for now. I wonder, not for the first time, if the blog has also run its course.

I lamented to my friend Katherine this week that I didn’t know what to write about. She gave me a quote for inspiration, “If I want transformation, but can't even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I'm aiming for, how will it ever occur?” (Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love). That is a starting place for January. But first things first; it’s not the new year quite yet.

You know those toy cars that you put on the dining room floor and pull backward toward you several times before you let go and the car careens across the floor and crashes into the dining table leg? They can’t go forward until you pull them backward. I don’t think you can move forward in life, either, until you pause to look at where you have been.    

Can you stand a metaphor that compares life to a piece of woven fabric? A blanket of all one color is functional as something to keep you warm, but it isn’t very interesting as a piece of art. A weaving that abruptly changes color, as if the artist had paid no attention to what came before, is not pleasing to look at. But one that weaves complementary colors in and out of the warp of consistency, can be looked at and into and remain an ongoing source of joy and beauty and depth forever. I aim to continue the colors that worked for me this year, perhaps pick up some that I dropped from previous years, and then add some new hues; while staying true to my core. The first step to keep the color moving is to look at what I wove this year.

I look back at my January 2012 blog post as I ponder the year past. After a too-warm December, it is full of photographs of the emerging garden. The sedum poking up through the dead old growth, a black-eyed Susan, the Lenten rose. I am swiftly overcome with longing for the life I planted in that garden, for the greedy squirrel eating the birdseed outside the door of my sweet house, for the sunrise over Oakwood Cemetery. It is a bright spot in the fabric of my life. I hope it is being loved.

Last January I began the One Little Word Project. I chose a word to focus on for the year: Venture. I certainly ventured, though I only did the OLW exercises for five months. My Venture (selling my house, quitting my job, leaving my friends, moving across the country, living with my mother) was so bold, I couldn’t really focus on the subtle colors I want to weave into my life. And yet, as I look back, I see that the colors of mountains and ocean, of sunrises and sunsets, of stories from Mama and learning about how to be in this relationship with her, of new friends, of writing about and photographing this new existence are weaving through my fabric. But it doesn’t feel like it’s hanging together yet. This week I will sit, with my pen as the shuttle and paper as my loom, and consider what new threads need to be added to my 2013 fabric to make it pleasing.

But first, the sun is shining. Time for a little road trip exploration over the hills and dales with my new camera. Perhaps as long as my life has not run its course, neither has writing about it. I am going in search of new colors.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Two Tales for Christmas Eve

From my Mother:
“When George was in Europe during World War II, a German woman approached him and asked him for help to get her husband, also a meteorologist, in the German army, released. I guess he was a prisoner-of-war. He went to her house, where she lived with her young son. She begged him to help.” “How did he meet her?” I asked. “He didn’t say,” she said. “She gave him an 
angel Hummel figure with a broken wing. Her son cried when she gave it to him. Of course, there was nothing he could do to help.” “How old was her son?” I asked. “I imagine about four or five,” she said. “I wonder what happened to her,” I said. “He never saw her again,” she said. “I wonder if her husband came home,” I said. “I wonder, too,” she said. We sat in silence for a moment, lost in our wondering. “Wow,” I said, “that one just hangs there.” “It really does,” she said.

A story from Storycatcher, by Christina Baldwin (page xiii):

On Christmas Eve in 1914, two lines of homesick soldiers, one British, one German, were dug into trenches on the Western Front in the midst of World War I. Between them was a fire zone called no-man’s land. On this moonlit, snowy night, the Germans lifted army issued Christmas trees twinkling with tiny candles over the edge of their trenches and set them in plain site. The British shouted and cheered in delight. The Germans began singing “Stille Nacht…” and the British began to sing along with “Silent Night.” This encouraged the Germans and they set down their guns in themoonlight and heaved themselves from their trenches carrying candles, cake, and cigars toward their enemies. The British responded in kind carrying steamed pudding and cigarettes. The men met in the middle of the forbidden zone, exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played soccer. This seemingly spontaneous truce extended for hundreds of kilometers among thousands of soldiers. They couldn’t shoot each other. The war essentially stopped. Horrified commanders on both sides had to transfer thousands of men to new positions until the enemy became faceless and storyless again, something killable, not a brother. Almost a hundred years later, scholars are still studying this event, reading soldier’s journals and letters that refer to it, seeking to understand “the breakdown in military mindset,” or seeking to understand how a spontaneous peace movement could spread within the heart of war.

Blessings of peace to you and those you love on this Night of Nights.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Swimming with the (Yule) Tide

Fredrick and Nelson, downtown Seattle’s biggest and oldest department store, is long gone now, having gradually declined into suburban competition and finally succumbing to bankruptcy; but my memories of Christmas there linger.

We made the two hour drive north to Seattle from small Centralia at least twice a year: in August for school clothes and at Yuletide. In December, the Bon Marché and Frederick & Nelson windows displayed enchanting scenes of Santa’s workshop, A Christmas Carol, or The Night Before Christmas; a different theme every year, with extravagant life-sized figures with moving parts. Mesmerized, we stood on the steps constructed for small children to move from window to window, watching the fantastical mechanical figures twirl and bow and reach.

A pianist playing Christmas music accompanied our meander through the elaborately decorated first floor aisles of wood and glass display cases. Cases filled with gloves and jewelry and men’s ties and all kinds of boring things made desirable by our inability to touch and the beautiful young women in green aprons with the F&N insignia embroidered on the bib who opened the cases with gloved hands. My personal destination was the candy case, and I fidgeted impatiently until we got to it. Row upon row of beautiful chocolates, petit fours, and sugar-coated “fruit” slices. Frango mints (a F&N exclusive) and chocolate-covered orange peels were my favorites and always showed up Christmas morning in my stocking. For years after I left home, my mother sent the candies across the country to me.

My father was a forester, and each year the crew brought a load of Christmas trees down from the mountain for the Weyerhaeuser employees. Daddy always requested three scrawny Noble firs, which he put in a triangular stand he designed for them. We did not just have a Christmas tree, we had a whole forest in the living room. A couple of weeks ago, Rebecca and I went out to a lot to find our tree. Those who have ever had to pick out a Christmas tree with me, in a southern US lot that never heard of Noble fir––and I was never really satisfied with the substitutes––will be amazed…we got the first one we saw, and for $20. It helps that we were of one mind in the search: tall, slender, not pruned into a cone shape, space between the branches so ornaments hang. They are not prized here, either, but it makes me happy.

My favorite memories of adult Christmases are the quiet times. After the bustle of stamping newsprint with homemade stamps for wrapping paper with my children and frosting cookie cutter shapes in a way that vaguely resembled a familiar symbol, sugar cookie nuggets with chocolate peanut butter filling, Mama's Chocolate Halfways––shortbread dipped in chocolate––for delivery to friends and neighbors. When the handmade gifts––in the
lean years when there was more time than money––were completed, wrapped, and mailed across the country. When all the busyness was done, the quiet began. My young family went to Christmas eve services with our church family where we lit candles and sang Silent Night in the flickering light that reflected in the eyes of children filled with anticipation. Back at home, the kids in bed, the Advent waiting over, my husband and I poured wine, turned on soft Christmas music, and sat before the fire putting our treasures together, wrapping gifts for our two children, and filling stockings. We made wonder, and we were wonder, on the Night of Nights.

Now, the children are grown, the marriage is long over, and this year I have moved across the country from my chosen family. I will not sit in the pew in candlelight with them. I painfully missed my winter solstice candlelight circle of women this week. For the first time since I left home in 1976, no box of greens arrived on my doorstep from my mother, beings as greens are my doorstep again. Each year, with my dad when he was here and later by herself, she went out and cut fir and holly, wrapped the sprigs in a plastic bag with wet paper towels, boxed it up, and mailed it 2500 miles. When it arrived at my door, I eagerly carried it into the house. Slowly unfastening the twist tie, I put my nose down close to the opening of the bag. And then, I inhaled. I drank in the incomparable scent of the Pacific Northwest: the green, the damp, the mountains, my home on the hill. In that one first breath, home––including a mother's love––compressed into a bag, and my being filled with memory.

My children and grandchildren will gather on the other coast with their father and large step family this year. It will be a raucous time. It will be quieter here in the home where I celebrated the Yule with my sisters for so many years. And they will be here, too. We make preparations for our mother now, rather than the other way around. There are no children with wonder-filled eyes and giddy anticipation. The gifts that we have found for one another will wait under the tree for niece and nephew to arrive from Seattle. No one will be in a hurry. And we will remember days gone by through the power of our storytelling. And I discovered the old stereo still works! Perhaps we will Sing Along with Mitch and remember Daddy's off-key voice.

Am I sad? Yes. And no. Life has not turned out the way I envisioned it would, but that is the way for most of us, I think. I am nostalgic for my childhood Christmases and those of my young family. But, even as I swim against the tide of melancholy, my direction turns into the forward-moving current of what is. I have long since learned that sadness for the past can live contentedly in me with what is and with excitement for what is coming in the unknown future.

As often happens, yoga this week closes the circle of my thoughts. A poem during savasana washes over me like a cleansing wave: “Let go of the ways you thought life would unfold; the holding of plans or dreams or expectations––Let it all go. Save your strength to swim with the tide...Let go, and the wave’s crest will carry you to unknown shores, beyond your wildest dreams or destinations. Let it all go and find the place of rest and peace, and certain transformations” (Dana Faulds).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Light in the Darkness

It has been raining some lately in the southwest corner of this verdant state, and gray a good bit of the time. But St. Helens is visible on Friday, for the first time in over two weeks; the dawn splits open a ribbon of sky at the horizon to reveal the snow-cold mountain in silhouette. On the way to yoga in Olympia, the sun shines through a hole in the clouds and illuminates the tops of the tall firs and casts cloud shadows on the road.

I don't mind the gray and rain (and contrary to what one might assume from weather reports across the country, it does not rain all the time). It does not make me feel dreary at all, at least not in the winter. But days like Friday, when the sun just shouts, "The hell with it, you clouds, I'm comin' through!" make my soul sing in a way that daily sun in the south never did. And God knows, Friday we needed something, anything, that felt like hope.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
(Christina Rossetti)

Even as I watch for cloud holes revealing blue sky as I drive, I am listening to the news out of Connecticut. There is trouble in our garden. In our world, in our country, in our cities, in our small towns. And there always has been, since time began. But our easy connections with one another today, through the internet and television and our mobility that makes it possible to know people all over the nation and the world, bring the trouble close to our hearts and to our own lives and make a hole there. And that is a good thing; it lets the blue of goodness shine through hearts that have let the monochromatic gray settle in.

We hurt when violence happens, whether natural or unnatural. And there has been plenty of both lately. Our president sheds our communal tears on the international stage. His words and his tears reveal a little blue sky. Social media is full of people in pain. The debate about gun laws is breaking back into a gallop. It is always good when people are talking, even when it is heated and filled with 
disagreement about how to solve a problem that all of us desperately want to fix. Ideas about ways to help Newtown, today, right now, are bouncing about. We mustn’t stop. We honor the fallen when we stay in dialogue, searching for solutions. People are hugging their children. I read on FaceBook one person's cynical belief that hugging children won't help. I beg to differ. Every shred of caring and love is a part of the solution. The day we become hopeless about the future of this world, is the day we fail.

"Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)

I arrive at the yoga studio early. My mat and I get my favorite spot, facing the three tall windows overlooking Capitol Lake. I finish my warm-up stretching and sit in sukhasana (easy sitting pose) and look to the lake. The clouds have filled in the holes and the gray sky is once again unbroken. Suddenly, from the direction of the Puget Sound boat docks, a large flock of birds whooshes into view. I don't know what they are. Bigger than small; smaller than gulls, and black. They arrive together, then break into two groups and begin diving and rising again in unison, reversing direction and then swooping back and reversing again; dancing above the lake, staying within the frame of the three windows. Tears fill my eyes and leak down my cheeks. I don't count the birds. I know there are 28. Later I hear the children were in two classrooms.

At the end of the practice, our teacher arouses us from the stillness of savasana saying, "Imagine, as you come to your seated position, that the sun is shining." And so it is. Shining brightly. Glittering on the lake. The clouds on the drive home at dusk are both darkly ominous and pink with hope. Ground fog floats among the hills, drifts over the plain, fills in the nooks and crannies, softens the harsh street lamps, covers the fabric of the land in stillness.

In this season of Advent, we are heartbroken and hopeful. A baby came to bring hope to a broken world. This is a familiar place. Every major world religion has a central historical figure that represents hope. Every major world religion has a messianic prophecy that a Promised One will rise up again and unite all of humanity into one loving family.

Is it us? Are we the Promise?

"For someone on earth will see the star, someone will hear the angel voices, someone will run to Bethlehem, someone will know peace and goodwill: the Christ will be born!" (Ann Weems)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tis the Season

I am looking out the window of Santa Lucia, past the poinsettia on my red-clothed table, beyond the Christmas tree outside, and through the reflected white lights, to the new Fox Theatre blade sign. The theatre that I went to as a child is slowly being restored to the way it looked when it opened in 1930. I say slowly because it hasn’t been a project some company threw a lot of money at, or that the city or a new owner took out a big bank loan for. No, it’s being done through donations as they are given and a lot of volunteer labor. It’s a gift of love the people of the community are giving themselves for the benefit of all.
Friday night the new sign, an exact replica of the original, was lit for the first time. And it is beautiful. After the lighting, the not-entirely inhabitable theatre was sold out for a showing of "Holiday Inn," the 1942 movie with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It was accompanied by Merrie Melodies’ Bugs and Elmer Fudd and a very long short about buying war bonds. We live in such different times. My mother was just about the age of my daughter when the movie was made, ten years before my birth. It kind of boggles my mind.

I’ve been thinking about gift-giving this week. I gave myself a gift last week, a magical writing retreat on Whidbey Island. My family all participated in the gift by making it possible for me to be away. One of the participants, Joanna, sent this a couple of days ago, “Make time, every single day, to keep the sparks of your soulfire glowing brightly.” I’m not sure how you do that, but I do know it takes intention. Last year in my December 11 blogpost, I quoted Earl Nightingale, “You become what you think about.” Thinking about how you want to be is intention. I want everyday to be a gift I give myself. I want my self to be a gift I give to others. Wanting it doesn’t always make it so. We are human. We have pain. And sometimes we have to just take care of ourselves or we will fall completely apart. That’s when we must make time to rekindle the soulfire.

Of course we all know about giving gifts to another person; the kind wrapped up and tied with a ribbon. That is what we have made this season about. It isn’t always fun. It doesn’t always feel good. We give people what we think they might like, and sometimes guess wrong. We give them something we like, but it isn’t necessarily appreciated by the giftee. We give them something they ask for, but that isn’t much fun. And I really don’t like being asked what I want. World peace? As one interviewee in the People on the Street column in the local paper-a man who volunteers at a food bank-said, "That's the wrong question to ask me." (I do sure hope I get a new camera, though.) I have always best liked to give gifts I craft myself; I like thinking about the person who will receive it the whole time I’m making it. Some people like those gifts, others feel cheated. I don’t really like the whole gift-giving part of Christmas. It feels too much like an obligation. I would be happy to do away with it entirely and give gifts through the year when they aren’t expected and there’s no pressure.

In her book, The Seven Whispers, Christina Baldwin suggests that asking for what we need and offering what we can is a spiritual practice. It is "a two-step exchange of needs and offerings, and the whole village is dancing.... Asking / offering / giving / receiving is one circular motion." If we break the circle, if we skip a step, we block the dance. If we fail to notice what we need and ask for it, the beat is lost and we are thrown off balance. Christina reminds me that the trajectory is not a straight line, it is not tit for tat (though I think that is the expectation on Christmas morning, another reason the custom doesn't resonate with me), but "it's a dance of intersections and connections between myself and other people and the opportunities we create as we cross each other's paths."

So often I hear people say that when they do something for someone else, it feels like a bigger gift to them than it is to the recipient. I think that’s true. But it’s not always true. Another friend reminds me this week that sometimes you give a gift of yourself that is excruciating to the giver, but sends the recipient over the moon with happy. Those are the hardest gifts of all. Those are the biggest gifts of all. When you receive nothing whatsoever in return. Except sometimes, later, maybe much later, you realize it really was an enormous gift to you, too.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Retreat to Aldermarsh

When a friend in North Carolina sent me the link to the PeerSpirit website a few months ago, sharing information about a 6-day writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island, less than three hours from my Washington State home, I didn’t even consider that I could go. Too expensive, and too big a time commitment away from my mother and diabetic cat. I did attend a one-day retreat with the same leader that was wonderfully enriching and relaxing. Perhaps next year, I thought, I could attend the long one.

Good ideas like hardy perennials take time to germinate in the garden. I bought Christina’s book, Storycatcher, at that retreat. I had a lot of reading material in the queue, it took me a while to get to it. By page 10, I knew I had to figure out a way to get to The Self as the Source of the Story retreat. I’m writing a memoir; writing is part of the reason I moved; it was a no-brainer. And God knows I deserved a break, didn’t I?

My sisters encouraged me, though neither of them really offered any ideas of how to replace my presence with Mama. Just that Magical Thinking: we’ll figure it out. And then there was the expense. I have no income. But sometimes, I have learned, you really do just have to leap and trust that the details will work themselves out, magical thinking or not. I signed up. Before I could get the deposit made, Mama took her own break from home to the ER, followed by three days in the hospital and several more days to recover from the three days in the hospital. No way could I go away, knowing it could happen again. I withdrew my registration.

Things got back to normal at home, though, and I finished reading the book. I had to go. Then Mama strained her back and it took both me and Rebecca to get her through the next several days. The second crisis knocked us to our knees. Sometimes that’s what it takes to let go of the fairy tale that a 96 year old is going to live in status quo forever. We lucked into and hired an in-home caregiver and insisted against resistance from Mama that she have a regular schedule, to augment the other caregiver that comes by invitation only. I signed up for real.

So now I am here: Aldermarsh Retreat Center. And it has been among the best experiences of my life. My early arrival netted me the tiny Spirit House cottage and blessed solitude.

I have learned much about the craft of writing memoir from Christina Baldwin-who is a truly gifted teacher-and about my own project. I have spent hours and hours with nine other women participants with fascinating life stories. I have wandered the grounds of the center’s marsh, tall trees, meadow, and vegetable garden; treated myself to a fabulous massage and eaten amazing food that someone else cooked-not a morsel that my housemate could eat and therefore I would not prepare.

I have bathed in a soaking tub in a Zen bathroom and peed in a bucket in my bathroom-free cottage where I have been all alone for the past five nights. The rain has pounded on the roof and the wind and the coyotes have howled. And I lived into my first ever Silent Day in the presence of other people. From Friday evening until Sunday morning, I did not speak and no one spoke to me. Eleven women ate dinner together in a communion of silence. I wrote, I read, I wrote. I did yoga by myself for 45 minutes overlooking the misty meadow. I wrote, I took pictures, I wrote, I read, I slept, I wrote. As I pen this I have opened the small windows where I sit on my bed to better hear the bullfrog croaking in the teeming marsh.

There is no AT&T cell service here and I can only get internet in the main house. I have not looked at Facebook all week. I have no idea what is happening in the world. I am off the grid. I am breathing. I am listening to the story that is inside of me. I am letting the story onto the page.

Sometimes magical thinking becomes simply Magical.