Friday, October 30, 2009

Between Time

You were born older than you are
and now, at twelve, you have to choose:

your first real boyfriend and his mother
want to take you

for a masque in Santa Fe, stay
the night.  But

Isis, Azellea, Ashley
and you have conspired

for weeks to be death-fairies, picking
out your matching black and glitter

to trick-or-treat together; next year
may be too late.   You reach

for me, so rare these days.
I could rise up, motherly

wrap easy words around
you like a woven shawl. 

But that's where your
wings will go.

A recent pic of me with the daughter I wrote this poem for.
She's 18 now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Thin Days of Autumn

I'm having one of the best autumns of my life.  This is largely because of where I live these days and because the weather has been so perfect.  The proverbial cool, crisp days have been accentuated by loads of sunshine and multi-colored falling leaves.  I was pleasantly startled the first day that I walked to the San Francisco church and the side of the road was blanketed with yellow.

That's the thing about autumn - it's always a surprise.  I'm used to the green of summer, and then all of a sudden everything's ablaze, blowing and falling, and the whole quality of light and air changes.  In this part of the world, many people use woodstoves to heat their homes, so the smells change too.  Last week, walking home from the church, I encountered a symphony of scent within a fifty-foot span - pinon wood smoke, somebody's dinner cooking, the faint smell of diesel from the highway, falling leaves, and that delicious indescribable wet grass aroma.

And yet, I've also been feeling what I can only call bereft.  This word, bereft, keeps floating back to me, trying to fill the space it describes.  It's funny, but the loss I'm feeling is mostly of illusion, comforting fantasies I've carried with me since childhood, but now are gone, or going.  They were heavy.  And noisy.  There's so much more room for beauty and real joy now.  But beauty and joy are light as a feather; in a strange way, they don't fill the space. 

There are other little losses, too.  When I first saw that the flowers lining the church walkway had been mowed down, I was saddened.  The hummingbird hawk moths would have nothing to come to now, even if they hadn't already left.  Part of what originally drew me to the church is gone.

Except for the baby's breath, Clare's garden has wilted and browned like old lettuce.

But the day I took these photos, I also noticed that the rosebush next to the courtyard wall was in full bloom, and I didn't remember ever having seen it bloom before.  I don't think I even realized it was a rosebush.

I was sore tempted to pick one, so I shot one instead.

The bush had four or five blossoms on it, and they smelled just divine, but the next day, someone had cut them all.  I wonder who got them.  Oh well - they're all dead by now, anyway.

I've had to orient myself to these changes, adjust my expectations and purpose for walking to the church.  I've had to let go of attachments, and ultimately, embrace the dying process.

The association of fall with death is inevitable, the paradox being that it's also the harvest, when a profusion of nourishing life fills the fields, the farmer's markets, kitchens.  Pumpkins are ripe, and it's time for pie.  Apples are falling off the tree faster than I can catch them.  I have an excuse to fill my house with the scents of cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. I find myself wanting to bake more, not just because of everything that's in season, but because autumn brings out the nesting instinct in me, to begin that withdrawal into a warm, family-filled house; to prepare for the holidays that will soon be coming down the pike in grand procession.  I want to light candles and have a reason to turn the oven on.

Oh, I know, some of you are gagging right now.  So I'll get off this subject and talk about death again, how's that?

The first holiday of the season, of course, is Halloween, a night associated with all things macabre and mortuous.  Traditionally, this night is considered to be a "thin" or liminal time, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is more transparent and easier to penetrate.  In pagan spirituality, this night is the beginning of Samhain, a word that has ancient Celtic origins.  In Gaelic folklore, Samhain was the celebration of the final harvest, and may have become associated with death and horror partly because it was the time when the livestock was slaughtered en masse to be preserved as winter sustenance.

Halloween has always been an intense time for me.  Many significant events in my life have occurred on or around Halloween.   When I was nine or ten, I fell while ice skating and went unconscious from a concussion.  When I woke up in the hospital, I couldn't remember what had happened.  The second day in the hospital was Halloween, and because I wanted to trick-or-treat so badly, I pretended I could remember and made up a story about how I'd fallen.  I knew I'd been skating, so I just said I'd been doing a sit spin and lost my balance.  (What really happened came back to me a few days later.  I had to pee but was too lazy, so I was skating sloppily, and caught the back of one blade on the front of the other.)

A few years later on Halloween, when I was fourteen, my family moved from Toronto, where I'd spent my childhood, to Baton Rouge.  I had to miss my best friend's costume party and spend Halloween in a strange place where I didn't know anyone.

Then, when I was twenty-four, I got married in a cemetery at twilight on Halloween.  My husband had introduced me to Clive Barker and the peculiar joys of the horror genre.  On one of our first dates we went to see the Barker movie, Nightbreed, which I was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed.  From that point, I read all of Clive Barker's books, starting with The Books of Blood.  I was also working in a New Age bookstore and spending my long days there reading neo-pagan spellbooks and the diary of a woman who claimed to be a partial incarnation of the Angel of Death.  So the cemetery wedding was the next logical step, I suppose.  After the wedding, we painted our faces with fake blood and went out to a haunted house, where he won me a matching glow-in-the-dark skull necklace and bracelet, now lost.

My husband and I divorced after a few years, and I went through a transformative spiritual rebirth that eventually led me to join the Presbyterian church where he worked as a sexton.  Long story short, we got remarried in the church, but this time we did it on November 1, All Saints' Day.  However, we didn't actually sign the papers until November 2, All Souls' Day, so we considered our anniversary to span all three of those days.

Do you know the difference between All Saints and All Souls?  If you're Catholic, you probably do.  All Saints' Day commemorates those who have died and gone to heaven, and All Souls' is for those who've died but aren't in heaven yet.  Most mainstream Protestant denominations tend to give a nod to All Saints but ignore All Souls, presumably because of a lack of belief in Purgatory, where Catholics believe certain souls are purified before entering heaven.

Here in New Mexico, we have the Day of the Dead, El Dia de Los Muertos, a colorful, noisy, and light-heartedly creepy version of All Saints/All Souls involving parties on gravesites, and things like candy skulls and pan de muerte (the bread of the dead). 

While all of these holidays have a distinctly Catholic flavor, as with most Christian holidays a little digging uncovers those pagan roots.  The Day of the Dead, for instance, traces back to ancient Aztec practices.  In the pagan worldview, all things spiritual or otherworldly are firmly linked to something practical and this-worldly.  And so the Christian remembrance of those who have passed on comes from an earlier observance of this world's connection to the otherworld, at a time of the year when the natural world appears to die.

So what ever happened to that husband? you might ask  Another long story - but we got divorced again a few years later.  And while we rarely see each other now, there's an underlying understanding and forgiveness between us that divorce has made possible.

When I started this post, I wasn't expecting to be discussing my ex-husband, but it strikes me now as fitting.  And it's downright perfect that our ex-anniversary falls on the thin days of autumn, because while our marriage is very much over - dead, if you will - it was real with a capital R.   Our divorce is a necessary veil that allows me to continue my journey in this world without him as a partner, but at certain times, I see that perhaps in the otherworld, the eternal world, our marriage will always be.  Maybe this is what is meant by "What God joins let no one put asunder."  Maybe it's not a command but a statement of fact.

What dies yet lives.  The time of gathering in the harvest, preserving it to hold onto for the lean months to come, is also a time of letting go, unfastening, releasing.  Fruit falls - a perpetuation of life in the spreading of seeds.  Trees drop their leaves and appear to die, but the sap still flows unseen.  What lived once in our hearts lives still, no matter how long and deep the winter.        

My mom was telling me the other day about Bright Star, the recent movie about John Keats.  I haven't seen it, but our conversation made me think of Keats' concept, "Negative Capability," which he defined as "the ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

Yup.  That's what it takes when considering conundrums like how to hold on and let go at the same time, and how illusion can have weight and substance while joy and beauty do not.  Negative Capability is one of my primary aims in life, and surely necessary for appreciating these thin days of autumn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Dance of Teonantli

**This is a repost - Somehow I managed to delete it from my published posts when I was trying to view it.**

I've been doing some reading about the San Francisco de Asis church. It's surprising to me how little literature is available, but I checked out the two books that they had at the library, one of which features many different artists' paintings and photos of the church, and the other of which focuses on the restoration that occurred in 1979.

I've discovered a few interesting things. First, there's some controversy about when the church was actually built. It could have been as early as 1710 or as late as 1810 - a hundred year discrepancy that even the church records don't clarify. Neither book acknowledges the statues of Clare and Francis that I so adore. I went into the church gift shop and the woman at the counter said the Francis statue has been there maybe ten years, and the one of Clare only for four or five. She didn't know who made them. An online search for this information brought me to my own blog.

In the book about the church restoration, titled simply Ranchos de Taos, I learned that the annual remudding of the church was traditionally done by the women. In recent decades, it seems this has changed. I'm not sure they even make it an annual event anymore, but for a long time, it was a ritual as sacred as any that took place inside the building.

As I mentioned in another post, I'm inspired by the fact that the energy of many hands is infused into the walls of the building, giving it a quality of aliveness. That most of those hands have been women's is very interesting to me. It just makes sense. The shape of the building, with its rounded edges, and the velvet look and feel of the adobe both suggest femininity, a softness embodying strength. Catholics refer to "Mother Church," and in the case of the Ranchos church, this is especially fitting.

The feminine aspect of the Ranchos church has also come to me in another way recently. When I went to the bazaar held at the church school, I was completely enchanted by the performance of a dance group made up of five women and a teenage boy (the son of one of the dancers). Once I can figure out how to do it, I'll update this post with the video that I took of them dancing.

One of the women introduced the group as Teonantli, which means "our godly mother" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. She said that with this name, they "give honor to Mary, The Mother of God; Our Mother Earth; and to all mothers." She said that each danza is a prayer, which is why they begin by forming a cross with their feet. They also form a cross in the offering of sage and copal, with smoke rising out of a ceremonial cup.

The danzas were riveting. As one of the dancers told me later, their purpose is to create "powerful, kinetic, spiritual prayer." They were accompanied by flute, a large standup drum called a huehue, and a small hand drum (teponatzli). While three men drummed, the dancers performed intricate, harmonized movements, enhanced by the use of a variety of items.

They began their danzas by blowing through conch shells (caracols), which reminded me of the Jewish tradition of the shofar.

They do this to honor the four winds or compass directions, and also to ask permission of the Animas (souls of ancestors) to open the circle. They do it again at the end to give thanks and ask permission to close the circle.

The headdresses that you see are called copilli, and the ankle bracelets (ayayotes) are actually rattles. Each of the costumes is uniquely decorated with elaborate designs and images in the Aztec style.

I apologize for the fuzzy quality of the photo below left, but I really wanted to show this costume detail. The woman on the right is holding a sonaja, a hand rattle.

During the danzas, the buildup of kinetic and spiritual "charge" was tangible, and the dancers sometimes spontaneously shouted, "El es Dios," meaning "He is God."

These are ordinary women. One works for a judicial district office, another for the Department of Public Health. As you can see in the photos, this performance took place in a cracked parking lot surrounded by orange construction barrels. And yet, through their inspiration, devotion, and intention, the dancers created an electric, mesmerizing experience, fascinating in its blend of Aztec and Catholic elements. As one of the dancers put it:
For centuries the Aztecs honored many gods: the god of rain, fire, wind, war, healing, and many others. The danza has incorporated into it many aspects of the Catholic faith brought to the new world by the Spaniards. Each step (paso) is a prayer.
It was primarily the Franciscans that brought the Catholic faith to Mexico. Ironically, this order, of the lineage of the gentle and respectful St. Francis, forced Catholicism on the Aztecs, sometimes violently. What resulted has been seen in many cultures, a hybridization of religious belief and practice. One of the primary manifestations of this was the incorporation of the Virgen de Guadalupe into the Catholic faith of the Mexicas. The Aztecs could not accept a religion that did not venerate both a male and a female deity. But the Franciscans could not accept a non-monotheistic religion. Interestingly, in pre-Christian Aztec religion, women played important priestly roles, and in at least one festival, women priests led dancing rituals.

The world has historically operated from such an us-against-them position. But ever so slowly, it seems to be changing. Many people are examining their collective pasts, synthesizing traditionally disparate elements. Where there was once a battle, there is now a dance. Teonantli is a glorious example of this. This group - in blending Aztec and Catholic, dance and prayer, reverence for the Father and the Mother - creates a seamless collage, a beautiful enigma, and ultimately, redemption and healing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Naked in the Town Square

And before him no creature is hidden, 
but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one 
to whom we must render an account. 
~Hebrews 4:13

Unio Mystica
A. Andrew Gonzalez

You're a song
Written by the hands of God...

Underneath your clothes
There's an endless story

I mentioned in an earlier post that St. Francis once stripped naked in the town square.  This scene in the movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon is worth watching, even if it is a bit corny.  Well, ok - a lot corny.

I've been pondering the meaning of nakedness, especially the way that St. Francis used it.  He was making a statement against materialism and superficiality, but more, he was expressing his movement toward a deeper reality.

Since I started this blogging business, I've sometimes felt like I'm naked in the town square.  While this can be uncomfortable, it's also freeing.  I feel more like myself.  I feel more of myself.

The epithets that I started this post with remind me that nakedness is the default state.  We're always naked underneath our clothes.  I've been realizing that the key to feeling free in nakedness lies in the last part of that bible verse - asking myself, To whom must I render an account?  Why am I rendering an account? 

In other words, whose judgment of my nakedness should I really be concerned about?  If I worry about the judgment of my readers, I will find myself in fear, but if I hold my purpose to a higher authority, to the expression of something authentic and spiritually valuable, then I am paradoxically freed to simply let it move through me.

I'm pleasantly surprised that this is how it works.  I feel as though the universe is rewarding me for my efforts, especially in the sense that the more I focus in my writing on the connectedness I see in the whole blooming  world, the more ubiquitous that connectedness becomes, and the more illuminated I find these connections to be.

While I've been pondering this nakedness theme, on Sunday I went to the Presbyterian church I attend, and the sermon was about this very issue.  The verse from Hebrews was one of the texts for the day.  A couple of verses later it talks about "approaching the throne of grace with boldness," which spoke very clearly to my recent experiences.

I used to be extremely arrogant.  I genuinely thought I was smarter and more enlightened than everyone else.  I eventually went through a life-shatteringly humbling process, which has resulted in my being very cautious about falling into arrogance again.  But balanced with that caution must be a recognition of my gifts, and a proper use of them, and this does require boldness.  It just means giving credit where credit is due - which for me means to the Creator, and to other people and creatures and places  that are my collaborators, my cross-pollinators.

(There's a lovely post by Delwyn on this metaphor of cross-pollination, here.  What she says in that post expresses my blog's whole reason for being.  And the fact that someone else said it, a new friend I've connected with through this medium, beautifully illustrates the principle we're both addressing.)

So what is this "throne of grace" that we're encouraged to boldly approach? defines grace in several ways.  Here are the first three:
  • elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action.
  • a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment.
  • favor or good will.
In theology, it means:
  • the freely given, unmerited, favor and love of God. 
  • the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them.
  • a virtue or excellence of divine origin.
I think the common thread between the theological and "regular" definitions of grace has to do with the concept of "freely given."  When we experience a moment of grace, there's something surprising about it, it feels like a gift out of nowhere.  If a throne is "the chair or seat occupied by a sovereign," we can think of that sovereign as grace itself.  Approaching this throne, it seems, means being naked.  To receive moments of grace, we must be open to them, not trying to control every little detail of existence, not clothed in fear or worry or narcissism.

Another way of saying this is that we have to be like children - unselfconscious, free of guile, and in a sense, unquestioning of the value of what we have to share.  Kids will run up to you and excitedly tell you what they just discovered or played with or thought about without ever worrying if you're going to be bored or judgmental.

To be naked is to be uninhibitedly enthusiastic in expressing what interests you.  And if you say it wrong or incompletely, or not everyone gets it or cares to get it - oh well; they're not the ones to whom you must render an account.  It's only the source of grace within you that is entitled to such rendering.

I got to test all this out last Sunday.  I left church, pondering all these things, and as I was turning onto my street, I saw this sign.

I had not heard anything about this event, and was very curious.  I went in my house, changed my shoes, grabbed my camera, and headed over to San Francisco de Asis.  Alas, the parking lot was empty and the church was locked.  But I could hear drumming coming from somewhere, so I walked back through the little grove, out to the street, and looked up and down.

I followed the drumming, passing a few other pedestrians on the way, until I came to the end of the street, where the church school is.   I knew I was now in the right place.

As I walked into the parking lot, passing a long line of mostly kids waiting to drive go-carts around a winding course marked by orange cones, it hit me that I was probably the only non-Hispanic person present.  Not only that, but I was still dressed in the red sweater and colorful skirt I'd worn to church, while everyone else was wearing  jeans.  I felt grossly out of place.  I might as well have been naked.

The culture surrounding the San Francisco de Asis church has existed for over two hundred years and is of a very close-knit, traditional, New Mexican Catholic flavor.  I've rarely felt like such an outsider as I did as I walked through the bazaar.

It was a small, simple affair.  There was food both in the gym and lined up in booths outside - tameles, frito pies, roasted corn, burgers, snow cones.  In the gym, along one wall, was a long table set up with religious figurines, prayer cards, rosaries and some artwork and books with the San Francisco church as the subject.  The rest of the gym was being used for bingo and raffle winner announcements. There were standard fair-type games going on outside, and also a performance area set up in the parking lot.

I wandered around for a bit, wishing I 'd brought some money to spend on food or a poster of the church.  I thought more than once about leaving. The drumming had stopped, but there was another act about to begin, so I figured I'd at least see what it was.  As it turns out, I got to witness an amazing performance by a dance group.  I'm not sure "performance" is even the right word, because they introduced their danzas by saying that each one is a prayer.

After the performance, I approached the dancers and asked if I could post the photos I'd taken of them on my blog.  They took my contact info and said they'd get back to me by the end of the week.   So once I hear from them, I'll share more about this experience in another post, either with or without photos.

But for now, I will just say that I'm very glad I stayed to watch the danzas, because I found myself so caught up in the grace of them, I forgot to feel naked.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sam Hill and a Poem

First, the poem.  I wrote this a few years ago, but it's still one of my favorites.  And appropriate to the season.

Fall Into Winter

While the rain-bright moon lies
pillowed in a hematite sky, the dog
has been untangled one last time from the post-
harvest peach tree between the pines, our children, clean,
sleep upstairs and all is fresh.  I see now
why the Jews start their days in the evenings,
their years in the fall.

We have begun at last that sweet descent
through the aromatic pages of old
books and new, the sharpened pencils
of September, October's cat-black mystic glow,
through the spiking branches, the patient
kitchens of November.  This world turns
spare, closing in to the final present
of December spice and cloud,
all melting down
a vanilla taper
in the one golden room
the year has become.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Swan Song for The Moment

I can't believe it took me so long to discover the joys of blogging. In the few weeks since I started, I've already found and followed some fascinating connections, and met some truly wonderful people. The best thing about blogging is the conversations that happen, the sparks of inspiration that people start and pick up on and spread.

In the past couple of days, the word "interlacing" has appeared on two separate blogs that I follow.  In Song Lines, the most recent post on a hazy moon, a commenter used this word, and then on The Bobwhites, which I discovered via the "Next Blog" button, "Interlacing" was a blog title. defines "interlace" as:  "to cross one another, typically passing alternately over and under, as if woven together."  How beautiful is it that I'm exploring this word because of interlacing blogs? 

One of the themes that has emerged for me recently out of this interlacing is the relationship between freedom and safety. It started with Jennifer's post, What is a Safe Person?  (I'll come back to this in a moment).  Then, in the remedial college Reading class that I teach, we're reading Steinbeck's The Pearl.  When Kino finds The Pearl of the World and tries to sell it in town, the pearl buyers try to cheat him, offering a much lower price than the pearl is worth.  In class we discussed Kino's decision not to accept their offer.  By refusing it, he is standing up against a system that has oppressed his people for a long time, and therefore is putting himself in danger.  Freedom and safety are opposites.

This got me thinking.  Wasn't it Ben Franklin who said, "Those who would choose safety over freedom deserve neither"?  Why?  Is freedom inherently more valuable than safety, and if so why?  Is it just more "real"?   I think it's the  pursuit of safety over freedom that Ben was criticizing.  That this pursuit is fear-based.  But seeking freedom often is too.  I've encountered a lot of people who seem to equate freedom with mobility of some kind.  The ability to get out.  Is this not fear-based?  The need for open spaces is no "better" than the need for fences.

Another twisted expression of "freedom" is really recklessness in a very thin disguise.  I used to fall into this category.  Freedom to me meant being able to do whatever I wanted without restriction.  The result?  Harm to myself and others, of course.  Some of which I'm still dealing with today.

In my reading class we talked about how one people's freedom can be taken away so another people can feel safer.  I mentioned the internment camps of Japanese-Americans that were set up during World War II, and we discussed the racial profiling of Middle Eastern people (and others) that's been happening since 9/11.  Where do you draw the line when it comes to creating safety?  is the question we tackled, but could not arrive at a consensus.  And apparently, no one ever has, except maybe certain Gandhi-esque organizations.  Whole nations though?  Forget it.

The question is too abstract, too philosophical.  Too unsafe.  Define freedom.  Define safety.  Can you do it off the top of your head?  Now go ask your neighbor the same question.  Leave your gun at home.

The principle of oppression for the sake of safety can even be seen in nature.  A minor example that I came across recently has to do with the way flowers secure pollination. Many flowers have evolved methods of depositing pollen on bees in a way that the bee can't get the pollen off. Only by entering another flower of the same kind, that's equipped to scrape the pollen, will the bee become free of it. A bee may fly around for days with a big clump of pollen stuck to one of these “safe sites” - say on the top of the head, or the abdomen. It's like an itch in the middle of your back you can't quite reach.

Some people seem to equate freedom with NOT feeling safe - atheist fundamentalists,  deconstructionist zealots - who say either directly or indirectly:  Only stupid (i.e.,unfree) people feel safe.  Like most extremist statements, there is a grain of truth to it.  Many people do coddle themselves into a stupor by any number of sad little means.  But I think, life being what it is, we all do it sometimes.

I think it's just all about balance.  An excess of freedom (in the sense, let's say, of expanding boundaries) makes us swing back to safety-seeking, because we get afraid.  In fact, my life has been like that lately.  Because of blogging, teaching again, and joining a non-profit board, I've really been putting myself "out there," after a long cocooning period.  Sometimes I need to step back, regroup.  The point, I think, is to do this with awareness, as a means to keep growing - not as an escape or shutting down.

With this awareness, comes the realization that there is a place where freedom and safety coexist.  Jennifer's post deals with the idea that for freedom to exist in an intimate relationship, there must be a sense of safety, real trust.  And they grow in proportion to each other.

And yet, this kind of trust opens you to that strange recognition of the Other, suddenly seeing how big you both are, on opposite sides of a universe that you're meeting across. And embracing there is the least safe thing you can do, ego-wise.

Which just goes to show how differently the ego and the spirit can define both freedom and safety. This is why, to me, true freedom is a paradox. There is a freedom in decisiveness, commitment to a path. The fish isn't free if he escapes the bowl.  Bees enjoy the freedom to be sky-wanderers, to fly to many flowers, but this comes through participating in a highly structured and disciplined society.  As a poet, it took me a long time to embrace anything but free verse. When I finally learned to write formal poetry, I realized the potential in submitting to a discipline. By mastering a form, you gain a new kind of freedom. The same is true of dance, or painting, or raising children.  Boundaries, parameters must be recognized and accepted before they can be expanded.

All of this is so complex. I hope I haven't lost anybody here. Really, I think it's very simple - If you feel free, you are. Because freedom is a state of being, not a set of circumstances. The best analogy I can come up with is singing in prison. One of my very favorite bible stories is in Acts 16, when Paul and Silas sing in a jail cell, until an earthquake breaks the bars. I also think of the line from Tori Amos' song, "Crucify": You're just an empty cage if you kill the bird.

Kim Ayres recently posted here about starting a day off grumpy, but eventually being drawn out of it by a scene of beauty. Responding to beauty, to the moment, allowing oneself to be drawn out of misery – that's freedom. It comes with awareness. It's the ability to sing in a cage, to love your enemy.  And this is also the only safety there is.

One of Kim's commenters gave some interesting info about swan folklore, since a swan was featured in the photos on that post. What really got me thinking was the concept of the “swan song.” According to Wikipedia, “The phrase "swan song" is a reference to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is completely mute during its lifetime until the moment just before it dies, when it sings one beautiful song.” And so, says Wikipedia:
By extension, "swan song" has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. It generally carries the connotation that the performer is aware that this is the last performance of his or her lifetime, and is expending everything in one magnificent final effort.
 There is a Zen story about a man being chased by a tiger until he comes to the edge of a cliff. He clambers over the side and grabs hold of a vine. As he's hanging there, he sees that there's another tiger below him, waiting for him to fall. And then two mice come along and start gnawing at the vine. He notices some strawberries growing on the cliff face next to him, and sees the most luscious red strawberry he's ever seen. He reaches over, picks it and eats it. And he thinks to himself, “Ah, how sweet it is!”

Freedom is the swan song in every moment.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gratitude Committee

My mother is a big greeting card person; it's unthinkable for her to let any nationally recognized occasion pass without sending every major relative a card.  Growing up, I didn't mind this so much; all I was required to do was sign my name.  What I hated though, was thank you notes.  My mother forced the writing of thank you notes upon me like she forced me to eat overcooked broccoli.

Like many things that have been ruined for us in childhood, though, I took a good long break from thank you notes (and broccoli), and then eventually rediscovered them in my own way.  (I learned to like broccoli when I learned the fine art of briefly steaming, rather than boiling it for a half hour).

It took involvement with non-profits as a fundraiser, grantwriter, and event organizer for me to finally see the value of thank you notes.  They went from being something I was merely obligated to do to an enjoyable exercise in actual gratitude.  I began to take pleasure in choosing the words and the card, imagining how the recipient might feel upon receiving it.  And there was an unmistakable sense of satisfaction when I deposited the sealed envelopes into a mailbox.  Like that was one thing out of my ambiguous, ambivalent day that I could honestly say was The Right Thing To Do, and I had done it.  I could cross it off my list and feel complete.

While participating as a board member for one non-profit, my good friend Rob and I became The Gratitude Committee.  Since we're both ridiculously philosophical, perfectionists when it comes to writing, and long-winded, the Gratitude Committee often spent many hours composing a simple thank you note.  But it was fun.  There was an exciting element in the collaborative nature of our projects.  Sometimes we'd work on a note for a while and get stuck on one line.  Maybe this seems silly to you, but there is definitely a tricky place in thanking a donor who you want to be able to ask for money again at some point.  You want to let them know you're grateful, while also subtly preparing them to open their wallets again.

So we'd get stuck on this one line, and finally decide to leave it alone for a while, let it simmer in our subconscious minds.  Then, the next day or whatever, one of us would have a breakthrough and elatedly call the other as though we were announcing having found the cure for the common cold.

I am no longer a member of the Gratitude Committee, and I tend to forget to write thank you notes, or I put it off for so long that it seems more insulting to send it at such a late date than to have never sent it at all.

But lately, I've been putting together a list of people I want to spend some time creatively thanking.  So many people have done wonderful things for me lately, and it's very easy to just say "thanks" at the time then let these little miracles fade away.  But when I really look at how people have sometimes saved my ass, or made my life easier or more pleasant in some way, I am stunned at myself that I could ever let such things go by without a concrete expression of gratitude.

There are many lessons in life that keep coming back to me because I'm such a slow learner.  I forget so fast.  One of those lessons is that gratitude is the right mode for just about any activity.  It's the answer to many questions, and the antidote to much negativity.  I tend to feel guilty when people give me things - gratitude is the alternative to that.  Expressing gratitude means a cosmic balance has been struck and catapults me into a far more joyful and enlightened realm.

Writer Elisabeth Eliot says, "It is always possible to be thankful for what has been given instead of complaining about what hasn't been given.  One or the other will become a habit of life."  God knows I've too often fallen into the habit of complaining instead of being thankful.  

I came across a vegan's blog today.  She's recently become vegan because she has major problems with the global food market.  I do too, but I don't think being vegan is the answer, at least not for me.  Mulling over her blog this evening, I started drifting into my usual ambivalence about the efficacy of political solutions.  The sense of futility inherent in awareness of being a member of a flagrantly corrupt system.  You gotta eat.  And unless you're producing all your own food yourself, someone somewhere - human or animal - probably suffered for your dinner.

So what do I do?  Starve myself out of guilt?  No.  I offer gratitude to whatever life I'm consuming.  Which is all life.  Just life.  And in this way I see that gratitude is the flipside of compassion, because if I can be grateful for another's sacrifice, the inevitable next step is to see that sacrifice is also asked of me.  And I can be grateful for that too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Full Moon for Francis

The Prayer of St. Francis 

Lord make me a channel of thy peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love; 
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness ; 
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony ; 
that where there is error, I may bring truth; 
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; 
that where there is despair, I may bring hope; 
that where there are shadows, I may bring light; 
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; 
to understand, than to be understood ; 
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. 
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. 
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.  

Today is October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  Last night, Sister Moon put on quite a show for him.  As I sat on my porch and gazed at her glorious fullness, I heard bells from the San Francisco de Asis church.  They rang for a long long time.  I suppose there was a mass celebrating St. Francis, and I'm sure they're doing it today too.

This blog will have to serve as my little tribute to Francis.  I just adore him.  Such a rabble-rouser, such a poet, so much compassion.  A great combination of qualities, if you ask me.

Nowadays, he's considered patron saint of the environment, because of his great love for all of creation.  I think the feast of St. Francis should be widely celebrated as a second annual Earth Day.  The rate things are going in this world, we could use at least two.

When I was in San Francisco for the first time, I had a major blonde moment (and I'm not even blonde).  I wandered into one of the cathedrals (don't remember which one) and was surprised that there was so much stuff in the gift shop about St. Francis, until I (DUH) put it together:  San Francisco = St. Francis.  (Believe it or not, I actually have a master's degree.)

Anyway, I bought this poster.  I'm pretty picky about art that I like enough to look at every day, but I love this and have it up in my bedroom:

Il Transito di san Francesco alla Porziuncola
(St. Francis Dying at Porziuncola)
by Gerardo Dottori

I never get tired of looking at it.  It' so vivid and meditative at the same time.

At the San Francisco de Asis church here, in addition to the statue of St. Francis that I mentioned in my previous post, there's also this little alcove about two feet high, built into the western well surrounding the church. 


I love that Francis is holding a dove here, since there are actual doves that live in the bell towers of the church.  I even managed to capture this photo of a dove and a pigeon hanging out:

I think it's pretty neat that there's so much animal and plant life at a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.  It's like they know they're welcome there.  The Canticle of the Creatures is perpetually whispered on the breeze.

What is truly glorious about the Canticle (also known as the Canticle of the Sun) is that he wrote it on his deathbed.  Apparently, he was lying there, tempted to feel sorry for himself, questioning the fairness of his pain and infirmities.  But in that darkness he chose gratitude - for the opportunity to soon leave the world and move on to the next, but also for the world itself, and all he had loved in it.

I think this is very similar to the way the book of Job ends.  I've always thought that God's speech to Job is about loving the creation as the answer to suffering.  It's like God is saying the way to deal with suffering is to be amazed, to realize how little we actually know and understand, but then go out into the creation and see and know and love the creatures, and by extension, the Creator.

Francis, I think, knew this best of all.

The Canticle of the Creatures

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
 no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

 We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
of You Most High, he bears your likeness.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars,
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air,
 fair and stormy, all weather's moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night.
 He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth,
 who sustains us
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon,
for love of You bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
by You Most High, they will be crowned.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.  

We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks,
and serve You in all humility.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Little Flowers of St. Clare

I've always been a big fan of St. Francis of Assisi.  Anyone who would strip naked in the town square as a statement against superficiality and rampant materialism is ok in my book.

But it's only recently that I've come to appreciate his cohort, St. Clare.  My previous sense of her was that she was sort of a twelfth century religious groupie, but since I've been walking to the San Francisco de Asis church, I've found myself irresistibly drawn to her, because of the beguiling and enigmatic statue of her that's in the courtyard.

As you can see, she's surrounded by flowers.  I first started my walks, my little pilgrimages, in early August, when her garden was in full bloom.  In fact, the day of my second walk, I came home and looked her up on the computer, and discovered that her feast day was in two days, on August 11.

The most impressive thing about Clare that I discovered is that she was the first woman to write a monastic rule.  She started the order of nuns known today as the Poor Clares, and the set of rules and guidelines that she wrote to govern this order was approved by the Pope on August 9, 1253, two days before she died.  I just happened to find this out on the exact anniversary of that day.

I also found out that she's the patron saint of laundry workers, which, since I'm planning to open a laundromat, really just gave me chills.

It's true that she was inspired by and devoted to Francis, as he was to her.  In the courtyard, their statues are catty corner to each other, facing each other; hers in the east and his in the west.  When I go there at twilight, the setting sun behind Francis lights Clare up.  And I think this is how it was in life.  They were rarely together physically, but always in spirit, always looking toward each other, illuminating each other.


I've never been one to venerate statues.  I'm not Catholic, Buddhist, or Hindu.  But visiting the statue of St. Clare has an odd effect on me.  Every time I go, I end up sitting in front of her garden.  There is what I can only call a substance of spirit about her statue, a sense of presence.  No, no.  I don't think her statue is alive, or that her spirit is trapped in it or something.  Don't commit me to the loony bin just yet.  But just look at this, and tell me there isn't power in it:

There is something mysterious and real there.  Made all the more keen by the profusion of life in that spot, and the life infused into the church building she stands by. 

In case you didn't know, the San Francisco de Asis church is a real adobe structure, meaning that it is made of mud and straw.  Each year, the parishioners get together to re-mud the building's exterior.  So the church is literally anointed by the life of all those hands, all that devotion over two hundred years.  This is my view from where I sit in front of Clare.  You can just make out Francis to the left.

This place is a symphony, and the adobe walls are the bassline.   Throw in Clare and Francis, the chortling doves that roost in the bell towers, the hummingbirds and bees and the multitude of hawk moths, the fragrance of the flowers, the movement of clouds and the echo of magpies and ravens over that huge round sky - and the symphony is complete and exalted, the senses and spirit exult.


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