Saturday, November 28, 2009

Treasures of Darkness: Part III

Violence is not merely killing another.  
It is violence when we use a sharp word, 
when we make a gesture to brush away a person, 
when we obey because there is fear.
~Jiddu Krishnamurti

I ended my previous post with the perhaps controversial notion that we can be violent and compassionate at the same time.  In exploring this idea, I found an interesting discussion thread on the website, Martial Development, about the relationship between violence and compassion.  Steven Smith, a World Taiji Boxing Association instructor, says:
Both compassion and violence are innate. Well, when I imagine the need to pluck a poor carrot from the garden, I consider it violent. So — that’s what I mean — we have an innate propensity to eat and nurture ourselves, and to do so requires violence. Much of our violence is shielded from awareness, true; but actions that support life (even you –vegans) requires violence, destruction, consumption (pick the term).
Compassion, of course, is innate as well: without it how could I listen softly to my friend’s words or offer a soothing touch? When we temper our violence with compassion, we learn to walk softly. We find those fine lines, that razor’s edge, to travel into the deeper recesses of awareness and attention.
Existing as a human, or, even more so, being a martial artist while believing that you do not practice violence is both great denial and a great way to prepare to get hurt.
He also makes a distinction I find useful.  He talks about the overuse and emotionally loaded quality of the word "violence," and replaces it with "ruthlessness" for the purpose of the discussion.  He says that compassion arises when "you simply experience your own inner softness, your tenderness. From personal experiences of tenderness we may, nevertheless, execute ruthless acts."  He then gives the example of "a great bodyworker" who "will impress, with deep-tissue realignment, the meaning of ruthless compassion."

Is it truly possible to have compassion toward one to whom you do violence?  Can you deliberately be ruthless to a friend?  Again, it comes down to definitions and deeper understandings.  Cruelty and friendship, abuse and friendship - certainly not.  But part of friendship - one of the hardest parts - is promoting accountability.  It may sometimes be necessary to forcefully cross a boundary set by a friend in order to hold them accountable.

In the post that inspired this series, Rebecca posed the question:  Will we evolve out of the need for violence?  I don't see us evolving out of the need to eat just yet.  Nor do I see the need for occasional ruthlessness disappearing, as long as human nature is what it is.  What I do think we could evolve out of is cruelty, whether deliberate or because of unmindfulness.  And compassion is the key.

But what exactly is compassion and how do we practice it? One of the ways I've been approaching this topic is through considering The Charter for Compassion, which I've come across twice recently, at A Mindful Heart and MIND SIEVE. Rather than summarize it here, I strongly recommend you go check it out, if you haven't already.

Compassion means, at its root, to "suffer with."  Karen Armstrong, author of The Charter for Compassion, says that one aspect of practicing compassion is "the breaking down of the ego that makes you go beyond doing the things that you like or feel comfortable doing."  (Another kind of violence?)  As Dan Gurney pointed out in response to one of my recent posts, the Dalai Lama has said that compassion is the path to happiness.  Another paradox, a mystery.  How will allowing myself to suffer with someone make me or them happy?  But anyone who has tried it knows that it does indeed work that way, maybe not in that exact moment, but in the lingering effects of practicing it on an ongoing basis.

However, practicing compassion can also have very immediate and profound effects.  I've personally experienced the power of compassion and forgiveness to alter an extreme situation.  When I was seven months pregnant and living alone, I came home from work one night to watch movies with some friends.  After my friends left, I got into bed and was reading when I heard a noise in the closet.  I got up to see what it was, and as I opened the closet door, an unknown black man jumped out at me and tied my hands behind my back, knocking off my glasses in the process.  He then blindfolded me.  In the confusion of what was happening, my first thought was that it was my brother playing a joke on me.  He was supposed to come over that night but hadn't shown up.  Once I realized what was actually happening, my response was terror, and I screamed.

But then an amazing thing happened that transformed the experience entirely.  I had been studying A Course in Miracles, which is a year-long set of daily practices designed to promote spiritual awakening, "removing the blocks to the awareness of love's presence."  One of its primary principles is that "nothing real can be threatened" and "nothing unreal exists."  Forgiveness and the laying down of defenses are the aims of the daily practice.  Since I had just finished the course a couple of weeks earlier, my response to being raped by this attacker was vastly different than it might have been.  I moved deeper than my fear and applied the precepts of the course, consciously applying forgiveness, compassion, and the faith that I would not be harmed because I had internalized the lesson of the course in which "attack [is] seen as misperception calling for remedy through gentleness and love. Defenses are laid down because where there is no attack there is no need for them. Our brothers' needs become our own, because they are taking the journey with us as we go to God."

I kept silently telling this man, "You are my brother and I forgive you."  I also repeated to myself other lessons of the course, such as, "I can be hurt by nothing but my thoughts."  And I experienced peace as long as I kept myself in the moment with these thoughts.  No pain was inflicted on me, and after the man left, I managed to get my hands free and ran down the street to a friend's house, where I called 911.  The man had stolen my car, and the police caught him driving back down my street a little later.  They chased him, he hit a fire hydrant, got out of the car, tried to climb over a chain link fence, and stabbed himself in the penis with a piece of the fence.  They had to take him to the hospital before they took him to jail.  As far as I know, he's still in jail.  It turns out that he had also raped a couple of other women in the neighborhood. 

When the rape crisis people came to talk to me that night, they were amazed at how calm I was.  They had never seen anything like it.  I can honestly say that it was as though my year of doing A Course in Miracles had been training for that very night.

This was an extreme situation that required that kind of preparation, but it was an enhancement of a natural compassion that I seem to have been born with.  It has never been difficult for me to empathize with another's plight, no matter how shocking, pathetic, debased, or personally threatening the situation might appear to most.

However, I also fail at compassion on a regular basis, especially with those closest to me.  I get irritated too easily when life is chaotic, not flowing pleasantly.  And because I have four children, this happens fairly often.  Like, daily.  My response is often a pulling away at best, or snapping at them at worst. These actions are relatively mild, but are still decidedly not compassionate, kind, or loving.

This post series has been extremely challenging for me.  It has turned me inside out and now I'm showing all of this to you.  Aside from the emotional difficulty, there is also the problem that for every judgment I can make on this topic, three or four other, often contradictory ones come to mind.  Which is why I keep coming back to this same point:  I don't really think it's about answering these questions once and for all.  I think it's about integration, befriending shadows.  It's about being willing to break out of comfortable truisms, easy dualities, and elitist moralities, and, resting in mystery, embrace a mindful unknowingness.  It's about starting, moving, and ending in a place of compassion.

Through writing these posts, I've come to a definition of compassion that for me is deeper and more useful, which is simply "friendship."  When I'm not sure how to show compassion, if I ask myself "How can I be a friend in this circumstance?" I'm much clearer about what to do.  This is not just because the action required becomes more obvious, but because I'm starting from a place of heart and authenticity, tapping into the source of love within myself.  As O'Donohue says in Anam Cara, "If approached in friendship, the unknown, the anonymous, the negative, and the threatening gradually yield their secret affinity with us."  Friends are the easiest people to love, so it's natural that thinking in terms of friendship is an easier way to open the door to that source.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to say.  Anam Cara means "soul friend," and the whole book is about different manifestations of spiritual friendship with various aspects of ourselves, the earth, and other human beings.  Finding this book at such a time has been a great blessing for me, an unexpected and perfect gift of grace.  Reading it has made me aware of, among other things, the amazing gift of the "soul friends" I've made through blogging.  There is a tendency to view the relationships we form through the internet as less "real" than those we have in the physical world, but as O'Donohue says, there are no "limitations of space or time on the soul." 

One of the purposes and distinctions of soul friendship is that "the superficial lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are."  A soul friend is one with whom you experience a sense of "recognition and belonging," and "to whom you confess with a full heart."  These quotes wonderfully describe the experience I've had with friends I've made through blogging. 

So all I am left with at the end of this lengthy discussion is deep gratitude to my soul friends in the blogosphere who have both inspired me to explore these issues and also made me feel safe enough to do so publicly.  These are the greatest treasures of all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Treasures of Darkness: Part II

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, 
than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence. 

What is violence?  And what do we do with it?'s first definition of the word "violence" is "swift and intense force,"  as in "a violent storm."  This kind of violence is natural, and unavoidable.

The second definition is "rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment."  This sounds more like the kind of violence most people agree is inappropriate in most situations.

The American Heritage Dictionary lists as its first definition:  "Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing: crimes of violence."  This sounds even more like the kind of violence we want to avoid or overcome.

What is the difference between this kind and the "natural" kind but human intention? 

Is violence just
that wounds?

Blake said, Colors are
the wounds of light.

is wounded, even
light is broken.
This violence is

to the world.
This is beauty.

When my heart is
hard and dull and dry, it wants
to be broken,

a violent grace;
my heart must be
broken open,

because it cannot break
This is beauty.

While I was working on this post, I came across a very interesting chart of the "Levels of Human Development," in the magazine What Is Enlightenment?  According to this chart, the "Integral" phase that humanity is beginning to enter will be defined by "new, higher forms of integral or holistic thinking."  One of the people held up as an "exemplary leader" at this level is Teilhard de Chardin.  The philosophy he may best be known for is that of the Omega Point, the belief that humanity is evolving into union with the divine.

I had already been thinking about him in relation to this discussion, because of his reaction to being involved in World War I. For him, being on the front lines led him into an exalted, mystical experience, reducing life to its essences, and paradoxically inspiring his faith in the spiritual evolution of humanity.

Another strange and wonderful thing that happened while I was contemplating all of this occurred at the library. I was browsing in my favorite section, the 291s, and a book called Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, caught my eye. I opened it randomly and read the following, in a section whose heading was “Contradictions as Treasures”:

We need to rediscover contradiction as a creative force within the soul...that disavows mere linear progress in order to awaken all the aggregate energies of an experience. It is the turbulence and conflict of their inner conversation that brings an integrity of transfiguration...There is a secret light and vital energy in contradiction...If you remain faithful to this energy, you will gradually come to participate in a harmony that lies deeper than any contradiction. This will give you new courage to engage the depth, danger, and darkness of your life.
John O'Donohue, the author of this beautiful writing, then goes on to say that we need to reconsider what we judge as negative, that morality is often “the enemy of growth” because of the rigid judgments associated with it, and that we need “a new way of understanding and integrating the negative,” by befriending it.

Author Barbara Kingsolver, in her essay, “Be Careful What You Let In The Front Door,” discusses receiving two letters addressing the violence in her novels in the same week One of these letters was from a woman who had been abused as a child, and couldn't read past a certain point in one of Kingsolver's novels because of the violence done to one of the characters. The other letter was from a nun, praising her for “daring to hold up a mirror of the horrible devastation our country has visited upon Nicaragua” in her novel, Animal Dreams. These letters led Kingsolver into deep contemplation. She comes to no ultimate conclusion, but says, “I don't know whether my convictions about art...that contains violence will ever be allowed to settle into a comfortable position. They have been revising themselves for a long, long time, roaming restlessly over the options, continually exhorted by the ghosts that bless and curse.”

Twelve years later, in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she offers an excellent discussion of actual violence, in the context of killing the animals her family raises to eat on their small farm. She says, “It's not without thought and gratitude that I slaughter my animals, it is a hard thing to do.” And she offers the following quote from Kahlil Gibran:
When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart:
By the same power that slays you, I too am slain, and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivers you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.
The meaning embodied in this message is what rescues the acceptance of paradox from fence-sitting, integration of the dark side from alignment with it.  Because to have this kind of identification with the object of your violence is to have compassion.  And for me, choosing a position on an issue only has value if it is an expression of compassion.

I hope you'll join me as I explore the relationship between violence and compassion in the third and last post of this series.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Treasures of Darkness: Part I


Blackbird fly
into the light of the dark black night.
~ The Beatles

I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places.
~Isaiah 45:3

My new friend Rebecca  recently posted here about her experience with viewing media violence and realizing that it can be debilitating for her.  A rather intense discussion ensued in which I admitted that I think violence is built in to human nature and that we may have a need for the kind of catharsis that watching violence can provide.  We used to throw people to the lions or attend lynchings or witch burnings, but now we witness violence through movies and TV.

As I confess these thoughts, I feel now, as I did when I said them on Rebecca's blog, diffident and almost ashamed.  In the spiritual circles that I primarily move, both in my church life and in the blogosphere, there is a definite emphasis on non-violence and pacifism.  It's interesting that Christians, as portrayed more often than not in the media, are associated with the extreme right and pro-war, but in liberal churches, which tend to be much quieter and therefore less visible than fundamentalist ones, there is often an equally extreme pacifism.  This puts them closer in some ways to Buddhism than to other branches of Christianity.

It's interesting to me that those who are anti-war also tend to be pro-choice, as abortion is undeniably a violent act.  Equally interesting is that those who are pro-life tend to be anti-environment:  It's not ok to end the life of a fetus but it's ok to end the life of the planet.  What I see in this is that inconsistency is a human trait, and extreme positions tend to create hypocrisy.  This is why I'm skeptical of extremes and "isms," whether they take the form of fundamentalism or pacifism or judgmentalism.  And for me, being "anti" something is not the way to make good things happen.

I seem to have been born with a natural tendency to see more than one side of an issue.  Any time there's a lot of alarmist hype about something, I'm automatically interested in hearing what the other side has to say.  You may say I'm a devil's advocate, but it's not just for the sake of being ornery.  As I've mentioned before on my blog, I try to live by the poet Keats' concept of Negative Capability:  "The ability to rest in mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."  One aspect of this is to resist "dividing things up and taking sides," as author Tom Robbins once put it.

But the fact is, most things are divided up, because that's what we humans tend to do.  Dualistic thinking is so pervasive it's almost impossible to imagine life without it.  Many ancient cultures were not like this.  However, dualistic thinking is a mode that once introduced cannot be undone.  You can't unscramble the egg.  But what you can do is contemplate images and concepts of the whole egg, as it is in perfection, in its "virgin" state, in its entire process from conception to being eaten, in the results and effects of this process.

My point is that I find value in contemplating violence.  When things are divided up  I need to look at as many sides as I can and balance them, try not to be attached to one way, in order to get back to that place of mystery.  I'm reminded of something Clive Barker, who is known primarily as a "horror" writer, says: "Look at what you should not look at. A feeling of anxiety is the sure and certain evidence that you should do this."

One of my favorite movies is Barker's CandymanThis movie definitely falls into the horror genre, replete with gore and terror, but there is intelligence and substance to the story.  The ending is actually quite redemptive and moving; my ex-husband and I both cried when we saw it in the theater.

The character of the Candyman, whose existence is the subject of an urban legend, is fascinating in his blend of human and mythical qualities, a common construction in Barker's work.  At one point  Candyman says,  "I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom.  Without these things, I am nothing."  He sees his role as essential to the people who have created him by believing in him: "What do the good know except what the bad teach them by their excesses?"  While I don't completely agree with the rigid logic of this, I do find it a worthy question to explore, which is one of the many reasons I appreciate this movie.      

And yet, Candyman is one of the few horror movies I've ever seen.  I tend to avoid them because I resonate deeply with Rebecca's statement about being debilitated by watching certain things.  There is a need for discernment.

I feel that my whole life, from adolescence on, has been a project in learning to walk the line between unconditional openness and the setting and maintaining of useful boundaries.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I tried to stay completely open to anything that crossed my path.  While many interesting experiences occurred this way, the overall effect was that I scared myself silly, ultimately to the point of near-paralysis.

So I'm not going to go picking up hitchhikers at night on the dark side of town, as I once did.  But I will still look as deeply into violence and other dark things as I can without debilitating myself, and ask difficult questions.  I will be exploring these questions and issues further in my next post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Happiness is a Warm Tortilla

It's 11:22 -  no, wait -11:23 pm as I begin this post.  I had turned off my computer and was going to be a good girl and go to bed, when, blam! Inspiration hit.  As I was jotting down notes so I'd remember what I wanted to say in the morning, the voice of Annie Dillard spoke into my ear, forcing me to pause with my pencil in midair.  In her book, The Writing Life, she says, "One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. . . The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now."

So here I am, spending it now.  Thanks, Annie.

My last post diddled around with definitions of happiness, but left me feeling, well, unspent.  And there have been so many posts I've read lately discussing happiness that my inspiration is to continue on this thread, this cross-pollination, this interlacing.

I've thought a lot about happiness in the past few years.  For a long time, I despised the word.  I thought happiness was for stupid people.  In my early days as a college student, I took a class where instead of taking roll, Dr. Dorman would ask us a question.  One day she asked, "Would you rather be happy but dull, or brilliant but tormented"?  That was easy, because I already WAS brilliant but tormented, and damn proud of it.

A few years ago I made friends with a man while we were both doing master's degrees in English at the same university.  We had many brilliant conversations ( however, hardly any were tormented), and we were in total agreement about happiness just being a dumb concept.  Ironically, some of the happiest moments of my life were spent in his company.  

Then I fell in love with a man who is naturally happy, and values it.  Slowly, through my relationship with him, and simply wising up, I've come to an appreciation of happiness as something worthy of my attention.

I began to think about the difference between happiness and joy.  As I discussed in a previous post, joy is something I have experienced as non-dependent on circumstance.  It can break in anywhere, anytime.  It's of the moment and of eternity (which I define as the opposite of time).

Happiness, to me, has to do with favorable circumstances, and a span of time.  It's very human. And because of all these things, it's connected to stories.  Happiness is a story we tell ourselves.  At Diamonds and Toads recently, Kate asked her readers if they believe in "happily ever after."  I responded basically that, in terms of relationships, because they embody stories, one can indeed live happily ever after, but not every day.  It's an overarching quality of happiness that infuses the story, even when the particular chapter involves conflict.  It's just like being "in love." You're not going to always feel "in love," but you always do love the person, even when you experience negative feelings toward them for a moment, or a week. 

When I first formulated my definitions of happiness and joy, they lent themselves to a hierarchy:  Joy was more "real" and "valuable" than happiness.  While I no longer despised the concept of happiness, it still didn't seem very important to me .  It seemed false BECAUSE it was dependent on a story for its existence.

But as I discussed in my last post, I've begun to believe in happy stories, which has happened because I finally saw that I was telling myself stories all the time and they were pretty miserable and seemed very real.  It began to dawn on me that I might not be able to escape telling myself stories, but I could change their content.  If I can't grasp Ultimate Reality every moment of my life, I can at least tell myself a happy story to fill in the time.

But now, my rigid definitions of happiness and joy are starting to blur at the edges and meld into each other.  And that's just fine with me.

If I was back in Dr. Dorman's class again, answering that question, I'd say, "How could you possibly be dull if you're truly happy?  What good is brilliance if it doesn't know how to find happiness?"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Other Shoe Has Been Placed Gently On The Floor

I've been thinking a lot about the stories we tell ourselves.  One of the reasons I claim Christianity as my primary discipline and path is because it is steeped in narrative, and I believe humans need stories we can live inside as much as we need water and air.  Yet what attracts me to Buddhism is its focus on dropping judgment and being ultimately present in the now, which implies letting stories go.

I used to be very sure of the truth of the stories I told myself.  There was a time when I didn't even realize that's what I was doing, but just blindly accepted, without any hint of a question, that the things I believed were fact.

Nothing will slap you out of that illusion faster than a truly intimate relationship.

I won't bore you with all the details of my evolution, but I will say that where I find myself now, in my current relationship with my beloved, is that I hold different stories at different times, depending on my state of mind and heart.  This has been very confusing to me:  Which story is true?

Is it the one where I'm the evil queen holding the beautiful bird captive for my own narcissistic pleasure?  Is it the one where I'm the innocent princess being rescued by a knight in shining armor - or an innocent princess being tricked by a monster dressed up like a knight?  Or the one where we're both lost children trying to find our way out of the forest?  It goes on like this ad nauseum, and the only times I even think in these terms is when I'm feeling fearful and negative, so all the stories are - guess what? - fearful and negative.  The truth is, there's a little of all of them in my relationship, but what this relationship is defined by is a deep and abiding love and commitment to mutual growth.  What more could I ask for?

The story that I choose to put my energy of belief into is the one that's going to define how the relationship plays out.  But then again, how much control do I really have?

What if I choose the most beautiful story I can imagine might be true and I still get screwed?

It's these very questions I was contemplating when I came across one of Kate's recent posts at New Life.  She makes a reference to the expression "waiting for the other shoe to drop," about how happiness always seems tainted by latent dread of it ending.

In pondering that, I thought about The Sententious Vaunter's post, a hodgepodge of cool stuff, which includes a fairly simple recipe for happiness:  Deliberately choose things to be around you that you enjoy, and then enjoy them.  This way of happiness, however, also depends on not waiting for that shoe.  Enjoyment without attachment.

I started wondering where this shoe-dropping expression came from.  So I looked it up.

Apparently it came from some vaudeville act involving a guy coming home to his upstairs apartment late at night and taking off his shoes. He drops the first one and realizes it's pretty loud, so he places the other one gently on the floor.

Eventually the guy downstairs shouts, "Would you hurry up and drop the other one so I can stop waiting for it and go back to sleep?"

What if we could just assume that the shoe is already on the floor?  How could it do anything but make life better?  Duh.  So I've resolved to let myself believe the story that my deepest heart is already writing.  Because there's really nothing to lose.  Except fearful projections.

I've been deeply studying a book called Dreaming the Council Ways for over a year.  In the chapter I'm reading now, the author, Ohky Simine Forest, talks about how we attract what we fear, and the power of being decided.   This is where I'm coming from with all of this.  The point is not to attach to yet another illusion and live in wishful thinking, but to be decided about how I'm going narrate and interpret my story.  To let there be one author with a singular vision, instead of passing the pen around to a host of writers who aren't even sure what they have to say.

I was just talking to my very wise twelve-year-old son about this post, and he said, "What if the shoes were stilettos?"  And then, "What if you got so used to that guy coming in and dropping his shoes that you couldn't go to sleep without it?"

Yes.  So.  If you've got to wait for it - at least picture an elegant stiletto.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Full of Hot Air

On the morning of my youngest's second birthday party, I rose early because I have a bad habit of rushing around at the last minute to get ready for parties, and I was determined to do it differently this time.  Also, I needed to go do laundry.

So I packed up my laundry baskets and headed out.  I'd gotten a couple of blocks down the road when I saw the balloons.  I'd forgotten today was the Balloon Fiesta.  I promptly turned around and fetched my camera.  I tried to take pictures while I was driving, but that didn't work so well, so I pulled into the bank parking lot and got out of the van.  Several others had done the same thing.



I climbed back into the van and headed over to the Free Box, which is a fenced area next to the Taos Recycling Center, where people can drop off or pick up whatever they want.  It's where I found the camera that I've used to take all the photos on my blog.

I've always been a big thrift store shopper.  It's the treasure hunter in me.  And also an expression of my belief in recycling.  Most of the clothes I own are secondhand, and when I've occasionally shopped for new clothes, I don't find things I like as much as I do at thrift stores.

The Free Box takes secondhand shopping to a whole new level, especially in the sense of serendipity.  One of the things I love about thrift stores is the way I'll put something I need or want out there to the universe, and then find that exact thing.  The Free Box is even more like that.

I found my camera, for instance, right when I was starting a blog.  All my life, I'd avoided photography like the plague.  Before digital cameras, I had issues with using a camera because of having to press it up against my glasses and squinch one of my eyes shut.  It was uncomfortable and awkward, and my photos were always off center.  Digital cameras intimidated me because they were so technical.

I've also had a philosophical problem with photography.  In all honesty, I held some latent contempt for those who go around photographing everything as a way to record experiences instead of actually having them.    Wendell Berry has a great poem about this, called "The Vacation."  There are definitely people who are too busy taking pictures to see.

But a camera came to me, out of the free flow of the world, and because it was free, I wasn't afraid of it.  I started playing with it, and discovered that photography actually helps me see better.  I pay attention more closely now, notice what is worth noticing.

Which is just about anything from the right distance and angle, and in the right light.   

 The antenna thingy on top of my house, for instance,

or puddles in the courtyard of the St. Francis church.

So now I'm to the point where I have to turn around and get my camera so I can photograph hot air balloons.

I felt slightly guilty, though, because I needed to drop off some things at the Free Box and then get to the laundromat so I'd make it back home in plenty of time to get ready for Eliana's party.

However, I couldn't resist taking one more photo at the Free Box.

And then one more on the way out.

And then, what was I going to do while I waited for the clothes to wash, but amuse myself somehow?

 I also visited the nearby Farmer's Market while the clothes were drying.
It's red chile ristra time.

At home, my kids had been decorating for the party,
so I was greeted by more balloons.



The party went great, Eliana had a wonderful time, and even the cake I baked came out pretty good.  I made it from a mix because, although I'm good at other kinds of baking, I suck at cakes from scratch.  But it was a really fancy yummy mix called Mam Papaul's - six bucks at Albertson's.   

It was a great day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Grim Reaper of Angel Fire

I have a horrible confession to make.

Until last Friday, I hadn't been to the dentist in twenty-two years.

When I was growing up, I went every six months, because that's what you did in my white bread, middle class world.  My last parent-paid visit was when I was nineteen, and that was also when I got my first cavity and had it filled.

Out on my own, as a young idiot adult, I tried very hard to forget that I even had a body for a long time.  Then I started having babies and sort of was forced to remember.  But I had my first three kids at home, so was still on the trajectory of avoiding medical personnel as much as possible.

I still think we're too health-obsessed in this country, and we give medical entities way too much authority over our bodies.  But I've mellowed in my old age, and am not quite so radically against the medical establishment as I was in my twenties.  I've been meaning to go to the dentist for years, really I have, but somehow it kept getting pushed down my to-do list.

It was my oldest daughter who finally convinced me to go.  Another confession:  she made the appointment for me (and one for herself the same day), and called to remind me about it the day before.  I, of course, had completely blocked it out forgotten about it.

So off we went to Angel Fire, because the Taos dentists aren't taking new patients.  I'd never been to Angel Fire before, and it had snowed quite a bit the day before.  It was one of the most treacherous journeys I've made in a vehicle.  The road there is consistently narrow and winding, and the last stretch is the narrowest and most winding, up a steep mountain.  At one point, there was a "curve," actually a ninety-degree turn, without any warning at all until you're right up on it.

I have to admit, I was freaking out a wee bit, driving on a slick, unplowed road such as this.  I inched almost the entire way.  Thank God, at least, that no one was tailing me.  By the time we finally made it to the dentist's office, I was sweating bullets, had a nasty headache, and just wanted to take a nap.

We went in the office and were greeted by an undead receptionist with a massive head wound, and I suddenly realized it was the day before Halloween.  She was wearing scrubs splattered with fake blood; it was a good costume.  A little too good.

I recently went to the doctor for the first time in a while and needed to have my ears flushed out.  While not painful, this was an extremely disturbing experience for me, although in a strange way it bordered on the mystical.  It made me realize that I've become a total wuss about having foreign objects and substances forced into my orifices.  So my already addled state created by the drive to Angel Fire was heightened by the nervousness I felt about having my mouth poked around in.  If you can't imagine the state I was in, here's a visual aid.

I look drugged, don't I?  Well, I wasn't.

When the dentist appeared dressed as the Grim Reaper, that was the last straw.

No.  The last straw was having the Grim Reaper poke an extremely sharp and pointy instrument around my incredibly sensitive gums to clean out twenty-two years worth of nastiness.

To be fair, he was very sweet and gentle (and tall and handsome).  He had ski equipment placed decoratively on his walls,

and provided a lovely view from the very comfortable reclining chair I was in. 

Plus, he has the coolest name ever:  Strider A. McCash (I wonder if the A is for Aragorn.) 

But he was too quiet.  And that instrument was too much like a tiny scythe.  I was too scared of him to ask for a photo.

And then there was the assistant.  She too was in costume, which was basically just an orange shirt and black pants and creepy black eye makeup.  She proceeded to tell me that this was her fifth day as a dental assistant, and that when she'd had her hysterectomy, she'd almost died of an infection because they left some kind of medical foreign object inside her.

Somehow I made it through all this, with my whole body tensed and my eyes squinched shut, and, lo and behold, it turned out that I have no new cavities.  I think Dr. McCash was a little disturbed that I've been such a dental delinquent and still have healthy teeth.  I may have detected a note of contempt when he told me, "Yeah, well, you're teeth actually look good."  He was probably also wondering what kind of freak takes pictures at the dentist's office.

The drive back was fine; all the snow had melted.  When I got home I inspected my teeth in the mirror.  They're so clean and shiny now!

And I swear - I'll go see the dentist again in six months, like a good girl.

Well, maybe in a year.  Next Halloween.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ghost Ranch Gathering: Into The Heart of the Desert

A time to gather
myself to myself.

A time to gather sacred life
into silent landscape.

A time to gather heart to mind
and back again.

A time to gather in the heart
of the high desert
with twelve brilliant women,
contemporaries and ancients.

My home for the next three days
is Casa del Sol,
a hacienda,
the spiritual heart
of Ghost Ranch.

 My room is small and simple.
Some previous visitor
has left seven-day candles
in the hearth.

We begin each day walking
the labyrinth.


and evenings,

we study
the Desert Mothers.

In the 300s,
when Constantine made Christianity
the state religion,
many rebelled, saw it as sellout.
They retreated to the desert,
against the status quo.

Some, especially men,
became hermits.

But often the women
created communities
where they shared
and prayed
and taught.

was considered very wise.

She taught about living
an authentic life.
She said,

It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind 
while living in a crowd, 
and it is possible for one who is a solitary 
to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.

Mary of Egypt
was a probably a prostitute
or at least quite promiscuous.

She left that life
and entered the wilderness
where she lived
to the end of her days.

Macrina was the woman
behind the famous brothers,
St. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa.

She was compared to Socrates
for her wisdom.
Gregory said she was:

A woman who raised herself by philosophy
to the greatest height of human virtue.

Mary C. Earle,
in her book, The Desert Mothers,
 says the lesson of these women is:

Daily practice, 
focused on what matters 
in the long run, 
shapes each of us
into true human beings,
marked by the glory of God.
My practice,
afternoons at Ghost Ranch,
is solitude and silence.

Just me
and the desert.

This huge silence is
the Word of God,

living and active,
listening, alert;

not even a bird
breaks into it.


Unadulterated sunshine
holds hands
with a breeze,

and they both
hug the rocks.


A single plane
passes over
the daymoon.


I crawl on my belly
up soft windswept mounds
of red dirt,


immediate geology,
like an old elephant.


In this overflow of solitude,
I think, What if
my longings
are God's longings?

That could be my soul
turned inside
these monuments
of rock,

these fractal branches,


this perfect pentagon
of white stone.

Resting with this Earth,
I receive
her healing.

She is the greatest
Desert Mother
of all.

No agenda but to love
this self
in this body,
on this earth,
my own monastic cell.

The Desert Father, Abba Moses said,

Go to your cell
and your cell
will teach you all. 

Nothing that isn't,
nothing to escape,

when there are no walls.

The final morning
brings first snow,

a perfect symbol
of renewal,


an unexpected alteration
from beauty to beauty,


from earth to earth,
home to home.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ghost Ranch Gathering: The Journey There

The open road leads into storm,

through mists and mysteries.


Rain patters on the windshield
as I peer into bluster.


Skyline rolls along,


into varied landscapes
and shifting skyscapes,

tilts and turns
as sun begins
to surface.


Through valleys of trees
in their autumn dresses

into canyons and
up and down hills,

on I journey
until I come into the heart
of the high desert.

I meander along
the gravel entrance road,

I am
beyond words
for this beauty
to which I have arrived.


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