Sunday, January 31, 2010

Peeling the Orange: Bottom Half

When I began to look more deeply into the orange, Googling brought me immediately to the second chakra, called Svadhisthana, whose color is orange.  (If you don't know what a chakra is, go here.)

symbol for Svadhisthana

This chakra is also associated with the ninth sephirah of the Tree of Life, Yesod.  The attributes and themes of Svadhisthana and Yesod are quite similar.  Both are associated with the Moon, for one thing, which I find interesting, since the moon often looks orange.  Not so incidentally, this weekend saw the biggest and brightest full moon of 2010, with orange-appearing Mars right next to it.  The reason the moon looked bigger and brighter is because it was closer to the Earth than it usually is.  This also means higher and lower tides, and I feel like it's been that way in my life lately.  I've definitely been having a high tide of orange and inspiration, but also a low tide in terms of energy and emotion.

The truly useful information about Svadhisthana/Yesod for me is that they are both related to energy centers in the pelvic region of the body.  Svadhisthana is called "one's own abode," the "seat of life," the origin in the body of chi or the lifeforce, and is associated with emotions, relationships, dualities of all kinds, and with water.

The Waterfall
by Kahlil Gibran
(I found this on a great blog called Heartsteps
which Dan Gurney called my attention to recently.)  
Yesod is "Foundation," and has been referred to by at least one Kabbalist as "the Translator," because it's seen as a bridge between spiritual energies/ideals and their manifestation in the human being and therefore in the world, the Malkuth (or Shekhinah) realm.  

In order to make an attempt at brevity (hahaha), there's a lot I'm leaving out of this discussion (including the strong association for both Yesod and Svadhisthana with sexuality.) I am grossly generalizing and broadly summarizing; all of this is more intricate than I'm making it appear.  Part of this intricacy is that different sources interpret different ways, especially with the Kabbalah.  That's one of the beautiful things about Judaism, in my view.  It's very open to creative interpretation, and encourages that more than other religions seem to.  Anyway, I've included the above links if you want more thorough information.  

My focus, what is most helpful to me in this exploration, is the series of exercises I've discovered, both physical and spiritual, whose purpose is the healthy flow of energy in and from this area of the body, and thus a healthier emotional state.  According to several sources, the pelvis and hips constitute a region where old emotions can be stored and eventually stuck.  I have had lower back and hip problems since I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, so this speaks to me.  

The descriptions I've read of what happens when the second chakra is too open (overly emotionally reactive, too absorptive of others' emotions) and too closed (shut down, apathetic, cold)  both fit me.  I go back and forth between these states, and what is between them is anger and irritability. Last year, when I was in the Malkuth/Shekhinah "class" in the mystical school of life, I learned how the physical world (especially my own body) works.  This year's class, which is teaching me to use some new tools to add to the set, is a continuation which makes perfect and uncanny sense, since Yesod is just above Malkuth on the Tree of Life.  My sap is rising. 
The Translator aspect of Yesod speaks to me as well.  I need to be able to take the amazing ideas and energies that I stir around in my head, and translate them into manifest form, some kind of creative action.  Writing is a primary expression for me, but it can't just be that.  This is my year of quiet love.  To learn to love quietly, I need to balance my emotional state and find a flow of love-energy that can be expressed naturally, through many means, not just words. 

This morning in church, one of the scriptures was the famous 1 Corinthians 13, the "love" passage.  I was struck by Paul's analogy of the gong, that one can have brilliance with words and ideas, but without love, it's worth exactly nothing:  it's like a noisy gong. Wayne, the pastor, demonstrated during the children's sermon with a cheap little clangy gong compared to a Tibetan singing bowl.   I have been feeling gong-like lately, especially around my family.  I want to be a singing bowl. 

I need to be able to feel the people around me without drowning in it or shutting myself down when it's all too much.  I need a vibrancy and vitality that flows out of me and doesn't just get stuck in my head.  Spiritual concepts, no matter how elevated, are no good at all if they are not expressed in concrete action.  And the time for that action has come.  What good is peeling an orange if you don't eat it?

The trick now is to get all of this wonderful information from my head into the rest of my body.  My brain has been overstimulated with this stuff, and I have yet to actually apply it and do the friggin' exercises.  My body, my emotions, and my energy level are suffering for it.

The word Svadhisthana means sweetness.  This is a sweetness not only to consume but to share.  I've peeled the orange; now it's time to take it in and let its nutrients move through my body, into my heart, and emanate to others through my very skin.

Bhramari Devi, Hindu bee goddess.
She is a manifestation of Kundalini:
the buzzing of her bees ascends up the spine,
awakening the chakras.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Peeling the Orange: Top Half

It makes sense, I suppose, that in January, the deepest month of housebound winter, I would have the richest inner life.  This is the second January in a row that incredible inspiration and interlacing have sent me on a mysterious yet practical journey.

It all started the day I did my Epiphany house blessing.  Remember how I used a colored pencil because I didn't have any chalk?  Do you remember what color it was?  That's right, it was orange.  Why orange?  I didn't choose it for its significance, but mainly because it was the first light-colored pencil I came across.  Then later that day I found a poem that I wanted to print out and put on my wall for the year.  The only paper I had was bright orange, left over from a multi-colored pack I got a long time ago.  That was when I started thinking Hmmm.  Is this going to be an orange year? 

By now you know me well enough to see where this is headed.  Orange.  A color I've never thought much about, and all of a sudden, I'm surrounded by it.  I don't understand what it is about the blogosphere that seems to mystically corral themes into these little bays that I unsuspectingly swim into, but I like it.  And speaking of the blogosphere, it has not escaped my attention that Blogger's primary color is orange.  The combination of this with the orange pencil and paper immediately put it into mind that orange is my color for writing.

When I was homeschooling my oldest daughters, my very favorite thing to do was design unit studies.  There's just something about taking a theme and running with it, following where it leads, that satisfies me like nothing else.  But this is my first time with a color.  And what a journey it's been so far.  I can't even include all the places it's taken me, it's just too much.  And while it's fascinating to me, I doubt all of it would be to you.  Check out this clustering exercise I did with it though, and you'll get a sense of what I mean (you might even see your own name in this):

It's actually quite fitting that I did this, because clustering is a method of connecting and also dividing themes, and one of the main things I've realized about the meaning of the color orange is that it both divides and connects.

One of the most obvious ways that orange divides is in the lines down the middle of the road.  A more symbolic way that was brought to my attention recently was in a post at Diamonds in the Sky With Lucy, in which she described an experience of visiting with "prisoners in orange jump suits, some angry and entitled – others grateful to be alive and willing to transform one day at a time – some both. The only thing separating them and me is the color of their suit." Interestingly, this observation on Lucy's part indicates that she ultimately found a way to connect with the prisoners.

I've already mentioned writing, which is a major way of connecting for me, and also Blogger's prevalence of orange.  The Internet in general seems to favor orange, and of course, is a very popular tool for connecting with others these days. Another example of orange's connectivity would be school buses, which connect students with the school.  Orange is a major color of transportation (a form of connecting us to places) in general, is it not? 

Which brings up Eryl at The Kitchen Bitch Ponders, who posted about her recent experience of being on morphine in the hospital and finding herself in an "orange wind tunnel."  Another kind of transportation altogether.  I'll come back to this in my next post.

After reading Lucy's and Eryl's posts, the orange thing moved more to the forefront of my conscious contemplation.  And then I happened to read Life of Pi, a book which I spontaneously picked off my shelf one day, knowing nothing about it except that it was supposed to be really good, and guess what?  It's about a guy stuck with an orange tiger on a lifeboat full of orange things.  The narrator (who is Hindu, Christian, and Muslim) discusses this:
It seems orange--such a nice Hindu color--is the color of survival because the whole inside of the boat and the tarpaulin and the life jackets and the lifebuoy and the oars and most every other significant object aboard was orange.  Even the plastic, beadless whistles were orange.
Oh boy.  I could gleefully (and I think orange is the color of glee) write a whole paper about the symbolism of orange in this incredible novel.  But for our purposes, I will just point out that the presence of these orange objects on the boat (with the exception of the tiger) is for the sole aim of connecting the survivor(s) with a rescuer.  Also, and this does play into the novel quite a bit, a lifeboat can be a kind of prison, meaning that the function of the orange objects is the survivor's liberation.

One direction this novel brought me was toward tigers.  We are actually about to enter the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which gives me pause.  I thought about one of my favorite paintings of Father Bill:

Long story short, Sadhu Sundar Singh was an Indian Sikh who, at fifteen, had a profound vision of Jesus after having previously violently persecuted Christians. He immediately converted to Christianity and then spent the rest of his life talking passionately and poetically about Christ to anyone who would listen.  He also wrote, mostly parables.  His life was marked by strange and mystical occurrences, some of which are documented and some which are considered legend.  This painting depicts what Father Bill referred to as Singh's mystical meeting with the tiger.  Singh often used the tiger as a symbol of the violence and primal voraciousness in human nature.

Tigers are symbols of many things, but one of the most obvious is danger.  The association of orange with danger is also widespread.  Let's not forget about Agent Orange or the Orange Order in Northern Ireland.  Orange may be the color of survival, but it's also a color of war, violence, and even death.  It's the primary color of Halloween, after all. 

Orange is therefore also the color of fear, but this can, with a different perspective, be translated into alertness, noticing.  Which brings me back to the orange on the lifeboat.  In order to connect the survivor with a rescuer, attention must be drawn to the survivor's vehicle.  This is also the purpose of the many orange signs and symbols that exist on the road.  Pay attention, approach with caution.  (Interestingly, the orange traffic light - I'm sorry, it is NOT yellow - not only signifies caution, but it divides - connects? - the stop and the go.  It asks you to decide which you're going to do.  Will you speed up or come to a halt?) 

Another way of expressing alertness is wakefulness.  And isn't there something in us that associates orange with mornings, when the orange sun comes up and we drink our orange juice?  Then consider the color of a Buddhist monk's robe, garb which signifies a life of dedication to spiritual awakening.

So, putting aside the more personal and tangential directions I've taken this, let's review for a moment:  Orange (so far) symbolically relates to:
  • connection/division
  • imprisonment/freedom
  • danger/safety
  • survival/death
  • transportation (movement/stopping)
  • fear/wakefulness
I have no grand summary of Ultimate Meaning here, but it's been a boatload of fun playing with these ideas and images.  I'm beginning to think that orange is the color of synchronicity/serendipity/interlacing.

This journey actually has led me to some very practical applications, but I don't want to take you there just yet.  Because, let's face it:  orange, maybe more than anything else, is silly.  I mean, Tigger's orange, as my son pointed out.

And speaking of silly, here's one of my all-time favorite jokes:
Q:  What does an orange cone on the side of the road mean?
A:  "Psychedelic witch embedded in asphalt."

I'll leave you with this, which I dedicate to Dan Gurney, who reintroduced the poetic Tanka form to me recently:

Lines Written on the Hem
of a Buddhist Monk's Robe

Just because we know
that orange rhymes with nothing,
denotates two ways,
segments and defines the road;
orange is a sweet koan.

Me in my orange bandanna.
I'm counting Tanka syllables.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Body, the Shekhinah, and Father Bill: A 2009 Retrospective

This time last year I was incredibly isolated and just beginning to fully recognize the effects of my black sludge moods on those I love. I had lived in Taos for only a few months, was working at Subway (!) and struggling to survive, was getting my arse kicked by winter, and generally not having a good time of it.

But then I decided to get proactive about my life. I visited with a couple of alternative health practitioners and got some recommendations about how to change my diet and my attitude. I began to embrace my physical being in a way I never had before. I read voraciously anything related to eating, from the health-oriented to the political.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  Harvest For Hope by Jane Goodall.  The Art of the Inner Meal:  Eating As A Spiritual Path by Don Altman.  Eat Right 4 Your Type by Peter D'Adamo.  Information about pH balance in the body, about veganism, about Ayurveda, about fasting and cleansing, about the global food crisis, the importance of eating locally produced food.

As I researched and experimented with different ways of eating, I finally found the way that's right for me, and it changed my life profoundly. I learned to listen to my body more deeply and to trust its knowing.  I began to see life as a body adventure, and was amazed to realize how much simply changing my diet changed the way I felt emotionally and spiritually.  It was humbling to realize that all my so-called spiritual methods of dealing with my mood/anger problem paled in its effects compared to just eating differently.

At the same time, I became acquainted with the Shekinah, and true to my peculiar path, she started popping up simply everywhere. The Shekinah, representative of the immanence of the divine in the physical world, was an  absolutely fitting guide as I went about learning to live in harmony with my body. My big epiphany was that mind and body are one - not in the sense of two things united, but of ONE thing manifested as different aspects. Just as the Shekhinah is an aspect of the divine and not a separate thing or person.

This exploration led me deeper into mystical Judaism, something I had already been dabbling in for years. In the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Shekhinah is associated with the tenth sephirah, Malkuth, or Kingdom. "She" is the manifestation of Spirit in the physical world.  Suddenly, in the middle of a bleak January, I found myself deeply inspired and energized.

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life

One of the first things that led me into this exploration was a showing of the art of Father William Hart McNichols, an iconographer. The first or second week I lived in Taos, there was an article about him in the Taos News because his show was about to open. He's a Catholic priest who is known worldwide for the icons he paints. The odd thing about this is that the iconography tradition is Orthodox, not Catholic. The other odd thing is that many of his icons are not of traditionally recognized saints. One is of a Buddhist woman, one is of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another is of an Islamic mystic. There's even one of Princess Diana.  If you click on the above links, you can also read his commentary about each icon.

My magic mirror.
The two icons on the left side are by Father Bill 

Father Bill, as he is called, is a wonderful, wise, poetic man. And openly gay. In fact, there is an article in Time magazine in which he discusses this. He's celibate, as a priest vows to be, but admits that his orientation is homosexual.

I rarely visit art shows, but I was determined to see his, and I'm glad I did.

The poster announcing Father Bill's show.
I snagged it from a coffee shop (with the owner's permission.)

Standing before the original icons was so much more powerful than looking at reproductions of them, particularly because of the real gold mixed in with the paint used for the halos.  There was a sheet provided with background information on each of them. One of the icons was called, "The Name of God, Shekhinah" and was simply the Hebrew letters that spell that name. But his commentary on it was what I was really taken with and what set me off on the Shekhinah pilgrimage. He talked about seeing the Shekhinah in the mist that often rests on Taos Mountain, and in the glow of a candle. He talked about the Shekhinah being the feminine Spirit of God.  In Jewish theology, she is the Bride of God, the Sabbath Bride, and women light candles on the Sabbath eve to welcome her in.

I was and am utterly smitten with Father Bill.  (Leave it to me to develop a crush on a gay priest.) I felt a connection to him right from that first article I read, but then kind of forgot about him. Then, one morning during Advent, I just happened to turn on the radio, which I rarely do when I'm home, and he was talking to Nancy Stapp, a wonderful local radio personality.  He was discussing the meaning of Advent, and while I no longer remember exactly what he said, I remember being absolutely calmed and inspired by it, and consistently nodding and saying Yes, exactly, to the radio. And I remember he ended with an ancient Persian prayer to the sun.

A few months later during Lent, I had the same uncanny experience of turning on the radio, and lo, there he was talking to Nancy again, this time about the meaning of Lent.  And he talked about the Shekinah.

Then, in June, I moved into the neighborhood of the St. Francis church and discovered that he is the assistant Priest for that parish.

Other than Christmas Midnight Mass, I've only been to mass there once, and he just happened to be preaching that day. And what he preached about was Sophia, the feminine personification of wisdom, often associated with the Shekhinah. He also talked about the tendency of religious people to be judgmental and stingy with their acceptance and forgiveness of others, to segregate and create an us versus them mentality.  He told the congregation to go home and look up the word "catholic." Which, of course, I eagerly did. Here's what I found:
1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded, liberal
2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.
Father Bill is a shining example of this kind of catholicity.  And while we've never met, he was a profound influence on my growth over the past year, a journey which continues to bloom in unexpected and strangely harmonic ways, as you'll see in my next post.

But in the meantime, I'm curious - where were you a year ago?  How has your life changed over the past year?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Illuminated Manuscripts Virtual Ribbon-Cutting

The last couple of days have been productive.  I brought the final draft of the case statement I've been working on for UNM-Taos to the Executive Director yesterday, and she loved it.  The people I've been working with are really happy with my writing.  This excites me because the stuff I'm doing is easy for me and I love doing it.  Which has inspired me to finally get off my butt and start promoting my writing and editing business, Illuminated Manuscripts.

I went and joined the Chamber of Commerce today!  I'm official!  And I'm going to their monthly Mix and Meet this evening.  I'm hoping not only to network about this business, but also to eventually find someone who wants to open a laundromat with me.  Wish me luck.

And just now I got the blog for Illuminated Manuscripts ready for action and put my first post up.  I'd love it if you guys would hop over there and let me know what you think.  I'm open to any feedback you have.  Criticisms, suggestions, whatever.  And if you know anyone that needs writing or editing services, keep me in mind!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Virtual Visit

To lighten the mood up around here, and because I said I would, this post is dedicated to fulfilling Lucy's Virtual Visit Challenge at her lovely blog, Diamonds in the Sky With Lucy.

Here are the rules she provided (I changed #5, Lucy - hope you don't mind):

1. Begin the challenge immediately.
2. Pick up your camera and take pictures of where you predominantly spend your time blogging. Include a forward facing, left and right side view.
3. Do NOT stop to tidy up, redecorate, make your bed or whatever you think needs to be done to impress others or sooth your Martha Stewart-ish ego.
4. Post your pictures (with a brief description if you like.)
5. Leave a comment on my blog letting me know you've done it.
6. Optional: Tag five other bloggers whose space you'd love to virtually visit.

When she issued the challenge a few days ago, I just happened to have my camera right next to me on the desk, so was able to do it immediately. 

This is it, front view.  I'm so excited I got to take a picture of my shiny new laptop that I got last week when my old crappy one finally keeled over and died.  

Yes, that's a snow man up there.  He is one of the two decorations I left up after Christmas, for two reasons:  1)  Eliana is in love with snowmen right now, and 2)  It's a statement in my protest against Christmas getting all the cool winter stuff.  

The art on the wall is one of my favorites, and was the first piece of art I ever bought for myself after moving out of my parents' house.  It's by Scott Mutter.  The words at the bottom say:


 I'm not fond of laptop mouses, which is why I have an external one plugged in.

Yes, that's a diaper on the desk.
And one of my collages on the wall back there.
My living room doesn't actually look like this anymore, as I moved the furniture around a couple of days ago.

So there you have it.  This is where I am in the physical world when I'm connecting with you, dear readers.

I'm not going to tag anybody because I'd love to see ALL of your spaces, but I'll leave it up to you whether or not to participate.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles IV: The Intolerable Shirt of Flame

Morning of January 11

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
~T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

After much deliberation about the meaning of "integrity," and with Justin's permission, I've decided to go ahead and post this.  Because things are what they are, and the integrity of these chronicles requires it for completion.  And because I truly think of you as my friends.

Fact is, as they say, stranger than fiction.  In the biggest unexpected twist of these chronicles, especially since they were already mostly written when this happened, I experienced the following.

I went early to bring my beloved his mail from the box we share, and discovered him with another woman.  Please bear in mind that we live apart and with no commitment to monogamy.  But still.  I was devastated.

This was the day I started to run.

I returned to my house after this shocking epiphany, shaken to the core, physically vibrating. And said to myself, I'm done.

I'm done.

I'm done.

I fired the censor and wrote every outrage of my incensed heart, and it was not the black sludge, it was the guileless child incarnate at last, that neglected stranger welcomed in.

It's done.
I'm done.

And then I said to myself and to God:  Now what? What do I do with myself? I was still physically shaking. There was no way I could work like this or go pay bills or eat breakfast.

I had been thinking the night before that I'd like to start running. I had mentally plotted my course to and around the St. Francis church and then home a different way. Just like the Wise Men.

I've been reading The Way of the Beloved, and one of the recommended exercises for generating more love is to practice being grateful for “negative” things, to find something in them to be grateful for.

I am grateful for this heartbreaking epiphany because it impelled me to start running.

I walked down the street a bit, then broke into a run, crossed the board over the acequia into the little grove, through the grove, next to the graffittied adobe ruins, into the church parking lot. Something was going on at the church. A funeral. How fitting.

I ran a circle around the church, the hands of the saints reaching out to caress me through the adobe in which they forever live, back through the grove, stopped at a tree to stretch. My mind was graciously blank. The shaking was no longer trapped inside, but suspiring through my flesh.

Back out to the street, past my house, through the post office parking lot. I slowed to a walk down the highway, ran back into the church lot from this different direction. Around the courtyard again. Clare. Oh Clare, please pray for me. Mother of God, pray for me. Mama. And I'm not even Catholic. But it felt right and was medicine.

This running, this writing, are prayer and liberation.

Even in failure,
even in fear,
even in sorrow,
I have and am
- am because I have -
everything I need. 

The light shines
in the darkness,
and the darkness
has not,
will not,
can not
overcome it.

I have and am
my whole
light in the darkness

Thank you.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles III: The Impossible Union of Spheres of Existence

Day of January 6
The Feast of the Epiphany

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time...
Music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.  These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union.
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future 
Are conquered, and reconciled.
~T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages"

I woke the morning after my nightmare refreshed and calm, with more energy and clarity than I'd had in a few days.  My goal for the day was to get caught up on my grantwriting work and do a house blessing, a traditional ritual for Epiphany.  But when I looked around my house, I realized neither of these things were going to get done unless I cleaned first.

  What was I going to do with all this stuff?

The house was chaos, most of it worse than this table.  But I was apprehensive about starting to clean because I knew once I started, it could go on all day.  If it hadn't been for the house blessing plan, I probably would have ignored it and worked instead, but there was no way I was going to bless a dirty house.  So I took a deep breath and plunged in.  I tidied and mirted (opposite of "trimmed") the Christmas tree and put away all the decorations and washed dishes and rearranged shelves and furniture and vacuumed and swept and blogged in between tasks.

I found a perfectly intact dead bee on top of a pile of stuff in the recycling bin.  What the heck was a bee doing out here in the middle of January?  At first I thought it was alive, it was so perfect.  If you're not acquainted with my connection to bees, read this.  Most people would probably not find much significance in a dead bee, but for me it was a definite message, an alert.  The last time a dead bee came to me so clearly, I was making a three-dimensional medicine shield collage and needed something for the center of it.  I walked outside barefoot and was stung by a bee I stepped on.  But amazingly, it wasn't crushed and it ended up in the center of my shield, just where it belonged.  It was the first and only time I've ever been stung by a bee.

The first time I checked my email that morning, there was a new post announced on The Website of Unknowing, called "Dark Epiphany."  Since I was processing the nightmare, I was very curious about this.  Turns out, it tied in perfectly with my "dark epiphany" of the night before.  Carl McColman, the author of that site, says, "struggling with the absence of God is a way of experiencing God’s presence. Call it a dark epiphany, perhaps. We fool ourselves if we think that God only shows up in the light."

This also ties in nicely with the comments some folks have left on my previous two posts in these chronicles. A dark epiphany is still an epiphany to be welcomed.

Then, a little later, I read Rebecca's Epiphany post on Whatever else my life is also this dazzling darkness.  She says:
Having the aha moment or the great epiphany can be very exciting. Having all of the puzzle pieces fall into place after a long discernment or just receiving the grace of an understanding from seemingly nowhere can be a spiritual and emotional thrill. But, it seems to me that most of my epiphanies have brought with them an invitation to change and to transform. They come for my benefit and for the benefit of the world, and so I am asked to act. That action usually requires courage, integrity and discipline.
I cleaned some more, pondering all of this. During my next break, through investigating the blog of one of other commenters on "Dark Epiphany," I clicked a link called The Bee Goddess, where I read that in ancient Crete, " the bee signified the life that comes from death." Discussing a golden seal found buried with the dead in that culture, the author describes the image on it: "The bee goddess, the figure in the center descending to earth among snakes and lilies, is being worshipped by her priestesses, who, characteristically, take the same form as she does, all raising their ‘hands’ in the typical gesture of epiphany." Snakes and lilies; this spoke to me. Would it be over the top to mention that my name, Susan, means "lily?" And that lilies symbolize forgiveness and purity?

And then I remembered a small piece of what I had read in my daily prayer book, Celtic Benedictions, the night before the dream.  I went back and looked at it.  Just before going to sleep, I had prayed this with the words of the book:

Let me learn of you in the soil of my soul, O Christ,
and your journey through death to birth.
Let me learn of you in my soul this night
and the journey of letting go...

...Set free my dreams of the unknown.
Safeguard this time of resting, O God,
enfold me in the darkness of the night.

Astonishing.  My dreams of the unknown were certainly set free, just not in the way I would have chosen.  I was definitely enfolded in the darkness of the night.  I was also “safeguarded”, but again, not in a way I would expect, or normally associate with that word.  And after I went back to sleep that night, my rest was deep and whole.

This is when I got the overwhelming sense that my epiphany experiences thus far were asking to be written and shared.  It was an uncomfortable thought, and was definitely an action requiring "courage, integrity and discipline." It was becoming more and more apparent to me that there was real significance to my experiences over the past couple of days.  But what was I going to do with all this stuff? How to create the impossible union of spheres of existence?

I began to process all of it in earnest.  As outwardly I cleaned and organized my house, I inwardly ordered my mind and heart.  I mused about the meaning of Epiphany.

I've mentioned before that one of the big appeals of religion for me is entering into the narratives of my tradition, Christianity. The Epiphany narrative is of the Three Wise Men following the star and coming to see the Christ-child. I've heard that they didn't actually get there until Jesus was two and the family was living in a house, which I kind of like. I am amused by the image of Jesus as a toddler, fondling a chunk of gold and then trying to smash it on the floor, or flinging frankincense around the room with gleeful abandon.

At any rate, the rationale of the house blessing follows from this story. This ritual, which I'd been planning for days, now seemed even more important and meaningful after my experience of the previous night.

It was mid-afternoon before I got to a satisfactory stopping point with the cleaning (no, it is never "finished"), and prepared for the house blessing.  I used a ritual from the book To Dance With God, by Gertrud Mueller.  There's a little bit of liturgy to recite, and then you're supposed to go around the house with incense, or sprinkling holy water in every room while consciously blessing that space.  Then you're supposed to take a piece of chalk that you've blessed and write above the main entrances of the house, the year and the initials of the three wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) like this:

20 + C + M + B + 10

It seemed a little weird to me, this last part, but what the heck.  I didn't have a piece of chalk so I used an orange colored pencil. Very lightly.

I visited each room with a sage smudge stick a soul-friend of mine made for me and which I'd never used, and wafted the smoke with the large wild turkey feather I found last fall in the grove by the St. Francis church.  Then I carried a silver bowl of water that I keep by my bed to enhance my dreams, and sprinkled some in every room.  I finished by ringing a little bell in each room.  Maybe all of this sounds goofy to you, but it felt great.  My house felt so clean and calm and clear and fresh at the end of it all.  I was really really glad I'd spent the day this way.  And I began more and more to see that dream as a gift.

I also anointed myself with frankincense essential oil, a fitting gesture, I thought, for an Epiphany celebration.  But what struck me was that I REALLY like the way it smells.  And it's the same smell that it was 2000-odd years ago when it was offered as a gift by the wise men. Through a little research I discovered that "the mythical Phoenix bird was thought to build its funeral pyre out of frankincense and myrrh". Also, that  it was used in pagan purification ceremonies in many cultures. Purification. Yes.

Now it was time for the kids to come home, and to get ready for the Epiphany service that my church was holding that evening.

When I entered the quiet, candlelit church, the atmosphere of peace resonated with the clean quiet of my heart. My mind was not quite as clear. I was holding the big question at bay, Should I, can I, continue with Justin? The Applebees fiasco was still with me, asking me to see the reality – that despite our best intentions, we harm each other in a way that shuts us both down. And no matter how much progress we seem to make, these instances set us back to square one. I wasn't exactly fighting this recognition, but laying it aside for the moment, letting these unfolding experiences work on me and bring me the answers deeper than intellect or willful resolve.

The pastor, Wayne, was dressed in a simple white robe with a cord of rope around his waist, not what he usually wears. The service was simple and prayerful. Wayne played a song on his guitar and sang – things I had never witnessed him do. 
The scripture was from Isaiah 60:
 Arise, shine! For your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you...

I felt tears welling up and looked down at my lap, lest someone notice. And then Wayne read:

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you...
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.

I was moved to my toes. I lifted my eyes and saw quiet love. Wayne began speaking, what he spoke of was not the gifts of the wise men, or the brilliance of the star, but of Herod. For those of you not familiar with the story, when the wise men come at last into Jerusalem, they go to King Herod to inquire of the whereabouts of the “new king” that has been born. Herod, afraid of this potential threat to his authority, tells them that once they find this child, they should report back to him. Once he knows where the child is, his plan is to kill him. The Wise Men, being wise, realize the malicious intent in Herod, and return to their homeland “by a different way,” to avoid Herod.

Something that has struck me since that night is that the Wise Men were strangers to the land, aliens, and must have seemed especially so when they showed up at Mary and Joseph's doorstep. But they were welcomed, just as I must welcome the strangers in my own soul.

What Wayne preached about was Herod's fear, how everything he is reported in the Bible to have done was out of fear. How even in the joy of the nativity story, there is the backdrop of shadows and death. How we all live against this backdrop. Darkness creates fear in the human heart, he said, using the example of a child wanting to leave the lights on at night because the monsters grow larger in the dark. But, he said, fear also creates darkness, it works the other way too. And yet, there is this glorious light beyond all light, that is real, and all we have to do is find the courage to lift our eyes to behold it. All we have to do is trust it, and then there it is. 

And there it was. 
And here it is.

No simple answers, only “hints followed by guesses,” but in the weeping, in the lifting of eyes, the impossible union beheld.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles II: Menaced by Monsters

Night of January 5/6

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment...

...The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires.
~T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"

I am in a dismal psychiatric hospital with dingy yellow stained walls and seizured fluorescent lights.  A variety of infirm people are milling about in a commons area.

I'm not a patient, and I have some kind of purpose here, but I don't know what it is.  I'm trying to leave but patients keep detaining me, trying to tell me their stories.  I need to get back to my children, I say.  I've been gone too long.

Something is amiss, there's some sort of threat being announced.  Someone is attacking.  I begin to move out of the commons area into the hallway, and they're saying it's a lock-down, that no one can leave.  I have a growing sense of the presence of evil, and of being trapped.  I must escape.

As I move into the hallway, chaos is building, and there are more people, all rushing in different directions.  I'm trying to move past them, get to the doorway at the end of the hall.  I notice a figure to my left.  She's skinny, blonde, and ugly, with gaping pale blue eyes, and she's carrying a small black to-go box containing an iceberg lettuce salad.  She's not human.  She's an evil creature; I can feel it, and I'm terrified.  She seems fake, like she's made out of heavy rubber.

She's inching up behind someone, sniffing at the back of their head with horrible intent.  She catches me looking at her, and then throws some of the lettuce toward me.  I'm doomed.  She moves toward me and I know I will not leave this place alive.  I know she has the strength to do with me what she will, and there's no point in fighting it.

I say something to her, how I know that she can throw me against the wall and kill me in an instant, and she says, "I don't have to."  Just then, I notice  huge rusted pipes, the thickness of barrels, lining the wall of the hallway.  They begin to creak and rumble, and I realize that they're filled with water.  They're about to send a force of rushing water through the building that will quickly drown everyone there.

"Here it comes..." she says.

And I woke up.

The evil black sludge had filled my bedroom, it was a tangible presence, and I was frozen.  I haven't had a nightmare like this in a very long time.  There have been times when I've sensed the presence of evil on the perimeter of my awareness, and deliberately pushed it away, but now it encompassed me, and I couldn't even get out of bed.

My first rational thoughts were that a) It's the night before Epiphany, and I have had an epiphany of evil, and  b) if evil has actual substance and presence, how much more does God have, the divine love and goodness.

I made myself get up eventually, and I went to the living room to ponder and pray.  I wrenched myself away from the sludge enough to turn my thoughts and heart toward God, toward the quiet love I have avowed myself to.  I thought of a scene in Paulo Coelho's novel, Brida, in which the heroine must spend the night in the forest alone.  At first she is terrified with the sounds and the shadows of the night, but then she realizes that she has the CHOICE of how to feel, that if she turns her mind and heart toward love and beauty and goodness and joy, then that is where she will be.  Because it's real.  She eventually falls asleep in peace.

I also thought of Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, who witnesses a manifestation of evil among his fellows, and can never embrace them again, even though he's not sure if it really happened or if he dreamed it.

Sitting here now, several days later, in the comfort of distance and day, it's easy for me to see how I manifested the nightmare in response to the events of the day before.  The deep fears and pain that I had given up trying to control were leaking out.  Threatening to rush out, in fact, as if from huge rusty pipes, and drown me. I have had several insights into the meaning of this dream just by writing about it here.  But I can't write it off as merely "psychological."  It was a manifestation of evil that was not merely within me.  It had a presence of its own.

I don't want to get into armchair theology of evil just now, because that would diminish the actual experience and what it meant to me.  Besides, I don't even know how to distinguish between "within" and "without" when an issue comes to this level.  The sludge was definitely in the room, but isn't the room "in me" in the most profound sense? 

As awful as this experience was, it showed me my spiritual growth, because I didn't just run and turn on a light and try to externally comfort myself.  I never even looked at the clock.  I also didn't sit and try to analyze it, to think it away.  I immediately went to God, to divine love for that comfort.  I leaned into myself to the source instead of outwardly to some illusion of control. And this deliberate invocation of divine love was much more effective and comforting than turning on a few lights and telling myself it was nothing.  It didn't make the sense of evil "go away," but rather came into that evil and illuminated it.  Experiencing the substance of evil confirmed for me at a deep level the substance of God.  The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles I: The Disconsolate Chimera

January 4

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.
~T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

The day went well until the afternoon, when I began to feel exceedingly tired and grumpy, and it got progressively worse as day went down to evening. This went beyond a simple mood or a physical state even though I kept trying to tell myself I was just “tired” as a way to stop my fouled mind from traveling down negative paths. I felt as though I was doused in an evil black sludge and could barely move under it.

There was a time when I operated under something like this a large portion of the time, and then it seemed normal to me, because I was so utterly unaware in that state. Amazingly, I didn't even think I felt bad when I was like that. The main reasons I'm aware of it now are that a) I've grown to the point where I don't fall into that state very often so it's more obvious when I do, and b) I've hurt people I love by things I've done under that thick spiritual smog, and they've let me know. Thank God.

I hadn't found myself in a state this awful in a long time. And I couldn't make it go away.

I was supposed to go out to dinner with my beloved that night; we'd been planning it for days and had already had to reschedule a couple of times. I was determined to go, and since I've taken on this theme of “quiet love” for 2010, I convinced myself that I could control the intense negativity that I was feeling.

You can probably guess how well that worked. Sigh.  I can hear you saying, "No, Susan, don't do it!"  I wish you'd been there that night.

We wanted to go to the Ranchos Plaza Grill, next to the St. Francis church. It has the best traditional New Mexican food I've ever had, a cozy warm ambiance created by the soft adobe walls, old wood floors, and simple Spanish guitar. I was especially looking forward to the pinto beans. Mmmm.

Alas – they were closed. So we drove, and drove, and ended up at Applebees. It seems like we always end up there. Justin really likes it. I don't mind it most of the time, but was not much in the mood that night, given the circumstances. And unfortunately, it was “game night,” meaning that in addition to the annoying pop music puffing through the speakers, there was also a very loud (football?) game showing on the TV.

Even so, I made it through most of the dinner without being entirely negative, but I kept very consciously biting my tongue. And then I didn't. And it all spiraled downward until I was saying unkind things and hating myself for it and then finding myself in tears and running out of the restaurant while Justin paid the bill.

I was utterly horrified and couldn't even begin to fathom how I'd let myself fall into this when I knew – I KNEW – better. And had been consciously, deliberately, carefully controlling myself.

What I then had to realize, my unhappy epiphany, was that as much as I might want to wish away some of the deep fears and pain I have collected, it just doesn't work that way, and at a point of least resistance, usually with a loved one, it's going to come out. And when it does, it ruins everything, and pushes people away. For Justin, because of some of his childhood issues, it makes him unable to trust my “quiet love,” and makes healing just that much farther out of reach for both of us.

Other times that things like this have happened, I've immediately starting telling myself hopeful stories about what I'll do differently next time, and subtly justifying myself to myself. But there was something about the intensity and stark obviousness of where I actually WAS this time that made it impossible for me to do that. No amount of analysis or resolve was going to change it. It's deeper than the part of my mind that engages in those activities. So deep it scares me. There was nothing for me to do but surrender my efforts to control and change it, and simply accept that, even with the (painfully slow) progress I've made in this area, it's still Part of Who I Am.  Yuck.  It's part of who I am.

And this is not a happy ending.

But it might be a good beginning.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Found In Translation

I'm a research junkie and a total word nerd.  In the icebreaker game of a discussion group once, I had to pick an adjective to describe myself that started with the same letter as my name.  Just call me "Searching Susan."  I once took an online I.Q. test that titled me "Word Warrior" based on my score.   

When I was in graduate school, I spent an absurd amount of time researching and writing about one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood."  Two semesters' worth of research and writing, actually.  I could have turned it into a thesis, as one of my professors kept suggesting.  When I first started the project, I was supposed to do a lexical analysis of the piece for my History of the English Language class.  I was trying to show that there were Celtic as well as Anglo-Saxon influences on the poem.  So I got an Old English dictionary and eventually ended up doing my own translation of the whole 256 lines.  Yes, you read that right - two HUNDRED and fifty-six.

The Ruthwell Cross,
on which part of "The Dream of the Rood" is inscribed in runes.
Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Photo by Peter Mattock

What I discovered was that certain words had multiple senses to them, and that none of the available translations emphasized this.  Granted, it's a difficult thing to do, but I, being the word nerd warrior that I am, took on the task.  It was immensely rewarding to find ways to unfold levels and layers of meaning.  And I was able to support my claims of Celtic influence pretty darn well this way.

More recently, I've read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz, in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus would have been speaking in when he lived, and from there into English.  The result is quite poetic and illuminated.  For instance, here's his translation of the Lord's Prayer:

O, Birther of the Cosmos, focus your light within us -- make it useful
Create your reign of unity now
Your one desire then acts with ours,
As in all light,
So in all forms,
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of other's guilt.
Don't let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will,
The power and the life to do,
The song that beautifies all,
From age to age it renews.
I affirm this with my whole being.

When I first started studying the Bible with a Strong's Concordance handy, you can probably imagine how ecstatic I was.  I would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in a single verse, and feel like I was digging up ancient treasure.  Word archaeology.

I wrote two full pages in my notebook about the name "Jesus."  I don't remember the whole rabbit trail now, but the general gist was that it means "open, wide, and free."  At least that was what I took from it.

I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons.  The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole new world that you couldn't have imagined when you were just looking at the icon.

Why is she going off about all this? you might well ask.  Well, the other day, I was doing my evening prayer with the book a friend gave me for Christmas, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell.  This radiant little book of morning and evening prayer is decorated throughout with images from the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels.  Anyway, I looked up the verse featured that evening:  "I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit" (Psalm 77:6). 

In my New Revised Standard Version Bible there was a note about "I commune," an alternate translation of it, which I read as "My music spirit searches." I found this odd, but poetic and inspiring.  It took me a minute to realize that because of how these notes are laid out on the page, I was actually reading it wrong.  The alternate translation for "I commune" was simply "My music," and for "search my spirit," it was "my spirit searches."  So the verse would then read, "My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches."  The New International Version actually translates this verse as "I remembered my songs in the night.  My heart mused and my spirit inquired."

Maybe all of this doesn't excite you like it does me, but it's this kind of stuff that brings the Bible alive for me.  For some, it's this very thing that confirms their rejection of the Bible as scripture, but for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what's valuable over hard fact.  There's grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers. 

Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I'm here to say that a lot can be found.  I research and explore this way because it's fun, and makes me feel like I'm peering into a divine kaleidoscope.  My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.        

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Naming the Day

I wonder in which season
I will die.
One is as fitting as the next,
as unthinkable.

This is what I think of
in the clean cold start
of the new year, the last
of the first
decade of a new
old millennium.

The year, the earth, are always
beginning and ending, as the days
spin ever faster
and time is the umbrella
that keeps the stars
from falling willy-nilly.

 Every year goes
the way of candle flame.
Every day, every life—begging
the question,
When the flame is blown out,
where does the light go?

Still the candle of my clay heart kindles,
this clean quiet is alive,
and everything that circles
is also still.

I feast on deepest hungers,
sweet white stars, the flesh of words
in the glowing season,
now fulfilled
and purged.

Naming this day as the beginning,
I choose to say I give
this year to quiet love. I will
down more starry water,
spill less

I wake asking
Where are the gifts I gave you,
where are your gifts to me?
I cannot hold them.
I cannot hold the answers.

All I can say is one day
not far from the present
when winter begins
to dream
its death

as the carnival parade keeps dreaming
an unthinkable trip up the skull

I recognize my birth,
inherit a new age,
blow out the candles.


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