Category Archives: Uncategorized

Celebrating the Solstice

 

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Yesterday evening we held a lovely, warm gathering in the studio to celebrate the return of the light. There is a part of me that longs every year to travel north and celebrate the solstice in the company of the sacred circle dance community there, where each year they dress all in white and and dance by candlelight for the longest night. It dawned on me this year that I could dance these beautiful dances within my own community.

There is a subtle magic that happens with circle dance, when your feet follow simple steps that have been danced for generations upon generations, a sort of window of sacred time that opens and bestows a deeper meaning upon every movement. I watched the candlelit faces of dear old friends and new acquaintances as they moved in the circle, remembering other faces that have danced this dance, feeling so much love and fulness as we moved, again, in the steps that honor our changing rhythms and the way we mirror and learn from the rhythms of the Earth.

We opened the evening with a mini-herbal workshop, where we learned how to make massage bars with infused oils. There is something warm and wonderful about creating gifts this time of year, when sources of light and warmth are low and a small handmade surprise from a friend can be the candle that keeps us going for the day. I love to give massage bars as presents, because it is a gift that inspires further warmth, love, and touch in the using of it. Here is the recipe we used:

3 oz. unrefined shea butter

3 oz. cocoa butter

5 oz. beeswax (up to 6 oz. if you prefer a more solid bar; I like mine to melt bewitchingly in my hand)

6 oz. herb-infused oil (more on this in a bit)

1-2 tablespoons essential oil, depending on your preference

~This is a very forgiving. adaptable recipe and can be easily altered to make greater or lesser quantities. Just keep the beeswax and oil roughly equal to each other and use half that amount of cocoa and shea butters. For example, to make only 4 or so massage bars, you would use 1.5 oz of the butters, 3 oz. of beeswax and oil, and just half a tablespoon of essential oil. ~

imageThe first step is to infuse the oils. I prefer to use sweet almond oil, as I like the way it absorbs into the skin, but you can use jojoba, grapeseed, apricot kernel, even olive.

For a sun extraction, pack a mason jar about 3/4 full with your chosen herb (I used calendula for its skin-healing properties; other good choices would include rose petal, witch hazel flower, comfrey, and lavender) and fill with the oil of your choice. Make sure no botanicals are peeking up over the top of the oil; these can rot and introduce bacteria to your infusion. Nobody wants a bacteria massage (at least, nobody I’ve met).

Let your jar sit in the sun for several weeks, checking occasionally to be sure the flowers are submerged. When the oil has taken on a bit of the color of your chosen botanical (usually 4-6 weeks) you can strain it and it’s ready to use!  Be sure to label right away. If you’re anything like me, you think you’ll remember what’s in that jar, but you won’t.

The other method we discussed last night was a warm extraction.  I tend to use this method when a) I’m infusing bark, twigs, or roots and b) I’m in a bit of a hurry. Roots tend to be concentrated sources of herbal compounds, so they aren’t as easily destroyed by heat, but it’s important to make sure you don’t overheat them all the same.

I prefer to use sun extraction with more delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers because they are easily overheated and their medicine compromised. You could do a warm extraction on pine bark, twigs of black birch (this makes a beautifully sassafrass-scented massage oil that goes deep into the tissues) and even garlic.

We used kava-kava root tonight, which has lovely muscle-relaxing properties when applied externally, making it an excellent choice for a massage bar. To do a warm extraction, you need either a crockpot or an oven-safe crock. Place your herbs in the crockpot and cover them with oil. I usually cover strong roots like kava kava with double the amount of oil.  Set your crockpot on ‘warm’ for two hours (or place in an oven at 100 for two hours) and then turn off.  Let sit all day, then repeat the process the next morning.  Do this for seven days and your oil is ready to strain.

imageNow you have your infused oils, you are ready to make the massage bars. First, melt the shea butter, cocoa butter, and beeswax in a double boiler (you can improvise one by resting your pan upon a mason jar lid in a larger pot of simmering water). Let them melt slowly; it does take a while.

When they have melted, remove pan from the heat and slowly add the infused oil. It may congeal a bit; continue to whisk and allow the residual heat to re-melt your mixture (you want to avoid heating your infused oils, as it can destroy the medicine).  Then add your essential oils.

We used a tablespoon of lavender with the kava kava for a deeply relaxing, skin-soothing bar and combined the calendula-infused oil with a teaspoon of rosemary essential oil and a half teaspoon of peppermint essential oil.  I love peppermint for its diaphoretic, opening properties, but you have to be careful with it as some people react to having it on their skin, so don’t use as much as you would use a safer oil like lavender.

Pour while still warm into your molds—I use silicon baking molds; you could also use muffin tins lined with waxed paper. You can pretty much assume that any implements you use with beeswax and butters are never ever going to get all the way clean again, so maybe have some dedicated pots and pans for your herbal creations!

Let your bars solidify and pop them out of their molds…you are ready to go!

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I wish all of you a deep dreaming in the darkness and a candle in the longest night. May there always be a source of light available to you, and may the darkness encourage deep rest and strong vision for the year to come.

 

3 Comments

December 19, 2015 · 2:38 pm

befriending our burdens

altarLast night I had the privilege of facilitating, with my dear friend Maeve, one of the most nourishing gatherings I’ve ever attended.  We gathered to explore the idea of befriending our burdens—noticing the hurts that we walk with in this world, and entering into dialogue with them through art and movement and the senses.  We wanted to learn, not just how to better care for ourselves as we wrangle our shadows, but also what gifts and lessons might be lurking beneath the surface of the curses we carry.

Several minutes in, the lights went out. The rosemary tea for the footbaths I’d been planning, merrily bubbling away on two electric burners, had shorted the electric system.  Fortunately the tea was ready, the water was warm, and the evening continued even more beautifully than we’d originally planned–lit by candles and accompanied by the soulful, spontaneous singing of our circle rather than the pre-recorded playlist.

We nourished our feet with the turmeric foot soaks I wrote about here, and scrubbed them tenderly with grapefruit halves filled with salt and coconut oil. We sipped rose petal chai and rose-hawthorn wine. We tasted bitter chocolate, sweet dates, salty and pungent almond dip, sour raspberries, astringent turmeric sake. We listened to our bodies’ response. Each sense– from the sound of the tea pouring to the sight of steam rising from the cup, candlelight reflecting here from the skin of a bell pepper and being absorbed there by the flat richness of cacao powder, the scent of roses and neroli and fresh sage, the feel of our feet in warm water, our hands curled around warm cups—invited us again and again into this sweet body, this lovely moment of carrying our burdens with tenderness and self-love.

All of us carry something— the loss of a loved one, a frightening diagnosis, a hurting child, a country at war. We are born into a world of darkness and light, joy and loss. No amount of herbal medicine and yoga will ever remove these hurts from us. But we can learn to love ourselves through the pain, take the moments of deliciousness and beauty fully in whenever they come. Our deep pain points the truest way to our most cherished desires, and we can choose to keep walking joyfully in the direction of those desires, however fearsome the obstacles become. (And we can choose to stop walking and give ourselves footbaths every once in a while!)

datesDecadent Mascarpone Dates

Slit several fresh dates halfway and remove the pits. (If the only dates you can get are quite dry, soak them overnight in a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice.) Set aside.

Meanwhile, whip together 1/2 cup of mascarpone cheese (if you make kefir, kefir cheese works really well too) with raw honey to taste and a tablespoon of orange flower water. (If you are lucky enough to live in the presence of orange trees, you can make your own orange flower water using the hydrosol recipe I gave here; otherwise look for it in middle-eastern markets). Using a frosting pipe or a ziploc bag with one corner snipped off, pipe the mascarpone blend into the awaiting dates. Sprinkle with rose petals, calendula, or borage flowers.

feastAlmond Garden Bliss

Soak about a cup of almonds overnight in springwater; allow to sprout for a day. At the same time, soak 1/4 cup of sundried tomatoes in about 1/2 cup of spring water.

When the almonds have been soaked, the skins should rub off easily. Place your barenaked almonds and soaked sundried tomatoes in a blender, reserving the tomato soak water. Add a big handful of fresh basil and a clove of garlic and sea salt to taste. Blend until smooth and about the consistency of hummus, using the tomato soak water and olive oil as necessary to make the blender do its thing. (Last night the garden did not have nearly as much basil as I wanted, so I added a lot of fresh oregano and wild dandelion greens.  You could also use nettles! It’s a very adaptable recipe and lots of fun to play with!)


I want to say one thing more about befriending burdens. Nearly twelve years ago, I was walking alone in my neighborhood in Santa Monica.  I was pregnant, sad, isolated, and scared. Across the street I saw light and music spilling out from a little cafe and I was drawn almost magnetically to the sound of happy, laughing people. Inside, I observed a wonderland of art, music, color and beauty. Radiant people were sipping wine and gazing at luminous art. I knew I did not belong here, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I shyly stepped inside and found myself in conversation with the most beautiful woman in the room, a woman who turned out to be the artist who had designed the whole gathering!

She became a dear friend. She also turned out to be my lifeline as I navigated my way through that pregnancy and the crazy years to come.

I could so easily have succumbed to my burdens that night and not walked through that door. I could easily have listened to the voices that told me I didn’t belong there, could so easily have followed my normal patterns and quietly slipped home. Instead, I said yes to the quiet nudging of my lonely heart and fell into an opportunity for deep friendship, creative sustenance, and art, an opportunity that circuitously led me into this life I am living now, a life in which I am, somehow, miraculously, holding luminous artistic gatherings of my own. (I love you, Laura. )

All around me, the leaves are changing, falling onto the ground in incredible mosaics of color. If the chlorophyll did not die, we would never see the secondary pigmentation beneath it, these heartrending reds and oranges and purples and yellows.  I think life is like that sometimes. Life deals us a blow and BOOM! there goes our chlorophyll. But we are resilient, beautiful creatures, and we not only survive, we begin to show new colors that we never suspected were there. Sometimes our burdens walk us directly into the beauty.

kneelphoto by Maeve Hendrix

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To find
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
listening
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

3 Comments

November 9, 2015 · 4:17 am

living the question

2014-12-05 12.21.43I have spent most of the past year gradually falling in love with one of the most patient and observant men I have ever known.    He is attentive, generous, creative, and wise.  One of the many gifts he has given me is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (other gifts include earrings shaped like the dopamine molecule, a hand-hammered ring he crafted out of a quarter, numerous bouquets of flowers, and some of the most heartfelt and lovely works of poetry and art I’ve ever been privileged to look upon. I mention this to give you an inkling of the quality of man we are talking about here.  And also to preen a little.  Preen, preen.)

Right.  Anyway, one of the most famous passages of that beautiful book of Rilke’s is this one:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have read this passage. So many times that, gradually, it has lost its power.  It has lost its power because I look at this quote and think “ah, Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Seen that.”  And the experience of these words gets filed away.  I already know.  So I deny myself the experience.

I have fallen in love before.  I have attended school before, participated in art therapy before, cooked stew before, celebrated my birthday before, taken trips overseas before.  Over time, it grows easier and easier to believe that I can never experience the delight and vibrance of this world in the way I did the first time.  It grows easier and easier to slot new experiences into pre-existing categories; easier and easier to take for granted things, people, and experiences  that once lit me up with gratitude.

It’s insidious, this having-of-answers.  I used to live on a tiny street in Culver City, near a school that had planted its borders with mexican marigold and lavender.  Every morning, walking to my bus stop, I’d crush a leaf or two in my fingers and sniff the sweet, heady scent all the way across Venice Boulevard. Sometimes I’d tuck a sprig into my pocket or behind my ear, where I could lift it to my nose throughout the day.  And then one morning, in a hurry, headed to an appointment with a person I loathed, I found myself at the bus stop with a fistful of crushed and withered leaves that I could not remember plucking or smelling.  This ritual of delight had become just another bullet point on my to-do list. I “knew” what lavender and mexican marigold could do for me, so I’d plucked them.  But I’d forgotten to have the experience.

I write this now because, as I entered into love this year, I had so many answers.  I’d been in love.  I knew what worked and what didn’t.  I knew what I wanted and whether I could realistically get it or not.

But this love has taken my answers from me one by one.  Slowly, begrudgingly, I have learned that I cannot apply the tricks and techniques and shortcuts that I learned in other relationships to this one. I have learned that  a) I know nothing about this love and b) that is a wonderful thing.  Sometimes it is very ugly, being me.  Sometimes it is the hardest, most awful, paralyzing-pulpy thing to admit that I have been wrong, that I do not know, that this experience I face is different than anything that has come before.  It takes extraordinary energy and raw nerve to live questions instead of answers.  It takes almost unimaginable courage to allow myself to be fully seen.

On the other side, though!  When I do take the deep breath and do the courageous thing, when I welcome this man into my life each day as a surprise and as an enigma, when I allow myself to stumble and show ineptitude and admit that I do not know, life grows so exquisitely vibrant.  There is a spectrum of experience, and when I narrow it to keep myself from experiencing the most intense suffering, I am also denied the most transformative joy. Slowly, I am relearning how to welcome all of life.

The dust accumulates in such subtle ways: the retelling of a story until all the feeling is worn out of it, the frustration at having to re-experience something I did not like the first time, the assumption that I already know how an apple tastes and that this apple can hold nothing new.  I think this is the way that we can wake up, eventually, and feel as though we are no longer alive.

Sometimes it is easier to keep my head down and deaden myself to experience—sometimes there is so much to do that tasting the apple feels like one task too much.  But when I am walking down the hall after tucking my children into bed and they call after me “we love you the MOST!”  I want to hear it every time.  It is no less beautiful for having been said several hundred times before. I don’t want to deaden myself to it.  I don’t want to stop hearing it when the man I love says I love you.

This man that I love, loves me.  That is the newest, most surprising, most fantastically beautiful feeling I have ever experienced.  I don’t ever want to teach myself to take it for granted.  I don’t ever want to teach myself that I know this already. I don’t want any answers.

I know I will forget, again, to read the words Rilke wrote instead of saying, “oh yeah, Rilke.” I know there will be nights that I stride down the hall preoccupied with all there is to accomplish, not hearing the “We love you the MOST!” that follows me from the boys’ room.  And I want to welcome this, too—-gently welcome this mistake-making, this not-hearing—as part of the question I live every day.

2015-01-02 13.35.14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evening

Slowly the evening puts on the garments
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands divide from you,
one going heavenward, one that falls;

and leave you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so dark as the house sunk in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which grows star each night and climbs-

and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening,
so that it, now bound in and now embracing,
grows alternately stone in you and star.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~

11 Comments

Filed under masculine & feminine, parenting and personhood, poetry, Uncategorized

talking to people

imageRecently my son and I attended a week of surf camp.  We had an incredible time swimming all day, gathering seashells, meeting with old friends and new, and yes, even catching some waves. In the afternoons we learned about the wider ecosystem of the beach we were surfing on, attending talks by the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and the founder of the Plastic Oceans Project and participating in rain garden maintenance with the Coastal Federation.

The Plastic Ocean Project slideshow affected my son profoundly.  After showing us some of the damaging effects plastics have on the turtles, fish, mammals, and birds of the ocean, and reminding us that the ocean is ‘downhill from everywhere’, Bonnie explained that one simple way to take action is to refuse a plastic straw at restaurants.

My son became an anti-straw zealot on the spot. And since we’ve been on the road visiting family for the past week, he’s had plenty of restaurants to practice his policy on. At first I was pleased and proud of his new social conscience, though I know that straws are quite literally the tip of the iceberg-sized plastics problem, but lately I’ve been noticing something disturbing. Every time we enter a restaurant he not only refuses a straw, but then proceeds to judge everyone who DOES use one. “Look at that man”, he’ll whisper. “He used TWO straws, one for his water and one for his tea.  He doesn’t care about the sea turtles at ALL.”

And it struck me that this is the same subtle ‘othering’ that can lead one population to kill another simply because it has unfamiliar values, or an unintelligible language, or a different skin tone.  It’s the same ‘othering’ that can make us view the children of ‘others’ not as laughing, vivid, crazy-making-straw-refusing humans, but as collateral damage.

Bonnie’s work with the Plastic Ocean Project is all about collaboration:  building bridges between the soft and hard sciences, between academics and puppeteers, between chemistry and biology students, in the name of rethinking our concept of garbage. I was especially struck by the tone of positivity and enthusiasm she brought into the room, the excitement engendered by this collaborative solution-building.

Which made it all the more glaring when my son took this message of inclusiveness and turned it into divisiveness. Most painful of all, however, was awakening to a pervasive tendency of divisiveness in myself. This family-visiting road trip has been incredibly instructive for me. Extended family members who had dwindled to nothing more than a few political sound bites and snapshots on Facebook have become flesh-and-blood humans again. I’ve been forced to step away from my comfortable little tribe of like-mindeds and associate with ‘others’.  And I’ve been reminded of something very important. Fear and hatred are powerful motivators, to be sure. When I see stats on what my country’s policies are doing to oceans and children, I am galvanized into action. But the actions I am galvanized into doing tend to promote the same kind of ‘othering’ that allows us to deport children and destroy entire species without compunction. I get fanned into a furor of me vs. them. ‘Them’ being anyone whose sound bites do not match my own.

This is why I tend not to post political articles or opinions on Facebook–I’ve learned that if my little sound bite is going to change someone’s opinion, then the next sound bite that comes along is just as likely to change it back. All I’m doing is preaching to the choir or being inflammatory, and the last thing I want to be doing is engendering more divisiveness.  But I have noticed that I judge other people by their sound bites. I make snap judgments, I dismiss whole humans or assign them into ‘my’ or ‘their’ camp, based on a skimming of my newsfeed.

I’ve been reading a book called mindwise by Nicholas Epley, a psychologist who studies the way we read people.  Turns out, when we try to take the perspective of others, we are often wrong. Turns out, if you want to know what someone is thinking or feeling, the most accurate way to find out is to ask them. Which requires us to talk to people.  It’s a lot harder to dismiss someone you’re eating dinner with than it is to dismiss them over Facebook from several hundred miles away

Last month I learned that during the deadly 1854 cholera outbreak in London, when the disease kept spreading and people kept dying and no one could figure out why people were getting sick, one man, Dr. John Snow, thought to interview the sick families to discover what they had in common. He discovered, through talking to people, that all of the sick people were drinking water from a single pump on Broad Street. And then he performed an elegantly simple behavioral intervention: he broke off the pump handle. And thus ended the deadly cholera outbreak of 1854.

So I’ve been thinking about John Snow and political sound bites and plastic straws and extended family. And it seems to me that any lasting, effective change any of us hope to make will have to be rooted in a different paradigm than the reigning one of us vs. them. The kind of change we need is planetary, because the mistakes we’ve made are planetary in scope. We can’t afford to be divisive anymore. We need to talk to people. We need to figure out where they’re coming from, what needs and hopes and desires their actions rise from. We’re going to have to see even the most inflammatory of the ‘others’ as human, and we’re going to have to be smart enough to come up with ideas that make it easy, even desirable, to change.

Another collaborative solution Bonnie mentioned besides foregoing straws was incentivizing the return of plastics for upcycling into fuel. Apparently, there remain a few companies whose patents haven’t been bought out by big oil (see the othering I did there? Betcha there are families in ‘big oil’ that love to surf and care about sea turtles too, whose employment choices were the complicated result of circumstances I can’t even begin to fathom) who recycle used plastic into usable fuel. Imagine if there were plastic-return centers where anyone could bring waste plastics in for conversion to fuel and be paid by the pound for their efforts–if waste plastic were worth something I doubt there’d be so much of it lying around waiting to float out to sea. That’s a pretty great breaking-the-pump-handle intervention right there–making it easy to do the ‘right’ thing.

It reminds me of desire lines in Permaculture design. We have a species-wide instinct-driven inclination to take the easy route.  Parks the world over have bare patches worn into the grass where hordes of people have ignored the visually appealing, curving pathways to take the shortest distance between points. If the pump handle is broken, you’ll get your water elsewhere. But we won’t know what the desire lines are, which pump handle to target, why the behaviors exist, until we talk to people.

I heard an interview with the amazing Israeli musician Idan Raichel recently. He spoke about the heartbreaking situation in the Middle East in terms I’d never heard before. He spoke about exposing Israelis to the music and theater and art of the Palestinian people. To paraphrase: ‘If everyone is clamoring to open the borders so that they can hear their favorite musician perform, if art-lovers petition for checkpoints to open so the artists they’ve been hearing so much about can come through from Lebanon and Jordan and Palestine and Syria, the rigid lines of politics will soften and we’ll all just be humans, making change on a human scale.’  In other words, if we learn to see the people we fear and hate as people, if we learn by interacting and listening and talking with them that they are similar to, even valuable to us, our behavior toward them will change.

Which is is why we can’t afford fear- and anger-based interventions. If we want to build change on the level that change is required, we need to talk to people–the way that Bonnie does, the way Dr. Snow did, the way Idan Raichel proposes.  We simply can’t afford to ‘other’ each other any more.

 

6 Comments

July 27, 2014 · 2:34 pm

croesus & fukushima

I spent yesterday learning bollywood-style choreography, hosting/taking an intense workshop on the touch drawing technique, and wildly spinning to amazing fiddle music at the contra dance.  There was hardly a moment to take a breath, but while my body made hand mudras and shimmied my shoulders, pressed ink into paper, and twirled in the arms of my dance partners, my mind doggedly pursued the same topic it’s been tumbling for weeks now.  Weeks of making art and writing papers, studying for exams and curing hundreds of bars of soap, visiting family and holding babies and blending body butters and solid perfumes, watching plans coalesce and unravel, feeling by turns utterly filled and completely devastated–I’ve been thinking about what’s beneath it all.

All of these different layers of self—the ones that come out at family dinners, the ones represented by the photographs we throw away and the poems that would embarrass us horribly if they ever came to light.  The parts we claim and don’t claim.  The parts we don’t even notice—the way our walk differs from everyone else’s, or what incites us to love, or why certain colors or sounds induce longing.

It strikes me that the ones who inspire me, my dearest friends and deepest teachers, are the ones who live frighteningly close to the surface.  We feel EVERYTHING.  It can be called sensitivity, touchiness, flakiness, vulnerability, mental illness, intuition, creativity, genius….so many of us who are this open to the world end up broken by it, submerged in depression or mania or something in between; so many of us develop  addictions as ways of dulling this excruciating sensitivity. Some of our addictions are benign—too many cups of sugared tea—and some kill us.   All are ways of tuning out, because our default setting is so very very tuned in.

But some of us manage to shift our value system, to see this burden as a gift.  We decide to highly prize experience and sensitivity.  We linger over every new idea, every scent, every painful and deeply felt emotion.  We let ourselves grieve in every color over situations that others seem not even to notice.

And lately I have learned something—we ALL notice.  All of us are born this close to the surface.  It’s just that some of us hide it better than others, and some of us dull it away with behaviors or time or routines.  I haven’t managed to hide mine. Or, perhaps, I have, by building my life around it.

At the touch drawing workshop, beautifully facilitated by Katrina Plato, we were urged to ask questions and let the drawings answer. I drew with closed eyes, on tissue paper that had been laid over rolled paint, so that the pressure of my fingers and elbows and hands marked the page. When my eyes opened I would quickly lift the drawing and begin a new one. I made 31 drawings in this way. They cycled through downcast faces, trees, weeping eyes, dancing women, ambiguous swirls, and back to downcast faces. Some of them terrified me.

touchdrawing5

touchdrawing6

touchdrawing4touchdrawing7                                                  touchdrawing2

In the end we were asked to quickly number and title our drawings, keeping them in sequence so that they could tell an unfolding story.  There was one disturbing series that I titled “Croesus” for no particular reason. When I came home I read about Croesus and learned this:

Croesus was a spectacularly wealthy king crowned in 560 BC.  He reigned at a time when the once powerful Ionian cities were falling to the Persians in Anatolia.  He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war; the oracles answered that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.

The empire, of course, turned out to be his own, and Croesus was burned alive.  Some stories relate that as he burned, he cried out ‘Solon!’ three times–Solon, a poet and reformer who had warned the king that good fortune is fickle.

Terrible as that is, this is the story that broke my heart: There was a Phrygian prince called Adrastus, a young man who had been exiled for accidentally killing his own brother. Croesus took pity on Adrastus and offered him refuge. Adrastus thanked him by accidentally killing Croesus’ only son, Atys.   (what is it Maya Angelou said?  when someone shows you who they are for the first time, believe them.)

touchdrawing3

Croesus series

It is so hard for me to come to terms with this, that our very mercy, our desire to do good, can be the vehicle of our destruction–that sometimes there is no reason, no redemption, only terrible waste. I know that it is true and I do not know how to make peace with it.  But boy oh boy did it answer my question! Art amazes me in this way, in its power to coax out meaning, and in doing so, to heal.

Because it does heal. I have to remind myself of this; it is easy to think of expressive arts as ‘soft’ therapy, useless in times of real trauma, self-indulgent when there are so many who need water or light or, I don’t know, stitches.

But I had a dream several nights ago in which I lay beneath the ocean floor and looked up through layers of oddly warm water.  Fish of every color swam urgently past and then a whale, slowly, looking straight into my eyes.  And then another.  I was pinned there, beneath the water and between the unyielding gazes of these beautiful, sincere creatures trying fiercely to communicate something of extreme importance.  I saw a leaf catch fire at the corner of my eye and felt an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness.

When I woke , I saw my friend Zoe’s partially painted canvas.  She’d left it with me, urging me to either paint over it or complete it, and so I began painting.

I did not know I would paint my dream–not until the next morning. After painting on and off for several hours, I could see that I was painting about Fukushima and my deep despair over what is happening in the oceans of this world. And then I saw that my friend Zoe, who speaks fluent Japanese and studied papermaking in Japan, who practices acupuncture and shiatsu, was all over the canvas: layers of handmade paper torn up and collaged, points of light swirling along the meridians of the ocean as if to diagram its acupuncture points, underlying colors and depth she had left there for me.

fukushima Everything is a dialogue.  I am never in this alone, and neither are you.  When I finished that painting I felt emptied out—there was so much grief I did not know I’d been holding. But I also felt held, by my friend, and by the simple loving craft of papermaking, and by the power of acupuncture, by all of the good and beautiful things we humans have done.  Held by the mystery of it all, the mystery that is so much larger than my sadness or my dream or my vision.  Held by my own sensitivity, that is willing to open me to so much in this world that could hurt, and that defies explanation, but is willing all the same.

It is good journeying with you all. Thank you for your own willingness to live close to the surface of things, your bravery in feeling everything, the way you communicate what you’ve learned to the rest of us. That’s an answer right there.

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December 8, 2013 · 9:34 pm

keep the old

old friends

I have known Zoe and Sarah since I was thirteen years old. On my first day of boarding school, sitting high on the third floor of that ancient brick building and trying very hard not to cry, I saw someone turning cartwheels on the lawn.  It took every shred of my bravery to go out and introduce myself to that free spirit, but it turned out to be Sarah.  She made me laugh right away. She’s inspired infinite bravery and laughter since.

Zoe was a sophomore, impossibly beautiful in glittery ska pants and plastic butterfly rings. It took me longer to acquire the courage necessary to speak with Zoe (she was a SOPHOMORE) but soon we were writing poetry back and forth, dancing in cornfields and trying to reach each other in dreams from across the hall.

The three of us wrote letters, real ones, all the way through college and after.  Sarah’s letter to me from a farm she was working on in France saved my skin once when, hitchhiking through Scotland, I ran out of money and had no place to stay. I called my mother, as one does, and she told me there was a letter waiting for me from Sarah.  I asked her to read it to me over the phone, and soon I was herding goats with Sarah in France.

Another time Zoe, back in Pennsylvania from the life she’d found in Australia, walked with me through cow pastures and balanced on trees over the Brandywine.  I’d just returned from the Middle East and was brimful of self-righteous politics.  Zoe was sitting on a fence post as we watched the sun set over a field near her mother’s home.  She stretched languidly and said “Lissa, for a pacifist you sure fight yourself a lot.”

I held on to that beautiful bit of insight for a long, long time.  Old friends, the real ones who know you through and through—they say hard things some times.  At times it feels easier not to be around them.  When I was barely holding on in California, when my marriage was falling apart and my life felt so constricted that it was hard even to draw breath, I cut off my family and friends.  I stopped returning Sarah’s calls and Zoe’s letters.  But they never stopped calling and writing.  They each found ways to show up at my door, all the way across the country.  And they continued to hold a mirror up to my life, much as I did not want to look.

Four years ago we decided–I forget how, it must have been divine inspiration!–to gather at Sarah’s family property in upstate New York.  We built wood-fired saunas and cooked elaborate feasts and swam in the lakes and sunned along the rivers, drank wine and laughed and wrote and reunited.  I remembered how large life is.  We all wrote about that experience on Sarah’s wonderful blog The Perspective Project.

We’ve met each year since. Each year felt different–one year, we were hosted by a dear friend on Nantucket in a palatial guest house, taken for ornate dinners and given free run of a jaw-droppingly well-supplied art studio.  We were all knee-deep in our own painful crises that year. To be so well taken care of felt like a drink of cool water in the midst of a punishing marathon.

Another time we gathered at Zoe’s place in Boston.  We made paper and kombucha and body butter and lip balm. We sang karaoke in a tiny Japanese bar.  And we laughed.  There is always so much laughter.

This year, Sarah and Zoe came to Boone. We had all reached a place of relative equilibrium.  The arc of this friendship covers so much–at first you do not notice the changes, but then suddenly here is Zoe, the freespirited poet and world traveler, opening her own acupuncture and shiatsu practice.  And Sarah, artist/writer/wit/cartwheel turner, a college professor.  Both here, in my world, thickening the thin places, weaving the loose ends back in.

oldfriends

oldfriends5

We have all changed.  But when we are together, the thirteen-year-olds are here too.  And the seventeen-year-olds. And, I think, the seventy-year-olds.  The past overflows into the present, and the present feels velvety with depth.

We sat on my sunny porch and did Johari Windows together, and enneagram tests.  One of the questions was this: does your life feel permeated by a sense of longing?  Unequivocally yes, we answered.  And thinking about this, it became clear to me:  this life has been so full.  Each of us has traveled so far, been so many things to so many people, tried on so many roles and languages and ways of being.  No one place can hold us anymore.  No matter where we are, there will be a longing for some aspect of our Self that cannot be held by that moment.

And yet, when we three are together, there is a broadness greater than the sum of our individual selves. When we are together, there is no part of me that is not fed.  We are big enough to hold it all.

oldfriends3

I look at my changing friends—the laughter lines (so much laughter!), the odd gray hairs, the incremental and transcendently lovely beginnings of self-acceptance—and I see myself.  That mirror is held up yet again and, seeing my friends, I see myself.  I see how brokenness heals, how some things remain immutable and some shift endlessly.  I see how age brings rare joy and wisdom as well as heartbreak.  I see how large this life is.

Being loved like this, by old friends, there is nothing like it.  Sometimes I wish they did not know me so well, it’s true, sometimes I feel called onto the carpet by issues I thought I’d resolved with puberty.  But until I am surrounded by old friends I forget how much energy I spend each day trying to be acceptable, trying to be liked.  With Sarah and Zoe, there is no question of being acceptable or liked–that question was settled long ago.  All of that energy is released outward, sizzling into art, and dance, and life, and laughter. Dear friends.  New friends teach me how much I can expand, the beautiful and haunting potential held by this life.  But the old ones—ahh, the old ones remember what I AM.  What WE ARE. What we have always been.  And that is big enough to hold everything.

olfdriemds4

this is a poem i wrote after the visit of another old friend (rob, your time is coming!!)–but it seems to fit here.

an old friend’s visit

continuing: remaining seen

there was a thread undone,

now woven in

and there is freedom here,

in being known

a freedom anonymity can’t own

continuing a thing!

o it is strange

that there is one who calls me by my name

.

7 Comments

November 20, 2013 · 2:37 am

letting life speak

William Penn

I was raised Quaker.  Since I was very small I’ve practiced sitting in silence, listening for the ‘inner light’, the voice of God within.  I stared for so many hours at William Penn’s quote, framed on the wall of the building where I first learned to worship (and to read), that it still flickers over the inside of my eyelids when I am drowsy:

True godliness does not remove men from the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.

This was the spirituality I was steeped in: to listen for the voice of what is holy, and then to tirelessly live it in the world, to preach with my life.  To let my life speak.  There was no dogma, no preacher or minister or intermediary.  Just me and my conscience, and the several dozen Quaker political action committees that lobby endlessly the world over for an end to war, freedom for all, equality and a culture of nonviolence.  I grew up believing that religion is  listening to my own conscience and then working until the world around me matches what I feel on the inside.  I felt no inconsistency finding God in trees, bees, bee-balm flowers, chanting, poetry, dancing, mountains.  I did not realize until fairly recently how unusual this is. Continue reading

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October 21, 2013 · 2:38 am

tooth of the gods

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies

Recently, at a mead-making workshop, someone related the story of a precious bottle of ancient honey wine, unearthed  and sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the bottle was carried to its new owner, it slipped from the tray and shattered on the ground.

“Ah,” said my mead-making friend, “that’s the tooth of the gods.”

I had never heard this term before and asked for elaboration.

“The tooth of the gods is the sacrifice that  life demands,” he said.  “Bottles shattering, for instance.  Or a promising life ending too soon.  It’s the immensity of living on the knife’s edge, never knowing what might be taken from you.”

I listened, taken aback by this concept that loss could be a holy thing. And yet—walking home tonight from a late meeting, I was absorbed in thought, absentmindedly watching for oncoming cars on my dark, curving street.  Suddenly a sharp smell raised the hackles on my neck and set my heart pounding. Continue reading

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October 8, 2013 · 4:02 am

desire lines

leavesThis study I am undertaking now, the study of how we construct the mental worlds in which we think and breathe and act, the study of how to listen, the study of being creative, the study of being human: it seems to unite all that I have learned before and cast that knowledge into a new light.  It seems to remind me why I have learned all that I have learned, how to braid it all together even.  Above all it asks me to stop and observe, to notice patterns. Continue reading

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October 1, 2013 · 1:11 am

persephone, again

Aidoneus - Hades (Pluton) & Persephone (Proser...

Persephone has hold of me.  I know I’ve written about her before, but she won’t let go.  What is it about her life, characterized by the journey to hell and back, over and over again?  Light to shadow, shadow to light. Jung wrote that in order to truly individuate—to mature into our full self-expression–it is important to integrate the shadow side.

What is the shadow?  The shadow is patched together of the ugly brutal truths, the parts of ourselves we’d rather deny or ignore.  Syria is a shadow right now, use of torture by our military is a shadow, nuclear poison washing into the sea is a shadow.

So why would we want to integrate such a hideous reality? Wouldn’t it be better to rise above these things?

Persephone says no.  When I listen to her–rarely, because I don’t want to , because the things she says are hard to hear–this is the message: Continue reading

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September 13, 2013 · 3:52 pm