Tuesday, December 21, 2010


In the wee hours of this morning there was a total lunar eclipse, the moon smudged by the earth's shadow to a faint charcoal blot in the sky. This afternoon the winter solstice occurred, heralding the longest night of the year. The day was a double whammy of darkness. Though the eclipse was a lovely distraction from a sunset at 4-something p.m., many of us quickly returned to waiting, with varying degrees of patience and strength of mood swings, for precious daylight to show up earlier and linger longer once again.

We humans are diurnal creatures, evolved to go about our business in the daylight. Our circadian rhythms respond to an increase in the duration and intensity of natural light by making us more energetic and happier. Darkness makes us inclined to eat more (back AWAY from the bathroom scale and no one will get hurt!), sleep more, be less active, and generally get a bit unbalanced, sometimes just plain weird. The return of daylight hours is an important milestone for every human in the circular pattern of every year. And that's why virtually every culture and tradition has some kind of celebration marking the return of the light. Often those celebrations of a primal relationship with our world are embellished with an overlay of religious myth -  for instance, Jesus, in the Christian tradition, is called the "Light of the World" and is said to have been born in the dark of the year, even though there is no historical evidence whatsoever that his birth took place in December - coincidentally close to the solstice, too. Even Groundhog Day on February 2nd is a secular holiday celebrating the coming sun and the imminent end of winter. The fun superstition of Groundhog Day was overlaid on the Catholic holy day of Candlemas, which in its turn was overlaid on an ancient celebration of the goddess figure Brigid, bringer of fire, knowledge, medicine and writing to the Celtic people (note that all those gifts are forms of light or "enlightenment").

Whatever your belief system, take the time to acknowledge that we are creatures of light, our shadow side notwithstanding, and revel in the few minutes of additional daylight we begin receiving each day after today. Greet the day as you would greet a good friend - notice its new clothes and tell it how nice it looks. It will hang around you for the pure pleasure of the relationship between light and that which it illuminates...and you will be the better for it.

Happy Return of the Light!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Holidays: Rituals of an Overcompensator

A Facebook friend recently posted a comment that she didn't understand people who get stressed out about holiday rituals like sending cards, putting up decorations, baking cookies and so forth. Her assessment was that, since nobody is making you do these things, why do them if you don't enjoy them? Simple, yes?

Lucky you, if you are as clearly well-adjusted as she and do not comprehend the workings of the mind of an obsessive neurotic. But if you have nothing else to do for the next few minutes, sit at my feet, Grasshopper, and I will attempt to enlighten you. Perhaps this mini-education will allow you to generate some compassion for us poor, screwed-up perfectionists who get twisted into knots during the holidays and never seem to figure out how to untie ourselves.

This holiday season, I'm trying to talk myself out of sending the usual holiday letter and cards, and it's no mean feat. It's wrenching: it actually HURTS to think of skipping this ritual. It almost hurts more than trying to figure out how I could possibly carve out time to do it. Part of the problem is that I do love doing all the things which, to me, symbolize the essence of the holidays, and set this time apart from all the rest of the year. Writing a pensive holiday letter, sending cards, baking, putting up sparkling lights or decorations - all that feels meaningful, like a gift to myself and an expression of love to others. Unfortunately, constraints on time and energy often turn my feelings about beloved holiday traditions into something more like a love-hate relationship. And then there's the endless downward spiral of feeling bad about feeling bad, at the time of year when you're supposed to be filled with happiness and good cheer. Oh, I can take the dance of holiday dysfunction as far as your imagination reaches, and farther!

Plus I'm overcompensating for all the things my family didn't do at Christmas when I was growing up. We never had a "regular" Christmas tree; we decorated a huge philodendron that my paternal grandfather had planted and which presided over an entire corner of our living room. Kinda cool for an adult, maybe, but in a child's eyes it wasn't the way Christmas was "supposed" to be. Now we have a regular, real, u-cut Christmas tree every year. When I was a kid, we didn't always get cards out, and after my early childhood, my mother never seemed to get around to baking. So I have a real sense of urgency about doing those things. It seems therapeutic - when it's not killing me because I don't have the energy for all this stuff AND the Normal Obligations of Everyday Life.

This season, in an attempt to make sure I reach a reasonably healthy old age, I've adopted a new "yoga," a practice of letting go of just a couple of problematic to-do list items at a time. I may still struggle to find opportunities to bake and still get stressed about putting up all my Christmas tchotchkes, but I'm resolutely passing up the boxes of Christmas cards, taking a deep breath as we receive cards from friends and family, and will perhaps capitulate to sending an e-card at the last minute. I'm skipping most of the shopping, which I truly DO hate, and either contributing to charities on behalf of my loved ones, or scheduling some fun thing to do with friends and family who are local, rather than giving them unneeded stuff.

My Holiday Yoga practice includes gently returning to my basic worldview: that humans are uniquely suited to making meaning, and that that is our number one job in the world. If we are well-suited to making meaning, then we are equally well-suited to re-making meaning as necessary. If I understand the reasons why certain rituals feel significant, I can re-tool those rituals or adopt new ones that will still satisfy the drive to create meaning out of apparent randomness. AND I can live a longer, more contented life.

Finally, in the interests of gaining perspective on the priorities of others which we may not understand, let me point out a common, non-holiday-related obsession, mostly but not exclusively engaged in by women. Personally, I never have trouble suppressing a desire to run the vacuum cleaner, but I know people who will get up and vacuum the house at six in the morning. Repeatedly. Often. Happily. Since the task of vacuuming involves sweat and noise, and excludes sparkly decorations, twinkly lights or cookies, THAT particular fixation is totally beyond my comprehension. It all depends on your sense of what matters, doesn't it?

I wish you a holiday season filled with warmth, peace, joy, love and sparkles. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Bone Country" and rituals of place

As we celebrate a season of thanksgiving and abundance, many of us engage in rituals that center on relationship with family, friends and, of course, food. This season of celebration, plus a recent trip to my native state of California, got me thinking about another kind of relationship to be thankful for: relationship with place. Places that are important to us can be anchors to our past, as old friends often are, or act as stepping stones to our unknown future. When a place is in one's heart and one's DNA, we recognize each other in some inexplicable way.

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the East Bay hills of Richmond. The picture window in the living room of our house looked out west across the Bay to the blue-shadowed shoulders of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. On fog-free days I could often see the Golden Gate, to the south of Mount Tam. The well-kept houses in my neighborhood were mostly stucco, modest but comfortable faux Mediterranean-style bungalows - though our home was constructed of redwood, daringly contemporary for its time. Farther up the hill, surrounding the elementary school I attended, eucalyptus trees stood sentinel and wafted their pungent fragrance across the schoolyard and down the steep streets.
My family moved 80 miles away when I was 6 1/2 years old, but my attachment to and memories of that early childhood environment have never lost their power over me. Something subtle and mystical, something that seems to penetrate to a cellular level, keeps me tied to those hills which have been kneaded like bread dough by earthquakes, to the always-choppy waters of the Bay, and to the aromatic eucalyptus trees that aren't even indigenous to the area but seem such a fixture of the landscape. Though I deeply love the place I live in now and don't plan to leave it until I leave this life, whenever I return to the Bay Area I feel welcomed home, as if I belong in some fundamental way to the soil, the water and the sky.

So, when I do return, I pay respects: I go to various locations around the East Bay which have some special hold over me, and perform rituals - sometimes without realizing I am doing so - that acknowledge and cement my relationship with the places that Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call my "bone country."  I go to Alameda Beach, which was my destination and my companion on daily walks when I lived in a student house during my master's program at the University of Creation Spirituality. I greet this place, sacred to me, by returning shells and rocks I have picked up on prior visits. This ritual reminds me that all healthy relationships, this one included, are reciprocal, and require giving as well as taking. 

I go to Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills, to ride again the splendid Herschell-Spillman merry-go-round that was the first carousel I rode, as a toddler - or simply to look upon it if it is not open for rides. The setting is incomparable and the merry-go-round is an exquisite example of the love that goes into true craftsmanship and which lasts beyond the lifetime of the craftsperson. Every time I visit I feel a quiver of the same excitement that accompanied each childhood trip to the carousel. These ritual visits restore my innocence in a jaded world, spark joy in me, and remind me of the importance of cultivating and welcoming a spirit of wonder and awe.

Indigenous peoples everywhere know about this kind of relationship to the land which brought them forth: that they belong to it, rather than the land belonging to them; that it sustains them psychologically (or spiritually) as well as physically. They know that the earth they were born on or upon which significant events in their lives took place is a part of who they are, a part of their story. And they do not fail to offer their bone country the respect and love it is due.

What places on this planet have a hold on your heart and your cells? How do you keep yourself whole, integral, by acknowledging that connection with your bone country? If you have never celebrated your connection to place, how might it make a difference in your mind, body and/or spirit if you started now? Could that be part of a season of thanksgiving?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cosmogenesis, Chapter 1

Here's a new creation story - an attempt to apply the little I know about quantum physics to the age-old human quest for a meaningful myth about where we came from and what our place is in the universe. It has always seemed to me that all that is, is holy - by virtue of its "isness." What does "holy" mean? You look at the light dancing on the water, and tell me.

     Before the Beginning,  Mother God dwelt in a vast sea of potential with Her angels; and they were one in undifferentiated love. And the angels were the wave functions, sweeping tides in a Sea of quantum foam, and in their oneness with the Mother was the great goodness of infinite love and the great solitude of unrealized possibility.
    And the Mother saw that She could not know Herself or Her angels further without allowing for a new kind of goodness, the goodness of particularity.  And since it was in Her nature to desire self-knowledge, She prepared her womb for a great birthing: love made manifest. And in the pains of Her labor She groaned the Word that echoed through the deeps of the quantum Sea and birthed the universe in fire. And the Word was CHOICE.
    And the wave-form angels heard the Word and trembled in awe, for they knew the echo of that Word resounded as a call to them alone.  The Mother gave them choice: to remain wave functions, one with Her being, or to particularize and receive the gift of acting in the universe She had birthed.  And the angels who chose to remain as waves in the quantum Sea would float in the unity of the Mother’s love but be powerless to experience or influence the life of duality, the life of Creation.  The angels who chose to become particles would become co-creators, shaping and guiding the life that sprang forth in endless profusion. But the gift was not without cost.  The particularized angels would have to sever their oneness with Mother God, and be subject to the universal laws of life and death the Mother had set in motion.  They would know the sorrow of separation, and yet have the ability to reflect the glory of the One whence they came and to act with Her creative power.
    And so those first angels, vibrating with the great wonder of all that was, and was to be, answered the call and came forth to make their choice, to participate in the great dance of existence. And these particularized angels were the bodhisattvas and were precious beyond measure to the Mother. For they sacrificed their oneness out of care of the world of life and death, flickering into and out of existence, that the One might look upon Her creation, the love that everywhere mirrors Herself, and know its goodness.
    And so these bodhisattvas, the angels embodied, danced the great dance and became photons and hydrogen atoms and galaxies.  And they entered into relationship with one another as living systems.  And so they became even the earth upon which we stand.  And they walked, crawled, swam and flew over the earth as the living web of being: teachers and guides sent to us by the Mother through their own willing choice to live in time and die for the sake of love.
    People, do you not know that these same angels speak through the rough call of the raven outside your window in the dawn hours?  Do you not see them dancing in the light on the waves of the bay as the sun rises high?  Have you felt them in the touch of your beloved?  Will they not silently reflect the glory of the One as you gaze in the mirror tonight, performing your ablutions before retiring?  I say amen, and amen.

Friday, July 2, 2010

No service will be held

I read the obits in the paper almost every day. No, it's not my age - I've been looking them over for many years. I think it's my fascination with story: who was this person; where did they come from; what did they do; whom did they love; how long did they get to walk in this terrible, beautiful world? You don't get much of that information in the standard newspaper obituary these days, but still there's a texture of someone's life even in just their name, age and hometown. I'm drawn to those terse, factual paragraphs, again and again, trying to follow the raveled threads down to the rich fabric of a single human existence.

And it breaks my heart a little when I see, in the last paragraph, the sentence "no service will be held." I always wonder why the family and friends of the person who died chose to commemorate the end of their loved one's life on Earth by NOT commemorating it.

Maybe the deceased wanted it that way. Maybe the family is having a private gathering they don't want advertised. Maybe the grief is too great to contemplate sharing, or maybe the relationship was problematic and the grief isn't great enough, or is too mixed with other feelings. Maybe the friends and family aren't religious and they think funerals are only for those who believe in an afterlife. Maybe money is tight and the family doesn't see how they can afford a memorial gathering. Maybe a funeral reminds them of their own mortality, and that's too much for them to face. Maybe everyone's just too busy to plan anything. There are a million good reasons why people don't gather in community to remember, acknowledge and/or celebrate the life of someone they know who has died.

But there's one GREAT reason to go ahead and do it anyway.  It's not about "closure;" I intensely dislike that word and the way it's used in our culture to imply the ability - or necessity - to set aside difficult issues so we don't have to think about them again. When someone who has been significant in your life dies, there is no "closure" - that's a linear notion, out of place in a universe of concentric circles. Your relationship doesn't disappear just because the person is not physically present; you carry something of her/him with you in your brain/heart/cells/soul/genome/who-knows-what. There is, however, the tying together of two ends of a circle. There's a final sentence to a chapter before the new chapter begins. And there we are, back at the idea of story again - not closure, but continuity.

When we ceremonially celebrate the end of someone's life, we're also celebrating the fact that our lives go on. We're celebrating the contribution the person who died has made to OUR stories - individually and as a community. We're allowing tears and grief to mingle haphazardly with laughter and joy - a critical balance to maintain in a healthy, fully functional human life. We're acknowledging that, even though some among us may believe in an eternal life, no earthly state is static or permanent - and that it's OK to experience pain and confusion around that fact. We're taking an oath of citizenship in the universe, as part of a story so immense we can't begin to get our minds around it. And none of this is dependent upon any particular religion or belief system. It's just a condition of being "enfleshed" - plopped into an amazing and transient skin-enclosed form that is self-aware.

Death can make life seem bigger, more mysterious and vastly more precious, but only if we consciously and courageously use our talent for making meaning from seemingly random events. At a funeral or celebration of life - really, in any rite of passage - we create symbols and rituals that speak to something in us deeper than our thoughts and quieter than our restless intellect. We weave a story in which all of us are characters on a quest - first, to endure the unendurable, finally to unmask the good and the beautiful. And we walk home arm in arm from the grave, or the park, or the wake, with an opportunity to be better people, more integral people, than we were hours before.

Hold a service - of one, two or two hundred. Go on to the next chapter.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Daddy's girl

I'm Daddy's girl.

I'm a reader because of my dad, who read endlessly. I'm a critical thinker and a skeptic - never an easy believer - because of my dad, who was a chronic questioner. I'm a writer who's never satisfied with my writing because of my dad, who wrote for decades, never truly mastered the craft and always longed to. My father's DNA is twined tightly in my genes.

He taught English and literature most of his adult life - high school and then community college. He roped in dozens of former non-readers with "cool" classes based on works of science fiction or Tolkien's Ring Trilogy. He made awful puns and taught me the art of wordplay. He joined my friends and me in easy conversation when we came skulking through the door in the wee hours of the morning as he was grading papers at the kitchen table. We all called him "Pa" and sought the refuge of his high regard at a time when most adults didn't seem to hold us in any regard at all.

He gardened and he jogged and he made comments about not wanting to get old and infirm, but he was healthy as a horse so who cared, and then he dropped dead without warning at age 63 from a massive heart attack, two days before I was supposed to get married. I was 22.

And devastated by the swiftness of his going. We'd just mended - the night before he died - a falling-out we'd been having since he'd left my mother and moved into his own apartment. He'd always been the guy in the white hat for me, but lately he seemed to be firmly in the Bad Guy category. Though he wasn't abusive in the commonly-understood sense, his actions were destructive to the integrity of his marriage and family. The more I learned about how he'd been living life with my mother, the more harshly I judged him. Until I realized that he'd supported me without judgment through some truly awful adolescent traumas, and - at the very least - I owed that same compassion to him. So I told him that, and we cried over the phone, and I said I'd see him the next day, and by the time I saw him, he was dead.

It's been a long journey since that awful day. Over the thirty-plus years since my father's death I've continued to learn what a flawed man he was: how his drive to prove himself in every way and to be adored by everyone tore at the heart of our family. And I've had to keep forgiving him, keep releasing judgment, keep realizing that I never knew the whole story of what haunted him. But I DO know that most of us are haunted by something or other, that we're all flawed, and that we could all use a bit of compassion from just about any source.

Besides, I remember that Papa told me made-up bedtime stories when I was little; I remember that he brought me hot coffee and milk when I was a teenager, trying to get up to go to school after staying up too late the night before; I remember that he always answered my questions about correct grammar and punctuation without ever making me feel stupid for asking - and he always included in his responses examples I could understand. I remember that he took me to church when, as a young teen, I wanted to go, even though he was a staunch nonbeliever and it must have been torture for him to sit through the sermons. I remember that he discussed politics and world affairs and important questions with me as if I were perfectly able to understand "adult talk" - and, as a result, I WAS.

So, joining in the annual ritual that means more when we grasp how sweetly, sadly, grandly HUMAN our dads are, I say: Happy Father's Day, Daddy. I'm glad for who you were. You shaped who I am. And - finally, surprisingly - I'm grateful for that.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A little pagan in all of us: Earth-based ritual to (re)frame your life

Most of us who were raised in this Western, rationalist culture - even if we aren't members of an organized religion - hear the word "pagan" and have visions of Bacchanalian orgies of drink, sex, and the obligatory human sacrifice (after all, the notion of blood running across an altar is what makes the whole scenario so exotically sensational - it's not as if contemporary culture lacks for the drink and sex!)

Well, as the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said - MAYBE. There's no reliable written history of the rites and practices of paganism, and precious little evidence that speaks decisively about what our pre-Christian, earth-connected ancestors did or didn't do. What they almost certainly DIDN'T do is worship Satan - Satan as the familiar biblical character we know didn't show up until about 950 B.C.E., the foundations for the concept of a "satan" didn't arise until about a thousand years earlier, in the Middle East, and the earth-based spirituality I'm talking about is thousands of years older still. What the early pagans almost certainly DID do is become deeply entwined with the seasons of the earth and the cycles of the stars. They had to - these early agrarian societies couldn't have survived, much less thrived, without an intimate knowledge of the Turn of the Wheel, the march of the seasons. They had to know not only that spring followed winter, but when it was likely to happen. When the snow melts, when the soil warms, when the berries ripen, when the fish run, when the goat-kids are born - all that was critical knowledge if they wanted to make it through the next year without starving.

And so their celebrations of making it through another season were as intimately connected with the earth as they were: the seasonal rituals marked the balance points, summer and winter solstice, and the vernal and autumnal equinox. Then there were the "cross-quarter days," what modern written history calls St. Brigid's Day/Candlemas on February 1 or 2, celebrating the waning of winter and the waxing of the light; Beltane/Mayday, invoking "the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower" (thank you, Dylan Thomas), with its fertile and, yes, sexual energy (flowers are ALL about sex); Lughnasa on the first of August, the celebration of summer's bounty coming to ripeness; and, finally, Samhain at the end of October, honoring the fields that lie fallow, the year that is flickering out, the ancestors who walked the path before us, and the necessary thinness of the veil between life and death.

Christianity came along and strategically (brilliantly!) adopted and adapted these earth-based rituals to suit the new religion's story and gain converts who could relate to the old-new narrative: winter solstice became Christmas, spring equinox became Easter, Samhain became All Hallow's Eve (and, in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration). Later, a secular, consumer-based society emerged and put many more layers of abstraction on those old religious rituals, finally settling on marketing-based "holidays" - an Easter and a Halloween all about candy, a Christmas all about gifts; Groundhog Day and Mother's Day and the first day of baseball season in spring or football season in fall. But notice how, despite modern marketing, we hold onto the use of ancient pagan symbols of nature worship: eggs and bunnies for fertility, flowers for sexuality/sensuality, trees and sheaves of grain and fire/candles and ritualized games. Maybe there's something far older than marketing that plays in our psyches, more powerful even than the slick images technology and advertising spoon-feed us.  

Because modern holidays are driven by people who want to sell things - be it candy, advertising time to sponsors, or religious dogma - we've come to regard those formerly sacred festival days as a product, manufactured for us to "have fun" - which usually boils down to getting an additional day off work, MAYBE plugging in a church service, then sitting in front of the TV and/or eating and drinking until we're half-comatose. There's nothing wrong with having a good time, but I wonder what price we're paying for moving further and further away from the real source of those celebrations and the source of our lives: the earth that bears us upon its surface and which we take for granted so completely. Our children play outside less and less; they (and we) barely know where our food comes from; few people, young or old, experience the cycle of seasons in the most concrete way, by planting something that grows, produces food, and goes dormant in the winter; we don't see animals give birth, give milk, get slaughtered for our meat, or die; we don't see PEOPLE die when it's their time. All the dance of life and death is hidden from us. We live in a sort of sanitized, comic-book world that bears little relation to the magnificent, violent, beautiful, heartbreaking, sustaining mother Earth whose rich gifts brought us forth.

Am I telling you that the antidote to this epidemic of disconnection is to blow up your TV, sell your boat, grow all your own food, wear Druid robes and dance around the Maypole on 5/1?  Nope - though some of those ideas are good and the Maypole dance is really a hoot to do - but no. Am I asking you to give up your Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or anything else? Nope - if you believe your God made the earth, I'm pretty sure your God would be happy to see you celebrate his/her creation with reverence and awe. Just...I'm just asking this, or something like it:

- To connect with an aspect of nature we usually run from: Put on old clothes and walk in the rain without an umbrella. Don't bend your head - lift it to the rain.
- A meditation to honor the dead in your family tree: Save your candle stubs and burn them on Halloween or sometime in the following 2 days, keeping vigil until they are all burned out. You can put out photos of your ancestors if you like. They made it possible for you to be here.
- Plant something - in a pot or in the ground - that will produce food. Commit to tending it for a season. If it bears food, eat the food and THANK THE PLANT. Best of all: share the food with others to celebrate your harvest.
- Every day that you drive to work or walk to the bus stop, wait a moment before you start out and: Take a deep breath. Use your senses. Sniff the air. Look at the sky. Listen for birdsong. Feel the life rising in you.
- When the weather gets more often clear than not, go outside every night at the same time for a whole month, and watch the progress of the moon across the sky.
- Take a child outside. Often. Take no toys. Take no cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone. Make up games. Play horsies.
- Get up early enough on winter solstice to go to the top of a hill or mountain and greet the dawn. Hold up a lit candle or a prism to the rising sun. 

Everything ritual that you do to reconnect with the earth makes you a part of Earth's story, makes life feel more REAL. Will these little things save the planet? Not likely. But they might just restore some sanity, some peace, to your life and to the lives of the people around you. In the end, perhaps that's what we most need to do.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Mother's Day tribute: Is there a Hallmark card for a mom who WASN'T my best friend?

For years, the rituals surrounding Mother's Day have driven me to the edge of madness. I was OK with the whole take-her-out-to-brunch thing, though I always prefer to cook at home, but what was I supposed to get as a Mom's Day gift for a woman who is a compulsive hoarder? Maybe a bulldozer? And the expensive floral arrangements just got lost in the other junk. Yet, if I DIDN'T get those things for my mom, I felt guilty. This is What a Loving Daughter Should Do, right?

Don't even get me started about the cards. It's been my annual custom in early May to spend 3 hours in the Hallmark store, looking through every Mother's Day card on the rack, and then looking again, sweating blood because I couldn't find a card that didn't make my internal bull-bleep siren start wailing. "Mom, I'm so glad we're best friends..."  "I've always been able to come to you for advice..."  "You were a great example to me and you still are..."  "You're my hero!"  What in the great big blue sky happened to cards that simply say, "I love you" or "Have a wonderful Mother's Day" or even "You deserve the best on Mother's Day"? In the World According to Hallmark, apparently my mother and I were supposed to be carefree, giggling gal-pals who shopped for prom dresses together and told deep, dark secrets to each other during sleepover nights.

Well, we weren't, and we didn't. It's hard to say this, but my mother wasn't my hero, or my best friend; she wasn't always there for me, and there were many years during which I felt that if she hadn't been my mother, I wouldn't have had anything to do with her. Bless her heart, it wasn't her fault - she had a horrible childhood, a rocky marriage with my father, an early and reclusive widowhood, and just about nobody to model fully functional relationships for her at any time during her life. Despite her god-awful upbringing, she was pretty nurturing when I was little. She was never abusive and I never felt unwanted by her. Maybe just unseen; she was often preoccupied with her own pain. But even after I realized all these things and (mostly) forgave my mother her human failings, I couldn't find it in my soul to pretend, on Mother's Day or any day, that we shared some kind of ideal mom-daughter bond. That might be the feel-good marketing pitch, but it just wasn't true in my case, no matter how much I longed for the myth to be reality. Every year I bought the most noncommittal Mother's Day card I could find, and I soldiered on through the Eggs Benedict and her unwrapping a gift that would never be used, until the day was over and my daughterly duties were discharged. It never felt good and I never knew what to do about it.

Then, in late 2008, my mom had a fast, steep cognitive slide and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My brother lives clear across the country and I moved Mom here from California in 2001 to be geographically near me, so guess what? - TAG, I was It for caregiving. My life changed almost as much as hers did. I went from avoiding visiting or calling her for two weeks at a time (she lives 11 miles from me) to seeing her every couple of days, making sure her needs are being met and taking care of virtually every aspect of her day-to-day living: paying her bills, shopping for her, taking her to medical appointments and hair appointments, doing her nails. Though she's amazingly stable now and her decline is slow, AND she gets competent daily help at her retirement community, she still needs a lot of my time and energy.

So here's the weird thing: even though I don't like giving up so much of my life to see to Mom's care; even though I wish I had uninterrupted time to write, and cook, and garden, and figure out what I want to be when I grow up, this forced shift in my relationship with my mother has been a liberation from all the daughterly angst of the past. What she did or didn't do as a mother, and the kind of mother I wish she had been able to be, is laughably irrelevant. This woman whom I rebelled against, and was embarrassed by, and did not want to be anything like, is like my child now. She depends on me, follows my guidance, looks to me to calm her anxieties, laughs at my jokes, constantly thanks me (she rarely did that before) and tells me she doesn't know what she would do without me. I feel fiercely protective of her even as I roll my eyes about having to go over to her place to feed "her" hummingbirds again, so she won't worry about them. I'm committed to doing everything within my power to ensure that my mother is comfortable and well cared-for until the end. She's STILL not my best friend. But she is important in my life, and I am important in hers.

I guess it's time to get to the point: This post is meant as a tribute to and a virtual hug for children (esp. daughters, because, well, you know how it goes with mothers and daughters, and you know if I'm talking to YOU) whose mothers were/are something like mine: difficult, and not the best role models in the world; needy, and often oblivious to what we needed from them. If your mom's still around, life may change her, but YOU can't. What you can do is figure out what she IS giving you (whether she knows it or not), and what you are able to give her. Don't waste time feeling guilty; that only SEEMS as if you're doing something (you're not). Let the relationship be what it will, learn from it what you can, and don't ever buy into the Mother's Day myth that it has to be ideal. Your mom doesn't have to be your best friend - that's what your best friend is for.

If your mother is not still with us, then let her go gently into that good night. You can be sure you don't know her whole story, just as no one will ever know the whole story of you - we would all be more compassionate with one another if we could know, but it's not possible.

Oh - and if you ARE one of those children whose mom was/is your best friend and your hero, I'm so very happy for you (really). I hope you're on your knees every day in gratitude. Buy those Hallmark cards that I pass up, and give them to your mother.

As for me: though I've never been a biological mother, and I'm old enough for grandmotherhood now, in the past two years my mother has taught me how to care with a mother's relentless love, even when it's hard. Oddly, I'm thankful. Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Potatoes and Life 101

I planted potatoes - oh, must have been 5 or 6 weeks ago. Got good seed potatoes; planted them according to instructions, in the best soil in the garden; watered lightly (the usual Portland late-winter deluge had abated for a few days); kept the bed weeded. Then I waited. And waited. Examined the soil surface almost daily. Nothing showed up. So I waited some more - a lot more - doubt and near despair creeping into all the formerly optimistic corners of my gardener's heart. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. Looked at the calendar. After six weeks it seemed time to surrender to the inevitable: no potatoes this spring.

Went out in the yard two days ago for some non-potato-related reason. Two teeny-tiny potato plants had broken through. Yesterday, one more. I know they're laughing at me. In their potato language (gardeners learn this language by osmosis, through the dirt under their fingernails), they're saying, "You dear foolish thing, sometimes all you can do is WAIT. So go do something else for a while and let us take care of the business of growing."

Sigh. They're right. I'm a product of my good old, all-American, let's-fix-whatever's-wrong culture - such a strength and such a weakness. When things don't follow my timetable, I want to dig around and find the problem and apply some magical elixir that will GET THE PROCESS GOING. But if I'd rooted around in my potato bed, disturbing the little quartered spuds to see why they weren't hurrying to burst through to the light, nothing would ever have come up except muddy potato quarters. 

In the climactic scene of the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," lovers Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet - who have broken up messily, each of whom has attempted to have the other erased from his/her memory, and who have wildly chased each other down through multiple time- and mind-streams after they find they really kinda sorta DO maybe love each other - are on the verge of a final, sad breakup. Clementine walks out of Joel's apartment and down the hall, ready to disappear from Joel's life forever. He steps out the door and shouts, "WAIT!" "What?" she says. Joel, anguished, cries, "Wait...just wait a while."

Clementine and Joel DO wait. They commit to starting again, fears, warts and all. We don't get to see the end of the story - whether the relationship lasts, whether it's good or not, whether these two people are "meant" to be together or whether that even matters. All we know is that they've simply decided things aren't so bad that they can't afford to wait a while to see what might put down roots. They give themselves the time to rediscover what brought them together in the first place.

Hence the Life 101 lesson, in a classroom full of potatoes. Sometimes all you can do is wait, knowing you have done your part: Prepare the soil well, get good seed or strong starts, plant properly, water when necessary but not too much, cultivate to keep weeds from taking over. Your job is to learn the language of what you love, and let the seeds you have planted do what they do best.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sorting through the wedding hoopla - what was the point again?

What do you want to remember most vividly about your wedding day - the ice sculpture, or the ceremony?

WARNING (1): I'm going to engage in some shameless self-promotion. WARNING (2): It will probably take a while to get around to that part.

Think about a wedding ceremony. What part does it play (or did it play) in the experience of your wedding day? The ceremony represents a small fraction of the entire time spent preparing for and celebrating your marriage, and a smaller fraction of the overall cost of the wedding - but it's what MAKES you married. Without the ceremony, you're just throwing a big, expensive party. This is the moment you get to say that your love is special, and why. This is the moment you get to claim that you have what it takes to make your relationship work for a lifetime. This is the moment you get to thank the people who helped make you the person you are: an adult who is able and willing to commit to loving another adult, what Rilke calls "perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation." Wow. Perhaps this is a bigger deal than we sometimes acknowledge.

So do you want that ceremony to be boilerplate text that says nothing meaningful or memorable to you or your guests, nothing significant about you or your spouse-to-be? Do you want the person conducting the ceremony to waltz in as a complete stranger and mumble the same old same old in a sleep-inducing monotone? Do you want to feel as if your ceremony came out of a vending machine that dispenses countless copies of the same thing to anyone who has the right change?

I didn't think so.

I know that weddings aren't inexpensive, and that lots of individuals are struggling with their budgets in these gloomy economic times. Couples planning their weddings are being far more careful about how they spend their money, trimming back on all the extras and being pretty tight-fisted about the "gotta haves" as well. The wedding industry, of which I am arguably a (small) part, is feeling the pinch, too. My little secret, for which I probably need to apologize in advance to every wedding vendor within 500 miles, is that I'm not all that sorry for the pullback by couples planning a wedding or commitment ceremony. I think it's healthy for couples, healthy for the industry and healthy for our culture as a whole to stop pushing weddings as lavish as Broadway productions. Oh, and don't forget the cost of the honeymoon, the bridal shower, the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the spa visit,  the rehearsal dinner, and so it goes, ka-ching, ka-ching. Ouch! - did I say that? Afraid I did.

Well, look - in practical terms, drowning in debt and financial troubles, even when the party was great, is no way to start a marriage. Believe it or not (and I do), more marriages break up over financial conflict than over sex or just about anything else. Why would you want to start your married life trying to scale a mountain of bills from your wedding? Even if someone else, say, Mom and/or Dad, is paying the tab - ESPECIALLY if someone else is paying the tab - being a grownup means not taking advantage of the generosity of those who love you. And if you're paying for the festivities yourself, you know there are always a thousand other financial priorities clamoring for your attention. There's no time like the present to learn the discipline of staying within a workable budget.

Beyond the financial aspect, larger-than-life weddings can take a subtle spiritual and psychological toll on the participants and guests alike. The glitz-and-glam trappings tend to distract from the underlying meaning of the event. They're designed to impress people but not necessarily to reach them where they live. When those fun and pretty extras are marketed to us as necessities, yet we know we can't afford them, we tend to start thinking of ourselves as deprived. The next step is to start thinking of ourselves as entitled. That's when we're vulnerable to whipping out the credit card so we can have the same things "everybody else" has. Including crushing debt.

Don't get me wrong: if your heart's desire is a big, pull-out-all-the-stops, glamorous wedding and you can afford it; if it's meaningful to you and will bring you joyful memories throughout your married life, by all means, go for it. Just don't let wedding industry marketing make you feel as if you aren't having a "real" wedding if you don't pay for ice sculptures, a chocolate fountain, a caterer who puts four-star restaurants to shame, and a tightrope walker teetering overhead at the reception dinner, playing the violin above the guests' Chicken Kiev. The steadfastness of your marital relationship is not measured by the dollars spent on special effects.

With all these warnings to be cautious, thrifty and mature about the scope of weddings, where did my warning about "shameless self-promotion" go? I guess, now that I get to it, I don't want to self-promote as much as I want to promote the ceremony - to a somewhat higher rung on the planning ladder than where it's traditionally been. When you plan a wedding, think carefully about what will create the most joy on the day of your marriage and the most lasting memories for the future. The ice sculpture or the photos? The catering or the flowers? The shoes you'll wear once or the smile you'll wear for weeks as you remember the vows you wrote yourself and exchanged with your dearest and only one?

I hope you'll consider that the ceremony is the beating heart of the whole day. The words you say matter. The words the officiant says matter, and the WAY they are said matters, too. Years after your wedding, you may remember nothing about the food, little about the decorations, and your memory of the shoes may involve only how much they hurt your feet. But you will remember the ceremony - the solemn, holy feeling of that moment suspended in time; the joy of sharing it with your family and friends; the sense that the words said belonged to you and your partner alone.

As for my attempt at self-promotion? Pfffft. Let it go - I never was any good at that stuff. Of course I'd love to have you come talk to me about your wedding; I know what I'm able to do for you and I'm more than pleased to do it. But many other officiants can do wonderful things, too. I'm asking only that you give the choice of your officiant, and planning your ceremony, equal time with planning for flowers and photos and food (and equal consideration in your budget). Make the effort to find the right officiant, one you trust and whose approach serves your needs. Your officiant is the one who escorts you to that doorway which only the two of you can pass through: the land not just of generic marriage, but of YOUR marriage. That's too important a role to entrust to someone who doesn't appreciate the uniqueness of your relationship and the sacredness of the path you've chosen to walk together.

Many blessings and much joy to you! - Diane

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Daughter of Quiet

In my last post I talked about a specific kind of quiet: an internally-generated moment of repose which can be triggered in myriad ways. But I didn't cover WHY that kind of quiet is important and what's born out of it. First, a bit of background:

Being a highly social species, most of us homo sapiens want to feel we belong to one or more communities, and the communities we participate in to get that sense of belonging are usually composed of other people - biological or extended family, neighborhoods, churches, political groups, schools and so forth. These interconnections with one or more other humans are satisfying and rich - also (sometimes) difficult, frustrating, puzzling and occasionally just plain tiring. The effort they take isn't a bad thing: it can be compared to the effort of working your muscles hard at the gym, after which your body needs to restore itself to complete the process of getting better at doing what you ask of it. Similarly, we work hard at forging the necessary bonds in human relationships, creating a lot of internal noise in the process - What does he think of me? Why did she just say that? Did I hurt his feelings? I like her but I can't stand him... Our chattering minds and unsettled hearts need an occasional rest, to get better at doing what we ask of them.

The self-generated quiet I wrote of earlier takes us to a place where we can rest mind and heart for a moment, unencumbered by the "noise" of striving to achieve some goal. And from that place of quiet emerges - possibly, sometimes, no guarantees in this life - a different kind of relationship and belonging from that which we experience with other people: a connection with the immensity of existence. Virtually every religion and wisdom tradition, whether Western, Eastern or indigenous, has practices that claim to induce this transcendent experience, but many of us have shied away from those practices because we feel they're associated with belief systems or dogma we can't subscribe to. Uh-uh; I don't buy it. The belief system, the dogma, is only a model some people use to explain to themselves a mystery that is essentially beyond words. The experience of inner quiet is the doorway into the mystery (sometimes open, sometimes shut). The practice is the bicycle - or maybe the unicycle - we ride through the door (no helmets needed or allowed).

So what DOES happen in that instant of quiet and connection? I can only speak to my own experience, but perhaps it will serve. Let's go back to my example of brushing my hand over that large rock every day when I walk at the mall (yes, darn it, you'll have to read the previous post). When I engage in that practice, here's what it seems like to me - in a kind of analytical "slow motion" deconstruction of an instantaneous event: The first part of the encounter is sensory. I respond to the rock visually as I approach - see the beauty in its solid presence, recognize its familiar, varicolored markings, its irregular shape, the flecks of mica that sparkle in the overhead light. I greet the rock as I come near (non-verbally, so as not to startle other mall walkers who don't habitually talk to rocks). I brush my hand over it as I pass. Touching its sandpapery, hard surface, I get a sense of its age and the deep roots of stone out of which it was pried. It feels patient. I take a deep breath.

The second phase of the encounter is entirely - spiritual? Psychological? Emotional? (Ah, well, often all those roads lead to the same place.)  At the risk of sounding painfully New Age-ish, I believe that every time I touch that rock I reaffirm what I can only call a relationship - better yet, a kinship - with it. Without any intellectual effort, in a flash of perception, I know that my existence and the existence of the rock are both contained within and nurtured by the life of the earth. And the existence of the earth is contained within and nurtured by - indeed, was born from - the heat and heart of stars in an unimaginably immense universe. In this moment, I feel very much smaller, but my life feels very big. And very connected. To everything. Often I bring this awareness of participating in the immensity of things back to my "ordinary" day. It's great for perspective when being human gets tough.

The most wondrous part of this capability, I think, is that we can enter into this relationship with the mystery of existence through that most corporeal of pathways: our senses. By seeing, touching, listening, smelling and/or tasting - by paying rapt attention to the world - we transcend the limitations of this package of skin, bones and neural synapses that each of us calls "me."  We belong to the entire universe.

Try it. Try really seeing light dancing on the river's surface or the spider building its web. Try really hearing a birdsong or the wind roaring through treetops. Taste your food. Touch the bark of a tree. Smell the night air. Watch the stars. Let them tell you what's really going on. And find your place in the interconnected world of what Taoism calls "the ten thousand things" - that is, all of existence, from sawgrass to supernovas.

Every time the daughter of quiet is born, catch her in your arms and rock her as if she were your own. She is.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Quiet, please - expansion in progress

It's not a quiet world out there. The television shouts; our electronic babysitters incessantly nag with calls, emails, texts and tweets; traffic whizzes by, and in the midst of all this cacophony we expect - and are expected by others - to multitask as if there was an entire committee living in our heads (yet most of us know, to our sorrow, how well things get done by committee). But that's just the way the world is these days, right?

Well, I don't know. Seems to me there is some choice about how we experience the world, a choice that's independent of being able to control rush hour and modern technology and what your boss expects you to deliver before five o'clock. Because there's a world inside us, too, devoid of committees, traffic, electronics, the constant pressure to Get Things Done. You can visit there for a month of internal vacation in a split second of "outside time." And it's an expansive world that gets bigger every time you visit. The ticket to that world can be purchased with two things: quiet, and its daughter, connection.

WHAT? Didn't I just say it wasn't a quiet world out there? Yes (I never promised not to contradict myself). "Quiet" doesn't mean everybody else has to shut up. It means YOU have to. For one second, one minute, one hour or whatever span you choose (or that chooses you), you can opt out of focusing on all the things you've been trained to think are important. Really. The world isn't going to end if all you are doing for the next few moments is breathing. In fact, it's probably beneficial to the planet if that's all you do from time to time.

Since this quiet is generated through you and not outside you, it comes in different flavors. You might get quiet in the middle of that booming traffic, or in a grove of trees by a pond. You might even get quiet while you are singing or dancing, or riding a bicycle. By taking a deep breath. By smiling at a child, praying, meditating, looking at a candle flame or across a mountain valley at Douglas firs roaring in the wind. There are a zillion possible paths that can lead you to that place where you set aside - for a moment, anyway - your high-functioning, complex and very self-important brain/ego. The point is that the quiet I'm talking about is an internal stance, an opportunity you give yourself to let everything else fall away other than this huge, amazing miracle of simply BEING A LIFE.

I'll reveal one of my triggers for internal quiet because it's deliciously silly, it came to me unbidden, and it perfectly illustrates the process I just mentioned. Five mornings a week I walk, usually at the local mall because it's safer than my sidewalk-less neighborhood, and dry any time of the year. I'm not thrilled at sharing my early-morning space with chattering people and glaring retail signs. But. On every early-morning circuit around the mall I pass a day spa that has a big, beautiful boulder sitting outside the closed doors, a gorgeous yellow-orangeish stone with purple patches and dark veins running through it. One morning, for no particular reason except perhaps the wish to touch an object not created by humans looking to market something,  I reached out and lightly brushed the surface of the rock on my way past it. I think I may have even whispered to the rock, "Good morning." BOOM! - A sense of transcendent peace permeated me. Go figure. Now, every time I walk by that rock I brush my hand over it in gratitude and greeting. And every time I touch it I am unaccountably blessed with a moment, sometimes more, of inner, complete quiet. My life expands at the same time my ego steps out for a cup of coffee.

Is this daily caress of a rock merely a superstitious ritual, a meaningless gesture? Perhaps, on one level. So is - on one level - crossing oneself, or visiting your grandmother's grave, or always staying in the same cabin at that funky little riverside resort you've gone to since you were a kid. Yet, on another level, even the most rational human has to admit that these rituals do something for us, or to us. Whether the effect is psychological, spiritual, emotional - choose your preference - they quiet us. And in that quiet we find...well, I've gone on long enough and I'll talk about connection on the next post. Time to get quiet.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why am I here?

Many people find a measure of comfort in the belief that life has intrinsic meaning, that there is a "plan" for each of us. That's understandable. After all, if we're not here for some identifiable reason, then we must be here for no reason, right? And from that premise it follows that if there is no reason for our existence, there can be no purpose to our lives, either.

Faulty logic, I think. That view dumps us into a tight crevasse between conventional religious belief and conventional non-belief: it's all God the Interventionist or it's all random chance. Neither of those explanations ever entirely satisfied me, so some years ago I began exploring this idea: What if the purpose of our existence - through whatever means that purpose arises - is to MAKE meaning? It's one of the things we humans seem to do best. We're makers and shapers, not just with our hands but with our minds and hearts. We take random, everyday events and order them by the calendar, by seasons, by stages of life, by astrological sign, by who we happened to meet on the street corner this morning - and in that ordering we create mileposts. Significance. Relationships. Art. Memories. The story of our lives. The feeling of belonging to something vast and beautiful.

One of the ways we make meaning is through ritual (or ceremony, if you will). When we welcome a child into the world through ceremony, we symbolically give the child to Life and claim the baby's vital importance to her family and to the earth. Who knows what gifts that new human creature will bring to her world? When a wedding takes place, we celebrate the magic of bringing together into one family, through love, a group of people who were once strangers to one another. We have voluntarily extended our notion of who we are obligated to care about. When we gather for a funeral or remembrance ceremony, we not only ease our loss through being in community, but we ritually usher the loved one who has died into the new status of "ancestor." He or she has become part of a family story that reaches back countless generations, into a history lost to us. All of these rituals tie us to each other, to our home the earth and to its creatures, to the long life of the universe and, for some, to a spirit they know as "God" (or any of a thousand sacred names).

So why am I here? Because I love the making of meaning through ritual: the peace and pause it brings into our busy lives, the stories it generates, the unguarded laughter and tears that spring from what it opens up in us. I love the possibilities of joy. I love guiding people to the mirror, to face their own creativity and make their own meaning. I love stories - telling them and hearing them - and I want you to share yours with me.

Why are YOU here?