Thursday, December 25, 2014
I often allow myself to believe that if I were not Molly's mom, I'd be living a different life in a different place. I do not know exactly where and what that life would look like, except that I know there would be mountains or beaches or canyons or wilderness, or a million other landscapes other than that of the Midwest, the prairie.
Today, I had the great idea of asking Molly if she would ever consider living somewhere other than Ames, Iowa. Somewhere that she would not have to deal with winter. "Yes!" she responded enthusiastically. I could feel the seeds of my daydreams stirring. If you can dream it, you can do it, has been my motto since I quit my full-time job last summer. Maybe my life is not done transforming, I allowed myself to think.
"Really," I said as nonchalantly as possible. "So you'd maybe like to live in Arizona or New Mexico?" I thought I'd start with the places I wanted to live, places I think of as spiritual and mystical, places that would foster creativity. Before I could offer Oregon or South Carolina, she responded.
"Not that far," she said in a voice filled with concern.
"So, how far would you like to go?" I asked, hoping for something further south than Des Moines or Omaha.
"Well, I would like to live in San Francisco," came her quick reply.
San Francisco? What did she know of San Francisco? Did she know how expensive it is to live in the bay area? Now I was feeling anxious. I needed to redirect, to make San Francisco sound uninviting.
"Hmm, let me see," I said, trying to sound like I was honestly pondering her suggestion. "You know," I said in a tone that I felt conveyed honest concern for her well-being, "it's really rainy and chilly there every winter. The sun doesn't shine very often." I continued, "they have earth quakes in San Francisco. Have you ever been in an earth quake?" Her silence paired with a scowl told me that I'd been busted - she knew I was trying to get her to choose one of my choices.
As usually happens with Molly, her body language and facial expressions remind me when I am being manipulative. The developmental delays her Down Syndrome incurs in some areas of her understanding, do not effect her ability to recognize my BS. I checked my motivations, let go of my need to control the conversation, and responded as I should have in the first place. "What do you think you'd like about San Francisco?" I asked.
I thought she'd tell me that she wanted to live where the Tanner family, of "Full House" fame, lived. Instead, she told me she would only move away from Ames if she could live by the charmed ones. The remainder of the ten minute drive to McFarland Conservation Park was spent with each of us trying to convince the other that our version of the truth, as it applied to the three sisters in the early 2000's television series "Charmed", was correct. We both cited what we knew - me science, she the fan sites for "Charmed" on the web.
As I stopped the car in the lot at at the park, Molly opened her door, got out, turned and looked at me and said, "Let's just stay in Ames." She then slammed the door and headed up the trail to the bird blind.
"Let's," I said disappointed, defeated, and relieved all at once. I easily caught up with Molly. I put my arm around her shoulders and said, "Let's. Let's just stay in Ames."
"I like that," she said as she allowed me to hold her hand. The rest of the way to bird blind we were silent, other than the labored breaths necessary to propel our too round bodies up the slight incline and through the chill of Christmas Day. We fed the birds seeds and suet as a couple waited in the bird blind for the birds to come feed at dusk.
Molly took a head start back to the car as I put away the bird feeding supplies. She was eager to go eat pizza, I was longing to stay and watch the sun set. At one point, as she walked ahead of me, she was holding her arms out, shoulder height. From my vantage point several yards behind, she looked like an anchor. My Prairie Anchor. She is what keeps my life's ship from drifting away from Ames, from the Midwest. As I walked behind Molly I noticed, and photographed, one of the most stunning Iowa sunsets I have seen. With each click of the shutter, I could feel my wanderlust wane and my contentment with this place, with this moment, multiply.
McFarland Park, Story County Iowa
Reward for the hike in the woods . . . Christmas Dinner at Pizza Ranch in Ames, Iowa
Saturday, December 20, 2014
In these dark days
We remember that the
Light is within us.
In these dark days
With all of Nature.
This Yule, as I am observing the gifts I am about to wrap for my family and friends, I realize that the concept of *hygge, an idea that I learned about so many years ago, may finally be a fully integrated part of my **spiritual biome. I am far more excited about being with my family - eating good food, reading to my grandchildren, playing games, discussing what matters in life, going for winter walks, helping with the chores on my sister's farm, convincing my granddaughter's it's time to sleep even when we are giggling so hard we can not breathe, napping - than any gift I am giving or anticipate receiving.
This year our family agreed to exchange gifts that are either handmade, re-used/re-purposed, a service, an item from a local merchant or artisan, or something of that nature. The perimeters set us up to expect that no one is getting a new car with a bow on top or the latest electronic gadget or game. In past years, my desire to find the right "thing" for everyone, was conflicted when supporting the financial and emotional hysteria of rampent consumerism and eco-unfriendly buying. With each credit card swipe I felt a storm of difficult emotions raining down on me.
I realize that all my adult years I have been in charge of how I handle the holidays; what I buy and for whom, what I expect from others. But, I am pretty weak when it comes to buying into the dream that the perfect gift can bring hapiness (healing, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. etc.) to giver and receiver. It is difficult to pass up the opportunity to buy tickets to the "I Can Make the Holidays Perfect for Everyone" show that comes to town each December.
For me, some of the darkness of this time of year is delivered to me via nightmarish memories of my family's "last chance of the year" to show me how much you love me, disguised as celebrating a Savior's birth. Often, poor communication, self-important assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and hollow promises and hopes - on my part and on the part of the other adults in my life - brought anxiety, disappointment, and sadness that lived on long after the last gift was broken, returned, or ignored.
This is a hard time for me, for many of us. May we embrace the dark of the Solstice both symbolically and physically, readying ourselves for whatever may come our way for the rest of this year. Remember to breathe and keep expectations real. If you can, look past actions of those you are with (and your own actions) to see that most intentions are to bring happiness and light into the world. That's my plan - a little hygge with a side of peaceful spiritual biome.
Embrace the darkness for a few days . . .
*hygge - a feeling of contentment, coziness, safety. It is a Scandinavian word that defies translation into English. I equate it with a feeling of oneness with all the Universe. In Scandinavian countries there is good food, candlelight, and being with loved ones is associated with hygge as well.
*spiritual biome - this is, as far as I know, my use of a microbiological term as a metaphor to explain the connection between emotions, thouhts, actions and well-being. My spiritual biome consists of my diverse mental, emotional, and physical systems - guilt, expectations, influence, self-compassion, empathy, eco-activism, family, acceptance, love, etc. - that have adapted to the changes in my thoughts and actions over th years, therefore slowly changing my interior environment.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Why Suffer Twice?
I have an amazing life these days. Writing, creating art, and helping people sort out and move away all sorts of things in their lives that prevent them from doing what they want to do and being who they want to be. I call myself, formally, a spiritual director or spiritual companion. But, what that really means is, I help people think about their life, I try to keep them in the present moment, and figure out what they need to do to let go of old ideas and objects in order to move into a future that is open to simplier, and more meaningful interactions.
Blah, blah, blah you say. I will admit, there can be a lot of conversation, a lot of words involved in the process of finding out how one wants to live life. Mostly though, I am a listener. And questioner. I listen to stories and ask questions like, "How does a basement full of memorabelia and antiquities from projects imagined but not finished (or even started) move you closer to the life you want to be living right now?" or "Where does the anger you have for (that person) interfere with how you want to feel today? How can that anger be expressed in ways that are construtive to you and your life's plan?"
What I find is, people always know the answers to my questions. They may begin with an "I don't know" or they may begin telling me intricate details of the vision they have for the $4000 worth of stained glass they've collected from old churches. But eventully, they come to the realization that these things are most often distractions, tools used for preventing them from acurately assessing and honestly acknowledging the life they are living.
Some people are able to re-focus and re-energize their plans for the things they've accumulated, but most discover that they really only need one or two model trains instead of twenty, that they will concentrate on making watercolor paintings rather than watercolors, oil, acrylic, pottery, fiber arts, and woodworking. Most of the people I work with become a bit resentful of the things they've accumulated. They resent that they "had" to substitute things in their lives, when what they really wanted was to be valued, loved, listened to.
I was recently working with an 85 year old woman who struggles to let go of things she does not need. She struggles to pass up good deals on things that may come in handy one day. Her children resent that they have to periodically remove enough "stuff" so she can live safely in her house. Now that she needs to go to an apartment for safety reasons, I was asked to come in and help her figure out what she needs in her new space and what to do with the things she does not need.
We started slowly, getting used to the idea of not taking everything with her. We were talking about what clothing could be donated, thrown away, or saved when she picked up a brand new coat with the price tag still on it. She looked at it, sighed, and threw it toward the donate pile. "Why suffer twice?" she said as it landed on the pile.
"What do you mean?" I asked her.
"Well, I kicked myself when I got that thing home. It was on sale, but it never fit and it's way to red for an old lady to wear. I should have taken it back a long time ago, I should have," she sighed. "The decision to buy that coat has caused enough suffering, it's time to let it go."
"What a great philosophy," I said. "No need to suffer repeatedly."
"Exactly," she agreed. "In a year, I'll never remember I even bought it." And just like that, she let the coat, the coat with the price tag on it, fall out of her life.
"Why suffer twice?" This has become a mantra of sorts for me. Often, when I come home from my work of helping others purge and organize their possessions, I'll look around and see something I can toss or give away. There is much freedom and peace in accepting a bad decision, a impulsive purchase, then letting it go. And sometimes - those bad decisions make great gifts for other people. In releasing them, space is cleared in my home and in my heart.
Saturday, December 6, 2014
I AM AN ARTIST
For the past nine months I've rented studio space at CASA (Creative Artists Studios of Ames). I was not sure exactly why, other than to get my "arts and crafts" supplies out of my apartment's spare closet. And to be truthful, I love to imagine people seeing my stories represented in visual expressions as well as words. Now, today, I finally have enough work to put in the CASA Holiday Sale.
Like all the other artists, this morning I took my place behind a table, looking as pleasant and artist-y as I could, offering explanations to the questions browsers asked their companions. "I wonder where the jewelry come from? Or if they're old?" asked one looker to her friend. "Is this painted or quilted?" another whispered to her friend.
After about an hour, I jumped in to the conversations, uninvited, and said, "I collect vintage and precious metal costume jewelry. I imagine stories that might belong with the pieces," I continued. "Like that black enamel heart," I motioned to the shadow box with Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding an embroidry floss braided rope that is dragging a heart-shaped piece of holstein cow fabric. "I imagine that this brooch would be worn by someone who has had a bit of bad luck in the love department." I was pretty proud of myself for trying to invent a quirky story to go with the piece. Kind of like my life. Invent something other than the truth.
I refrained from sharing my very personal, but true, story of having a dairy farmer father - hence the holstein cows - who sexually abused me as a child. I held back how that experience has cast a black pall over my ability to have a normal relationship - hence, the black heart. The black heart brooch over the holstein cows sums up what happened to me. I did not tell them the truth about the piece they were admiring. Like so many other times when dealing with the incest, I lightened the dark reality sewn into that piece of art into to a story that was quirky and fun, but a lie. I wonder, is there a disclaimer I need to make to potential buyers? I can't imagine saying, "That piece deals with my experience of incest. I'm all better now, have processed that whole unfortunate part of my life, but the experience still works it's way into my art, my writing, and the way I view the world - sometimes." Perhaps those browsers read my mind. They smiled awkwardly and moved on to the the pottery table.
Sometime later another person looked at the BVM piece and said, "Oh! Look at this!" And the man with her replied, "The blessed virgin. You love anything with Mary on it. Do you want it?" A short discussion ensued that ended with their purchase of a representation of a very dark part of my life. The few words I said during the transaction process were, "Cash? Check? Credit Card? and Thank you so much!"
As I watched them walk away with the art, imagining where it would go and how they would present it to their friends, I felt a piece of me walking away with them. And it felt good. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, those nice people can hold a bit of that very heavy part of my life.
I learned a lot about art today. Well, my relationship with art, to be more specific. The pieces I make are small parts of me. I am painted, stitched, beaded and glued into my art. Even though it now belongs to someone else, it will always truly be mine. Its energy and image will always reside with me. If I remain open, I believe the positive energy and love the new owners are infusing into the piece will find its way back to me - just like sunshine, or rain, or oxygen.
So, thanks, buyers, for taking my art into your life. I am already feeling your healing energy in my imagination. Your love and joy for Mary is more transformative and transcendant than you'll ever know. Now, back to work . . . . I have two more black heart brooches that need transforming.
I send black hearts with
Anyone who will take them.
They return transformed .
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
|St. Meinrad Cathedral|
Brother Martin (© Lori Allen)
“A camel is a horse designed by committee.” ~ attributed to Vogue magazine in 1958; to Sir Alec Issigonis; to Lester Hunt
Only three weeks before I formally ended my Unitarian Universalist religious educator career, I attended an “Art as a Window to the Soul” retreat at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. This was the second time I’d attended this retreat, and I was hoping for the inspiration and direction I’d experienced at the same retreat a few year earlier. Br. Martin and Br. Michael led the retreats, inspired and informed by their artist lives and their religious vocations. Retreat participants were encouraged to listen, reflect, rest, create, and participate in the ritualistic rhythms of monastery life.
Along with the things we all pack for a vacation, I brought the baggage of the last few years of my religious education work. That baggage was filled with feelings that my leadership was not valued and a questioning deep inside me that would not stop asking, “what happened?”
Mid-week, Br. Martin invited me to his stained glass studio on the monastery grounds. For people who make retreats at St. Meinrad, an invitation for a private tour of Br. Martin’s hermitage studio is akin to a Lebron James fan being invited to stop by the James house for a beer after the game. I would have liked to have time to change clothes, get my camera, put on lip gloss . . . but instead Br. Martin held the door of the retreat house open and motioned me out ahead of him. As we began the half mile walk to the studio we exchanged the usual pleasantries about the weather and the beauty of the renovated buildings on campus. These exchanges were followed by a silence interrupted only by our breathing and the sound of a distant hawk. Finally Br. Martin broke the silence. “I wanted to have a chance to check in with you, Lori. There’s a seriousness about you that’s different from the last time you were here,” he said in a voice that said he knew my heaviness but was not afraid to learn more about it.
“I’m a f-ing mess!” I said only to myself. Out loud, to Br. Martin I said, “Huh, oh, yeah I, ah, hmm.” He turned his head and looked at me and smiled.
“You don’t need to explain,” he said. “I just wanted you to know I noticed.” We walked in silence a few more paces. “And I can help hold those things while you’re here.”
For the first time ever, I allowed my sadness about leaving my work to be transformed from constant conversations in my mind into tears that flowed quietly down my cheeks, hitting the ground or evaporating, as we walked around the edge of the rural monastery campus. My tears explained everything to Br. Martin, his silence was his affirmation that he cared and understood. Eventually we came to his small studio. When I stepped through the door I was greeted with the soothing medicine of his creative space. My gaze scanned and collected images of glass samples from the glass factory in St. Louis, the wall where he projects the final images of each stained glass pane, the work table with sketches strewn about, the chair where he sits to read and draw, the shelves filled with books, dust, and his other creative pursuit – pottery. I was envious of the space and his ability to make a living as an artist.
“Would you like to see some of my finished pieces?” he asked after explaining the stained glass process and some of the tools of the craft. My face revealed my response. The space was so small that he only had to take one step to the architectural drawings cabinet to carefully remove the matted watercolor paintings preserved with plastic shrink wrap. He leaned over to place the paintings on the work table in stacks. I helped him hold them up as he explained each painting. He knew by memory which building in which location held his art. He also remembered the dimensions of each window, what side of the building, and what room of the building the windows were installed in.
“These are the seven windows that I did for an Episcopal church. It’s the six sacred sacraments with the middle frame depicting Christ as the center of the sacraments.” We laid that painting face down on the table to reveal the next one. “This is more representational. The blue glass with red highlights was installed on the east, the red glass with blue highlights for the west, the setting sun.” We laid that painting face down, then the next and the next.
When we’d seen at least twenty paintings of his windows, I asked, “So, do you prepare a few drawings for each group? Do they vote on their favorite?”
Br. Martin’s attention shifted from the paintings to me. His persona changed from modest artist to mortified monk. “Hell no!” His answer sent me back one small step. I held my breath as my heart fell down out of my chest and into my gut. His wide eyes met my wide eyes. After what seemed like an eternity, his horror of hearing my question melted into a smile. “Oooh noooo. I learned loooong ago. There are some things that you cannot do by committee.” He took a deep breath, shook his head, then did a hand plant on his forehead. “My first commissioned piece, I took two drawings that I thought represented what the congregation said they wanted. Here sit down, this is a long story.” He motioned for me to sit in his chair as he set down the rest of the paintings on the work table. He pulled out a stool from under the table for himself and continued, “The aesthetics committee, the board of trustees, the minister, the capitol campaign committee for the windows, and some major donors met with me to look at my drawings. For about two hours they hovered over them making comments like – “can you use the color from this drawing in that drawing?” “Can you combine the tree in the first pane with Christ in the second?” “I’d like to see this done with birds added to symbolize our key donors.” The suggestions were endless. I sat there with my yellow legal pad making notes and rough drawings – trying to capture the ideas and desires of every person in the room.”
I could feel the anxiety and uncertainty he’d experienced during that time as he dove deeper into his story. He explained that even though he had advanced degrees in art and had worked with a professional artist as an apprentice, he’d turned over control of the project to people who only “know what they like when they see it.” He’d allowed this group to claim the same authority as himself, the artist. He personalized the committee’s comments as critique for his drawings and attempted to make every detail appeal to every person. He took his designs and reworked them according to the suggestions. When he returned, it was the same experience with new suggestions for the new designs. The third meeting was filled with even more disappointment, including sketches made by the children in the congregation that he was to try replicating. Br. Martin withdrew as the artist after that third meeting. The committees designed their own windows and asked him to build them. He declined.
“I’ve learned in my work that it’s the artist’s job to listen deeply to the ideas and visions of the commissioners of the piece before beginning initial drawings. Before I even agree to begin the process I let them know I will have one design for them to vote up or down. If they vote my design down, they can tell me what they like and don’t like about the design and I’ll make a second design. Again, a vote up or down is taken on the design, no changes. If, after two attempts, they don’t like my work, I bow out of the project. I work hard not to take things personally.”
“How many times have you had to bow out of a project?” I asked.
“Hmm. I’ve been doing this for about thirty-five years, all these are finished projects” he said as his hand swept over the paintings on the work table. “Other than the first disaster, once. There was one time. I have found that people really appreciate when you are confident in your work, and when you set clear boundaries and let the work speak for itself.”
I could feel the synapses in my brain speed up and connect as he finished his story. That “what happened?” question I’d been asking myself about my religious education work was being answered in the story of his stained glass art process. In the past years, in a congregation where many members yearned to see themselves as relevant and important in the ministry process, I’d lost my confidence. I had allowed myself to become the Br. Martin with the yellow legal pad, writing down notes as committees picked apart my recommendations or presentations for programming. It was apparent in the different groups I worked with, which ones were looking to me for leadership in going forward with programming that was relevant and accessible to their lives as they searched for connections that fostered spiritual growth, and which ones were looking to me to re-create the peak experiences of their pasts. Those who were obsessed with re-creating the past busied themselves creating and revising policies and procedures that assured the status quo.
When, and how, did I transition from confident religious educator to placating program administrator, I wondered? I suspect, no I know, that transition happened as I realized my offering “thumbs up or down” options for programs and administration might end my employment with that community. It happened when I begin helping create the rules and policies that ensured things would always be the same. It happened when I believed, as did some congregants, that I was a peer in the community rather than a leader. “What happened” took several years to manifest, but I recognized it in the instant Br. Martin told me his story.
At the end of the week Br. Martin and Br. Michael drove me to the airport in Br. Martin’s pick-up truck. It was a jovial ride filled with sharing our experiences of religious work. At one point between one story followed by laughter and another, Br. Martin got serious for a moment. He took his eyes off the road to make eye contact with me and ask, “what’s changed with you? You don’t seem like the same person who was in my studio four days ago.”
“Oh my god,” I laughed as his gaze returned to the road ahead, “after visiting your studio, I went back to my room and destroyed all my yellow legal pads!”
From the back seat, Br. Michael leaned forward and chided, “Martin. You told her that story?” Br. Martin could not answer because he was laughing so hard. We were all laughing so hard. Yeah, he told me that story. And now I’m telling it to you.
· How do you claim your power in areas where you have expertise?
· Can you present your work, unapologetically, to those who have given you a task?
· Are there areas in your life where you need to re-claim your authority? How will you do that?
· As you meditate today, see yourself observing others review your work –a report, a presentation, a piece of art, a clean room, a fed child - whatever you do. See yourself letting all comments go in and out of your awareness without judgment or concern. Answer the questions they may have. Now look again at that work that the others have reviewed. Do you embrace it? Do you decide to start over? How do you feel about your decision? How has this story and exercise effected the way you will address your next project?