Friday, May 29, 2015

Ours Is A Family That Can Never See The Stars Come Out At Night . . .


Our yearning for what
we can not see is soothed by
our remembering.

The musings from the booster seat in back on the passenger side came out as words far beyond her usual language or understanding.  As she looked out the car window on the ride home from softball she said softly, "Ours is a family that can never see the stars come out at night."  This was followed by a sigh that was audible over NPR's low drone on the radio.  

She, her sister, and I rode in silence after her profound statement.  It seemed like such a large statement for such a small person.  The words were so sad, like a foreshadowing first line in a novel.  What would we learn about this family that would never see the stars come out.  I reached over and turned the radio off, eager to hear the words that she might utter next.  

I glanced at her in the rear view mirror.  She was gazing out her window, looking at the sky through the filter of the small town scenery that we were driving through.  A gas station, the bank, a box store, and some fast food places.  Her usual comments about letters and words and wondering if we could "go there" were absent.   There was a look of melancholic resignation in her gaze.  Then another loud sigh.  

My first reactions were to throw out some fix-its to her.  I wanted to ask her why her family could never see the stars come out.  Or worse yet, I wanted to alter her reality and tell her all the ways her family probably had and could continue to see the stars come out at night.  But her tiny body was emitting the most amazing acceptance of this sadness.  There was a sacredness in simply being in her presence.  It was too sacred to correct with adult interference.  Another loud sigh.  

Suddenly, her older sister who'd been a silent holder of the statement as well, piped up,  "That's right! We go too bed too early to see the stars come out in summer.  But next winter, we'll see 'em again when we're eating supper!"

My laughter became the tenor for their chorus of high pitched cheers for the cycle of the seasons.  As calm and order settled back into the car I said, "Isn't it amazing how the Universe works?"  More cheers rose from the backseat, intermingled with each of us calling out our favorite planets, and constellations, and seasons.  

"Let's celebrate," suggested the older, more sage sibling, "with frozen yogurt!"  There was no pause for approval of the plan. Instead, more cheers followed, this time intermingled with calling out our favorite toppings and our hopes for the day's flavors.

As we walked across the parking lot of the local frozen yogurt shop, I did a quick scan of the turquoise sky for a star.  I came up empty.  No matter, I carry all the brilliance of the Universe in small seats in the back of my car.

(My early years in rural South Dakota gave me many opportunities to view the stars.  I love the time-lapse photography of Randy Halverson, a farmer from Kennebec, South Dakota.  His video at the top of this log reminds me of those times.)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Golden Boats

Karma's golden boat 
will carry you through cycles
of rebirth to peace.

Jesus looks as mystified to hear this truth as I am.  Ever since I've known of the concept of Karma, I've had an idea that it was not necessarily something to love and embrace, but rather something that would come up and bite you in the butt.  More succinctly, Karma's a bitch, right?  I'm familiar with Karmic backlash as a tired plot in every movie.  Is there a time when the antagonist does not get their come-uppance in any story?

When previously pondering Karma, I'd think of the robber who leaves her wallet at the scene; the bully who falls off the slide and breaks his arm as he's taunting little kids; the anti-drug motivational speaker who is arrested for dealing drugs.  I will also admit I've had my own dysfunctional relationship with Karma when I bargain with myself - just one more game of Candy Crush  . . . . I'll be plenty rested with four hours of sleep.  Right? 

Now, my own interpretation of Karma has been replaced by the Buddha's teachings on Karma.  He said  Karma will be the Golden Boat that will carry you over all the cycles of rebirth, all the way to the highest heaven, to Nirvana.  There's a metaphor we can all embrace.  Karma is a boat.  It keeps you from sinking into a dark, cold abyss.  It carries you through all your choices, through all your lives and deaths and rebirths, through every storm, eventually to  a place of eternal light and peace.  Say "Om" to that.

This is a transformative idea, for me.  It feels so right.  It is comforting to know that Karma is not the dude in the back alley waiting to beat you up for your mistakes.  Instead, she is the golden boat that is docked at the nearest port, waiting for you to stagger on board and take respite from all the nasty and unwise choices that follow you back to the wharf.  Like any sea-worthy vessel she holds and protects you, without judgment of the sea you've stirred.  She floats you over light waves or through lashing storms.

Any day you can find Karma, floating on your sea of all that will one day be resolved, ready to hold you.  Whether your choices and mistakes are resolved in a few lifetimes or a million, will depend on how you choose to pilot your Golden Boat.  Will you roll around the bilge, cursing the ocean's currents, or will you put a steady hand on the rudder and steer for the edge of the world?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Jumping Jesus!

Joy lastly comes when
we jump high enough to clear
others' noxious schemes.

Contemplation of how the world engages with religions and religious entities, of course, had to include Jesus.  A metal cut-away sculpture of Jesus, depicted in my watercolor above, jumping up out of the cemetery at St, Peter's Lutheran Church at Orland, Madison, SD, is the closest interpretation to my understanding of Jesus that I have encountered.  The sculpture can be seen from about a mile away, and as you approach the church via the gravel roads, he seems to be coming right up out of the earth itself.

Since I was old enough to understand duplicity, I have felt that the stories of Jesus' teachings on love and compassion were manipulated to benefit those who sought to have power over others.  Perhaps those people were only propagating what they'd been taught, but even then, at some point they made a choice to use the stories to benefit them in ways that a teacher like Jesus would not have approved.

I have grown to view Jesus with the compassion and acceptance that he professed for the misunderstood and outcasts of his time.  This art piece of Jesus jumping up reminds me that sometimes holy beings need to jump up from the false narratives and burdensome expectations that are put upon them.  Rather than an ascent in to heaven, I see Jesus finally facing the sun, which he really does in this piece,being a strong warrior, and making himself a cup of tea.  

Thanks to the, unknown by me, artist of the metal installation at St. Peter's, and to Pema Chodron for inspiring me to paint and put words to these thoughts.

" Hold the sadness and pain of *samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the *Great Eastern Sun.  Then the *warrior can make a *proper cup of tea."  ~ Pema Chodron

*samsara:  confusion, suffering
*Great Eastern Sun:  fundamental, awake human nature
*warrior:  brave enough to look at and work in reality
*proper cup of tea:  self-awareness and clarity

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sri Ganesha

Obstacles, placed in
 the path or moved aside, are
analogous gifts.

Ga-nesh-a (also Gan-esh) - Hindu - the God of Wisdom; placer or remover of obstacles, especially at the beginning of a journey or new endeavor; son of Parvati and Shiva; human body with elephant head.

Ganesha has been journeying with me in three different vehicles for nine years . . . . as an air freshener.  He was a gift from a friend who knew I had obstacles in my life that needed moving.  My friend had a confidence in the scented square that I did not.  "Trust me," she said.  "He's never let me down."

That neon yellow elephant was seen as silly by some, irreverent by others.  I told people that he had to be working because I'd never hit an obstacle in any of the vehicles he was in.  I told them that until August 2010 when my Outback hit a branch that was hidden under the rushing water of a late summer flash flood.  Since then, no more obstacles.  One obstacle in nine years seems like a good average.

A few months ago I got back to a regular practice of zazen (seated meditation).  During a recent meditation I thought of my faded Ganesha still hanging from my rear view mirror.  While I try to not have any thoughts while meditating, I decided this random thought was inviting me to send out some gratitude to Ganesha for his continued obstacle removal.  "Thank you," I said to the faded square in my mind's eye.  "I am so thankful that you have kept me and my car safe during our journeys with you."

I was expecting the image in my mind to float out, to be left again in thoughtless meditation.  Instead, the Ganeha in my mind stared more intensely at me.  The square he sits in seemed to get closer to me, Ganesha's peaceful expression  had changed to repugnance.  "That's it?" he scoffed.  It took all my effort to stay with the image, to not abandon my meditation right then and there.  It was too weird.

"Really?" he continued.  "You have a life filled with uncertainty, illnesses, crumbling relationships, overdue bills, and who knows what else - and I just get to remove the obstacles from in front of your car when you drive to HyVee?"  I felt like I was no longer alone in my physical space, no longer deep in meditation.

"What are you saying?" I asked the faded piece of cardboard, breaking all my meditation rules of silence and letting go.

" You're whole life is a journey, not just your car rides."  

I quickly scanned my brain for information.  "Had I been drinking?  Any new medications?" I allowed myself to ask.  No. No. Nothing to hint at the origins of this surreal experience. 

"I'm here.  Ask me for help with anything.  Ask anyone for help with anything!"  His arms, all four of them, thrust out toward me, as if offering me something I could not see.  I could not look away.  "I mean it," he said in a softer, almost compassionate voice.  "Obstacles can not always be seen, are not always physical," he whispered as he crumbled into a million tiny pieces.

I wish I had some amazing ending to this story, but that is it.  However, I do spend time each day thinking of this mediation encounter.  I guess that is an obstacle placed in my path.  So much so that I painted his portrait as I pondered.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Removing the Mask

Our inheritance:
a cerebral closet full
of ill-fitting masks.
                                    ~ Lori Allen

I recently painted the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.  (See her photo in my prior blog post, "Bodhisattva Antidepressant")  I have learned to expect that my paintings will never be copies of photos or the actual subjects, but rather my interpretation of the same.  Reminding myself of that expectation, I can relax and not get every single detail right as I paint.  I re-interpret what a photographer, nature, or some other entity has created, what I am inspired by.  It is a lovely way to create.

While I am not expecting my work to be a carbon copy of what I am painting, I have finally identified the one thing that almost always disappoints me as I finish a painting.  That is - taking off the mask.  Or masque.  Or frisket.  These are mediums painted on paper, usually before color is applied, that will dry to resist water and color.  When the painting is finished, the mask is rolled or rubbed off to reveal an unpainted area.  In watercolor, I was taught, they add interest to the painting.

Or not.  Sometimes they add big dead spots that the painter then tries to blend in with the rest of the finished picture, or that she applies another medium to (gallons of gold paint) to try to make it look like an integrated and pre-planned part of the painting.  I have achieved satisfaction in about 10 percent of the painting I apply mask to, but mostly I don't like it.

I don't like if for all the reasons I don't like masks worn by me or other beings.  Well, again, I do like masks in about 10 percent or less of my life situations - Halloween, parties, pretend play - but I am talking about the masks that are worn everyday by all of us.  Our happy masks, or false interest masks, or being who you want me to be masks; our being strong or caring or unhurt masks; our I can't see that, can't hear that mask - all these and any worn to mislead others, inevitably disappoint when taken off.

I have spent much of my adult life trying to walk the streets of life mask-free, defending my natural features as acceptable ways of being in the world.  Recently, I had some minor surgery on my eye.  A good friend took me to the clinic and stayed with me during the procedure.  As the nurse prepped the eye area with a multitude of antiseptic squares, she said, "thank you so much for not wearing your eye make-up today."  My non-swabbed eye met the gaze of my friend.  We both burst out laughing. "What's so funny?" asked the nurse.

"Do you even own  eye make-up?" my friend asked through her laughter?

"Not since the 80s," I crowed.  I felt like an addict announcing thirty years of sobriety.  "Not anymore." I don't begrudge anyone a bit of eye or any other make-up, I do wear colored lip gloss from time to time.  What giving up make-up, my mask, did for me was remind me that not only are my natural physical features okay unaltered, but also are my natural emotional, feeling, knowing, and being-in-the-world features.

My art, like my life, from this time forward, will use masks only for special effects, fancy parties, and intentional distortions.  For all other times, people will be able to see my paintings with all the colors, swirls, unintended splatters, and blemishes combined to make something that they may recognize as my honest interpretation of the subject, as my authentic statement on that moment.  Now . .  where did I put that gold paint?


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bodhisattva Antidepressant

On days like these, my
mind easily feigns that Your 
Breath is just the wind.

Image by Donald Macauley

Today's windy weather reminds me of the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.  This bodhisattva embraces the compassion of all buddhas.  Dependant on the culture and tradition, Avalokitesvara is depicted as a male or female and may have a slightly different spelling of the name. When we break her name down we find these Sanskrit words and their meanings:
  • AVA - a prefix, this means down
  • LOKITE or LOKITA - to notice, look, or observe
  • SVARA or ISARVA - authority, leader, powerful

What I love about Avalokitesvara is that she embraces the compassion of all buddhas.  As a bodhisattva she is enlightened and entitled to Nirvana, but instead she has chosen to stay "of the earth" to offer her compassion to all sentient beings on their worldly journey to enlightenment.

Avalokitesvaara especially understands that we are in need of compassion when we are hurt and suffering, regardless if the pain and suffering is caused by external or internal assaults to our bodies, minds and spirits.  I once heard a master say that the Earth's winds are really Avalokitesvara breath.  When we feel air moving around us - drying our tears or teasing our hair - we are gently kissed by her presence.

I feel that today she has grown weary of using gentle whispers to encourage us.  There is nothing soothing or gentle about today's winds - even the trees quake and bow as she comes by. All day long her annoying presence keeps my attention. "Perhaps," I imagine her thinking, "if I am stronger and pushier they will not fall asleep, but will instead move more quickly toward their full awakening,"      

"Don't count on it, Avalokitesvara," I mummer as I pull the blanket close around my neck and turn from the window she begs to come through.  "Don't count on it," I repeat in mantra as I fall back to sleep.  I dream the master who taught me was wrong - Avalokitesvara is not the wind.  Avalokitesvara is the compassionate room where I spend so many nights, and increasingly, more days.  Her belly is my soft, yielding bed, her hair my twisted blankets that hold me.  

The wind is just wind.
No metaphor for gentle
kisses.  Just the wind.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Family Therapy


There are many reasons for the adoption of passivity as a defense; in our experiences one common one is that it serves the purpose of warding off murderous feelings.                                                                                                                                                              ~ Boszormenya-Nagy & Framo

Several months ago I rescued some old tin type photos from a family cedar chest.  There were men, children, couples, families, and these two women in the lot.  None of the pictures are labeled with dates or names of subjects, but I imagine that if they are not my relatives, they are at least beloved friends of ancestors. In sharing the picture of the woman on the right, I had some laughs with family and friends - along with speculation as to the cause of the disheveled look. Secretly, I love the woman on the right most.  I imagine that her DNA is what fuels my own genetics.   I was always the daughter, sister, cousin, friend, mother, wife, neighbor - who had wild hair, the look of a person who just rushed in, the untidy and untidying. 

I don't know why, but from the moment I saw the photo of disheveled woman, I felt a kinship with her. I imagine that she, like me, felt compelled to claim the seed of consanguinity discontent as her own for her generation. Or was she just bold and beautiful, comfortable with not conforming to expectations held by others?  Either way, I feel there was struggle in her story.

Today when feeling a bit sad, I decided to find my old friend, my possible ancestor, to inspire me to either move on or claim and embrace my disheveled woman self.  When picking up the tin type of the photo on the right, the one on the left was stuck to it. I noted that there seemed to be some similarities between the two woman, so I did some photoshop sleuthing.  Magnified examination reveals that these are the same woman, her Dr. Jeykll and  Sister Hyde shots.   The woman is wearing the same choker - a black ribbon with leaf-shaped pendant - in both pictures.  Her facial features are identical when imposing one face over the other.  

What led to this transition we see in the later, wilder photo?  Is that a scar on her face in the photo on the right?  Or just an artifact of old photography?  Did she find happiness and contentment in life? What could she share with me about life that I have not yet learned?  Will I ever know who she is? Did she ponder her progeny?  Am I even her progeny?  What could I share with her to make life more joyful, more real?  More bearable?  

Most of my questions can only be answered with conjury and magic.  All I can say is - thank you, whoever you are - for making me feel a kindredness to your life; rest in peace knowing that perfect is not the place all your descendants seek.