Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On Doing Something Scary

Nell Blaine, an American painter (she lived from 1922 to 1996) once said: "I have the firm belief that the only things that are worth doing are those that are a little bit scary." (Quoted from the book by Martica Sawin which you can see by opening the link at Nell Blaine's name.)

It's a sentiment echoed by all sorts of people--like Eleanor Roosevelt ("you must do the thing you think you cannot do") and life coaches. It's part and parcel of getting out of your comfort zone, staying awake and alive, moving toward what expands you rather than what contracts you (and keeps you safe).

Although I am not a psychologist, I believe that when we are young the primary function of the ego, psychologically speaking (in other words, I'm not talking about what we mean by saying someone has a "big ego" of puffed up self-image), is to keep us "safe" according to the needs of our particular life situations--family, school, peers, etc. And by and large our egos do that very very well.

The down side of this is that in keeping us safe, the survival tactics put in place by the ego tend to bury, silence, banish to the basement, or at least put on a back burner the desires, hopes, and dreams of our deepest selves, what I think of as our souls. And I hope it's clear that by "soul" I don't mean some wafty, ethereal thing that "goes to heaven" when we die. To be honest, I don't know a thing about the after-death part. I'm talking about life here and now. And our souls are intrinsically part of our bodies; they live and work together.

Maybe the braver individuals among us figure out how to honor their souls earlier on in life--maybe someone like Nell Blaine, for instance, who against her mother's fierce wishes left her Virginia home at the age of nineteen and moved to New York City to pursue her dream of being a painter.

Some of us, and I would number myself among these, have a harder time in adolescence and early adulthood learning to hear and honor our souls. Maybe we hear in part and do our best to follow our souls, but with a fair amount of playing it safe holding us back, until something wakes us up (especially at mid-life) to realize there's still a huge chunk of us wanting to expand, develop, see the light of day, express itself.

"How is it that you never went to art school when you were younger?" David asked me about a year ago, when I was in the thick of a painting streak and people were expressing interest in purchasing my paintings.

"I was too scared to make mistakes," I said rather quickly. "In order to make art, you have to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, make messes, look bad, etc. And I really didn't like doing that." I might add that I also barely knew that I wanted to make art.

I believe I had a very deep down yearning to make art, and I did "try" from time to time, especially when my artist aunt would give my sister and me exciting new art supplies for Christmas. But "trying to make art" usually meant trying to paint like a famous painter--Andrew Wyeth, for instance, or Monet.

Talk about setting myself up for frustration and failure! I can remember setting up paints and paper and actually thinking I could, in an hour or two, as a complete novice, paint the curtains blowing in from my window the way Andrew Wyeth did! I'm sure you can guess the results. Let's say these attempts at art didn't exactly embolden me to push myself further. I wasn't a bad art student in high school, but I wasn't exactly a bold one either. I played it very safe.

Still, there was enough of an interest in me to take a Design 101 (I don't exactly remember the name--Design I, perhaps) during my first year of college. I think I was more interested in drawing than in "design," and I still remember a drawing I did as part of our first assignment. It was a pretty accurate, detailed drawing of a dried up stalk of tall grass.

I don't think I had a clue what "design" meant, , and I didn't know what to do with my drawing (other than admire it!), and I ended up getting a C in the class. Which, despite my saying aloud that this just proved that grades don't really matter, was really not acceptable to me. So I never took another studio art class in college. I took art history classes instead, in which I did very well--my excellent memory and my great enjoyment of looking at art and seeing the component pieces of composition worked well there. And it wasn't very risky. At least I wasn't risking much self-exposure.

I think it's really sad that I let that C (and my protective ego and my need to be following rules and doing things "right") turn me away from other studio art classes until I was well into my forties, about twenty-five years later. It never occurred to me, until I took another college Design class two years ago, that perhaps it wasn't "all my fault" that I got that C in college. The second time around I am happy to report I got an A (although I did get a bit perfectionist about my homework projects, I must confess).

When, toward the end of the semester, I told the teacher about my first college Design class experience, I said something like, "I just didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be doing." And she said, "Maybe that wasn't your fault. Maybe you didn't have a very effective teacher." Which of course had never occurred to me.

Anyway, I set out to blog about doing something scary. And this was not the direction I intended to write! But I'm going to stop here and trust that this is what I want to say today, and make this a series (of at least two posts) on doing something scary.

Which means, there's more to come.

Let me simply end by saying that for Nell Blaine, facing an empty canvas and starting a new painting (she tended to work from beginning to end all in one session, with only minor tweaking later), was doing something scary. There were no guarantees of a "successful" outcome, always the possibility of making a mess, or a fool of oneself, etc.

And the same is true of a blog post. I wouldn't call it a "big scary" but a "little scary". There are no guarantees. I could be making a fool of myself. And it's worth the risk.

Speaking of art, I haven't posted any art images here or on my website recently (I won't bother to make excuses), but if you want to see some earlier images, you can look at the gallery of my website. I am happy to say that all but three of the paintings in the gallery have been purchased, and two of the three are not even for sale!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stop Interrupting and Let Me Speak!

"Damn it, you guys," I more or less shouted into the phone at my three siblings during a recent conference call. "Stop interrupting me, and let me speak!"

Dead silence followed. For a long time. At least a good, solid ten seconds passed before I recovered enough from the force of my own small explosion even to think about speaking again.

The four of us were in the midst of one of our semi-regular conference calls as we work together on the challenging matter of how best to help our nearly ninety-one year old mother. Our calls have worked best when we have followed an agreed-upon process for speaking in turn (rounds of either oldest to youngest, or youngest to oldest). This time we were working oldest to youngest, and I was in the middle of one of my turns to speak, when not one, but two of my siblings interrupted me. (Or maybe the second one interrupted the first one, but . . . you get the picture.)

During that silence, which was actually so potent that I wondered what would happen if I let it go on and on, I felt different. A different sense of my own strength and power and authority, at least in the few seconds before traces of embarrassment and thoughts that I needed to apologize began to arise.

As the youngest in my family, I'm not sure I've ever commanded the attention of all three of my siblings at the same time in quite that way! I'm sure I told them to "Shut up!" or "Leave me alone" or "Stop tickling me or I'll bite you!" (actually, I believe I shrieked the "stop tickling me" part and acted out the "I'll bite you" part without verbal warning. Hey, what else could I do? I was the littlest! I was outnumbered!

But as an adult among adults? No, I don't believe I've ever hushed them up before. At least not so overtly.

Like many families--is it New England families? New England WASP families? New England WASP families of the 50s and 60s? or most human families on the face of the planet?--ours was not exactly a school for learning direct communication. We are all still learning, or at least I hope I am.

David has sometimes observed that at gatherings of my family, we tend to interrupt each other a lot, so he wonders aloud if that's how it always, or usually, was with us growing up. I certainly don't easily recall times growing up when we were together as a family when we actually listened carefully to each other. I remember some playful banter, and verbal free-for-alls.  And the end result of more interrupting than listening? A sense that what you have to say isn't really all that important, or at least not as important as the person who has just interrupted. Perhaps even a lingering doubt that what you want to say, if you can even put it into words, is worthy of being listened to.

I remember as a child or adolescent wanting to say things that were on my mind and heart, and mostly I remember not daring to. I remember hanging around near my mother, wishing with all my heart that she (usually--oh, what expectations we lay on our mothers!) would read my mind and ask me if I wanted to say something. Wishing yet also perhaps fearing that she'd ask me, because then I would have to take the risk of speaking, of believing that what I had to say was important enough.

And when she didn't read my mind (perhaps she, too, was wishing for someone to read hers! or for a chance to speak her heart to a listening friend), I would leave again, choosing to stay silent instead of risking trying to say what I needed to say. And I went back to my room feeling all the more lonely, isolated, or sad (and maybe way, way down in there, the banished black sheep of all possible feelings, angry?).  Over time, each time I did this, performed my part in this odd, repeated dance, I'm sure on some level I became all the more convinced that speaking up would never be the right thing to do.

Maybe we are all a little afraid to speak, and a little afraid to listen, too. Let me practice being an adult here and rephrase that! Maybe I am a little (and sometimes a lot) afraid to speak, and maybe I am also a little afraid to listen, to allow myself to be stretched by being fully present to someone else's reality, feelings, and opinions that might not feel comfortable or match my own opinions or my own sense of what I need for myself and my well-being.

Listening is hard work, that much I know. When my siblings and I practice it in our phone calls, not only is it perhaps "against the grain our training" but it is also a powerful new way of being with each other as adults, a gift each of us can offer not only to the others but also to ourselves. To stake our behavior on the belief, or let our behavior form the belief, that each of us deserves to be honored and listened to, and each is able to give respect and honor by listening to one another.

But what struck me after we had hung up (and we did go on to talk for twenty minutes or more after that silence) was that it would be too easy to let this be only about my family and let it go at that. There was something about that phrase I had used, "and let me speak", that rang some bells in me. I've used that phrase or something quite similar when I've spoken to people about my writing, about telling the stories of my journey. More than once I have said, "It is time for me to speak."

So I've thought more about the whole of what I said to my siblings--"Damn it, you guys! Stop interrupting me and let me speak!"--and I have let myself wonder how these words might relate to my inner reality. Might they be a clue to the fact that I interrupt myself a lot? Interrupt the flow of my creative thoughts and ideas as they get flowing? Interrupt and talk over myself when I start writing and feel excited about expressing myself and what's dearest to me?

When I sit down to write or stand up with a paintbrush in my hand, a whole host of editors, censors, the religious orthodoxy police, and others start interrupting. If I'm not careful (and aware and brave and quick to act), they will inhibit me, raise doubts about the value of what I have to say. They aren't my siblings; they are in me.

And maybe sometimes I just have to put them in their places and hush them up by saying, "Damn it, you guys! Stop interrupting me and let me speak!"

I have to say I'm actually grateful that I got interrupted by my siblings in that phone call. Look at all that I might have missed if they hadn't done that, and I hadn't popped my cork!

They just better not do it again; the next time I might have to bite someone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

One of those Dreams, addendum

I ended the post before this rather quickly, as I was going to be late for my yoga class. I felt somehow that the "drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling" connected to the dream, without knowing quite how (and not worrying about it much).

I am still adjusting to having yoga in my schedule. I find myself resisting it a little when Monday morning rolls around, thinking, "I can't possibly spend that kind of time in a yoga class when a new week is getting going and I should be doing . . . (something or other). "

But I have a feeling that yoga on Mondays is a very good thing. Starts the week off differently, more slowly and more connected to my body-and-soul via those postures, breathing, listening, etc.

This week Rebecca asked us to consider truthfulness (satya, in Sanskrit) or truth-telling as a pillar of our yoga practice/life, both telling the truth about ourselves and what we are feeling on the mat and telling our own truths in the rest of our lives. She suggested that when we have been out of touch with the truth of ourselves, the first step toward the practice of satya might be silence, by which one listens to what's really going on.

I sensed an intuitive essential connection with my lived experience, having to refrain from speaking (at least from preaching and speaking as a priest) in order to get clearer about what wanted to be spoken and expressed.

And then she read Mary Oliver's poem "The Journey"--and read it exceptionally well--and I felt as if it connected to my dream even more than Eliot's lines. David and I were given at least three copies of "The Journey" when we left our congregation four years ago, heading out into an unknown landscape with the barest hint of a path (or two paths) to get us started. It is a poem I take out and read often.

As Rebecca read it, and I could anticipate the end of the poem, I realized the illumination it was offering to me and to the dream, given the role in it of voices, both those "shouting bad advice" and making claims on the speaker, and the other voice that emerges at the end of the poem.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

One of those Dreams

About ten days ago I had one of those dreams that feels like a landmark, a significant gift from my psyche and the great beyond/within. It hasn't magically protected me from bouts of self-doubt, waning confidence, and getting stuck in my head, nor from having to wrestle with "America's most convenient bank" and more or less conceding defeat.

But perhaps it has helped. At least when I have remembered it, called on it, allowed myself to dwell in it as if it were an actual dwelling place or a way of being here. More than anything, I trust it has already offered me encouragement and will do so again and again if I let it.

It was really a two-part dream. I don't remember how the two parts were connected--you know how dreams are!--whether the first flowed effortlessly into the other (with your psyche saying to your rational mind, "Of course these two dreams are connected; why don't you see that?") or whether there was some sort of time gap or connective tissue that went missing when I woke up. It really doesn't matter.

I was in a school gymnasium somewhere, one with a full-sized basketball court. I was near one end of the court, and I was watching a student athlete shooting baskets from pretty far out. I'm not a big basketball expert or anything, but I know enough to know that he/she (sex unknown) was practicing three-pointers from well beyond the markings on the floor. The only odd thing about the scene was that the balls, that were scattered all over the floor, were smaller than basketballs and light in color. More like softballs. But in the dream I didn't find that strange.

I watched the athlete shooting again and again and again. Some of her shots went in; some did not. Some  rebounded in my general direction; some did not. Mostly, I noticed how many shots she was taking and how many balls were lying around--how many more shots she had already practiced.

And I felt something shift in my body, like a deadbolt sliding free, or some formerly stuck thing now freely moving, dropping into place.

"Ahhhh," I said (or thought loudly, I'm not sure which). "That's what it means to really aim for something."

Next I was in my own house, in David's and my bedroom, I believe. And the air was ringing with voices.

Not a chorus of blended voices, neither unison singing nor multi-part harmony. But several individual voices, children's voices, or women and children together, each of them calling out individually the same words: "I love you." "I love you." "I love you."

Could it have been just one clear treble voice repeating herself? Possibly, although I think that the chanted phrases overlapped a little. What I know for sure is that the air was resonant; and the sound seemed to come from all sides of me.

"I love you." "I love you." And one time, "I love you, Sukie."

Then came an audible, gentle but strong and steady wind or breath from behind me, and without hesitation I knew to lean back onto it and did lean back onto it to let it carry me. Which it began to do. Even though I was in our bedroom which doesn't have a whole lot of space in it. I leaned backwards onto the strong-gentle wind-breath and knew I was on my way.

I almost hesitate to tell this dream, because if I heard someone else tell me a dream like this, it might make me gag, or want to throttle them for being so holy, or so Miss Spirituality 2010.

But I guess I'm willing to take that risk. Because it seems to me that I'm in danger of forgetting the dream and not letting it work its work in me, and putting it out there is one way of doing my best to remember it and let it speak. And besides, maybe it has some encouragement for you in it, too.

What's interesting to me is that the day before, and for a few days before, I had been reading the last section of T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (no, I don't make a habit of reading Eliot; I had gone looking for something half-remembered). These were the words I had been turning over and over:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

  We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time....

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Problem with Thinking About Things

This is hard for me to admit, being a thinker from way way back, but I really have a problem with thinking about things. The problem develops when thinking becomes an end in itself, when "I think therefore I am" becomes my personal job description, when thinking becomes a substitute for doing, for taking action of any kind.

Now that phrase "taking action" can conjure up really active kinds of action in my imagination, like, say, applying for a job, or cleaning my whole house in one afternoon, going bunjee jumping, or at least going out for a 5 mile run (even if I haven't been a runner for ten years). This only adds to the problem of thinking about things, because I now have all sorts of reasons and excuses for not taking any actions at all, because I am imagining doing things that are next to impossible to accomplish (cleaning my whole house in one afternoon, so why bother to start?) or aren't necessarily appropriate for my current circumstances or that don't fit who I am--and thus are as ludicrous to consider. As if I were to decide that this morning I will stop wearing my own clothes and instead wear David's, which are built for someone about eleven inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier than I am, and someone without (although David might want to argue this point) noteworthy breasts.

I could go into the whole topic of perfectionism here, and the need to take imperfect actions in order to take any actions at all. But let me sum up that topic in the catchy expression that an Episcopal priest I once worked with used to say: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

I wasn't sure I liked or agreed with that statement when I first heard it, twenty-something years ago, which is probably a pretty good indication that I have a decent case of perfectionism in my blood. I find it a handy saying to have in my back pocket these days, to pull out when I am hemming and hawing because maybe I won't be able to do something very well. (Fear of failure might be the grand way of naming this; fear of looking stupid or fear of just plain doing a shitty job and being horribly disappointed in myself are closer to the bone.)

So, back to the problem of thinking about things. Actually, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with thinking about things, as long as you have an inner alarm that sounds when you cross from wise thinking, pragmatic thinking, or especially from creative, idea-sparking kinds of thinking into obsessive worrying, fretting, and inability to decide just-what-to-do or how-to-start kinds of thinking.

It helps to have a thinking first aid kit around to help you out--I suppose each of us has to try own and gather our own best tools and techniques and potions and ointments to have on hand. (A whole collection of sayings like "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." might be part of your first aid kit; a practice that grounds you in the present moment--noticing what's going on in your body or in the air around you--might be part of it; visualizations, yoga stretches, cold showers, hot showers, flowers, chocolate. You get the idea. Somewhere in your first aid/tool kit you might want to put a note reminding you that seeking a lobotomy is not on your list. In fact, thinking about getting a lobotomy is one of my warning signs.)

Sometimes I just make myself drink a glass of water and go outdoors and walk around a little. Anything to change what's going on in my head!

The kind of problematic thinking about things that I had in mind when I started this post is the thinking  about doing things you want to do (like, for me, writing or painting or taking a walk) and letting the thinking about doing them be a substitute for the doing of them.

Considering options ad nauseam. Which do I want to do first? And how do I want to do it? Which direction do I want to walk and for how long? Do I want to write with pen on paper or with keyboard on computer or directly into my blog? Do I want to draw with pen, pencil, charcoal, watercolor crayon or . . .  or paint instead of draw? and indoors or out, from memory or direct observation? Too many options!

Such a beautiful, active mind resides in my head! And, wow--such a messed up, convoluted, stuck in familiar ruts of thinking sort of mind resides in there, too!

At times like this, there's just no substitute for doing something. Like just plain sitting down and writing this post. And now I think I'll go paint for a while. Indoors. Because it's too cold outside. Thank God that decision was made simpler.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Comment on Comments

When I woke up my computer this morning and looked at email (which I don't usually do until later in the morning, so as not to start the day in reaction mode), I noticed a whole slew of spam comments on more than a dozen posts. This is the second such occurrence this week. My apologies if you were greeted by any of that if and when you tried to post a comment. No really raunchy stuff, at least, though I did notice the word "SEX" embedded in the thick of one comment that was in non-English characters (Korean? Chinese? I should have consulted Anna, our resident Chinese scholar)!

I think I've cleaned them up, and I've changed some settings so that I will be able to moderate comments and reject those that are spam or in some way offensive to the spirit of my blog (while of course still allowing for difference of opinion). This means that when you submit a comment, it won't appear right away on the blog, unless I just happen to be checking my email at the time I get told it's there.

For the time being I am keeping the comments option as open as possible, but if I find that the spammish comments keep multiplying and I have to spend more and more time monitoring them, I may decide to choose a fussier comment option.

As I am delighted by the comment conversation that is developing, I hope to keep the lines as open as possible! Thanks for joining the conversation in whatever way appeals to you, whether by comment or by silent appreciation or by sharing posts with friends and family.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In the Birdcage, part 2

I drove home from Massachusetts that May day abuzz with possibility and excitement, and with Bill's birdcage escape instructions at the front of my mind.

When I got home, I did my best not only to share Bill's insights with David, but also, much harder, to put his advice into practice--to affirm myself as a writer and an artist. (I'm really not sure what he meant by "artist"--I think rather than being about a clear focus on the visual arts, it had more to do with creative self-expression, which was a recurring theme across the several tests and indicators I had taken.)

This was 1997, and I don't know if there were many books around in those days trumpeting the ways of positive thinking and the use of affirmations in creating a new reality for oneself and one's life. I suspect there were some around, though nowhere near the popular explosion of the present book and internet world.

Even if there were some good books about out there that might have supported me in creating and "employing" affirmations then and there, I wasn't reading any of those books. They would have been way way off my reading list and would never have passed the censorship of my predispositions and assumptions in those days.

So I undertook to "affirm myself as an artist and a writer" as best I could. I tried writing simple statements a bunch of times in my journal every morning, and maybe, if I was feeling particularly uninhibited, looking myself in the mirror and speaking out loud: "I am a writer and an artist. I am an artist and a writer." 

I felt incredibly awkward, stupid, and inauthentic. Deep down, I didn't believe what I was saying.

Or maybe really really deep down I did, but in those thicker, tangled middle layers that stood between me and my deepest, truest, highest self, I thought it was hogwash. As patently untrue as if I had stared at an orange and said, "This is a blue apple. This is a blue apple." Mere repetition was not going to change the reality of how I perceived myself.

But I bravely kept it up . . . for a few days. Until I could stand it no longer and began to add more genuine-feeling truth to the statement.

Soon it had become: "I am a writer and an artist and a mother." And the mother part, that undeniable fact of my relational existence, eventually squeezed out the writer and artist. Since I was on sabbatical, I had a reprieve from the Episcopal priest part of my self-identity, but eventually the Episcopal priest part joined the mother part, and . . . you get the idea.

My fiercely protective ego doing its level best to keep me "safe" had won that round: Old, known, and familiar identity had been reaffirmed; potential new identity denied. (Although when David and I returned from that sabbatical, we made small changes to our shared work schedules, with the aim of allowing me more time to write. It was an excellent idea that proved very hard, make that impossible, for me to honor.)

But at least some strangely stubborn and potent seeds had been planted. Actually, I have a feeling those seeds had been planted long long ago, and somehow the sabbatical had provided enough forms of moisture and disturbance to crack the hard shell of each seed case, so that whether I was ready to acknowledge my dreams or not, something, some sort of growth had been set in motion underground.

The most unusual of the tests that I had taken as part of Bill's vocational counseling was called the "16PF". In the written materials Bill had sent me, he noted that many of his clients over the years had found this one test to be the catalyst for the most powerful insights.

Reviewing the 16PF results, I thought I sounded like a case for a psych ward. I think that's because it is oriented toward the world of corporate professionals, and I had answered some of its "work behavior" questions from the perspective not just of restless parish priest but also of harried, stressed out mother of two young children (that was a big part of my "work" after all!). And Bill did warn me that the 16PF was not exactly geared toward feeling and intuitive (feminine?) ways of wisdom.

This meant that there were some really off-the-mark observations in its analysis of me, suggesting that I might be overly focused on getting my own needs met and inappropriately uninhibited in expressing my emotional responses to my colleagues in working situations (like, yelling at my children?). But then it also said I was apt to keep my thoughts and feelings so hidden and quiet that others had a hard time knowing me. (Ah, not only was there quite a difference between my behavior at work and my behavior at home, but there was also the wide gap between how an introvert perceives and describes her inner emotional climate and what she expresses outwardly.)

Along with some piercing observations about my pattern of being reluctant to ask for support and my aversion to taking risks, the 16PF did leave me really pondering one particular quandary. It stated: "Ms. Curtis tends to get most satisfaction in life from chances to be helpful to others. She feels best, however, when she can do so while working alone and apart from others."

This may sound strange, but I could not get my head around that at all. It struck me as so utterly paradoxical as to be almost nonsense. Like an impenetrable Zen koan, or a brain teaser designed to torture those who try to solve it. 

"How can I be helpful to others if I prefer working alone and apart from others?" I kept asking myself. That's impossible! Aren't those two realities complete opposites? 

I could, of course, see how other people might be able to do what's helpful to others by working alone--scientists, for instance, doing research for the cure of disease; writers writing insightful or inspiring books, articles, or poems; musicians composing music to soothe the soul or awaken new possibilities; painters and other visual artists creating windows to expand our own ways of seeing or celebrating the world. I'm sure there are a thousand more human occupations that might fit.

That made perfect sense to me. For those others. Just somehow not for me. For me to see myself as a writer would be-- selfish and self-centered, grandiose, unrealistic, just another romantic idealist notion to add to my considerable collection of abandoned romantic idealist notions. 

Clearly I wasn't really an artist or a writer or a scientist . . . just an extreme introvert! And there are times, in this very extraverted culture of ours, when being an introvert can feel not just like a quirk of personality but like an immense liability, a major character flaw, perhaps even a moral defect. That is if you believe the accusations that get heaped on us introverts from time to time: "You don't like people." "You're anti-social." "You're kind of a misfit."

To which, in my better moments, I might reply by remembering what one of my colleagues used to say, almost with a hint of envy: "Ah, but you have such a rich inner life!"

(Remember those words--"moral defect"--for later in this story. Well, actually; you don't need to remember them. I will take care of that for you.)

My unimaginative questions continued: Isn't helping other people all about helping them in person, face to face, like the pastoral care that clergy offer to their congregations? Like my adolescent goal of joining the Peace Corps? Like Mother Teresa ministering to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta? Like a mother caring for her children, or a teacher teaching patiently in a classroom?

And lurking somewhere in the background, perhaps not even all that far in the background, the real clincher, the horribly moralistic, incredibly powerful silencer of all thoughts of really honoring myself as a writer and an artist, or even as just a human being apart from my family and congregation: Jesus himself, for Christ's sake (I couldn't resist)! The "pioneer and perfecter" of our faith, the hero, the role model, the guy whose example we are supposedly all dying to emulate, saying loud and clear:

"Whoever would be my disciple, she has to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow me."

To which I now say from a safer distance, "Thanks a lot, Jesus.  But I'm not signing on to that particular scheme."

But back then in 1997, as I said before, my fiercely protective-of-the-status-quo ego, seemed to prevail. And I stayed stuck.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Yoga Again for the First Time

Yesterday morning, in the second session of my new (to me) Hatha yoga class, I found myself considering becoming a Hindu (is there a feminine form of that? a Hindini?). Well, maybe not really a practicing Hindu, since basically all I know about Hinduism is that there are lots and lots of gods and goddesses, and lots and lots of rituals to go with them. And that it started in India and has been around a long long time.

So I found myself feeling deeply grateful for the spiritual and religious tradition from which yoga springs. At least as interpreted gracefully by this particular teacher of the Kripalu "school" of yoga.

I felt myself falling in love on the spot--with yoga's bringing together of masculine and feminine, of body and mind and spirit, of simple yet powerful observations, such as that the "yoga mudra" pose puts one's head lower than one's heart, as if befitting of spiritual wisdom.

Even though I have taken yoga classes off and on (more off than on) over the past ten or fifteen years, something feels different this time. I have a feeling it's not only that I have a different teacher but also that I am a different student. Meaning, I have changed. Something is different about me that makes me much more open to coming to yoga "again for the first time".

The difference between me-and-yoga-now and me-and-yoga-past is a little hard to pin down, nor would it necessarily be in the spirit of yoga or of my present way of being in the world to try too hard to do so, though my analytical mind would like nothing better.

If I had to say, the primary difference is that in the past I have largely approached yoga as a form of "exercise" and with a mindset of disconnect or compartmentalization. That my body might somehow be largely disconnected from other dimensions of my being--mind, spirit, soul. I think the sense of being divided in myself and having "compartments" in my life was much more prominent in former years.

And in approaching yoga as physical exercise, I have, despite knowing that it's not really in the spirit of yoga to compete or compare, been way more concerned with keeping up with the class, with "looking competent" at yoga, with wishing I were more flexible, more adept at remembering one pose from another, at getting things right, at impressing the teacher, at being as good at or secretly even better than my colleagues. And being hard on myself for not being those things.

I don't sense that happening this time. (At least not yet. Now that I've made this claim, we'll see how it goes from here!) What a relief!

Maybe a key factor is that the head of the yoga studio recommended that I start in a Level I class, because it has been a while since my last yoga class and the teacher would be new to me. And something about starting as a beginner really appealed to me! Maybe I felt a slight, teeny weeny bit of offended ego, but not much. That's something new. I don't have to prove myself here. Wow, what an amazing idea.

Much more than that I noticed I felt curious and even excited that I would get to experience allowing myself to be a beginner. To take things gently and slowly and (one can always hope!) mindfully. Not to judge myself for having to start small.

And you know what? I really feel right at home! As if I "belong" in this group. I'm not struggling to keep up (even though most of my peers have worked with this teacher for a while and know the moves better than me). I'm not overly worried about how I look or whether I'm doing it right. Well, most of the time.

Which means I'm there. I'm present, more often than not. Grateful for a practice that is physical as well as attentive to mind and spirit, spiritual as well as physical. That aims to hold body, mind, and spirit together, just as they really are; and that aims to link what you do on your yoga mat with what you do in the rest of your day.

Integration. Union. I think that's what the word "yoga" means.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

In the Birdcage, part 1

"The way to open the door of the birdcage is to affirm yourself as an artist and a writer," the vocational counselor offered as we sat in his wide-roomed old farmhouse in central Massachusetts.

The birdcage image was mine, and when I consider that this meeting took place in 1997 I am a bit stunned to realize that it was firmly in place even that far back.  Clearly I had mentioned it to Bill, the counselor. For at least ten years, it seems, it was the dominant metaphor I used to describe how I felt about my professional life. Over time the metaphor got more and more elaborate, which might suggest that my stuckness was bordering on the pathological.

I was a bird in a birdcage (as best I could tell, the cage was parish ministry) desperately trying to get out. I was spending a lot of energy flapping against the bars of the cage getting battered and bruised and never quite getting out. From time to time I would be inspired by some new interest that helped me forget my entrapment (a new approach to Sunday School, or a new book by my favorite spiritual writer, or the whole intriguing realm of historical Jesus research--these come to mind).

In the midst of whatever new passion or interest had captured my attention, I would flap happily in the cage, even launching myself into flight, flying higher and higher until . . . WHAM! I would reach the upper limits of my caged space, hit the bars, and land with a flop on the bottom on the cage. Dazed and discouraged, I would resettle my feathers, pick myself up, and eventually start the cycle again.

For five months in 1997 David and I enjoyed the gift of a four month sabbatical and our annual one month of vacation from parish ministry. That made a total of five consecutive months off during which we would continue to be paid our modest shared salary while we pursued refreshing activities (sabbaticals are related to the idea of sabbath rest).

Before we started, my official sabbatical plan was to finish up the long distance Montessori teacher training that I had begun the previous fall but had gotten bogged down in almost immediately. My progress had been really slow. My initial interest had been piqued by the enjoyment and fascination I always felt when visiting the "modified" Montessori preschool that my daughters had attended (Anna was still there). When the parish had undertaken a new approach to children's Christian education that was based on the work of Maria Montessori, I saw a way to make a connection between the two (and maybe also to pave the way for another kind of "ministry" in the world?).

On the first night of our sabbatical, a Sunday evening, as David and I had settled into our reading in bed ritual, I began a book that had been loaned to us at the last minute by a parishioner who thought we would enjoy it--Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was hooked by the end of the first page of the introduction, and by the next morning I had decided to ditch the Montessori sabbatical project and see what would happen if I wrote for at least an hour every day, except on weekends.  By day five of the sabbatical, I had received a flyer in the mail for a drawing class called "Learning to See," using exercises from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and signed myself up right away.

But there was another "project" going on behind all of this, one that felt really essential to my being. In anticipation of the sabbatical, I had knowingly defied all customary wisdom against doing such things during a sabbatical and engaged the services of a seasoned vocational counselor well before the start of our five month leave.

Bill (not his real name) sent me a battery of tests to be taken at home, then mailed back for scoring and analysis; after reading through and responding to the hefty booklet of test results and narrative reports, I was to make a date to meet with him in the Massachusetts farmhouse where he lived with his wife, who bred and raised English Bull Mastiffs.

I attacked the taking of those tests with zeal and curiosity. All those possibilities! There were so many kinds of work that seemed to appeal to me--for instance, nearly everything art or creativity related: graphic design, architecture, fine art, singing, composing music, conducting an orchestra, journalism, writing almost anything.  And there were plenty of occupations that did not appeal to me at all.

From the reports and analysis of my test results I learned, among other things, that I had a lot of "vocational energy". I think that means that I was very restless and probably also quite confused, neither of which was exactly news to me. More than anything, my zeal reflected a lively (desperate?) hope that I would learn something new, that something would become clear about another way of being in the world, especially another way of earning a living, and that I would find the practical way forward.

Unfortunately, Bill was at a point in his career when he was no longer doing that practical way forward part; he would do the testing and give his best considered and intuitive response, then send me on my way and retire to his study to write. I knew that when I started and decided it was worth the risk. He came highly recommended.

When I finally drove to central Massachusetts, it felt rather like a journey to a wise guru of some sort--I was a pilgrim in search of a teacher or a shrine, maybe the Holy Grail, and of course the grail was buried somewhere in myself. But I really wished hard that my guide and guru could make the search a little easier for me. Or maybe even a lot!

Bill ushered me into the farmhouse parlor, wearing a beat up old sweater and scuffing along in slippers. From his days as a career counselor at Harvard assisting students seeking conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, he had developed a system in which he kept no written notes (nothing to be subpoenaed by the authorities that way), but he seemed to have retained strong impressions about me in his memory, which he set into action by asking to glance briefly over my booklet of test results when we first sat down.

First question: "How comfortable are you owning your rather considerable intellectual capacities?"

I squirmed in my seat before answering sheepishly, "Not very."

We talked about that a while, and then he launched his next line of inquiry: "I want to underscore how essential it is to your well being to honor the fact that you are such a strong introvert. How well do you do with honoring that?" (On the Myers-Briggs typology, I'm almost off the chart on the introvert side of the line, and this has been true every one of the gazillion or so times I've taken the "inventory".)

Me, squirming more: "Um, well, I try but I'm probably not all that successful."

He: "Someone as strongly introverted as you probably needs a minimum of an hour of uninterrupted silence every day, like silent meditation or something like that, or you will be living with seriously high stress. And you would probably be happier if more of your work were done alone." And a while later he volunteered: "I can understand why parish ministry would not feel very well suited to who you are."

We talked easily for ninety minutes or more--it's amazing how fascinating it can be to hear someone speak about your very own self with so much insight!--and when I glimpsed the time on my watch, I wondered when he would deliver his "verdict" and hand me his vocational prescription for what I should do with my life from here.

When he finally started in, I was on full alert.

"Here are the top three things I think you would be wise to pursue, in descending order:

"First, I think you would enjoy and do well teaching in a seminary." (I noted a flutter of excitement and genuine intrigue rise in my chest. We discussed the slight hurdle of my not having a PhD that would qualify me to do so, almost as if it were no big deal or easy enough to find some way around.)

"Second, I could imagine you teaching religion at the college level." (Some excitement and intrigue, though a little less, and still there was the PhD thing to consider.)

"Third, you and David could relocate to a new parish in a university town or some other more stimulating intellectual and cultural area." (This did not feel very life-giving to me at all, more like a lead weight in my gut.)

"And finally," he began (Wait! I thought he was only giving three recommendations; I was confused.), "if you should win the lottery, I think you should write."

Fireworks of joy exploded in my chest! Somehow I managed to contain myself to listen while he continued.

"I think you should try to give yourself an apprenticeship of sorts, maybe find a writing mentor to work with. Really hone your craft. And I think you'd be great at spiritual writing."

I admit that not all of that sounded exciting to me--finding a mentor, honing my craft-- but overall when I said goodbye and drove my way back to Maine, I was ecstatic! I should write! I should write! He thinks I should write!

And I had his advice about liberation from the birdcage ringing in my ears: "The way to open the door of the birdcage is to affirm yourself as an artist and a writer."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Finishing Things

This morning I've been pondering finishing things. I think this is what Christine Kane, a great creativity mentor, calls "completion". Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, believes it contributes to your happiness.

It seems to me that my small family and I tend to be a bit sloppy about finishing things. We vacuum a room and leave the vacuum cleaner out. We fill the grossest pot from dinner with hot soapy water, then leave it in the kitchen sink 'til morning when it then requires a whole new batch of hot soapy water to complete the job. One of us will use the stapler or the scotch tape or (ahem) my best kitchen scissors and not return said objects to their usual resting place.

With the vacuum, sometimes I like to think the left out vacuum cleaner is a kind of merit badge (as if the clean rug and floor wouldn't be badge enough?), or like a poster announcing to the people who pass through the room (usually Anna's friends) that at least we do use the vacuum now and then! And maybe it's because this house is so slim on closet space (as David's mother warned us before we bought it) that the vacuum cleaner really has no suitable resting place. (That's stretching the truth a bit, but not by much.)

Maybe it's because David and I are both youngest children, and somebody always picked up after us. Or maybe it's because, in our twenty-two-plus years as parish clergy (that's forty-four-plus years combined), nothing is every finished. Or at least it feels that way.

You finish a sermon or a Sunday morning liturgy, and immediately the deadline for the next one is on the horizon. You finish a liturgical season, like Lent, and without a break, you're at Easter, and Easter's fifty days lead to Pentecost, and then the feast day you'd rather skip over, Trinity Sunday, and then the seemingly endless stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, Sundays that get designated by a strange number "after Pentecost" determined by where Easter actually fell on the calendar in the particular year in question. People and families, the members of your congregation, are never finished either, because the flow of life is never finished, except one life at a time.

I suppose lots of kinds of work have no real end (or your job would end!). At least a year of teaching school comes to an end, one set of students moves on, and you get some summer vacation before starting again.

I have a feeling our non-finishing of things can't be blamed on any one particular facet of who we are or the limitations of our house's storage space. So I have decided to take on a gentle experiment--that is, to do my best to watch and pay attention to what I finish and what I don't; and then to do my best to watch and pay attention to what it's like if I deliberately finish more things, those that are in my power to finish. Like washing out my breakfast oatmeal pot before I start my day's work.

Like this blog post.