Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hearing Voices

I was reaching for the pair of scissors in the broken-handled mug on my bedside table (my best desk scissors being missing from the drawer--ahem! Anna?), when I heard a voice.

Well, not really a voice. I heard the words, "What are you doing?"

Well, I didn't really hear them out loud, either. But I heard them clearly from within.

As clear as Elijah is said to have heard God's voice when he was hiding out in a cave feeling self-righteous and sorry for himself. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" he gets asked twice. I thought of that story mere seconds after I had asked myself that question.

What are you doing looking for scissors right now, when I thought you were sitting down to write?

Some days when I'm paying attention, I catch myself in the act of getting distracted--being drawn away from the task at hand toward something else. Sometimes toward some new, shinier task (the new possibilities nearly always appear more interesting than the present), sometimes toward . . . God only knows. Just away from what I'm doing.

It happens often when I'm in the midst of writing in my journal. I will suddenly find myself capping my fountain pen as if I had decided I was finished, when in fact just seconds before I was writing happily, perhaps even pursuing a new thread, and had no inkling I was ready to stop.

What's this about? I used to wonder.

Now I assume that there's some sort of unconscious "distract mode" that gets triggered for reasons that my conscious mind is not aware of. It happens so fast--it's not as if I am aware of any sort of consultation or deliberation going on inside.

I am writing away, and then, quite suddenly, I'm capping my pen.

Or opening my laptop to check my email or see what's happening on Facebook. Or . . . or . . . . The possibilities are nearly endless.

Occasionally it seems very clear that I've started to write about a topic that might feel a little murky or "dangerous" to my ever-watchful, self-protective ego. Some part of me doesn't want to go there, wherever there happens to be.

Other times I wonder if there's a more subtle form of self-sabotage at work: that this ever-watchful, self-protective part of me simply doesn't like it when I am on a roll and having a good time! Or when it seems that I might be getting somewhere that's going to take me in powerful new directions.

I remember many, many years ago hearing the Rev. Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, author, spiritual director, and former monk, speak of the tendency of our egos to cut short our times of prayer just when we are getting to the heart of the matter. The same kind of pattern appears in all sorts of places in our lives.

With various practices of silent meditation (at which I generally consider myself a bona fide failure), one is counseled to respond to such distractions with compassion (i.e., don't make a big deal about it; don't assume this is a sign of moral weakness deserving shame and punishment). And then to return to the practice you were in the midst of, whether counting your breath, or repeating a mantra, or whatever.

It's not so different when I catch myself capping my pen, opening my laptop, or even getting up from my desk to go find a pair of scissors! The best thing I can do is simply go back to what I was doing before.

Return to my desk. Close the lid of my laptop. Uncap the pen again. Resume writing. And watch for the same thing happening again!

This may sound simple and small, but it feels like a large accomplishment to me. The whole sequence-- noticing, paying attention, recognizing what's going on, laughing gently at myself, returning to my writing-- is an accomplishment, and each of its component parts is one too.

And it all depends on noticing. On paying attention.

And while I may consider myself a failure at silent meditation, I do know how to notice things. For which I am very grateful.

Now, what was I in the midst of doing when I decided to write this post?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"My kind of pastor"

"You're my kind of pastor!" the woman seated to my right said on hearing my story (the short version).

I was one of four women eating lunch at a small square table at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, part of a day-long writing workshop sponsored by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Each of the others had already shared something about their writing projects, some of which were well under way. I was dreading the moment when it would become my turn to speak.

It had been almost a year since I had taken the step of formally "renouncing" my ordination as an Episcopal priest--turned in my badge, so to speak, and hung up my collar and vestments and my right to celebrate the Eucharist (and other assorted privileges of ordination). And while I had always assumed that I'd write some sort of account of this journey, I was still pretty tentative about it.

Not only unsure about just how or what to write, but also a little sheepish about the fact that I'd done this deed at all. Actually, let me be more honest--I was very sheepish. And wary of speaking about it, especially with strangers.

I didn't relish tripping over other people's religious sensibilities, causing undue offense that might wash back on me in . . . what? What was I most afraid of? Condemnation? Horror? Shock? Platitudes? A pious attempt to save me from myself? (Clearly shadows of these responses were lurking within myself.)

In addition to the whole "religion thing"--the fact that my story, though thoroughly individual and personal, was inextricably also a religious story, and religion as we all know is one of those topics one is advised not to raise in polite conversation--I was also a bit sensitive about being asked the usual follow-up question, "So what do you do now?"

(Ah...I could write volumes on that question! That most modern American of questions that seems to want to define a person, or even measure the value of a person, according to what kind of "work" she or he does. And usually by "work" is meant "work for which you get paid." And since I had very little of that kind of work at the time, I  really didn't like being asked that question. Even writing this now, I can feel a growing anxiety and discomfort. This is not a finished topic!)

When it was unavoidably my turn, I gave as succinct a summary as I could summon--something about writing the story of my leaving the Episcopal priesthood after 24 years of ordination. Something about what it was like to start over, nearly clueless.

A few questions followed, of a very positive tone, really. There were affirmative comments around the table--"Oh, I'd like to read that story!" or "You have to write that. What an intriguing journey!" That kind of thing.

And then the woman to my right spoke: "You're my kind of pastor!"

I couldn't believe my ears. Her words went right to my heart. I don't remember if I asked her to say more, or if she continued without prompting.

"A pastor who struggles with faith and religion as I do--and is honest about it--you're my kind of pastor!"

I felt hopeful and grateful beyond measure. For that momentary glimpse and expanded sense of my self and my continuing value as a human being, and even as some sort of pastor--not in spite of but because of what I had chosen to do.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I still struggle and wrestle with those same issues--my own tendency to define myself and my value as a human being on the basis of "what I do" and "what I do for which I get paid" rather than by some deeper and richer measure; and a continuing habit of hiding the fact of my formerly ordained status, as if it were something to be ashamed of instead of something that might actually be a gift, not only to me and my family but also to others.

Hmmm. I did not know what this post was going to be about when I started to write it this morning. I just found myself thinking of that woman who became my friend* who said, "You're my kind of pastor!"

*although for a year or more she was part of my life in my memory only as "that woman, Raye Tibbitts, who called me her kind of pastor." I found her again last year on Facebook, and we've traveled on from there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bananas for Madame Matisse

I fully intended to post something on Valentine's Day, but I had other tasks, including the making of valentine's, that occupied me instead.

I had set a goal for myself to finish a few paintings-in-process by Valentine's Day, and I made it--just barely! Now I'm able to share them with you.

The first is called Bananas for Madame Matisse. Here's a glimpse of it.

                               Bananas for Madame Matisse,  oil on canvas, © 2011 Sukie Curtis

The direct inspiration for the painting was, believe it or not, a bunch of bananas. But in addition to the bananas themselves, my admiration for a particular painting by Henri Matisse was also at play. It's his painting known as Femme au Chapeau, or Woman with the Hat.  It now belongs to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (though their website says it is not currently on view--mon Dieu!). The above link will take you to an image as well as a short article on wikipedia.

Or you can read the basics here: Painted in 1905 in what became known as the "fauvist" style--the term, Fauves, meaning wild beasts, was not intended as a compliment to Matisse and his painting companions of the day--Femme au Chapeau caused quite a stir when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1905. It was the Fauves' astonishing use of color that prompted the remark about the wild beasts.

In any case, as you can see if you open the link above, the woman (thought to be Madame Matisse herself) is wearing quite the hat! It's a little hard to tell what's loaded on top of the hat, but why not imagine some bananas up there? At least that's what I found myself thinking as I painted my own bananas.

I seem to have a "thing" for painting fruits and vegetables. What can I say? I love them--sometimes more to paint than to eat! I enjoy their shapes and colors, their quirks and curves, the patterns they make overlapping one another. And I enjoy playing with those elements when I paint them.

In this particular painting, color was really the primary exploration and source of delight. That, plus the fact that the bananas in the painting are larger than life-size, since they occupy most of a 16x20" canvas. That larger than life size added to the enjoyment and sense of play as I painted.

I suppose I could have named the painting Bananas for Madame Matisse's Hat, but that seemed just a bit too much of a mouthful. (Let me know what you think.)

Now I'm thinking of a series of paintings for Madame Matisse. Next on the list are some lemons, before they become too old to use in cooking!

Blog to Blog 2

Bekah has been busy at her blog, which feels like a friendly nudge to me to do that same!

Here are her two latest posts from Nairobi. The first called "The Bubble Bursts" and the second, "Chizifreshi." You'll have to read the blog to find out what that means! Maybe I'll ask Bekah for a Swahili pronunciation guide. My slim recollection is that it's pretty straightforward--my guess is that chizifreshi would be pronounced "cheezy-freshy." Any Swahili speaker-readers out there?

I love the way my daughters inspire me to do stuff--I played off some of Anna's artistic ideas when I made valentines earlier this week. And now I will let Bekah's blogging activity spur some of my own.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mixed Up Files, or "On Not Three Blogs"

When Bekah was in third or fourth grade and a voracious reader, there was a book around whose title I loved--From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It's about a girl who drafts her little brother to run away with her to Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where they dupe the security guards and hide in the restroom until the museum is closed for the night, and, of course, they get embroiled in solving a mystery.

I don't remember if I ever actually read the book, but its title has always stayed with me. I suppose I often think of my journal or perhaps even more so my blogging as something akin to mixed-up files. Maybe the subtitle of my blog could be: From the seriously mixed-up files of the somewhat mixed-up mind of a relatively sane woman. 

Or something like that. Because that's really what this seems to be--it's sometimes a blog about painting, and sometimes a blog about leaving the priesthood and starting over to find a new path in life, and sometimes about what it was like to have been an Episcopal priest, and sometimes it's about my childhood, and sometimes it's about . . . well, being alive, being human, being myself. (I know, that last phrase sounds a bit egocentric, but I don't really know what it's like to be anyone else.)

This blog is, for better or worse, all of those things, and in no particular order. Believe me, I spend lots of time (usually in those gaps between blog posts) debating the merits of having a blog that's only about my art or only about leaving the priesthood or only about--you get the idea. For a while I even had two blogs  at the same time, but they blurred and overlapped, and I wasted a lot of energy trying decide when I was writing for which. So I gave up on that track and retreated back to one blog.

I've even thought about starting a money blog, because dealing with money and finances and how to make a living having left the one profession I was trained for does occupy my thoughts quite a bit. And I've learned a lot about myself and money (and about money in general) in the last couple of years, and I have a few funny and hair-raising stories to tell. (Talk about seriously mixed-up files!)

I have a feeling the time is near when I may actually start an art-only blog for posting images of paintings and maybe even of drawings. That one seems relatively straight-forward, and it doesn't mean I can't blog about painting in my mixed-up files blog.

But I'm not quite there yet.

I've even composed in my head a blog post titled "On Not Three Blogs," which is kind of an in-joke for students of Christian theology who might remember Gregory of Nyssa's essay "On Not Three Gods" about the doctrine of the Trinity. OK. I had to Google "On Not Three Gods" to remember who wrote it--which one of those so-called Church Fathers. But writing this has made me realize perhaps that's the title of this post.

So for the time being I will keep going in this blog, thinking of it as my "mixed-up files" blog. Or more precisely, From the seriously mixed-up files of the somewhat mixed-up mind of a relatively sane woman.

Bekah in Kenya 1

I said I'd link blog to blog with my daughter Bekah who is spending the semester in Kenya, and then I promptly forgot to do that when she posted her first entry from Nairobi! It's a great one--informative and entertaining. If only she had included a photo or two--like up close and personal with a giraffe? Maybe next time.

Here's a link to it. Her blog is called: Bekah in Kenya. Go figure! (Actually, go read it!)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Here's to Spring

It must feel like spring today in Egypt--the exhilarating, inspiring, take a deep breath and sing, shout, and dance kind of spring. At the edge of the unknown, the future opening to just what new reality no one knows.

I had already planned to blog today about spring--the hopes and longings for spring that lots of us northerners find welling up in us on these cold but sunny days, the driveway crusted over with ice, the mailbox, broken off by the plow's forceful heave of too much snow, now askew but tied onto its post with some old clothesline and my best knot know-how. The snow piles so high it's easy to imagine they will be here into May. How will the crocuses and daffodils find their way through to bloom?

But I didn't want to blog only about hopes and longings but also about the small but real, tangible signs that spring is working its way already. Last week we marked that odd day knows as Groundhog Day (and the famed mammal did NOT see his shadow), an adaptation of the day elsewhere and otherwise known as Candlemas (also the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple), St. Bridget's Day, and Imbolc--the latter being most likely the first of them all in time, and the other names later adaptations and reinterpretations.

Imbolc was a traditional feast day in pagan, pre-Christian Ireland (and perhaps is still in pagan and now- Christian/post-Christian Ireland?)--the day that falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In pre-Christian days it came to be associated with the goddess Brigid, goddess of poetry and healing, who in time became the Christian St. Bridget. (I know, it's complicated. And it doesn't really matter if you follow me or not! I actually just read that Brigid was said to have had two sisters, also named Brigid, so that she was a "triple goddess"--imagine that! A holy trinity of Brigid, Brigid, and Brigid!)

Imbolc, on Feb. 1-2, is considered the first day of spring in Ireland. Imbolc means something like "in the womb"--because at this time of year the lambs are growing fat in the wombs of ewes, nearing birth. I like that way of counting spring's beginnings even when the fuller expression of the season still lies weeks away, buried and hidden under snow.

And so it is, even in chilly Maine!

Just a few days ago a local Maine sheep and fiber farm posted a photo of a newborn lamb on Facebook! (Open this link to Romney Ridge Farm only if you want a dose of serious lamb cuteness to brighten your winter spirits!)

Over the past ten days, we've actually passed numerous significant milestones on the way toward spring. First, on January 31 the sunrise broke 7 a.m. and is now rising at 6:46 and getting earlier every day. Next  came the day when our total gain of daylight since the winter solstice passed the one hour mark. And soon after, the sunset has passed 5 p.m. and counting.

I assume it's this growth in daylight that has set the birds to singing! I've been hearing titmice and chickadees not just making noises but singing their trademark songs. Could it be they are warming up for wooing and courtship?

It cheers my soul. So here's to Egypt, to the spring of freedom (though the road ahead may be bumpy), and to the spring of spring.