Appreciating the Darkness (Or Happy Holidays!)

I tend to be much more reflective during this time of the waning sun.

I journal, read through old journals, sort through old photos, paint, meditate, revisit favorite well-worn books, think about what I want to experience in the new year and so on.

20161123_0131116
The moon from my front porch

In other words, I go deep – reminiscing, ruminating, then reformulating how I want to spend my time on this earth, in this body.

It’s part of living in the rhythm of the seasons, keeping in step with the encroaching darkness.

How do you keep in step with the rhythm of the seasons?

Back on Halloween, my friends and I came together to honor Death, the dead and the season of dying and letting go. We can’t hide from Death, so we might as well face it together, with wine and good food, sharing by candlelight and even a little shouting under the moon.

994950_10202387558801421_1008244318_n
My dining room on Halloween

Letting go was more than just a metaphor for me this Fall, as it was the time I had to let my daughter move into young adulthood and I adjusted to a newly empty nest. It was also when I accompanied a dear friend as she transitioned into hospice care.

Face it – we have no choice but to let go  – of youth, health, loved ones, certain ideas about ourselves and what we’re here to do, rigid plans – all of it has to go sooner or later.

Ashes to ashes and so on.

From a Halloween Puppet Festival
From a Halloween Puppet Festival

Halloween confronts death, and the Fall season with its falling leaves reminds us to let go of whatever is dying in our lives.

Then November comes, Thanksgiving in the USA, and we express our gratitude for whatever has remained.

This turkey is happy to be alive and on my car.
Grateful turkey

I let go as my daughter moved into her next stage of life and then on Thanksgiving she and I came together and celebrated our familiar, yet evolving relationship with the familiar foods and rituals of Thanksgivings past. It was nice.

Now Winter Solstice is approaching. The Holiday Season. The days are getting so dark and we are moving so far from the sun we fear we may never see it again.

882040_10202761691194497_336334936_o1

This darkness drives us a little mad, and many start to maniacally shop, throw holiday parties and do all they can to be merry, merry, merry.

Some, like me, settle into the darkness, appreciating how snow silences the outdoors, how the quiet turns me inward until I find that the whole universe is inside of myself – the history of the world lies in wait to be found deep inside of me.

Oh, I like to make a little merry too. I go to some parties. I buy gifts. I sing loud in the car to Elvis’ Merry Christmas, Baby. I put up a big, fat Frasier Fir and fill it with lights and beads. I get out the ornaments made by my daughter, from my own childhood, and from my grandmother’s tree. I bake gingerbread cake.

1504346_10202761695394602_675355327_o1

I enjoy all of that. I like to put some light and sparkle into the darkness, and make it cozy with warm smells and familiar music.

But I also enjoy making plenty of time to settle into the darkness. Reminiscing, ruminating,  and reformulating. Going down deep where I can feel the Divine and appreciate that the Sun is always there, even when we can’t see it.

My daughter will move away and still be my daughter. My friend will leave her body and still be my friend. I know these things by going deep into the darkness where true faith, peace and calm are found.

The sun will take command of the sky again soon, but in the meantime, let’s appreciate the darkness and all that we can find there.

How do you appreciate this time of darkness?

You’re Angry, Aren’t You? Just Admit It

event_67256922

Anger is real.

It’s a physical reaction that rises up through our bodies. It is not evil. It is not hate. It just is what it is, a physical reaction to something that our mind is processing. An emotion.

People who are brought up to be submissive are taught that anger is bad. That is most of us. We are trained to deny or suppress anger as it rises up, but that energy does not then just disappear. It gets subverted on to the self, sometimes becoming depression or anxiety.

Or it gets projected onto easy targets.

Or it twists itself into hatred and impulsive violence.

Or it wreaks havoc in our bodies, causing issues like ulcers or heart disease. There’s several different paths subverted anger can take and none of them are healthy.

The healthiest anger is anger that is accepted, examined and processed.

I’m feeling angry. Anger is okay. What exactly is triggering this anger? Am I sure or is the cause something even deeper? Okay, I accept that. Now what am I going to do about it?

That is how you accept, examine and process anger. That last step, figuring out what to do about it, is the hardest and most important step.

Let’s try not to skip over it.

Legacies

  • I’m watching an American Experience episode about Walt Disney on PBS. He certainly was a flawed human, but I’m fascinated by his early designs and models of Disneyland and how deeply satisfied he was when his vision finally came to fruition. He kept an apartment underneath Disneyland’s Main Street USA, and could be found walking the park early mornings in his bath robe.

1955

  • Six months after Prince’s sudden death, people are flying across the globe to visit his home and studio, hear the music he was creating and absorb his energy. Just as he had hoped.

unnamed-2 (1)

  • A few days ago, I met with a dear 90 year old friend, who after serving as an important spiritual and meditation mentor for decades in our city, is retiring out of town. She presented me with beautifully printed booklets of her writings and icon paintings.
  • Meanwhile, a dear longtime friend, my age, has entered into hospice care. The trees around her house are filling with ribbons placed by friends and loved ones, each bearing a blessing for her. Messages are pouring into the house, telling stories of how she has impacted the lives of others and positively influenced her community. I read some of the messages aloud to her, and she smiled.

20161022_155553 20161022_155636 20161022_155525

As I sit here only middle aged and in fine health, I can’t help but wonder:

What can I do for my loved ones and my community?

What can I create that will surpass me?

I also wonder about the connection between the quality of the relationships we nurtured, the work we’ve done in our communities, the creativity we brought to life – and our comfort with death and dying.

Coming Out of Crisis Mode

After weeks of hospitals and family crisis…today was a new day. A better day.

It started this morning as I was sitting on my deck drinking tea and reading the paper, when an older woman on a little indoor-type scooter, scooted right up to me in the backyard. This was very unusual, as I live in a secluded spot at the end of a driveway that’s about a block long.

I didn’t even hear her, I just suddenly saw her head scooting by the rail of my deck.

She was looking all around and saying “What a secluded spot you have here!” “What big, beautiful trees you have!” “Your flowers are beautiful!” “What a perfect place to sit and have your tea!”

She was like an angel dropping down into my cup of caffeine and saying “LOOK! THERE IS BEAUTY ALL AROUND YOU! JUST LOOK!”

Of course, she also could have been casing the joint for a future crime spree, but I was so happy to have this unexpected visitor, I grinned the whole time we talked about flowers and trees and squirrels and then she just scooted away, back down the driveway.

Afterwards, I walked by the creek and saw this autumn leaf dancing in the breeze. I watched it twirl and spin and then stand still in mid-air! Ah, it was hanging on by a thread – an invisible spider web thread.

leaf three

It reminded me of the thread that holds onto me, even when I’m too tired to hold onto it.

leaf two

I watched this magical orange leaf dancing on its thread, took pics and felt grateful that I am held with a sense of purpose and peace.

leaf one

I next saw the sun sparkling off the water just so and thought “I am okay.” I have no idea what the future holds. I worry sick for the crisis in my family, oh, how I worry.

creek

But I don’t have to worry alone because there are angels all around, scooting right up to me and reminding me of the beauty and hope in the world. And there is an invisible thread that connects me to all that is.

What unexpected moments have you seen as a love note from the universe?

Breaking Free Into Your Life

Prisons are on my mind these days, both the literal prisons where law enforcement confines people, and the metaphorical prisons which make us feel that we are trapped outside of the life we wish to live.

prison-window-006 (1)

(Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian)

A young member of my extended family is currently awaiting prison sentencing – he is possibly looking at 25 years to life. The truth is he was born in a sort of prison – a crack house, to be exact – and was not given the care, education or even basic nutrition to develop his mind in a way that would lead him anywhere but to a life of crime and incarceration. At this point, the best we can hope for him is a correctional facility that will at least provide safety, access to education and decent food. His story is a devastating one.

I, on the other hand, was born free. Sure, I have a few complaints about my childhood, but the reality is that I was given tools to develop my mind and create a life of my choosing. Did I always see it that way, though? Or did I allow myself to feel limited by prisons of my own making?

There were definitely periods of my life when I lived as if I was in a sort of prison. Like when I held onto the desk job way past it bringing me any fulfillment, or when I stayed in a romantic relationship that was harmful to my spirit.

What situations are currently confining your spirit? Can you break free of them?

How can you more fully live and appreciate the freedom that you have?

buckingham fountain

Overall though, I think I used my freedom to create a meaningful life and positively impact some of the people around me.

I could have done better and the great news is that I can still do better!

After all, I am still mostly free – with a few exceptions, like the health issue that prevents me from air travel. But I’m mostly free and while it’s common for health issues to create some limitations as we age, it is even more common for debilitating mindsets to confine us throughout our lives.

What limiting mindset have you placed around your life?

Some common self-created prisons I see around me are: deep-seated beliefs that we lack the ability to accomplish what we hope, anxieties that paralyze and lead to inaction, and resentments that cloud our judgment and make us feel that change is not worth the effort.

The Washington Post recently published an article with fascinating interviews of people who were released from long prison sentences one year ago after being granted clemency by President Obama. I highly recommend reading the article, because it reveals an array of attitudes and approaches to new found freedom that can get you thinking about your own life, your own freedom and how you do or don’t appreciate it.

Go ahead, click on the article!

For example, one of the interviewees, Alex William Jackson, who was sentenced in 1999, said:

“It’s natural to be angry. But when I went to prison and had time to sit down and really reflect and internalize the principles of religion, it had a transforming effect on my life. I didn’t take lightly the blessing and gift that the president gave me in commuting my sentence. I came home and I was immediately able to do the things I envisioned doing when I was incarcerated — being there for my mother, being able to establish myself in the community.”

So the question is: What blessings are YOU taking lightly?  What are you envisioning for the next stage of your life?

Another interviewee, Norman Brown, sentenced in 1993, said:

“In April, I was able to go to the arboretum. It was magnificent. We went to the cherry blossoms…When I was incarcerated I would see movies and read different books, and I would say, I want to try that. Walking on the beach, the walking through the parks. The eating out around a pond…Being right up on a flower and smelling it and breaking it off and maybe giving it to your woman. These things, when I get a chance to do them, I’m going to do them.”

How are you making the most of the freedoms you have been granted in life?

I am so fortunate, because I am not writing this from a jail cell or hospital bed, and my health is pretty good right now. Today I am going to use this freedom to swim, write this essay, help my daughter with something, and do some research for a project I’m working on.

You’re free!

What are you doing with this freedom you have right now?

Day of the Dead For Superstars

(The art and function of public mourning)

unnamed-2 (1)

Something that my mom and I have in common is a fondness for cemeteries. We love to walk around those somber parks with their intriguing sculptures that peek from behind flowers and trees. We can practically hear the whispered stories as we walk among the etched tombstones.

unnamed-5

Some people think our graveyard affinity is odd, but I think it’s strange not to appreciate the beauty of art and nature joined together in an expression of grief, love and longing.

It is not just a visual beauty, but an energetic one as well. Whether the people within a particular cemetery are family or strangers to us – there is an aura of universal love that can be felt wherever souls gather together to mourn. I know because I feel it in cemeteries. It opens my heart in a way that allows me to easily enter into the flow of love that exists all around us.

(Where have you felt most connected to other souls? What opportunities do you take to experience that feeling?)

I am thinking about this now because I live about 25 minutes away from Prince’s Paisley Park. Yesterday, I joined the throngs of people who are congregating outdoors and creating an art installation that expresses their sadness, nostalgia and love of music.

The fence outside Paisley Park has been transformed into a massive menagerie of drawings, dream catchers, jewelry, balloons, carvings, flowers, candles, photos and guitars.

It is community art that exists only to express love and appreciation. It is beautiful.

unnamed-4

I had to see it up close to appreciate its beauty, to notice details like the personal notes peeking from behind interesting objects. I had to experience the somber, respectful and loving tone of the people creating this spontaneous masterpiece.

Gathering in communities to create a temporary work of art while mourning the dead is a universal tradition with ancient roots. My mom’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Poland, where elaborate Day of the Dead events are celebrated in cemeteries. This tradition is thought to stem from pre-Christian Slavic customs. Most countries around the world have eerily similar rituals of gathering together outdoors with flowers, candles and other beautiful objects to honor the dead.

all-saints-day-polandKrakow, Poland (©iStockphoto.com/badahos)

Outside Paisley Park, the gathered community was racially diverse and many of the people were from my generation. It was clear that back in the day, in our separate communities, we came of age to the same music, danced to the same songs, sang the same lyrics. Now here we were thirty years later, gathering to pay our respects to the soul who created our shared experience. We were connecting to each other.

If I lived more than half an hour away, I never would have come.

But it so happened that Prince lived and died very close to my home and I found myself participating in a public ritual that has roots as deep as the most ancient family tree. I had the opportunity to absorb the visual and energetic beauty of a community of strangers creating art together while listening to the whispers of a departed soul. It was a special Day of the Dead that connected me to my generation and to all the people who came before and afterwards.

It was similar to my cemetery experiences except I was sharing my feelings with a community and the art was being created there in the moment.

Living a Spirit Full life involves taking opportunities to feel connected to others, to our roots, to creation and to the Mystery surrounding us. It means stepping outside of our routines and to-do lists and making the time to honor the universality of our feelings and our experiences. For me this weekend, it was the art, music, nostalgia and tears of Paisley Park. For you, it will be something completely different.

The important thing is that when you have an opportunity to tap into the love, longing and hope of your fellow humans – you take it!

Our ancestors – and Prince – would want us to.

unnamed-1

My Status Update Sucks, But I’m Still Okay

I generally like to be in step with the rhythm of the seasons, but right now Spring is yelling at me to “Get up! Get out! Bloom already!” and I want to tell it to go to hell. While nature buzzes with the excitement of tree buds and hopping bunnies, inside my head winter dreariness is still going strong.

10580268_10209147133106554_1861950747812624308_n

There is no way around it. A family situation is filling my days with unpleasant tasks, pressing deadlines and big decisions that have no pleasant outcome. It’s a difficult time and frankly I am okay with settling into that difficulty and letting Spring pass me by this year.

And don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t. Because you know what? It’s okay to have periods of sadness.

It really is okay, even though the photographic evidence on social media shows your friends experiencing only joy, joy, joy. It really is okay, even though pop gurus tell us happiness is only ten simple steps away.

The truth is that we all have seasons when sadness is the most appropriate emotion that we can feel. Well meaning friends and our own inner critic may pressure us to try and snap out of it, but that only creates an anxiety that tires us even more. Feeling bad about feeling bad is self defeating.

On the other hand, sinking into full-blown depression is not the answer either and some of us (ahem) are more biologically prone to that than others. So here is what I do in seasons of sadness:

1) I let myself feel sad.

2) I try to stay in tune with my gut (intuition.) That means keeping a handle on what feels right and what feels off. For example, “It will be a real effort to go out to dinner with a friend tonight but it feels like that will help me get out of my head.” Or “I should really tackle another item on the to-do list but it feels like I need to rest my mind for awhile and watch a movie.”

The key to #2 is finding the balance between what you “should” do and what feels right for your mind/body/spirit. You’ll know you found it when you are doing a mixture of both.

3) I hold onto my thread. (Of course, first you need to find what your thread is.) A thread is those practices, images and beliefs that connect you to your essential self.

My thread is stepping out onto my driveway every night and looking up at the trees before going to bed. It is the mental image I visit throughout the day that I am part of a chain of spirits and ancestors long gone and future generations to come. It is the belief that love and acceptance of myself and others is the purpose of life.

You find your thread by focusing on what you know for certain to be true. The practices, images and articulated beliefs you then come up with will take you back to that truth whenever you are in danger of becoming lost. Everybody’s thread looks different. It is what we can hold onto that will keep us from falling down the rabbit hole of despair.

So Spring is arriving with its fresh smells and vibrant colors and my friends are posting fabulous vacation pics. Meanwhile, I’m stuck inside at meetings with treatment staff and endless to-do lists. And I’m sad about it. That’s okay.

We all have seasons of difficulty, but life goes on and we can find peace again. I have a strong sense of my intuition and I have my thread. I am okay. You are too, even if you are sad.

Doing Good Last Year and Beyond

Did I do enough good in 2015? There’s plenty more I could have done – I never did get around to fostering shelter dogs like I planned, for example. But did I do as much as I could manage – mentally, emotionally, creatively, spiritually?

Sometimes I think of myself as fragile: burdened with traumas recent and far past that can flare up and make ordinary tasks seem Sisyphean. Each of us is fragile and strong in our own unique way, I know that. I look back on some of the things I endured, in 2015 alone, and know that I got through it with as much grace as I could muster, and sometimes that was barely any at all. There’s a lot of messiness in leaving your heart open to a family member whose mind and emotions are in dire need of healing, and yet my heart is still open to them, even if slightly little less than before. That is something good I contributed to 2015.

1520768_10202761691194497_336334936_n

But that wasn’t all. I followed the thread that the world dangled before me, for reasons I still can’t fully know. I followed that thread to University, studying theology and strengthening my connection to the spiritual realm. This year, I took classes studying Jung and his profound Red Book, the art of rituals and Mary Magdalene. I wrote papers on those topics that I hope to send off to a wider audience in 2016 (another 2015 thing I didn’t do as planned.) I also worked with people seeking spiritual direction and facilitated workshops sharing what I learned about “following the thread” that might be useful to others. Doing this work, I am privileged to witness the unique blend of fragile and strong within each soul.

Finally, I made a new friend in 2015. Someone whose journeys both internal and across the globe are opening me to new ideas for living in 2016. She has taught centering meditation for decades, and I can certainly use more centering. Knowing her has been a gift.

Will I meet other new friends in 2016? Will I continue to learn, write and teach? Will I still have love and grace to give? The outlook is good for all these things, and so I’m going to turn the page on the calendar with anticipation, gratitude and humility.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Birthday Reflection

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and if you know me you know that means it’s time for lots of reflection and brainstorming! Here’s an exercise you might find interesting:

FIRST, think of your life story in terms of significant chapters – however that makes sense for you.

For me, I have:   1) Childhood    2) High School & College. Then I moved around the country and each place gets its own chapter    3) Bloomington    4) Chicago        5) Seattle   then   6) MSU Grad School    7) Lagoon    8) Adoption    9) SKU Grad School.

(Or your chapters could include places you worked, for example.)

NEXT, for each chapter ask yourself:

a) Who (or what) were my main influences during this time?

b) What significant challenge did I overcome?

c) What is the main thing I learned? (about myself or life in general)

THEN, notice if there are any overall themes to your story.

FINALLY, think about what you want your next chapter to look like.

What do you want to do/see/be?

Who or what are you going to surround yourself with that will influence or affect you?

And most importantly, what, if anything, seems to be blocking your way and what are you going to do about it?

where-are-we-8gdfza

Exercises like this can bring clarity and a fresh perspective to your decision-making or whatever’s been on your mind lately. And, if you’re like me, you’ll have fun doing it.

What do you think?

(BTW, that’s my old buddy Murray in the backseat!)

Mad Men Finale and Ironic Tweeting From McCann

Mad Men was a TV show that resonated with me on many levels: as a biting social and political commentary, a dissection of the interior life of my parent’s generation,  and a portrayal of our universal questions about identity, happiness and meaning.

Below is my take on last night’s grand finale. I’m pretty sure this is the only time I will post about a TV show. If you’re a Mad Men fan, I hope you enjoy.

imgres-1

The real McCann Erickson advertising agency (now McCann Worldwide), which created the infamous “I’d Like To Buy the World a Coke” ad back in 1971, tweeted last night: “Thanks, Don. About time you came up with a good idea. #‎MadMenFinale‬

Cute.

And then seemingly unrelated to the show, this morning they tweeted a study stating “85% believe that global brands have power to make world better. ‪#‎globalbrands‬

Wow.

And that right there, folks is why I love Mad Men and the brilliance of Matthew Weiner.

Archetypal characters, mythological themes of journey and redemption and a setting that fully immersed my generation into not only the place and time of our childhoods, but the heart (ha!) of commercialization and consumerism – Mad Men is the kind of art that becomes the Rorschach test upon which we can project our deepest internal struggles.

Did Don evolve (even a little) at his enlightenment retreat or was it all just meaningless fodder to sell a toxic product?

Can both be true?

When I hear the first few notes of that Coke ad, it triggers within me a faint hazy memory of childhood happiness. It really does.

But that feeling then dissolves into a hollow memory of my own absent and scoundrel father – a man who, unlike Don with his daughter, has not revealed his true self to me. You see, Don did evolve beyond my expectations because I did not expect him to become more open than my own father, and yet he did.

And then I hear the rest of that Coke commercial, and am reminded that a corrupt multinational corporation is using peace and happiness to get me hooked on their toxic chemical beverage.

See how complicated life is?

Was Mad Men nothing more than a giant Coke ad? A Coke ad that Matthew Weiner held up to the mirror of Donald Draper’s Coke ad that was held up to the mirror of the real Coke ad and on and on into infinity?

Are the peons who now tweet for McCann Worldwide blind to the irony that first they acknowledged a show about the evils of advertising and then they gloated over the fact that 85% of people believe the bullshit that advertisers tell them?

Matthew Weiner gets the irony. That is why the series ends with Don’s ex-wife dying from lung cancer after smoking cigarettes that Don sold in the first season. And last night’s seemingly random scene of coke snorting was surely a wink to the poisons that Coke provides.

So much to analyze and make us angry and sad and puzzled – and more reasons to love the genius of Mad Men.