Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Handcrafted Life

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
~ Wallace Stevens

In my part of the world, it's been snowing steadily--persistently--for the last three days.  It's the kind of heavy, ice-rimmed snow that builds up and sticks around for a spell--it's also mid February which means it could be gone two days from now as the temperatures are expected to rise.  However long it lasts, I find it beautiful in all its particulars from the cold crunch of it under my feet to the shadows cast by drifts and the way it changes the light in a room. I'm not one who hates snow or winter--I enjoy the changing seasons and revel in their unique and varied beauties--snow, to my mind--is a gift and one I fully appreciate in its time.  Yet, my inner compass turns ever more towards spring--I'm increasingly ready to see new growth, green shoots of leaves from the already swelling buds and the way crocuses nose their way upwards as soon as the sun extends her reach over the northern hemisphere. I was a "spring baby" as early family memories tell the tale--born in early March, the claim perhaps jumping the gun a bit but they may well have more properly read my temperament and character than even they realized--I'm always on the watch for the changes as they come and I prepare for them, whether the seasonal cycles of the year or changes in my life because i know that change is the one constant--nothing stays forever the same, nor should it, but the desire for changelessness haunts us, especially when it involves the people and things we love and hold most dear--we don't want to let go; we don't want to lose what we have or believe we have but that's not our determination to make--life and circumstances, errors and missteps, decisions made through hard discernments bring change and our task is always to learn to accept and flow with them as best we can.

I haven't written here in a long while--I intended to, but in truth, I came to a place where I wasn't sure I had anything worthwhile to say and I was living my life in a contented and peaceful way that suited me--and still does--and so didn't feel any urgency about writing beyond the book reviews and short essays I've offered for publication in various places--that seemed like enough but so much has happened--is happening--in the world around me that I realized some time ago that it's time to at least start interrogating the questions, even if answers are in short supply.  Obviously, I can do this in my private journals--and do--but it feels more honest and more useful to engage companions along the way--are any of you still following me here? Perhaps not but maybe you'll return or others will find me and want to read along for a bit---in any case, I know that what I write here will find someone who reads it, whether they respond or not, and, like praying the liturgy of the hours or sitting in meditation or communal silence--in all those ways in which we stop to listen for and to the collective consciousness around us--my hope and my trust is that my writing will once again tap into that primal, ongoing thread.

We're living in perilous times: our politics--around the globe--is fractured and divided in ways we can't  comprehend in terms of what it will mean even a year from now.  As I examine the politics in my own country over the last 24 months, I have only to look at my relationships with people--some I've known over a lifetime--to see how much it altered our views of each other, brought something to the surface that had been buried, perhaps, or not acknowledged.  I have lost a couple of beloved friendships largely over political disagreements although, of course, I know that perhaps the politics was simply the cover story for a deeper malaise or misalignment but the instigating elements lay in our often only slightly different views of what was needed for us to move forward as a country--and I'm not alone in this as many people have had the same experience.  Most of us do the bulk of our communicating online, on social media and the like and I have come to view that as almost entirely negative--which also contributed to my inability to write here as I viewed engaging with one more online medium to be more than I could handle--perhaps more than anyone needed to hear from me--but that too, has changed.  My little writing cubby here feels, now, like an old, comfortable friend--a place where I can say my piece quietly and with as much complete thought as I'm capable of in a given moment and hope for a thoughtful response from anyone who might care to give one--and that is my invitation: I want to examine our shared life, talk a bit about my own and the thought that creates, supports and nourishes it and hear from others about how they're doing--how are you choosing to live and respond to the world in these times? What has changed for you? What are you hoping won't change?  I'm so eager to hear what you have to say.

My life is quieter than it used to be--no longer a practicing midwife--many years retired now although I've come out of retirement here and there in the last few years to do a birth for a friend or former client--and I work as a spiritual director--an "Anam Cara" (soul friend) to those who want to talk about what is most in need of attention in their lives and facilitating a more contemplative and attentive way of being in the world.  I review books for two published reviewers.  I work as a music programmer for two venues--I book musicians and host their performances---and I make beeswax candles for sale, a craft I dearly love and that I've spent the last three years working with to the point where I have candles I'm proud to sell.  I experience real joy making a Saturday breakfast for my husband to enjoy after he comes in from shoveling the snow and while most of our kids are now adults and on their own, we're still a family and our kids all live in the area and we see them frequently.  I spend my days reading, writing, making candles, making music, cooking, tending to the needs of our household, family and community in varied ways and I am at home with myself and my world. There is such simple joy in a handcrafted life--one put together like a stone wall with care, attention and a willingness to accept and work with the happenstance--the events and necessary alterations that come with time and living--but nothing here is ordered ready made--we--my husband and I--made this home and life here and I long to share what that means to me with all of you--what questions we asked in the course of ordering our steps; what questions we're asking now. There is still much to know and to say about living "close to the root".

 I'm not a young woman anymore--this "spring baby" is nearing 60 years old--but I have enjoyed the process of becoming an elder--I am at peace with the life I've lived and truly contented with the life I enjoy on this old homestead where we've lived for so many years now and looking forward--eyes straight ahead--to seeking out the right questions to ask of myself and of our time--where are we now and where are we going?  Forming the right questions is key and that's no easy task so I'm going to take my time here and write the questions as they arise. Sometimes, I'll just muse on whatever comes to hand.  I'll use a lot of poetry and wise thought from many sources, ancient and modern, and I'll look forward to your responses as they come.

I'm glad to be back.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

St. Nicholas of Myra: Protector of Children

St. Nicholas was born in Lycia, in Asia Minor, somewhere in the early 4th century.  He was to become Bishop of Myra and had a reputation for being kind, loving and deeply devoted to children.  Legend has it that he regularly roamed poverty stricken villages, leaving gifts of food and clothing on the doorsteps of families and small, hand-made toys and diversions for young children along with the necessities of daily life.  Bishop Nicholas once listened patiently to the story of a merchant who was despairing over the fact that he had no proper dowry for his three daughters meaning that they would never be able to marry.  Bishop Nicholas sought to remedy this sad state of affairs but he was a shy man and humble so, in the dark of night, he climbed up on the roof of the merchant's home and dropped three bags of gold down the chimney-- one for each daughter.  The story has it that the bags dropped into the girls stockings which were hung up to dry by the fire!  Over the centuries, the story of St. Nicholas made its way north and into the Netherlands where the Dutch, calling him "Santer Klaus" and elaborating on the idea of the Saint bringing gifts and food to deserving children, began celebrating his Patronal Feast, on December 6, by leaving children's shoes out of doors where the roaming Saint might fill them with treats and money.  Later, in England, the idea of Father Christmas developed, reverting back to the idea of arriving via the chimney, carrying packages in a sack to be placed in stockings hung up on the mantle, or on a shelf in the home.   From the 19th century on, and especially after the publication of Clement C. Moore's epic poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas', our modern idea of Santa Claus developed from the long ago and loving action of a kind and holy man.

Tonight is St. Nicholas Eve and in our house, this is the night when the children's shoes are left out on the porch to await the arrival of St. Nicholas who will, it is expected, leave a  Christmas ornament in one shoe, and some kind of sweet treat in the other. This ushers in the more festive part of the Advent season for our family as we have now set up our Creche, lights and the "Wooden Santa Shelf" under our living room window.  I have collected a variety of wooden Santas' over the years; some are very much "Bishop Nicholas" replications in dark blue or green Bishop's robes, and some are quite Victorian looking, a few others are modern and several have an arts-and- crafts look about them but all find a home, for a few weeks, on our window shelf, with Christmas lights over the window, surrounded with greenery. We've always tried to strike a balance between maintaining Advent as a separate season, ensuring that Christmas does not start in our home until December 25th but we are very happy and enthusiastic celebrants from the 25th until Epiphany, January 6th!  I have always loved Advent and the contemplation of the incarnation and nativity of the Christ child during this time; it's a quiet and lovely few weeks of peace, joy and contentment.   I particularly love our candlelit little cabin of a house at this time of year, enjoying the way the light looks indoors, even during the daytime and especially when it has snowed heavily as it alters the look of things inside and out.

Welcome, St. Nicholas, to our home!  Thank you for your generosity and loving kindness.  May we all seek to show the same to those we love and especially, to those who may have no one to care for them, or about them.  Remember the frail and elderly neighbor, or the widow living alone.  Remember the children in your town or city that may have need of a "Santer Klaus" to fill their shoes with food and money; for all those who live without "the necessities of life"; for those who are homeless.  Remember that this time of anticipation is about making preparations for Light and Love coming into the world--both are as needed as they ever were, perhaps more so.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta told us that "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."  Do your own small things with generosity of spirit and with all the love you have to give! The time is brief ~ Be kind to one another.  Blessings and joy on your homes and families ~  Happy Saint Nicholas day to you all!  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Writing A Path From The Center

"...have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers. " 
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903, in "Letters to a Young Poet"

We are all familiar with this quote from the poet, Rilke, from a collection of letters he wrote to a young friend of his, an aspiring poet, who had gotten it into his head that he had to know what he was about in life, know what he was doing and who he was, before anything of value could be accomplished with his writing. Rilke was a loner, a social misfit and a wanderer; he found it difficult to stay in one place, to hold a job, to maintain a home, or a relationship. He lacked the ability to read social cues and had minimal tolerance for interpersonal machinations, yet his observations and insight on the human condition are precise, clear and evoke a sense of intense focus and devotion--he could read people and society, and his intellectual prowess made it imperative that he set his soul-readings to poetry. He offered, through his writing, a path from the center of his being towards that of the reader and within the context of his art, crafted a profound "word medicine" that could heal people, giving them the guidance that comes through shining light on the present moment, often illuminating the next step on the journey as well. In spite of his difficulties with interpersonal relationships, it is a mistake to conclude that Rilke lacked the capacity for intimacy as his poetry goes straight to the interior of the heart in ways that can only be accessed by an innate capacity for empathy towards the human condition.  Rilke's long familiarity with solitude and silence encouraged him to cultivate a generous wisdom combined with the humility to offer not answers to our questions, but an invitation to "love the questions themselves" and to wait patiently for our lives to speak. We have to write our own path from the still, quiet center of our lives if we are to find our answers.

We're a long distance, now, from Rilke's 19th century world, and it's more than evident that the internet and social networking culture has seduced us into believing that information and knowledge are synonymous. Its fluidity and speed suggest that answers to our most profound and nuanced questions can be found quickly-- all done and dusted by this afternoon--at the latest. We too frequently spend precious, unrepeatable hours scouring forums, anxiously polling online friends for answers to the difficulties of life and those who spend the most time searching seem only to increase their sense of unhappy desperation in the exhausting pursuit of finding someone else to tell them what to do, how to be and where to go for more quick answers. A society that endorses ever increasing speed and almost instantaneous gratification with little thought devoted to differentiating between wants and needs enables and encourages a blinding anxiety and to a purpose: planting seeds of self-doubt and fear creates a market for the unscrupulous and greedy in those who are afraid that there is no remedy for the perceived lack of meaning in their lives and of the corollary that something or someone "out there" has the answers to questions that can only be found "in here". Those who are willing to live out the questions of their lives by patiently accepting that the answers will unfold organically, in their own way, fail the "market test" every time. To live slowly, with purpose, allowing the steady, daily rhythms of life to move us along is a hard sell in a world of 24 hour news cycles where everything from a traffic snarl to an earthquake is "breaking news" and discerning meaning and truth are viewed as almost frivolous endeavors rather than taking their proper role as genuinely pressing and central concerns of human existence.

When I first began writing here, in 2007, I was in the midst of transition--I had lost two of my children in the previous 7 years and had another born with a challenging disability. I was leaving my childbearing years, being then in my late 40's, had three teenage and young adult children going through their own growing pains, and I was leaving a way of working and being in the world that had defined and informed my life for many years. I was responding to a deep leading towards a very different life that was, at the same time, beckoning to me like a homecoming; I was being called inward and towards more depth and focus. I was intensely craving solitude, silence and contemplative action in the world, through my writing and new work involving sacred listening to others, giving them the space to tell their own stories and find their own path.  And yes, dear Rilke, some answers have come through living out those questions but they can, of course, only be answered in part--I am still living, and loving, the questions. As another favorite writer, Isak Dineson, once said, "God made the world round so that we could not see too far down the road" and in this, she echoes and reinforces Rilke--we can only live the questions, embrace them, love them, and with humility accept and live with the partial answers as they present themselves.
And now I am 55.  My life has sorted itself out pretty well and I am living, imperfectly of course, the quiet, simple and creative life I had been trying to give an affirmative answer to for several years. I have lovingly let go of a number of people in my life over this time, knowing that I was simply unable, or no longer willing, to give them the time and energy they needed from me. I embraced fully a simple truth given me long ago by a very wise woman friend and mentor, "Compassion is mandatory, personal involvement isn't" and with that, I finally accepted the truth that being loving isn't measured by how willing I am to allow others personal dramas to invade my life and disturb my peace. I cannot give to others from a generous spirit if I am being drained by relationships with people whose lives are chaotic and who are living out what psychologist Carl Jung called "Shadow" in unconscious ways. These patterns are not always easy to see when they are taking up space in your life, but one of the many gifts of embracing solitude, quiet and simplicity is that those people and situations that are noisy and disruptive to one's peace become very apparent indeed. I've cultivated some new and already treasured friendships, blending them with deepened and rejuvenated long-term relationships.  My long and cherished marriage is thriving and our children are now well launched or close to it and with the recent marriage of our oldest daughter, our family configuration has changed in delightful ways as we've welcomed her lovely husband into the fold. Through all of this,  I have more of myself to offer to the world; more love to give, more work to do, and a great and driving energy to do my part to leave a legacy of healing and wholeness behind when I take my leave of this world.
So, my writing going forward will not offer you any answers, but I will accompany you on the road of living the questions. My intention now is to "write a path from the center" of my own life as I respond to the challenges and questions presented by a complex world mired in painful dilemmas and difficulties. I have also come to know other thinkers and writers who are my kin--those I've come to recognize as members of my extended "tribe" and and as my soul-mates and fellow sojourners and I will be introducing you to many of them.

Love and live the questions themselves. Pay attention to the "quotidian mysteries" of your own daily life and work and have trust and faith that the answers will come when they, and you, are ready to welcome them. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Coming To Our Senses: Savoring as Spiritual Practice

Hello friends:  I've been away from Close to the Root for a long while; it has been a bit of a struggle to sort out the direction for this blog--my life changes--all so lovely and life affirming--have meant a decision to wait, maintaining a position of patient abiding while the inner compass turned true north.  I think we're there.
I am writing for Close to the Root and those essays will be showing up here very soon.  In the meantime, this is an essay I was invited to write for Patheos and it might give you some idea of the tone and upcoming themes; I hope you enjoy it.
~ Michelle

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"May I walk you home?"

"We're all just walking each other home." "
~ Ram Dass

Our relationships with one another are part of the quotidian landscape of our lives; we live, and thrive, only in the shelter of each other.  To cultivate a community, a tribe, of compassionate healers comprised of people who accept and live into the responsibility of relationship is an enormous challenge--none of us can go it alone, we need each other, but this no light burden we take up when we enter into all the risks of connection and intimacy.  No matter what the nature of the relationship, whether that of mate or life partner, parent and child, intimate friendship--the responsibilities are the same.  We share not only in the daily joys and pleasures, work and play, but we stand, then, prepared for that last, long walk home whenever and however it may come.  We agree to be witnesses and companions to death, whether death comes, as it does to us all, at the end of our earthside sojourn, or the relationship itself dies--when we enter in to relationship with another person, we agree to walk each other home and that is a skill set, an endeavor of the heart and soul that we are not prepared for in a culture that fails not only to value and teach the skills we all need to sustain the relationships we create over a lifetime, but which fails even more profoundly to show us how to lay each other, and our relationships, to rest.  
A proper "good bye" is not only appropriate, but healing to everyone concerned. Whether at the bedside of a beloved companion when they are dying, or over a final cup of coffee with someone with whom we've realized we no longer feel able to remain in relationship; everyone deserves the dignity of an honest and heartfelt farewell.  We need to respect the magnitude of what it has meant, to both people, to have walked part of the journey together, realizing and standing in appropriate awe and wonder at the unique and unrepeatable beauty of that particular pairing for that stretch of precious time.  No matter what differences and contentions have arisen between two people, something essential, true and loving once passed between them, and it deserves to be held in proper esteem and gratitude; we can walk each other home without rancor, without pain, only when we've fully embraced what it means to give part of ourselves to another.   We live in a peopled place and our companions on the way shape us for everything else that is to come.  
Love is the end for which we are created and how we offer and invest ourselves in others, and they in us,  the truest measure of our worth. 
When we connect deeply with another human soul, recognizing in them yet another of our healing partners, our kindred spirits on our life journey, let us remember, then, that held in the heart of  each "hello" is always the question, "May I walk you home?"