Does shining light have value beyond avoiding darkness?

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I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet

Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.

The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting: Continue reading

Working past limits to learn from a wise teacher: my body

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Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.

Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading

On knowing, despair, unknowing, joy and the wisdom of the body

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Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes

I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.

During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed. Continue reading

The essential questions at the heart of our lives

Still-Life_620wLately, I keep bumping up against that old saw, The older I get, the less I know. I have more questions than answers, and while it is an invitation to humility and surrender, I find myself getting frustrated too. Looking for signs and affirmations that I am on the right track. And suspecting that the signs are everywhere, if only I would notice them. Sometimes I think maybe the questions themselves are the sign.

I recently heard Ricardo Semler speaking on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. In 1980, he took over his father’s company, Semco, and redesigned it to be a corporate democracy, where people design their own jobs, define pay levels, and select and evaluate their supervisors. During his 2014 TED talk, Semler recounts his discovery of the power of asking “Three whys in a row” to access deeper wisdom. Continue reading

Accept the muse’s assignment

 

2.15.15_Winter woods_620w3“Don’t forget to let it do its work on you.” These words were spoken by a retreat leader in response to my telling him I was eager to get back to work on my novel after the inspiring experiences of the week. It was a beautiful piece of advice, one that I knew immediately to be true on many levels. I was reminded of it again yesterday, reading Steven Pressfield’s blog post on how he healed his self-doubt by working for two years on a book about Alexander the Great, arguably the most confident man in history, one who knew and embraced his destiny even as a child.

Pressfield’s advice on overcoming Resistance in his book The War of Art, fueled me through my novel’s first draft, so I tend to listen to him. His point in yesterday’s post is that the muse gave him the Alexander the Great assignment for his own good, and that all art is a soul contract. What that says to me is: don’t question the inspiration too analytically, just answer the call, put in your best work, and let it do its work on you. Continue reading

A daily practice to experience and live in abundance

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I’ve been researching the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, particularly the residents of Smith Island, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. These men toil long hours — 3:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the height of summer — doing backbreaking work for what we in cities might call a subsistence living. They work six days a week and attend church meetings and services on Sunday. Their only time off is the month of April, after the oyster season and before the crabs return. That’s the month when they get to sleep in till dawn, overhaul their boats and swap stories at the general store.

People like this, who work the water or the land, have profound and hard-won knowledge of the cycles of the seasons, of weather, of periods of abundance and of scarcity. They’ve been around long enough to recognize patterns and trends, and also to hold such insights lightly, because nature always surprises you. One thing is certain: these people know what it feels like to do a good day’s work. Continue reading

We are all in this together

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I woke this morning haunted by two phrases chasing through my dreams: “We’re here to make the world safe for —” and “We can eliminate all evil,” half-consciousness laying bare the emptiness of such phrases, the mistaken assumptions about who we are, how much power we have, and why we are here in the first place.

When we tell ourselves that we are here to cleanse or perfect something — whether it’s us, the environment, people with different skins, alien cultures, or desperate terrorists — we totally miss the point. Perfection is one of those goals born from the story of separation. As is curing, rather than healing. Or cleansing, rather than embracing. Continue reading

Leaving Birthdayland

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Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday, so this painting is one of hers, done 20 years ago at Glacier Bay in Alaska. She loved the exotic landscapes of Alaska, the history and villages at the intersections of water, cultures, and time.

This is the second birthday from which she has been exempted. Once, a little over two weeks before she died, we sat in her sun-filled kitchen while she extracted cards from her Birthday Book. This was a 9 x 12 spiral book probably from Hallmark, with a page for each month in which to note people’s birthdays and a facing pocket to hold cards ready to send. She reused it year after year, because, after all, people’s birthdays never change. They are one of few constants in this roiling, shifting world.

My mother was a good patient who died peacefully at home, but she didn’t want to go. Continue reading

Transformation and shedding

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When i find myself obsessing too much about the state of things, I play a game called “hero’s journey.” Sometimes I use it as a lens on my own life, bringing new insight and meaning to past events, or greater understanding and patience to a current challenge. I also imagine it can be applied at any scale, since we are all on the collective adventure of being between old and emerging stories. By that token, we have received the call but are probably still back at refusing it and trying to keep on living a “normal” life. Eventually, things will get so bad (if they haven’t already), we’ll be forced to embark. And then who knows what will happen?

There’s a tension in the hero’s journey between transformation and becoming. Continue reading

Nonresistance

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Our boat had just been yanked one-hundred-eighty degrees, spun on her keel in the opposite direction, and was now screaming northward up the Bay, back the way we had come. In the blackness, we could see nothing – not land, not a buoy, not another boat or – ominously – any ships.

“Why did you tack?” I yelled, to be heard above the storm.

“I didn’t,” my husband answered. “I’m just going with the wind.”

He knew that resistance was not only futile; it would be dangerous and stupid in the face of such omnipotent, unseen forces. His unquestioning compliance was the right response in a situation like that: a sudden thunderstorm sweeping over us in the dead of night. Continue reading