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Sparks will fly #4 #wings

It has been hot, hot, hot this week, plenty of sparks flying when the temperature reaches 46C.  The afterglow of the heat in the sunsets has been spectacular and a reminder of the eternal dance between heaven and earth. We are in a season where bushfires are a sniff on the north wind long before they arrive and so far they have not taken their February Dragon form, as Colin Thiele once wrote.

This has been one of those ordinary weeks full of extraordinary moments. Leigh Sales latest book An Ordinary Day takes a practical examination with her usual curiosity of how your life can change in an instant. You get up in the morning, stretch, do your ablutions, get dressed, have some breakfast … it is an ordinary day … and by the next time you head to sleep you are not the same as you were woke up.  We have all had those days – grief, joy, new job, lost a job, become a wife, become a parent, become a widow. Maybe you have become a hostage, been in a car accident, won the lottery … ordinary people changed forever. This is the human condition as the Buddhists remind us – suffering, death, impermanence. Everything will pass. All the more reason to savour those moments full of spark and energy and build as fuel for the times when there might be little in the tank, and for resilience when a withdrawal is needed.

So far this year I have woken up more times in other people’s houses than I have in my own, the equation will balance out in no time at all. Waking up in new places is a metaphor all of its own, and when those moments come to shake us all about and rip us from moorings or rise us to new heights, we do get woken up again and again.  I am noticing there is a theme emerging about paying attention. Thanks Mary Oliver once again, and to miksang practice and Thich Nhat Hanh and Br David Stendl-Rast and Pema Chodron … and all the others over the years who have reminded me to pay attention.  I can see times when I have not been awake, have turned away, not wanted to look, not wanted to pay attention, moved too quickly to the next moment.  Being in the moment is one of those universal truths to co-operate with the foundations of impermanence and embrace the invitation to pay attention. Each little spark has the potential to be something bigger like a bushfire – and with it to be destructive, cleansing impurities, turning sand to glass, healing the earth, bringing ancient seeds to life.

I went to sleep last night after one of those days. A day of joy and filling up. A day of harvest and recognition. A day putting fuel into the reserve resilience tank to draw on into the future. A day where simplicity and complexity and mixed emotions combined. A day where the evidence of collaboration, secret squirrels and bureaucracy, contrived a gift. I received an Australian Honour. It is an AM – Australia Medal and for those who don’t know about these things – it is prestigious.  I discovered the nomination had been put in nearly two years ago and with the efforts of a band of friends, colleagues, peers and family providing all the details and evidence required by the process hosted by the Governor-General’s office.  Many of the contributions have been invisible and to have them out in the open with this shorthand of two letters to tell that story is very touching and I do feel honoured.

I could give a litany of actions public, private and some in-between – just as we all could – that are in the service of others. That is really the point – we spark off each other. Someone else’s need is another’s gift and more often than not, the gift of time, talent and/ or energy transmitted is helping the giver as much, if not more, than the receiver.  That has been true for me anyhow. I have learnt new things, discovered new opportunities, found ways to work around problems, created and amplified, had fun and generally been well and truly rewarded by seeing something come to fruition or a person blossom and bloom.

This relationship between service and paying attention is so brilliantly reflected in the arts. How often do we get to see with new eyes through a creative paying attention? So it was very fitting that I ended up at the close of play yesterday with the sun setting behind me while I sat on a butterfly chair, created by a local woman (Anna Small) who could see wings.  One of the conversations I had during the week, one of those moments to carry me through a lifetime, was an invitation to see this time as encased in a cocoon, liquified and not yet fully formed into a new creature. At this moment encased in a silk, protein, hard purse hosting the changes hidden inside, first spun by the old being before the new one forms. This spark of insight to see the old form having first spun the protective coating to enable the new to form is so obvious once I pay attention. I am exploring what branch my chrysalis is hanging from and how delicate the wings will be when they unfurl wet and perhaps still a little bit gooey. What was hidden on the inside, is woven around and then voila – something new that was already there!

After the winter, there is spring, after the chrysalis, there are wings. Now in this moment, and coming soon, are dangerous and noble things, calling for lightness, improbability, boldness and bravery.  Sparks. Will. Fly.

 

…..Extract from Starlings in Winter by Mary Oliver

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, 2003

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Sparks will fly #3 #taking

Riffing off a conversation during the week about the difference between giving and receiving and giving and taking has set some sparks flying.  I am pretty good at giving and I am getting better at receiving but the idea of taking that is foreign territory. What does it mean to take?  Literally to grab something with both hands, yank it into your life, pull it towards you feels a little violent and perhaps even greedy or entitled … but what if it was about showing up, leaving nothing to chance, proactively and decisively making a claim? I think I am out of practice at taking a trick. We played a lot of cards and board games when I was growing up but no so much in recent times.  I steered away from competitive activities and have somehow aligned taking with competition – if I have something then someone else doesn’t.  This is not true.  That is a scarcity mentality and that doesn’t line up with my usual approach to life around abundance.

Taking and giving are not mutually exclusive. I can take a photograph and enhance the beauty of what is there and see something new and give that to others. I can take a position and advocate to be more inclusive which opens up, not closes down possibilities. I can take what I imagine is potentially mine and that need not be taking from another or from someone else’s future. There is intentionality in taking that feels quite different to the humility of receiving.  This is sparking me up to consider what might I like to take from this time?  What might I want to manifest, grab with both hands … make happen, instead of passively let happen?  Alert: No children will be harmed in the making of taking.

With the death of Mary Oliver this week I have been reflecting on her legacy to future generations and how even a tiny spark of her talent has held me many times. She took from the natural world and shared her insights. She absorbed, at a cellular level the lessons of all things elemental. While we received, she did take, and knead and hold and filter and fuse. I am sure she would have seen her taking as necessary for her to give.  In fact her instruction is quiet clear in her famous One Summer Day poem meditating on the grasshopper – what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  Embedded in that line is a confirmation and imprimatur, to be wild, accept your life as uniquely precious and irreplaceable, unable to be replicated as each day, each moment to be spent by only you and the way to you spend it. Making a plan includes giving, receiving and taking. Paying attention to falling down, kneeling, rolling in the grass, gazing around, floating away – these are all instructions from the school of life and living includes pushing through pain barriers in dark days, unfurling wings while they are still wet, moving the jaws up and down, ruminating, chewing through things hard to swallow, being nourished and fed in the process.  I don’t know what a prayer is either, but the spark to consider taking as well as receiving and not making anyone else the poorer, weaker or losing in the process that may also make be richer, stronger and a winner along the way is worth considering … and even a bit of planning.  Here’s to the summer day!

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

by Mary Oliver

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Photo by Chris Galbraith on Unsplash

ps To hear or read an interview with Mary Oliver and Krista Tippett from On Being click here.

 

Sparks will fly #2 #NewYork

Here are four sparks from the week. Sparks that have ignited my soul and warmed me in the cool of winter in North America.  Sparks releasing energy to give light and shade. Sparks offering promise and revealing potential. Sparks from the soles of the shoes of this pilgrim that has taken me across the world and home again safely thanks to the generosity of a few and kindness of many along the way.

Spark 1

Simmering thoughts bubbling up in anger sooner or later turn into sparks of inspiration and seem through their friction to open up new possibilities when allowing those sparks to transform and expand their energy. Holding on to the fuse and not letting the energy find its way out can be a source of constriction, pain or at a minimum exasperation.  Wandering around some of the world’s greatest art spaces these past two weeks I was particularly struck by the power of anger as creative energy to get thoughts expressed and forced out through tear ducts, paint brushes and stone.  Solid objects chiselled and honed into beauty through disappointment, fear or aching neglect and words spilling out onto stages where the receptacles of open hearts and minds took the offering to deeper levels as we internalised meaning and applied to our lives. I have been reflecting about what it might look like in my practice and my work to leave nothing left unsaid and bring every single cell of my being into view for public display. The creative soul expressed is vulnerability writ large and empathy unplugged.

Spark 2

Sparks of light creating the in-between spaces and the shadows as well – there are always shadows – to fully accept what is being revealed is to also recognise the shadow created. I have recently been introduced to the contemplative practice of miksang. The Tibetan word means ‘good eye’ and is about the eye being synchronised with the contemplative mind through photography.  It seems to be about seeing as is, empty and free of interpretation. It is based on the Dharma Art teachings of Chogyam Trungpa.  I have not taken a course or read much about it, I have a friend who is a practitioner and I have taken some offerings and suggestions from her as well as witnessed her practice which I have found invitational. I added my immature and beginning steps into miksang with a kind of walking meditation, wandering where my feet took me without a specific destination in mind and tried not to have too many plans to take a right or a left.  It has been refreshing to see as is and to notice what is given and to receive the what is without interpretation, to feel into the seeing. It has led to multiple ways of seeing what is before me, both in real time and in reflection and then again when reviewing photos seeing again with new insights, shadows, patterns, hidden messages in reflected glass, surprising shapes and camouflaged insights revealed more fully a few days later.

Spark 3

Outside of the window I called home for two weeks Lady Liberty was pointing her torch to guide the way as ships came in and out of the river basin into the Atlantic. The Iroquois called it, the Muhhekuntuk, the river that flows both ways, because near the Atlantic it flows north and where it begins in Lake Tear of the Clouds it flows south.  Every day the elements re-arranged themselves around the skyline punctuated by skyscrapers to reveal plenty of light and shade and to offer nuanced ways of seeing the landscape. The sun sometimes casting a beam in between buildings to light up a dark wind tunnel alley way to give some warmth, the clouds closing over to being a mood setting to the scene on a dock worthy of a dramatic New York method acting stage, the twinkling lights acting as a join the dot game for young lovers to play as they set a course for their future.

Spark 4

Being in the USA and soaking up the political climate as well was to recognise the sparks of change igniting a nation that is re-correcting itself post the mid-term elections. The politics of relevance is at play and democracy is in the light and in the shadows. As the extremes define the middle new voices are arriving. The rise of young women in Congress are thrilling for many and terrifying for a few. The reclamation of the gavel by a grandmother is giving comfort and confidence to many in the middle and the juxtaposition with the grandfather in the White House is another expression of the gender wars reverberating around the world. I am so encouraged and enthralled by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who The spark in her is a raging fire, not yet thirty she understands the urgency of this time and is not waiting in line, not waiting for her turn, who is arriving ready, with an agenda to take care of business.  Like the artists she is using her spark to create for us to see what might be hidden, to offer another way of seeing and understanding what might be in front of our eyes. There is discipline in this practice of democracy and she is not leaving anything in the locker room – all of her is being brought into view.

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2019: Sparks will fly #1 Joy cometh in the morning

The theme for 2019’s blog is Sparks will fly. I have set the scene briefly for the year here.

 

Where do you find the spark to keep the light going, the fire burning in your heart? When darkness descends how do you nurture and covet the light and keep it safe from a gust of unwelcome wind or even a gentle breeze? It is the hands who corral the flame from the elements. They gather around to protect keeping just enough oxygen around the flame to keep it alight and enough of a barrier to allow the flickering to continue.  The hands connected to the heart creating a mini hearth of potential.

The hearth so well known and respected as a place for sparks to be domiciled but not always tamed. Plenty of sparks fly when a combustible comment is thrown into the embers. That is what is happening in “the land of the free”. The new fresh faces and voices who have stormed into Congress this week aren’t waiting for their turn – they arrived to work, dance and disrupt. There is a heady mix of youth and age – all kinds of wisdom. From Nancy Pelosi in her late 70s to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not yet 30 – these women are role models for every age … and yes sparks will fly.

Congress a symbol of democracy for the so called free world is a gerrymandered house of representatives from communities where the popular vote doesn’t always work itself into the highest office (just ask Al Gore or Hilary Clinton). But this Congress is more representative than ever before and every time the camera pans the Dems side of the House you cannot look away.

Diversity is the theory and inclusion is the practice. Clearing space not just making space. And spaces will be cleared on hearts and heads and hearths and homes. Having a special treat of seeing To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway this week, it was hard not to once again be moved by the ongoing relevance of racism, innocence, a child’s view of the world and mob rule. Joy cometh in the morning, yet the morning is taking it’s time to arrive for some and for others is it dawning a new day they aren’t going to embrace easily.

Making a home for a place for sparks to fly may mean some acts of kindness from hands to hold the space for the flame to flicker and stay alight when darkness threatens as it inevitably will. Our hands may need to be ready to leave the sanctity of pockets and become agents of solidarity. The winds of change are blowing and as Cohen has prophetically sung Democracy is coming to the USA.  And as we head into our own season of elections in Australia I am looking forward to a more diverse and younger parliament to form.

We find ourselves captured by the culture of the USA in many ways, and so given that is where I am this week, I am invoking some of their spirit in the sparks to fly.

And so ….

Joy cometh in the morning, and as you start getting out of the kitchen to rattle your pots and pans, before you know it, you too might be dancin’ in the streets. May it be diamonds on the soles of your shoes flickering and sparkling as the sun rises.

 

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Year of Self-Compassion #50 #Christmas

Heading into the week of Christmas used to be full of making – garlands for the tree, sweet treats as gifts, special food requests, home crafted goodies for family and friends, cards from every possible bib and bob. This year there is no tinsel, no treats and most notably no music making an appearance. It has a long held tradition that my favourite Christmas Carol tape (yes so old that a tape recorder had to be maintained to enable it to be played each year) would be hidden so I would have to go hunting for it. But this year hasn’t been recovered from the archives to be played and there is no cat and mouse game for the music to be played. Although this is the second Christmas, for the first one I was still in shock and yet I did manage tinsel and even a few cards, this one is different, it is unencumbered by the shock and just has the sadness in its place. No one to cook for here and only one of the brood actually even in the same state this year. It feels like I am visiting a foreign land – I can see all the lights and hear all the songs, I recognise the greetings and know what they mean – yet I am a visitor. It is not where I live. I live in another land, a place where Christmas is absent, probably on holidays and it will come back one day but just not making an appearance this year.

I am working out how to be a visitor in this land and I do have a pass to get in because I once lived there. This land is familiar, but I am a voyeur not a participant; I can look in but I can’t stay.

Looking through the windows and seeing silhouettes of parents wrapping parcels, I remember the joy of Christmas Eve and each gift, even down to each battery, was wrapped individually with love and hilarity under the cover of darkness while the little ones slept. The ache of children not getting up early, such was their confidence of a future world of gifts, they didn’t have anxiety about what may or may not be left under a tree. This was an annoying disappointment for their father who couldn’t wait to see their faces. Turkey cooking would start in the very early hours and I loved the quiet to potter in the kitchen to get all the trimmings together and over the years perfected the bird and it was welcomed with whoops by the non-vegetarians. Over the years I also learnt how to devise a menu fit for vegans, lactose intolerant, gluten free diners as well. The table was a feature and everyone enjoyed the bad jokes of the crackers and usually the elder challenged everyone to a Catholic Quiz – an exercise designed to separate heathens from holy and generally divided the generations. There was regularly a Christmas concert that had variations of well known carols and games – usually hilarious. One of my personal favourites was my grandfather with some serious disabilities acting out the 12 days of Christmas with his son and my two brothers – and only one of those four is still here today so there is no likelihood of a repeat performance – lost in time and saved in memory. Another favourite was a re-enactment of the nativity which melded together current social issues and although this happened about twenty years ago is still current – refugees being turned away and the inn-keeper on this occasion with resplendent in a giant Mexican sombrero. I also remember the first Christmas with a new generation and the joy of a child being born under the star of Bethlehem, inviting me in again to the wonder of new life and the eternal experience of being gathered around a child. The Christ Child is said to have really been born in July and all the evidence from astronomy points to probably the star appearing on July 4 which ironically was the day my first grandchild was born. I wrote this poem at the time:

Blessed be the child who is born under the star of Bethlehem.

May he be at one with the Universe

Skipping his way through life

On the energy of the Sun

And in the light of the moon.

May he be at one with his species

Understanding all the while he is the only one of his kind.

May he grow in the knowledge he is loved;

And with all that love comes responsibility to love others.

May he be like Micah:

And live justly, love tenderly and walk humbly.

For the past few years I have written a Christmas blessing, here is the one I did in 2017, knowing full well I was going to be exiled from Christmas for a while.

May you find joy in perfect and imperfect harmonies.
May angels witness your silence between sounds.
And may you look to the heavens for a star to guide you to a home full of love and promise.

And one I did last year for the summer solstice too.

May the longest of days

Bring your labours to the labyrinth

May the shortest of nights

Begin new dreams and visions

May the harvest of summer fruits

Yield sweetness and stickiness

May the cool sea waters

Soothe the sears of sun soaked skin

May the quickening of grain and grape ripening

Confirm the successful completion of a season.

So much prophecy in each of these for what the following 12 months brought and I have so much more to unwrap in the gifts I have received this year, even though I don’t yet see them under my invisible seasonal tree.

My act of self-compassion is to give thanks to my past self for seeing into the future, and knowing that today will one day be the past self I can also thank for remembering, count my blessings. hold the space for sadness and not be in a rush to move on. I know one day in the future I will no longer be a visitor to the land of Christmas and it will be waiting for me when I get there as a citizen again.

Year of self-compassion #49 #seesaw

This year of self-compassion is in it’s last month and I am still such a beginner. I am noticing the two planes I seem to be living in – one full of promise the other full of grief. For most of the year I have been trying to integrate these two planes and now as an act of self-compassion, I am letting them each live alongside of one another in parallel and in peace. I can put down one path and go to the other. The quest for unification maybe unwise and too soon. Each has its own journey to run.

I have learnt that grief is a thief, it steals your time, your memories, your past, present and future. It sneaks in and around moments of happiness and ambitiously turns up in all its glory just after you have had a fabulous moment. It refuses to settle and gnaws away on some invisible power cord like a rat, and then the lights go out because you didn’t hear the stealth crafted gnawing amidst the joyful noise.

There are more good days than bad days, but the bad ones can be brutal. I am noticing a pattern though and noticing is helping prepare myself to be kinder and gentler to myself. Preparation to be miserable is an interesting concept and for me seems to include comfort food, maybe a glass of wine, some favourite music to be reclaimed from the archives, a virtual retreat, a time to be sad in the cave that is my little cottage.

I am fascinated at how distractions waft in to turn me away from the wallowing and how I have welcomed those distractions as respite. As this year closes though I am asking the distractions to leave me to my sadness and come back later. I was describing the experience the other day as being like the apex of a see-saw. It doesn’t matter about the highs and lows they will come and sway in whether I like them or not, the weight off the other bumping one into the air and crashing the other to the ground – equilibrium is not possible – but the apex remains there just watching, observing, not moving. I don’t have to be on any end of the see- saw, I just have to notice to swings from the apex.

This change in orientation is surely an act of self-compassion. To be able to say to myself – look at that high, look at that low.  The middle point is the fulcrum, the place where the pivot takes place. This is the place that holds still, the place for the centre, steady and the only place to hold still when all around there is movement. It is said that the word see-saw comes from the French ci-ça, which literally means this-that. There is this and there is that – there is the joy and there is the sadness and both are held in the tension and dynamic of the weight of both as they leverage one another in motions and speeds designed to throw me to the ground or into the air.  If I think of myself not on the see-saw, but at the pivot point, that thought invites stillness and centredness. It is an insight to allow both planes to co-exist.

Equilibrium is not equanimity.

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Year of Self Compassion #48 #spaciousness

In recent travels I caught a few trains and noticed all the transit staff were smiling, they welcomed you in and out of the border crossings between the suburbs and the city.  They seemed to be content, even joyful.  The contrast to my usual experience where I find their peers in my usual transport system auditioning for the Gestapo.  They weren’t orphans there was generally an ease and light touch in all my encounters with people who were serving as guardians of passage, brokering moments to part with money, or to guide you to the right place. It is a bigger  city than mine and still spaciousness appeared alongside the hustle and hustlers, bustle and bustlers. I am curious about a culture that reflects spaciousness amongst the high-rise and high density living.

Spaciousness on the inside and its opposite, feeling so cramped you can hardly breathe. The long exhale and the deep breath inhale, to give your lungs a chance to expand, then to empty and expand again. Each breath an invitation to spaciousness. This is the kind of de-cluttering that understands stuff has to leave, before space can arrive. I have emptied myself of so many things this past year and reduced my footprint and yet there is still more to go. By living with less I am not less and this is one of the lessons I have had to learn. I came reluctantly and wounded to find space by living with less. I came broken and bruised to make a space that could be wide open. But it on the inside, like the Tardis, where it is bigger on the inside, the outside does not define what really goes on inside for any of us.  The space we make for inner selves, the space we make for not knowing – these are the clean benches, an empty rail in the wardrobe of our mind.  I am prone to an addiction of filling up those spaces in my mind with memories, haunting unhelpful, repetitive thoughts and then in breathing out, fill them again with news, ideas, hopes and longings.  That in-between moment of breathe in and out, when caught, is the silent steady still spaciousness of nothingness. It is the smile of the transit officer at Brisbane Central Station, the custodian at the gate between one world and another, quietly checking my ticket enabling safe passage from a carriage to a world full of possibilities. My only task is to turn up, to breathe and let the space before empty and the space after fill, again and again, and to remember that each time a little more is expelled and a little more space is inhaled.

Getting familiar with how to make the space in the first place, and then learning to inhabit it with all the feelings that come with being in space seems to be an invitation to being both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. The paradox of belonging and not belonging builds an acceptance of uncertainty. This is the kind of uncertainty the impermanence of everything brings alongside the familiarity of the everyday rhythms.  The truth is each moment comes and each moment goes and however hard we try to hold onto them it makes no difference whatsoever, the moment, like the breath, will come and then go. We are always stepping into the unknown, with each and every breath. This is a hard lesson to learn. Where we feel filled up and bursting at the seams is perhaps an invitation to look into that fullness and see what might need to be cleared, what space might need to be made.

I have spent so many hours this past year in particular having little space where it looks like I might have enough. Hours and hours have been filled with grief and confusion, deep, deep sadness of betrayals and hurts from beyond the grave, from lives disappearing and hurting close at hand, from the aches and pains of physical truths of ageing and disease. There have been moments of such fullness that emptiness arrives like a stone in the stomach. And emptiness unsuccessfully masquerades as spaciousness. It is not spaciousness.

An act of self-compassion is to recognise that emptiness is not spaciousness. Spaciousness arrives when you make the space, when you get rid of things that no longer serve you and where you revel and roll around in the empty and are not consumed by its false offering of fullness.  The space makes a path made by breathing out and making space. Perhaps holding on is the same as holding your breath?

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Let it Go – Michael Leunig