Friday, April 27, 2012

Not hoarding myself

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Ever noticed the difference a smile or venturing to say hello can make?

Plenty, in my experience. Take, for example, the Chinese woman who swims next to me Tuesdays and Thursdays. If I don’t say it first, she insists on offering a huge greeting each and every time we encounter one another. It wasn’t always so. I’d heard other swimmers complain that, when forced to share a lane with her, she created heavy waves and took up too much room. They hinted that, perhaps, she didn’t understand our rules … you know, the ones we Americans apply … the unwritten and, often, culturally exclusive, ones.

One day when the lanes were full, I politely asked her if she’d share. No problem. I smiled and said hello first. You can’t image the doors that has opened with her and others. Not only did we share, but we did so without hindering the other, even managed to enjoy the crowded quarters.

Ever since, we greet each other warmly and have shared again. I missed her for many weeks after the first of the year, though her husband would show up. Turns out she was visiting her home in Hong Kong for six weeks. We took up where we had left off. I don’t notice that anyone other than her husband and another Chinese couple speak to her. A fellow swimming friend told me they lived in her neighborhood, but she wasn’t certain they spoke any English. I know she does.

It reminds me of the time I traveled to Italy solo and was reticent at first to speak Italian. I felt left out and lonely, then forced myself to belt out buon giorno each time I  encountered anyone who would look me in the eyes: to the young man on the street in Florence, the well-builders in Chianti, the elderly woman at the market and the mother on the bus. Every time, I was warmly greeted just for having tried. It was a signal that I was opening myself to the world.

People complain that New York City is cold and impersonal. Years ago when my mother and I made a trip to view a Van Gogh show, a companion bus traveler gave us tokens to board. We were uninitiated and tried to use cash. The driver reciprocated her gesture, sailed through three stoplights and got us to the Met on time!

As an introvert, it’s not always easy to open myself to others, especially strangers. Children, however, are the exception. Creating that opening requires energy and confidence. I am not always in the mood to be so generous. When I am, the rewards more than make up for any effort.

Why is saying hello first so difficult?

Because opening to a stranger catapults us out of our little selves and comfort zone. Perhaps we’re too busy, in too much of a rush, are multi-tasking and didn’t even notice the other. Maybe we’re afraid or don’t want to bother, especially if we are merely visiting and will never see this person again.

But what a loss not to encounter the smile from a stranger’s lips if only fleetingly.

• What’s happens when I push myself to open to another, even a stranger, first?
• How many lost opportunities have I experienced?
• What has been the reward of such an encounter?
• What have I discovered is the best way to feel at home someplace else?
• What are the gifts of connecting with a stranger even for a moment?

all knotted up
in a tight ball
with room only
for my agenda

the man ready
to spend a smile

if only encouraged
with a few
warming words

or the woman
whose glance
I ignored
because I didn’t
want to engage

what of God was I
slighting in that person?

what of myself
was I hoarding?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Faint outline of grand design

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MESS/paint and pastel on paper 

WEDNESDAY: A transparent mess, that's what I told my shamanic counselor I was. He laughed, said no way, but that he liked the phrase so much he may borrow it. It's on his table and in his care that I feel that I can show up being that mess and not pretend anything else. It's as if my skin is clear, like a sausage casing, and everything inside is visible to all who take the time to look. Kind of like the invisible man or woman kits popular when I was a kid.

Interestingly, the visible insides are a myriad of shapes and bright colors: (at least in my vision) a chaotic, joyful tangle of sorts. I have been thinking how to represent this visually for a long time and hope to when the right concept strikes.


FRIDAY: I am sitting in the nose-bleed section of a Barry Manilow concert certain that this is a dream and I did not consciously buy these tickets and inflict this on my family. The audience makes me feel like a teenager and Barry's gaunt appearance scares me into thinking that if this is not relevant to me, how the heck will it be relevant to my 14-year-old, who seems to be sleeping.

BURNING/pastel on paper
And then the skinny older man on the stage transforms or, maybe it is I who does. Something snaps and I see beyond the aging frame, into the heart of the entertainer. The voice grows stronger, the songs become familiar and I begin to know this person, who shares his story. Tales of growing up in the worst school in American, but being saved by joining the orchestra and of a grandfather who, weekly, walked his grandson to Times Square to ycreate a 25-cent record because he recognized the gift of music. I actually think I like this guy. Of course, I tell my teen, I wouldn't have been caught dead in college attending one of his concerts. So why did I this time?

Possibly because I got an e-mail tip on steeply discounted tickets or because I knew my girls had studied him in music, maybe it was because he's now a classic and there won't be many other opportunities or a myriad of other reasons. Doesn't really matter because there was ONE moment when God spoke very directly and deeply to me through this performance. The message was "if this skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn can become world famous by using his gifts, then imagine what's possible in your life." Sure erases the pile of doubt I have been collecting.


CEASELESSLY/pastel on paper
SUNDAY: A wonderful young-adult Friend gave a powerful message [see link below] in worship filling me with all sorts of colorful images. She spoke of the faithfulness of a specific Monarch butterfly that, against, all odds, travels thousands of miles every year, crossing long stretches of water in a body that is less than aerodynamic for anything but soaring and catching a breeze. Ceaselessly, these creatures make their way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Mexico, crowding and causing the trees to become burning clumps of orange. She compared this faithfulness to our own spiritual journeys. What jumped out for me was how our Quaker meetinghouse is one of those trees, where we have all been drawn and our next step is to discern who we are collectively and where God is calling us. I am salivating, waiting to capture this image of orange trees, bursting with love, faith and trust.

http://www.cincinnatifriends.org/archive%20of%20messages/The%20Faith%20of%20a%20Butterfly-%20A%20Surrender%20to%20Love.m4a   by Katie Heape

MONDAY: So why do these three experiences call to me, what are they telling me? Maybe:
• God wants us to show our interiors to the world in all our full color and glory as messy and human as they may seem ... there's also divine design involved.
• Using our gifts transforms us and others.
• We are meant to share our giftedness and messiness in community, acknowledging our own and those in others. Our individual journeys and their lessons of faith and trust can be applied to living, giving and receiving in community.

• When have I felt like a transparent mess?
• What, if any, freedom did I experience by not hiding it?
• How has Spirit shown me the possibilities of my own gifts?
• What unlikely sources of inspiration have spoken deeply to me?
• How am I called to community, sharing my gifts and wounds?

threads, balls,
solids and transparent
shapes, brilliant, shiny
exploding inside of the
glint of unseen skin

feels like a mess,
but a deep
reveals the

then one older, wiser
and more experienced
exposes humble roots, yet
fully embodies his
gifts with joy
and gratitude

and one younger, but with
sharp eyes in her heart,
shares an illustration of
faith drawn from nature,
something simply ...

and I begin to
make out the feint
outline of
a grand design

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Heart of compassion

SORTING/Pastel on paper

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Over the weekend,  I was clearing out my desk and preparing to move into new studio space. One of this things I can do while waiting ... for a move-in date and better insurance quotes.

I was able to pitch and recycle so many pages of earlier versions of the book I continue to plod away teaching, eventually to revise and publish, when I discovered the small, black-and-white program stashed between file folders. It was titled "Understanding Cultural Differences" and outlined the 2004 community forum I helped organize.

It brought tears to my eyes and opened a large soft spot in my heart. I had almost forgotten my small role in our local Neighbor-to-Neighbor group all of those years ago. Saddened by the 2001 Cincinnati race riots and with an infant, I answered the daily newspaper's call to host a community conversation. In retrospect, I realize it wasn't just the newspaper's invitation. It seemed something proactive that I could do, tied down with young children. I called my neighbors and posted a notice and, lo and behold, if we didn't get a large, diverse and dedicated crowd unafraid to tackle some tough questions about racial differences and how to bridge that gap. Some of the comments still ring in my heart as truth:
• Children are colorblind, they have to be taught prejudice.
• There's still racism, it just went under ground and is more subtle.
• White privilege exists.
• Education is crucial to negating racism.
• You can change prejudice, one heart at a time.

2 FACED/Pastel on paper
After an initial year or so of getting more deeply acquainted, the group opted to share what we had formed more broadly by hosting a public discussion. Interestingly enough, I never got to the forum. One of my daughters was extremely sick that evening and my husband was out of town. It was a turning point and time for me to hand over leadership. I never forgot that warm and loving group, the times we marched in the local parade together, bonded over re-telling tragedies and hugging, changing the world one heart at a time, as my co-leader Frank Evans always said. Retired teacher Bob Terwillegar, no longer with us, diligently kept the group going for many years. It still meets and, about a year ago, I was invited to attend the monthly dinner. It was a joyful homecoming.

I am still struck by the mission statement we carefully and collectively crafted:

" ... to understand and respect life experiences and cultures different from our own, then help others understand by speaking against injustice and becoming an example of compassion and love for all."

Several weeks ago while I was waiting for my youngest and a friend to finish their after-school snack at McDonald's, I struck up a conversation with an animated older farmer. He told me many interesting things, but when he said something derogatory about African-Americans, I thought about what Neighbor to Neighbor had taught me and shot back: "that's offensive and inappropriate." We gently argued, but he could see I was not going to back down. I could also acknowledge that he was just passing on what he had been taught. I left with the prayer on my lips that my words, my heart may have touched his attitude.

How could I not, I was defending my friends and neighbors?

• How has racism touched my life?
• When have I spoken up against it?
• How have I been moved by the story of one of its victims?
• How has my past work influenced who I am now, what I am doing?
• How do I see Spirit present in all of this?

responsible for two
young lives, so

yet also outraged
by the countless
others who
have been marginalized,
tortured and lived as other

in the same country,
same city,
same neighborhood

that I inhabit
with my white privilege

something drives me to
take a small step

that still serves me today

a small step that
enlarged my
heart of compassion

Friday, April 13, 2012

Not bursting my bubble

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Yesterday's post would have been about bliss, being fully present and acutely aware of  other dimensions. Today has been overtaken by my absolutely least-favorite topic: insurance.

The idea of buying something you hope you never need has always ruffled me. I had thought it would be a minor detail in renting a studio in the re-purposed school in my neighborhood. Think again.

Or maybe it's trust again. Trust that, like receiving a grant for most of the studio rent, the insurance will work out.

Tuesday evening I was cloaked in trust as I was met with my regular Turtlebox Stories spiritual nurture group. Sure, there' s fair bit of prep involved, but when it comes to actually meeting, it is effortless on my part. And not because I don't do anything, but rather because it is so where I belong: doing what I love. That's using what I have learned in nurturing and exploring my spiritual life to assist others and, generally, I learn a lot from them. It's a blessed time of giving and receiving.

It's precisely more of that I want to do in this studio and I am certain this is my calling ... along with writing and making art. I spent two years in school for spiritual-nurture ministry and another 12 practicing it personally and facilitating numerous small groups of all ages, workshops and retreats.

So, really, is an insurance policy going to keep me from it?

I believe not.

I must confess that I am in the process of making a prosperity wheel, an idea generated from a book based on Biblical wisdom about spinning our negative into abundance by blessing everything. I mean everything. I have been using this technique for several weeks and it has worked in my life. Let me count those blessings:
– I received a grant for my studio and work, which was affirmation as well as financial support;
– My husband did his taxes without an extension and we actually know we have a bit more money;
– His business is picking up;
– He has two photo shows, a longtime dream, scheduled;
– We purchased a new car, retiring the wonderful old Jeep before it crashed, burned and cost a lot of       money;
– I am consistently sleeping well;
– I feel stronger than ever and the pain is less;
– A migrant, unfixed stray cat that took up residence on our porch found a home;
– We just traveled to a baby shower for the first of a new generation of Barneys and will be visiting the East Coast soon for my nephew's high-school graduation.

Now the trick is to bless the insurance and trust it will be resolved in the best way.

• What's gotten in my craw lately?
• What happens if I bless it?
• How does adopting a new, positive attitude affect me?
• What blessings can I name in my life?
• What difficulty can I trust to Spirit?

I want to live
in that space of pure bliss
and blessing

then the world
bursting my golden bubble

only if I let it,
I am discovering

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Recently stamped

INNER CHILD/pastel & paint on paper
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My memory keeps tracing and focusing on the delicate, detailed ears; miniature, but perfect, finger nails; the compact child's crouch; the huge, fluidly expressive brown eyes; doll-like diaper; and pint-sized whimper. Most of all, my heart remembers being so touched as the feisty little one, untangled from his cords and unhappy to be out of the warmth of the isolette, snuggled so completely and naturally on his father's chest. Kangarooing, they call it.

Baby Phillip arrived 10 weeks ahead of schedule, perfectly caught by his attentive mother who, in a rather shocked moment, instinctively knew what to do. And the father, my friend and former co-worker, asked me to visit the neonatal intensive care unit. I think it had something to do with my Quaker background and my sense of ministry. I am still awed and honored.

What I experienced there was God's presence: pure and simple.

God's presence in the perfection of this tiny creature.
In the father's peaceful persistence in snuggling skin to skin and just being present.
In his gentle fumbling with the teeny diaper.
His wanting so eagerly to share his new family, have it acknowledged and blessed.
Also in the mother's acceptance and gratitude in a trying situation.
Especially her ability to adapt quickly and protect her child; she began pumping breast milk only hours after his birth.
Their joy, humor, love and invitation into their intimate family smacked of Spirit.

Most of all, I felt God's presence in the grace with which they have handled the unexpected. They don't find it particularly notable, doing what they have to do, they say. But I see something more; acceptance and surrender at work.

I really don't know why I was called here, although I have been vigilant in silent prayer and asked others to join me. I have received one of the best gifts ever: glimpsing God directly at work in the lives of others.

Baby Phillip, already, is a blessing.

• When have I been graced with observing God at work?
• Why is it, sometimes, easier to see in other's lives than our own?
• Why does the purity of an infant touch my heart so?
• How does it stir my inner child?
• What models of grace have I experienced recently?

"Oh, it's you. I thought I remembered your number."
           "Did you get my text?"
"No, we're on vacation and my phone's not working. I have an old one."
"Well, she had the baby."
"I didn't think it was due yet."
"It wasn't, he came early and we were wondering, after you get home and settled, if you could come to the hospital and be with us, him."

that conversation jogged me
very quickly out of myself and
into something bigger

the visit to the hospital
more so

leave it to an innocent babe to deliver
so much love, recently stamped
with God's signature

Thursday, April 5, 2012

God claims each of us

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Why is it that when we experience the fragility of life, we tend to regain new eyes and appreciate the everydayness with growing gratitude? I have been living in the midst of so much birth and death that I can not ignore their accompanying lessons.

Today I finished my second belly cast, completed for a niece nearing week 32 of her pregnancy. Just about a month ago, I did my first. Placing my Vaseline-coated hands directly on the mother's belly and gently spreading the layer, then, carefully affixing warm, moist plaster strips on top has such a meditative and loving quality for me. The models didn't seem to mind, gifting me with the process of documenting life. This creative act stands in stark contrast to the recent deaths of two men in my small Quaker congregation and my role in arranging one of the burials.

Just before I finished this cast, I took a call from a longtime friend whose wife delivered her own baby eight weeks early at home and on their bed. She'd done everything right and even been to the doctor that very day. She's home now and the infant will spend a number of weeks in the hospital. In the same breath I congratulated my friend and also said I was sorry. Apparently that also captured his feelings. I told him he had one heck of a strong wife and he said she's been beating herself up for not knowing this was coming. How could she, not even the doctor did? But I understand mother's guilt.

I've had a ringside seat watching my baby sister deal with 18-plus years of mothering an extremely premature baby. I know it's taken a toll on her, yet she is exactly the right mother for this child, who will graduate from high school on time next month. That in itself amazes me as does the wonderful young man this baby has grown into. At one point, he was not expected to live. There is nothing my sister has not done for her son in terms of finding the best doctors, surgeons, therapists, tutors and anything else that would assist his development. He has more than survived, he has thrived due to the loving concern and care of his parents. They don't coddle him. Through the haze of this grueling kind of parenting, my sister managed to earn a Ph.D in special education and now teaches teachers about special-needs kids! Hers has been a journey of hardship, perseverance, growth, patience, trust and love. I am certain it hasn't always looked that way to her.

This death of a dream, not delivering a healthy baby, is a cause for grief. I hope my friend's wife gets through that. It's not her fault and yet as mothers, we take everything that happens to our children so personally. I recently told my shamanic counselor that I wondered if spending a brief time in a fume-infested painting facility caused a miscarriage. It was part of my job, I was only newly pregnant and had not sprung the news publicly. It just sort of slipped out during a discussion of my unmet needs, though my mind had looped it, like a bad movie, a thousand times. My counselor responded that a pregnancy should be able to withstand that.

If that triggered my guilt, what about these mothers who have so much more to deal with? How does one overcome losing the hope of delivering a healthy baby?

My sister has had 18 years to work through it and she's still chipping away at that bundle of guilt and grief. My prayer is that she gets relief and a reaches a sense of peace. I am also praying that my friend's wife finds loving compassion for herself, though, I suspect, she'll be busy mothering the beautiful, but small, son she now has.

How can you take life for granted when you're surrounded by stories like these?

• What's my experience of mothering, whether there's a child involved?
• What dreams have I birthed?
• What guilt or grief have I experienced when these dreams died young?
• How do I share my sorrow with God?
• What's God's response been when I have?

my hands have laid
on bursting bellies,
massaging and knowing
the life beneath

my ears and heart
have taken on the
grief of other mothers,
nurturing babies
forced out too soon

my lips continue
to intercede
for the health and
welfare of
ALL children

because God,
in her infinite and loving
ways, claims each of us
as her children