Be small. Feel big.

Go outside.
Tonight. After dark.
Lay on your back in the grass.
Open your eyes.
Crickets will sing and maybe, if you’re lucky, an owl will slice your heart open with its call.

The moon will rise.DSC_0556

Look the moon straight in the eye and make a promise. Promise to learn one new thing about this wild world you inhabit.

Discover the name of the first star you see next to the moon. Recognize its distance. Marvel. In all the dark there exists multiple tiny points of light.  Every night. Imagine all the light we miss when we’re not paying attention.

Can you discover the species of owl that lives in the pine. What does it eat? Where does it winter? How will it find water if there’s no rain tomorrow? How do you describe its song?

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Write this down. Date it. Do this again tomorrow. And again.

We will want a record of this. For our children. Our grandchildren and their children.

We will want them to know what lived with us one night when we paused to notice a miracle of balance and diversity, of red tailed hawks, of free-tailed bats, of carpenter worm moths at twilight.

Summer will fall to autumn.

This season too will rattle its saber with unprecedented flood and fire. It will tell us that our earth is changing.

If your house flooded or burned, what would you grab as you fled?
If your earth slowly crumbled and flooded and burned away, what would you try to save?

Watch how slowly the moon moves.
See how rocks or silver-toned leaves shimmer in its light.
Open your palms and see how you too shimmer in moonlight.

Remember the scene from Apollo 13, the scene where Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, sits in his backyard. He holds up his right thumb against the night sky. His thumb completely blots out the moon.

We humans get in our own way of wonder.  Yet this very wonder, at the human scale, is that which can touch us most frequently, most deeply.

When you’re ready, return inside. Spread the moon’s gentle touch to those your hand touch. Tonight. Tomorrow. Learn the wild ways of those you love.

With grass in her hair,
~Catherine

p.s.  I came across an interesting call for submissions today.  The Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment is looking for “new or renewed forms our writing can take.”  If your work reads like “the broken-hearted hallelujah, the witness, the narrative of the moral imagination, the radical imaginary, the indictment or the apologia” you might consider joining your voice with others in essay, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or academic article. Deadline is Sept. 30. For more information, read the entire To Write as if the Planet Were Dying: A Call To Writers. 

What do you bring to the table?

Which way will the creek
run when time ends?
Don’t ask me until
this wine bottle is empty.

~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser
_________________________

“What did you notice that was beautiful today?” When J asked me this last night, just as we sat down to dinner, I cracked up.

Table

It’s not a funny question, but rather an example of his dear effort to honor a request I made after breakfast.

“Please don’t ask me at dinner what I did today, or how my day went, ask where I found beauty.” I implored him in the morning as I hustled to my office.

“And what do you want me to ask you tonight?” I called over my shoulder.

“You can ask how my day went. I like to remember what I got done.”
___________________________

Life has always yelled at me,
“Get your work done.” At least
that’s what I think she says.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser
___________________________

What we focus upon comes to light. My request was part self defense – I always give myself more to do in any given day than I can ever accomplish and then feel bad when I don’t finish. And it was part new strategy; I want to pay more attention to life’s surprises of  grace and grandeur hiding in plain sight rather than concentrating only on how I try to unruffle its challenges.  I’m trying to adjust the outlook I bring to my day and our dinner table.

smooth coral

What do you talk about at dinner?

I’ve begun asking friends without children at home this question.

We don’t talk, we watch TV.
I don’t know, nothing, what we did that day.
What’s coming up on our calendar.
Funny stuff the dog did.

What did I expect? The better question is, what do I want, what does J want?  If gathering around the table is a nightly ritual so important that we set its time, its chef and menu (we trade cooking duty), its location and literally light its candles, then doesn’t it follow that we might also guide its conversational swoops and soars?

When our kids were home we had a standard dinner starting point that inevitably opened doors to conversation that often lasted long past dessert.

What was the best part of your day?
What was the worst?

Trials and triumphs of school and sports, of work and home life and friends trickled out over roasted chicken and broccoli.  If friends joined us, they too got pulled into the daily circle, some shy at first to say, but inevitably relaxed enough to tell about a moment that set this day apart.

I eventually bought Chat Packs, those decks of cards with dozens of conversation starters. We played Brain Quest and Would you rather?  I still sometimes put little stacks of these cards next to the napkins at dinner parties or spread them around the appetizers at family gatherings.

Am I inherently nosy? Afraid of conversational lull? Maybe yes and yes. But I like to think that even more than that, I really like the idea of getting to know the people I share time with. The worst kind of dinner is one where I don’t learn a single new thing about the ones I pause with at the end of the gift of another day.

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Last night I learned two truths. Each day delivers beauty; my husband remembers and honors my requests. Maybe those are really one big truth.

Where did you find beauty today?
~Catherine

p.s. For literary grace and grandeur, you could do worse than getting your hands on a copy of Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser.
1317_lgTreasure what you find
already in your pocket, friend.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser
__________________________

The book is the best kind of conversation, where no one voice dominates, in fact no one poet takes individual credit for any of the short stanzas.  From the back cover:

Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became “overwhelmingly vivid,” and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems.

…When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, “Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality…This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

Maybe I’ll bring it to the dinner table tonight.

Through the open window…

A coyote yips and howls. I don’t know what time it is, still dark. The Siamese jumps onto the sill, presses her body against the screen, hackles raised.  She emits a low moan. In the distance an owl hoots and the dog rumbles a half-hearted growl. J still sleeps, so I get up to close the window and notice a pinking sky over the mountains.  The cat and dog settle back down, tightly tucking into furry curls against the January chill. But for me, the night is over.

Today, this not-the-first-of-the-year, but this ordinary-Thursday-when-the-holiday-rush-has-finally-faded is my annual Life Visioning day.  It begins when I light a candle against the dawn.

Candle

Actually I begin every day by lighting a candle and spending moments deep in reflection.

What am I grateful for from the previous day?

Gratitude Journal

a little dancing after dinner
candles on the hearth
neighbors who share homegrown oranges

With a smile and fortitude from recalling all that’s good, I next invite my sacred heart space to be bathed by a divine floodlight where I cannot hide, not even from myself.  I think back to the day before, and remember ways I did and didn’t act in alignment with my values and intentions.  Can I repeat what went right? Can I correct the imbalances that caused failure?

I set me intentions for this day, write my to-do list within this womb of new dawn freshness.  Then, I pray. I trace the presence of my family and friends upon my hands, using one index finger I begin at each fingertip recalling a name, a need, until the faces and the names of all those who are close to me are joined in the center of my heart-side palm.

Hands

I leave this meditation time by rejoining the entire human chain with an invocation for peace and love, “For those who will be born today, and those who will die.”  Each month I also add a special intention.  My January focus is, “For those who struggle with addiction or mental illness and for those who care for and try to love them.” I join my hands together, press them to my heart, bow to the sunrise and begin my “real” day.

Oh my goodness, telling you all this was difficult.

I’m an intensely private person by nature. There were years and years and when I didn’t even tell my own husband that I prayed, let alone that I meditated and lit candles in the dark and drew his name upon my palm.

Why change?

Maybe I’ve decided that being myself is something I should do publicly.

Maybe I wrote, be yourself out loud on my to-do list this morning and it’s too early in the year to break promises to myself.

It is, in fact, right in the middle of the month the Backyard Sisters have dedicated to focus and while Susan will tell you how to focus your camera, I am relegated to suggesting ways to focus your writing life.

I learn today that the word focus comes from the Latin focus, meaning “hearth, fireplace.

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focus (n.) 1640s, from L. focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), of unknown origin, used in post-classical times for “fire” itself, taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Inspired by the connectivity to the word focus and home, as nurturing my family ties always rises to the top of any priority list, I reread my last year’s life vision and adjust paragraphs or sections that no longer seem important.  I focus on the lines that have followed me from year to year to year.

Write a book. Write a book. Write a book.

I realize I am. I have. Written the book(s). I just haven’t pushed hard enough for publication.  I cross out the line. Write a book. I revise: Send out book.  We are only in control of our own actions, I realize. And now is the time to act with focus, with fire, with the kind of fierceness you would use to advocate for someone that you love.

With light and love
~Catherine

Précis: (This is a lovely new word I discover today. It means a summary.)
When you sit in peace, quiet self-truth speaks loudly. Pay attention to what you’re trying to tell yourself.

Practice:  
Can you create a vision for your life?  Nothing fancy, just write about the life you want to live.  I live in a house small enough to vacuum in an hour.  Date it.  Remember to include all the elements of nature: Air-spirit.  Fire-ambition.  Water-refreshment.  Earth-body.  Space-mind.  Focus on one action for each element that you can accomplish within the next month or so.  Write that down too.

Play:
Create a scene of dialogue between two characters, one whose inner and outer life is aligned – think Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – and another who projects a false outward image – think Fermina Daza from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Now what would happen if they end up in a story together?

What’s the sound of mothers dreaming?

Nanzenji Temple Trees, Kyoto

The sound of my voice in silence makes only one mistake. So I’ll tell you about a small two-story grey house. Can you see weeds flutter among patches of dry Bermuda grass and a chain link fence encircling the front yard which is protected by a padlocked gate?

Imagine shadows, long and chilly. I’ve been here only at dusk for the hour when I used to teach meditation to young women who live at this safe house. They’ve fled abusive relationships. They’re pregnant, or have recently given birth. I’d like to say I exuded an aura of peace when I arrived, but the truth is my silver meditation chimes clattered against each other as I hurriedly picked my way between strollers, a red plastic tricycle, and the rocking horse that cluttered the front porch.

I was, am still, practicing the art of moving gracefully through the day. This class was my idea. I was new to meditation and felt its effects to be profound.  Like the first time I ate a lychee while traveling in Japan and discovered its seed buried unexpectedly beneath the rough bark peel and slippery ivory flesh, when I began to meditate, I found a deep kernel of peace enfolded in my heart and was surprised it lived there. Also, I discovered that when I was very very quiet I could hear my voice, the one that  sounds like the true me without any doubt or hesitation.

It seemed odd: me teaching women with one, two, or three infants or toddlers who barely have time to use the bathroom alone, never mind the possibility of finding solitude to meditate.  I told them that going deep within, to a quiet and holy place, might ground them and bring them peace. Sometimes I felt like I was offering peanut brittle to the toothless, but it was really all I had. Of course when my two children were babies, I’d found no time to center myself. Yet now, when I need it maybe less than I did then, I begin my day before dawn with an hour of reading, meditation and contemplative prayer. This stillness carries me through the day like a time-release sedative.  I reflect on many things, but my thoughts frequently turn to the concept of voice. Do I use mine enough?

One day I have this dream. I doze in the sun on a plastic-strapped lounge chair next to a small apartment building pool with leaves and twigs floating atop the water. Giant screws mark the spot where a diving board once stood. Splash!  I open my eyes to see one boy, young enough to still have his milk teeth, smiling like crazy as he dog paddles in the shallow end.   “Dad!”  yells a high-pitched voice.  “Dad!  I’m over here.” A man waves absently at the boy and slowly picks his way around the pool deck littered with old chairs. 

The boy cannonballs off the side of the pool.  The father gazes at me, working a cigarette with his lips. He descends the pool steps and wades into the shallow end.  The boy dog paddles to him and hangs on his neck. I stretch and decide to plunge into the deep end.  I peer over the edge and see a dark shape at the bottom.  It looks like a balled-up baby doll of a lump. My heart thumps.

I glance at the shallow end where the boy sits astride his father’s shoulders thrusting his fists into the air. But I can’t hear him any more. I look again and that thing on the bottom of the pool is still there.  The shape is too small to be the boy, but I thought, drowned child…

It looks like a baby doll. Oh please, let it be a baby doll. Precious time, oxygen time, is wasting and still, I don’t dive in. I don’t want to be involved in death this afternoon, especially not the death of strangers. I will not jump in. Even as I realize this about myself, I open my mouth and yell “Help!”  Not a sound. Not even a whisper. I scrunch my face and shriek “HELP!” and the boy jumps off his father’s shoulders and the father ducks below the water and no one hears me because not a sound escapes my lips.

I look again at the shadow on the bottom of the pool. I tell myself to be deliberate. I open my mouth.  “Help! “There’s a baby on the bottom of the pool!” Nothing. I plunge in and try to retrieve what I can hardly bear to touch. The body is rubbery.  And cold.  So cold.  She is cold.  Blue.  Dead. Then I shriek.  The man and the boy rush to my end of the pool.  I huddle over the body, shielding the sight from the young boy.  I’m awake.  Straight up in bed. I’m screaming.  No sound comes out. I sit with this dream in meditation for many mornings.

Of course I don’t tell the women at the safe house this dream.  In fact, I really don’t tell them much. I repeat the words of Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Breathing in, I calm. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, it is the most wonderful moment. For one simple hour we concentrate on the gentle rhythm of breath. We drink in the blessed silence that happens when babies fall asleep in their mothers’ laps, safe, warm and full, sometimes working their lips as they suck in their dreams. I whisper the thought that this kind of peace can be recalled at other, less tranquil times, as a balm against anger or frustration or fear. Sometimes a hardness about the women’s eyes begins to soften. I tiptoe out when my hour is up, not wishing to disturb the mothers who’ve fallen into deep meditation, or sleep, themselves.

Shortly after my dream, thes classes are cancelled. It has something to do with house counselors wanting more time for job skill training and Bible classes. I think often about the young women who live in that grey house. I wonder if they remember anything at all about what I tried to teach them.  They never considered anything they were doing as remarkable. Not the courage it took to leave their abusive situations. Not the energy they poured into keeping their babies safe and working on a new sort of future.

“We’re just trying to breathe,” they’d say. Then they’d laugh like children.

If you want to begin meditation or deepen your spiritual practice here are some of my favorite book resources: The Energy of Prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh “When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer.” Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating “The will is designed for infinite love and the mind for infinite truth, if there is nothing to stop them, they tend to move in that direction.” Or, if you prefer a quick how-to article, you can check out Sam Harris’ “How To Meditate.” Peace, C.

Zen Rock Garden at Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto