Saturday, May 29, 2010

wild orchids

At this time of year, in the pond off the meadow, behind the pottery studio, there is a large stand of wild, yellow orchids which grow out of the water near the edge of the pond. This is one up close.

Its architecture is wild and untamed. The color is gentle and vibrant but the shape has a menacing quality to it - like a dragon or an alien. It seems to have order and yet, at the same time seems to grow into points and curves which defy the average hot-house flower. It looks like the kind of flower which might be the garden bully were we to anthropomorphize them into human characters -staring down the black-eyed Susan and the tulip with a withering glance.

Intimidation is a tool used in nature to control and to defend. It is the way species are protected from other species and it is the means by which domination is achieved.

This flower reminds me of the bible verse about being as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Nature's gentle beauty enmeshed within its immense power is a good icon to how we humans were made as well - gentle, powerful, beautiful, strong, resilient. Being good humans is nothing more than simply being how we were made.

We were made for goodness and beauty and strength. Of course life's storms can blow us over just as a terrible storm can fell a tree which crushes an orchid. These things happen. Bad things happen to good people all the time. But I am increasingly convinced that when we live open, honest lives of mutual loving care and self-loving kindness, things seem to work in the ecosystems of our lives like they do in my pond. There are occasional bad smells, some mosquitoes and even the occasional creepy snake. But in general - it is all so lovely and it all works together to sing God's glory along with the peeping frogs keeping beat with their bigger brethren and the occasional wood pecker for beet and rhythm. I agree with the mystics - on my better days: I am not sure about coincidences but I am unable not to notice that when I pray, there are a lot of them. It all is very scary, but it all seems to be working towards goodness and all we have to do to participate is to choose goodness over and over again.

Friday, May 21, 2010

cob webs

Yesterday my life changed. I was able to see something about my childhood and how it affects my adulthood that I had never seen before. It had been staring me in the face for 46 years but I had just never seen it before.

I was with a friend and we were discussing our lives - what is going on - who is pushing our buttons - where they were sewed on by our parents. We were working on our "stuff" trying to become better people. Trying to figure things out so that each year of life that passes involves a few better choices made, and a few less poor choices made.

Working on life is so important. And it is work. To look up close so that we see past the glittering image we want people to see and look deep into the detail - that is "doing the work." My friend Ian says "I only want friends in my life who are 'doing their work!'" And I agree. I am doing my work. I am asking hard questions and looking into dark corners and turning up the lights in my life - welcoming wise others in to look at the cob webs and help me sort out how to live my best life. And they, in tern, invite me into their vulnerable life and ask me my opinion too. As we "do our work" of looking hard at life and seeing - with wide-awake eyes- what needs to be seen, we are becoming God's hope for us.

Blackwater Bluff is a lovely home - comfortable and deeply soothing to me and to others who come here for rest and conversation. But even in the house of this over-functioning solitary, there are the occasional cob webs if you get up close and look from the right angle. My friend Jeremy took this photo one night at a dinner at my house. To him it was a photo but to me it seems an icon. When I first saw the photo in his collection I was embarrassed. But then I realized, with a smile and a shrug that the shame is not in the cob web being there. The only shame would be in the cob web being left there or thinking thatthere are no others.

We all have these cob webs in our lives. We all have "our work to do" as we become more self-aware without becoming more self-absorbed. We beg God to open our eyes to see the cob webs. Then we beg God to remove them. And God shows up in other people - in our sages - in the people we love and trust and consider wise. Our friends bear Christ to us like an inn-keeper bearing a lantern to a traveller in a storm.

They say that cob webs tend to appear where there is air flow. Spiders make their webs there because of the increased likelyhood of a tasty bug being swept into them. Makes sense.

This cob web on my lamp in the living room reminds me that there will always be the occasional cob webs (and even dust balls !) and sometimes we will find new rooms in this "house of love" we call life; and when we open a long-closed door we will find a room so swagged in cob webs that it looks like Disney halloween on meth. But if we go in and invite God in with us - bring close trusted friends in with us, we can clean those rooms up a bit and consider where the drafts are coming from and fix the cracks and let God fix the ones we cannot reach. We "do our work" with courage and integrity. We live our lives not with the lights kept low, but with times of bright self-exposure to those we trust so that they can help us to reach some of the spots we just can't quite reach on our own.

Merton was right. No person is an island. We are all connected. We are all placed here to help each other to become God's hope for us. But for that to happen we need to find our sages, open up to our sages and then, gently, deal with what we see - together.

Yesterday, I realized that an unhelpful pattern in my adulthood was connected to an abuse in my childhood. This realization was like finding a lost combination to an old bank safe. Inside my psyche I could feel the bank-vault internal door wheels turning inside me as the right combination was being entered by a wise friend with a lamp trained on my soul. As the wheels moved and turned and the turning wheels and gears turned the door bolts - all working simultanioulsy in a brass and chrome symphony of turning and grinding, all of a sudden a door unlocked and as it opened, a swoosh of air anounced a new openness. My soul felt that a bit of progress had been made in this house of love I call my life. Inside that door there may well be cob webs, but the people in my life are with me and we all have our trusty feather dusters in our back pocket. The next time we gather for a good meal and some red wine, we can start talking away the cob webs.

Our life is not given to us to be lived so that we are perfect. Our life has been given to us so that we are letting God - through our sages and friends - tackle those cob webs and brighten those windows to our souls. As we do that, there is more Christ-light for everyone.

"...and the light was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Monday, May 17, 2010


This piece (photo by Jeremy Winnick) is one of my favorites and is the second of its kind. Both versions of Leviathan are in private collections now and both were in exhibits in the last couple of years. Leviathan is the word given in Hebrew scriptures for a great sea monster and what I find so interesting about it is that in scripture it is both feared for its power and fury as well as being acknowledged for its placement in the creation by God for its playfulness. It is considered evil and needs to be destroyed for the good of other and for their feeding one moment and then it is portrayed as a big beast that plays with ships. One moment its destructive powers are horrors and the next they are given a charming character as if to say "well, monsters will be monsters!":

“ "Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness." ”
—KJV, Psalms 74:14

“ "O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein." ”

The word Leviathan comes from the Hebrew and refers to its twisting and coiling - giving it characteristics of the snake. And the dragon is revered in China as a portrayal of both power and diversity of culture.

It is the Chinese influence which places these dragons or gargoyles on my pots from time to time. I like their menacing quality but also their playfulness. They remind me that I have the ability to do great good and great harm.

In the end art is from the artist and is, when it is best done, a portrayal of some aspect of the artist or what he or she sees or experiences. I think we all are connected to the entirety of the world and its natural creatures and so we are even connected to Leviathan and have some of it inside us. Whether it is playful or menacing seems to be a daily and moment by moment choice we make. God help us to make good choices.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Trasfiguration into Goodness

My life has been unalterably changed by Archbishop Tutu's little new book called Made for Goodness. It is a small volume- I read it in almost one sitting on a recent trip and have had to re-read it twice since. It has lots of yellow highlighter in it and lots of black ink in margins with exclamation marks and asterisks and notes to myself of things to consider in my times of prayer and my time of re-collection (the daily three questions: what went well, what went poorly and what could I have done differently or do differently in the future.)

The book is hard to read because I must look hard at where I have chosen evil rather than good. Tutu makes the point that we are all made for goodness; that "goodness is not just our impulse. It is our essence" which is why evil so bothers us when we are paying attention and are centered in life.

As the child of alcoholics and powerful manipulators, I have learned some unfortunate ways of being a human and my conversion into becoming God's hope for me is not the glorious transfiguration of Jesus as much as it is a long, slow hot shower: the steam opening the pours, the dirt of life coming off so slowly, the tar from the pathways vigorously clinging to my ankles and my tense, self-protecting muscles relaxing under the spray of hot water- acknowledging even if reluctantly, that God will keep me safe but not always cheerful.

I find it easier to see the evil in others than the evil in myself. But when I am willing to forgive myself - when the hot Jesus-shower is working its magic, then I am able to forgive myself enough to be less judgmental of those around me.

This icon, pictured above, was written by a friend in 2000 on Mount Athos, Greece. The image of the Transfiguration of Jesus shows Jesus in all His glory with a bodily nimbus of turquoise which extends deep into the future and the past simultaneously behind him and around him. The geometric shapes are a trick of the eye to show the pray-er that Jesus is of and into eternity. The characters around him on the earth- Peter, James and John are in the image on the left as pre-story, on the right as post-story and beneath Jesus as story - a jumbled mass of quivering fears and gelatinous strength; completely unable to accomplish anything except perhaps staying with the terror and wetting themselves.

Life feels a lot like that for me most of the time. I am afraid and generally feel unprepared to accomplish much; but am willing to follow Jesus on the condition that we both recognize that I am mostly a jiggling mass of fear in as much need to a therapist as of a priest. Jesus seems to be OK with that. Personally, it does not seem like a good management model. I would have chosen a better quality of followers if I were trying to change the world. But God seems to do God's best work when we are weak and willing - and we seem to mess up God's best work when we are righteous and competent. Whatever!

In this life - this "little school of Jesus" as a past, great spiritual director would say; in this life we are being transfigured as we choose goodness.

Tutu says in the opening chapter of his book the following:
"Goodness changes everything. If we are at core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures, we need to fight these inclinations at every turn and often need strong systems of control to prevent us from revealing our true (and quite ugly) selves. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly. This insight into our essential goodness has shifted how I interact with other people, it has even shaken how I read the Bible." (page 7, Made for Goodness, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu.

Tutu goes on to say that "Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it."

I am deeply grieved when I re-collect on my life or even just my day, and see where I have lied, manipulated, taken what was not mine, used people to get what I want, confused wants and needs, hidden and projected a false image of who I really am, etc., etc. But there seems always to be hope. There seems always the invitation to turn around. There seems always the invitation to choose Goodness. There seems always the invitation to start afresh and follow Jesus by choosing goodness for our own lives.

I used to think that my job was to try to get within the light Jesus was shining - to try to crawl and scamper into a lower corner of His light - to get some of His light on me. But as I live in this "little school" whose classes often feel too advanced for my skill level, I begin to see that the light of the transfiguration is not outside of us but rather inside us. As I make fewer choices for evil, I make more choices for goodness. And as I do that, the hot water of this long, hot shower we are in - this conversion experience we call life - is washing enough of the grime off my soul that it is beginning to emit some light. Not my light but THE light. Not a beacon of hope. But perhaps a candle. We do not need to become beacons of hope. That job is taken. We only need one saviour. But we do need - each of us - to shine "this little light of mine" as the old hymn sings.

As we expose the candle within each of us, heaven's light will no longer obscure a dark world because the light planted inside each of us will glow brighter as the panes of our lanterns are cleaned of the mud, yeah...let's call it mud, in which we have been rolling.

I am 46 years old. I wish I had read Tutu's book earlier in my life. But it was not yet written and I did not have the ability to see that I needed it. Oh well. What I can do now is to choose goodness when I have the strength and to live in such a way that the strength is more likely present to me. Good food. Lots of sleep. Plenty of gentle, humblefriends. Good wine and bread. A good dog near as an example for me to live by. Hard work so that I am too busy to get up to mischief. Life on a farm on a dirt road where I can live a right-sized life.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

It stinks but it makes things grow

We have been combining a house party of friends visiting for the weekend with a very serious assault on the garden to ready it for the summer. There is 600 square feet of vegetable garden and it needs to be weeded, manured, tilled and set for the plantings which arrive next weekend and which go into the ground on Memorial Day.

While my friend Clay tilled the soil I was shoveling hay from the chicken house into wheelbarrows and dragging it across the surface of the garden so that when the tiller when by, the chicken poo and straw was tilled deep into the soil. This is the final of four layers of chicken house straw and I can smell the dirt heaving a sigh of delight with all the nutrients.

As I was shoveling the chicken poo, I was aware how important what dies is to what lives. Be it in the garden or in our lives or in our church or in our families, the things that must die so often serve as the manure to enrich the soil in which the next things will burst forth with new life.

A Canon friend of mine in South Western Massachusetts says that it is usually only when a church hits the final stage of morbid conflict and everything crashes and burns with rubble and destruction everywhere and big piles of poo all over the place - only then does that church rise like a Phoenix out of the fire and ashes to the possibility of new life. I believe that is true for churches and relationships. If we really are living our faith, then we really do believe that God can raise from the dead that which seems to be a completely lost cause - dead, rotten, smoldering and fetid. Problem is, that while we wait, the chicken poo still smells like chicken poo.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blackwater Bluff Buckwheat Pancakes (c)

Blackwater Bluff Buckwheat Pancake Mix ©(makes 7 batches of 6-8 pancakes per batch):

In a mixer or with a big wire whisk and lots of whisking, combine
• 3 cups buckwheat flour
• 3 cups white four
• 8 teaspoons baking powder
• 3 teaspoons baking soda (fresh box)
• 2 teaspoons salt

Blackwater Bluff Buckwheat Pancakes
lightly stire with whisk (do not over-beat):
• one medium - large egg
• 1 cup milk*
• 3 tablespoons melted butter
• pinch salt
• one cup - Blackwater Bluff Buckwheat Pancake Mix ©
• less milk makes thicker cakes while more milk makes thinner, moister cakes
Note:for even better pancakes, replace
milk with 1.5 cups buttermilk
Cook on low, even heat in buttered pan, flip when bubbles
form on uncooked top. Serve immediately.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Made for Goodness

I am amazed and saddened at how restless I am for what I do not have. There is so much around me which speaks to what I do have and yet I sit in my swing with coffee and as I watch Kai run around I see a bit of myself in him. When I am playing with him he is entirely focused on my arm - actually, the ball in my hand at the end of my arm. His eyes never leave that ball. His muscles are tight, his body slightly crouched so that he can leap in any direction and his eyes flick back and forth between my eyes and that ball - trying to read me - is he throwing it into the pasture or into the yard?

But when I am not throwing the ball he goes to plan "b" which is his stick collection. The swing sits under a huge tree facing the pasture and about 20 feet from the swing, next to the bon-fire pit Kai circles his collection of large sticks. He goes into the forest to find new ones almost every day, he will be gone for 10 minutes and then come prancing back into the yard with a stick in his mouth twice his length; balancing it by biting it in the center and carying it like a trapeze artist with the two ends jutting out six feet on either side of his black, silly, determined face. My friends are amazed at how big the saplings are that he considers "a stick" with which to play. He likes a challenge.

So as I sit in my swing, I watch him running from one stick to another. Pick up one, shake it, chew it, drop it, chew it a bit more, see another stick out of the corner of his eye, leave the one stick, get the next stick, shake it like a dead bird, parade it around the yard to the tune of "We are the Champions" or the Olympic theme, only to start the whole process again.

Though I laugh at his scattered greed, I silently note that I see the same thing in myself. I have one thing and want another. The wanting of the other makes me unable to see and be grateful for the thing I have; be it as small as the desire for corned beef hash when all I have in the house is fresh eggs, still warm from chicken-buts or be it large, like wanting a new friend when I am barely keeping my current friendships fed and watered with time and presence, love an affection.

In Desmond Tutu's life-changing new little book "Made for Goodness" - a book which has forever changed my life - he and his daughter Mpho note that we humans are made for goodness and that our choosing of greed and envy and lust and any other non-good thing is simply that - a choice. He argues that though we are not perfect, we are on a trajectory for choosing more and more good and less and less evils. And he acknowledges that this transformation is hard, internal work which many are simply unwilling to do for how scary and seemingly limiting it can feel.

But I so want to see - really see - what I have, and be so grateful for it -even in its imperfections. I want to be peaceful with what I have been given by God's grace, willing to hold on to it and thank God for it rather than simply drop it and run to some other thing - some new and enticing anesthesis for life's pain.

Tutu says this:

“The goal of human life is not to wring the greatest personal pleasure out of every moment. The goal of human life is to live beyond the small, narrow prison of our own cares, wants and worries. By learning to choose what is good and right ... in choosing what is good and right, we give ourselves the keys to true freedom." (p. 76)

The art of life's pain is not pulling away from it or making a fast change to somehow duck out from under it - we are trained to react to physical pain this way - but internal pain needs to be held, and rocked and sat with and even loved into healing.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Doing our job

This morning while collecting eggs for some egg salad (now that the chives are up and growing!)I considered how well the chickens do their job. They wander the farm eating ticks and being charming and then they make eggs. They seem so content to do their job and they seem unwilling and disinterested in doing more than their job (IE: providing milk, or singing a bird-song).

I then took a walk and wondered what my job is. As I walked I saw a flash of light on the road and stooped to see what had just caught my eye. It was a large piece of quartz and had a wide, flat side which reflected the sunlight. It was half covered in mud and so I reached down and wiped the surface with my thumb and some saliva. By clearing the entire face of the flat side of the crystal, the entire panel reflected the sun into my eyes with even more brilliance than it had before since now it was no longer partly smudged with dirt.

I stood to leave (Kai was now pulling at the leash with it in his mouth - demanding that we continue to the river for a swim.) As I walked away the flashing of that light on the stone reminded me that my job is just that. God shines down on this earth. My job is to do all I can to make the kinds of choices which allow me to reflect God's light best into a dark world. Sometimes I get smudged - covered with dirt or mud - but underneath I am still designed to sit in my spot and use my god-designed flashiness to reflect the Light to others. The light does not come from me. I simply reflect the light from the Light Source. To the best of my ability, that is my job. I often fail. But that is my job.