Saturday, November 27, 2010

Of Trees and Idleness

"Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good."  - Soren Kierkegaard

It seems this blog increasingly is a defense of idleness, not that idleness needs for me to defend it. At any rate, this time of the year, in particular -- the holidays, the holy days, the black days, the dark days, the feast days, the days of light and delight -- it seems that there is a force behind us with a whip that demands busy, over-commitment. Already, with Thanksgiving behind us now, we might be in full gear to drive our lives to collapse. This is something that I am increasingly rejecting, year-by-year, because it gets in the way of my observing nature's show, the changes in my children or really being able to listen to the silent night.

It used to be that I loved the holidays because they allowed me to really be a show-off. I was one of those people who gets the cards out, who decorates the house to the nines, who throws parties, wraps every present with fancy bows, does secret Santa, decorates cookies, makes new ornaments every year, and fills advent calendars with little gifts every day and a scavenger hunt on Christmas Eve, goes to every Christmas concert, ballet and school fundraiser. I was higher than a kite on the sparkle. The holidays were a full-time job from November 1st through New Years, and then I was sick for the month of January. I determined about 15 years ago that part of the problem was that I was allergic to the mold that grows on cut Christmas trees and so I invested in a beautiful fake Douglas Fir that fooled even old timers in Oregon. It lasted for 12 years before losing enough of it's fancy needles that it needed to be replaced. But, this fake tree only allowed me to start the holiday madness sooner, and then I was still sick for the month of January due to pure exhaustion.

My children remember "that me" well enough that they're a little stung that I threw away the advent calendar last year and replaced it with cards that could be opened to was not the same. So I found out what mattered to them. They wonder where are the parties for organized caroling? There must be a free Handel's Messiah Sing-Along that we can go to this year. The last four years have been the great reduction, and enough so that I wonder at my own former insanity. I no longer send many Christmas cards - maybe only a dozen -- if I can get to them. I don't even send personalized emails - though that was a transitional mode that loosened me from the tradition. I apologize and post a big "happy..." on the day and that is good enough. 

The residual guilt pile is melting as the years go by. It is not at all that I'm a Scrooge or a Grinch. I am not a Bah-Humbug. I love this time of year still, and I praise every one's well-being. I still love all of my friends and family, too. It's just that I love myself a little better than I used to love myself. I see that love doesn't require me to always be "The Giving Tree".

Initially, the let go began because I was, frankly, broke, and I'm still too broke to do all that I used to try to do even if I spread it out the entire year. I simply don't have much extra to give still. I try to make up for lack of cash with giving my time, either by making gifts or spending time with others, but have discovered that there actually isn't enough extra time to make up for the lack of wrapped gifts no matter the strategy. So, I have come to accept that doing my best is good enough, and that doing my best means not letting go of my personal strivings even through the holidays. This allows me to occasionally experience honest good cheer and peace on earth.

This year I will spend time reading to my kids, even though my daughter will argue that she's too old to be read to, and then I'll ask them to read to me. We'll feed the wintering Canadian geese at our little lake. We'll play board games and cards by candlelight, and share memories of those insane times and laugh. We'll have donuts for Hanukah, and gingerbread for Christmas. There will be some traditions that will come back -- the advent calendar of felt I was so happy to find is already hanging waiting to be filled with little things that surprise them. We'll cook a special meal together, and bake cookies when we have a chance. School projects will be priorities, and congratulations for a job well done may include a special treat. Christmas morning will be de-emphasized for gifts and emphasized for time with family to relax and be together with nothing looming over our heads that has to be done. And, I will continue to write first, and celebrate after. 

I look to the trees, those who hibernate, naked in the cold winds, those who are evergreen, distant palms waving over warm seas, and even those imitations made of paper and plastic and electric lights, and see their beauty is absolute stillness. I think of the thousands of Madonna's curled around their babies in paintings and frescoes and see their peace in focused attention. I remember the oil lamps of my ancestors lighting their windows as a sign of faith that goodness always underlies experience. All of these symbols are quiet and gentle, and I choose to emulate them and turn my back against the raging winds around me. Bundled up, I look up to the stars each night, earlier and earlier, and wish for love to be my guide.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Facing the Dragon

I was going to be very clever and write a recipe for baking a fear hallow. With ingredients like low self-esteem flour and doubt spice, I thought I could easily explain in a general way how this hallow of mine became such a thing. I was deflecting. I was being clever. I admit it. I don't really want you to know the real deal because that is how ashamed I am of this hallow.

You see, I was apparently making progress in 1996 before I had my daughter Bea. The operative word is apparently. Sure I had secured a great consulting job, and it looked like I'd be able to do everything I wanted to do, but the truth is that job was as much a part of my deathly hallow as having a baby was a part of it. The hallow is older than fourteen years.

I realized this sometime in the middle of the night last night. I've realized it before, but I keep forgetting. Isn't that interesting that the hallow, the fear that drives us is so forgettable? It is almost as if it is infused with an amnesia potion. A little bit of smoke and mirrors and I carry on with my life, bearing the hallow on my shoulders without even knowing it. This little hallow has become a dragon, so heavy, so frightening with sharp talons and fiery breath and stinking, hard scales that clink when we move together. I'm carrying the dragon on my back and it is a load.

How am I supposed to become this fragile, pretty butterfly with a dragon on my back? That's what I'd like to know (she says with hands on her hips). It is obvious that it is unlikely to work. I have become weighted to such a degree that folding myself up seems like it might be less painful than going on, or I could flip and face this dragon. I'll let it sit on my belly and I will tell the dragon I'd rather die than keep carrying it around. I could dare it to just kill me. So, that's what I'm doing.

I'll tell you that I suspect that the dragon is my fear of being. Yes, that is it. Just simply I am afraid to be me, and to discover my full flight because it seems to be in conflict with my one time...the responsibility of becoming a productive member of society, and now of being a mom to two wonderful kids, and wife to a great man, of being someone else who isn't me, and I could keep inventing the person who isn't me forever. I could continue the belief that I can't go anywhere and be myself. The current excuses:
  • I have two kids. 
  • I have a husband. 
  • I'm tethered to this town I live in. 
  • It doesn't matter if it doesn't work for me. 
  • It is what I have to do because I had my kids and seeing them grow and become themselves is so much more important than me growing to become myself. 
  • I don't have to learn to use these wings anyway because I'm living in a freaking pavilion and I can't see the sky. 
  • Might as well just crawl around on the ground. 
  • I give up. 
Even before I had kids, the dragon was still carrying on its diatribe that I needed to be more responsible, which is why I got the great consulting job to begin with years and years ago. It didn't matter that that job conflicted with my own flight. It was an opportunity to be responsible rather than to be me...because, you know, being me is totally irresponsible. This is the circle I've been marching around on over and over and over again for as long as I can remember.

I know, I know. It sounds like depression. I also know that it is an illusion just like everything else, but I  am choosing to face it and ask it what for? I don't have even a silver dagger to slay it with, just my determination to end this lugging around.Why should I be walking around guessing that everyone else needs for me to be dead so that they can live? This is a role I learned early, but it doesn't mean the curtain can't fall on it. I could take a final bow on this role because I know it is just a character I've been playing. So, I'm turning to face the dragon who breathes on my neck and tells me that I can't do myself and take care of my responsibilities at the same time. This dragon who whispers into my ear every time I have an inspired thought, "You're being selfish."

Okay. I'm going to flip onto my back now, and tell this dragon to bugger off or kill me. I'm going to be myself even if it seems to be totally irresponsible. I'm going to write a novel even if it takes me ten years to complete it. I'm going to teach my kids to do their own laundry, and make their own lunches. I'm going to start exercising again, and I might even go dancing even if my sweet lover man isn't really that interested.  I'm going to write a novel that considers ideas superior to plot. It might not even ever sell. But that's what I'm going to do because it is me, it is what feels most like flying. So, here I go.

I'm lying on my back. My belly is showing. I feel very tender and scared of those talons so I'm closing my eyes for a moment for the impact. Nothing. I reach upwards. I can hear the clinking scales, I can smell the sulfur breath but I feel...nothing. One eye opens. I see where I thought my hand was, there is a wing of gossamer and sparkle, reaching up. I reach my other hand up and see another wing. My heart races.  I stick my feet in the air, and my God! They are talons! What can this mean?

When I finally rise up and look into a clear, glassy lake of self-reflection, I discover that I have been afraid of myself and nothing else. I am the hallow. I am the dragon. I already have wings, look at them (!) and choices about how to be me even if it upsets the apple cart, even if it lights the flipping apple cart on fire because I don't quite know how to be the real me without some fallout. Even if there is no grace period to learn to fly. I'll do it in fits and starts, but by God, I'll fly with these crazy bat-like wings. I'll get used to being the dragon because the dragon is with me, is me, no matter what I do to hide it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day of the Dead - A reason for living

These three days, October 31, November 1 & 2, have largely lost their meaning in the modern world. Insistence on acknowledging traditions at this time of year is sort of hackneyed and a tribute to the business of candy more than anything else. But, if we will take the time to wonder at the transition of seasons, in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, maybe we can touch something larger than ourselves for a moment. If we observe that there is no going backwards, that change is inevitable, that remembrance has its time and place, and then it should be released, then we can get a handle on why Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos in Spanish, and All Souls Day, might be worth latching onto -because it nods its head to the only truth there is on planet earth. Our lives as we know them, are temporary ventures.

Whether we believe in Heaven and Hell, Reincarnation and Karma, or nothingness when we die, the fact remains that as we are today is a temporal anomaly, not to be repeated or retreated from, and is a limited edition of one. This experience is unique and valuable because it is a one-time only deal. Even if you do come back as someone else in some other age, even if you do get to go to some paradise down a long dark tunnel, this part of the dream is not repeatable. We don't get a "Ground Hog's Day" or a "Hot Tub Time Machine" to do it again. and neither did our ancestors.

The Kosmic Egg is a great symbol for this day, as it gives you a "before" and "after" idea for how this life might work. Before you reach a certain age and awareness, happy is the "before" life, perfectly contained within an egg. Experiences are added into life with the notion that it will always be a certain way. We can't help it because we don't know until the egg cracks that there is more. The egg cracks when we understand that we have chosen experiences in life that have been harmful to ourselves or others. The egg cracks when we understand that life can't stay small any more if we are going to live to be ourselves in this world. The egg cracks when disappointment tips the balance and we fall into a dark night of the soul to discover what we've been shoving into that cosmic closet of ours. After the Kosmic Egg cracks, we can understand it as an initiation into a larger truth, and an expanded human experience. It happens at different times for different people. It is rare that a person can skip through it, though some try very hard to ignore it, or numb it out.

That crack usually has something to do with death. Whether it is the death of a dream, the death of a way of being, the death of someone close to us, or an illness threatening our own death it is a period of grief, rip-out-our-hearts grief, and we search for meaning in it. Anyone who's listened to the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" knows that there is no way to put everything back together in a life, to put it back the way it was before. But, the symbol of the egg doesn't have to be scrambled. Often that egg cracks because the new life inside can no longer survive confined.

The new life inside that egg has evolved to the point of no return. I love that the Mexican tradition includes the symbol of the butterfly or mariposa in the transition at midnight between Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents/Children) and Dia de los Muertos, because it is the symbol of the butterfly that best interprets the meaning of the cracked egg and what will follow. We cannot remain childish forever. At some point in life we must face mortality of that dream where things just work out, where we can mindlessly consume without offering back our full beauty and begin to take responsibility for ourselves...but what does that mean?

For many taking responsibility is a very sobering affair, and for some taking responsibility is the flight of the butterfly. I, obviously, prefer the latter. To think that I would shirk my duties, however, is to underestimate the flight of a butterfly. The fullest expression that I can imagine in life is to acknowledge our own fragility, and fly anyway. Can you imagine a pensive butterfly hanging forever to the broken chrysalis, considering how to climb back in and how dangerous a breeze can be? And yet, I admit, I have been this pensive butterfly, driven by fear of some boogie man, some ghostly hallow that attached to my psyche years ago.

Will I startle myself out of this pensiveness and finally blindly leap into the blue sky? I hope not. That has been my foolish start before and I seem to have landed back on this branch. So I'm turning against that instinct to depart and I'm turning towards the shadow to see what it really is. I think I know. I think it is perfectly expressed by Dia de las Muertos, and I will celebrate the opportunity with the sweetness of realization. Facing this zombie-like terror that is blocking the sun, I know it's a particular death, not just any death, and though I've confronted bits and pieces of it, I've never faced it head-on.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Hallow's Day

Today used to be one of the most sacred days of the year in some places around the world. It has been called All Saints Day in the Catholic Church, and of course, fans of the popular Harry Potter series will recognize "Hallows" as the seven objects that "He Who Shall Not Be Named" has imbued with bits and pieces of his soul. In my own studies of Tarot, the Hallows are the suits of the Minor Arcana that represent the four classic elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. However, I would suggest that we each have our own personal Hallows. These are things and ideas that we hold as self-evident and sacred, and they can be useful to us, inspiring us to achieve our goals, or they can become "sacred cows" and habits that we drag around with us unconsciously, using them as excuses not to move forward. Just as a Tarot card can be read right side up, or reversed, the Hallow itself is innocent, but our interpretation of its meaning can change its influence to good or evil.

Fear is such a Hallow. The things we identify as fearful and face become wonderful influences on our life. When we face fear it is firstly an identification issue. Simply giving name to that which we fear renders it less frightening. Thus Voldemort eventually loses his power by his name being repeated by Harry Potter and friends, until he and his Death Eaters begin to target those who use his name for torture or death. The reductive quality of simply calling the most evil wizard "Tom" might have worked even better, as you remember Dumbledore always calls his former student.

Notice that Voldemort names his followers "Death Eaters". What a ridiculous name, but it suggests that they have conquered the fear we all have -- that of death. It is a common initiatic process to try and force the initiate to face this shared fear and release it. The idea being that this release will free a person to achieve whatever it is they are here to achieve. Marvelous books have been written on the subject, having characters either overcoming death itself through immortality or by making death's sting less frightful. Some New Thought folks and New Agers approach fear simply by saying "there is nothing to fear, all is well," but are they really dealing with the fear or just kicking it down the road a bit? On Halloween we conquer our fears by becoming that which we fear - ghosts, goblins, zombies, witches, aliens, monsters, or...uh...princesses.

Somehow though these directions fail to be applied at the mundane level. We may have faced death itself and still be frightened of spiders. It's really ridiculous that we allow ourselves to indulge in little fears, but most of us do it. Currently, a huge fear looming over the world is the double-dip recession. OMG! We might be impoverished! To many, the crash of our financial systems was so overwhelming that they jumped out of windows or shot themselves dead - preferring the fear of death to the fear of poverty or financial and judicial retribution. People now are strategically foreclosing on homes they chose to buy because they don't want to stay committed to something that apparently has no real value, but what they really fear is that they are vulnerable, excruciatingly vulnerable. The fear of excruciating vulnerability is what is driving the economy to tatters. We might as well all be running through the streets naked right now for all the vulnerability in the air.

One of the reasons I think fear overtakes us is that we speed our lives up through consumption and grasping enough so that we don't have to consider what frightens us very much. Keeping the Hallows at bay, we think, is going to save us, but really all that strategy accomplishes is to guarantee that we will carry that fear with us into every decision we make, and that it will nag us endlessly and that it will become a bigger shadow looming over us. Part of the purpose of the Dark Night of the Soul is to finally face these shadows (darkness) in our own hearts and confront them. Rarely is this a picnic in the park, and it can be nicely compared with annihilation. Very uncomfortable.

If you read yesterday's blog, you know that I suspect a fear of mine has been dogging me since I had my first child, and I don't really know how to name it. So, today I decided I would call it my Hallow as a substitute acknowledgment until I can really see what it is exactly. I'm acknowledging the Hallow has been with me for about fourteen years. It's a nice, big, looming shadow that even at high noon doesn't go away. That's a long time to carry something like a fear, and no doubt it has put on weight (like I have) over those years of avoidance. There are even specific times when I felt the heft of it. I kept thinking I was facing it, but the fact that I'm still quite stymied makes me absolutely sure that I have not yet looked it in the eyes. Giving it a name is my way of saying, "I know you're there, Hallow, and I'm going to get to you. Know that, Hallow, I'm going to get to you. I am."

The Hallow is laughing back at me now, but that won't last.