Featured, Holy Wild, praxis, story

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

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In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

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So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

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This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]

Featured, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, praxis

A Leap Day Altar (and more)

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“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.”

― John O’Donohue

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

― Thomas Merton

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There are two paths to transformation: the way out-beyond and the way deep-within.

In the first, you leave your home and its familiarity behind to journey out into the wilderness of the liminal spaces — the desert, the mountain, the jungle, the ocean, the big city, the Otherworld — where you find the gift of your whole self waiting for you like an animal whose shadow you have been chasing all your life. And when you finally return home again you are different, no longer a child, no longer the old self you left behind. The journey home can take a lifetime.

In the second, the way deep-within, you curl up into yourself like a hermit crab or a caterpillar or a seed inside its shell. You burrow down into the sloppy, sucking mud of inner solitude and silence. You speak to no one, and no one speaks to you (except maybe the gods). And there, inside, is where you change — dissolving the old self, stripping it off, making a space into which the new self can grow. Maybe it feels like sickness. Maybe it feels like the growing pains of old ghost limbs thinning into wings. And it might be that the light will sting a little when you finally emerge again, waiting for your wide new eyes to focus.

Either way will work.

But it’s no good to stay here wavering between the two, weighing which one asks the least of you. Don’t tell yourself, “The way out-beyond is a glamorous adventure. I’ll prove myself, I’ll make them proud and come home to a hero’s welcome.” Don’t tell yourself, “The way deep-within is safer. I can keep the structures of my precious life intact while I go about my unobtrusive work.”

More likely you will come home to a place you no longer recognize, full of people who are strangers, wary of your strangeness and the bloodstains on your hands. More likely you will see the scaffolding of your life collapsing like a fire whose kindling has burned down to embers as soft as ash, unable to support anything that does not feed it.

Either way will work. You do not need to know how it will turn out. You only need to be willing to let your whole life change.


Have you been following along with my Altar-a-Day Challenge? Today marks the halfway point in my journey of daily altar crafting and contemplation. Join me on Facebook or Tumblr, and share your magic and meditations as well!

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20160222_honor_gratitude 20160223_give_creativity3 20160224_listen_friendship
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This post is part of the WordPress Daily Prompt: Leap

Featured, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, praxis

An Altar-a-Day Challenge: Deepening Daily Practice

“To learn to appreciate difference, you must attentively contemplate apparent sameness.”

– Venkatesh Rao, from “On Staying Grounded

For Yule this year, my aunt gave me a beautiful Word of the Day calendar – the kind where the same words spiral through every month as the dates and days of the week change and shift around them. I keep it on the windowsill by my desk, and now each day when I sit down to work, the first thing I do is shuffle the little cards into place and sit for a moment contemplating that day’s word.

To dig my soul-toes deeper into this fertile soil, I’ve decided to pair my Word of the Day practice with reflections on the #UULent Photo-A-Day challenge. My Word-of-the-Day calendar is full of verbs. The #UULent reflections are mostly nouns. Each morning, I sit down and craft an altar that expresses an aspect of these two words in combination. I’m looking forward to discovering what intriguing combinations I’ll spiral through over the next six weeks!

I’ll be sharing my altars daily (along with some inspiring quotes and a few words of reflection of my own) on both my Facebook page and my Holy Wild Tumblr, if you’d like to follow along. Here are some excerpts from my first week of practice:

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20160211_empower_devotion1 20160211_empower_devotion2

20160212_plant_quiet2The rain is pouring outside my window this morning, turning the leaves of the laurel tree into a shivering, wet green tangle.

I love today’s words: plant quiet. It reminds me of the deep peace of growing things – root-quiet, leaf-quiet, soft-moss-quiet, rough-dark-bark-quiet. The quiet of pressing your ear to the earth and hearing the tiny bugs trundling along beneath the litter and rot. The quiet of the rain dripping from limb to limb. The quiet of early spring, that makes me lean in close to listen.

But it also makes me think of planting quiet, as if quiet were a seed. Am I going through my life treating quiet like a thing that only happens to other people? A luxury, an expense? A commodity that somebody else has already made, and all I have to do is buy it up (at a discount, if I’m lucky – maybe they have a groupon for it)? Am I taking responsibility for cultivating quiet?

I imagine making space in the rich humus of my heart, poking a hole in it with one gentle finger – just a few inches deep, but it’s enough. Then dropping in a few seeds… covering them again… leaving them to nestle quietly together in the dark….

I think it’d be nice to be a Johnny Appleseed of quiet. Traveling from town to town, reaching into my chest to pluck the blossom-quiet, the fruit-quiet that I’ve grown there – and tossing the quiet wide in all directions. Then everywhere I go, the seeds of quiet would be sown in the muddy waiting land. And the hush would spread out across the hills and valleys. And all the people would come out of their houses, and kneel down to press their ears to the ground…

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20160214_dedicate_love1 20160214_dedicate_love2

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It is said by some of the goddess Brigid that she has two faces: one that is beautiful and bright, and the other dark and terrible. Like two faces of a fire: glowing ember and crumbling ash.

Every act of creativity is the creation of difference – the remaking of a material or medium, the transformation of an old way of relationship into a new one. We long to “make a difference” in the world, and to make ourselves different as we strive to learn and grow.

Brigid is a goddess of creativity: the divine inspiration of the poet and the hard spark of the forge.


If you want to join in with the #UULent Photo-A-Day challenge, check out more info here. And let me know in the comments so I can follow along!

Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Goddess Withdrawn

It takes a long time to understand why she left.

She’d arrived one day with a burst of rain, a glint of sunlight on wilting ice. She’d come with mud and wind and trampled dogwood petals pressed into the cracks of the sidewalk, with quickened breath and light, with the smell of cheap wax candles burning well past midnight… And then one day, just as quickly, she was gone again.

wm_pom&candle_01

I lit more candles. I filled my room with light. I sang her praises into the heart of each flame. Night after night, I worked her name with my lips until it was worn and clumsy, just a collection of syllables. Exalted one, fiery arrow, queen of my people, poet, goddess. I pressed her name into the bright fires of prayer I kept in her honor, and still she would not speak.

Why did it bother me? Why did they annoy me so much, those who flaunt their closeness with their deities? Those who say that they are called, that they’ve been given some sacred duty to perform. They stride with such confidence into every bright day, their eyes and armor glistening with the borrowed glory of their service to the gods. Gods that are bright, always so bright, burning with all that purpose and power — and all I had were my little candles, the anemic flame, the dark slumped wick.

Why don’t you answer? I asked. Why can’t I hear you? Why don’t you give me a mission, a purpose, some great deed to do in your name, for your greater glory?

In the warmth of the lengthening days, she only laughed.

Remember how it was? Remember the mornings — before all this noise and light, before all this fire and glory — the sensual squish of mud beneath your feet, the pressure of rain plastering your silk pink soul to the earth like so many trampled petals already torn and turning to rot. Remember the sweet, dark taste of dusk. Remember the way it felt to pour yourself into the rich soft soil, to give yourself to the breeze. To bend yourself to the work — and how the work grew up around you, like a rising ecstasy.

She has gone now, withdrawn. I hear her only in the long quiet of her leaving. In her silence, she seems to say, I have no need of you. In her absence, she speaks: What could you possibly offer me?

The only demand is the work itself, for which there is no other reward.

Why does it bother me when they light candles to their gods, enunciating the holy names loudly and precisely before every act? Do I envy them the close counsel they claim to enjoy? A god to guide their every move. An offering to trade for their every desire. I think it might be nice to want this kind of greatness — to want so desperately for there to be some other reason for all this striving, some great gracious power to justify it all. (And yet, I feel embarrassed for them — what little gods they must have, to be so glorified by these mediocre deeds…)

In the coolness of the night, she only laughs.

What could I possibly offer her? All my candles have burned down. I have invoked every holy name I know, and they have all fallen back into silence. It is a terrible, malicious gift, this freedom. To know my choices are all my own. To accept that this, the work itself — though it might never be — must be enough.

And in the darkness she seems to say, This, too, is my gift: the dark absence of glory, the soft skin of night that gives way before you, withdrawing forever into longing. The slumped wick blackened and bent double, always obscured, giving itself over to the steady, burning work that is never done.

I had to go, she seems to say. How else were you to learn what light is yours?

Standing Tall, (CC) Jaina
Holy Wild, praxis

What Resolution Really Means

res • o • lu • tion (noun) the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony

Standing Tall, (CC) Jaina

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]E[/dropcap]very year around this time, I have at least a few friends resolutely explain to me how they have given up making New Year’s Resolutions. The explanations vary. They don’t buy into the self-disparagement and self-denial of a capitalist fad-driven self-improvement industry, they explain (fair enough). Or, they never manage to keep their resolutions anyway so they don’t see much point in making any (okay, sure, I guess). Usually this explanation is followed by an acknowledgement that, naturally, they do still spend some time during the winter holiday season looking back over the past year and thinking about the year ahead, contemplating which habits they might need to change or improve and what hopes and dreams they want to bring into their lives. (Wait — isn’t that just a description of what a New Year’s Resolution is?)

Because I’m such a Hipster Pagan that I’ve come full circle, in recent years I’ve stopped disparaging New Year’s Resolutions for being “too mainstream” and decided to re-embrace the practice. After all, the word resolution is a vast and complex universe in itself. Like words such as integrity, balance and attention, resolution can mean many things, and spending some time considering its nuances bears some surprising (and surprisingly delicious) fruit.

So for those of you who might be on the fence about making resolutions for the coming year, here are some thoughts on what resolution means to me.

Resolution Means Courage

Perhaps my all-time favorite quote from the American sitcom The Office is when, during a “motivational” business cruise, Michael Scott explains to the camera:

Sometimes you have to take a break from being the kind of boss that’s always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the boss of dancing.

This line is intercut with shots of him doing some of the best, most jaw-droppingly awful dancing in the history of dance.

Is Michael being courageous, or is he just completely clueless about how bad his dancing is? It’s hard to say, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is that he stops trying to be the kind of boss who already knows everything — he stops clinging to the persona of respectability and authority that he’s built for himself, and he takes a risk to do something silly, self-expressive and creative. And because he takes that risk, even in his utter and complete failure he manages to be fucking brilliant.

Even if Michael is clueless rather than courageous, his brilliant failure gives me courage. It makes failure look a little bit less frightening, a little less like the end of the world. Whenever I remember that scene, I think to myself: I want my failures to be as joyful and daring and spectacular as that.

After all, failure is a lot more interesting than success. When we set small, easy goals we end up with small, easy successes that have very little to teach us. But when we take the risk to face bold-hearted challenges with no guarantee of success, we can learn a lot even if we fail. We can learn some startling truths about ourselves from the ways in which we fail. We can learn to hold our goals lightly and move through life with a bit of humor and humility. Taking risks and being willing to fail is part of what it means to have resolution.

So if you’re one of those folks who has stopped making resolutions because you never manage to keep them, why not try this one for the new year: Resolve to love your failures and learn from them. Resolve to fail as joyfully and courageously and brilliantly as you can. Resolve to be the Boss of Dancing.

Resolution Means Focus

Speaking of being the boss, for the past two years I’ve been my own boss, and let me tell you: my boss can be a bitch. She writes up endless to-do lists of projects and goals and five-point action plans; she expects me to work nights and weekends and vacations; she cuts me very little slack when I procrastinate or lose focus; she always pushes me to give my best work for even the most unimportant tasks… It’s a good thing I’ve learned to be okay with failing, because I do it a lot. But when I do, my boss is right there to let me know that just because I tried once and failed doesn’t mean I get a free pass on giving up. The task is still there waiting for me; nobody else is going to do it in this workforce of one. My boss doesn’t expect perfection every time, but she does expect me to stay focused and take my commitments seriously.

Spiderweb Bokeh, (CC) Calidenism

There are some good things about being my own boss, of course. (For one, she always believes me when I have to take a sick day.) I’ve become a lot more productive and fulfilled in my work over the past couple years. Being my own boss has taught me the value of setting specific goals and taking the time to work out a plan for accomplishing them. Even if the plan includes a lot of steps like “Set aside time to daydream” or “Go for a hike while your subconscious works on this problem” or “Read that book you’ve been dying to read even though it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re working on (because you never know what unexpected connections you might discover).”

Being my own boss means that I have to take responsibility for setting priorities in order to accomplish the things that really matter to me. If I don’t, I quickly find myself getting sidetracked by the myriad distractions that threaten to fill up my time, or I end up spending most of my energy meeting other people’s goals and expectations. When I articulate my dreams, giving them focus and form, they act as a distant point on the horizon — even if I don’t ever quite reach them, they keep me from getting disoriented and car sick on life’s bumpy, winding roads.

I imagine this is probably true for most people’s work lives. Even if you don’t work for yourself, your boss probably expects a certain amount of focus and commitment and won’t generally accept vague, warm-fuzzy intentions in the place of specific, concrete goals. But don’t our personal hopes and dreams deserve the same level of commitment and attention? Shouldn’t we give the same energy and passion to following those deep longings for a more fulfilling and joyful life? Don’t we owe that to ourselves?

So if you find yourself year after year struggling to work towards vague intentions that seem to remain elusive and frustrating, maybe this year try a different approach: Resolve to spend an evening — just one evening — writing down your goals for the coming year as clearly and articulately as you can. You don’t have to know how you’ll accomplish these dreams, you don’t have to see every turn in the road ahead. Just give yourself a point on the horizon to keep you headed in the direction you want to go.

Resolution Means Attunement

Every year, I make a resolution to learn to play guitar. This is an annual resolution because, even though every year I do my best and buckle down to my lessons (for a while, anyway), I’ve still managed to remain a pretty mediocre guitarist for the past decade. I’m okay with this — in fact, I kind of enjoy it. I tend to get somewhat obsessive about being competent and knowledgeable (and, yes, even obnoxiously competitive at times), so it’s healthy to have at least one hobby where I’m a perpetual beginner. As author of Zen Guitar Philip Toshio Sudo says, it helps to keep me in my Beginner’s Mind.

The thing about the guitar is that you have to keep it tuned. This is an inevitable aspect of playing the instrument — changes in temperature and moisture can affect the tension of the strings and the resonance of the guitar’s hollow wooden body, and all that strumming and picking will naturally loosen even the most perfect tuning after a while. Every time I pick up my guitar, I spend the first few minutes bringing it back into tune.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

Music guitar, (CC) @Doug88888

I opened this post with what I think is the best definition of the word resolution — in music, it means “the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony.” Resolution is what happens when that chord that sounded awkward and off-pitch a second ago turns out to be the first bold step into a whole new key. It’s that moment in a rock ballad when the singer takes a deep breath and kicks it up a notch, pushing the familiar chorus from mournful minor into triumphant major.

Resolution means bringing things back into attunement. It’s about problem-solving — identifying those aspects of ourselves that are slightly off-pitch and seeking ways to resolve those meandering melodies back into the greater harmonies of our lives. This can be the simple, regular practice of re-attuning ourselves to the soul-song humming quietly in our core, learning to accept that slipping in and out of tune is a natural part of the process. Or it can mean being open to when those off-pitch notes prefigure a more transformative shift into a whole new way of living and moving in the world. Either way, it’s about deep listening, reverent attention and a willingness to change and adapt.

One thing it’s not about is one-size-fits-all fad diets and submitting ourselves to the pressures of social conformity. Mainstream culture has the dehumanizing habit of trying to market Quick-Fix Solutions without any regard to the personal nature of the problems they claim to solve. But these are “solutions,” not resolutions. Resolutions are inherently unique and responsive to you and your life. Maybe you want to treat your body better — feed it higher quality food, take it for more walks, give it more time to play and relax — but how you go about embracing and embodying these resolutions isn’t going to be the same as how someone else might go about it. And it’s certainly not going to look much like the latest starve-yourself-with-pills-and-guilt skinny-bitch diet campaign they’re selling on your television.

So if you reject the whole notion of New Year’s Resolutions as shallow guilt-trips designed to beat well-intentioned people into submission, here’s my advice for you: This year, learn to play a mean guitar.


Photo Credits:
• “Standing tall,” by Jaina (CC) [source]
• “F**k me look at that Bokeh!” by Callum Baker (CC) [source]
• “Music guitar,” by Doug Wheller (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013, praxis

The Journal as a Journey into Mystery

February 17, 2013 • In the mornings when the light has only just touched the mountainside and the low valley is still in darkness, I whisper one long prayer. The mountains, too, set loose their steamy breath into the rising wilds of day.

Gray Jay Overlooking the Cascades

There are as many ways to keep a nature journal as there are people who keep them. Some fill their journals with sketches, watercolors and diagrams of the plants and animals they find in the natural world, while others take notes, jotting down lines of descriptive prose or inspired verse to evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity and care about the diversity and beauty around them. Anyone can keep a nature journal: whether you’re traveling in exotic locations or observing the gentle, gradual changes of the seasons in your own backyard. The Sierra Club describes a nature journal as:

a place to grow your thoughts, feelings, ideas, activities, observations, and relationship with the natural world. […A]n opportunity to interpret your inner thoughts out into the natural world and a space where the natural world can flow into you and leave a permanent mark.

It is this give-and-take relationship with the world around us that makes the task of journaling such sacred work. In many Pagan and Wiccan traditions, the Book of Shadows serves as a record of the practitioner’s personal spiritual journey: a recipe book, reference guide and diary all in one. For the natural polytheist and the earth-centered Pagan, the nature journal can be all this and more. The act of journaling can open us more fully to the world around us, and invite the natural world into those interior spaces within our own souls. A journal can be more than just a record of where we’ve been; it can be the beginning of a whole new journey.

There are two powerful techniques that I especially like to use when journaling out in nature, in order to move me from a place of mundane consciousness into a state of contemplation, attention and receptivity. They are: naming, and questioning.

Naming The World Anew

March 11, 2013 • Night choir frog, Drum-throated frog, Mist-creeper, Reed-root frog, Ripple-maker, Long-legged shadow, Water’s shadow, Dark moon frog, Spring-caller, Rain’s companion, Mud-and-leaf frog…

Names are powerful. So powerful that they can break open our minds to new realities. In many folk traditions, it is said that if you know the name of a spirit, you can gain power over it. But the opposite is also true: if a malevolent spirit or the ghosts of the dead learn your true name, they can make your life hell.

When it comes to our relationship with the natural world, names are a double-edged sword. They can empower us, helping us to organize the mind-boggling diversity of living things into families and phyla, giving us a way to grasp the subtle interconnections and relationships that might otherwise escape our notice. But names can also have a deadening effect. Often when I’ve been out teaching naturalist programs, I’ve seen how desperately people want to know the names of things, as if the name were a lifeline that they can hold onto to keep from being swept away. But once I tell them the name, the conversation ends. They’ve been gripped by the hard-fisted spirit of Expertise. They hold onto the names so tightly, like a treasure, the proof that they have learned something new about the world. But after an hour or two of learning dozens of names, they discover that these names are more like faery gold that has turned back into dead leaves or grains of sand, crumbling and slipping through their fingers, leaving them with nothing.

The joy of names is learning to hold them loosely. Dr. Richard Feynman tells a wonderful story about his father teaching him the difference between knowing the name of something, and truly understanding it. The unassuming brown-throated thrush has a suite of names befitting a king, a different name in every human tongue. The most modest creature can inspire fascination deserving a great and beautiful name, a name that changes with the weather or the mood and tremor of its call. A little boy who was on a low-tide beach walk I was leading crouched down, entranced by a tiny green anemone with pink-tipped fronds drifting delicately on the rocky side of a tidepool. “What is it?” he asked excitedly. “It’s called a pink-tipped green anemone,” I said, and he looked up in vague disappointment at such an obvious, unimaginative name. “But,” I added, “what do you think it should be called?” He thought for a while, sitting back on his heels. “How about a water flower?” he said, “Or, the Pink-Haired Clam Slug? Or….” and he trailed off, turning possibilities over in his mind. Some names are too special to be spoken out loud.

Journal Exercise 1: Naming • Do not rush to pull out your field guide. Sit with your journal and spend some time with the plant or animal in front of you. Watch how it moves, how its leaves spread, how its limbs bend. Listen to its calls and cries, to the sound of wind, water and soil surrounding it. Breathe deeply of its scent. Imagine what it might feel like to be this creature — how would you experience the world around you? Then, begin your journey to find its true name. Write down whatever names come to mind, whichever names seem to fit. There is no wrong name, for every name is an invitation to relationship. With every name you will discover more of the mysteries of the living world around you, as well as the mysteries within yourself.

The Quest of Questioning

April 23, 2013 • Why do the white lilacs bloom before the purple ones? Where is the hummingbird building its nest this year? How many kinds of moss grow on the cement wall by the garage, and why do some grow there but not others? Where is the hawk that has the crows in an uproar?

When we have broken free of the need to learn the proper names of things, we discover that there are so many more questions to ask about the world than just, “What is it?” In the introduction to his book, The Natural History of Puget Sound Country, Arthur Kruckeberg explores the revolutionary importance of ecology as a science that asks the tough questions:

In probing the natural world, what kinds of questions do we ask? Easiest are the “what” and “how” questions. What is it? and How does it work? usually can be given direct answers. The unknown tree or insect gets a name and a place in its family tree to satisfy the What is it? question. Though more demanding of observation and thought, the How does it work? question also has ready answers. The literature of how things function in the world of life is the product of patient experiment and observation by plant and animal biologists. It is only when curiosity persists to the How come? stage that science reveals its tentative and ever-probing qualities. The answers to What for? questions asked of the color of a flower, the hair on an insect’s body, or the slime of a slippery slug, are within the domains of ecology and the study of adaptations.

The scientific study of ecology tries to answer these How come? and What for? questions. But perhaps more important to our spiritual and contemplative lives is learning first how to ask these questions, and to allow them to lead us into deeper, more complex relationship with nature and its many gods. Asking questions can change the way we look at the world around us and our place within it, shifting our attitude from one of self-assuredness and certainty, to curiosity, wonder and mystery. Following the advice of the poet Rilke, we can learn “to have patience with everything unresolved in our hearts.” Remember:

try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.

Journal Exercise 2: Questioning • Sit and breathe, your journal in your lap. Spend ten to fifteen minutes quietly observing the place where you are sitting, its personality, its presence, and the other living beings that share this place with you. Allow the questions to arise naturally. If you find yourself asking, “What is that?” revisit the Naming exercise. Search for the hard-to-ask questions — why, how, how come, what for? Notice the way these questions invite you to look more closely, to breathe more deeply. Notice how questions like “where” and “when” shifts your attention beyond this time and place, broadening your awareness. Most importantly, do not try to answer the questions you ask. Allow them to remain unanswered, at least for now. Later, you might discover the answer to one of these questions while exploring the landscape or reading a book about your local ecosystem. But for now, just for now, allow yourself to dwell in the possibilities and mysteries that your questions open up before you.


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