Place No Blame

a detail of my painting, "John's Secret."

a detail of my painting, “John’s Secret.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. Earlier today, Kerri read an article to me and the author, someone with terminal cancer, wrote that blame is a waste of energy. Life is too precious to waste on blaming. Forgive and move on.

My meditation on forgiveness has inadvertently become a meditation on blame. As it turns out, forgiveness and blame are often dance partners.

My favorite phrase of this week: Blame, no matter where you place it, does no good. To me, the crucial concept within the phrase is this: blame requires placement. Although it might feel otherwise, blame is not a passive act. We place it. We aim it. It is a way of making meaning of things that don’t feel good. I’ve written that blame is like sugar; it is addictive. It is choice wearing the mask of it-happened-to-me. Oddly, as an active choice, blame actually inhibits action and as an inhibitor it does no good either for the placer-of-the–blame or the recipient. It stops motion. It is an energy eddy. It is destructive both ways.

Forgiveness is also not a passive act. Forgiveness takes more effort because forgiveness is an unmasked choice. It, too, requires placement and aim. It is also a way of making meaning of something that doesn’t feel good. But, unlike blame, forgiveness does great good for both the giver-of-forgiveness and the recipient. It creates motion. It is generative both ways.

Release The Edge

photo-4

Usually, there is a lake….

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you dont give up. ~ Anne Lamott

Sometimes the fog hangs heavy all day along the shore of the lake. The sun tries in vain to penetrate the fog so the air glows. When, in combination with the fog, the lake is still, like it was today, it becomes invisible, inaudible; the lake disappears. Standing on the great rock barriers, staring into the void, it feels as if you have arrived at the edge of the world.

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looking the other direction

All of my life I have been fascinated by edges. What is the line between wild and tame? Most good stories require a stride beyond the boundary, a movement into territories unknown. And, at the end of the story, what was once known becomes unfamiliar. Every ending is a beginning. What is the line that distinguishes the known from the other place? A good dose of reason will assure us that most things can be understood but a walk through a spring meadow or a night spent gazing into the stars will remind us that understanding is illusive or at best illusionary. What do we understand?

Once, working with a group of teachers, we had a terrific discussion about beginnings. Where does a story or a life begin? There is always an easy answer, “Once upon a time,” a birth date, when two people meet, the day the crisis arrived on the doorstep. In fact there is always a multitude of easy answers, of possible beginnings, and none of them are definitive. Which beginning point is the beginning point? At what moment did success arrive? Or, when did failure begin? Does my life begin with my parents or their parents or…? Edges are esoteric!

There is a long tradition in the arts of Dances with Death. Paintings, dances, compositions, plays,…; Hamlet ponders life as he holds poor Yorick’s skull. It passes all too quickly. Most spiritual traditions carry the notion that life cannot be understood, valued, or fully appreciated without first grasping that this life-ride is limited. Living a good life, a fully appreciated life, demands a nod to the edge. It’s the ultimate paradox.

I’ve courted a bundle of trouble in my life because I rarely see the black-and-white of things. Where is the line between hope and hopeless? What wall delineates faith-full and faith-less? Like happiness, edges are made, not found. Ask a physicist if it is a particle or a wave and they will uniformly answer, “It depends upon where you place your focus.” Even in the era when people believed there was a hard edge to the world and finding it meant falling off, sailors supplied their ships and sailed toward the horizon to find it.

 Icarus reached for the sun.

Icarus

Make No Sense

these hands will change

these hands will change

The woodpecker hammered high atop the ancient television antenna. He seemed not to be bothered by his lack of progress, beak on metal. At first I thought it made no sense and then it occurred to me that progress was not the goal. Perhaps the woodpecker hammered for the pure pleasure of the sound of it. It need not make sense. This woodpecker was an artist to his or her core!

Yesterday was a “no-power-tools” day. No sharp objects were allowed. No walking near ledges permitted. I was distracted; tired to the core. Late in the day we drove 45 minutes to a bakery called ‘Simple’ in Lake Geneva. They make the world’s best flourless chocolate cake. “This makes no sense,” Kerri said as we stepped out of the bakery with our cake. We laughed and ate a slice in the car; pure pleasure before driving home.

Every time the neighbors let their dogs out, Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog runs a frenetic figure eight in the backyard, over and over and over. He exhausts himself. He is having some exotic shepherd fantasy or perhaps he cannot contain his delight. It makes no sense for him to run a trench in our backyard for dogs he’s never even seen. He runs for the pleasure of it.

We sat in the sun this morning drinking coffee. The sky was cloudless, the air was cold but the sun was warm. We leaned against the house, saying little, feeling the warmth seep into our bones. We both knew that on this day we would do nothing. There would be no visible progress toward any defined goal. The wheels of society would have to grind on without us. We needed most to stop, to sit, to stare, to laugh at the Dog-Dog.

photo-2I started a painting a few weeks ago. It is a figure falling through space. Something has been wrong all along and sitting in the sun I figured it out. The hands are all wrong. Rather than reaching for something to grasp they ought to be letting go.

 

 

Matter.

From the archive: 'Angels At The Well.'

From the archive: ‘Angels At The Well.’

Paul used to tell the acting students at the conservatory that they should never underestimate their power to impact another person’s life. In other words, their work – how they brought themselves to the stage – mattered. Simply by doing their work they had the capacity to open a mind or challenge a story. The caveat, of course, was that, in all likelihood, they would never know the impact that they had.

His lesson applies as much or more in daily life as it does on the stage. What if we lived as if we understood our power to impact others? What if we recognized that the small stuff matters? What if we didn’t need to know – but simply brought ourselves to our days knowing that our actions and attitudes mattered?

Sitting outside at a Starbucks in Wesley Chapel, Florida, a young woman Skyped into a bridal shower happening in Pennsylvania. It was her bridal shower and, because she was starting a new job, she couldn’t get the time off to fly home. So, via Skype, she checked in on the party and giggled at the celebration. Kerri and I sat at the next table listening to the conversation, the love and festivities. I watched as Kerri, stricken with the grief of her mother’s passing, change. Her heart lightened. It changed her focus. The young woman, with no knowledge, eased Kerri’s grief. Kerri ran into the store and bought the woman a gift card. “Congratulations on your wedding,” she said as she gave the card to the young woman.

In coffee-desperation we pulled off the highway in Salem, Illinois. We bumbled into the M&M Coffeehouse on Main Street. Mike, the owner is a master chef. He told us the story of love that brought him to Salem, the story of his love for making food and how he became proprietor of a coffeehouse, the story of how the community was embracing his gift and returning the love; the coffeehouse was now also a catering business. He was teaching cooking classes and volunteering his time to the monthly Elks club hamburger dinner fundraiser. The Elks were raising tons of funds since he started making the meals. “You never know where life is going to take you,” he smiled. Mike never knew the gift he gave us; he was simply being chatty with strangers. We needed a good dose of hope and encouragement to carry us the final 6 hours of our long drive home. He filled our hope-tank to the top.

Whether we know it our not, it matters. Always.

 

Be Kind To Each Other

Eating a celery stick loaded with peanut butter, Kerri paused and asked, “If there is going to be celery on this earth, why does it have to have strings?”

“That,” I said, “is an existential question and, so, an answer is above my pay grade.” She gave me THAT look and crunched another bite, saying, “Too many strings!”

When I stop and think about it, most of the questions I have are existential and, therefore, unanswerable.

On the drive to Florida I passed the time by reading billboards. Fast food, Strip clubs, lawyers encouraging me to get what’s owed to me, all interspersed between fiery messages warning that “Hell is real,” or that “The path to Heaven is straight and narrow.” I smiled when it occurred to me the billboard messages were a smorgasbord of easy answers. In this life we are peppered with advertisements, a litany of easy answers to the things we are supposed to lack.

This drive to Florida is different from all the others. In the past, we made the drive to visit Beaky. This time we are driving to say goodbye. So, I am seeing everything through a very different lens. Easy answers are attractive when pretending that life’s questions are not tough.

My billboard reminiscing reminds me to beware of the easy answer. Gaps are not easily filled. Meaning is never found on a prescribed path. Sustenance is not available at the drive-through. These things are glaringly obvious when someone you love dies. Life is made rich through the questions that have no answer.

It’s human to want an explanation. It is human to want to know why. On the roadside in Illinois, having just received the news, Kerri asked if I thought Beaky knew we were coming. Somewhere in Tennessee, Kerri asked if I thought Beaky in her final moment was scared. In Alabama, she asked what happened, why so fast, and why now?

photo-1After a visit with Beaky, when we were taking our leave, she always said two things. The first was “Be kind to each other.” That might at first sound like a billboard sentiment except that Beaky knew that kindness was not an easy answer to anything. Blame is easy. Judgment is easy. Kindness, extended to the self and to all others, is a constant practice, a way of life. Being kind in all situations, Beaky knew, was not easy and that was precisely the point.

The second was a family tradition of sorts. It was always the last phrase exchanged when taking leave of her: “Bye for now.” She was ever hopeful and that, too, was a practice – a life choice – and not an easy answer. It was a focus of the eye, an orientation to life.

So, from Beaky, I learned two practices : Be ever hopeful. Be ever kind. Beaky, bye for now.

Clutch Your Stinky Blanket

Dog-Dog with stinky blanket

Dog-Dog with stinky blanket

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog has a morning ritual that I do not understand. He returns to his crate, stands on his stinky blanket, and attempts to pull it from the crate. After a few moments it occurs to him that he’s unsuccessful because he’s standing on the blanket. It is a revelation. He exits the crate, walks halfway across the room, turns, returns to the crate, grabs the stinky blanket, finds his reverse gear and pulls the stinky blanket out of the crate and out of the room. His stinky blanket ritual happens every morning (that is why it is a ritual).

For the rest of the day, the blanket travels to new and exciting places around the house. Sometimes he takes great care of the stinky blanket. Sometimes he takes great delight in shredding it (often there are so many stinky-blanket-fragments littering the floor that it looks like a clown exploded in the house). Either way, great care or delight-in-shredding, his stinky blanket is a source of comfort not unlike a small child’s security blanket. For Dog-Dog, the world is a better place with a stinky blanket.

Last week, after Beaky was found on the floor of her apartment and rushed to the hospital, after we recognized that the incredibly resilient Beaky would not bounce back this time, Kerri needed to see Heidi. We drove an hour to where she was working and it was enough – more than enough – to grab a quick hug and spend a few passing moments with her as she worked. We sought out John, aka 20, and took great comfort in his good humor and kind heart. The family turned in and circled around Beaky. “This is hard…,” we cry as we reach for one another, giving and receiving comfort.

It occurs to me that we do this everyday. It is our ritual. Mike and Sabrina sent a text, “Think happy thoughts for us today…,” I emailed my mother, more for me than for her “Just thought you should know…,” Arnie tells me of his adventure and closes with, “Let me know how things are going.” David called and left a message, “Wanted to continue our cycle of communication…!” Each day, in many ways, in small ways, we reach out. We touch base. The world is a more secure place – a better place – in the reaching, in the touching base.

Walk Through The Firewall

from my narrative series: Sleepers

from my narrative series: Sleepers

The text read something like this: There are some things in life you cannot circumnavigate. You can only move through them.

Carol told me that each year there is a growing change in her students. There is a gap between their generation and ours – and it is alarming. She teaches young actors at a college for the arts.

“What’s the difference? “ I asked, “what’s the change?”

“They are increasingly more and more medicated,” she said. “Through their whole lives, since they were small children, they’ve been reinforced through medication that their emotions, what they feel and how they express it, are bad. To teach them to be actors, to be authentic on the stage, to allow that what they feel is necessary and good, is nearly impossible when they are drugged to prevent them from feeling anything.”

She paused for a moment and added, “I can’t ask them to get off their drugs. I can only help them consider that their feelings, their emotions, are not the enemy but the route to truth.”

I offered that the drugs serve as a firewall that keeps them from themselves. It dulls them from the full range of life experiences. Years ago, when I was working in the schools, I experienced the first wave of kids drugged into compliance. It seemed that the solution for almost everything was medication. Their attention was either in deficit or their behavior obsessive and, either way, meds were the answer.

We talked of the other firewalls, the drugs that numb us or distract us from a full range of life experiences. Television in excess is the most obvious. And then there is the downside of social media; disconnection in the guise of connection.

I shared that, on my move to Wisconsin, I decided to unplug from the daily news. For me, it was serving as a firewall against the essentials of life. Too much adrenaline and fear numbs us. It makes us close, shut down. I felt that the noise was doing the opposite of what it pretended. I suspected that I was less informed by listening to the onslaught of opinion-masked-as-news. I realized that I was agitated all the time by the battling correspondents and felt infected by the us-and-them picture they were painting of the world. When minor events are elevated to disaster status the real disasters pass unnoticed. Everything evens out. All colors of life reduce to bland gray.

Now that I’m through the firewall the events of real importance are evident beyond the chatter. If I really need to know it, I hear about it. In unplugging, I am actually more informed. And then there is this: without the incessant chatter, my artistry is coming through with clarity and potency. In seeing more clearly I can see my self more clearly. When not dulled or distracted by the noise, the full range of sound and color has re-emerged. The lesson: this world does not need fixing or changing or improvement. Neither do I.  It is gorgeous and profound when we are able to live unafraid of what we feel.

 

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