As one calendar year passes away, and we embark upon what we choose to consider a “new” one, I am reminded of a life that suddenly ended this time of year, not long ago. The following was written on the death of someone I barely knew, but who was deeply loved by someone I love. I send it to you in remembrance of all the lives that began and ended in the past year, and appreciation for all that will begin and end in the days to come. Many of those lives we never know, and never will, but, like all of our lives, they inevitably carry their portions of grief and joy. They are all sacred. May yours be filled with the richness and deep mystery of life.

“We are grateful for your loving presence here, to honor the life of a singular man. We have come together to reflect on a life about which each of us knew only a part. Many of you never knew him at all – but only knew of him, through your friendship with his family. His long separation from his family was his choice, and he worked hard at it. We may never know why he made that decision, but it was his. And, now, the Universe has brought us all here together to remember him.
What we do know is that he was a son, part of a family, a brother, a co-worker, and a friend, and – beyond that – maybe even much more. Only one person knew the whole story of his life: The child, the boy, and the man, who lived it. The entirety of his life belonged to him alone…
We do not honor him because his life was perfect, or close to perfect, and we need not even try to pretend that it was. None of our lives are. But his was, by any sacred measure, a real and valuable LIFE!
As we all try to do, he did the best he could with what he was given, one day at a time. He had brains and charm, secrets and shame, a will to survive, great courage, and many challenges. His deepest struggles, and his greatest victories, he took on, and accepted, alone, for many years. I like to think that he often found strength in what we have learned that he loved: His belief in magic, in mystery, in things that none of us really “understand,” but things that could be possible – life in the stars, worlds beyond our own, heroes and heroines and mythical creatures able to conquer all obstacles, in any circumstances…
And a belief that all problems may surely, somehow, some day, be resolved, if we are diligent, determined, hard-working, and hopeful.
I am sure he was all those things, even when his life may have sometimes have been unspeakably difficult, and lonely, and full of anguish.
It has been this man’s great gift to remind me, yet again, that each of our lives inevitably holds within it the possibility of both excruciating pain and of exquisite joy; that every life is truly sacred; that the Universe is full of magic; and that each and every one of us is a blessed part of it all. I am grateful for what I have learned of his life, with all its flaws, all its struggles, all its dreams and accomplishments, all its failures, all its hope, and all of its humanity… What I have learned of his life is enough, for it has given me strength, and courage, and hope.
If we grieve, perhaps it is for the realization that none of us may, now, ever know more about this very unique individual. He guarded himself carefully, and gave to each of us what he was able to share. His gifts, we have learned, were many.
When we look for comfort, let it be in our remembering that every life – however long or brief – is a great, and sacred, and joyous mystery, and that every life, including our own, merits our most profound love, our thoughtful attention, our deepest gratitude, and our greatest honor.”

The Winter Solstice of Our Madness

Enter the Darkness

Enter the Darkness

“Darkness within darkness – the gateway to all understanding.”
Tao Te Ching

The Universe, in its eternal wisdom, cycles through Light and Darkness, year after year, century after century, eon after eon. In our human experience, this has always been and, in our hopes, always will be. Light gives way, inexorably, to Darkness and, in equal measure, that Darkness always yields to growing Light. Today, December 21, 2012, is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day, and longest night – of this cycle. In this night of greatest Darkness, the Light begins to return. It is a Darkness we must embrace.

For many, the Winter Solstice of Our Madness occurred on Friday, December 14, at an elementary school in a small New England town – the kind of place we like to think embodies all we love about ourselves as a nation. And it does. But that day, a black maelstrom of madness and heedless weapons of death ended the young, bright lives of more than two dozen small children and young adults, and exploded our delusion that this kind of Darkness can be overlooked – that it should not touch us, that its existence is an aberration, that this kind of thing is somehow visited on us from somewhere else – that this Darkness is not really “ours.”

Each time, we look for reasons; we try to “understand.” We want to reassure ourselves that this kind of thing can be explained by some particular set of circumstances, if only we can find them. We look for some individual responsibility, some legislative solution, some counter-attack, some set of moral rules that – if only everyone obeyed them – would assure us that this kind of thing could never happen again. We look at each incident as an exception, isolated from all the others… Because we insist on trying to ignore the fearful Darkness that we, ourselves, have allowed to become a subterranean part of our culture – unnamed, and unacknowledged. And the unacknowledged only grows in its destructive power.

All children know this Darkness, and we once did, too. Children are quick to cry out that there are monsters under their beds, hiding in their closets, and banging on their windows, with fangs and teeth and claws. Their instincts are right. And the children call upon us to help them dispel those monsters. And we do. The wise among us do not deny the existence of the monsters; we tell our children how to render the monsters powerless, how to make them go away… And how we can do it through our own will and wisdom, and no way else.

Acknowledgement does not – and should not – suggest powerlessness; it suggests only understanding of what is. The absence of that acknkowledgement is what makes us powerless. This Darkness IS our own, and it will not be ignored. This Darkness is the living hell of the mentally ill, thrown onto the streets or into the arms of families who have no tools or support to adequately help them. It is the Darkness of irresponsible greed, and consequences be damned, of those who promote the relentless sale of almost incomprehensible weapons of death, for their own profit, to anyone. It is the Darkness of our tacitly agreeing to live in a culture that isolates us from each other, that tells us, in a thousand ways, that someone else is more likely our enemy than our brother or sister, our parent, our grandparent, or our child – that we are each responsible only for ourselves, and for no one else – that the others don’t matter. It is the Darkness of our being told that we are somehow “exceptional,” and destined to be better than others, and our so often failing to remember that it is cooperation, and not competition, that allows us to thrive. It is the Darkness of our thinking that we need no help, nor should we be expected to give any. It is the Darkness of our believing that there need be no Darkness, at all, ever, at least not for us…

But the truth is that the Universe is equal parts Darkness and Light, both always moving toward growth and life. On this longest and darkest night of the year, let us sit with our own Darkness, acknowledge it, and then begin to move ourselves, together, by our own wills and the grace of the Universe, once again inexorably toward the Light.


Stuff: Part One


This is some of our Stuff… I’m not quite sure what this is all about, this ridding ourselves of so much of our Stuff… But it’s been going on for almost two months now – drawer by drawer, pile by pile, shelf by shelf. And I’m thinking about it…

I can look back on a sequence and confluence of Events, although being able to name these Events sheds no light on what actually caused them, what they might mean, or how, in retrospect, they seem to have joined forces with the Universe and led to this. Logically speaking, it began when we had to remove a newly-defunct and empty oil tank from our basement. There was a lot of Stuff in our basement – all very tidy, but THERE. The tank couldn’t be taken out until a path was cleared. So that was the first thing the Universe presented, and my good man got right on it… And ordered a dumpster. (As I’ve mentioned before, having a dumpster is every woman’s fondest dream, no matter what you may have heard about red convertibles and pelts of dead animals.) We began filling it up, with two-by-fours, empty paint cans, leftover floor tiles, scraps of carpeting, broken snow shovels, empty cardboard boxes, and so on.

In the middle of this, my husband went to visit a good buddy in Colorado, whose sweetheart had just come to live with him in the house in which he’s lived for his entire fifty-ish years, full of his Stuff, his parents’ Stuff, his son’s Stuff, and more… Much more. Sweetheart arrived armed with a small book by Karen Kingston called Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui/FREE Yourself from Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Clutter Forever. ( My husband – whose intimate familiarity with any Oriental spiritual practice is equal to his personal experience with breast feeding – was miraculously hooked on the entire concept… And we already had a dumpster. We were apparently ready for this. Who can “explain” these things? Sometimes – probably all of the time, actually – the “right” time comes without our really knowing it, and we realize that we are in the hands of the Universe.

That same week, I was in Idaho with a very dear GF, who left her expansive Long Island home a year and a half ago, moved herself, her sweetheart, and Splash, the Wonder Dog, into a thirty-four-foot RV, and has been happily living in it ever since, all over the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. (See my earlier post, Eight Days at Blackwell Island.) She used to have quite a lot of Stuff; now she doesn’t, and she’s more than fine with that. I liked it, too.

So those are the Events-That-Took-Place. But what was really happening? For twenty years, we’ve been pleasantly and regularly accumulating Stuff. We’re not particularly hoarders – except, maybe, for my collection of more than a hundred plastic souvenir snowballs; have to ‘fess up to that… Overall, we consider ourselves pretty tidy. We make our bed almost every day; we dutifiully and punctually recycle every possible thing; and rarely does a dirty dish sit in our sink for more than an hour. (I guess this makes us QUITE tidy, actually.) So why have we now suddenly found ourselves seriously compelled to rid ourselves of so much of our Stuff, and right this minute?

One of the most intriguing things about Kingston’s little book is that it addresses the reasons we accumulate our Stuff. “Just in case” is first on the list, followed by all kinds of other motivations like self-identity, status, territoriality, using a ton of Stuff to bury feelings of insecurity, and so on. No amount of trying to convince ourselves that all those magazines really should be neatly arranged on the coffee table is ever going to trump any of these emotional powerhouses – especially if we’re not even aware of their existence.

Instead of thinking of this as some reiteration of perpetual “tidyng up,” both of us began to consider how we really felt about our Stuff. What had each of us, without much thought, brought to our shared life from our individual former lives, living in different places, with different people? What were we hanging on to for no reason other than the fact it was there, and we were used to it? Were there things we’d never really liked in the first place…? Indeed there were. Major life transitions – divorce, moving, death – often necessitate this sort of reconsideration of Stuff, but this was coming from none of those. It was coming from the great Somewhere Else…

Interestingly enough, we started with the bedroom – the room where we spend that third of our lives, where we are most intimate in every way, and where, each night, we release ourselves to the still, dark, and mysterious unconsciousness of sleep and dreams… The most private place seemed the best place to start. We considered every item in that room, one by one. We switched closets. Bags of clothing we hadn’t worn for years went to the thrift store. I finally confessed to my husband that I’d hated his alarm clock for twenty years, and we got a new one. I told him I never really liked his nightstand, either – or my own. He kept his; I got a new one. Three paintings that no longer meant much of anything to either of us disappeared by mutual agreement. It was a fascinating project – especially for two people who pretty much thought they knew everything about themselves, about each other, and never kept secrets from either…

We’ve worked our way through desk drawers, bookshelves, file cabinets, kitchen cabinets, piles of things that had sat on the stairs for years, waiting to be transported to some long-forgotten destiny; overburdened horizontal surfaces all over the house; the linen closet (Why did we have almost two dozen adorable little guest towels, when we hardly have that many guests in a year, and, surely, not every guest needs his or her personal and unique hand-wiper…?); two china cabinets (Five sets of wine glasses? Four corkscrews?); and even my studio closet – an Ali Baba’s cave of treasures and trash of stunning magnitude. I had to really work my up to that one… And I began to seriously ponder the fact that I had chosen to make the unseen part of my personal “creative space” a repository for anything and everything of mine that had no place else to go. I had stuffed away quite a lot, without even thinking about it… The hidden clutter may be even more nefarious than the Stuff that’s right in our face.

So what are we doing with all that Stuff that we didn’t consider dumpster fodder…? My sometimes-awesomely-brilliant husband came up with the idea of a holiday “Good Karma No-Tag Tag Sale.” We’re having a two-day party, and giving everything away. Free. Whatever it is. No matter how “good” it is – things that were once “good” for us may now be “good” for someone else. The choices weren’t made on the value of the objects themselves; they were made on the value of the connections we have with them. Whatever’s left over will go to that same thrift store, just in time for the holidays – theirs and ours.

We had the dumpster for almost six weeks – until we realized, with a newly-familiar combination of chagrin and enlightenment, that even the dumpster, like so much of our other Stuff, was threatening to become a permanent fixture in our lives, simply because we had gotten used to it. So we called to have it finally, filled to the brim, taken away. We weren’t here when they came to get it, but we’d already said goodbye to all of it.

For those of us whose lives have allowed us the great luxury of being able to accumulate so much, it takes quite a bit of time, energy, and conscious thought, to move toward a state of greater emptiness… But that seems to be what it takes, if that’s what we want. Ask any Zen master. Ask yourself.

“We are not committed to this or that. We are committed to the nothing in between…whether we know it or not.” John Cage


The Clock… Notes on a Momentary Respite in a Long Journey

There are, at the moment, three items on my bedside table: Modern Spiritual Masters/Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, edited by Robert Ellsberg; an eighteen-page instruction manual for the Brookstone “Tranquil Moments Advanced Clinically Proven Sleep Sounds” machine; and the “machine” itself. (Yes; I know the Buddha is there, too; either I’m not counting the Buddha, or I always count the Buddha…) If the juxtaposition of these objects does not hint at a body and spirit in transition, then I don’t know what would.

The “machine” is, almost incidentally, an alarm clock – a ridiculously expensive alarm clock, since that feature seems an extraneous addition to a menu of sixteen different Clinically Proven Sounds, created by Experts, to lull one into blissful rest, a fine meditative state, or relief from anxiety and stress. (Perhaps a thoughtful reading of Modern Spiritual Masters would do any or all of the above, without the need for the eighteen-page instruction manual. That thought, itself, should be cause for some contemporary contemplation on my part, now that I think of it.) But an alarm clock I could love is what I was seeking, and – so far – this one seems to be doing the trick.

The arrival of this device on my bedside table is the momentary culmination of a search I have pursued, albeit intermittently, for almost twenty years. At the moment, things are looking – and sounding – very promising!

My husband, “B,” came to our twenty years of cohabitation and marriage with an alarm clock he’d already had for at least ten years. For more than thirty years, he has been very attached to his clock – secure in the reliability and trustworthiness of this small and homely, plastic LED-screeened, device, after his own series of relationships with numerous analog, digital, and clock-radio combinations, and any number of other things in life, which had disappointed him by failing to live up to their promises. It is “only” an alarm clock (no aromatherapy, rising dawns, or soothing sounds included), but that solitary task it has performed without fail, time after time. For this reason, B’s clock has earned – and held – his deep loyalty and affection.

However… His clock performs its sole duty by aggressively presenting its own rendition of the sound track from the shower scene in Psycho, morning after morning. I have never liked this about it. B doesn’t seem to mind being jolted at least semi-awake, hitting the snooze button, and falling right back to sleep, only to repeat the process several times, as often as not. This works for him… But it has always seemed kind of ridiculous to me. Either you’re getting up, or you’re not. Being assaulted into semi-consciousness, again and again, is not the same thing as consciously and deliberately “awakening.” Like so many couples, we are wired somewhat differently, and have learned, for a sufficient part, to live with those differences for almost twenty years.

Over these years, B has been both generous and gracious in trying to satisfy my periodically-expressed yearning for a gentler approach to leaving sleep and greeting the day. He got me a combination “gradual dawn” and aromatherapy device, which included several sound options. Unfortunately, it looked like a tacky plastic ziggurat; I didn’t like fooling around with the smelly little beads; and its version of “morning bird sounds” was a pale rehash of the real birds that get going around 5:00 in the morning here. Then followed the Zen alarm clock, which I wanted desperately, and which was really quite lovely – and very promising. However, after a relatively short period of time, its LED display slowly disappeared into irreversible invisibility… Evidently following some inner Zen directive of its own.

In our recent and ongoing effort to shed things that no longer serve or please us, the Alarm Clock Issue reappeared – this time addressed by me with renewed determination. A few hours of web research on my part disclosed this machine – a veritable Maserati among alarm clocks, purveyed by Brookstone, the indisputable prime source (along with Hammacher-Schlemmer) of all things electronic, complicated, beautiful, costly, and generally completely unnecessary for sustenance of the average human life, even here in Fairfield County, Connecticut. However, it had an absolutely lovely set of chimes to ease one into wakefulness, and that’s what I wanted, accessories or no accessories.

B agreed to give it a try, with the mutual understanding that, if he hated it, back it would go. (I would, in that case, get earplugs.) It arrived yesterday. Disconcertingly, there were few “tranquil moments” involved in the set-up and initialization of the thing – from opening the box itself, to installing the button battery with the Lilliputian screwdriver (which we happened to have, thanks to previous experience with sophisticated electronic devices and their requirements), to figuring out the sequence of buttons to push and hold for two seconds to activate one function, and five seconds for another. With repetitions of the Serenity Prayer, and one dark period of a few minutes where we were convinced that “it isn’t working,” we got through all that; set the alarm; and chose a “sleep sound” for the night that seemed richly appropriate: “Unwind.” (It was a clock, after all…)

When we got into bed, I hit the button, and the Clinically Proven Sounds began… In only moments (evidently the “tranquil” ones for which the machine is named), I had melted into a complete and utterly blissful state of limp relaxation… And we were both soon “sound” asleep. This morning, right on cue, mellow chimes gradually eased their way into our consciousnesses. The first word out of B’s mouth was, “Success.” I could hardly contain my joy. Reliability and grace seemed not mutually exclusive after all.

Ridding oneself of something one really doesn’t like much is usually a piece of cake. Ridding oneself of something to which one has long been attached – for whatever reason – is another story entirely. In truth, we’ve both been attached to B’s little clock for all these years – he, for its fidelity; me, because it’s his. But we were looking, now, for something that might not only be dependable and reliable, but something that was lovely, as well – something that we truly liked – not just because we already happened to have it, or because it worked and we were used to it, but because it offered the promise of bringing new pleasure and grace to our lives, in an area where we had long, and somewhat thoughtlessly, just accepted the status quo, the “it’ll do”…

And what better place to try for something better than in our daily awakening? If it has to be a machine, let it be a fine one.