Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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Taking a longer, deeper view

I’ve had the blessing this year of accompanying several thoughtful writers as they advance their book-writing process.

Each of their projects is soul-sized, and each is the unique distillation that only that particular writer could bring forth from experience, observation, inspiration, and the facets of creating that help bring a story to life.

My experience of living within the worlds in their pages has me reflecting once again on the power of expression in our world, the double-edged qualities of words and speech, the timeless gifts that good questions and good listening can bring us, and the potential of art to convey the wholeness of our experience.

As I do, I’m inspired by words like the following ones from writers with soul-sized perspectives.

In the company of focused writers in a workshop of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG).

“Writing about one’s own or another’s life poses serious challenges. A writer trying to represent his life in a book engages himself in ongoing negotiations about what information to include and what to withhold, what he believes is true and what he wants readers to think is true,” says Helena Hjalmarsson.

“The need for synthesis–coherence, connections between past and present–is a constant struggle … ” Hjalmarsson notes.

“Often, the sense of life as a logical, purposeful unfolding becomes more important to the autobiographer than objective truth.

“Also vital to writers of autobiographies is the drive to make their work relevant and accessible to their readership–as well as a desire for connection, a social and spiritual need to ‘reincarnate,’ to have their hard-won perspective exist outside themselves.”

Courtesy Justice St. Rain

Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life.

“And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself.

“Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ ” Lahiri cuts right to the core of the matter, in this.

Author Elizabeth Sims shared timely words about this process in a blog post called “A Real Writer’s Duty”:

“These days when extraordinary, historic events occur, everybody becomes a writer. Social media enables all of us to spew impassioned opinions—joy, outrage, elation, despair—if we want to. And so many do. And free speech is great. 

“But a real writer of either fiction or nonfiction takes a much longer and deeper view of human affairs and human nature than most people.” (How I love this. Indeed, I live for it.)

“A real writer is more curious than defensive,” she continues.

“A real writer explores. A real writer is ready to be surprised. A real writer never panics. A real writer knows the world is in the work.”

 

Find Elizabeth’s Zestful Writing Blog here:

http://esimsauthor.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-real-writers-duty.html


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We meet what we are able to receive

You will write if you will write without thinking of the result in terms of a result,

but think of the writing in terms of discovery.

~ Gertrude Stein

I’m always searching for descriptions of what writing and creative process feel like in their essence, and haven’t found any that describe it better than Gertrude Stein does here.

She’s gone straight to the heart of what allows writing process to be a revelatory power, and a bestower.

The “price” for this is willing surrender into seeking and not knowing, rather than a holding to presumed knowledge of any kind. The fact that what she observes about the experience of writing also applies to that of living makes her simple truth seem even more sublime.

As she suggests, my experience of writing is of something to be approached on the only terms it truly allows – the terms of discovery. I know that I’m immersed back in that process when things begin to strike with notes my inner ear can hear, when my crown and scalp suddenly tingle.

Also, I simply feel good. If the pathway of shaping a novel taught me anything, it is that when I welcome a better-feeling inner emotional tone, it becomes a bridge to what inner life and intuition have to offer up to me. Before I reach that however, there’s the unavoidable surrender to that great blank that seems that it will never yield, no matter how I push on or try to break through it. And that is because I’m the one who’s meant to do the yielding.

This was reinforced for me one afternoon while I swam with a friend, and remembered that in order to even be able to do this, I must meet the water where it is. I don’t take hold of it or try to manage it, but rather I yield to and work with how it envelops and supports me.

Every aspect of the story in my novel, The Munich Girl, every theme, revelation, and scene, came to meet me in a similar way when I was ready to receive it, after I had immersed myself in its atmosphere and waited, listening, watching. Trusting.

Believing that I “know” anything about a story before it has fully shown itself is the only “writer’s block” I’ve ever placed in my own way.

Every story I’ve accompanied through to completion began with seeing or hearing something in the daily noise of life that stayed with me and took root inside, or was like a silent presence that followed me home. Just as with an animal for whom we would offer a home, it requires that a relationship of mutual trust be built.

Part of that trust for the soul who surrenders to creative process is that we will be met by what we are able to receive, and to integrate, on the deepest levels. A swimmer flailing in fear will not find herself very well supported by the water, even though its quality of buoyancy is always there. We learn to swim by learning to respect the qualities of the water, and shape our own ability to working with it. In a way, we become one with it.

Creative process, when met with regard and respect, brings a very similar kind of connection with our own wholeness, and that of the whole world.


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The time we own, the space we inhabit

Image: courtesy Tarot by Cecelia

The young tree of my life was planted in a culture constrained by many limiting beliefs.

It believes:

there is not enough for everyone,

that having is being,

that age is an ending.

It believes that it owns space, and place, and most often feels owned by time.

Photo: Liz Turner

Friends from cultures close to the natural world remind me that, truly, it’s the reverse.

Whatever we may think, we are one with space, “owned by it,” as it were. But in the matter of time, the invention of our minds, we are free to take ownership, and choose.

In reflecting about space, and how to direct one’s time, artist Mark Tobey said:

“The dimension that counts for the creative person is the space he creates within himself. This inner space is closer to the infinite than the other, and it is the privilege of the balanced mind… and the search for an equilibrium is essential—to be as aware of inner space as he is of outer space.”

And where is that balance to be found? In what longs for us to hear it, and to become the ear with which it is heard, as the wise visionary knew:

“Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. We ourselves become His echo and His answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer.”

~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation


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Setting a course for Soul-sized expression

photoAs I celebrate another year in The Munich Girl’s life, and my own, I’m pondering the power of expression in the world, the double-edged qualities of speech, the timeless gifts of questions and listening, and the potential of art to convey the wholeness of our experience.

I’m revisiting the path along which the novel led me, hoping to mine some reflective memoir. As I do, I’m inspired by words like the following ones from writers with soul-sized perspectives.

“Writing about one’s own or another’s life poses serious challenges. A writer trying to represent his life in a book engages himself in ongoing negotiations about what information to include and what to withhold, what he believes is true and what he wants readers to think is true,” says Helena Hjalmarsson. Meme1959335_758163877584949_5796047359521828465_n

“The need for synthesis – coherence, connections between past and present – is a constant struggle … ” Hjalmarsson notes. “Often, the sense of life as a logical, purposeful unfolding becomes more important to the autobiographer than objective truth. Also vital to writers of autobiographies is the drive to make their work relevant and accessible to their readership – as well as a desire for connection, a social and spiritual need to ‘reincarnate,’ to have their hard-won perspective exist outside themselves.”

Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life.

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Painting: Judy Wright

“And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ ” Lahiri cuts right to the core, in this.

Elizabeth Sims recently shared timely words about this process in a blog post called “A Real Writer’s Duty”:

“These days when extraordinary, historic events occur, everybody becomes a writer. Social media enables all of us to spew impassioned opinions—joy, outrage, elation, despair—if we want to. And so many do. And free speech is great.  the soul ajar_congdon2

“But a real writer of either fiction or nonfiction takes a much longer and deeper view of human affairs and human nature than most people.” (How I love this. Indeed, I live for it.)

“A real writer is more curious than defensive,” she continues. “A real writer explores. A real writer is ready to be surprised. A real writer never panics. A real writer knows the world is in the work.”

Find Elizabeth’s Zestful Writing Blog here:

http://esimsauthor.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-real-writers-duty.html

 

 

 


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What shall we keep room for in our hearts?

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“Evolution is transformation. And transformation is happening all the time. It happens as we learn new things … ” notes author Christine DeLorey.

“Evolution is not an automatic ever-ascending spiritual conveyor-belt,” she adds, “but the result of our ability to face reality, adjust, adapt, and change.”

A key element of our transformative path is contrast, whose intensity and extremes can sometimes seem — and feel — shocking. Even disheartening.

10854827_878021268895335_1204551440909094264_oHow can we maximize its effectiveness, by seeing what it is pointing to, for our heart’s understanding? What is it helping us remember? And how is it reminding us of all that we do not yet know?

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” urges poet Mary Oliver, and theologian Paul Tillich reminds, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

“ … if you are willing to let your heart break completely open, with no internal narrative controlling the opening, you will discover the pure, innocent love that is alive in the core of every emotion, every feeling, everybody,” writes Gangaji.

“It remains pure and spacious regardless of change or loss.”

11798178_10155840072870181_1562789834_nOnce this happens, then perhaps we are equipped at last for what these words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s invite:

“Make ready thy soul that thou mayest be like the light which shineth forth from the loftiest heights on the coast, by means of which guidance may be given to the timid ships amid the darkness of fog …”

Including those often-timid ships of our own small selves.

 


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Pathway to the hearing ear

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Photo: D. Kirkup Designs

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

~ Hans Hofmann

If I practice silence, even for small moments each day, what might I hear that is otherwise drowned out by my voice, or my thoughts? How can this allow what I express to move beyond the mind’s running commentary? How might it help me to imbibe, investigate, and reflect, and draw me into deeper, richer soils in which to plant seeds of viable ideas?

Lama Willa Miller, spiritual director of New Hampshire’s Wonderwell Mountain Refuge retreat center, describes how retreat, and silence, are gifts available to us each day — if we receive them. “Taking such a sacred pause allows us to draw away from the busyness of everyday life …. “That’s where we can check in with ourselves about what we’re doing and where we’re going, and why; where we can ask the kinds of questions needed for living a meaningful life.”

This, it seems, is where we have the most needful and life-sustaining conversation of all. “Once you find that quiet,” she says, “you also discover that it gives you space, and with that comes peace, and clarity.”

In an address given at the Westminster Friends’ Meeting House in London in January of 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign from God in every phenomenon. The sign of the intellect is contemplation, and the sign of contemplation is silence; because it is impossible for man to do two things at the same time – he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit, the spirit answers, the light breaks forth, and reality is revealed …

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.”

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.”


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Harvests of the heart

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Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

Autumn is that time when so many endings seem to arrive at once, as the summer skies in which our dreams have soared in days of endless light grow overcast, like the darker mornings that are pointing us toward winter.

The intensity of contrast can be shocking when it appears. It reminds us of all that we do not yet know, and of the freedom in embracing that.

greens1374978_233813396773683_648730168_nEvery autumn, a part of me feels sad, as well as reminded, and also — like those spiked hulls from which such bright shiny chestnuts emerge — freshly broken open, once again.

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” urges poet Mary Oliver.

Theologian Paul Tillich reminds,“The first duty of love is to listen.”

colortip1383238_233814043440285_366268116_n“ … if you are willing to let your heart break completely open, with no internal narrative controlling the opening, you will discover the pure, innocent love that is alive in the core of every emotion, every feeling, everybody,” writes Gangaji. “It remains pure and spacious regardless of change or loss.”

Once this happens, then perhaps we are equipped at last for what these words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s invite:

rotetry1379621_233814693440220_853513411_n“Make ready thy soul that thou mayest be like the light which shineth forth from the loftiest heights on the coast, by means of which guidance may be given to the timid ships amid the darkness of fog …”

Including those often-timid ships of our own small selves.

Leaf photos courtesy of photographer Nelson Ashberger.


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Become subtle enough

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Photos: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

Become subtle enough
To hear a tree breathe.

Succumb to warmth in the heart
Where divine fire glows.

~ John O’Donohue

It [the struggle with evil] makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail.

~ Helen Keller

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Photos: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

When you live at the periphery of your being, your thoughts are often scattered, pulling you in different directions, and draining your energy. Too much mental activity leads to overload and, oftentimes, burnout.

When you take the time to ‘go within’ each day, by breathing deeply and fully, feeling the ‘space’ inside yourself, and witnessing your thoughts and emotions without judgment, you return to a very natural, deep sense of aliveness, which is actually your true nature; then your thoughts naturally slow down, and simultaneously gain more power and cohesiveness.

Think of the small, choppy waves that dance across the surface of the ocean; these represent your scattered thoughts. Then visualize the huge waves that rise up from underneath, much like the giants the pro surfers ride. Note the difference in power.

~ Jaime Tanna


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Following the way to wholeness

Eva_Braun_by_PrinzessinHeinrikeSix years ago today, I experienced an unexpected eruption in my world. I then returned home to discover that a bid I’d made on eBay had won a portrait of an individual whose story I’d wind up following in these subsequent years.

The day brought one of those bittersweet blends of beginnings and endings that life can so often deliver. A relationship was mortally wounded in that eruption, and the portrait, which featured Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, opened the door to what would become The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies That Outlast War.

I’d been writing for about a quarter of a century and had no awareness of the very definite, very surprising path that day’s turn of events was launching. That new stage was about to reveal that, more than being what I do, writing itself is something that acts upon me, strengthening a sense of connection with my own wholeness, and with that of others.

My role — my responsibility — is to listen and watch for these revelations, rather than attempting to impose ideas or plans of my own on what unfolds as a story — or anything else.

Along the way, I’ve been thankful to discover that this is also a kinder and generally more effective approach to living, daily — as in one of them at a time. This has brought a very different relationship with time, one more fluid and expansive.

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“Glacier Falls” by Judy Hughey Wright.

Writers often notice how during generative times in their work, their experience of energy is a flow that can seem almost like dreaming — a soaring over great expanses until suddenly, we’re compelled to stop and rest wings whose strength trails off for a while.

Then a cycle of recharging, refilling, becomes needful. We encounter that juncture of the energetic difference between being inspired to do, until we reach a point of having, and then remembering, often through a kind of fatigue, that within this cycle we need to be “re-sourced” from what it is that reinforces our being.

Writer Penney Peirce offers a helpful model of this inner cycle in her book, The Intuitive Way. She describes how, moving from a centered place of being, and receiving what comes to meet us there, we are inspired toward doing, and this takes shape in action that eventually leads to achieving or having. We may then begin to notice a fading, a weakening of the wings, so to speak, that is the reminder that it’s time to do what our very cells know they must: rest, recharge, and be restored again to a state of being that’s ready for the next cycle. Ready to receive. Cells do not restore themselves after they expend their energy, but are restored by something beyond themselves. Cells seem to know innately the wisdom of returning to their fullest being through the “re-sourcing” of what truly sustains them.

Intuive WaySo often today, the world and its suggestions can make it very easy to get caught in just one segment of this cycle Penney Peirce describes – stuck on a repeating, depleting loop of constantly attempting to do and have. In fact, collective consciousness (which, so often, actually seems more UNconscious)  offers more reinforcement to do this than to comply with the requirements of that cycle of inner wisdom.

However, waiting for me each and every day is a choice point:

I can accommodate the demands and insistence of the world.

Or I can turn toward the more trustworthy and sustaining one — a world without end, referenced so long ago, by Ones who saw it, and invite us toward it.

The fact that writing and creative exploration are so inextricably woven with it — are, in fact, the very path to it — is one of the sweetest graces I’ve yet discovered.


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My first teacher is still 21

Photo on 2-17-14 at 7.48 PM #2My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that even when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21.

Mothers truly are our first teachers, which may explain why we can feel so inexplicably alone once they’re gone. With each passing year, so much of what I value can be traced back to my mother, a military spouse whose life didn’t turn out anything like her 21-year-old self imagined it would.

MumDuring the years that the war ravaged Europe, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home in England’s remote north. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative who was in the end stage of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs in order to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist. She had compassion for those young evacuees, both because they’d had to leave their families, and because she knew the life they’d face back home. Her own face already wore nasty scars from her service as a fire warden during the infamous “Blitzkrieg.”

If anyone modeled for me how to welcome change gracefully, it was this woman who came to a new culture to meet her Boston-Irish in-laws, then proceeded to make a home for her family—over and over—in locations all over the world, wherever her husband’s military orders took us next. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.

Schwan73586_10201817493622394_728135709_nLife in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easy to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.)

Because she was such a canny yet unobtrusive ally in assisting our friendships, my sister and I now find it easy to make friends wherever we go, to be the one to go talk to someone standing alone at a party, as we often saw her do. With her lively mind, she always had friendly, interesting questions that would gently coax people into the nicest conversations, even if she had to ask them in a language she was struggling to learn.

Long before the days of what would come to be called Women’s Lib, military spouses were already demonstrating versatility and capability, offering strong models for their children. Their spouse’s presence was often shadowy and intermittent, which tended to make these wives adaptable and decisive, and give their children resilience, as well. That’s very likely why I wound up marrying the son of such a mother.IMG_0433

Among her many gifts, my mother was able to listen in a way that made you feel as though listening to you at that moment was the most important thing in the world, the only thing in her world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time—not just to be efficient and accomplish things, but also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.

“A father and mother endure the greatest troubles and hardships for their children; and often when the children have reached the age of maturity, the parents pass on to the other world. Rarely does it happen that a father and mother in this world see the reward of the care and trouble they have undergone for their children,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “Therefore, children, in return for this care and trouble, must show forth charity and beneficence, and must implore pardon and forgiveness for their parents.”

After my mother’s death, the one thing I heard most consistently from the many who loved her was how much kindness and help she had always shown them. It’s very clear, therefore, how I can best honor her memory. Her kindness and generosity are the most important lessons my first teacher ever gave me.

So, thanks for everything, Mum. You’ll always be twenty-one, to me.

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Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details:

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