So...The Cassandra Pages turns twelve today. I'm sure this impending birthday was a factor in all the thinking I've been doing about my work and the future. As the 20th of March rolls around I always ask myself if it's time to call it quits with this blogging thing, but no, I'm not ready to do that. If I weren't writing here, I'd be keeping a private journal as I did before the internet, and frankly the blog is a lot more fun, mainly because I know you are out there. Posting more of my artwork over the past couple of years has solved the problem of keeping up my interest without feeling the posts were getting too repetitive, and having a place to share these projects has been a good motivation as well. I greatly appreciate your comments, the many friendships this blog has given me, and the fact that you keep coming back here to see what's happening: and it seems kind of incredible that what began here has been going on and evolving for a dozen years.
However, I decided to celebrate the end of Cassandra's childhood -- we're adolescents now, watch out -- by giving her a vacation. I've never done that in all these years! While I won't be posting new material for the next month, I will probably be putting up some photographs or repeating some favorite posts from the past, so don't go too far away. And I'll be back on these pages, hopefully with new energy and ideas, in the middle of April, when this entire mountain will be melted:
Well, we can wish it, anyway!
Love to all of you, and see you in the spring.
Life is never certain, but it's easier to maintain that illusion when we're younger. For a long time, we have statistics on our side. But later, we can either live in denial, or become realistic: we need to set some priorities.
The basic facts of my life at age 62 are different from many people's: I have a lifelong partner to whom I'm devoted, and a father still in good health at 90, but I don't have children, grandchildren, or siblings. There are beloved nieces and nephews and several younger friends with whom we're very close, but we don't want to burden any of them. Nor do we ever plan to formally "retire" or move permanently to a sunny climate or retirement community, unless illness or infirmity make that the best practical decision. We already downsized once, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made; we love our new living pattern of a small condominium apartment, plus a studio in an industrial building where we can work on all our various projects. Both spaces are accessible, close to all kinds of shopping on foot, and easy to take care of; this arrangement should suit us for a long time into the future.
The crux of what I'm facing these days, then, isn't a major change like retirement or moving, but rather a sense that I need to be even more clear about priorities, more intentional about choices -- and yet also more spontaneous, living as fully as possible in the present moment, neither fretting about the future or regretting the past, being relatively light on my feet and able to take advantage of opportunities. Our professional work takes up less of my time than it used to, but the publishing business takes more. I have more time to do my art and to write, to learn and to explore, more freedom of choice. Eating well, exercising, and caring for my body has to be factored in; I can't really put it off until tomorrow. I still feel young, I don't want to waste time, and I hope I never have to stop working, but I want to work differently.
Some people seem to live their later decades with joy and fulfillment, some with a sense of resignation, some with relief, some with desperation, bitterness, self-pity or despair; some collapse into lassitude. There's a lot that we can't control as we age, but we do have control over our attitude and how we approach the limitations imposed by our physical bodies, for instance, or life circumstances, as well as what we do with the opportunities presented by an opening-up of time and -- one hopes -- inner freedom.
What's most important to me, at this point in life? In short, it's to grow in wisdom, inner strength, and in the ability to adjust the balance between the energy that goes out and the energy that comes in. This, I find, changes over time, and is my greatest challenge. We all need solace -- the well where we go to be refreshed and renewed, whether that's the woods, a good book, a concert, a day spent with friends or family -- so that we can fulfill our responsibilities, and do the things that give our lives meaning, fulfillment, and purpose.
Four priorities: Creating. Learning and growing. Loving, serving, and giving. Moving: keeping body and mind in motion.
Four things to leave behind: Competitiveness. Impatience. Guilt. Regrets.
Four qualities to nurture: Gratitude. Humility. Kindness. Fearlessness.
I find myself asking how I can best divide my time between projects where I'm helping others - which I'm in an increasingly good position to do, and which I find rewarding -- and those that involve my own creative work, pushing myself, searching, trying to go beyond where I was: these are often the harder challenges and bigger risks. How can I better understand my own emotional needs for social contact and interaction that sometimes tip me over into saying yes when I ought to say no -- and to do so without guilt? What are the best ways to face and transcend the fears of failure, pointlessness, isolation, inability and irrelevance that seem to affect so many older people? What are my own best sources of solace, renewal, and strength, at this point in my life?
For all of this, I need discernment, and times when I step back.
Nuts, rocks, pine cones. Watercolor and ink drawing, 3/16/2015
From my journal, March 11, 2015:
During Lent I've been basing the meditation talks, every other week, on the teachings and lives of different teachers from various traditions, and especially how they came to realize their calling to contemplative prayer or meditation. Yesterday evening, the talk was about having "the courage to become more and more silent." I spoke about Merton's life, and how he did exactly this, but not solely for the purpose of silence itself, but to learn to allow his words to come out of that silence. A decade ago, would I have understood what that meant? Yes and no, I suppose - it's an understanding that deepens and grows, through our own failures and embarrassments, through meditation and thinking things through. The talk ended with these words of Merton's:
"There are many declarations made only because we think other people are expecting us to make them. The silence of God should teach us when to speak and when not to speak. But we cannot bear the thought of that silence, lest it cost us the trust and respect of others."
I'm trying recently to deliver my talks more spontaneously, after relying on writing them out and mostly reading them for the past two years. I've opened up the time beforehand a little too, speaking conversationally, making sure I greet everyone personally, keeping it more informal among us, even though we've all just entered a special space which is dark, lit only by a single candle in the center. I wanted to try to connect with the participants more informally and personally, and this seems necessary for me, too, if I am to keep going in this ministry. I'm surprised how immediate the change has been, both ways. The participants are more attentive. They stay longer, and some want to have a word afterwards; I used to ask them to leave in silence after the meditation, but I think it was unnecessary; a gentle quiet prevails anyway. I now feel better about the ministry myself, too: more inclined to continue, more convinced that maybe it really is something I'm supposed to be doing. It may morph into something else, or end - I know that, and that's fine - but for right now, something has shifted in a positive direction.
What does it mean for me to have "the courage to become more and more silent?" Merton never stopped writing, but he learned to differentiate between what was driven by his ego and what was emanating from his higher self, and in the process his reasons for writing changed, as did his expectations for it. I'm not sure Merton was a natural introvert: he was articulate, witty, social, and chatty, although other people could really get on his nerves. He struggled a lot with his pride, with praise and fan mail, and the irony of being a cloistered monk who was famous, talked-about, sought-after. He longed for humility. So this was a long process for him, requiring a lot of solitude, reading, struggle, and self-examination. The silence he found, I think, wasn't empty at all. In fact, it was very fruitful.
Like the quilt top, which is more than half done, I think this line of thinking is a direct outcome of turning away from the online chatter. I don't miss it, and have had no trouble checking in once a day and leaving it at that.
The over-stimulation of the everyday world, online and off, is kind of like caffeine: you don't realize what a strong drug it is unless you give it up for a while, and then you drink a cup and go "whoa!" I've been able to think and focus better without interrupting myself as often during the day -- because that's really what it was: I was drinking the drug, nobody was forcing me. There are times when I want that, and when it's probably helpful, and times to become more silent. That's all. But I do think it requires courage to turn into the silence, to face oneself, to consider change, yet again.
So the question occurs: what does this mean for my blog?
My semi-weekly meditation talks are archived on the Christ Church Cathedral website.
In my Vermont house, 2004
Last Wednesday I sat down to write something in my journal, and noticed that it was the 500th page of the file that I had begun in April 2004. Coincidentally, the journal begins with a quote from Merton: on Tuesday night my short talk to the meditation group had been about Merton, too, so he was on my mind.
Here's that journal entry from 2004; later I'll post what I wrote there the other day.
April 26, 2004
In winter the stripped landscape of Nelson County looks terribly poor. We are the ones who are supposed to be poor; well, I am thinking of the people in a shanty next to the Brandeis plant, on Brook Street, Louisville. We had to wait there while Reverend Father was getting some tractor parts. The woman who lived in this place was standing out in front of it, shivering in some kind of rag, while a suspicious-looking anonymous truck unloaded some bootleg coal in her yard. I wondered if she had been warm yet this winter. And I thought of Gethsemani where we are all steamed up and get our meals, such as they are, when meal time comes around, and where I live locked up in that room with incunabula and manuscripts that you wouldn’t find in the home of a millionaire! Can’t I ever escape from being something comfortable and prosperous and smug? The world is terrible, people are starving to death and freezing and going to hell with despair and here I sit with a silver spoon in my mouth and write books and everybody sends me fan-mail telling me how wonderful I am for giving up so much. I’d like to ask them, what have I given up, anyway, except headaches and responsibilities?
Next time I am sulking because the chant is not so good in the choir I had better remember the people who live up the road. The funny thing is, though, they could all be monks if they wanted to. But they don’t. I suppose, somehow, even to them, the Trappist life looks hard!
--Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, pg 149. An entry from January 8, 1949.
Late winter woods, Vermont, 2004
It’s a grey, dark day here, and when we woke there was rain pelting against the roof. The storm has let up now, and in the bathroom the rainwater is slowing sliding down the incline of the skylight, blurring the silhouettes of the bare-branched treetops. This is the sort of weather that has been depressing me all through the late winter, but today it seems almost indescribably beautiful. It is practically the last day for bare trees; leaf buds are swelling on all the red maples and the honeysuckles are already covered with a cloud of pale green. On the apple tree outside the bedroom window, drops of water hang from the ends of each black twig, daring both gravity and time.
In less than a week, we’re heading to Montreal to live for a month. This will be the longest amount of time I’ve spent in a city in my half-century of life. We’re going as a change from the life we’ve led here, from the house we’ve inhabited for more than 25 years, from the rural countryside, from the particular web of responsibilities and patterns we’ve woven. Besides being urban, Montreal is an international city: proudly and gracefully maintaining its French heritage and a broad ethnic and cultural diversity despite its proximity to the United States and the English-speaking provinces of Canada. It is a mere three-and a half-hours from here, and a world apart.
We’ve been thinking of this month as an experiment. After several years of weekend trips and the occasional week-long stay we want to find out what our commitment to this city really is: how much do we really like living there, and what might that mean for our future? This is what I thought the month was going to be about: practical matters, finding out how we felt, considering some changes and potential investments at this gently teetering point of midlife. Strange, then, that on this wet dark morning I felt, for the first time in several years, a strong call to contemplation. Could it be that part of this journey might be a sort of retreat, bizarre though it seems to retreat to a city? And yet I feel the call so clearly, bidding me to use the coming time and change of place not for distraction and escape, or merely for outward life decisions, but to learn something inner and as yet unrevealed.
For those who believe in God and believe, further, that She has a sense of humor, consider the irony of moving a writer - especially one steeped in the ultimate contemplativeness of rural Vermont life, complete with clapboard-clad house and vegetable garden, and a pervasive silence punctuated only by bird and cricket - to the bustle and endless distraction of a city of three million souls for the purpose of contemplation. Funny, even preposterous. But that’s what may be happening. I’ve been on this winding, unpredictable, and largely dusty spiritual path for long enough now to recognize the changes and imperatives when they come - and for the most part, they have come like this, of the blue.
What immediately fits is the fact that contemplative solitude, for me, is actually easier to find in the city. Having lived my entire life in the fishbowls of small towns, where I cannot step outside my door or buy a bag of carrots without running into someone who knows me, the anonymity of the city is a huge relief. It creates a sense of freedom that is impossible for me here. Perhaps because of living so many years in the country, close to nature, solitude -- for me -- is not dependent on silence, but on being removed from the obligation to talk, interact, and plan. And yet, being a social creature and a moderate extrovert, and knowing that my husband – the opposite - likes to take off for long periods of photographic exploration on his own, I’ve been a little worried about having to deal with too much solitude during an entire month of urban living. “Use it,” I hear now. “It’s a gift.”
This morning there’s much that I don’t understand. Is this simply an emotional reaction to the Merton I’ve been reading – the kind of excited, creative impulse I often feel when reading or seeing something that inspires me, but which afterwards reveals itself as just that – a kind of steamed-up excitement that quickly evaporates when I steps out into the daily reality of life? Or is it the real thing, which, if I follow it out, will lead me somewhere I’m meant to go? And in that case, what was that decision to pick up Merton during Holy Week? How do we ever know these things? All I know is that certain books have leapt off shelves into my hands for years, and changed me, and changed the course of my life and my thinking. What I suspect is that in this case, choosing to read this particular volume of Merton again was a sign that I was entering into a psychological place that was receptive to contemplation. What I didn’t do was connect it to the upcoming travel. And whether that happens or not depends on my assent to the invitation.
There are different forms of progress, or so it seems to me.
Incremental progress is like this quilt: you follow a progression based on certain necessary steps, you keep at it, a little bit every day, or every week, over a long time, and eventually you arrive at your goal. It's like a long walk from here to there, or the slow action of water on rocks. Sometimes it's arduous and more uphill, with twists and turns; sometimes easier and more linear, but you usually get somewhere close to where you thought you were headed if you are dedicated and steady. Maybe the goal is a project, or a degree, or some sort of change you want to achieve, like getting in better shape or becoming a kinder person. Whatever it is, you aren't going to get there overnight, but by a long series of small steps.
Then there's another kind of progress that's more like an earthquake; the whole mountain shifts, a faultline opens, the view changes, and suddenly you realize you aren't where you were before, or maybe that the you who is here now isn't the you that was there, then.
This second kind of movement may not feel like progress as much as upheaval, transition, turmoil, major change or even disaster, but when the dust settles - which can take years or even decades - you finally see more clearly what's happened. Life, whether we wanted it to or not, has pushed us into a new place.
My life has held hundreds of the first kind of processes: incremental projects that have resulted in something fairly concrete or tangible, or have taught me something important or changed me, even if the goals shifted a bit during the process or I encountered surprises or difficulties along the way. For the most part I've sought them out deliberately; I've put myself on those paths, or agreed to them more or less consciously, and then tried to see them out to a conclusion, or as lifelong commitments. It's one thing to make a quilt, another to take up the piano again as an adult, another to embark on a marriage or parenthood -- but they all involve decisions, persistence, and faith that the process itself is worthwhile, even if we encounter great difficulties, even if the end result isn't always what we hoped for or looks an awful lot like failure. Actually, with some practice at these projects, and at learning from them, you come to accept the failures as part of the path itself -- as teachers in their own right -- and you stop disliking them (or yourself) so much.
But the other kind of movement is very different. These major shifts have happened to me every decade or so: life takes a certain direction, both because of choices and external conditions or events, and then follows a kind of arc as that particular combination of choices and circumstances plays itself out. Then something changes, and a new, different reality announces itself, sometime suddenly, but more often quietly at first, and then with more and more insistence. At the same time, I sense that something else is ending or coming to a conclusion. Sometimes I don't notice the signals as positive promptings, but instead I notice resistance. That resistance can be to something old that I don't seem to want to do anymore, or it can be resistance to something new that feels unwanted, or represents loss or too much change. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that I'm at a crossroads, like it or not, and I'm going to have to look at it squarely in the face and do the work that the major change represents and calls for.
It's a lot easier to see these things in hindsight.
Loosely speaking, my twenties were about figuring out what I wanted to do in life, and ended with moving to New England, starting my design business, meeting and falling in love with J., getting married, and then combining our businesses into a partnership.
My thirties were about building that marriage, our home, and our professional career, and ended with a personal crisis about my own creative and spiritual life: in other words, I felt the need to step back a little bit from the intense coupledom with which I'd been consumed, and reconnect with my individual self -- to figure out some more about who I was, and pick up some important threads that I'd dropped.
My forties, then, were about becoming a serious writer and working on that very hard; studying piano and voice again; exploring my spirituality; and beginning to confront my deepest fears about mortality and loss - and trying to balance all of that with my marriage, our busy professional career, family relationships, friendships, community work and social activism.
In the next decade we faced the decline and death of three of our four parents, and moved to a new country, giving up our home, rural life, and many of our possessions. My fifties were about actual illness, loss, death, personal change and upheaval -- but they were also about writing a book, the internet, blogging, and a whole new realm of possibilities for sharing one's creative life.
That period of time has resulted in a new home, new friends, a large body of work, a new publishing business, and new responsibilities and challenges (the choir, the contemplative group I facilitate, bilingualism, travel to different places.) These years have felt chaotic and difficult but also richly rewarding, and probably represent the greatest period of change and growth in my life. It's only in the last two years that I've felt like I was actually settling in up here, feeling pretty comfortable and relatively adjusted to urban life in a foreign place - which Quebec really is - where I will never fully "belong" and have to find that sense of home within myself, instead.
And now I feel the ground shifting yet again, two years into my sixties...
(to be continued)
It's not like I don't have plenty of work to do. So why was it that yesterday I gave into the increasingly insistent urges and began a new quilt?
It's Lent. It's still mid-winter, and freezing cold, and monochromatic up here. Those are reasons for craving color, for sure, but there are lots of ways to get more color in your life - like wearing hot pink, which I'm doing today too; yesterday was orange. But no, it's more than that. It occurred to me last night that this is a kind of longing-for-spring quilt: green for leaves, roses and reds for flowers, brown for earth. When I was pulling out the fabrics, all that was subliminal.
I feel better when I have something like this to work on, a little bit at a time. It's amazing to me how much I look forward to it each day. Sewing, or bookbinding, or the actual process of cutting relief blocks or making prints all do this for me, while knitting, on the other hand, tends to be too repetitive for me; I like the planning but not the doing, so much -- but that's just me. Painting can be quite difficult, demanding, and often fraught, like serious writing. Maybe I just like the process of making practical things - real objects - without a client or deadline or the prospect of submission looming in the background. Maybe it's an escape from, or antidote to, other kinds of work which generally involve commitments to others or to something more demanding within myself. Whatever it is, work that involves a lot of "process" seems to be therapeutic, calming, spiritually and emotionally helpful. I realize that I've turned away from this too often in recent years, as a way to rest and recharge.
This has also been the first week of an experiment: I've gone off Facebook for at least the rest of Lent, not so much as "fast" or giving up of something pleasurable -- I wanted to see if I felt more focused without it. After one week, I can say that the answer is definitively yes. I check FB once a day, in the late evening, and don't spend more than five minutes doing a quick look at any messages and notifications. Unless something really needs a response -- a friend's father died a few days ago, for instance, and I didn't see that until today -- I'm trying not to comment or "like" very much at all, and I'm not posting anything but links to new posts here. We'll see how it feels after several weeks, but so far, I don't miss it. I like the way my mind feels without the chattering input, and there are some other aspects of self-perception that are beginning to be more apparent. More on that as I, ahem, piece it together.
Last night I had a dream in which I was meeting someone who seemed to be interviewing me as part of a college application process; it seemed that I was trying to get a degree in English. In the dream, I knew that I had already completed most of my studies - maybe three out of the four years - but now, with some anxiety, was trying to go back and finish, many years later. (The whole notion of time was rather shaky in this scenario.) Anyway, the interviewer, who was an Indian man, was showing me the pages of a large book of maps, and as we turned them I asked questions about India, and different kinds of food appeared on the pages -- real food. One of these was an oily, delicious, puffy bread with a spicy meat, onion, and tomato topping, and we broke off pieces and ate them.
Then he asked me what the titles were of my most favorite books, and try as I might in the dream, I couldn't remember a single one.
This picture is for my friend Leslee in Boston, who writes, "The snow here is all bunched up (and dirty) between buildings, as I imagine it is in Montreal." Yes, you're quite right, Leslee. Today is still frigid - minus 14C - but I did go out to Little Italy and the Jean-Talon market yesterday to do some shopping, and managed to take my gloves off long enough to take this photograph. It was OK in the sun, but the wind was straight from the arctic and very strong, blowing my furry hood off my head whenever I turned to face it and sending clouds of dry light snow whirling off the roofs of buildings.
Some of us are still pouting, curled up in wool and fleece...
But others, like me, are starting to feel the pull of outdoors and the increasing intensity and healing power of the sunlight. The lack of light up here is really no joke. Canadian are all urged to take Vitamin D because we tend to be deficient simply by virtue of our latitude, and a lot of people suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and are helped by special lamps. Nearly everybody is affected one way or the other by the sheer length of the winters, let alone the extreme cold like we've had this year. I just begin to go stir-crazy with what we always called cabin fever in New England, and no matter what, I have to get outside and moving. I miss downhill skiing, and wish my knees had held up so that I could have continued!
But in the studio, our plants are clearly telegraphing the message of lengthening days:
That's not just a forest of avocado plants, but a batch of cherry tomatoes that came up from seed that must have been hiding in the planter, a gift from my gardening friend Eric F. back in October, and are now spilling over. I've thinned them and am pinching them back. On the left, the four-year-old lantana is bushy and vigorous after I cut it way back around Christmas. On the right is a geranium I rescued from a neighboring studio after they moved, along with this massive cactus:
And the bougainvillea is still pumping out its gorgeous blooms, delighting me up every morning when I walk into the studio...
...and reminding me that soon, I'll be here:
And when we return, it really will be almost-spring.
How are you holding up, if you're in the north? And if you're in a warmer climate, what are your first signs of spring?