Thursday, August 30, 2012

Talking to the Trees.

(This is an introduction and the first of a series of essays I've written over the past two years or so. I'd love to hear your stories of your talks with your trees.)

A collection of essays

I’ve been talking to the trees for almost a decade now. But I know deep in my soul, that I’ve had a connection to the trees all my life. In my minds eye, I can still see the fluffy, white blossom clusters of the crabapple tree outside my childhood bedroom window and waking on a spring morning looking up at them was like seeing miniature clouds above my head. As a child, I remember the woods were a special place for me, a place to imagine and play, but also a place of comfort, relief from childhood bruises of the heart and mind. I peddled my pink bike with its banana seat down the streets of my suburban neighborhood to the back of the development, where the only wildness remained. It wasn’t a park, just land that hadn’t been built on yet. There was a creek, with big old trees on each side, a make-shift rope swing, and cut through the bushes and grasses that grew naturally were paths made by all the kids biking through. It was the favorite place for many kids in the neighborhood. For me, it was peace and freedom and safety. I know there are many stories about bad things happening to kids in woods like these, but I always felt safe under the trees.

I don’t know that I listened to the trees, then, like I do now. Maybe I did, and it was a natural thing that I took for granted and as life went on and I got older, it slipped away unnoticed coming back to me in mid-life as a revelation. Maybe that’s what mid-life is, a return to the wisdom of childhood where talking to the trees is a natural exchange, an everyday conversation shared between friends.

That’s how I see the trees, as friends who share my neighborhood, country and world. Each tree has its own family background, history, experiences and personality. Some trees are gentle souls, nurturing and comforting, some are powerful, strong and supportive. Others are joyful and happy or old, bent and wise. Even the trees, whose trunks have been destroyed, still provide shelter and food for other creatures of the woods. One tree you’ll meet in a later essay had its trunk burned out, but the charred remains fertilized the birth and became the cradle of a new tree. Another tree grew up and around metal impaled into its trunk. Yet another had one side of its trunk burned hollow only to grow strong on the other side with branches two to three feet in diameter.

These are the trees I visit everyday on my walks in the park. They live in a small park in the midst of a suburban development much like the neighborhood in which I grew up. And even though many spurn the ‘burbs’ as spiritless and homogenous, these trees are not. Even though they live right around the corner from a baseball field, tennis courts and playgrounds, they are as exceptional and amazing as any tree in any forest of the world. Most importantly, they are part of my world and I hope, through my essays, they become part of your world as well. And that they inspire you to see your neighborhood trees in a different way, maybe even take the risk of talking to the trees, too.
There are days when I walk in the only one end of the woods, through the birches and pines. Then, there are several days a week, when I trek further over the creek bridge and down the path into the cedar grove.

The Cedar Grove is home to many huge, strong and wonderful trees. There is the Mother Tree, Joy Tree, Old Man Tree, Peace Tree, and many others I haven’t named yet. This is one story about the Mother Tree.

Empty Vessel

I look forward to my visit to her every time. She is the Mother Tree. She is so strong and comforting and wise. Her branches aren’t beautiful, some are broken from storms, others are curved and twisted by time. There are small boards nailed into her trunk, like steps, to give the children a way to climb up into her branches. When I first saw the nails piercing her, I saw only pain and damage. I asked her if I should take them out so the holes could heal.

She said, “No, how will the children climb up into my arms, then? It’s alright. I want to be here for them, they need me.” I understood, then, that I was just one of many of children whom she held and nurtured in her branches and snuggled against her trunk.

Today, I leaned against her strong trunk tired from a restless night of worry about my son, my husband, my life. I’d tossed and turned in angry fitful sleep and awakened puffy eyed and empty. I just leaned there and sighed. I didn’t have the energy to even ask her a question. I just needed her support and she gave it as she always does. I could feel the warm, supportive energy flowing from her to me. I closed my eyes and drank it in.

She knew. She always seems to know what’s bothering me and by her very nature, she gives comfort. Many times, I ask her a question or ask for words of advice. The Mother Tree talks to me, then, giving words of wisdom and support.

But today, I was too tired. I just leaned into her, resting in her care. That’s when I heard her.

She said, “Be an empty vessel.” I shook my head a little, wondering if I’d heard correctly.

So I asked her, “Are you sure?” She gave me no response. I leaned in closer checking in with her but I knew in my soul what she’d said. I just didn’t understand it.

My next question was, “What do you mean?” No answer.

I breathed in and sighed out. I was so tired and I needed answers, not more questions. Sighing, I walked away from her, not knowing what to do with her message. I walked over to my husband who was leaning on the Peace Tree and told him what I’d heard.

I said, “Empty vessel? What the hell does that mean?” He shrugged and we trudged off out of the woods and home.

When I got home, I started to go about my usual routine but suddenly, I found myself lying down on the floor of my walk in closet. I was on my back, arms at my sides, palms up and feet stretched out on the carpeted floor with my eyes closed. There was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t faint or anything, I just walked in the closet and lay down. I don’t know why I was there, I didn’t plan it. I just did it. I felt nothing at first. I was just lying there, breathing in and out. I was just there on the floor. Breathing in and out. I could hear my son’s music coming from his room. I could hear my husband at his computer downstairs. I could hear the silence of the closet, too.

Jilly, my yellow lab, came in a few times to check on me. Terra, my kitty, walked around me sniffing and then settled for a while on my left side underneath the row of jeans, capris and shorts hanging there next to me. I was warm. I was safe. Sometimes I felt tears run down my cheeks, sometimes I sighed. Sometimes, I opened my eyes briefly, noticing the interesting folds of the shirts hanging above me. Most of the time, I just laid there like I was floating on a peaceful sea. I stayed there for several hours.

Finally, my stomach let me know it was empty. It was time to get up, shower, dress and eat. It was time to take care of my body, time to get on with my daily life. I didn’t really think about it, I just did what I needed to do, one thing at a time. No worries. No anger. No pain.

I didn’t realize it then. I only realize it now, writing about it, that I was learning a lesson in the closet on the floor. Was I meditating? Yes, I was. I’ve since learned that many people use the classic ‘corpse pose’ for meditation. At the time, down the floor, I didn’t know what I was doing.

I do know that all the problems and feelings and to-do lists were gone, yes, in that way I had emptied my emotional ‘trash’. But I didn’t feel a lonely sense of emptiness. Instead, I felt that kind of freshly scrubbed, good tired that comes after a few hours or days of hard work. I was learning the lesson the Mother Tree gave to me that morning; to be an empty vessel.

I was clean, whole, rested, empty and open. I was an empty vessel, ready to receive.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sculptural or functional? Does it really matter?

My pieces used to be sculptural not functional. I took classes to learn how to use the wheel, to only to prove to myself that I could conquer my past failures, but now things are merging in a new way. I hand build with more texture. I’m making more functional pieces like cups, bowls and platters. I started to think that my work was going to change completely from sculptural to functional.

But sculpture is sneaking in. It started very slowly and I didn’t even realize it.

On the wheel I struggled to make basic forms. Wheel work was functional and I worked hard to learn to make mugs, bowls and vases. My hand building was sculptural. With ease I played with coils, slabs and slump molds. Then one day, a wheel thrown cup sat on the hand building table just looking too plain. The next thing I knew, coils were winding in, on and around the cups and bowls. Small slab pieces were attaching to the sides and bottoms.
Surprise! Sculptural elements!
Sometime during this slow, unconscious process, I became obsessed with clay. My day would start out on the wheel in the cold with my dog, Jilly curled up on an old dog bed in the garage nearby.
Lunchtime came and went as I continued to throw just one more piece. These pieces started to take over my sculpture studio, and more afternoons disappeared as I added coils and leaves to the thrown cups, vases and bowls.
Not only did my functional work start to become sculptural, my former sculptural hand built pieces became functional. I was hand building jars that started to sprout leaves, too.
The questions raced in my head. Is it sculptural or functional? Is it pottery or art? Does it really matter?
No. I can hold a mug with a leaf handle and sip my coffee. I can display a hand built jar with coiled stems and leaves for the beauty (and I can hide something in it if I want).

I have the functional and the sculptural. What matters is that my heart and my hands are happy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Message: Passion wins over losses.

I cheered and marveled at all the events. I am inspired and energized by all the athletes from every country. I don’t care if they won a medal or not. That’s not what the Olympic Games are about.

Medals don’t matter. Passion matters.

A deep passion was born within each and every one of them. It started out as curiosity and a deep natural feeling of joy that drove them to take those tiny toddler steps. Small beginnings like jumping into cool water to diving off a 20 foot board. From biking around the block to racing around Surrey, England. From doing somersaults in their living rooms to flying around uneven parallel bars in front of millions of people.

Inside each and every one of these athletes is a deep knowing, a deep sense that this one thing, is the right thing for them, above all else, here and now. It didn’t start out as a gold medal dream. In fact, they (or their parents) had to pay to do it. It didn’t start out as a career. It started out as fun, joy, a big ‘yes’ in a world of ‘no’. Are they special, different from you and me?

Yes. And no. They have it. But so do you and I. We all have that deep knowing and passion. We are all born with it.

It’s true. I know it and so do you.

But. Oh, yes, there’s always the but…

How did they know to go with it? They listened. Then, they stuck their foot in the water of life and jumped in.

And it grew as they grew.

From their first tiny splashes, it grew to include parents and teachers and coaches. Sometimes, they soared and sometimes they fell. Sometimes they got tired and disappointed and distracted. So they rested, found their way back to their path and kept going. Why? Because deep down inside, the passion was there, waiting for them to use it.

Mine is there. Yours is, too.
It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about using the passion and joy that you were born with. It’s simple. You can start anytime, any day. All you have to do is take one tiny step, then another and another. Here and now. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Telling a story in clay, copper and words.

This month, one of my mixed media story pieces in on exhibit at the Multnomah Art Center in Portland. It's part of the 'Broadsides' exhibit, focusing on the blending of art and words. There are watercolors, photographs and drawings with stories, poems; hand-made books with solar printed pages.

My piece is the only 3 dimensional piece in the show, I'm honored to be included. Every part of the piece; the sheep screening mask, the copper repousse lion head, the clay/copper leaf covered face, the copper repousse illustration on the front relates to the story mounted under glass on the back of the piece.

Here is the text of the story I adapted from a Zen folktale.

The Lion and the Sheep
A Zen Story

In the shadow of a mountain, a herd of sheep lived and grazed on the cool, green grass. One day, close to a tall oak tree, there lay a small copper-colored lump of fur. The ewe bent down sniffing carefully but the lump did not move. Others began to gather around listening, curious, cautious because you never know what dangers may hurt you or the others in the herd. The ewe tried prodding the lump with her nose but it wouldn’t move. She could see its small chest rise with each breath, so she decided to lie down beside it to give it warmth and see if it would wake up. Tired of standing around waiting, the rest of the sheep moved to graze on the tender grass nearby. As night fell, the small furry bundle began to stir, the ewe licked its face and it nuzzled closer finding warm milk to drink.

Time went on and the ewe continued to take care of the foundling as part of the herd. All the sheep could see that this animal was different. The animal was taller than the biggest ram and her coat was the color of the warm, summer sunset rather than the clouds. Her copper-colored face was broader and her mouth was filled with big, sharp teeth. But she went along with the herd up the mountain paths, drank out of the streams and nibbled the grasses like all good sheep.

She was a lion. But living her life among sheep, she only knew sheep. The sheep never having seen a lion, did not know she was a lion. They all lived together in the same meadow eating, sleeping and moving as a herd. She became very good at spotting dangerous animals, so she guarded the herd at night and moved in front of the herd during the day.

Until one day, on the meadow, a sound rang out and the herd ran together for safety, except the copper-colored female. She stopped and turned toward the noise. Around the tree, came the largest beast they had ever seen. The herd bunched closer. Out in front, she moved toward the strange beast. The ewe bleated out to warn her but she kept going, stopping inches away. A quiver ran through the herd. The copper one looked at the beast unafraid. The beast saw itself in the other and nodding its head went to the stream. She followed. As the strange beast bent down to drink, she saw her own reflection and looking over saw the face of the beast in the still water. The images looked alike. Shocked, she drew back from the edge of the water and toward the herd. But the big beast stepped into her path blocking her way.

The beast roared and as the other sheep backed further away in fear, she nodded in understanding. She listed to the stranger’s message, where the others heard only terrifying noise.

The stranger said, “Don’t run away from who you are. You may have grown up here with a herd of sheep, but you have grown into a beautiful lion. Lions are strong, independent and brave. There are many more things that you can do, places you can go and other animals than the sheep and this safe, green meadow. Come with me.”

She had always known she was different from the sheep. But she had grown up living a sheep’s life. She liked the cozy security of the herd but not the grass. She liked moving about the mountain but she would like to see higher, go farther and sometimes the calls on the wind stirred restlessness inside her she did not understand. Now she could see her true self for the first time reflected in the eyes of the lion. For the first time in her life, she was not different but part of another family, one that she had yet to discover. She had a choice, stay with the safety of what she had been taught with the herd or honor her true self and strike out with a stranger into a new world.

The ewe stepped forward and said to her, “Many years ago, I found you dying under a bush and I could not let you starve to death. So, I nursed you and kept you warm in the safety of the herd. Now it is time for you to go your own way. Make your life your own; your own choices not those of the herd. You've always helped done your part here. Now you must do your part out there. I knew this time would come and now that it has, I can say that I’m proud of you and I know you have everything you’ll need right there inside of you. Use it well.”

The Lioness stepped up, gently nuzzled the ewe’s muzzle and bowed her head to the herd. Then she turned to the lion and they moved off toward the mountains sniffing the wind.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Where is she? A real life mystery finale.

(I'm posting short installments of this true life experience. String them together and guess, where the main character is stuck.)To catch up and read the other three installments, click here and here and here. )

Silence. Although she was surrounded by people, no one said a word to her, to each other or to anyone on their cell phones. A phone. Isn’t that what everyone calls for in an emergency? Yet, here they all were stuck and no one was talking into their phones. Texting, yes. Talking, no.

Everyone around her seemed so patient and calm. She was hot and frustrated and tired of standing around waiting. But she wasn’t scared. Honest. Her life wasn’t in danger, yet. So, she wasn’t afraid. Ok. Maybe she was a little.

Who would’ve thought that going to a talk by a local mystery author downtown would get her stuck like this?

As she drove to the new venue through rush hour traffic, all she hoped for was a good parking space and an interesting lecture with a little insight from a published writer.

She got both. She found a great parking place. She found the building. The front door was locked and if it hadn’t been for the 3 students in the lobby, she wouldn’t have gotten to the lecture at all. Looking back, that might have been a very good thing. Maybe the locked door was a sign that she should have walked away while she could.

Now, she couldn’t walk anywhere. She was locked behind a door with a group of strangers. Yes, she could see how this could be the perfect set up for a play, movie or even a mystery book. There were more giggles as the women writers in the group came to that idea. She was not laughing.

And after she had yelled for someone to call 911, a muffled voice called back that the fire department was on the way. It was then, after all that waiting one of the women finally decided to open the call box and use the phone. She grabbed the handset and dialed the number printed on it.

“Hello?” she called into the plastic phone in the wall.

The texting in the group came to a halt as everyone leaned in to listen.

“Yes. We are stuck. The service number under the handset? 54823. Yes. That’s correct. What? Wait!” she jerked the handset away from her ear. A look of frustration turning to fury crossed her face as she faced the group, “They put me on HOLD!”

“What?” came a chorus from the group.

“Oh, wait a minute, she just said something.” The woman’s face again changed from stormy to calm and back again as she listened and replied, “Yes. We need assistance. It’s been over 45 minutes, now. Portland, Oregon. Ok. But, wait. Wait!”

She looked around wearily and said, “They’re reporting the situation to the company, and sending personnel. But they are in Illinois and can’t directly contact the local contractor here in Portland, Oregon.”

A general sigh went through the group. The woman at the front of the group took off her coat, brushed her hair away from her face and stared down at her feet. The woman with the phone went to hang it up but the heavy set woman next her, grabbed it instead.

“I won’t be ignored,” she said as she punched the emergency button again. “Yes. We are stuck. 54823. Don’t!” She turned to the group, “Hold, again.” Back into the handset she yelled, “Hello? Hello?” Her face beat red with rage, “It was a man this time, but I don’t think he’s coming back to the phone.”

“Great,” said the guy in the back.

“Well, at least we know that the phone works,” said the woman in the corner.

“Yeah, a lot of good that did,” grumbled the young woman with the bathroom jitters.
Groans went around the group. Eyes looked up and down. And a feeling of tired resignation filled the warm, stuffy air. She felt for her chocolate hearts and her cell phone, they might not help her survive, but it was something to hold on to. After some shifting around, everyone seemed to settle in again. They were stuck and there was nothing else to do but wait. Cell phones came out and the soft ticking of texting was the only sound she could hear. Again, no one moved or said a word.

She felt the walls shudder. The floor dropped a few feet and thudded to a stop.
Shocked silence exploded into a flurry of squeals. As the big metal doors started to part, everyone moved toward the crack, trying to fit in their hands and pull it further open.

A muffled voice from above said, “Stand away, please. Keep your hands and arms away from the opening,” the man shouted to us. “Once it moves, it could snap back and I don’t want anyone’s arms damaged.”

Hands moved down as we all moved carefully back. A feeling of relief, mixed with fear surged around the group. She was still stuck, but hoped it would end without anyone getting hurt. She looked around as everyone waited again. The gap widened again, this time revealing the two inch thick steel doors that had trapped them.

As the doors slowly parted, she saw the floor rise above her. Shoes, boots and pant legs were all she could see at first, there was only a three foot opening now. But it was enough.

She could see the carpeted hallway above her head and hands reaching down to pull her up and out. On her hands and knees, she crawled across the carpeted hallway away and stood up. One by one they all climbed out of their trap. It was a simple, calm, organized rescue. No heroics necessary. No one was injured. They were stuck in an elevator between the third and second floors in an old downtown building. And now they were free.

Still, as she walked out into the crisp night air, everyone chatting about how lucky and hungry and late they were, she knew two things. One, she’d think twice about going to another mystery author lecture, she didn’t need another evening wondering whether she’d make it out alive. Two, next time, she’d take the stairs.

She liked reading about a characters getting stuck in an elevator. Being the one stuck in the elevator for hours, she didn’t like at all.