12/18/17: Nothing Left to Want

Earlier this fall I took some time to draw at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. As my notes in the top image say, a bodhisattva is a Buddhist deity who has attained enlightenment but delays entering paradise in order to aid other earthly beings. As I drew, I noticed how adorned with finery (jewels, fine robes) these figures were...in contrast to the simple robe of standing Buddha on the far right of the spread (see the second image below). The exhibit notes mentioned that standing Buddhas icons were created to make the Buddha more human and to emphasize that he was concerned about the everyday person.

I added the scene of the Minneapolis high-rises in the background, which I saw out the large window near these statues -- perhaps a reminder that Buddhist ideas live on beyond these statues created centuries ago. For example, here's a a thought mentioned in a recent dharma talk by Andrea Martin at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center on Sunday, 12/17/17: "When we realize that everything is already part of our life, there is nothing left to want." 

November 6, 2017: Working for Change While Appreciating the What-Is

There are so many other political issues that I could get wrapped up in these days, but I might not get anything else done. After all, there's the daily work to do, family members and friends from various places to stay connected with, leaves to rake, a life to live...

That’s why when it comes to politics, I am focusing on what I think is one of the major issues faced by humanity: climate change. I belong to the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby. Our informational meetings, held the second Saturday of each month, help me write informed letters to our representatives. For example, this week I’ll be encouraging our House rep to join the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus – a group in the U.S. House of Representatives that explores policy options to address the challenges of climate change. There are currently 60 members – half Democrat and half Republican, with membership kept even between the two groups.

Even as I work through the CCL toward “what could be,” I also make time for other activities that fill me with appreciation of the “what is.”

Thus my time spent painting yesterday. Here's another sketch from the #housesinthehood series. This time, it’s our house. I drew some light pencil lines, then used gouache paint for the colors, then black and grey soft brush pens for the darker lines. The hour spent on the sketch helped give me fuel for the week ahead.

And for contacting Mr. Steve King about the Climate Solutions Caucus. Stranger things have happened...right?

October 30, 2017: Making time for play with #Housesinthehood

When my paying work as a freelance writer feels more like day job than creative enterprise, I try to carve out at least a half-hour a day to write or draw just for fun. If I can hook my creative time into a new learning curve, all the better. 

Here’s what I’ve been up to “in the cracks” over the last couple of weeks: Inspired by artist/teacher Marc Taro Holmes, whose course “Travel Sketching in Mixed Media” I am taking from Craftsy.com, I’ve been using Holmes’s technique of laying down some lines in permanent ink, and then adding the watercolors – all in very loose, sketchy fashion.

I decided to draw a few houses from my neighborhood. My first sketch (left) was the house directly across from ours. The owners recently painted their steps and shutters pink, making for a nice visual contrast. I found, though, that as I sketched, the tree wanted the most attention and the steps and shutters became the supporting cast.

Next up: a little blue-gray bungalow just around the corner. It too has an oak out front, as do many homes in our ‘hood, but this time the sidewalk color and texture attracted my attention the most: 

On to another house, a lovely two-story brick that the owners have been bringing to life, inside and out. What I like about this little sketch is the warm palette of tans, yellows, pinks, and browns — with just a little cooler contrast of blue in the windows and along the wrought-iron railing: 

Next, just around the corner, a Tudor with a bright red door and, again, a lovely oak: 

Then a full-spread sketch of another house with a red door but in colonial style. I tried to capture the purple ash (upper left) in all its glory, with its translucent peaches, plums, corals, and lime greens. (Purple ashes are my favorites of the fall trees in Iowa — all the more so these days as the emerald ash borer threatens this species.) 

But a cropping of this sketch reveals the true main characters: once again, the signature oak, this time with two trunks. (Sorry, purple ash. I will try again next year, so you stay healthy.) 

When I sketch I try to use the same techniques I would if I were meditating: I bring a compassionate, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness to the process. Even as a budding artist I can tell there’s plenty wrong with these sketches, but I prefer to celebrate and share what I like about them. 

I’ll continue with my #housesinthehood series, I am sure. Taking taking time to “make stuff” nearly every day is part of my well-being and genetic make-up – plus it helps me maintain the energy I need when in day-job mode as a freelancer.  

9/28/17: Trading Security for Intensity

“The uncertainty of a freelance writing career,” Lori Erickson told me once, “is that it tends to keep you at the top of your game. You can’t relax in the same way as with a regular job. There’s a hunting mentality to it. You have to be alert, but there’s a kind of adrenaline that is exciting. That’s what you get in exchange for lack of security.”

Lori is a good friend. She has also been a valuable and generous mentor to me over the years as I have pursued my own freelancing career. Lori has published over a thousand articles in national and regional publications; she also authors a popular spiritual/travel blog at Patheos called “Holy Rover.”
Now, her biggest game to date: Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. This delightful, thought-provoking, and inspiring memoir of faith and travel has been named by Amazon as the #1 Release in Literary and Religious Travel Guides.

I’m so glad Lori’s years of work at developing her sharp hunting skills have led her to bagging this beautiful book. May her wisdom and faith inspire all of us to follow our own passions, choose uncertainty over security, and become the best hunter/gathers that we can, each in our own way.

(You can order your copy of Lori’s book here.  Click here to listen to Lori talk about her book with Charity Nebbe on “Talk of Iowa.”)

9/25/17: Bingo

Years ago a talented artist told me he tends to like only one out of ten paintings. I try to keep that in mind when I'm experimenting with drawing and painting. 

Over the weekend I watched a few instructional videos by Marc Taro Holmes that I found on the Craftsy web site, and I practiced a few of his techniques. His teaching style really speaks to me. I made several sketches but was frustrated by my limited skills...and then, bingo, I came up with the one above, and it made me smile. 

When one out of ten happens, I'm quite sure it releases joy into the atmosphere. 

9/22/17: Overachievers?

It has to be one of the overachievers of the plant world, doesn't it? All that work, all summer long, to develop those big green leaves, and then finally, finally that colorful flower that is so small in proportion to all the rest. I love cannas for their earnestness. 

9/22/17: Lucky Root, Lucky Us

"No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor -- to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phrase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous....The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades -- even centuries -- will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge." (from Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren)

Wow. Just wow. This makes me appreciate all the trees in our 'hood even more. 

5/10/17: Beauty

 Oh, the sights, sounds, and smells of spring. All that natural beauty offered for free, and without the need to promote itself or achieve special recognition. Amazing.  

April 4, 2017: Tree Meditation

In my sketchbook I finally caught an essence of the backyard birch last night as the sun was going down. The textures and colors of the trunk are so mesmerizing. I meditate on this tree regularly and have fallen in love with it. 

March 21, 2017: Sat, Chit, Ananda

“Sat, chit, and ananda: ‘infinite being, infinite awareness, infinite bliss.’ Does the ordinary, decent, secular American aspire to that? Does he see it as within his register? There’s a special circle in Dante’s hell that is populated by souls whose only fault was that their aspirations were too low.” –Huston Smith, Parabola Magazine, Dec. 2016.

I heard this quote in a dharma talk given by Bussho Lahn on Sunday morning at the Minneapolis Zen Center. Smith’s words echoed in my mind later at the Minneapolis Institute of Art while I stood in front of this sculpture titled “Rendevous.” Created in 1981 from Indiana limestone by Apache artist Allan Houser (1914-1994), the sculpture was positioned near a colorful, woven Native American blanket.

I felt transfixed, just drinking it all in. I mean, talk about being, awareness, and bliss! At least for the moment, my aspirations were definitely not too low. And several days later, while drawing and painting the scene with pen and gouache, I experienced it all over again: sat, chit, ananda.

Art, religion, meditation, nature, music, literature...there are so many ways to raise our aspirations.

March 5, 2017: Altogether-Happiness

Sketch from an advertisement photo of writer Joan Dideon
"Miss Dreir made an impatient gesture. 'Georgia O'Keefe wants to be the greatest painter. Everyone can't be that, but all can contribute. Does the bird in the woods care if he is the best singer? He sings because he is happy. It is the altogether-happiness which makes one grand, great chorus.'" --from Growing Pains, a memoir by Canadian artist Emily Carr

This passage from Carr's memoir gives me such inspiration as an artist. The drawings in my journals that I like the most are the ones for which I was totally wrapped up in the process, not thinking about the product. As I drew this sketch, I definitely participated in the altogether-happiness...the grand, great chorus. 

Feb. 25, 2017: Take Sides, But Don't Harden

There were contentious town hall meetings across the country this week, for those legislators brave enough to offer them. 

This week I attended Chuck Grassley's town hall meeting in Garner, Iowa. Some of his responses to the questions disappointed me, and it's true that his voting record has greatly disappointed me in the last few years. Still, he deserved respect for showing up in Garner. I'm sorry that the crowd didn't always give him that.  

How do we retain our equanimity even as we work for change? Maybe these two quotes can help us find our sweet spot:   

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."  --Ellie Weisel

"To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity." --Pema Chodron

Taking sides and working for change, but without hardening -- that's the challenge.  

Feb. 20, 2017: The Place of Art in Placemaking

The place of art in making public spaces more inviting cannot be overrated. I am so grateful to the program, River City Sculptures on Parade, for the year-long exhibit of sculptures enjoyed by the Mason City community. This year there are 49 sculptures within a 1.7 walking loop in and around the downtown. Some of the sculptures are permanent, owned by the city, while others are owned by the artists and loaned to the exhibit for one year. Each year, one of the new sculptures is chosen by the public for the city’s permanent collection.

This one – “Elation” – has been one of my favorites this year and has taken on special meaning during this politically turbulent time.

Thank you, artist Adam Schultz from Laporte, CO, for reminding us to keep in touch with those lighter, brighter moments.  

February 9, 2017: Happy Anniversary to the Pope!

This March 14 will mark the anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, formerly Buenos Aires archbishop, who became Pope Francis four years ago. I’m not a Catholic, but I have such admiration for the Pope, who has said, “You cannot insult the faith of others.” And: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This not in the Gospel.” May we all have ears to hear.  

February 6, 2017: Mother Nature for President!?

Mother Nature has some great ideas—for free!—for a political platform, if only we would listen, according to Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

In a world encountering a faster speed of change than ever before, Friedman writes that our ability to keep up is understandably lagging—for reasons he explains in the book. Toward the end, in a chapter called “Mother Nature as Political Mentor,” he offers an optimistic agenda for thriving that is inspired by the 3.8-billion year-old woman herself.

Mother Nature’s “killer aps,” he writes, include adaptability, lifelong learning, relentless entrepreneurship, diversity, rootedness, sustainability, and patience.

Friedman goes on to lay out an amazing political platform inspired by Mother Nature’s example. What we need, he says, is “an entrepreneurial mind-set, a willingness to approach politics and problem-solving with an utterly hybrid, heterodox, and nondogmatic mixing and matching of ideas, without regard to traditional left-right catechism—letting all kinds of ideas coevolve, just as plants and animals coevolve in nature.”

An example of something on Mother Nature’s platform from the left, according to Friedman: “She would favor a single-payer universal health care system funded by a progressive value-added consumption tax (except on groceries and other necessities).”

For the right: “She would appoint an independent commission to review the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting regulations to determine which—if any—of their provisions are needlessly making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital or start businesses. We need to make sure we’re preventing recklessness—not risk-taking.”

I wish this book, or at least this chapter, or at least the platform ideas on pages 328-336, could be required reading for everyone! Maybe it could help us bridge our wide gaps between left and right.

Why not let our Mother be our guide??

January 25, 2017: Thank you, marchers and artists!

I am so inspired by all who marched and rallied so peacefully and playfully at last Saturday’s women’s marches--all around the world! 

And by artist Kelly Poole, who created this wonderful “Pussies for Peace” drawing in commemoration of the event.

You can see more of Kelly’s art at http://www.geezberries.com/. She’s also an ecologist, “in love with wild places and things.” I love her eye for wonder and her ability to write about nature from an ecologist’s point of view. 

January 19, 2017: Thank you, Bob Dylan

Neuroscientists have a phrase, "What fires together wires together." What this means partially is that while we can't always control external events, we do have considerable choice in the way we think about those events. Apparently it's true, neurologically speaking, that the thoughts we focus upon ("what fires together") become more prominent ("wires together"). Our thinking then obviously affects our behavior, outlook, circumstances, and maybe even the big world beyond.

Bob Dylan really said this first, didn't he? Here's the way he puts it in "She Belongs to Me":

She's got everything she needs, she's an artist
She don't look back
She's got everything she needs, she's an artist
She don't look back
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black

So it is. As artists, which can mean all of us, we have everything we need. We don't have to look back.

That's what I'm working on wiring into my brain.

Even in these very uncertain times.

Thank you, Mr. Dylan.  

January 12, 2017: Dealing with Political Triggers

Getting riled up by political comments on social media, on the street, or in the news?

A mindfulness strategy of compassionate investigation can help channel anger and worry when we are triggered. While we may fall short of the ideal, we can at least try to open our hearts, get curious, and ask ourselves questions like:
·         Why might that person have written/said what he or she did? What might be going on in his/her life to feel that way?
·         What are my own initial reactions? How do those thoughts register in my body – what do they feel like, physically?
·         What do I value that I perceive is being threatened by the person’s comment?
·         Do I feel called to take positive action in support of my values?

Identifying our values can help us de-personalize and shift toward actions like contacting legislators, writing letters-to-the-editor, giving support to organizations working toward our values; or talking to people who think differently in a genuine attempt to understand their views.
This is how our struggles can become our best guides. Exploring them with compassion can lead the way to taking enlightened action. And that’s liberating. 

January 10, 2017: Learning to Bloom Where Planted

Thank you, Spirituality and Health magazine, for publishing my article, "Learning to Bloom Where I am Planted." You can access the article here. I loved the artwork that accompanies the article, as shown below: "Bathers," by artist Olivia Wise.