Friday, December 18, 2009

How Drawing Saved Me

c. Sukie Curtis, "Insomnia I" 12/14/08
Last year on the second Sunday morning in December, I was not a happy camper.

David had been away for a few days on a silent meditation retreat (meaning, seriously limited communication), and meanwhile, back at the ranch, we'd had a major ice/snow storm and were without electricity for a day, my cell phone ran out of charge (meaning, totally curtailed communication) and it didn't take long for the sporty sort of "frontier life" experiment to wear thin. Although I was quite proud of myself for thinking to keep a big pot of water warming on our wood stove, from which I could dip smaller amounts into a Revere saucepan for quicker boiling for tea.

And then there was the rabbit. Anna and I had noticed, with an unfortunately slow acceptance, that our handsome, uncomplaining white angora rabbit, Gandy, (proper name: Gandolf the White) wasn't acting like himself. He seemed rather listless and wasn't eating. Finally on Saturday evening, we had decided that he needed medical attention, which meant a trip to the emergency vet clinic (don't even ask what you pay just to carry your animal through the doors!).

You know how it is sometimes, when it's cold outside of you and inside of you at the same time? And you're pretty sure that the internal coldness is not just about ambient temperature? You shiver and tremble, at least partially (but not too clearly) aware that Fear and its minions have got a steely cold death grip on your heart?

As Anna and I drove Gandy to the emergency vet clinic, a place we had never before needed for any of our animals, I was pretty sure he was seriously ill and was probably not going to make it. Rabbits are generally healthy and not prone to illness; but respiratory infections, which manifest the symptoms we were seeing, are often fatal. I honestly didn't know if it was worth forking out the money for the vet and medication, but . . . it's your pet, it's your responsibility to care for this creature . . . what are you going to do?

On that Sunday morning a year ago today, I got up at 3:50--not my usual rising time, believe me. Not even close. I got up because I couldn't sleep. SERIOUSLY couldn't sleep. I was shivering and trembling under a heap of bed covers, and it wasn't because of having a fever and chills.

My mind had gone utterly to town, wreaking havoc like a tribe of barbarians' pillaging and burning, leaving a trail of misery and destruction. (What a powerful thing a mind is! And what a waste when its power gets employed so destructively!)

It wasn't just that I was certain that Gandy lay dead where we had put him to bed and I didn't want to go look. It's that David's silent meditation retreat had coincided with our wedding anniversary, and we hadn't really decided on any anniversary celebration before he had left. And I was finally becoming aware, now that David was out of communication, that I really didn't like how this felt. And the nasty, scheming tribe of barbarians got hold of that and ran with it for all I was worth.

I sat in our living room with one light on (too early to wake the dog--I don't even think I made tea, or did I?) and tried to pick up and piece back together the shreds of me scattered about the frozen landscape after the tribe had moved on to the next village. (I hope for your sake they never reach your village.) What finally helped me the most was drawing.

I opened my small sketchbook, took out a pen, and drew our rocking chair, using the "semi-blind" technique that I use a lot--drawing mostly by moving my pen while looking at the object I'm drawing and not much at the paper (with a few stolen glances now and then). As much as being a way of drawing, this practice helps me to be present, to focus my attention on something right in front of me rather than on what's going on inside my head.

After the first drawing, I drew another one:

c. Sukie Curtis, "Insomnia II" 12/14/08

By the time I drew a third portrait of the rocking chair, I was beginning to feel drowsy.

c. Sukie Curtis, "Getting Drowsy", 12/14/08

After one more attempt, I was clearly ready to go back to bed. So I did.

c. Sukie Curtis, "back to bed", 12/14/08

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Celebrating Another Taste of Freedom

Here's something to marvel at (at least, if you're me). I sat down to write this post, gave it the title you see above, then proceeded to write a back story to the intended post, and that back story got so big and so NOT about a taste of freedom, that I decided I had to rename it and make it another post altogether. That one is now called "How Drawing Saved Me" and hasn't been finished yet.

This one is much simpler. It's about noticing another taste of freedom. I can't decide if it's a tiny taste of freedom, or rather an immense taste of freedom that happens to be subtle enough to have almost escaped my notice. I believe it's the latter.

Pressing a little further, I'd say that the inclination to label this taste of freedom "tiny" is part of the process, usually unconscious, whereby my mind likes to minimize and even dismiss most such progress as nothing worth noting, certainly nothing worth celebrating. Following that unconscious process my mind would have done its best to keep me where I was. (I'm guessing that my mind and your mind came with similar operating systems, though I don't want to be presumptuous about that.)

AHA! This time I'm not fooled! Here's what I mean and what I'm celebrating.

David has just returned from two days away on a silent meditation retreat. This is nothing new. He has been doing this kind of thing for most of our twenty-two years of marriage (twenty-two years as of yesterday!). For a while his retreats were explicitly Christian in orientation and practice; more recently they have been predominantly Buddhist (of the Zen variety) in orientation and practice. (Over the same passage of time I have had my own version of going on retreats--but that's a bit off topic. I'll save it for another day.)

Before David left on Thursday, as we discussed the kind of schedule and routine and sleeping accommodations he could expect, I said with total honesty: "I am so glad I'm not doing that! That does not hold the slightest bit of interest for me!"

Now this sentiment is, like David's retreat practice, nothing new. But saying it aloud without any trace of guilt or shame or trace of "you're so much more spiritual than I am; I should be doing something like that" kind of thinking--now that's entirely new! And believe me, this marks a huge liberation from what might best be described as my formerly hyperactive religio-spiritual superego that has so often functioned as a meat grinder of my soul. (Am I making myself clear?)

For more years than I care to count (but if I did count, it would be something like thirty-five going on forty), ever since I took my first tentative steps in the direction of "finding religion" as a late adolescent, I have been highly susceptible to comparative religio-spirituality. Constantly comparing myself to (my perceptions of) others and their spiritual practices, and constantly coming up short.

"X is more disciplined about prayer than I am; I should be like that." "Y is more contemplative than I am; what a spiritual failure I am." "Z describes having actual, phenomenological spiritual experiences; I'll never have those, so I'm hopeless."

You get the (highly repetitive, incredibly nauseating) picture, I'm sure. This comparative religio-spirituality would get triggered by people in books as well as people in the flesh, intimate friends as well as utter strangers. Put me too close to the gravitational pull of almost any spiritual or religious book, and the meat grinder of my soul starts loosening up its gears ready to get to work. If a meat grinder could salivate, it would be doing that, too.

I finally took a step in a positive direction, albeit not entirely consciously, when I decided to stop reading so-called "spiritual books".  At first this was more like an aversion, but it became a conscious choice. This means that I've skipped over and maybe missed out on a lot of books that people around me were reading and raving about. Like The Power of Now. I even avoided Eat, Pray, Love for the longest time because the word "Pray" was in the title and a picture of prayer beads on the cover! (More on that another time.)  

Clearly, the pattern of comparing myself to others (or to at least one other) and coming up lacking is an old, old pattern, predating my interest in organized religion and my subsequent ordination. I will only say that without a doubt the whole wide realm of spirituality and religion has proven to be a more than able partner for the care and feeding of this unhealthy pattern.

I have a strong hunch that being ordained only made things worse, harder, more loaded with expectations and a sense of professional as well as personal responsibility. Which is one among the several reasons why I am happy to be ordained no more. I so much prefer living with a lighter heart--I can't tell you how much I do!

Of course sometimes I wonder if I might have been able to find a way to arrive at this place of self-acceptance and lightness of spirit had I stayed ordained, and then have been a splendidly light-hearted priest. Maybe. But I have a feeling it would have taken me twenty years instead of twenty months to reach this point. And besides, that rather avoids the more central question of whether I even wanted to remain a priest, why I chose to let that go, and whether I was ever truly "called" to be one in the first place. That, too, is a topic for another day.

Somehow I find myself thinking of some of the parables of Jesus, especially the one about the woman who has lost a small coin, lights the lamps and sweeps her house until she finds the coin. And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors in for a party, saying, "Rejoice with me! For I have found the coin that was lost!" Want to come to my party?

Now here's something else to marvel at--the way that every now and then a story from the Bible or a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer--two books that used to dominate my life that I choose not to spend much time with these days--will pop up out of nowhere and make contact. It's kind of like getting an email from an old, half-forgotten acquaintance (one you aren't sure you've even be missing), saying, "Want to be friends on Facebook?"! And you get to decide to become acquainted on new and more healthy terms. A marvel indeed.