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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Soul Expression

Folk Art

Art teaches us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allow us to see outward from within things.”
Walter Benjamin

Being Southern is synonymous with loving pork barbecue and folk art. It must be in the genetic code, infused by the red clay soil and pine needles that are the backdrop of life here. Alabama is especially rich in folk artists—from the Gees Bend quilters to Tin Man, from Zkano Socks and Alabama Chanin, to Conecuh Sausage and Orbix Hot Glass. Folk artists like to make things that are “useful.” I think it arises out of the poverty that has always plagued the South. It taught us to open our eyes to the beauty of ordinary things, to pick up a piece of discarded junk and think “how can I turn that into art.” Most folk artists work with what they find, or what they have on hand. They weave baskets out of pine needles, carve tables and benches from cross sections of fallen trees, and make quilts from worn out work clothes. I follow that same tradition.

I like the perspective of Walter Benjamin on art—that fine art teaches us to see into things—mood, emotion, perspective, color, style. It requires us to imagine what is going on here. I find that especially true of unstructured modern art. Folk art, on the other hand, teaches us to look outward from within things—it has a “this is how it is” feel to it. People relate to it because it's plain and everyday, cozy and approachable. It looks and feels familiar, like home—because it is.

I wonder whether you are an artist—most people are, though many don't know it. If you are, then you know that personal creativity is often what keeps us tethered to the earth. Our art, whether poem or painting, crocheted hat or blackberry cobbler, is a product of our inner reality. Making it keeps us connected, body to soul. I hope you have ways of getting to, and expressing, this deep reality within yourself. Even in the midst of chaos, it can keep you calm and grounded.

                                                  In the Spirit,
                                                     Jane

Friday, December 15, 2017

Family Pilgrimage

Remember When...

I don't want to sound like a Hallmark card, but to be able to wake up each day with food and shelter, that alone is good...If you're six feet above ground it's a good day. So, give me more!”
Faith Hill

This month is heavy on holidays—Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa. In most cultures, it is a time of family gatherings, choirs caroling, delicious food, and strings and strings of colored lights. We do our best to light up the darkness of winter here in the northern hemisphere. We hold close the people who give us happy hearts. And we especially miss those who are not here in person to celebrate. One of the things I love most about this time of year is the recounting of family stories—it's how we bring into the circle those who are no longer “six feet above ground.”

One of my favorite memories from my sons' childhood was when we lived in Homewood, AL, and had a white cat named Ralph. He was young then and wild as a hare. We put up the Christmas tree in the sun room and carefully decorated each bough. Someone had given us a package of brightly plumed bird ornaments with long feather tails, which clipped onto the tree. Young Ralph systematically retrieved those birds, climbing up the tree and plucking them one by one. We found mangled and mutilated birds under the beds, in the closets, and in just about every possible hiding place in the house. He turned the tree over three times in the process, destroying everything on it that was breakable. I tried very hard not to bond with Ralphie—he was bad to the bone. As fate would have it, he turned out to be my soul-cat, and when he died in 1995, at the age of fifteen, I sat in the dirt of my garden, pulled weeds and cried for days.

I hope during these days of celebration, you will count your blessings and recall your joys and sorrows. This is the time of year we make an annual pilgrimage to the family stories; the ones we remember, and the ones we hear from others. Pull out the old photos, and recount tales of those long gone. They live on in you: in your habits and expressions, in your recipes, in your eyes, and most of all, in your stories. Every time you wake up and remember where you came from, and who you are because they lived, now, THAT is a good day.

                                                    In the Spirit,
                                                        Jane




Thursday, December 14, 2017

Life's Work

Soul's Assignment

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
Maya Angelou

It's interesting how one's mission in life changes over time and with the stacking up of decades. As a young person, I wanted to change the world by doing things that benefited people with disabilities. I thought I could do that single handed. As is true for many young people, I did not know the world's ways, and had lots of grandiose notions. Thank God for that, because some young people do end up changing the world. If they doubted themselves, it simply wouldn't happen.

If asked the question, “What is your mission in life?” how would you answer? One way to recognize it is to ask yourself, “what do I really love to do—what am I especially good at.” It may have nothing to do with the way you make a living—life's work is heart work; it has more to do with love than money. We all have a mission, whether we recognize it or not. Some of us believe our life's work is determined—and agreed to—before our soul becomes a human being. Think about it—we have billions of cells, and all of those cells have intelligence embedded in the genetic material. Some genes turn on, and some do not. What determines that? Two identical twins—two individuals who began life as one single cell—who have the same parents, the same developmental environment, often grow up to be two distinctly different people with different passions, personalities, capacities and life trajectories. Does our life's purpose determine which genes are activated?

As for me, I'm still trying to change the world—thankfully, I have recognized that I can't do it alone, and it won't happen fast. Somebody stuck a pin in that particular delusion. Realizing that your life's work will not result in change in your lifetime does not mean you can stop, however. I could, I suppose, go float on a raft in the Caribbean, and sip mint-juleps all day—actually that sounds pretty good—but it would mean that I get another go-round here on the blue planet. Because, you see, the work belongs to the soul—it is the soul's assignment, and the soul is eternal. Ah, well, just keep plugging away.

                                                       In the Spirit,
                                                           Jane



Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Christmas Miracle

Feel the Bend

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doug Jones, newly elected Senator from the State of Alabama, used this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his victory speech last night. These are words that we would do well to tattoo on our hearts. Sometimes, in our darkest hour, we find the light to see. We have certainly entered into dark times here in America, and while one candidate does not a turn the tables of a nation, it represents hope where there was only an airless vacuum.

Being an eternal optimist, I do believe with all my heart that the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” It has been proven over and over—from Gettysburg to Appomattox, from Normandy to Berlin, from Selma to Montgomery. Human rights can be denied for a time—for what seems like an interminable length of time—but eventually, the human heart changes, and they matter.

Unfortunately, we often have to see what is ugliest in us for that change of heart to take place. Sometimes it takes the in-your-face, inescapable reality of that which is vile, that which is calculated to use and manipulate, to bend us toward light. We have experienced that, too. Fifty years ago we witnessed the police dogs and fire hoses turned on children, the church bombing that killed four little girls, and Dr. King, himself, locked behind the bars of the Birmingham jail. Today, the bars of that jail can be found in a Civil Rights Museum, but we had to lose Dr. King for that to happen. With victory, sacrifice.

Whether Doug Jones' victory represents a turning point or not, time will tell. But, here on the ground in Alabama, it feels like a little bend in the moral arc of the universe occurred overnight. For that I am well and truly grateful.

                                                         In the Spirit,

                                                             Jane

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Individual Strength

Boundaries

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”
Brene Brown

I think this is one of life's hardest lessons. It is not a weakness to want to please the people we love; it's part of being a pack animal. We want to belong to the tribe because, for us, that is essential to life. As members of a pack, we have certain duties and responsibilities and one of them is to figure out how to get along with the other members of our team. So we are trained from birth to share, to give in to the will of the group, and to take a backseat, if necessary. When we have to swim against the current, it's uncomfortable. Some of us have adapted by caving in, even when we feel strongly about what is right.

Respecting the will of the majority is part of a democratic process, but so is standing up for what you believe to be right. Beginning to pull yourself out of collective consciousness is, believe me, swimming against the tide. Take the women and men who are now standing up and speaking out against sexual misconduct in the professions—they are being called liars, and many are being threatened. For so long, they did not feel safe enough to speak up, or if they did speak out, they were told to be quiet, or else lose their jobs. The fact that they are telling their stories now shows that we are making progress, but that progress does not come without pain.

Setting boundaries is a painful process when you are a pack animal. It won't win you friends or make you the darling of the clan. Boundary setting takes courage; risk is involved. It may even require finding another tribe with whom to belong. But, boundaries are healthy and necessary to the integrity of each individual in any group, whether that group is a family, or a working team. We risk disappointing others, but the ability to do so in an honorable way may be the catalyst for change that will move the whole team forward. If there is a boundary that you need to set, doing so may free you to be who you truly are. And, strong individuals make the very best team players.

                                                           In the Spirit,

                                                              Jane

Monday, December 11, 2017

Start with the breath.

Conscious Breathing

Start with your breath: Our first breath in life, our first breath in existence, we breathe in; our last breath, we breathe out. Those are the two most important breaths that we have. One brings us into this world; one takes us out of this world. And almost every other breath we forget, we are not conscious of. And if we start just listening to that breath, in and out, up and down, just listening to the power and how it feels, that's the key to the consciousness and awareness of all living things around you.”
Steve Karlin (“Wisdom of the Animals,” Parabola; Fall 2017, p. 35)

So, this morning my laptop would not boot up. It turned on to the screen saver and that's as far as it would go. When that happens, I may as well be sitting on a flaming asteroid in the back side of an unknown galaxy for all that I understand about cause and effect in the world of computers. I pounded on it, hit every key about a thousand times, said any number of profane words, and yelled so loud that Liza got up and left the room. Isn't that the response of an enlightened being?!

Finally, I came to my senses, turned the laptop off and went to the kitchen to pour myself another cup of coffee. I gathered the remnants of my sanity, took some nice deep breaths, came back to my desk where the offensive brat of a computer sat. I ignored it and cleaned out a drawer—check book ledgers and day-timers dating back to 2008, loads of push pins and staples, an old cellphone or two, some photos of the the marble courthouse in Murphy, NC, and several out-of-date, never-used credit cards. I'll bet you have that drawer at your house, too. After all that, while I breathed and listened to Liza, who crept back in once the hollering stopped, snore, I calmed down. I hit the power button on the laptop, and voila! It started right up! This mystery is deeper than can even be imagined—at least by me.

Breathing is the one thing that can bring us back to earth from a rage-fueled galaxy far, far away. It is an amazing gift that is overlooked about 99% of the time. Just a few conscious breaths, feeling the air move into your belly, and out again, will cause all manner of physiological changes in your body. According to Steve Karlin, founder of Wildlife Associates, which is dedicated to educating people about wild animals, the conscious breath is also the entryway to greater awareness of everything around us. The instant we shift our concentration to our breath, we begin to hear what we weren't hearing before. If we're outside, that might be songbirds, wind rattling the branches of trees, dogs calling to one another in the distance. It is as though we wake up to our environment. Our good and reliable brain blocks out most distracting sounds, especially when we are focused on a task, so we have to intentionally move our awareness back to our breath to “boot up” again.

I hope you are not like me. I hope when frustration seizes you, you don't beat and bang and curse. But, if you are just a little like me, remember to breathe. Three times, slowly, consciously, down and back, remembering that this is a gift—the gift of life itself.

                                                                 In the Spirit,

                                                                    Jane

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Harness That Wild Animal!

Soul Resilience

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places.”
Parker Palmer (A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life)

As we move into the darkest days of winter here in the northern hemisphere, some of us have a difficult time with mood. Lack of sunlight may be the culprit. Many people go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Our brains need full-spectrum light to produce certain hormones, among them serotonin and melatonin, which stabilize sleep cycles and mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real thing, a physical condition caused by a drop in these hormones, and can be treated effectively using light therapy (photo-therapy), medications and/or psychotherapy. It's important not to simply suffer through the low-light months, because depression creates other problems—physical pain, relationship challenges, loss of productivity, and general lack of vitality.

Others of us find the holidays difficult. Everything feels more stressful because we add to the demands on our time and energy—traffic is worse at a time when we feel the need to hurry and get done whatever is on our to do list. We are more prone to accidents, colds and flu waylay us, and we may find ourselves being extra prickly with our significant others. Winter can be a difficult time of year. Again, it's important not to force yourself to endure the discomfort—important for the people around you, too. Take a look at what is driving the anxiety and irritability, and make the necessary adjustments--even if that means you don't do 8 of the 10 things on your list. Most of us prefer to have our friends and relations in a good mood, more than to have that non-essential gift they battled gridlock traffic to purchase. Personally, I favor cutting back on the volume of gift-giving at the holidays, and simply giving unexpected gifts throughout the year.

Another way to tackle the darkness of winter and the challenges of the holidays is to make contact with that wild and resilient soul of yours. In the midst of the noise, the traffic, the irritating difficulties and low mood of deep winter, the soul is there; it is never down, never tired, and never missing in action. It is a reserve of abundant life in the midst of poverty. It can buoy you up, carry you through the dark days, be your companion and ally. It doesn't cost anything, and is always giving. Whatever you can do to stay in touch with that part of you, do it. You will recognize it as a quiet presence within, more solid and grounded than stone, more effervescent than breath. It is more real than the dark and cold of winter—they will pass, the soul will not. It knows how to survive in some very hard places, and how to dance its way to life. And it belongs to you alone!

                                                    In the Spirit,

                                                        Jane