I genuflect

I came across this poem I wrote back in 2009…my dad was resisting allowing in-home-help for my mom.  When we were finally able to get someone in to help my parents, when my father finally acquiesced, I wrote a poem of gratitude for this corps of helpers.  Caregivers are underpaid and unsung heroines and heroes.  They do women’s work which, as we realize, is undervalued across the globe.

****
I genuflect
before all life
and the caregiver who
washes a sink full of dirty dishes
and changes diapers
or empties bedpans
bathes my parents
–to those who wash urine-soaked mattress pads
with grace.

I revere the life
which enters in a bloody burst
catching its first breath in a cry
and releasing its final breath in a shudder
and everything in between
–especially women’s work
which great corporations
like hotels, restaurants,
the hospitality industry
model themselves after.
Women have always
prepared our food,
cared for the sick,
done the laundry,
and not been paid for
their necessary labor.
i.e., my mom
–now my dad has to pay wages
for her care after sixty-six years
of her unpaid service to him.

To pay for women’s work
is a tough pill for him to swallow
wash it down
wash it down
and cough up the money
for these worthy and necessary chores
from worthy givers of care
to my more than deserving mom.

****
Ultimately, my parents moved to a care home.  Their needs were met by caregivers making minimum wage. There is a real humility in accepting help as we age.  And caregiving is a humble profession that deserves to be elevated.  Where does any one society place its value?  This becomes obvious in what they put their money towards.
My father passed away in 2010 and my mom died six months later.

How to work with the “Malaise”

Malaise: “…a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.”

How are you coping with it? The long stretch of not being sure how to proceed? The risks, the frustrations, the doubts and uncertainties, the news, the misinformation, the truth that “no one really knows for sure.” What are the long-term consequences of getting the vaccine? How long does it last? What’s the best one for you? What’s the best one for me? Who can you go to for answers? What if you are one who chooses to wait and see before you get the vaccine, if ever? What is the underlying cause of this virus? Where did it actually originate? What’s the best preventative? Can we gather or not? How many feet apart? Wearing masks, indoors or outdoors? Double-masking? Whaaaaat?

And do we have to face more of this in the future? Is it a result of climate change and what we’ve been doing to our planet? The virus goes to the lungs…are the lungs of the earth sending us a message as we carry on with our deforestation…the trees, the lungs of the planet? A good question–is the earth giving us FEEDBACK? How are we interpreting this?

Some of my friends are trying to live their lives with business as usual. There are others who are working around the curtailments. There are others who go between the malaise and working on one or another projects. For them it’s like swimming against the currents. Progress is slow, if any. Sometimes they go sideways, detouring into a mindless distraction. Some have a new addiction to the news, their computers. And they are suffering for it. As for me, I’m trying to sort through a lifetime of writing. And to maintain the little cottage where I live better. A little garden. The goal is to bring some order to the world that immediately surrounds me. The one I think I have some control over. In incremental ways, daily. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or overnight.

What about you? How are you coping?

****
I wrote this poem in March of 2012. I don’t remember what was going on in my life at the time. It was a year after my mom had died. A year and a half since my dad had died. I’m guessing I was rousing myself and redirecting my life after the challenges of their final years. The thing is…perhaps we’re always rebounding from something or other in our lives. Yes, it’s true, the magnitude of what has resulted from the virus is different because it’s global, not only us. Yet, we do know some of what it takes to rebound.

Betweenland
by Christine O’Brien

Footing is precarious
The old, familiar ledges
eroding beneath my feet
before I have something
solid in place
If trust were substance
I’d stand upon it
finding safe ground
in the midst of dissolution
From there,
I’d look out upon inner continents
–the old ones disappearing
as the new ones surface
The discontent and yearning
from which they’ve sprung
in my own sweet soul
calling more of me into being
The woman that I am
standing on this plot of land
looking across the horizon,
now so close,
to see the other one
stretching out his hand
towards me


Symbol of Woman’s Emancipation

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about twelve years old. I rode my bike around the neighborhood in the Sunset District in San Francisco where I grew up. I didn’t travel very far or wide. I had six younger siblings and a lot of household responsibilities. In her late forties, my mother got a bike as a birthday present. It was maroon-colored and called Indian Princess. It seemed somehow exotic to me. My father put training wheels on it; my mother never took them off. It never left the garage.

When I married at age 19 and moved to southern California, I wanted a bike but my young husband didn’t agree. After I had my first daughter, I pictured myself riding through the flat neighborhood of Lemon Grove Estates with her in a bike seat behind me. Again, my husband thought I was being frivolous.

For a long time after that, I thought that I had outgrown bicycles…that I was now too mature to ride a bike. The notions that we have. At 36-years old, I bought myself a Schwinn mountain bike for women…blue, shiny, sturdy, I took up bike-riding. I rode around San Francisco. I never did get a helmet although I would advise my younger self to wear one now. I rode from Daly City, partway around Lake Merced, down Sloat Boulevard to Great Highway beside Ocean Beach. Along the Great Highway past the Sunset and Richmond Districts, then up into Golden Gate Park. Past Queen Wilhelmina’s Windmill and tulip gardens. Up through the park to ninth avenue and the Big Wreck Baseball Field…and then back again. This became a regular route for me.

I brought my bike with me when I moved to Mt. Shasta. I thought I’d ride it often. I rode it sometimes, but rarely. Mostly, it’s been in storage. When polled recently to see what their most valuable possession was women responded…their car keys. I would agree with that. However at one time, the bicycle was a symbol of freedom for women. It changed fashion and gave them mobility at a time when they were definitely constrained.

“One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.”

The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

This little collage turned into a woman riding a bicycle.

A Reckless Moment

Thank God for the reckless moment in painting.  I am in process with a piece.  Although I’m in motion, the painting is feeling forced.  Who am I trying to please here?  What god am I being obedient to?  The one who is too cautious?  The one who wants to be certain that others will approve?  The one who is critical?  The one who demands perfection?

Then, an abandon of sorts enters.  I swipe my brush across the canvas and a whole new direction is created.  It’s a must…to follow that reckless moment.  Once, in such frustration, I took black and white and squiggled lines across the canvas and left the painting overnight.  The next day, emerging from this chaos was the form of a tiger!  I brought her forth and voila, a whole new painting than was originally intended.

tiger.2014.final

That’s where the magic is.  When I become too precious about something in the painting, I try to preserve it and work around it.  But then, something else isn’t working.  The freedom for the piece to become what it truly wants to be is sacrificed to save this portion of the painting.

It’s like in writing, you’ve written a line or a paragraph that you think is absolutely brilliant.  The seasoned writer is going to tell you to toss it!  Yes, toss it because now it has become a block to the real writing that wants to come.  Don’t you hate that!?!?

For some reason, when I’m grappling with this inner unrest, I don’t recognize that this is a stage of the creative process.  I forget this almost every single time.  I want this painting to be finished.  I want to be satisfied.  I want my fellow artists to approve.  I want my audience to like it.  I want to be representational in my painting.  I want…I want…I want…

Then, the surrender once again to what is being asked of me.  Go wild.  Be reckless.  Forget the false gods that you have been trying to appease.  Abandon the old constraints and allow the next steps to unfold.  As has been said, be in the flow.

Responding to the Call or not…

Fear of being judged.

Sometimes I don’t respond to the call.  Sometimes, the universe delivers precise messages that it’s time to do an art show.  Locally, invitations come to me.  I find a reason to say “no, thank you.”  I make excuses that seem true in the moment… “I’m grieving.”  or “It’s too costly to get frames and prep the art for a show.”  or “I’m mostly self-taught–I haven’t gone to art school.”

In retrospect all of these reasons (excuses) seem false, constructed to protect myself in some way.  Our art is, after all, our progeny and we protect it accordingly along with our fragile artist’s ego.  Behind all of this, is the fear that others are going to judge me and my art unfavorably.  Time to get past that.

You cannot be discovered and invisible at the same time!

Recognizing and making opportunities.

Think about the attention that has come your way through your art or writing or poetry–when you deign to share it.  That old “don’t hide your light under a bushel” parable comes to mind.  Given a gift, it is meant to be shared.  I have to remind myself of this when I humbly dismiss an invitation to have an art show or decline to read a poem publicly.

Notes to self:  1)When someone says that they like my art…that they want to purchase something because it speaks to them or that they’d like to see more of my art, say “Yes”.  2) And, when they say that a painting is something they could live with comfortably and appreciate daily, don’t dismiss that.  Share more of what you do with them.

I’ve been thinking about the unlikely places to share my art as well as the generous offers from a local hotel and a gallery.  Take a little expedition within a thirty mile radius of where I live.  Who could host a piece or two of my art.  I’ve made  up those business cards–but I could give them a fresh look.  And then, actually hand them out!

If not now, when?

Truly, can any one of us measure the length of our lives?  We didn’t come here to be invisible.  We are each an expression of something that the universe has brought forth for a good reason.  We are meant to be seen and heard.  With due respect for others of course.  It’s not a competition.  It’s more like an ARRAY.  What a beautiful word.  In an array of flowers, there is not one that has to be the most beautiful.  Again, reminding me of the word “synergy” where the parts aren’t greater than the whole…they work together in a harmonious array.

STOP PLAYING HARD TO GET!

So it is with your art…joining the league of artists, each a star in his/her own orbit.  What a brilliant idea!

Another quote I love and refer to time and again:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”   – Audre Lorde

****
What I’m saying is:  Any one of us is being called on in some way to express ourselves at this time.  I heard the phrase recently “You are here on purpose.”  Wow, that’s a good one to contemplate.  What you are working on or creating in your life right now, what would it be like to share it with another, others, the larger community?

Mary Oliver

“Who made the world?”  In one of her famous poems, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks this question.  Like a young child’s voice asking her parents “Who made the world?”  or “Where did I come from?”  or  “How did I get here?”  The young, if allowed, ask those existential questions.  And like this and many other poets, Oliver follows the thread of her thoughts and goes from the broad to the specific.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

****
I want to know
WHO MADE THE PINEAPPLE?
I mean this pineapple
the one delivered with my food order
this past week?
Who designed the layered, tufted top
the prickly, hexagon designs
outlined in yellow-green?
Who conscribed it to be juicy sweet
a treat

pineapple

Who made the pineapple?

***
Can you find something to be amazed by today?  Something that causes you to stop in your tracks and really see and admire it?  One definition of admire is “to regard with wonder, pleasure or approval.”  If I took the time, I’m guessing that throughout the day, there would be many things that I could admire.  I could dwell in amazement.

The Unbeautiful

The question I asked in an early journal (2012) “Can I bring beauty to the perceived as unbeautiful.”

For some reason, this question seems as timely as it did when I asked it in 2012. In the last blog, I mentioned being present and pondered why it seems unsustainable.

I live in a beautiful place. I look out the windows and there is INSTANT BEAUTY surrounding my cottage. Within five minutes, I can be walking beside a pristine lake. We are saying farewell to a winter that sparkled with white snow, tree branches etched with snow, unique snowflakes whirling then landing. We are turning towards the first crocuses, daffodils and tulips–the heralds of spring.

I am always stopped by a spring flower. I pause to acknowledge it. Yet, how quickly I leave that beauty behind and retreat into my head. Into the same old annoying thought patterns. That nowhere land around which my mind circles. I am resisting the beauty that surrounds me. Why? Why do I choose these thoughts over this present beauty? Why this incessant need to solve what is insoluble.

As far as bringing beauty to what I perceive as unbeautiful, I think that’s not really the question. The real question seems to be why am I once again missing the beauty that is. If the unbeautiful represents the shadow in humanity, in you, in me, then as I understand it, it needs acknowledgment from me. “Yes, you’re there too. I welcome and accept you.” And then there comes a time when the fascination with the shadow desires to lessen. Isn’t there?

Our media, in case you haven’t noticed, gives weighty attention to the mess that humans continue to make of things. The media is often a fear monger. I have heard that it takes seven uplifting thoughts or things of beauty to counter one negative message. Yet, we are bombarded by a media that perhaps knows exactly what it’s doing–keeping people in fear and immobilized. An amnesia for what is beautiful takes over.

Some of my friends don’t read or listen to the news. They seem generally happier for it. Is it sticking one’s head in the sand not to read the news? Is it irresponsible not to stay up on world affairs? Some would say so. How much better off am I for reading the news, the conflicting news, the reporting that creates dissension and division? There are things in the realms of politics that have been set in motion that I don’t seem to have control over. There are certainly decisions that I don’t align with…and yet, how is my dread of them going to change anything?

What if I could go out today and really be with the beauty that is around me? What if I could wander in the wonder of what it is to be alive today? What if I could hold the mystery of our being-ness closer and worry less about the uncertainty?

Can I make the unbeautiful beautiful? No, but I can meet the unbeautiful with it’s counterpart of beauty. For everything has a counterpart.

While working on a painting, I remember what one teacher said “work with what’s working.” That’s a good reminder for life. There is a lot that is working and that I can easily take for granted.

Rejoining the Beauty
by Christine O’Brien

The chief beauty of the world
pattern of patterns
To tap into that beauty
to let it be the motivator
of this day
Jane’s tree, Crissy’s flowers,
the amethyst ring,
a smile, the cuddly cat
These things know
what I only surmise
A creator who
set this world in motion
where I join with this source
in my own creation
a masterpiece in the making
Within the stumbling,
the waywardness–
beauty
In the lost or
unlit places–
beauty
There is no waiting for me
to reach that highly evolved state
in the present incompleteness–
beauty
In what’s for dinner and
who I met for breakfast yesterday–
beauty
In the unknown tomorrow
the tentative step forward, the risk–
beauty
In the potential for love,
the yearning for peace–
beauty
The stone in my shoe set free,
rejoining the beauty

****

Music is certainly a way to engage beauty. Remember to listen to music.

Being Present

Being Present. Sages believe that there is wisdom in this. Yet, how many of us really live this way? Why don’t we? Too much baggage from the past? Too much worry over the future? Both of which are no longer in our control. We’ve heard that the present is the gift. That we only have power in the present.

Yet, for me, it feels like somehow I avoid the present in one way or another. Thoughts slip in sideways and take me down a path I don’t care to go. And then, the moment is lost to me. I don’t think we can ever effectively escape these sideways distractions. They seem to be integral to our lives. We’re often planning for the next thing. However, once-in-awhile, I have that experience of being precisely where I am, doing (or not doing) exactly what I’m doing. Sometimes, I’m fully present with someone else. I’m seeing them, hearing them, responding to them, experiencing the moment with them. Yet, it’s so rare. How come I can’t harness the fleeting moment and be comfortable within it?

Here’s a poem where I pondered just that…

And Then What?
by Christine O’Brien

on stopping and being present

in this one particular moment

leaving everything pending, undone

unattended

I read that if I died

all the activities

I deemed important

would die with me

for who would be interested

in taking up the threads of my existence

and continuing the odd weave?

sometimes I don’t want

this warp and woof I’ve created.

start anew…

I wonder if there is another me

on another side

of this thinning veil

cheering me on

rah rah

if I could claw a way through to her

merge with her

know the secrets

I already know

live the life

that dreamers awaken to

be real

on this plane

could I drop all the tasks

so self-important

really live while I’m alive? 

oh sweet adventure

oh daring & renewed fascination

now, the wind does howl

and the wood crackles in the stove

spring has slipped backwards

into winter

it’s been a long day

the bath is ready

I’m tired

and anything profound

is more than I desire

this stopping and being present

is so lush.

****
Do you feel you are fully present, partially present or rarely present to what’s in front of you? Today? Right now?

The Feminine in Him

By now, most of us have heard that a man has a feminine side and a woman has a masculine side. How accessible each of those are to any one of us is questionable. Any given society’s dictates are strong to be true to your gender. For a man to show his feminine side is often perceived as a weakness. For a woman to show her masculine side…well, she’s been called a bitch or other not-so-nice names. Assertive women and gentle men…hmmm, we’ve got a lot to learn about what it is to be a whole human being.

My ex-husband of thirty years bore the burden of having to be a macho man! He couldn’t admit to fear. He couldn’t show sorrow or grief. The only permissible emotion for him, under this label of macho, was anger! And he did that one really well to the detriment of others and ultimately to himself. During our marriage, when it was needed, I opened the door for him to grieve a loss. He wouldn’t go there. He was a firefighter and a tough guy. That said, I remember the considerate young man that he was before he became so attached to that machismo as a way of defining himself. He passed away in late 2019. In the last five years of his life, after he had his first stroke, suddenly tears were at the surface. He couldn’t control them and gave up apologizing for them. I witnessed in him the struggle as he began to express his more feminine side. His apologies to his children and me, for one. It had been a hard and unyielding wall that kept the machismo, inherited from his lineage, in place. Finally, crumbling.

It is known that the hormone, testosterone, decreases in men as they age. I’ve noticed some men, upwards of sixty, becoming softer, sensitive and compassionate. It could be that they no longer feel that they need to prove themselves. If they are able to retire, perhaps they no longer need to be so competitive. It could be the wisdom of aging. It could be the decreased hormone levels and/or all of the above. It’s a change for the good because why not have access of all who we are? Why not discover our depths of feeling out of which can grow new possibilities for oneself and humankind?

A New World
by Christine O’Brien
Soft as a mother
of cushiony comforts
–men fear that perceived weakness
within themselves.
A man so strong
as to pretend fearlessness:
so rigid as not to crack.
Topple him within yourself
and cry.
Show me a man
who can encounter a woman
in her softest center
and not try to convince her
of anything.
Show me a woman
who can welcome a man
and not become him.
Where they meet,
at that softest center
honorably,
they can grow a new world.

a quote from Thoreau

“I wish so to live ever as to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, every-day phenomena, so that my senses hourly perceive, my daily walk, the conversation of my neighbors, may inspire me, and I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me.”  
Henry David Thoreau

For me, this quote symbolizes the independent spirit while recognizing the interdependency we have with our neighbors and the natural world. That said, the larger world is on our doorstep…through the ever-present media and its variable perspectives, we are bombarded with world events, political unrest, glaring social inequities, climate change, etc. It seems that while it is wise to be present with the commonest events and daily phenomena, we cannot bury our heads in wonder to the point where we ignore the outer chaos. What a helpless feeling though when we look at the state of human affairs.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting outdoors with three wise women poets. We were celebrating a birthday of one of the women, eating quiche, rhubarb pie and banana bread. We discussed that helpless feeling that arises when we ask the question: How does anyone wed oppositions? I, myself, experience my own inner duality…how do I present as a unified whole with such a split? Within families, there are opposite viewpoints, family members polarized against one another. Within my community, there are examples of polarization, immobility, the inability to see the other’s perspective. When both sides claim to have the final truth, how do we meet in the middle? We see how people go to war over opposing ideologies. There is a faction of people (me included) that considers war to be an obsolete way to handle our differences…yet there is ongoing warfare.

I often wonder what my part is today…growing this woman self, growing her out of the past that deemed woman second class, quieted her, effectively erased her voice from history. Writing poetry gives voice to what needs to be acknowledged and furthers the writer’s process. Ideally, it offers something to the readers.

The Future
© by Christine O’Brien

She blazes colors…
If I am to be a vessel for change
I can no longer be invisible,
nor quiet.
I review my early writings
of a woman chained to
outworn, disrespected roles.
Her models were false impressions
of what a woman should be.
Disloyal to herself,
while surrendering her salvation
to him.

She is silent in the midst
of her degradation.
She follows the mores
of how she has learned a woman
“should be, should behave.”
She has depths to which
she hasn’t dared to descend.
She has forgotten her worth,
her right to equal partnering,
muffled her voice,
disguised her face and figure.
She is depressed.

Her fire has gone into hiding,
but it is not extinguished.
Eruptions are scary
when you think you are only
malleable, adaptive, accepting
yielding and penetrated.
What does a spiritual,
grounded activism look like?

Too many of my women friends,
and me too, don’t look beyond today
or tomorrow…
“What’s for dinner,
are my needs well-met
is my family safe,
for now?
Have we defended against the virus,
sufficiently?
Are our cupboards full?
Are the essential workers
able to provide for us, hold us up?
For how long? 
Are the borders secure and
the air space protected?
Do we realize our interdependence? 
Yet?”

For if my sisters and brothers around
the globe–China, Africa, the Balkan Islands,
Indian Reservations, my next door neighbor–
are suffering, thirsty or hungry. 
If my clouded leopard in Malaysia,
my Spirit Bear in British Columbia,
my Tundra Swan’s very existence
are threatened, then so am I!
If the earth’s respiratory forests
are ingraciously removed
will I have the breath to speak
of upcoming peril?
Wouldn’t I rather
see the salvation that comes from
humanity arising,
not only in America
but across this expanse of earth–
our common, ever-shrinking home?

What, dear woman, with inner fire,
are you waiting for?