Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Flourishing from Failure

If I fail to blog regularly it causes me problems. There is always something going on in my active mind, and a space of three or more weeks leaves me with the dilemma of which of the myriad of reflections floating in my brain to share. And so, this morning as I sit with this conundrum, I have landed on a memory from over a week ago that has stayed with me.

Margaret River has an awesome annual event, the Readers and Writers Festival. Each year they manage to secure great presenters from a variety of genres - some big names and other lesser known authors. For the last few years I have managed to attend parts of the festival and hear some inspiring people share their stories. This year, Michael Leunig was on the program. Well, I wasn't going to pass up that opportunity. 

He was just like I imagined he would be - quiet, humble, calm and funny. His talk seemed unplanned and spontaneous as he sat with a white board in front of him demonstrating how his characters came to life for him. But amongst the simplistic cartoons there were some real pearls of wisdom. The one that has stuck with me concerned deadlines and failure, perhaps because I was about to face a deadline myself.

Leunig shared his dislike of deadlines. He walked us through his lead up to a deadline, surprisingly starting only two hours before (that was enough to make me anxious). There was something on the page, but it lacked a sparkle, something to make it something. The harder he tried to make it good, the worse it seemed to get until he decided he was a failure. His mind went into a space where the inner voice called him a fraud, an idiot for ever believing he could do this. He had failed.

But, he described, this is where the magic happened. When the ego was stripped away and was out of the way, all that was left was his humble, creative self. This is when the raw, real work of the soul begins that we know in Leunig's work. In short, Leunig's philosophy is that failure is necessary for truly creative work to begin and we must embrace it in our lives.

I guess his sentiments rang true for me as I prepared to send my PhD writing to my confirmation panel readers. I had been working on this for many months and it was time to put the chapter together. It ended up 6000 words too long and seemed like a jumbled mess of thoughts. Only a few weeks out from my deadline (not a few hours - thank goodness!!) I sent it to my supervisor feeling a little like a fraud. I can't even pull one chapter together and I have a whole thesis in front of me. 

After a minor panic, a moment of failure, and some good advice to revisit my research question I sat down to begin again. Not from scratch, but from a different perspective. It was less about getting the words right and the referencing correct, and more about sticking with my passion and initial intent. I'm not sure it has the sparkle that Leunig looks for - it is still an academic piece of writing. The looming deadline and the moment of failure, however, did change how I approached the task.

I did feel a little like a groupie the day I met Leunig. I had carefully selected a book for him to sign and raced from the main marquee to get close to the front of the signing line. Fortunately, the line was not too long as he took his time with each person. He was attentive to each one and I will never forget the slow and deliberate way he wrote my name. A true contemplative it seemed, who although in his own dreamy world, has a calm and whimsical way of interacting with the world.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

A Wordless Easter

In the last few weeks I have been writing a lot of words. Words from my head, mostly, but on a topic close to my heart. It is not because I approach Easter with no words left that I find myself wordless at this point.

Someone asked me, the other day, if I miss all the preparations for Easter worship, being my first year in quite some time this is not part of my routine. Although the high seasons are always a very creative and challenging time to prepare worship, and I did enjoy that, my answer was "Not at all". 

The reason?  I am tired from trying to find the right words to describe what is, ultimately, an entire mystery, that words cannot adequately describe. And so, in risk of resorting to words once again here, I am content to sit in the dark, shadows of the dawn garden waiting for someone to call my name. It is here in the silence and stillness that I will see the door of new life swing open once again. Happy Easter everyone!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

A memory revisited

Over the last week, people have been reacting in a multitude of ways to the events of the world. We have witnessed anger, grief, compassion, ignorance, speeches from the heart, speeches out of necessity and speeches that should never have been made. It has all been a little overwhelming for many of us. A numb feeling of helplessness has been my reality. 

A memory from almost eight years ago has come to mind a few times over the last few days. Mostly, I have been ignoring it, but this morning decided to pay attention, give it a little time and see why it has emerged again in this time. This "moment", as I will describe it, occurred on a trip to Bali with friends. We had taken a day away from the shopping and the pool to cycle through the rice paddies and the more mountainous areas of inland Bali. It was an organised tour, visiting some businesses that encouraged us to spend our money, but then ventured through small villages and along precarious paths between rice paddies. It was my favourite day of the trip. I love seeing the real life of a place. Encounters with women sorting chillies, numerous chickens and pigs, workers in the rice fields and small village temples were among the highlights.


There was a moment amongst all of this, however, which I can remember like it was yesterday. We had been riding through the rice fields for a while and the tour guide stopped us for a break and to allow the stragglers to catch up. It was a quiet place, away from the noises of the village. The air was very still. The view was breathtaking. Across the valley came a haunting noise, a man chanting. I recall feeling like someone had grabbed hold of my soul. I was captivated. I asked the tour guide what the chanting might be about. He wasn't sure, perhaps a funeral, a call to prayer or a special occasion in the village. There was no need to know. The group prepared to move on and I was in another world. Eventually, my friends had to call to me to continue our tour.

I filmed a little of this moment in an effort to hold on to it forever. It does the moment no justice at all, and only has the effect of igniting the vivid memory that is still alive within. And so, I am pondering why this moment has come back with such clarity this week. I think its about connection. In that moment, I felt a deep connection to the land, to the common humanity with the anonymous Hindu chanter across the valley, to my own sense of spirituality and to my own sense of the divine. It was a moment when all the barriers were removed and all seemed to dwell in perfect unity. 

Perhaps my soul is longing for a similar moment in this space and time. A moment when my soul is grabbed by the grief stricken chants across the waters and I can be present. A moment when the barriers fall down around me and all that is felt is peace and love. A moment where I can know deep connection and unity. A moment that stops me on the journey and holds me for a while in open hands. A moment to be still. Be quiet. And listen. This moment won't change the world, but I know it will change me.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Cutting Comments and Catherine Wheels

Watching 'The Last Leg' this week I heard a comment made by Tom Allen, English comedian, that spoke straight into some of the thinking I have been doing lately. He said (something like), 'I have a feeling those trolls on Twitter would have been the same people that made sure they were in the front row of a public hanging.' In every age there seems to be a way of shaming people into submission. Public executions were a form of control and power over the masses. Using fear as a motivation, the authorities would enforce discipline by holding individuals up as an example. We may not be as physically brutal in today's society, however, there are equivalents in how we 'crucify' people in social media and the media at large.


I have always been quite taken by the Catherine Wheel firework. Initially, as a child, this fascination was about how special it was to have such a beautiful thing that had been given my name. It was a firework that lasted longer than others, was closer (being on the ground) and was exciting. Later, I learnt how the Catherine Wheel earned its name. It is named after St Catherine of Alexandria.

St Catherine (287-305AD) was a princess and scholar living in the time of the pagan emperor Maxentius, known for his cruel ways. Legend states, at the age of 14 she became a Christian after experiencing visions of Mary and the Christ Child. Catherine went to Maxentius to appeal to him to turn from his cruel ways of persecution against Christians. The emperor ordered her execution. He brought 50 orators and scholars to speak with Catherine and give her a chance to change her ways. Her words were spoken so well that many of these 50 converted to Christianity and were immediately executed.

Catherine was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. News of her immense faith spread and over 200 people came to visit her. Maxentius' last attempt to bring her around to his way of thinking was to ask for her hand in marriage. Catherine refused. She was sentenced to execution by breaking wheel, a torturous and painful way to die. As Catherine was brought before the wheel, she touched it and it shattered into many pieces. The emperor ordered that she be immediately beheaded.

And so, the Catherine Wheel is also a symbol of faith, integrity and strength in the face of adversity. We may not be faced with the same fate as these martyrs from times long gone, but we may encounter ridicule, hateful words, slander or misrepresentation. When the fear of speaking out has silenced me and shoved me back in my box, the Catherine Wheel is a good reminder, a visual reminder, to stay firm in my inner faith, to speak with integrity and have courage in expressing my truth to others. A Catherine Wheel is bold, demands to be seen and is full of fire and passion. What an awesome image to hold in a world that can still be very cruel.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

A Sneaky Mandala

Last weekend, I led a day retreat on the theme "A Hidden Wholeness". In the morning we explored the idea of wholeness and contrasted it with the expectation of perfection. We also reflected on what it means to embrace our whole self by reflecting on the idea of an inner village. In the afternoon, we created mandalas - a symbol of wholeness. 

While leading mandala workshops, I tend to hold back and just be available for people to seek me out if needed. Every now and then, however, I get a bit fidgety looking at all the art supplies and want to jump in with the group. This usually only happens when the group are very settled and well in to their creations. I stood there, watching the group, realising I hadn't made any time for mandalas in my own life this year and grabbed some paper. It is never quite the same as making my own space, as I am conscious of the group and still being available, but I still love giving myself permission to throw a bit of colour on the page.

I didn't take the time to reflect on my mandala at the retreat, but looking at it now I see a great reflection of my soul space right now. There is a lot of growth and transformation, particularly around the exterior of my life. Some small and cautious blossoming is emerging from within, perhaps not obvious just yet. The peaceful, inner calm - the place where I am most grounded and authentic - is bubbling out in places, but also restricted by barriers in other places.

This sneaky mandala, probably taking 15 minutes of my time, has some important messages for me at this time. It is also a great reminder that it is not necessary to find a whole morning to complete a mandala. They can be created in those in between times, giving ourselves a little time out from thinking and planning for the next thing. This mandala was unexpected, unplanned and created very quickly, but it will be speaking with me for a while to come.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Flying Low

It has been a while since my last post. The last few week's have been rather full with one thing and another; a wedding yesterday, dance lessons for my daughter, being 'apprentice' gardener for my husband and preparing for the first residential of Dayspring's Grad Dip in Spiritual Direction which commences tomorrow. In amongst all this, the thing that has stilled me is revisiting many of Mary Oliver's poems.

Mary Oliver died on the 17th of January at the age of 84. Her poetry has travelled with me over the last 10 years. She has a way of describing her connection with nature, her own journey and relationship with the divine that is so simple, yet has such depth. Her poetry is full of wonder and awe at the surrounding world, but does not shy away from acknowledging the pain and suffering that is also part of life.

A few of my favourites are 'Sleeping in the Forest', 'The Journey' and 'Why I wake early', but considering that today is a breathing day, a day in between two full days, I want to share the poem 'Today' with you.

Today

Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all of the voodoos of ambition 
sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm travelling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

Mary Oliver

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Like it was yesterday

As a teenager, I recall watching a dramatic presentation at some church youth event that impacted me deeply. The basic plot went like this. Young person at home, doing things that young people do, music playing loudly. A knock at the door - Jesus has come to visit. The young person becomes flustered, quickly turns off the "inappropriate" music, and tells Jesus to take a seat. The young person only has a few minutes before their friends will arrive to go out. Jesus picks up a book that is left on the table, this is quickly whipped away (also "inappropriate"). Another knock at the door - the friends have arrived. Young person tells Jesus to stay there and he/she will spend time with him when they return. Jesus indicates that he will go with them. Young person says no. This carries on for a bit, until the young person gets very frustrated with Jesus' persistence and effectively nails him to the cross to keep him from coming along. Of course, the young person has a moment of realisation and there ends the emotional drama.

I remember thinking this drama was highly effective in teaching what the Christian life is about and may have even re-enacted it myself at an Easter Camp or the like. Looking back now, I am quite horrified by what it taught me (and potentially many other young people). Jesus was to be a priority in my life. There should be no distractions. And when I fail at making this a reality, I may as well have nailed him to the cross myself. Guilt, guilt and more guilt!

A little over a week ago now, we had some friends come to visit us for a few days. We hadn't spent time with these friends since we lived in Tonga, seventeen years ago. We were friends on Facebook, but that was about where it ended. We now both had teenage children. A lot had happened in our lives since we had last met. But somehow, when they walked through our front door it was like our time in Tonga was yesterday. In the few days we had together, we laughed, reminisced, reconnected and had a fantastic time. There was no guilt about how little we had connected in the last seventeen years. There was no expectations that this should happen every year from now on.

In my experience, this is the nature of our best relationships. Time has no effect. Yes, of course, it is preferable to see those we love often and be with them through the ups and downs of life, but when it is not possible the relationship somehow still thrives. If this is how it is in our best human relationships, I would hope it is the same with the mysterious divine. Yes, its great to have our disciplines of prayer, meditation, reading or whatever you prefer. However, when this falls by the wayside for whatever reason, I don't think our first reaction when God shows up unexpectedly should be guilt. Our encounter will probably be just like it was yesterday.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Behold - A New Year!!

There is nothing especially magical about a new year. After all, time is a human construct that has been created to enable order in what often seems a chaotic world. Look what happens when the trains don't run on time, or we have to wait for an appointment that is running late. Our lives are so dictated by the clock in order that we might be in control of this life that is ever racing towards some unknown future destination. There is some hope. As we have cleverly based our concept of time on the cycles of days, months and years, we have not veered entirely from the more cyclical understanding of time that is given to us in the natural paths of our sun, moon and earth. I find this a helpful way of looking at the new year: not so much the next step in a linear path where I am expected to be closer to perfection than 2018, but a coming around the circle again, learning from what has been and experiencing it anew. How we understand time has a significant impact on how we choose to live our life.

And so, as we come around again, looking at the path we have taken many times before from a different perspective, we ponder what we might do differently. Some make resolutions, often unrealistic and broken within a month. Others treat it as a fresh start, an opportunity to study harder, exercise more or be more disciplined. I gave up the idea of resolutions some years ago now. I can have very high expectations of myself and my lists were always far longer and complicated than was practical. 

A few years ago now, I began choosing a word for the year. This word was chosen in a very prayerful and reflective way. It has usually been a characteristic or a verb on which to focus for the year. The ones that come to mind immediately are 'integrity', 'courage' and 'cherish'. As I think on those words and the years that accompanied them, I recall moments and small transformations that crossed my path. I have been wondering for a few weeks now what the word for 2019 might be. A word has come back to me over and over like a persistent mosquito. I haven't sat comfortably with it for many reasons. It is an old word, not so used in every day language. It is not your usual verb or a personal characteristic - how will I make it applicable? It was seemingly a passive word, and I wanted something more challenging, more life disturbing. I even attempted to do a deal with this word. What if I have two words this year - this one (as it will not go away) and another that I will choose to make it more punchy!

However, I have resolved myself to trust this process and I am now happy to say that the word that has chosen me for 2019 is 'Behold'. The dictionary definition of behold is 'to see or observe (someone or something, especially of remarkable or impressive nature)'. My contemplative nature is quite content spending a year beholding the world around me; gazing upon the beauties of nature, watching those I love grow and blossom, searching out the moments and glimpses where the wonder of God is present. Seen this way, there is a sense in finding the sacred in all things and celebrating this each and every day. As Julian of Norwich said, "The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything".

But what happens if I start to use this word about myself? The initial reaction is to cringe in discomfort. I am not one to enjoy the spotlight. If the attention is turned upon me spontaneously in public, I would happily melt into my surroundings. Only use the word 'Behold' in front of my name after hours of rehearsals and all the mistakes have been ironed out. I love karaoke, but let me practice first!! So, what if I invited myself, others and God to say 'Behold, here is Cathie'. Suddenly, this word is a lot more challenging than I bargained for. To allow people to gaze upon my life and what I do before the dress rehearsals and the make up calls is something I encourage in others, but can I live it. I have always blamed my insecurities on the expectations of others, but this word is calling me to address the unrealistic expectations I put upon myself. 

I feel I am going to have a love-hate relationship with this word in 2019. I will need to hear my own words and see it as a coming around again, rather than some striving for unachievable perfection. Let's see how it goes. Behold - a new year!!