on the verge: dead trees, cream cheese, and children

Tragic Dead Christmas Tree 1 Toby BradburyImage:  “Tragic Dead Christmas Tree,” Toby Bradbury. Used with permission of Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas.

I have lost my bearings in the whoop-la of the “holidays”, in people pleasing, in following the way of the world:  shopping, baking, entertaining.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love presents.  I love giving presents.  I love being with my family, but enough is enough.  And no matter how I simplify, no matter how much I avoid tear-jerking, desire-provoking commercial advertising, no matter how I focus on “the reason for the season,” year after year, I overextend and find myself here.

My stomach spasms from overindulging in dairy:  cream cheese, chile con queso, fudge.  My head throbs from pollution, pollen, mental congestion.  My body aches, begging me to stop.  STOP!

a time of change and transition, when the night is on the verge of turning into the day

At three A.M., when vata is in charge, I lie awake, aching, nauseated, exhausted, overcome with anxiety.  Am I dying?  When I do, will I suffer then more than I do now?  Who will comfort me?  My chest squeezes in upon itself with worry.  I toss, turn, try to think of some action, some accomplishment, an achievement to which I can set my mind to abate the fear of the future.

All this thinking, thinking, thinking with zazen breath my sole companion.  Will I recover?  Will I have to go on living in this pain, dysfunctional, compressed, trapped in this tiny world, betrayed by the mind? 

8179518917_1ff414721a_bimage:  “Buddha Quote 100, Hartwig HKD.  Used with permission of Creative Commons.  Some rights reserved.

My body, too, betrays me.  I consider seeing a medical doctor again:  for sleep medication, for some pill to stop these jumping legs, muscles firing at will, demanding to go, to do, as though, like Forest Gump, I need to start running and never stop (until, like Forest, I have “put my past behind me.”)

I doubt myself.  I doubt my work.  I cannot seem to gather enough strength or patience to continue working with children to earn my bread and butter as I have done for many years.  Though I do love them still, they wear me out.

Writing student

And simply painting, usually a blissful activity that feels like the exact balm I need to soothe the “rude noise of the world” suddenly seems too solitary an endeavor, the canvas–a selfish lover from whom there are no guarantees, neither of community nor sustenance.

And yet, if I am to follow The Artist’s Way, this is a loneliness I must endure.

It is I alone who must know I have something to say (with paint or pen) that is worthy of my energy.

The making of art requires time:  time to conceive; time to create; time to problem solve; time to consider; time to complete; time to process; time to nurture the work; time to discern its message; & time to tell the story of how this work has manifested through me into being and what it means (if I know).

All the while I must eat, buy more canvas, hold a place to sleep and keep interesting tidbits: paper, thread (scraps of reality), bowls of stones, incense, icons, images of ancestors, tubes, jars, sticks of color and words–thoughts stacked in corners.

Collage Studio Portrait

I mine for courage like coal because no guarantee ever comes that any human (including myself) will understand what I do.

I think of songwriter, Stephen Foster (1826-1854), now known as “the father of American music,” who wrote over two hundred songs that are still popular to this day.  He died in New York City with thirty-eight cents and lyrics in his pocket.  He wrote about and was himself a Beautiful Dreamer, calling in the unseen world.

And so I follow his dreaming.

Again (the director says)!  Again I put this pen to page.  Again I witness this curve of ink, ask what matters.

In western schools, I learned a linear process, that following certain steps in a certain order would create a desired, predictable outcome.  This masculine way of processing left me with a false belief, a certainty that I could by exertion of my will control my world and secure my place in it.  It also left me completely unprepared to navigate the unknown.

That, I have had to learn on  my own by walking this path:  the feminine ever spiraling inward, this receptive unfolding.

This way is messy, mysterious and completely out of control.

detailimage: from the studies in sacred geometry series, @d. ellis phelps, 2015, all rights reserved.

D. Ellis Phelps is the author of Making Room for George, Balboa Press, 2013 and of the book length manuscript of poetry, what holds her, (under submission).

About “the surprising” ii: commentary on “love seeks its own”

My Great-Grandmother Mary Ann Henley's rocker is over one hundred years old.  It carries powerful ancestral energy for stamina and determination.
My Great-Grandmother Mary Ann Henley’s rocker is over one hundred years old. It carries powerful ancestral energy for stamina and determination.

Five years ago, on Oct. 15, 2009, my father left his body, only 29 days after my mother had also done so.  Though I had been very close to my mom, my dad and I had been estranged for two years before his passing, our lives together, full of pain.

Since before and after his passing, I had been experiencing heart pain in the form of physical spasms and chest wall constriction plus asthma-like symptoms that seemed to be getting worse.  After consultation with doctors who said this and that as they will (nothing serious; here’s a drug), I knew I had emotional work to do, the work of reconciling this unresolved grief that had lodged itself in my heart chakra.

As I told you in my comments about “between the worlds,” my ancestors and I, especially my father most recently, have had vigorous, ongoing post-hummus communications in the form of scented visitations and vivid (often nightmarish) dreams.  My art has always been, for me, a form of prayer and communication with Higher Realms.  I also work with my dreams and visions this way, so working them and with canvas and paint to resolve my grief, to “hear” my father, to “speak” with him on behalf of healing was only natural.

And so it happened that I was fully engaged in painting and getting ready for “the surprising” during this season or anniversary of my parent’s transition from flesh and that the show would occur and the paintings would be hanging in the gallery on the anniversary of my father’s passing.

Near the finish of this painting, the fourth in the series (remember the heart chakra is the fourth chakra in the subtle body or energy system), I sat in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair across the room from it.

"love seeks its own" 36X12" acrylic on canvas
“love seeks its own” 36X12″ acrylic on canvas

My studio window was open to the sound and scent of gentle, September rain.  My heart was open to my father, to my work, to my Self.  I listened for any message the painting might have for me.  Within seconds, this lyric arrived: “love seeks its own.”  Of course, this phrase caused me to sob for many minutes, since love of the tender, accepting variety was what I had longed for from my father.  Allowing the tears to flow, I grabbed my journal, suspecting a message coming through.

Here is the message in the form of lyrics complete with a melody that came through this painting and that I believe is a message directly from my father’s essence to me, for me, for the planet and for all humans in difficult relationships:

when from beyond the grave/ love seeks it own/ in the violet play/ we are all as one/release from hate/& free to fly/ with ones who wait/for us on high

(refrain): there is no choir/no golden throne/no standard issue/white flowing robe/but everyone sings/yes everyone sings/and in a giant ring/we are dancing

the face of love is seen/as we are shown/hidden in between/all that we have known/this life we’ve lived/our lessons learned/we each are gifts/we give in turn

(refrain): there is no choir/no golden throne/no standard issue/white flowing robe/but everyone sings/yes everyone sings/and in a giant ring/we are dancing

we see no difference/from heart to heart/have only reverence/& a brand new start/the purpose of/all that we have done/becoming like the holy one

(refrain):  there is no choir/no golden throne/no standard issue/white flowing robe/but everyone sings/yes everyone sings/and in a giant ring/we are dancing

I am completely humbled by the love this message conveys.  My heart is lighter and I believe, so is my father’s.  May he rest in peace.

The Choice for Love

 sadness_149 from hipish.free.fr

photo courtesy of http://hipish.free.fr/graphics/feelings/sadness/?id=149

The day I saw my reflection in the microwave glass, standing in the kitchen of my posh, suburban home, drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, I decided to leave alcohol alone. But it was later, much later, and with careful counseling; active listening in recovery groups; abstinence from alcohol and mind-altering, prescription drugs; and prayerful surrender that I made the life-changing choice for self-love and acceptance.

Sunday mornings in Central Texas where I grew up, were for going to church and Sunday school. Sunday afternoons were for being with family, eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes made from scratch with brown gravy, canned English peas soaked in butter, white bread (also spread thick with butter); drinking sweet iced tea; and watching the Cowboys on television: my dad’s regular nap time. We attended the First (Southern) Baptist Church as did all our kin except for my grandmother who swore we would all go to hell because we didn’t attend The Church of Christ. Early on, as you might guess, I got confused about religion.

There were volatile arguments between my grandmother and my dad over religious choices.  Of course, these might have fallen on deaf ears for most eight-year-olds, but not on mine. I practiced deep thinking, said my prayers fervently, and read the scripture in the King James Version of the Bible (a gift from my father bound in black leather with my name inscribed on the front cover in gold), and I listened. I was looking for answers to questions I could barely formulate as yet.

My reasoning probably went something like this: maybe if I listen hard enough, I will understand who’s telling the truth and then I can settle this thing once and for all or, at the very least, keep myself out of hell. Or maybe I thought: if I go to church, read my lessons, sing in the choir, invite Jesus into my heart, and behave really, really, really well, my dad will stop throwing my mother’s head against the wall and shoving her down all the time.

Yes. I lived with family violence regardless of church, regardless of prayer.

Violence is a learned behavior. My father learned how to treat a woman from witnessing the way his father treated my grandmother and he learned how to treat a child from the way his father treated him: beatings with a horse whip; tongue-lashings; harsh, unforgiving judgmental attitudes. And from birth, I began to learn this destructive pattern as well. Of course, I had no idea how it would eventually surface in my adult behaviors or even that it would. In fact, I swore it would never happen to me nor would I ever perpetrate such unhappiness and wrongdoing upon myself or others. How little I knew.

I’m cognitively unsure about my eight-year-old-reasoning, but I can say that I listened well, to everything, like a dog on point. And I tried to be good at everything. I did my chores. I did my homework. I made straight A’s and I never, ever talked back.

Until I did.

When I left home for The University of Texas in the fall of 1970, I was determined to leave all that chaos at home. But guess what? I’d learned what I’d lived. Rebellion had been rumbling in me like a stampede about to happen and when I added alcohol to the mix, wild abandon broke down the gates of any inhibition that lingered in this small town Baptist girl.

As was the prevalent mind-set on campus, “I loved the one I was with,” and I was with many. I took up smoking, cigarettes and pot. I perfected the art of cursing; peppering every phrase with a well-placed explicative. I went to class, but slept through the early ones. I played Spades in the dormitory hallway passed midnight and studied just enough to get by. I drove drunk, bought and sold dope, and blacked out, forgetting my way home more than once.

Most of these mild diversions may sound typical of college life to many, and really they were typical. I was never arrested (only by luck), after all. I functioned well, albeit often hung over. I landed a role as a dancer in the chorus line of the UT production of Cabaret after my first audition, winning the role over many dance majors with whom I competed. I served as a dormitory advisor and a resident assistant during my sophomore and junior years, both honorary positions. I excelled as a student-teacher during my senior year. And I got my degree.

I was educated and ready to live life, but emotionally miserable.

“So,” you ask. “What does any miserable, twenty-something-year-old woman do to get happy?” Get married and have a child. Right? Wrong.

I did get married and have a child I wanted very much to have, but I was still miserable.

“So what was the problem?” you asked. The problem was deep-seated rage and self-hatred—fear in disguise.

By the time the day came that I saw my reflection in the microwave glass, my five-foot-four frame supported a mere one-hundred and five pounds; I was drinking close to a fifth of straight whiskey daily but could not get drunk no matter how I tried; I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. I carried at least three prescription drugs in my purse at all times (for nervousness, headaches, and chronic bowel distress); and I was depressed, misguided, and suicidal.

As you may have guessed by now, I’d stopped attending church as soon as I left home, abandoning virtually all of its teachings in return for agnosticism. I’d seen my first of many shrinks; had multiple affairs; and found that I had no idea how to be happy. My marriage failed, ending with an affair that broke up two families, creating painful waves of dysfunction to this day.

My second marriage and my drug and alcohol free lifestyle have survived, however, for thirty-three years. Why? Not because I am holy now. I am far from it. Not because I have returned to church. I haven’t, though I did time and again, but found no match for my version of spirituality in organized religion. Not because now I am finally married to the right man. This relationship has been tumultuous at best. Not because my life is trouble-free. It hasn’t been. We’ve faced years of federal investigations by the IRS, the SEC, and the FBI for alleged misbehavior and received subsequent judgments that took our life savings. We’ve raised a potpourri family. We’ve been through surgeries, illnesses, counseling and treatment and we’ve watched our parents age, move in with us, and die. Sometimes we thrived and sometimes we just survived and sometimes we nearly killed each other, but here we are. Here I am.

Here I am, healthy as I am, and able to be as authentic and as honest as I am with you because of choice. Not a once-in-a-life-time choice, but a consistent, committed, daily choice to love and to accept myself with all my strengths and weakness no matter what rather than to self-destruct and in the process also destroy others and any chance of life-giving relationship.

Here I am because I choose to look at myself honestly and with great reverence for the path I’ve walked. I choose to acknowledge the grace that has accompanied me on this path. I choose to forgive myself and others completely and quickly. And I choose to hold my head up high.

Here I am because I choose to let go of fear and live in the present not the past.

Here I am because I choose to live and learn without regret. And because I choose to live this way, I know how to let you make your own choices, understanding deeply that church or no church, there is wholeness in all of us that seeks its own level that will rise above all apparent unhappiness and create new life—given half a chance.