Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ancestors of the Land

Prior to living where we currently do, I never gave much consideration to the history of the land and the people who inhabited it before me. But for some reason, I feel deeply connected with the land on which we currently live. Maybe it's because it's so rich with history that there's no escaping the lure of the past and giving it the respect it deserves.

I am reading an old book, Early Days in Eastern Saratoga County by Grace VanDerwerker (originally published as pamphlets dating back to 1928), and am riveted by accounts of incidents that took place in our home, yard, and community long ago.

The Hudson River that flows in front of our house was fundamental to the lives of the Mohicans who once dwelled on these banks and fished in these waters, and to the Mohawks who drove them out. During the 1700s came the French and Indian wars, early pioneers, and the turning point of the Revolutionary War (Battles at Saratoga and Burgoyne's surrender in 1777). The 1800s saw the building of the Champlain Canal, the blossoming of the canal era and, soon after that, the rise of the railroad. The house next door to ours even served as a Revolutionary War hospital, and I can see the remains of the old field hospital from the room in which I am writing.


Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks diving into genealogical research and was able to trace my family tree back further than I ever would have imagined. After learning that some of my ancestors were involved in the Deerfield Massacre, I researched that event, and all of a sudden it felt very personal, rather than just an account in a history book. I learned that other ancestors were original landowners in Manhattan and Harlem, which connected me with those places, as well. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to pinpoint the exact locations on Google Maps and see what exists there in the present day. It's fascinating how genealogical research connects us with other places and events.

There are blood ancestors, and there are land ancestors, and I am equally interested in learning about both. There is an intimacy with blood ancestors with whom we share genetic code and cultural and family values that are passed on. It is a connection through time. With land ancestors, the intimacy comes through living our daily lives on the same ground: a spatial connection. Waking up every morning inside the same walls, surrounded by the same trees, looking out at the same view (more or less). Having a relationship with the same land. Even though I am not a native of the town in which I currently live - and might not remain here for the rest of my life - I feel a deep sense of urgency to learn about those who were here before me. Who walked up these stairs and slept in our bedrooms? If there were children, where did they play? Where were their secret places? Were they happy? What were their dreams, joys and hardships? Who died here? If I could learn the names of every person who ever lived in this old house (which possibly was built circa 1850), I would want to write their names on stones arranged in the yard. I want to honor and remember them. I want to learn about their lives.

The VanDerwerker book gives an account of an event that took place in our house in the 1870s and mentions the resident by name. I was able to find his name in the 1880 census, along with the other household members. I had hoped to locate their graves, but it appears they did not remain in town. I also learned that bricks were manufactured in the hill behind our house in the late 1860s, which explains why we're always finding bricks in the ground! Relating events from long ago relies heavily on descriptions of landmarks. It's difficult to connect specific places with specific addresses because roads and even town names and boundaries have changed so much over the course of 200 years.

I haven't yet done much research into 20th century history of this land, although I'm curious about who lived here during the 1940s. A few years ago, we had some perplexing and unexplainable experiences in a certain area of the yard where we had started a small garden, and an intuitive friend of mine saw an image of a woman dressed in clothing of that era.

My husband and I find it fascinating that this land gives us whatever we ask for. Milkweed. Sunflowers. Just wish for it, and all of a sudden it pops up despite never having been there before. We wonder if our reverence for the land and living so harmoniously with its various energies might come into play here. Before creating a new structure or garden, my husband asks permission from the land.

Today I harvested our first ever ear of corn, linking us with an ancient history of corn being grown here as crops.


When my children were little, we listened to a lot of recorded stories. One of them was an Odds Bodkin story called "The Elf of Springtime" in which new residents of a home experienced all kinds of annoyances until they made peace with the elves of the land who they unknowingly had managed to upset. It is a story that has stuck with me all these years, and when we moved into this house on this land so rich with history, I made a point of honoring the energies of the place before we even moved in our first box. I can't say for sure, but I think it makes a difference.

One evening, I was driving home, and an enormous rainbow stretched across the sky. As I drove past a local cemetery, I noticed that the rainbow was highly visible behind it and pulled over to take some photos. When I got home and looked at the photos, I became intrigued with the names on the tombstones. I think that's what ignited my interest to learn about the early settlers.


One night last week, I was reading the VanDerwerker book, and a severe thunder and lightning storm blew in, complete with hail beating on the roof. I was home alone reading about how early settlers lived in constant fear of being attacked by Mohawks. I could almost feel their fear. The next day, I brought the book with me to the old cemetery up the hill, where soldiers of five different wars are among the buried, and had the best time looking at the names on old tombstones and looking them up in the index of the book. I'd already read most of the book, and felt excited to stumble upon graves of those whose names and stories I remembered from the book.


The names and stories from the book came alive for me there in the cemetery. I knew the gossip - who was highly respected, who were the doctors, soldiers, and deacons, even who was murdered.


Somehow, I felt at home among all these personalities - as if I, too, am a part of the history of this land. I returned to the cemetery later the same afternoon, and my parents, who were picking blueberries across the street, joined me. It was fun showing them around and "introducing" them to the different personalities memorialized there.


And then I went home and did more cross-referencing of cemetery photos, the VanDerwerker book, and online resources. The photo below shows the grave of someone whose house is pictured in the book.


Whereas I don't live here during a time of warfare (and am really glad that's the case), I am witnessing a historical event: the monumental PCB dredging of the Hudson River. I have been photographing all aspects of the undertaking as it unfolds around me, and perhaps someday some of my photographs will be part of local historical records and will help to paint a picture of what life was like here on the river during the early 21st century.

There's one more piece to this little "ancestors of the land" project of mine: Returning to the land of my own childhood years. Yesterday, I took a drive by my childhood home, where I am an ancestor of the land. Even though it's not far from where I live now, I haven't driven by it in years. The first thing I noticed after turning on the street was that "my woods" was for sale - which saddened me. I still recognized the rocks and trees, although the area in which I played and explored seemed much smaller than I remembered.


The house itself looked more weathered than it did when we lived there 35 years ago. When my parents moved in right before I was born, the house was barely 20 years old. Every single window in the photos leads to rooms that I can visualize clearly - probably even more clearly than my parents would be able to because children are so aware of their environment and notice details that adults overlook.


I knew every inch of that yard and every tree in the woods across the street. It was my kingdom 35-40 years ago. I still dream about the house and the yard and can recall details as if it were yesterday. If a highly sensitive person ever wanders to the southwest corner of the yard and sees or hears a little girl playing, it might be me, for that area - and the woods across the street - were my special spots where my imagination ran wild and I could be whoever I wanted to be. Or perhaps one might hear lingering giggles from summer evenings when I would chase after fireflies, barefoot in my nightgown before going to bed.

Who knows what kinds of imprints we make on the land when we connect with it deeply. I can't help but think that a part of us remains in the places in which we have experienced strong emotions or have let our spirit run free.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Under the July Full Moon

Sat on the dock last night without a camera because in this case words come closer to describing the sublime perfection of the moment...


Moonlit Symphony


Mint forest has been cut
back to make room
for lavender, the sweet
leaves plucked
for tomorrow’s use, and
Now the full moon
and not having anywhere to
Be in the morning
lure me to the dock, where
waves lap softly against
the shore, melodic tinkling
of liquid wind chimes,
middle voice.
Invisible breeze passes
through foliage turning trees
into soft rustling tambourine bass
as buzz of night-singing insects
become egg shakers gliding
along the top this gently
percussive evening.

The round moon swims slowly,
steadily through a sea
of illuminated clouds until it
rests, floating
in an ocean of dark blue,
luminous and full.

Reflections of moonlight
on the wavy surface below
shimmer like fireflies along with
thousands perhaps millions of real
fireflies flickering in the yard,
becoming stars in the sky:
So many kinds of light!

Glowing moon moves
perceptibly between the first
two of five parallel power lines;
since I first sat down, it has floated
twenty degrees along
its celestial arc, touches
the first finish line (like a number
on a clock) and continues on.
All is well in my world. All Is
Thank you thank You Thank You.

Heading back to the house,
make no mistake: That tree
is singing. I stop, feeling rooted
and still and Listen then
Ask: What am I?
The answer comes in tree-song;
I understand.

Listen, says the night,
to the moonlit symphony.
Come out and sit for a while
In deep blue, luminous
Perfection.

© Susan Meyer 2013

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Synchronicity: Then and Now

In the early twentieth century, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe causally unrelated events that appear to be meaningfully connected in some way. In my own experience, I've found that if you keep your senses open to synchronicity, it happens all the time. A few months ago, I even began keeping a synchronicity journal to remind myself of how extraordinary it can be. 

A few of my most memorable synchronicity experiences occurred when I was trying to land a teaching job. It was a really long haul to go back to school as a recently divorced mother of two children and obtain a master's degree and all the credentials required for the various New York State teacher certifications that would make me more marketable in a highly competitive job market. Sometimes I became discouraged and overwhelmed by the marathon and the slim odds of receiving a job offer in a supersaturated field. However, one day it occurred to me in a moment of clarity that I held a key to a door that would only open for me - because I alone had the key. I just needed to find the door. It was an empowering insight that renewed my enthusiasm. When my son came home from school that afternoon, the first thing he said to me was, "Look what I found!" And then, with great excitement, he presented me with a very old key that he considered quite the treasure.


And so did I! My eyes must have bulged out of my head when I saw physical confirmation of my insight. The old-fashioned key remains on my meditation alter to this day.


That is synchronicity.

As I got closer to approaching that metaphorical door, I was contacted by two school districts for interviews. One was a second interview with the district I really wanted to work in - the district I attended from kindergarten through high school graduation and in which my children were enrolled at the time. I did my student teaching and all my substitute teaching there, and it felt like the logical place for me. The other was a much smaller, agricultural district a couple towns away, with which I had no prior experience or contacts. About a week before the interviews, I received in the mail a publication from my religious order, and on the back cover was a poem about how sometimes the things we want so badly might end up having a bitter taste, and perhaps we are better off without them for reasons we may never know. I had a feeling after reading it that it spoke to my situation, although I tried to convince myself otherwise. At the time, I worked part-time as a library shelver and sometimes played a little game while walking through the stacks: I'd open a random book to a random page and read it. The next time I was at work, amazingly, on the page I opened to, my eyes fell upon the name of the second, smaller school district, with a different spelling but the same pronunciation! Now, what are the odds of that happening when you open any random book in a large library to a random page?

To make a long story short, I was not offered the job in the district that was my top choice. And I felt devastated. However, the next day, I had an interview with the smaller district and was offered the job - and felt jubilant. I considered the synchronicities as indicators that this was simply how it was meant to be.

Fast-forwarding more than five years, I'll share the two most recent experiences that occurred this past week.

This summer, I began a massive cleaning and restructuring of our house. It's time to lighten our load and change things around - get the chi flowing and make room for new energy to flow in. I was going through some old magazines and decided to get rid of most of them. On the way to the recycle bin, a magazine fell open to a page with an ad for a book that caught my eye. It was a new release (at the time) called One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing Myself and Finding Grace on a Zen Retreat by a Zen teacher named Jane Dobisz. Without reading anything more about it or ever coming across it previously - and despite not being a Zen practitioner - I knew intuitively that I needed to read that book and ordered it immediately. And it turns out it is exactly what I need right now and is shedding so much light on my current situation. It's absolutely perfect. I have been longing to go on a lengthy retreat somewhere although it is not the right time to do so, and I am able to experience it vicariously through the author. In the off-the-cuff definition I offered above of synchronicity, perhaps this doesn't seem to fit because it (seeing the ad for the book) was just one event. However, there were a few other details that would take too long to explain but made it seem clearly synchronistic. I recognized the book ad instantly as an answer I was seeking, without having to think about it at all. Intuition bypassed the conceptual mind, and I just knew.

I find that there is a certain feel to synchronicities. You can choose to ignore them or to follow them. In my experience, I have found that it is a marvelous adventure to follow them. They often lead to more synchronicity, a trail of new possibilities and enhanced energy and creativity. I regard synchronicity much the same as I regard dreams. I don't know whether they are generated internally or externally, but it's the noticing and intuitive knowing about them that is meaningful to me. If you decide to take a walk and look for things that are a certain color - let's say, purple - then purple objects will begin to jump out and register more in your field of awareness. The same thing happens when you play I-Spy. Maybe synchronicity operates along those lines. Or perhaps in Jungian terms, it is the connecting principle of the collective unconscious, bridging our inner and outer experiences, uniting mind and matter.

Finally, I was on the river earlier this week. For the most part, it's not the peaceful experience it has been in past years due to all of the traffic from work boats and dredging barges. The pontoon work boats tend to disregard posted speed limits and "no wake" signs and gun it up and down the river. I was paddling for about an hour, encountering considerable traffic, and as I got closer to home it occurred to me that I hadn't seen any wildlife the whole time I was on the river. No beavers. No herons. No egrets. I assumed it was because of the constant activity between the two locks this year. In my mind, I asked, "Where are you, beavers and herons?" And just then, I received an answer: A great blue heron lifted into the air from a concealed location and squawked as if responding to my question. It was so uncanny that my jaw dropped.

After fetching my camera, I went in search of the heron, who I found standing still as a statue on a log in a shallow area. I paddled ever so gingerly toward the heron in an attempt to get as close as possible because I was in need of "heron medicine." I was able to get quite near and observed the heron so closely that it felt as if we were one being. I entered "heron consciousness," a state of intense presence and patience. It is a state of mind free from distractions; even the intense heat and bright sun didn't make an impression on me (which is highly unusual). But at the same time, I was highly alert, with a laser-sharp focus. Aware but not distracted. When you are in "heron mind," you know instinctively what to do and when it is time to move on.


I was so in tune with the heron that I could tell by a subtle movement that it was about to take off. I have been wanting to photograph a heron lifting off for years but never have been quick enough; it always happens so suddenly. But this time, I was ready!


So I ended up with a satisfying photo, but that's not all. Having entered "heron mind," something clicked inside me, and I knew that the deep presence is the element I need to bring into my teaching for the next year. As the curriculum becomes narrower, more demanding, and more tightly scripted, deep, authentic presence might be the key ingredient to help me navigate through the year with as much grace and integrity as possible. I ordered prints of both of the heron pictures to place on the cover of my planning notebook so I can stay in touch with heron energy throughout the year. Last year it was water lilies and the slogan, "Bloom where you are planted." This year it is heron energy and "Be here now." 

When I read a chapter in One Hundred Days of Solitude about Zen koans, I thought of the question that has been on my mind all summer and the dualistic way I've been approaching it: Should I do this or something different? Suddenly, it became a koan to me - a question with no logical answer, designed to liberate you from thinking - and I saw in my mind the answer in the form of the action and energy of being present. Seems the answer is not a yes or no - an either-or - but rather, enlightened action that bypasses yes or no altogether. Deep presence that cuts through the opposing possibilities to something...deeper.

I truly believe that if you are alert, truly present, and able to embrace the "now" rather than resist it or be distracted by too much thinking, you will find your way and end up where you need to be. The journey is the destination, and every moment makes a difference. Either you will find meaning and joy in your current situation, or your zest will lead you in another direction and open new doors.

Guidance and possibilities are everywhere, always, and it's interesting to take note of what resonates!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spa Water, Saratoga Style

We are in the midst of a heatwave! Some people enjoy the heat, and others can't handle it. I fall into the latter category. I'm just not made for intense heat and humidity. These are days when I really appreciate and carry around with me my awesome Thermos water bottle in which ice cubes remain ice cubes all day long!

Speaking of my water bottle, I have a new obsession that is helping me get through the heatwave: fruit- and herb-infused "spa" water. Oh, it is so refreshing and delicious! Not a spa patron myself, I came across the idea on Pinterest and filed it away for safe keeping. Last week, I was staring at our herb garden, realizing that we have quite a nice supply of herbs and thinking of ways to utilize them. Then I remembered the spa water idea and felt inspired.

Here are my first experiments, from left to right: pineapple-mint, strawberry-mint, lemon-lavender (my favorite), and wild blackberry-sage.


My most recent concoction is watermelon-rosemary. They are all delicious, and I am eager to experiment with other combinations.

They are very easy to make. You just add some fruit and a sprig of fresh herb to a jar. To encourage them to release their flavors, you can poke them gently with a wooden spoon. Then add ice, and fill with water. I might add a stevia leaf or two to the more tart combinations. Then put them in the refrigerator to keep them chilled. You don't drink down the fruit or herbs, but they impart their essence into the water. As we drink the water throughout the day, I fill the jar back to the top to keep up the supply. Then I eventually remove the fruit and herbs the next morning so that only the delicious water remains.

And it truly is "spa" water because we get our water from the State Seal Spring at the Saratoga Spa State Park. With an abundance of natural springs, Saratogians are serious about water. People have flocked here for centuries to receive the "healing" mineral waters - each of them unique in their composition, taste, and purported medicinal qualities.


We, however, stick with the State Seal drinking water.


Twelve months a year, locals go to the State Seal Spring to fill their water jugs, and the conversation while waiting is often interesting. My husband usually spends the time balancing rocks. Once, I was there when a couple got out of their car, joyfully headed to the spring, and began humming to (affect?) the vibration of the mineral water that flows out of one of the spouts. The woman was a student of Dr. Masaru Emoto, and she and her partner were collecting water for some kind of spiritual ceremony.


Today when I arrived at the spring, there were about 15 cars there, which signaled a long wait in the heat. I decided to take a short walk and return in a little while, hopefully when there were fewer people waiting.

Time to take out the camera and explore my old stomping grounds with fresh eyes!

Across the street from the spring is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), an open-air amphitheater that operates during an extended summer season. My mom worked there for more than 30 years, retiring a few years ago from her position as Assistant to the President.


I spent a great deal of time walking around the SPAC grounds as a preteen and teenager, either waiting for my mom to get out of work and give me a ride home or attending rock concerts, New York City Ballet performances, and Philadelphia Orchestra concerts.


One summer (maybe 1979?), my goal was to attend every single show excluding matinees. I watched many shows from backstage, which was exciting, and got to meet lots of artists - and even babysat their children on occasion. The first rock concert I ever attended was America back in '77 or '78, and I was thrilled to meet and interview band members Gerry Beckley (with whom I was smitten) and Dewey Bunnell in '79. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my parents' basement, the little notebook with my questions and Gerry's responses probably still remains. Meeting teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy that same summer (twice) was one of the major thrills of my preteen life. I also met and got autographs from numerous other performers, including: Liberace, Aaron Copeland, Eugene Ormandy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Helen Reddy, all the members of the band Journey, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dolly Parton, Debby Boone, Rick Springfield, several guest conductors and principal ballerinas, and pianist André Watts. I thought that André Watts, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, Dolly Parton, and Liberace were the friendliest. Meeting classical musicians was a wonderful opportunity for me as a young, aspiring pianist.

Lots of great memories here! And I had just as much fun spending evenings at SPAC visiting with my older friends, many of them teachers, who worked at the gates or backstage - or sitting near my teacher friends who ushered. Sometimes, teachers were the biggest celebrities of all!

On the same grounds is the Hall of Springs, a restaurant and banquet facility where I had my first work experiences, as a water girl in the Patron's Club and a dessert girl in the main hall. It turns out that my husband and I worked there the same summer (when I was a dessert girl and he was a busboy), but neither of us remember each other, most likely because we had our eyes on the waiters and waitresses.


It's interesting what you don't notice when something blends into the landscape of your daily life. For instance, the matching fountains on either side of the Hall of Springs entrance and the statues. How many times must I have walked past them, but they didn't register?


Or the overall architecture of the buildings? I never really took a close look because of the familiarity: That's the building where my mom works. All the times I entered it, it felt quite grand, but I never really took in the details. And the details are quite amazing.

Here is the view of the back side of the Hall of Springs building (colonnaded on both front and back) and adjacent arcades. Opposite it, on the other side of the reflecting pool, is a virtually identical temple, arcade, and pavilion arrangement that houses the park office. SPAC is located immediately behind the Hall of Springs, and SPAC administrative offices are housed upstairs in the Hall of Springs building - quite an aesthetic work environment.


Before today, I also hadn't noticed the inscriptions above the pavilion arches, which I learned were taken from an early nineteenth century poem about the history of Saratoga. The one on the left reads: "These vales so peaceful now were once the scene of French and Indian War and Revolutionary War." And on the right: "Warriors and chiefs here friendly met before Columbus crossed from Europe's shores." A little perspective to remind us that others made memories - and history - here before us.


The geometry of the long arcades is simply fantastic and provides a sense of balance and repose.


After exploring for a while under the hot, noonday sun, I thought it best to return to the spring to fill my water jugs.

Thanks for accompanying me on my little tour down memory lane while waiting to collect more water for making delicious "Saratoga Spa" water! I couldn't resist adding a little local flavor to this post.  :-)

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sanctuary Sessions

This summer, I am following my heart and soul on little explorations, mostly local, and mostly in natural settings. However, I also have been longing to photograph stained glass windows from inside churches. There's something compelling about capturing the sunlight shining through stained glass in a sacred space. I'm particularly drawn to old churches, in which the energies of (one would hope) spiritual intention and devotion have accumulated for centuries.

I began this quest while walking around downtown Ithaca. From the outside of the First Unitarian church, the stained glass windows were a beautiful, impressive sight, and I wanted to photograph them from the inside. However, it was the Fourth of July, and the doors were locked.


I imagined what the interior spaces must be like and how it would feel to be surrounded by stained glass windows.

On the next block, St. Paul's United Methodist Church beckoned. When I first came up with the idea to photograph stained glass windows, this was the church that came to mind.


But again, the doors were locked. I didn't even attempt to enter the First Church of Christ Scientist with the stained glass windows I admired every time I set out on the Cascadilla Gorge trail.


Earlier this week, I was walking around downtown Saratoga Springs and wandered onto the block of Washington Street where there are a number of grand, old churches.

First I approached Bethesda Episcopal Church.


Again, I could not find a way in. So I looked across the street to the church where all my childhood memories were built: the former United Methodist Church, which is now Universal Preservation Hall. Originally built as the First Methodist-Episcopal Church in 1840, it was the setting for the first chapter in my spiritual autobiography.


If I close my eyes, I can picture the interior of that church so clearly as it was back in the early 1970's: the brass banister going down the stairs, the nursery and Sunday School spaces, a kitchenette, a meeting room, the large kitchen where I remember making a Holly Hobbie decoupage pin as a craft project and possibly also making candles, the choir room where all the robes (including my yellow one for Cherub Choir) were stored, the space that was set up as a small worship area with wooden folding chairs right next to the space where I went to Sunday School (separated by movable walls, as I remember) and where my most vivid memory is of dunking a graham cracker snack in a cup of apple juice and being surprised at how good it tasted. We must have had to be really quiet being so close to where the service was taking place!

And there must have been a basement because I remember going to Sunday School there, too - and being challenged to memorize a different scripture each week. The one I remember most clearly was Joel 3:10: "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong." I probably remember that one because I imagine I had a lot of trouble remembering it. The mothers of two of my friends were the teachers.


And then there was the upstairs - the grand, spiraling staircases on both sides once you enter the building, and the stained glass windows. There was something about going up the staircase that seemed so holy and mystical to me. In my adult life, I would dream of hidden rooms at the top. At the top of the staircases was the Great Hall - the large worship space filled with pews, an elaborate alter with enormous pipe organ, and lots of stained glass windows that I would gaze at during services. It was a huge, awesome space - a "real" church! And being part of that church community felt good. I felt safe and cared for there.


The United Methodist congregation moved into a brand new building in 1976, where it remains to this day. The Washington Street building was sold to the Universal Baptist Church, which did not have the financial means to maintain it. In the late 1990's, the building was deemed unsafe, and the congregation was evacuated. It ended up being renovated under the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Save America's Treasures and currently houses the Universal Baptist congregation while also functioning as a center for the arts and a venue for weddings and other events.

I haven't been inside the building since 1976 and was disappointed that nobody answered the doorbell when I rang it. However, the truth was that I was rather in a hurry, and it just wasn't the right time to go inside. This is not something to be rushed.

Later in the day, I traveled to the Adirondack village of Chestertown, where my husband's band was performing at a community festival. I was surprised to learn that the gig wasn't in the place where they usually play, just outside of the heart of the village. Instead, they performed in a field next to the public library. I was not prepared for this, as my dear friend and beloved mentor, David, who died in February, lived right next to the library, and the field essentially bordered his back yard, with just a small tennis court and parking lot in between.

Almost instantly, I was filled with grief. His house had a for-sale sign in front of it, and I realized that the next time I'm in Chestertown, someone else would likely be living in his house. It also hit me pretty hard that if he were still alive and in town that day, we would have spent time together that afternoon. I walked slowly past his house and could not hold back the tears. It really hit me that he's gone, and I missed him terribly. David died at home, making this house something of a portal.

I walked along the sidewalk to the next block and came upon a tiny, old church with a big red door:  Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. I learned later that, built around 1883, it is one of three buildings in town on the National Register of Historic Places.


I approached the big red doors consumed with grief, hoping to find refuge in a sacred space. And guess what?

The doors opened for me!


With gratitude, I entered this welcoming space with the creaky floorboards and musty smell.


The stained glass windows were lovely.


And so was the space. The sacred space. There is something about the energy of old, empty churches that I really love.

After leaving the church, I returned to the festival, but grief kept seizing me and calling me elsewhere. I wandered to a picnic table at the VFW right next to David's house where I sat alone and could see into his back yard. His garden plot was calling me, so I started walking again and got up the courage to wander into his back yard, feeling that he would have wanted me to. And that's where I felt his presence and became a river of tears. His statue of Saint Francis with bird-on-shoulder still stood to the side of his untended garden that featured a persistent, overgrown scallion amongst some weeds. I felt so strongly that this small patch of earth had been invested with his spirit, for he tended this garden with love.  

Of all the sanctuaries I tried to enter, this was the most sacred of all.

Still, my quest to photograph stained glass windows in churches continues. It feels as if it began in Chestertown with tears of grief and a true sanctuary that allowed me in. And somehow that feels like an absolutely perfect place to start.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Happiness Here and Now

I bought my new At-a-Glance weekly/monthly planner yesterday. (As a teacher and parent, my year runs July to June rather than January to December.) 


It's turquoise - my favorite color. And it felt so good to file the old one! As I transferred birthdays and such into the new planner, I noticed the notes I’d jotted down about all the "events" that arose during the past year. Although I’ve kept a running tally in my head of the major events, there were some that had slipped my mind. And - wow. It totally explains why I ended up feeling as I do: Questioning virtually every aspect of my life situation and wanting to reinvent myself. I guess the bottom line is that some years are like that - and my nature photography was the saving grace that pulled me through and helped me to find beauty and inspiration to rise above the waves rather than be sucked under. When a year like that comes along, you've got to cull whatever grace, blessings, and wisdom you can from it and keep going.
"There are no tough times, hard knocks, or challenges that aren't laden with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds for those who see them through."  -Mike Dooley

The past year helped me to get my priorities straight. I am ready for deep transformation and for living a more authentic, congruent life. Life is short, and I simply don’t have the energy for anything else.

I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot this week. And that’s usually not a great sign because if you’re thinking about being happy, you’re probably not doing it. Too much thinking can be a real handicap on the spiritual path. It can be an addiction, a distraction.

It seems I’ve come to a fork in the road. One way points to Authenticity and Adventure and the other to Fear (which runs perilously close to the dense forest of Hopelessness). 



I know which road I want to take. But I think I am programmed to take the other through nearly half a century of conditioning – most of it well intentioned. Realizing this is really frustrating – and at times, downright painful. Because the former route is the way of Life, and the latter is the way of Death. Is there anything more regrettable than an unlived life – remaining closed in a bud rather than blooming and sharing your gift with the world as fully as possibly? 



My hair is a perfect metaphor for the ambivalence I’m struggling with. Although most of my hair is dark auburn, the roots are mostly silver. And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of putting poison on my head, and the last time I did it, it didn’t feel like “me.” I’m considering letting my hair go natural rather than mask who I really am. The way I see it, silver strands of wisdom are growing out of my head, and I’ve earned every single one of them.

So yes, I am ready. Ready for deep, voluntary transformation. For rewiring my neural circuitry. Not just talking about it or learning how to do it, but really doing it.

I have been obsessing for the past year over a situation in my life that I would like to change. With everything that has occurred in the past year, it’s difficult to sort out whether the situation is really as bad as it seems or if managing all the major events during the past year has been so overwhelming that I simply couldn’t cope with it as resourcefully as I might have been able to other years. I want to avoid making the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

One of the problems is that I can’t think of a compelling alternative to the present situation. That is because I have accumulated enough life experience to know that happiness does not depend on situations or conditions external to ourselves (i.e. "If I get/achieve this, I'll be happy.") I have had the good fortune of manifesting various situations and relationships my heart desired and have learned that enduring happiness doesn't come from those things/people. The interplay of all the external conditions in our lives is constantly shifting and changing like the image in a kaleidoscope. Although I haven’t had a great deal of material success so far in this lifetime,
I realize from knowing and reading autobiographies about people who have everything money can buy, that material success is not the Holy Grail of happiness. Happiness is an inner quality, an attunement and sense of well being - and when it is activated in you, the situations in your life are irrelevant.

I truly believe that, unless there are biochemical issues at play, happiness is a choice. If you’re not happy with a current situation, you have the choice to change it or to change your attitude toward it. You can make excuses for why you cannot do either, but the bottom line is that your happiness is at stake.

The buck stops here. I can no longer blame people or situations for my unhappiness or depend on them for my happiness. I simply can’t accept that anymore. The change from discontent to happiness must come from within. Period.

So I wonder which is better: To stay where I am and hope the situation becomes more palatable to my soul or to remove myself from the situation and hopefully find something more nourishing? Some people need to have the next step lined up in order to make a change, whereas others are more comfortable taking a leap of faith. As much as I’d like to be in the latter category, might there be some value – a certain depth – in remaining? Or is it a cop-out? I guess that depends on personality and intention; it is not black and white.

Perhaps there is another alternative: To stop thinking so much about it and simply be present. Show up each moment as authentic, mindful presence. Even if the outward situation seems artificial or restrictive, perhaps bringing my authentic self to it can somehow transform it into something better? Or perhaps it is at least worth a try? The gift of presence.

I have a role model for this. Back in the fall, I wrote about Lorenzo, who directed traffic through a local construction project. He spent the entire day - for weeks - spreading joy and kindness to everyone who drove by. It was incredible. I always felt that somebody needed to write or make a film about him because what he does is that inspired. And it turns out his story is going to be included in a forthcoming book about happiness! The author – who I follow on Facebook – put out a call for stories of people whose happiness is infectious and who inspire others to be happy. I thought immediately of Lorenzo and filled out the form to nominate him. He was contacted right away, and after his phone interviews got in touch with me via Facebook to thank me for nominating him. What happened next was pretty awesome. I let my Facebook community know that his story will be included in the book, and people started writing about how happy he made them when he directed traffic in our town, and sharing stories of what he said and did that made a difference in their day. What he did for each of us was both radical and simple at the same time: He noticed us. And he was kind. When we were driving in our cars. What more impersonal situation is there than that? And yet he found a way to be so present that he connected with everyone who drove by and made us feel seen and noticed. He made us feel that we mattered. Even in our cars as we were in between wherever we came from and wherever we were headed to. It certainly took me by surprise the first time I drove by him! Standing on the road all day directing traffic, he was able to be a channel of joy and blessings. He transformed what otherwise could be a boring, hot, repetitive job into a true vocation in the most spiritual sense. He was a point in which the Light came through – a beacon for us all. We were drawn to his energy and light, which he kindled within us, as well. I'd love to know how many lives were positively affected by this one man simply showing up for life and letting his light shine. Surely, ripples were set in motion!

If Lorenzo was able to do this standing in traffic, so can we. Each and every one of us. No excuses!

Why not just be happy now, DESPITE IT ALL? Believing that I will be happy if this or that were to change robs me of personal power. It places my happiness in the hands of others or fate, rendering me powerless. Really, it’s just an excuse. A commonplace and ordinary excuse. I’d rather live an exceptional life, like Lorenzo. Sometimes the best way to begin is by helping others, being kind to others, being of service.

Another way of putting it: Would you rather be happy when your clothes fit better or be happy now? Again, what’s at stake is your happiness! Our world is in desperate need of people who exemplify happiness and can model it to others. We Westerners are so good at beating ourselves up. 

I’ve heard a story about a couple visiting a town and thinking about moving there. An old man was sitting in the middle of town, and the couple asked him what the people are like in the town. He asked, “What are they like where you live?” and they answered that they’re horrible - unfriendly and dishonest. He replied, “It’s the same here.” Then another couple visited the town, and they, too, were thinking about moving there. They approached the man with the same question, and again he asked what the people are like where they live. The couple said they’re wonderful – so helpful and kind. And the old man replied, “It’s the same here.”

The point is, happiness is an inside job. It doesn’t depend on external factors. You can move, change jobs, change relationships, or change any other life situation, thinking that doing so will make you happy. And maybe it will for a brief time. But enduring happiness is a quality that can only be cultivated in your own mind and heart, no matter what circumstances show up in your life.

Why not start there?


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Summer Quest Continues: Ithaca

My husband and I just returned from a brief excursion to Ithaca, New York, which was the first place I wanted to go once the school year ended. I had intended to combine it with a trip to Letchworth State Park, but we didn't have enough time to fit that in. Perhaps that's a trip for when the fall foliage peaks in October.

I had two purposes in mind for the Ithaca trip. One was to visit some friends at the last minute, before they moved to Colorado. Another was to visit and photograph my favorite waterfalls as part of my summer quest for inspiration, peace, and rejuvenation. I love waterfalls - the wondrous sight of cascading water, the soothing sound that accompanies it, and the energizing, mood-enhancing negative ions they produce!

Ithaca Falls was first on the agenda. The Northeast experienced torrential downpours this week, and Ithaca Falls was raging with water! All the sitting spots by the stream had disappeared under water. It was difficult to take pictures because the spray was so intense and the foliage so luxuriant. However, the advantage was that since nobody was swimming or going too close, I didn't need to wait for people to move out of my camera frame. The energy coming off the falls was powerful, and the roar was thunderous!


Normally, it's difficult when someone accompanies me on my notoriously lengthy waterfall photography shoots. However, it worked out perfectly this time because my husband has a newly discovered passion: rock balancing. So while I photographed the falls, he stationed himself nearby and balanced rocks.


Shooting from the distance was much gentler on my gear, although much of the view was blocked by trees that seem to have branched out significantly in recent years!


Next, we moved on to Buttermilk Falls State Park for a brief stop. Visitors were not allowed to have contact with the water because it was contaminated with E. coli apparently due to farm runoff from all the rain. And since nobody was swimming, once again photo composition wasn't as complicated as usual.


And once again, my husband occupied himself by balancing rocks.


Next, we went to Taughannock Falls State Park just northwest of Ithaca in Ulysses, New York. My friend who is moving to Colorado loves Taughannock. We have gone there together many times with our children, and I decided to give her a photo of Taughannock Falls as a housewarming gift. First we stopped at the overlook on the rim of the 400-foot deep gorge, which offers a stunning view of the 215-foot cataract for which the park is named. Taller than Niagara Falls, Taughannock Falls is reputed to be the highest vertical, single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains.


One thing I love about the above photo - and didn't realize when I captured the image - is that the cliff walls and trees form a heart with the waterfall running down the center!

Then we drove to the main parking area of the park and walked the 3/4 mile trail to see the waterfall up close. Last year when my friend and I walked to the falls, we arrived to find it bone dry. Not even a trickle of water came down! It was a different story this year!


No rock balancing here! My husband sat patiently on the walking bridge and took in the spectacular energy of the place. You can almost feel the negative ions in the air as the water plunges down and pounds the ground, creating a constant, swirling mist at the bottom of the natural amphitheater.

Below is a video I made of Taughannock Falls. Make sure to watch it in HD!


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The next day, we went to my favorite gorge in Ithaca: Cascadilla Gorge. It runs from Cornell Law School to downtown Ithaca - a 400-foot drop of cascading falls. However, it's been years since I've hiked the entire trail because the upper section has been closed for restoration and repair. I remember the day I discovered Cascadilla Gorge. It was Memorial Day weekend of 1989, and I set out on a full day of solitude in nature. I happened upon the gorge when I was downtown, and as I hiked up the winding trail, I was blown away by the beauty of it all. It was as if I'd stumbled upon heaven on Earth. Each successive waterfall was more impressive than the last and the trail culminated in a glorious falls up at the top. Here is the last photo I was able to get of the topmost falls, six years ago:


For this trip, I had to be content with the bottom third or so of the trail. 


I set up by one of the lower falls...


...while my husband balanced rocks close by. Passersby stopped, gazed and remarked in amazement, and took pictures of his performance art - although he didn't notice because he was so focused on rock energy.


The steady, falling water was like a deep massage of sound. Cool, shaded areas of the gorge provided relief from the Fourth of July heatwave.


Here is a video from my afternoon in Cascadilla Gorge, meant to be viewed in HD:

 
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Shortly after leaving Cascadilla Gorge, my husband and I both hit a wall so to speak and were "Ithaca done." We had wanted an extra day in Ithaca, but the weather earlier in the week postponed and shortened our trip. It was time to get into the car and drive home through several Central New York small towns on Independence Day en route to the highway, with images of scenic gorges in our minds and echos of falling water soothing our spirits.

However, I'm already itching to return...

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.