Saturday, October 26, 2013

These Ithakas

I'm sitting with my laptop with tears streaming down my face...because I get it. I understand C.P. Cavafy's amazing poem, "Ithaka," on a new level now. It's been one of my favorite poems since I heard it during a Cornell University commencement address in Ithaca, New York in my twenties. I printed out the poem and displayed it on the refrigerator, or framed on a wall, for years back when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.

You can read the full poem here: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74 . Please do!

Yesterday, I was walking along the riverside and was drawn to the way the sunlight illuminated fallen leaves, making them look like glowing embers.



I picked up an oak leaf and had an idea. I held it to the sun and was delighted to the core by the photographic effect I achieved. It was a simple effect but a very satisfying one that began spontaneously when a sense of awe was ignited by a creative spark.


All of a sudden, I realized I was holding a tiny magic wand in my hand. And that's when the delight giggled in!

I continued on my walk looking at the world around me through a lens of appreciation and joy. I was completely in my element, exhausted from a long week at work but invigorated by being immersed in what I love.


As I admired some fall foliage on the trail, a line from the "Ithaka" poem sailed into my mind: "not expecting Ithaka to make you rich."* At this point in my life, I am not looking to anything or anyone to make me happy. I've been there, done that. I've been married twice and have raised two children who are now teenagers - one of whom has graduated from high school and is living on her own. I worked really hard to decide on a career direction once my youngest started school, and jumped through all the hoops (which were numerous and expensive) to earn the credentials needed for my chosen career path. After what felt like a mythic Quest, I landed a teaching job at my preferred grade level. And I was happy - immensely happy - for two or three years.

But the thing is, you really can't look to a life situation to make you happy. Not a relationship. Not a job. Not material possessions. Not anything else. Because everything in this world changes, and happiness and fulfillment are ultimately an inside job - a way of relating to the world, a manner of traveling. Toward the end of the poem, Cavafy explained:

"Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out."
*Source: C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Relationships and career may awaken something extraordinary in you and set you on your path, but they are not the destination. Rather than thinking, "I will be happy when..." (I get married, buy a house, have a baby, land my dream job, retire, etc.), it's about tuning your mind to the channel of love and joy and engaging with that "rare excitement" that lights you up.

At this point in my life, I understand the last lines of the "Ithaka" poem in a new way:

"And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, 
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean."*

Yes, I think I finally understand what these Ithakas mean. Don't build your house on the shifting sands of the world. Build it in your heart, and carry it with you always. Let it lead you to new harbors when the time is right.

In my experience, a worthwhile life is one spent doing what you love - that which fills you with joy and meaning. And that might change. Whatever my job or career is, I feel that my true work is to love, to inspire, to be inspired, to create, to listen, to have a grateful heart. Those things have become more important than any particular life situation. As I become older and hopefully wiser, I find myself gravitating toward these things. The details don't matter so much. I just want to keep alive the creative spark - the "rare excitement" - and live an inspired life.

I am never happier than when I am engaged in the creative process, and I set my sails each day to follow the winds of creativity. If it's not in one place - and a place can be either physical/geographical or mental/emotional - I will find it in another and spend my time there. In that place, I feel truly alive and know exactly what to do.

In that place, I realize that life is short and that if you wait for all the lights to turn green before starting out, you'll never leave the house. It's one thing to have a map and know where you want to go, but it's another to actually get in the car or on the bike - or even in the moving van - and get started. For example, my husband and I joined an online international rock balancing community a while ago. Every day, we are inspired by photos posted by group members. A couple weeks ago, Jack decided to start posting his own pictures on the group's page. Why wait? And then someone liked his work and invited him to join another artists group. That is how it happens. You show up and share your talents, and then people are drawn to your energy and perhaps inspired by your courage, and they help you along the way. We help one another.

That is how the magic seems to happen. If you're looking to an "Ithaka" to make you financially rich, there's more involved, but if you're looking to be happy and to live a fulfilled life, you've got to follow that spark and spend more time doing what you love.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 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 Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

First Frost and Falling Leaves

We had our first hard frost last night. Our herb, tomato, and pepper plants are tucked under blankets for the second night in a row. Earlier this evening, when I snipped some sage for tonight's savory polenta, the scent of spearmint poured out from under the covers. The sweet smell of summer seemed rather out of place this chilly evening, but I was grateful to still be able to smell its lingering fragrance.

The leaves are falling from the trees, and there are probably more leaves on the ground now than remain clinging to the branches. Usually the last week of October brings a cool gust of wind that forces the rest to the ground. So the colors this week are cherished. The ground is covered with curled, dry, faded leaves that crunch underfoot, and we are keenly aware that autumn's remaining colors won't last. The patches of color in the landscape shrink and become more mature and muted each day. Therefore, experiencing what remains of the autumn colors has been the most important thing of all lately; I've immersed myself in the brilliance every day by taking walks along the river, going to parks, and visiting my favorite riverside cemetery.


Being in the cemetery reminded me:


One afternoon this week, after an abrupt change in plans, I ended up walking along a river trail as the sun began to set. Normally, I wouldn't have been there at that particular time of day. But I'm so glad I was because the colors were magnificent.




Some trees were already mostly bare. Silhouetted against the sunset, they were graceful sculptures previewing winter's potential.


Another afternoon, I took a detour en route to an appointment and walked through Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs.




And then there were the trips to Saratoga Spa State Park to collect drinking water.

 


What a beautiful world we inhabit in October! I am as intent on gathering images as the squirrels are on gathering acorns.

As the temperature drops and the colors of autumn begin to fade, we turn our attention to sunrises and sunsets, knowing that's where we will find color during the next five months.

Another day begins with whispers of rose and lavender, low tangerine glow, eyes that see it, and a heart that fills with the colors of a new day. Tuesday was overcast, but the sunrise colors glowed nonetheless.


Yesterday while driving to work, I marveled at a cloud that was half painted with rainbow. It was only the cloud - not the sky - and it was so awesome (and yet subtle) that I wished I'd left a few minutes earlier so I could pull over and capture it. But it's a memory in my heart and reminds me to keep my eyes open and pay attention.

For the magic moment can arise at any time, and every day is a treasure hunt.

Each morning, I wake up and wonder what I will find today.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 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 Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gravity and Illumination

This afternoon, I went to see the movie, Gravity (in 3D), with my son, on the opening day of the new Bow-Tie Criterion Cinemas in town. What a spiritual experience! The movie is a meditation on the theme of letting go as each of the two characters, adrift in outer space following a disaster, come to terms with their mortality in their own ways. I'm not going to give any spoilers regarding the outcome. The characters' reactions to their situation is what I found compelling. One of them seemed to have lived a full-bodied life with lots of colorful stories to tell and was able to embrace the likelihood of imminent death much more readily than the other character, whose existence had become like death-with-a-pulse following a traumatic experience that shook her world to the core.

I found both characters' processes so beautiful. Adrift and untethered in space, one was in awe of the way the sunlight was shining on the Ganges. This brought to mind the Zen story of the wild strawberry, in which a man was being chased by a tiger and ended up at the edge of a tall cliff. He grabbed onto a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. As he dangled, clinging to the vine, he became aware of a couple mice gnawing at the vine. Realizing it wouldn't be long before he plunged to the ground, he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the side of the cliff. He reached out, picked the strawberry, and savored the sweetest, most delicious strawberry he had ever tasted.

It's all about entering the fullness of the present moment despite outer circumstances. Every moment is an opportunity to awaken.

For the other character, the sounds of a dog barking and a lullaby being sung to a baby awakened her and provided solace and healing as she entered the realization that this would be the day she would die. Her spiritual journey brought to mind a line from a Janis Joplin song: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." When you come to terms with death or otherwise choose to face your fears, fear loses its hold on you. When you have nothing left to lose, you can let go and enjoy the ride. And that's when you stop resisting the present moment and begin to truly inhabit it. You move on, letting go of whatever is holding you back. You begin to truly live.

After the movie, I dropped my son off for his next engagement and drove home alone. As I drove through town, the rising moon appeared enormous against the landscape of trees and streetlights. It was an astonishing sight. I drove along looking for a place to pull over and photograph it before the effect was lost. I ended up going into the woods, where the huge moon floated just above the treetops (and looked much more incredible than I was able to capture on camera).


Continuing home, I thought about how photography is such a huge part of my spiritual journey now. It has opened me up to the awe and beauty all around and transcends all else. Finding beauty in the natural world - and photographing it so I can share it with others - has become my reason for getting up in the morning.

And that changes everything.

I know a few college students who seem to be on a similar path and began thinking about how I'd have done so many things differently if only I knew back then what I know now - if only I had this interest and depth of awareness earlier in life. But then it occurred to me that I couldn't have had that awareness back then because I was who I was at every step of the way, and the only way to have that kind of awareness would be to have been someone different, or to be me at a later stage in life. Plain and simply: Earlier in life, I was not who I am now; I was exactly who I was supposed to be at that age. Does that make any sense? That is one of two realizations during the past week that literally made my hair stand on end. It is one heck of a liberating realization because it causes you to let go of all regrets. It seems we need to honor who we were at every step of the way - the "full catastrophe" (to borrow from Jon Kabat-Zinn) because each step was part of a journey that led to this very moment. This moment when I am more awake and enlightened in certain ways. And I can carry this awareness with me going forward, as a torch that lights the way, illuminating paths and possibilities that until now remained in darkness. When the time is right, the light will become brighter still.

There is nothing to regret!

Spiritual insights seem to be a lot like scenes in nature. Even the slightest change - in the angle at which sunlight shines upon it, the time of day, the angle from which it is viewed, the amount of light, the weather conditions, your energy level and state of consciousness - and it doesn't make as much of an impact; it doesn't grab you and stop you in your tracks. But if you're in the right place at the right time, in the right frame of mind - BAM!


Intention, awareness, effort, and timing all come together, and you find yourself swimming in the depths of something that seems so simple and obvious to the logical mind. But there's so much more to it than the logical mind can comprehend. You awaken to a reality that embraces paradoxes.

The insights I have had this week might not impress others the way they did me. And they might not have affected me the same way if I had come upon them at another time. Similarly, my impressions of Gravity might be greatly at odds with the impressions and interpretations of others. Any good story offers myriad levels of interpretation. You can watch a movie or read a book again and get something completely different from it, just as the entire ambiance of a scene in nature will reveal different qualities the next time you come upon it.


Every moment, circumstance, interaction, etc. is an opportunity for new understanding. And so we carry on, a little wiser than we were before and not yet as wise as we will become...

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rediscovering Buttermilk Falls

Yesterday, I wrote about our trip to Letchworth State Park to experience spectacular waterfalls and geography. In today's post, the journey (in celebration of our wedding anniversary) continues in Ithaca.

From Letchworth, we drove to Ithaca, New York and arrived during a stunning sunset with plans for more waterfalling the next day. I went to college in Ithaca, lived there for several years afterward, and spent most of my free time becoming acquainted with the many breathtaking gorges that inspired the bumper sticker, "Ithaca is Gorges." Ithaca is where I discovered my connection with nature and will always be my second home.

We woke up in the morning to warmish weather and a mostly overcast sky, which is ideal for outdoor photography. We just had to decide which gorge to hike through. I think of Ithaca Falls as my best friend, as far as waterfalls go. But it's only a short walk to get to the falls, and once you're there, there's no place else to go. The best time to photograph it is in the afternoon, so I thought I'd stop by before leaving town. Cascadilla Gorge is another in-town favorite, but the upper section has been closed for years for restoration and repair. We went to the legendary Taughannock Falls over the summer, and it's a bit of a drive to get there. I wasn't in a Taughannock mood. Back in my twenties, the trails at Robert H. Treman State Park were my favorite to hike for exercise and scenery. However, when my son and I went there in late August, the spectacular upper section was closed due to damage from rains earlier in the summer. I didn't want to risk driving there only to find it still closed.

And then there's Buttermilk Falls State Park.

It had been close to 25 years since I'd hiked the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk, but I remembered it being both beautiful and a good workout, so I decided to introduce Jack to it. We spent quite a bit of time at the foot of the falls right next to the park entrance. Jack spotted some rocks in the stream below the falls and got to work immediately. I did my thing while he did his.


Meanwhile, I heard passersby commenting and taking pictures of him balancing rocks, which made me smile. One man, who had a nice camera, walked by and suggested that I turn around and photograph the man balancing the rocks in the stream. I told him that man is my husband, and that's what he does while waiting for me to take pictures. It's such a win-win. We are both in our element developing our talents at the same time, and I don't feel rushed or worry about him getting bored.


Eventually, we decided to move on and start hiking. The entire Gorge Trail runs alongside Buttermilk Creek, with numerous waterfalls along the way, beginning with this one (below) that greets you once you have climbed the first (of many) rustic set of steps.


This is where we met up with a retired couple. Much like us, the woman was a nature and wildlife photography enthusiast, and the man had grown accustomed to waiting patiently. We listened to them recount stories of beautiful places and wildlife photography adventures and engaged in other inspiring conversations with retired folks we met along the trails both at Buttermilk and the previous day at Letchworth State Park. Those waterside conversations with elders provided a sense of perspective that's difficult to extract from the confines of daily life - and some food for thought about how we self-impose many such confines, forgetting how much choice we ultimately have.

The trail continued, going up one flight of stairs after another.


A waterside trail is what I had hoped to experience the previous day at Letchworth. It was what I craved. At Buttermilk, we were close enough to touch the water if we chose to do so. The sound, scenery, and energy of the water was at the same time soothing and rejuvenating.


As Jack commented (more than once) that Buttermilk Falls was his new favorite of all the Ithaca area gorge trails, I kept wondering why it had taken me so long to rediscover it. I guess it all comes down to time and priorities, which are different when you are raising children and when you leave a place and only return for brief visits. Priorities shift.


And they also can shift back.


I always have been drawn to waterfalls and have sought out local waterfalls everywhere I've lived. And I have yet to encounter a waterfall more satisfying than those I have experienced in Ithaca. Some (like Niagara Falls) may be more immense, but that's not what I'm talking about. The waterfalls that appeal most to me are ones that invite me to sit down next to them and write or meditate in a quiet spot.


Even though I spend a lot of time photographing waterfalls now, I still can sense the grace of an invitation. When I use the timer on my camera, I close my eyes and breathe it all in.


A kindred spirit had been here before us and left an Andrew Goldsworthy inspired footprint.


 An increase in sunlight was the telltale sign that we were approaching the top of the gorge.


And that was good because Jack, who was recovering slowly from a nasty cold, wasn't feeling well. But he remained patient as I stopped repeatedly to set up my tripod. Although he wasn't balancing rocks, he was taking in the healing atmosphere of the gorge.


Eventually, we came out on top and then crossed over to the other side of the gorge to hike the Rim Trail back down to the parking lot. In all, it was a 1.7 mile hike.


We stopped frequently to admire beautiful fallen leaves and didn't run into a soul on the Rim Trail. By the time we got back to our car, more than three hours had passed, and it was time to head back home.

I didn't stop to say hi to Ithaca Falls or to any human friends, although they were in my heart the whole time. Jack wasn't feeling well, and I tend to visit friends when my teenagers are with me. However, hiking the Buttermilk trails made me realize how swiftly time passes. You have to make time for who and what you love, or before you know it, you'll find yourself wondering how it could be that you let 5, 10, 20, or more years pass between visits. Waterfalls don't change much over time, but people do. There are so many people I used to know in Ithaca who either moved away or who I gravitated away from when the parenting chapter of my life began, and all my social interactions revolved around the children. Through our children, I became friends with some people I probably never would have known otherwise, and I am grateful for those friendships. We've traveled through an important chapter of life together, and I'm sure all of us are equally astonished by how quickly the time has passed. Now that our children have grown and many of them are in college, it requires more effort to maintain those connections in person since they are no longer the default setting for visits.

Which means I simply will have to make more frequent trips to Ithaca...

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Waterfalling at Letchworth State Park

Well, I did it! I can cross an item off my bucket list. My husband and I took a trip to Letchworth State Park a few days ago. I used my two personal days for the year, and it was completely worth it! We had the most perfect autumn days imaginable for our trip, and since we went in the middle of the week, it was pretty much just retired folk and us marveling at the spectacular scenery. And that is exactly why we decided to go during the week in the first place (along with the fact that my husband has a gig at a local farm every weekend during October).

Letchworth State Park is located near Rochester, New York and is touted as "The Grand Canyon of the East." I have been drooling over waterfall photos from Letchworth for decades and simply had to experience it for myself. And my basic philosophy these days is that there's no time like the present.

Make it happen.

Approximately 17 miles long, the park is located on 14,350 acres and boasts 66 miles of hiking trails. The south end of the park is where most of the activity is, including the three major waterfalls: Lower, Middle, and Upper Falls. We stopped first at a trail that led to the thunderous Lower Falls.


Then we got back in the car and made our way to a trail that went past Middle Falls and toward Upper Falls. Here is the view overlooking Middle Falls:


My favorite view of Middle Falls was at the top, where both the falling water and a rainbow poured into the gorge below. The colors were spectacular, especially at this time of year!


Here's a view of just the "rainbow falls."


Upper Falls was the next view that came into sight. There is a railroad trestle above the falls, and minutes before I took this picture, I saw a train pass over it.


The energy here was incredible! Lots of negative ions as the falling water pounded the ground, creating an immense, tall cloud of mist. It was a stunning sight, but the way it felt was perhaps even more extraordinary than the way it looked!

Here is a different image of the same waterfall, taken with a longer exposure. I love how the water looks like white light.


Recalling all the gorgeous images I've seen of the waterfalls in this park over the years, I was certain there was more than these three waterfalls - and that we just didn't know how to find them. However, when I did a Google images search later, I realized that every image I fell in love with - and that planted such a longing in me to go there myself - was essentially of the same three falls.

We were surprised we weren't able to get closer to the falls by walking on a trail down below. Having spent so much time walking through the gorges of Ithaca, I was accustomed to a more up close and intimate view of waterfalls. However, the sheer magnitude of it all is what is most compelling about Letchworth State Park. It truly is like a Grand Canyon, with the Genesee River roaring through.

Below is the view of the Middle and Upper Falls from Inspiration Point. You can get a sense for how high the mist extended from the Upper Falls.


It was so gratifying to finally go to the place I'd always dreamed about. After leaving the park, we drove to Ithaca for more waterfalling the next day. (I will write about that in my next post!) We had considered taking a route that would bring us past Watkins Glen State Park, which is also legendary for its waterfalls. However, we missed the turn, and it was getting late, anyway. Watkins Glen is close to Ithaca, and I remember driving by it on the way to my midwife appointments 20 years ago. However, I've never been there.

Needless to say, a new item has been added to my bucket list. I've penciled it in my planner for next fall - although I would have been up for another trip this weekend if my husband didn't have to work! (But it would be really crowded on the holiday weekend, anyway, right?)

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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, October 7, 2013

A Trail through the Autumn Woods

The fall foliage in my neck of the woods is at peak now, and over the weekend I took a long afternoon walk along a trail I hadn't been on in about 12 years. It was an overcast day with occasional, light drizzle, and perhaps that's why the only people I ran into during the course of more than two hours were a small group of college students, a man walking his dog, and another man jogging. Other than that, it was just the trees and me.


I didn't intend to walk for long because it was just a stop en route to the grocery store, and I was wearing shoes that weren't ideal for the terrain. However, after walking at a slow, reverent pace for a quarter mile, I returned to the car to change into my sneakers and retrieve my tripod.

After that, I retraced my steps and kept going all the way to the end of the trail. Mostly I walked with gratitude and awe. But every now and then, I caught my thoughts wandering and realized I was beginning to take the magnificent scenery for granted.


Then I thought about my friend, David, who died this past February. The last time I saw him was last October, on Columbus Day. I wondered if he knew last fall that it would be the last time he'd see autumn's dazzling display. He must have known; I'm sure he did. Did he appreciate it more fully than ever before, to the point of ecstasy and tears? The drive from his house to ours was nearly an hour long. It was a beautiful fall day, and I imagined he must have enjoyed the colorful foliage the whole way. I remember how full of joy he was that day, marveling about the clouds as we walked out to his car to say goodbye for what would be the last time.

And then, as I walked along the trail, I heard a male voice in my head narrating:

If you knew for sure 
This would be the last autumn of your life,
Would you pay more attention?
Could you bear to take for granted the ground underfoot
Or any single sight sound smell along the way?


Well, can any of us know for sure that we will still be here a year from now? I certainly intend and hope to be, but you never know.

As I continued walking, all of the sights, sounds, and scents became more vivid and extraordinary. I stopped often to smile at and even thank out loud a tiny babbling brook, a leaf waving from a branch, a fallen leaf that caught my eye, and even bright red poison ivy wrapped around the base of a tree.


It was all so astonishingly beautiful. And I was so privileged to be there in the midst of it, in complete solitude, taking it in so fully.


I felt like Frederick, the field mouse in Leo Lionni's picture book of the same name. While the other field mice were busy gathering provisions for winter, Frederick sat contemplatively and gathered sun rays, colors, and words. The other mice were irritated with him for his apparent laziness; however, when their food supply dwindled that winter, they were nourished and warmed by the poetry he gathered during the colorful autumn days.

I love that story. There is great value in taking time to pause and savor the fleeting majesty of the natural world.


As I kept walking, I began thinking that nothing could improve this moment. And nothing could be more important than drinking in All This.


I began thinking about other important things that I need to do during this life - things I would regret not having made time for when all is said and done. The first thing that came to mind was visiting Letchworth State Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the East) in western New York, which has been on my bucket list for more than 20 years. We had planned to go there over the summer, but our calendar filled up, and my husband suggested that we save the trip for fall. What a great idea! So we are going to take a couple days to do just that. There is no time like the present - for the present is the only moment we are guaranteed!

As I contemplate the passage of time, I realize that we must make time to do the things our soul nudges us to do. We must make time for what brings us true nourishment and joy.

After more than two hours of walking in the woods, I captured nearly 300 images, which I later narrowed down to 38 keepers (which is what I do for fun).

These trees looked just like a watercolor painting!

I never did make it to the grocery store. The journey through the woods ended up being the destination. And I can think of no better way to have spent the afternoon!


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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Teaching Compassion

I just learned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be at Emory University this week for talks, teachings, and discussions that will be webcasted live and presumably available to view afterwards, as well. My family and I went to hear him speak at Cornell University in October 2007, and last October I watched webcasts of his speaking engagements throughout New England and Virginia. It was a really uplifting week, and I look forward to more of the same this week!

October is a great time to be inspired by the Dalai Lama. One of his favorite topics is educating the heart, or "secular ethics in education." Now that the school year is well underway and the idealism I dusted off over the summer has been shattered by the rigorous realities of the Common Core and more new curricula, it's time to work with the pieces that are in front of me on the table and try to make the best of them. Their sharp, jagged edges pierce my heart and soul, but I remain hopeful that they will become smoother in time. How exactly that will happen, I don't know, but they simply must. Right now, I need some inspiration, big-time.

I always appreciate hearing what the Dalai Lama has to say about education. It reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. Sometimes I imagine myself asking him how I can reconcile what I know in my heart to be right and true with the way things are in public education now. His answer (in my mind) always conveys hope.

There has got to be something you can do right now to be part of a solution.

But first, I will provide a little context for my question.

For a couple years, I attempted to implement the Hawn Foundation's (as in Goldie Hawn) MindUP Curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. It was a personal initiative; nobody else in my school was doing it, but it touched on virtually everything I felt was most important in social-emotional learning and supported my belief that educating the heart must go hand in hand with educating the mind. In a nutshell, the curriculum focuses on improving concentration, reducing stress and anxiety, managing emotions and interpersonal conflicts, choosing optimism and kindness, and developing empathy and resilience. It's a really beautiful, well researched curriculum. I tried in earnest to implement it until this year. This year, I abandoned it (sadly) because I realize I do not have the resources or time to do it justice. But while still struggling with how to fit social-emotional learning into the curriculum, I was inspired by a panel discussion on "Educating the Heart and Mind" from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. This was a nearly hour-long discussion between Eckhart Tolle, Sir Ken Robinson, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink from the Blue Man Group, Dan Siegel, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and H.H. the Dalai Lama, moderated by Matthieu Ricard.



During the course of the panel discussion (at the 38:00 mark), Matt Goldman offered:
"Creativity has to be sewn into every single part of the educational process. Social and emotional learning - not a separate subject but part of everything - so that the skills of empathy, the skills of compassion - are all sewn into your literacy and your math and your social studies as strongly as anything."

This became my new approach: Weave social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum rather than try to fit it into its own block.

But now we have a new obstacle. Teachers all across the state and country are being given new curricula. Tightly scripted curricula. And the curriculum packages seem to be constantly changing as more and "better" options become available from year to year. Even if we are given permission to adapt lessons to some extent, it is very time-consuming to learn a new curriculum. Adapting it takes even more time. After a couple years of implementation, it becomes easier to insert some degree of creativity and personal style into a curriculum. But not the first time around. The first time around, you learn it as you go along and just try to keep your head above water.

So it is within this context that, in my mind, I ask the Dalai Lama how to proceed. Here is the answer that came to me:

The least we can do despite it all - even if there is no time for anything else in the school day and the children won't get it from the tight, mandated curriculum - is to model kindness and compassion. Every encounter and interaction with students or any other members of the school community is an opportunity to do just that. We can give the gift of compassionate listening and communicating - or a warm smile - to one another.

People handle stress differently, and some handle it better than others. Sometimes we reach our breaking point - the straw that broke the camel's back - when yet another responsibility or demand is added to our already overflowing plate. And under all that pressure, sometimes we forget to smile and to be kind. To listen. To remember that we are all in this together. Sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes others need to vent to us. And if it comes out looking like anger, remember that it is rarely, if ever, personal. None of us made up these new rules. Everyone is doing his or her best to stay afloat, especially when everything we do is being evaluated and we are all under the microscope - when all we wanted in the first place was to make a positive difference in children's lives.

It doesn't take long to help someone who is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm. You don't need to go immediately into problem-solving or avoid them because you don't know how to help. Sometimes all people need to bring them back to a state of balance is to know that their feelings are being heard and that someone cares. Even if you can't solve the problem right then and there, just pausing within an energy field of presence to reflect sincerely and compassionately, "Wow, you're feeling really overwhelmed," and "I'm so sorry," can go a long way. When I feel stressed out and share my feelings with a particular colleague, she often asks (with eye contact and presence), "What can I do to help?" Even if I don't have an answer to that question, I feel that my feelings are being acknowledged, and that makes a difference.

Oftentimes when a student is having a conflict or is telling me a story about something that happened at home, reflecting his or her feelings simply and sincerely - for instance, with a "You must have felt so..." sentence and an appropriate facial expression - is all s/he needs to carry on. The true communication is often much more about feelings than content, and it only takes a couple seconds for a child (or colleague, for that matter) to feel heard and cared for. And that builds relationship. As I have written before, teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between the teacher and the student. That relationship is the vehicle through which education occurs.

We need to remember to listen. It is such a gift! At the most basic level, that means not interrupting.

We need to remember to smile. Not because everything is wonderful and right in our school, but because smiling - despite it all - is an act of kindness and compassion. It also feels good to smile.

Small gestures of kindness and creating an energy field of presence go a long way in improving the atmosphere of a school. Little eyes are always watching, even when we don't think they are. And little ears are always listening. Children learn so much from who the teacher is and how s/he acts. During a retreat at Omega Institute in June 2012, Eckhart Tolle asserted, "The child observes the parents' [teacher's] behavior and absorbs that, and also absorbs their state of consciousness. The child models your state of consciousness so that if you embody presence, then something of that will be absorbed by the child." That is the unwritten curriculum. And that is the part over which we have some control.

So that is where I will start. Yes, a compassionate curriculum would be even better. But embodying a curriculum of compassion and awareness, to the best of my abilities, is how I will go about educating the heart right now, without waiting for anything else to change.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

October Exclaims: "Be Here Now!"

"Life is a banquet. And the tragedy is that most people are starving to death."  -Anthony DeMello

Does it feel to you as if we are living in an age of insanity? Insanity in our world, in our government, in our workplaces, in our educational system, and even in our homes...

I have decided not to spend any more time than necessary in places of insanity, for there is much more inspiring and awesome scenery available, and the reality is that we can help ourselves to it. We have a choice. Yes, we even have a choice in dire circumstances to some extent - although that may be considered "advanced practice." But, in my opinion, it's worth building those muscles.

In other words: Be HERE now, not "there" - unless "there" is someplace really awesome that involves palm trees, turquoise water, and a gorgeous sunset (and no bugs!) or whatever stirs your soul, for that will have a calming effect on your body-mind. But if "there" is a painful place to be, then you simply have to train your mind to be HERE - because being "there" is no good for you. It robs the present moment of peace and joy. And really, every moment is precious.

As a player in the human drama, there are elements of my life situation that are definitely insane, and the way I deal with the insanity is to refrain from lingering on the "what's wrong" channel. By this, I don't mean resisting or denying circumstances, but I do my best not to indulge feelings of deprivation and indignation. (It's one thing to "be" with the feelings and take action; it's another to imprison oneself in such mental states.) Although I certainly have my fair share of "stuck" moments and still tune in to that channel out of habit, my tried and true solution is to grab my camera pack and head outdoors to search for beauty. It has become a driving passion.


It feels like a deep, soul need to connect with something AWEsome that expands my separate, limited sense of self and reminds me that I'm more than this or that unsatisfying situation. The more insanity in the world, the more necessary it is to connect with beauty. I read somewhere recently that beauty, love, and God are synonymous. That's how it feels when I connect with the abundant, elevating goodness of the world. That connection facilitates a more peaceful, centered mind that can deal more effectively with disharmony and situations that require attention. It can change the course of a day. In fact, I have begun recording the day's magic moment(s) in my daily planner - for they are important events.


My husband commented to me tonight that my photographs are like a drug. Instead of smoking or drinking intoxicants, I inhale the images I captured during the "magic moments" of the day - thus experiencing them all over again. It's incredible how really entering into an image can bring you back into that numinous space. My breathing slows down, I feel more at peace, and I experience a sense of expansion - not in an egoic sense but in the sense of interbeing with life energy. Sharing my photos (and words) online has given new meaning to my life because it is my hope that others can sense the transcendent energy that I experienced in the moment when capturing the shared images - and open the doors to that dimension.

I know through my own experience that this is possible and give thanks every day for the technology that allows such sharing. This week, for example, my spirit was stirred by an image captured by one of my Facebook contacts. The colors were so vivid and the scene so stunning, and I kept revisiting it in my mind throughout the day. The image - experienced in person by another and then shared - improved the quality of my day. The energy came through. Even if I did not experience it myself, other people's images might bring back the feeling memory of having dwelt in a similar scene at some point in time. Just knowing or remembering that colors like that exist does something to me. We can be of service by reminding one another of the beauty and goodness that exist in this world despite the news headlines.

In my own little corner of the world, the fall foliage has become breathtaking this week as we approach peak. Fall, more than any other time of year, exclaims, "Be here now!"


October is the most visually spectacular month of all when sunlight turns leaf canopies into stained glass masterpieces featuring crimson, orange, gold, and green, and the misty mornings begin like an Ansel Adams landscape until the fog lifts, revealing blazing color.


One day after work, I went off in search of painted turtles sunning themselves on logs. I had run into a couple of high school students on a trail the day before, and they told me about the turtles. However, I didn't see any, and the subject that day ended up being milkweed.


But really, it's always beauty. Or you could call it love. All of its unique expressions are just variations of a theme.


And, of course, the spider web fascination continues.  (After all, it is October, the month of Halloween!)


The above picture of a riverside spider web spoke to me:

Said one bead of dew to another:
Remember 
When we were a river
Flowing toward the ocean?

That led to a strong urge to sit still and watch the beads of dew evaporate into the air and disappear. Something about that transition from water to vapor was calling to me. But there were other possibilities and responsibilities competing for my attention that morning, so I did a Google search and, sure enough, found a time-lapse video of water droplets evaporating from a spider web. Watching the video satisfied a longing, and I felt gratitude toward the person who took the time to photograph and share it.

  
Email subscribers: Click HERE to view video.

Now I'm off to do more leaf-peeping because it seems today is a peak foliage day, and being surrounded by the stunning colors of autumn is my top priority in this moment full of possibilities.

And of course I will share what I find!

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © 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.