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“There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Meet the BRCA1 gene in her 1950’s, chartreuse housedress. She adjusts her eye glasses on either side, like a prim librarian. She seems smug and maybe a little intrusive as she moves through my social media feed, intent on reprimanding any loud or loitering patrons. She might, very well, find a few of those among my friends. The BRC2 character seems more jovial, dressed in sky blue and pictured only from the waist-up—as if her expressive face holds more weight than the rest of her. She wears a striped tie around her neck, a seeming flight attendant directing attention to the card tucked in the seat in front of you.  

It’s hard to know whether it was my spinning head or the idea of someone personifying cancer genes (as advertising strategy) that creates my aversion toward all things technological. Lying in my bed, wrapped in sweaty sheets—the summer sun streaming in—I imagine a time when the ubiquity of smart-phones and all that accompany them becomes obsolete. 

Across the globe, as if choreographed in a dance, all of humanity will raise their heads in unison. Billions of hearts will swell at the depth and breadth of what has been missed. An expanse of electromagnetic energy will fall away and sink down into the earth where we are free of it, even as our breath recovers its rhythm with the rise and fall of the tides. 

I lay my head down on the reclaimed-wood, dining room table.

A decade ago, when we discovered this handcrafted piece was created from the remains of an old boathouse from our new town, we made what felt like an exorbitant purchase. The sales woman reached her hand into her pocket and threw a set of keys on the table top to demonstrate its ability to withstand scratching. This seemingly decorative piece has been the epicenter of our home ever since. We’ve shared countless pots of soup here and wrestled with weighty decisions well into the night. I’ve begged my children to use their manners between these four, sturdy legs. We’ve expressed gratitude before eating, all while Jonah and Adrian sneak spaghetti noodles, their heads tossed back, grinning like Cheshire cats. For one long stretch, Adrian seemed capable only of sitting on top of the table instead of on the bench that accompanies it. We’ve shared this table with games and crafts and puzzles that have at times come very close to inching us out completely.

My friend leaves me there and rushes home. I imagine her driving along steep and winding roads at a fast clip, intent on relieving my suffering. She returns with a tall, orange container filled with pills wrapped in silver packaging. I separate a couple capsules at the perforated edges and think about how despite our shared place in the same ditch, here she is shoveling me out. Later, the on-call doctor encourages me to take her medicine, and I marvel at the malleability of rules when compassion and desperation are at play.

In the morning when the ground is damp and while my husband still sleeps, I rise slowly out of bed, collecting my pillow as I walk to our balcony door. Outside, my bare feet get wet on the wooden surface. I hold my pillow over the side of the railing and carefully dust-off the large collection of hairs that have fallen in the night. Remembering my mother—brushing our childhood dog and releasing blond fur into the air—I imagine what she used to suggest, that birds might build a nest with my hair. 

At first, the strands are long. Eventually, as if going on a date, my husband and I drive to a barber shop in a neighboring town. I explain my situation and tears come springing to my eyes as I describe the sudden urgency I feel. The owner of the shop envelops me in a hug, skips me ahead in the line and walks me straight over to a chair. I collect my emotions as a stylist with rainbow-dyed hair and a pregnant belly turns me away from the mirror and begins removing what has become a burden. 

In the end they insist no charge, and we all wipe at our damp eyes. In a world replete with division, real-life, human connection evokes a deepened sense of what is means to see and to be seen—a reminder that all of us exist with some struggle or another.

These moments are arresting to my sense of self and they mean something. To stroll around with your current-life-challenges so readily available for others to witness evokes immense vulnerability. To navigate a road back to health in a world brimming with information—yet absent of absolutes—is humbling. 

When so much is at stake, who do you listen to?

At home, I joke with Jonah and Adrian about my resemblance to G.I. Jane. I’m not sure they understand the reference, but they assure me that in their eyes, my beauty remains intact. My buzz-cut eases them into a time when even those littler hairs will fall away and Adrian’s eyes will grow wide and dilate when I take off my hat in the evening and he looks intently at my ivory scalp. In the mornings, I dust off those little hairs on the balcony, too. I dry my feet on the thick, powder-blue rug beside the bed, hoping not to cause a stain.

When my fever sneaks up to the place where even the doctors are rattled, I surrender my children to sleep under the stars with friends. Their care is (perhaps, for the very first time) beyond my capability. I’ve lost what seems like all authority over my own well-being (much less theirs) and have been told I must go to a place brimming with germs. 

It is unimaginable to me that I can leave my bed, much less our home. 

They keep us in a pediatric room in the ER overnight with a glass door painted with storybook characters. Winnie-the-Pooh or Eeeyore were there, or maybe those were painted on the doors across the hall. 

A few days later, in my room on the 5thfloor, there is a knock at the door. I am out of bed and sitting by a window across the room. The large frame of glass allows swaths of light to come pouring in and provides a long view of an old, red-brick tower. The expanse of sky is as good a medicine as the fluids dripping through my veins. 

The man at the door is dressed like a professor with an unexpected, colorful tie hinting at something more. Somewhere in my paperwork I am listed as a Catholic and the visitor has come from the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine to offer his support. In a gentle voice he explains how for twenty years he was a lapsed Catholic, returned to the church through service work. With eyes that hint at both humor and pain, he assures me that my current, religious status is irrelevant to his visit. 

There is space in the way he is speaking to me, in the way he is listening. He allows room for my experience, whatever it might be.  

It is rare for me to accept this sort of offering. So often, I choose to serve as my own council. I turn inward, not in collapse, but toward an expansive world I count on for guidance and support. I turn to those who have gone before me, sinking my hand into the soft palm of my Grandfather who called me Meghan Baby and taught me to Waltz. I whisper a request for help to my Aunt Peggy who wrote You be You in a card to me when I was ten.

Maybe I reached a point in which I needed more than I’ve needed before. Maybe it was the unique nature of the space we inhabited. Or, maybe he was someone special. Whatever the reason, I began sharing with him about what it feels like to listen to the hollow sound of a basketball rebounding on pavement outside my window as I lay in bed on another beautiful, summer’s day. I relay the painful story I have been telling myself about Jonah bouncing a ball, outside alone, in juxtaposition with our endless beach days shared in summers past.

Along with my story of surrender, I release a slew of tears. His objectivity is enhanced by the absence of knowing me. I could be any mother. I could be any woman. He expresses his belief that my experience is an opportunity for Jonah and Adrian to deepen their capacity for compassion. I tell him how much I have not wanted them to worry and he insists there is good to be found in their service of me. 

On one of the darker of the sunny days, when discomfort had become like second skin, I remember contemplating the nature of suffering as a means of coping. I thought about the people—the children, especially—within this vast world who are trapped in experiences of relentless anguish. Their lives inextricably linked at birth with poverty, violence and inequity with no viable escape and no end in sight. I felt fortunate when considering the differences between our fates as well as sorrow for the injustice that allows anyone to be left to a life of pain. 

Witnessing suffering can leave us feeling powerless—as if our efforts to make an impact are only tiny drops of water in an enormous bucket in need of filling.  

My sister asked, where are the greater forces of good in all of this? She followed up with her hope—one that I share. The power greater than us reveals itself in the way it moves through us. It is present in us, as individuals, in the way we decide to engage the world. It is the witnesses who travels to the border and reports back. It is the zucchini and lentils brought by the angel friend up North—her most nourishing of foods. The healer who shows you how to open up your heart, just a little more. 

It is you and me getting to choose on any, single day who we want to be.

In the last few weeks I’ve rediscovered my equilibrium and found my footing again. I’ve   awakened early and walked outside in bare feet through damp grass to cut kale from my garden. I’ve bundled up in a yellow, rain jacket and traipsed through the woods with my friend. We compare notes about our skepticism that we might need to succumb to a supposed new and lesser normal. I assure us both—we do not have to subscribe to this notion.

Jonah and Adrian have gone back to a school where most children spent the summer at nourishing camps and exploring our gorgeous state. Instead of running back to my work I have been obsessing about food—pea shoots and arugula and home-grown tomatoes that thrived despite the plentiful weeds surrounding them. It seems as if I’ve returned from a difficult dive into the dark and murky depths of the ocean’s floor and I am rising once again to the surface, where oxygen is plentiful and my heart is ready to live.

“The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart.” —George Sand

This is a quintessential, Spring morning in Maine—the air thick with moisture, brisk and chilly still. Birds are chirping intermittently as if in conversation and the water of this tucked away bay dances with the breeze that rises up and then stills, rises up and then stills again. Occasionally a very large gust of wind comes charging through, “I’m here! I’m here!” it announces whipping through the branches of towering Pines swaying them deeply one way and then the next. Earlier—with his sharp five year old eyes—Adrian caught sight of a red fox running across our yard. I had seen him yesterday as well. He had come so near to the steps of our back porch and row of glass doors, it almost seemed as if he were peering in at my kitty, Autumn, who stared back out at him from her safe and warm pillow perch. I have a sense that there are some new baby foxes about that he is looking after, scouting food for. It is only a sense, though.

I am in gratitude for a friend who inspired my latest work of art. I have long had a heart for people who go about this world unseen and in need. My first encounter with significant poverty was as a young girl in a church thrift store where my mother volunteered her time. People would come in looking for emergency dental care. In some ways it seemed that their teeth were the least of their worries. I tried to be at ease so that they might feel seen—but not too seen. I remember trying to pretend as if nothing was wrong although I knew something was very wrong. I was awakened. Again and again I have been roused to awareness of the souls who walk this earth unattended to. I lived in New York City in most of my 20’s and early 30’s.  When not engrossed in the roller coaster of my own coming-of-age story, I remembered about others and volunteered with Coalition for the Homeless. It seems that when I come to a new place, part of what I do is to seek out the people in need. I’ve done that same thing here in Maine.

I remember once being in a van that went around the Bowery in Lower Manhattan delivering meals. The driver was a memorable guy who fueled his sobriety with this work. It was dusk—the bridges were beginning to light up around the city as we drove from location to location—delivering meals out of milk crates. There was one moment in particular on an outing like any other that I have replayed in my mind over and over like a gritty movie reel. We were somewhere around Chinatown and the FDR drive which runs along the East Side of Manhattan. It was nearly dark now and as I began to climb out of the van, I got a glimpse in the distance of the people approaching us and it took my breath away. They just kept coming and coming and coming pouring out of dilapidated buildings and alleyways like ants out of an anthill. As they came more near, I took in their physical condition. Their clothes and skin were deeply layered and worn, thick with dirt and suffering and decades of mental illness and addictions untreated.

Late last year, I described to my friend how I was hoping to bring awareness to the devastating issue of homelessness in our country through my art. My first thought had been to create portraits of homeless individuals enhanced in colors and imagery that would invoke all that lies beneath the often tired and weathered outer appearance of those without a safe place to lay their head at night. It was then that my friend—who has a much deeper connection to what it means to be homeless than I do—suggested that I create a piece of art that could simply be enjoyed by homeless people in a space where they gathered. She turned her head up a little and suggested with a slight smile that inspiration might be of some use, that a piece of art might be an unexpected source of hope in an otherwise drab environment like a soup kitchen. I admired her insight—the respect she demonstrated with her idea for all people needing access to beauty and communion with their hearts. Her idea spoke to me instantly and freed me, too, to concentrate on a work of art that was simply beautiful and bright and inspiring.

I began to envision an array of colors that would represent a pouring out of all that remains good in the world despite the evidence otherwise. As I began creating a paper palette, I grew very still inside, inviting a universal force to be with me in my work and to guide the outcome. Although I hadn’t presented the idea to anyone there, I had a vision of sharing the completed work over the holiday season at Portland’s soup kitchen, Preble Street. I was fueled by the bad news in the media wanting to be a part of a counter-balance. There was the continued school violence and then the Syrian Refugee Crisis and news of record homelessness numbers in New York City—including an ever-growing number of children without a place to be safe at home in the night. I underestimated the amount of time it would take to complete the work but settled into the process trusting in what I recognize as a divine timing in all things.

As weeks and then months passed, my work also became deeply informed by my current participation in a yoga teacher training and specifically my mind opening to the idea of a fascial network within each of our bodies supporting and protecting all that we are made up of. I found this image to be an excellent metaphor for the networks of our human capacities for holding each other—and not holding each other—and the ways that the systems may be disrupted through injury and trauma.

It is a gift each time I am allowed to participate in a piece of art coming to life and I never know where the work will take me. This experience was no exception. Over the course of five months, what began as a pouring out of the love and the good that I still know and trust exists in this multifaceted world, became an expression of the deeply held connections between us all as we make our way through the interwoven nature of life’s unfolding. This work—that I have just recently completed and named, “Fascia,”—became about our universal source and backdrop as human beings, as creators, as small drops in the vast ocean of the Universe.

I have yet to make arrangements to share “Fascia” publicly—though I intend to. I do not know how it would actually be received. Maybe people really do just want and need us to help them get into a place where they can have a home. Or maybe they would love to stand before a work of art and be reminded that they matter—that they have significance in this colorful world that we all share. My wish is that they would never, ever have to choose between the two. Either way, I am grateful to have entered into this process once again and to have been reminded where I fit in.

 

"Fascia," 2016 Mixed Media Collage, 80" x 77"

“Fascia” by Meghan Anderson Nathanson 2016 Mixed Media 80″ x 77″

 

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“Courage is a kind of salvation.”
—Plato

I was around 20 years old when I decided to jump out of an airplane for the first time. It was a static-line jump in which I climbed out of a rickety, old, seemingly taped-together airplane on a sweaty summer day. We were around 5,000 feet up when the door was opened—wind gushing in, loud and powerful in its pressure against our forward movement. I knew enough from our meager four or five hour training not to hesitate too long and was one of the first to climb out of the plane. Bracing my hands on the strut of the wing, I climbed forward and then hung there with my legs dangling out behind me. Counting down and out loud from three—fighting the deafening wind—I let go—my arms stretched out behind me in a “V” so as not to become intertwined with the line that I was attached to. With this type of jump there is almost no free-fall and you are entirely on your own. The line of the chute is pulled by its attachment to the plane within a few moments. I was trembling before and during the climb out of the plane—my heart beating wildly. Very afraid, I coaxed myself through each step, though outwardly I might have seemed calm.

Once the parachute opened I found myself in another world entirely and suddenly everything was very, very still, tranquil. I was floating across a patchwork movie screen of the world, the fear had vanished—sucked out of me and back up into the plane with the static line as if in a vacuum. I was perfectly—wonderfully—free from fear. I was perfectly—wonderfully—free from anything I had ever known. It was so incredibly quiet—a stillness came over me like I had never before experienced. I felt both entirely in myself and outside of myself at the same time. It did not in any way feel as if I were traveling downward through the sky, rapidly falling—although I was. And just as suddenly as I came into the stillness, I came out of it. The ground started to approach—objects becoming larger and larger, my speed seeming faster and faster. In a flash, I was back in my normal reality. I began to consider and then consciously operate the toggles which I had been holding onto—remembering now to guide myself to a particular spot on the landscape. The ground was coming now more quickly than I could have imagined. Suddenly a line was a fence, an abstract shape—a tree. It was time for me to land and I was not prepared. I just nearly missed the fence as it transformed before my eyes into something sturdy and tangible and sharp. I pulled my toggles down with all my might, steering sharply away from the obstacles and finally slowing myself but not in enough time to keep from hitting the ground with a dusty, graceless thud. My legs and feet were beneath me but it was no delicate landing. I was glad to be alive.

I have been listening to the language of fear these last weeks, noting the way in which the world speaks to us in themes through our experiences, through the things that show up as we float—or surge—along the cinema screens of our lives. Fear has shown up in my children at bedtime—their worries about being alone, unheld, unusually strong in these last months. Fear is steeped in the language of our politicians—both very real and exaggerated fears at the root of most platforms and coming across through all range of media. We are discussing the soothing of fears in the place that I go for spiritual nourishment—a welcome break from the usual focus on the fear itself. And as I take on new challenges in my own life—fears—those snarling, spitting beasts—have been lunging for me in their many shifty ways—so much more subtle and nuanced than the threat of a risky jump from a great height.

I have been thinking about how we might navigate fear so that it does not consume us and so that we might continue pursuing the things that we are called to. I’ve been thinking about how we might better notice fear, receive its sometimes worthy message, sidestep it, even, but not submerge it beneath us where it might take root and grow stronger. Naming fear is helpful. Like in meditation—as thoughts come up—we might describe them as something. Thinking, planning, storytelling, we might say to ourselves as thoughts arise—our breath rising and falling as an anchor. In this way we can receive the thoughts and then more readily send them along with less weight. It is as if in recognizing them, we may free them to stop prodding us. We can utilize a similar process when fears come near. I have also found that my fears die down—once acknowledged—when I then turn firmly away and press forward toward the things that I love. In this way, fear can see that there is no space left here in my home.

Despite the calendar turning toward February, the air was springlike this morning here in Maine. I entered my yoga class coatless—the sun warming me. As I’ve been sitting here, the sky has transformed from light blue to pale grey. It has grown darker—overcast, like it might rain. The water has been picking up its pace—moving along more like a river than a bay, icy segments breaking up before me. The tide has traveled inward, first rising beneath the ice, then meandering through it and finally moving the pieces apart completely. Crows dart back and forth from the trees in our yard eventually making their way out along the coastline.

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“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” —Albert Einstein

Etched in my mind is the image of my mother on the day she taught me to pray. She is sitting at a table, her back very straight, her hair curly. She brings her hands together in front of her, aligning her long slender fingers—one to the other—her elbows are on the table. Then speaking to us—a group of 10 year old catechism students—she intertwines her fingers and folds her head over against them reverently. She speaks of the, “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary’s.” She speaks of talking to God. I remember her at Mass in those years, coming back to our pew after Communion and settling into the position she showed us that day. I thought then and I believe now that my Mother said far more to God in those moments than the learned words of our Catholic faith. I don’t know what was in her heart but from her posture I knew that she believed that she was being heard. Although we never spoke of the exact nature of my Mother’s faith at that time, I believe that in watching her I first awakened to the idea of a higher being who was listening to and even observing me. This was sometimes comforting, sometimes frightening. I remember attending a youth retreat at our church in which a visiting priest interrogated me, saying to me over and over, “what did you do? what did you do?” because I was crying during my “confession.” My tears were tears of discomfort, tears of sadness even but this priest assumed I must have done something terribly wrong to be crying in front of him. He must have believed in a punishing God. I remember also a warm and loving priest, Father Balthazar from Hungary—lovingly referred to as “Father B” by the many who adored him. He hosted a day for blessing animals at our church and had a laugh that made you feel warm, like you wanted to smile. He was kind and remembered all of our names, the details of our lives, even in a very large congregation. I believe he knew a loving God.

I remember attending a warm and wonderful Baptist church in my teen years on many occasions with a dear friend. It was a humble place with after-service pot-lucks and the preacher’s house rested a stones throw from the chapel. Everyone was welcome. I remember several times looking around the congregation—with a lump in my throat—the many faithful were singing, hands raised up high in the air. I felt enveloped in love in that room. I felt envious and out-of-place and seen all at the same time. My prayer life continued and deepened in the years that followed and I attended both Catholic and protestant churches throughout much of college.

I remember sitting on an airplane when I was twenty-two years old and opening a book titled, “Living with Joy.” My older sister had given it to me and I was trying to ignore the fact that the forward of the book claimed that the writing had been “channeled.” I was trying to ignore the swirling, purple and pink cover so typical of late 90’s New Age books. It was the same year that my sister began telling me that she loved me. As I read the words in this book a tremendous peace began to come over me. I have often thought back to those tranquil moments. I can see myself then—as if on a movie reel—peering out the oval window to my left at mountainous clouds, taking in the warmth of the sun streaming in on me. Although I was ten thousand feet up in the air, I remember finding myself feeling grounded and settling into two very big new ideas. I was settling into the idea of being incredibly valuable just simply in being myself, all that I inherently am—imagined and created by the most magnificent energy in the Universe. In those same moments, I was settling into the knowledge that I was a part of something so much bigger than I could ever begin to be alone. I did not recognize what each of those feeling meant at the time, I just knew that I felt safe and at peace and in control and free and loved and cherished and a part of something and just very, very good for maybe the first time in my life.

I carried that book around with me for months and like an elixir, every time I read the words within I was healed. A fundamental change occurred for me with that book. It was a simple yet profound little book (along with the dozens of other like-minded books and teachers that followed) that took the many pathways that I had been traveling toward God and led me directly to *Him. It was then and over the course of the next nineteen years that I came into my beliefs about the God which I hold dear to me today. I believe that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and that we are here to grow and expand and to heal and become whole. I believe that we have the opportunity to co-create with God through our intentions and our words and even our desires and that we may not always understand why we have created that which we have. I believe there is no such thing as a coincidence. I believe that God hears us and sees us and knows us but in a way that is mysterious and with a wisdom so colossal that it cannot be explained. I believe that communication from God may come through the wisdoms of many different religions and spiritual traditions as well as from the headline of a newspaper or a graffiti scrolled on a highway bridge. I believe that there is a piece of God inside of us, near to our hearts, that is always accessible, but that we are free to ignore for as long as we choose. I believe that God is in the world around us—the acorn with it’s little perfect hat, the curl of a wave. I believe God is in our children—the miracle of their creation, the miracle of their coming here into our lives.

My desire is for my boys to start with God where I found him in my twenties. My desire is that they only know a God of love, not of guilt or need for repentance. I hope that they will know a God of comfort and guidance and feel powerful in their ability to co-create their lives and know their purposes by listening to their hearts. I want for them to know that the best expression of their love of God will be a life in which they use their gifts, are true to themselves and loving toward others.

I’ve been surprised at how readily my four year old Jonah has embraced the idea of God. I’ve been careful not to be heavy-handed, knowing that within him he has access to a truth that for me I’ve had to unearth. I began with regular night-time prayers when he was around 2 years old but then backed off when it began to feel forced. Instead we now do spontaneous praying when the moment feels right. From time-to-time I will pray for guidance in front of him and my littler boy Adrian. We frequently pray for our family and share the things we are grateful for surrounding our breakfast and dinner. Together we attend a weekly service at a Unitarian Universalist Church and Jonah has stated that we go there to learn about God. He likes our having a church. He likes the Pie Sunday tradition that we experienced last week. Adrian does not like being left in the nursery and enjoys speaking loudly over the reverend when we bring him into the service with us. When my husband and I were married we chose to honor the religions and traditions of both of our families and so our wedding was officiated by both a rabbi and a priest. During the preparations, our priest was required to have us sign a document declaring that we would raise our children Catholic. A wise and incredibly loving man, he assured us that all this meant to him was that we would raise our children in a house of love. Let me be a loving example to my children. This is my greatest desire in sharing God with each of them.

Jonah has struggled at times to be gentle with his little brother. It has not always been easy for him to share me and to share my husband with another little soul. Witnessing this has allowed for me to see my older sister in a different light (here is an example of God’s wisdom that I could never have orchestrated myself). I have urged Jonah to listen to his heart so that he may know how to treat his brother. Developmentally I am not certain that it is correct, but I am listening to my own heart when I guide him this way. Last night, as he and his brother were bathing together, Jonah shrieked out in the most delightful and excited way wanting to share something with me. He said, “I listened to my heart! I listened to my heart!” He used a voice that could only be described as overflowing with pure joy. He went on to explain that he had experienced an urge to be less than gentle with Adrian and that all of a sudden he had listened to his heart and made a different decision. I shrieked out in joy with him not because he had done the “right” thing so much as because I could see the light of God in his eyes and hear it in his voice. I will tread so very lightly with this knowledge and try not to “use” it or manipulate this new knowledge of his in any way. I want for him to settle into the truth of his own heart in his own way and at his own pace.

 

*I refer to my idea of God as “Him” simply for editorial ease. The God I know is much too all-encompassing to be categorized as either masculine or feminine. He just is.