Saturday, February 21, 2015


“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
 -Robert Frost from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
St. Johnsbury VT in the distance from the Town Forest trailhead. 8pm. Snowing.
Dearest Readers,

Two weeks ago, I joined a dozen members of the St. Johnsbury Vermont Shambhala Meditation Center for a night walk and meditation in the town forest. I could not use my camera on the trek, but I returned this week during the day to photograph my experience in hindsight.  Daylight, sadly, destroys the sense of night wonder.

Bob Taylor, Buddhist teacher and survivalist led the way in silence, single file and without flashlights. It was around 8:00 PM at the trailhead. The temperature had risen from near zero to the teens. Somehow the snowy path reflected enough natural light to provide visibility. Footing was slippery, but I kept my eyes on the feet of the person in front of me as we climbed to the top of the forest trail. Boots crunched on the snow, arms swished against nylon parkas and snow pants. 

 We stopped at a clearing near the top, surrounded by a circle of very tall pines.

Each of us picked a favorite tree, and sat in the snow on insulated pads for perhaps 10 minutes of contemplation.  I felt intensely the smooth and comfortable tree bark against my back, as I settled against it into a mound of soft snow. 

Light flurries tickled my face as I gazed up my tree into one-point perspective. My walk-mates dissolved into the darkness of the forest next to their trees.  I felt alone, protected, nestled within the strength of the pines.

My senses were on high alert–eyes, ears and touch. I experienced a sensation of danger, excitement, and solidarity with the forest. Those tall enduring black sentinels held back unknown and imaginary creatures wintering within the solid darkness behind our circle of trees.

Bob reminded us that the winter landscape is beautiful and cruel. We dressed for the cold, and showed respect for the external conditions of the landscape.

Then we rose from our silent nests and walked out of the forest, down the trail, and back
out into the world of people and things to do.
Bob our leader gave us four contemplations to ponder in the wilderness. There are many answers.
  1. How can contact with the non-human natural world be mind protection?
  2. How can the natural elements be a transmission of unconditionality?
  3. How can feeling connected with nature be an expression of good human society?
  4. What is "pure perception” and how is it related to bravery?

Sunday, February 8, 2015


“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver from The Summer Day

Dearest Readers,

Meet Ruth Schowalter, artist and friend.  

We are Skyping and dialoging monthly between my home in snowy Peacham Vermont, and her place in winter-warm Decatur Georgia. Our topic is death. Specifically we are imagining what to make of our lives if we had just one year to live. Our hypothetical death date will be January 1, 2016.

We’ve done this once already–last year, but since we survived into 2015, we are beginning again. This time our questions will be addressed through our art and less from the brainpower of logic. We are artists and for us, getting down to the nitty-gritty of life experience happens best and deepest through the emotiveness of art. (See our monthly focus outline and reading information at the end of this blog.)

 1. January’s Question: If I had a year to live, what would my life look like?

My artist-answer to Question 1 is to turn myself into an old, and enduring tree. I would sprout stick wings and then glide smoothly through the forest and the sky, noticing what is here in all its vastness and grandeur.

These are my stick wings made from the detritus of living trees.

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”
Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

 Here is Ruth holding a drawing of her Spirit Self, on the right, dreamy-eyed and entwined with her Protector who accompanies her in this realm. 

We are expanding the artistic dialog into the field of play and movement. Ruth breathed in and out enacting her Self and Protector, dancing and gesturing. I flew with the spirit of the ancient maples that line my rural road.
Summer in the Hall of the Mountain Maples_Hapenny Rd. Peacham VT
Cecelia's Tree Wings-(unfinished)_70"x20"_wood, jute, embroidery thread_2015
Getting up, off our chairs in front of the Skype screen, while improvising a dance of life/death touched something profound inside me. I can't describe it...a flash of intuition or inspiration perhaps.

2. February’s Question: What concerns me most about death and dying? 
My immediate answer is the loss of consciousness of the familiar world and an eternity of the unknown. My answer looks like my drawing of a Cosmic Well.
The Cosmic Well_11x17_charcoal and conte on paper_2011
 Instead of a dive into oblivion, death may be a journey down through the dense emptiness, and then perhaps the trip turns, and climbs up and up a ladder, far beyond the rim.

Again, the poet Mary Oliver captures my concern:

The question is what will it be like after the last day?
Will I float into the sky?
Or will I fray within the earth or a river remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be if I couldn’t remember the sun rising,
If I couldn’t remember trees, rivers,
If I couldn’t even remember, beloved, your beloved name.

-Mary Oliver from The 4th Sign of the Zodiac

Ruth's and my questions and answers, our movement and words describe ideas of death, but together they feel like birth.
 We are following the book list and study outline of a course entitled, A Year to Live, given at the Shambhala Meditation Center of St. Johnsbury, Vermont last year.  Ruth and I discuss chapters from contemporary Buddhist writings and popular books on death, dying, and being of service. We do monthly contemplations, small practices of living, noticing and cherishing our present moments, slowing down our speedy lives, showing more kindness, prioritizing what is important, writing a will, an advance directive, healing old wounds, and cutting through denial. 

I have not achieved all these enlightened viewpoints, but I am on the path.
Some of my favorite books we are reading are Stephen Levine’s “A Year To Live”, “Dying Well” by Dr. Ira Byoc, “Making Friends with Death” by Judith Lief, “When Things Fall Apart”, by Pema Chodrun, and “The Power of Kindness” by psychotherapist and philosopher Piero Ferrucci.