Origins of the Toolshed of My Heart

I’ve been asked for a little more information about the “Toolshed of My Heart.” The concept originated with a piece of art I created for a Women’s History Month Art Exhibit at the Southwest Harbor Public Library in 2011.

Shortly thereafter I was invited by the UU church in Ellsworth to speak about it. Here’s what I shared (in a twenty-minute talk, so it’s a long read.):

“This piece of art I created last year brings me here today:  The Toolshed of My Heart.  Over the years, I have gathered a collection of self-healing tools, enough to fill an entire toolshed.  Many of these tools are probably familiar to you, maybe you already use them.  I’m hopeful that in sharing them with you something I have to offer will be inspiring.  I’m grateful to be here today with this opportunity to share the Toolshed of My Heart. 

Using my calligraphy talents, I attempted to depict in three dimensions the tools I have cultivated over the years to bring peace into the world.   I could call myself a calligrapher, a mother, a yogini, an empathic listener.  A humble beginner.  A dreamer of a peaceful world.  A collector of tools.  Or, one who simply practices.

            I don’t claim to be a tool inventor.  Everything in my toolshed has been created by others, and be it Divine Intervention or Simple Synchronicity of Circumstance, my collection and hence my practice grows.  I offer the invitation to an Open House of my own toolshed with great humbleness in that anybody can go out and collect tools.  And anybody can learn how to use them, and anybody can commit to a regular practice of using them.  And I’m certain you each do in your own way, so in many ways I’m just a mirror here today.  I polish the mirror of my own heart so that you can look in and see yourself clearly:  as a child of God, full of light and love to share.  Full of experiences and wisdom and choices.

            As my process of cultivating peace unfolds, my definition of what peace is has evolved from a quiet, undisturbed calm to an acceptance of whatever is, to an utter embracing of whatever is.  Collecting tools and cultivating practices using them has not taken me away from suffering.  There is still plenty of suffering in my life:  physical, emotional, mental — in my own heart and in my relationships, in my interactions with the world.  In slowly learning to embrace that, I have increased my capacity to be present in the midst of suffering.  The plus side of that equation is that I have also increased my capacity for joy, as well as my ability to be nonattached to either.

Admittedly, sometimes I’m purely suffering and catch myself wishing I weren’t.  Or I’m riding a big wave of joy relishing in it and imagining it going on forever. 

The Toolshed of My Heart represents two strands of my life, two threads of my life’s tapestry that both began when I was 8 years old, that have led me to an awareness of the possibility of peace. These strands were the immense connection and joy to creativity and hardly bearable sorrow.  For a period of maybe 2 or 3 weeks I learned calligraphy in school.  About the same time, my mother was diagnosed with MS and began a ten year tragic decline.  It was a down hill ride for my entire family, the details of which I will only briefly mention:  my parents divorced, I was my mother’s primary caretaker for many of the 10 years of her illness, we sank into poverty, I sought out comfort from my peers and developed a relationship with drugs and alcohol, raucous rock-n-roll and all that goes with that aspect of our culture. 

            Meanwhile, we moved often and the calligraphy interest was still alive in me.  Every new town had a library and I always first sought out any calligraphy books available.  I would check out an instructional book and try my hand.  Unfortunately, the book would always be due too quickly, I would become frustrated with my attempts.  Although my mother encouraged me somewhat in that she bought me a calligraphy penset and inks, I just couldn’t seem to figure it out.  Then, life in the newest home would settle down with all of the responsibilities of school and caring for my mother and the calligraphy would fade into the background.  Then we would move again and I’d begin the cycle anew.

            The fates brought me to Downeast Maine and COA in 1988.  I had recently turned 18 and my mom died a month after I arrived here.  The COA library had a calligraphy book, and once again I checked it out and made the same amount of progress as usual.  Thanks to the lovingkindness of the COA community and my strong inner perseverance, I graduated from COA in 1992 and began a 5 year semi-wandering adventure that included many moves.  I was in Barrow, Alaska for a period of time, and there the only calligraphy book was a fictional children’s story.  About an island calligrapher.  She does all the calligraphy for the island community:  birth certificates, wedding announcements, diplomas, death certificates.   After many years, she begins having an odd experience when she sits down to letter:  she goes into a trance and when she comes out of it, there is a piece of calligraphy that she hadn’t intended to create.  A birth certificate for a baby born years in the future.  A wedding certificate with the name of an island child and an unknown stranger.  Death certificates for others in the community.  She tucks these “trance-induced” pieces into her files and thinks nothing more of them until — the grown child comes in to announce her engagement to an offshore love, a beloved community member dies, a baby is born.  She tells no one how she pulls these pieces of calligraphy out of her file, already accurately completed.  One day, she comes out of her trance and discovers she has done her own death certificate.  No date is included, but she knows her death is inevitable and she seeks out a young girl to mentor as the next island calligrapher.   I didn’t form any letters after reading that book, but a special seed had been planted in my heart.

            A few years later (after several more moves and unsuccessful attempts with library calligraphy books) I was back on MDI working at Beech Hill Farm in the farmstand.  A small, old woman came to the register to pay for her vegetables.  As I reached for a bag, she tossed a canvas sack onto the counter and with a German accent said “I have my own bag here, I always have a bag to bring things back on the boat.”  Intrigued, and against my usual mode of interacting pleasantly but mostly silently with customers, I overcame my shyness.  I had to know:  where was this tiny, old woman traveling to on a boat?  She had a camp on Long Pond.  My curiosity intensified:  do you live there year round?  No, she winters in California.  My insatiability to know more about this woman overcame me:  What do you do in California that has you summering in Maine?  She teaches calligraphy, she said.  Amazed at my own boldness I blurted out:  “Oh, I’ve always wanted to know how to do calligraphy and have a teacher!”  She looked me square in the eye and responded “You probably just need someone to nag you.  I’ll be back on Thursday, bring me an alphabet.”  And with that she was gone and a yearning fire was burning within my heart.  Nan Black, my beloved calligraphy teacher showed me the way to form letters, be consistent, practice.  Practice, practice, practice!  In the course of practicing calligraphy I discovered I already had an extensive quote collection.  The first tool in my toolshed:  words.  Words that transform me, inspire me to heal myself and my past, encourage me to accept the Divine Plans unfolding all around us, encourage me to embrace my role.  I’ve discovered that self-healing, transformation work is more than a selfish endeavor to satiate pain and simply make me healthy and strong so I can fulfill the wishes of my smaller, ego self, to just feel good.  I recognize now every little bit I do frees up the path for the boundless joy of Creation.  My transformations ripple out, more joy and light and possibility is released into my own circles of community.  We are truly here together as spiritual beings having a human experience.  To mirror for each other, reflect, wonder, persevere, inspire and above all:  remember and unify.

            I use these tools in my daily life, while I am doing ordinary things like washing the dishes, cleaning my house, driving my car, brushing my teeth.  Thich Nhat Hanh says:  Mindfulness is simple, yet profound.  I am finding the truth in that statement, because with these simple daily practices, I have steadily cleared the barriers that separate me from Divine connection.  Here’s an example:  in the morning after breakfast I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth.  Coming along with me is the chatter in my head:  the “to do list” for the day, the Perfectionist rattling on about what I haven’t done perfectly, replays of conversations from the day before, replays of dreams, a whole bunch of stories floating around with me.  I get to the sink, grab my toothbrush and there it all stops.  A few minutes of quiet peace and breathing ensues as I look at my reminder tacked inside the medicine cabinet:  “Brushing my teeth.”  I breathe in and out, meditating and remembering, calming as I brush my teeth.  This steady stream of peace is within all of us, a clear, flowing river of peace and Divine harmony, love.  A place where we can learn to trust that we don’t have to intellectually know and understand the Divine Plan unfolding all around us.  Yes, global warming, constant war, corporate takeover of democracy, increasing natural disasters, bath salts, cancer epidemics, pollution, on and on, if I’ve forgotten to list your favorite doomsday tale, it will probably be broadcasted on the international media somewhere in the next 15 minutes.  These things are happening.  For a long time I thought it was my responsibility to fix it all or die trying.  In that quest I took a manic dive into burnout.  It was then that a friend gave me Thomas Merton’s quote: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.”  In putting myself and my life back together I began the culturally disregarded practice of Unitasking.  One Thing At A Time.  Eating when I’m eating.  Driving when I’m driving.  Washing Dishes when I’m washing dishes.  Brushing my teeth when I’m brushing my teeth.  Walking when I’m walking.  Thich Nhat Han’s teachings have been an immeasurable boost for this practice.  For a walking meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests:  “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.”  I invite you to close your eyes right now and imagine yourself on your favorite walking path…  As you breathe in you say to yourself:  The mind can go in a thousand directions.  As you breathe out, you say “But on this beautiful path I walk in peace.”  Two simple sentences, the first acknowledging the fact that the mind indeed can go in a thousand directions, and it Loves to!  The second, recognizing that with every breath, in every moment, we have the opportunity to CHOOSE.  Do I want to be in the past, rehashing an event and feelings that happened long ago?  Do I want to be in the future, imagining the way that things might turn out?  Or, do I simply want to stop, breathe, be in this here very present moment.  Again, to quote Thich Nhat Hanh:  “Present moment (breathing in), wonderful moment (breathing out.).”  The past is gone, the future is unknown, NOW is the only moment, it’s a gift, this present!  My days are like a necklace strung with jewels of meditation reminders, one simple breathing practice after the other.

            And Thich Nhat Hanh isn’t the only teacher who resonates for me, nor is it only possible to be mindful when I’m alone.  Another favorite tool of mine is one that those of you who attended church several weeks ago had exposure to:  NVC or NonViolent Communication.  Interacting with other people generates many opportunities to practice the tools of NVC.  One thing I find most intriguing about NVC is that even after four years of studying and practicing, Peggy Smith’s comment during her presentation resonates for me:  “Maybe after 5 years you’ll know what to say!”  A key practice of NVC is empathy, and that is often silent:  to simply be with what is, fully engaged in the moment instead of in a story of what the mind thinks is happening.  How wonderful it has been to give myself the permission to practice in my heart, in my head, and yes, often with my kids and family.  But I don’t have to learn about any of  these tools and then insist I become an expert.  According to a Russian Proverb:  “Perfection is the Enemy of Good Enough.”  Another one of my tools is permission:  to be playful, to make mistakes (what great learning opportunities mistakes are!), to take breaks — yes, even from my practice(s)!, to allow tears, to request help when I need it.  Some wise person once said:  “You can’t be human alone.” 

            With that premise, how can we all best be in this together?  The outer world statistics are daunting and the governments of the world are not setting any examples for peace.  Mother Theresa said many wonderful things, but one that sticks with me is:  “If you want to be of service, go home and take care of your family.”  What does it mean to really go home and take care of your family?  How can you let the problems of the world subside from your shoulders long enough to be joyfully present with your children, or your parents, or even yourself?  Can you make time and allocate your financial resources to support a local farmer and bring home fresh, organic-good-for-the-earth-good-for-your-own-body vegetables and meat and make a wholesome meal, the entire time Unitasking?  In the quiet of your own kitchen, breathing in, I am washing the carrots, breathing out I’m preparing dinner.

            Practice.  Starting where we are right now.  In this moment, becoming aware of this breath you are taking in.  The more familiar the path becomes from our awareness of our deepening breaths to the awareness of the feelings alive in our hearts and our own capacity to be present with those feelings, the more often we will find ourselves going there:  to our hearts, to our own divine wisdom.  All the answers to our lives, and hence to the complicated “problems” of this world, are in our very own hearts.  Thich Nhat Hanh bubbles up in my heart again:  “We all have the right to suffer, but none of us has the right not to practice.  Our responsibility as humans is to transform our suffering in order to transform the suffering around us.”

            My other favorite tools include:  daily journaling, eating whole foods (with as much home-made, local, organic as possible) and a daily yoga practice.  For those of you unfamiliar with yoga, it is much more than a series of exercises for the physical body.  A daily yoga practice has the potential to tone not just the physical body, but all the levels of being, including the mind, the emotions and the energetic bodies, and the capacity to be fully present and engaged in the chaos of daily life in 2012.   A teacher of mine shared:  “You will be tested.  That is the nature of life.  When life gets very rough, be very calm.  Be quiet and meditative and the way will become clear.”

            We can set up our brain neuron-firing/wiring in our practice, that will enable us to recognize when we are being tested.  I imagine my guts get/send the first signals:  a clenching in my belly, shots of adrenaline, twinges in my kidneys.  A panic alarm is sent up to my heart and brain.  My reptilian brain wants to kick into fight or flight.  These days, when the process begins (and sometimes even before, as I’ve got some early-detection radar developed) I catch it all with my breath, pulling my energies back down out of my overactive reptilian brain.  I focus on breathing in and out of my heart.  I remember my husband Kyle’s words:  Focus on What Is, instead of What If.  When I recognize What IS, I usually discover something like this:  right now my family is with me.  Right now we are all healthy and safe, right now we have enough food to eat, fresh water to drink.  Right now it’s quiet.  And then, I am grateful.  Gratitude is another very simple to do, yet profoundly healing practice.  No matter who you are or what your life circumstances, there is something to be grateful for.  And, in that, there’s also another practice that applies universally:  forgiveness.  We all have something to forgive:  ourselves, another person, a situation, even God.  When recognizing What Is, I see more clearly what Is in my heart in the moment.

            I pave a path from my guts and mind straight to the wisdom of my heart where I focus on my breath flowing in and out with gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance of the present moment.  Present Moment, Wonderful moment.  Again, the present moment is all there is.

            I invite you to practice this path of peace in your own life.  Try it for say, 40 days?  To just breathe and calm yourself.  Trust your heart’s wisdom.  Trust God or the Universe’s Plan for you, for all of us.  Let go of trying to understand intellectually and simply sink into BEING.  Just be.  In the moment.  We have the capacity to overcome any obstacle.  Here’s a fireworks display of quotes for you:  Mother Teresa:  “Do no great things, only small things with great love.” Yogic Teaching: “Keep up and you will be Kept Up.”  Take to heart what Rilke says and remind yourself that you can be a beginner at any time.   Sylvia Boorstein:  “There are two possible responses to every challenge:  balanced acceptance and embittered resistance.  Acceptance is freedom.  Resistance is suffering. Complaining is simply unwise.”

            In reflecting on this collection of tools I have and how I use them, I clearly see how the creative art of calligraphy is interwoven through it all.  I began with something that brought me great joy as a child:  forming letters using pen and ink.  Now in my adult life calligraphy is a way for me to use my hands, a physical extension of my heart, to remind myself of all the words that have meaning for me, and allow me to share them.  With the meditative state I can go into while lettering, the resulting pieces of art that ensue,  and the reception of art in the community, all aspects of my being are satisfied.

I hope that today you are inspired to notice what you love in your life, what your 8-year old self loves, and look closely at that, study it, and cultivate it in your daily life and bring it into our community. 

Thank you.”