Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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The Stuff of the Earth

This past week, Silver City hosted its annual CLAY Festival, which is a weeklong celebration filled with workshops, exhibitions, receptions, youth activities, tours, demonstrations, a mud pie contest, a poker fundraiser (did you know that poker chips were originally made out of clay?), and a street party. It’s much more than any one person can take in, and people flock in from all over the country to participate.

DSC_3797Naturally, it’s also more than one freelance photojournalist can handle, too. While I did take pictures at a number of events, there was no way that we could catch everything. On the other hand, after I’d submitted my photos, I found myself one day paying attention to the hands and the mud in the images I had taken. This particular class was about mixing and applying natural plasters to walls, and during the time I was there taking pictures, participants were learning how to load plaster onto their trowels and apply it to a wall—or, in this case, a piece of fiberboard.

There’s a great amount of fun to be had in playing with the mud. No one was worried about staying neat and clean. Students could scoop up the mud, then splat it back onto the carrying tool, called a hawk, or back into the tubs in which it had been mixed. Yet there were also some precise techniques to be learned in order to keep that plaster on the trowel, apply it evenly and efficiently—and have it stick!

A lot of these classes are about having fun with this element of earth. While I might become frustrated with the layer of clay I have to dig through in my garden beds, when extracted, ground, and mixed with water, that same clay—or its relatives—can become the foundation for some incredible works of art, as well as the stucco that covers so many houses in this area.

Plus, as scripture reminds us, we are also created—crafted—from elements of earth. While the specific mix of molecules in our bodies is different from the mix of molecules in the plaster, we are akin to that plaster, and children of the same earth. Genesis 2:7 says that we were formed from the dust of the earth; when we are playing with clay, we are touching a common history, and recognizing a bond we share.

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that this festival is so popular. We are stuff of the earth, just like the ceramic artworks I’ve admired this week. Just like the coyotes and jackrabbits running through our yard. Just like the birds who squabble over the sunflower seeds—which are also stuff of the same earth.

When is the last time you contemplated your connection with every part of creation? What do you need to remember about your connection with the earth? Is it time to go play in the mud for a bit?


Steps to Nowhere or Stairway to Heaven?

IMG_0565On our hike a couple weeks ago, my friend and I passed this pair of trees to which someone had, long ago, nailed small blocks of wood, forming steps up the tree. At this point the wooden blocks are well-weathered and even beginning to come apart. I also imagine that the trees’ growth over the years has carried these wooden blocks much further away from the ground than they were originally placed. Their distance from the ground means that they are no longer useful as climbing aids, and as I stopped to snap a few pictures, we joked about how they were steps to nowhere.

Of course, I presume that was not always the case. Perhaps, back before this was forest service land, someone constructed a tree house in the branches of these trees, and these blocks of wood were indeed steps to somewhere important, and magical, for a generation of children—or even adults. If so, nothing remains now except the steps.

On the other hand…as art begins a conversation with each viewer, so these steps up the trees began a conversation with me. My mind pondered them as we continued on our way. Eventually I realized that they could also form a stairway to heaven. Whether as a metaphor for meditation or a whimsical reference to the iconic song of the same name, those steps could have been placed there with the intent of inviting the viewer to step up, reach for the skies, or dream of a day when “the forests will echo with laughter.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The forests did echo with our laughter as we walked. I might not have thought about others hearing our laughter, except that we came upon a group of young men who were maintaining the trail we were following. We thanked them, and cheered them on as we walked by. In that moment, we all shared the precious value of the forest—although our perspectives on that particular patch of trail were likely rather different!

Perspective is a common theme for me these days. As I view others’ online perspectives on websites and offerings related to spiritual guidance, I share with them the precious value that the online world provides for publicizing and expanding the ministry of spiritual direction. Simultaneously, my own perspective on that ministry continues to grow and deepen.

When has something caught your attention, and invited you into a conversation of some sort? What did it lead you to imagine or ponder, determine or dream?

Have you ever been invited, or felt pulled, to create something provocative like those steps, in order to bring others to wonder or ponder, imagine or dream?


Bloom as You are Able

On a recent hike, my friend and I took the Angel Loop trail around Gomez Peak, which meant that we traversed a variety of terrain. The north side of the peak was relatively shaded and cool, and we saw a number of wildflowers that were just about to bloom. The south side was much more exposed, complete with a wonderful agave forest that might be the subject of another blog at some point. But what caught my attention as we traveled around the loop was the beargrass in various stages of bloom.IMG_0528

Beargrass is a relative of the much more widely known yucca plant (and also of the asparagus!), and we actually have a number of the plants growing wild in our yard (although we don’t let them get too close to the house, because they are quite flammable). In our yard, I’ve seldom, if ever, seen them bloom, but they were blooming in many places around Gomez Peak. Perhaps because of the varied terrain, in some areas the blossom stalk was just beginning to emerge, while in other places the flowers had already dropped and the fruit was forming. All of this within a mile or two!

IMG_0537The variety of blooming stages had me thinking about how our environment shapes us. We humans also develop at radically different speeds, and in different ways, even if we also dwell within a mile or two of each other. Some of that is genetics, but that old adage, “bloom where you are planted,” has a role to play here as well.IMG_0526

For example, one of my neighbors moved here from Alaska, and I cannot imagine ever living where there is so much snow and darkness. His life journey and perspective were shaped by those forces, just as surely as my journey was shaped by being a child of the desert southwest. Another neighbor grew up right here in this small town, and her experience of rural life is very different from my early years in Albuquerque, and eighteen years of living in the very urban Boston area.

IMG_0543As I continue to spend time looking at others’ websites and working on my own, I’m sometimes in awe of the well-developed online ministries of people much younger than myself. I struggle not to compare my beginner’s efforts with what they have accomplished, and it’s helpful to remind myself that each of us is called to bloom where we are planted, and that where we are planted can determine when and how we are able to bloom.

How has this been true in your life? Are you able to accept where you are planted, and the rate at which you are blooming?

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The monsoon season is here. Summer in New Mexico usually means sunny mornings and increasing heat, followed by the buildup of towering clouds and spectacular afternoon thunderstorms. I love the smell of rain, the coolness of the storms in contrast with summer’s heat, and the fact that all of my garden gets watered without my need to devote time and energy to the process.

IMG_1727 IMG_1739Last week was no exception to the monsoon pattern, and even the 250-gallon rain barrels we installed last year seemed to fill up in an instant. In fact, there were days last week when I began to feel a bit overwhelmed with the overflowing rain barrels. They’re great for collecting scarce water, but when the water isn’t scarce, they overflow and I found myself worrying about damage to our home’s foundation.

Of course, it’s easy to make sure there’s nothing blocking the flow of water away from our house, because we live on a gentle slope and the space is well-designed. As I reflected more deeply on my fears, I realized that they had more to do with fearing the overflow because it was out of my control. I couldn’t turn off that water spigot in the sky; the rain was just going to keep on pouring down.

So what could I choose to do instead? For one thing, I could embrace the rain. When no lightning lingers, I could even go out and dance with the raindrops! Unlike the wicked witch of the west, I don’t melt. In fact, I could probably benefit from being a bit more wild and carefree than is my usual tendency!

I also struggle with accepting my lack of control in other areas of my life. It’s common as a freelancer to find myself talking about “feast or famine,” but I could just as easily say that “my rain barrel is overflowing” when the work piles up on me. Managing a high volume of work can be as challenging as managing a full rain barrel. Do I say no to a project, presuming there’s enough work to keep the rain barrel full? How much do I micromanage the level of water, as opposed to letting is spill over, sharing the wealth with others? Can I trust that it will rain again? In July, probably. Come September, not so much.

And yet…perhaps a better response is to celebrate the overflowing of work during the rainy season and trust that there will be work enough in the drier times of year. There is, after all, one client who always has work available, and I can dip into that well if my rain barrel runs completely dry. When I remember that, and remind myself that I am not in control—of the rain or the workflow—then I am freer to focus my time and energy on what is in front of me in each moment.

As Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … For [God] knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Do you worry about those things over which you have no control? Can you embrace the overflowing rain barrels in your life and dance with the raindrops, trusting that there will be enough water in the future?


Dragonfly Wings and Perspectives

IMG_0502cThis past week my hiking buddy and I encountered a beautiful red-orange dragonfly near Bear Mountain Lodge. The dragonfly was perched on the top of one of last year’s yucca flower stalks and caught our attention because its wings were sparkling in the sun. It would zoom off, presumably to catch a nearby bug, then return to the stalk, perching in a slightly different position each time. We joked that it might be posing for us, but chances were much greater that it was simply gaining new perspective on the bugs available in the vicinity.

IMG_0511I spent a few minutes taking pictures of the dragonfly from different angles. As we moved on, I found myself thinking about capturing an image from different perspectives, and how that relates well to a struggle I’ve experienced this week.

You see, I keep taking baby steps toward getting my new website up and running, and one of the issues with which I’m currently struggling is how to present myself through that omnipresent “About” page. Who am I? What is important to share about myself, my journey, my expertise? What do people need to know in order to understand what I have to offer? How do I frame it to make myself stand out amongst the million different website About pages out there?

These questions, frankly, have stalled my work. I can’t seem to get past them. I read other people’s pages, deciding what I like, and seeing so many different ways to approach it. It’s not that different from photographing dragonfly wings; with just the slightest change in perspective, new facets are revealed; the reflected sunlight causes them to shimmer, transforming them in an instant.

The truth, of course, is that my About page can change at any time. What I put up now isn’t set in stone; it’s simply a starting place. And getting started is what I need to do. I need to write something down and trust that new perspectives will become clear over time, and can be added. What I know I need to do is prayerfully prepare myself, then sit down and write, trusting in the Spirit to bring the perspective that I need.

Are there places in your life where forward movement on a project or issue has been stalled by too many choices or perspectives? Can you take it to prayer, trust, and move forward?

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Becoming Ripe

Last week I met with my spiritual directors’ peer supervision group. One member of the group led an opening meditation from Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book Blessings of the Cosmos. This book brings new meaning to familiar scripture passages through exploring the rich layers of meaning in the Aramaic language that Jesus actually spoke. The scriptural passage that my peer shared was Matthew 5:16: “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your God in heaven.”

What caught my attention was his understanding of the Aramaic word tub that is translated in this passage as “good.” In our culture these days, when we hear the word “good,” we tend naturally to think in terms of opposites or comparisons, such as “good vs. bad” and “better than me/you/it.” That dualistic understanding goes all the way back to the Greeks of the first century, who joined forces with Jewish Christians in the early years and perhaps were the reason that the gospels were written down in Greek rather than Aramaic.

IMG_1689However, Douglas-Klotz’s understanding of the Aramaic points to a non-dualistic meaning to this word. He says that the word that we receive as “good” is actually more appropriately translated as “ripe.” In other words, in the passage above Jesus is saying, “Let your light shine before others so they may see the actions that you are taking at the right time and place, and give glory to God.”

What a different meaning this is! Now it’s less about a judgment—whether the works are good or bad—and more about being willing to do something when the time is right. It means there are no comparisons to be made, no standards of perfection to strive for, no need to worry about being “good enough.”

I found this concept of ripeness to be incredibly freeing on a personal level. So many weeks it seems that I’m not making “enough” progress on my longer-term goals for creating and launching spiritual offerings on the web. Like with the plants in my garden, there’s a lot of growing that has to be done, and a lot of nourishment that must be quietly absorbed, before the fruit is ripe and ready to be shared.

So now I read Matthew 5:16 as an invitation into a process, rather than a judgement about whether my work will be good enough to be offered to others. When the time is ripe, the work and I will be ready. But not before.

What in your life is slowly ripening? Is there something coming to life within you that’s not ready to be shared, that needs more time before the time and place are right for it to bear fruit? Can you be patient and wait for the right time and place?

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Hanging Out in the Light

Last weekend I helped lead an event at Holy Cross Retreat Center. The days were long and full, which meant that we were traipsing about between buildings long after nightfall. The retreat center is located near an acequia, or irrigation ditch, which is used to water the pecan groves which surround it. This meant that I saw something I have seldom seen since I lived near the Rio Grande River as a child: toads.

IMG_1613Every night we noticed large toads hanging out by the lights which illuminated the various pathways. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were there because the lights attracted bugs, which became dinner for the toads. Smart toads.

As I reflected on those toads, it led me to wonder what lights I frequent. Do I hang out where I will be nourished? I hang out in my garden, which is already providing me with lettuce, cilantro, chard, and onions, and promises to provide much more as the season progresses. The garden also provides me with ideas and images that are food for my spiritual life, and sometimes end up in my blogs.

There are other lights in my life, including a series of free online artist interviews I’m listening to right now. The various artists are sharing some of the wisdom of their craft and their own experiences. By hanging out in their light, I’m helped to make connections with my own spiritual and creative life, and gain some new ideas for living out my own ministry.

Another light in my life is Embodied Prayer worship. I end many of my Embodied Prayer sessions with a sacred circle dance called The Source, where we take the source (whatever that might mean in a particular moment: love, peace, God, Jesus, light, inspiration), gather it to our hearts, and then share it with the world. It’s a powerful way to close our worship session because it reminds us that this experience is not just meant to nurture us and connect us with God, but also to help us spread God’s love to the world.

IMG_1620What lights do you frequent? Where do you hang out and gain nourishment? It might be reading scripture and spiritual books, walking in nature, singing in the choir, teaching the next generation…. What else comes to mind?

Are there lights that you no longer frequent, but that still tug at your heart? Might it be time to seek out those lights again?


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