H is for Happy Happenstance

Dec 3
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Reflections, SHINE, Travel log

H is for Happy Happenstance

As you may know, I’ve been on a quest to visit some of the sites around the world that purport to feature sacred feminine energy. Before I tell you what happened yesterday as related to the Black Madonna of Copacabana, Bolivia, let me give a little background for my quest.

Mostly it’s a longer story than I can cover in a blog post. But the short version is this: I was a very conservative Christian for 20 years. And during all that time, one of the things that bothered me—a lot—was the patriarchal aspect of my faith. God was called Father; his messiah was a Son; men were in charge of the churches; husbands were the head of the family. Didn’t seem to matter who was more qualified to lead, the job was delegated to men. I once had a male leader tell several of us who were proselytizing on Hollywood Boulevard one Halloween that, “If members of your group feel leadings from God to go in different directions, follow the man’s leading. He’s ordained by God to lead, and he needs to get used to it.” There was at least one man per group, so none of us women would be led astray, I suppose.

When I left the church, I became largely agnostic. But of one thing I felt sure: I’d lived with the masculine archetype of divinity for too long, and I wanted to experience a feminine archetype that could connect me to experiences of the numinous. I didn’t want to pray to anyone per se; nor did I want to ask theological questions and try to wrap my brain around a new dogma, I just wanted to see what sort of stories were available and what it would be like to expose myself to goddess traditions. I wondered if I would feel connected to the idea of a goddess, purely from the perspective of the feminine having some power ascribed to it. So I began seeking out temples and other holy sites. I’ve been at this now for several years.

This leads me to the story at hand. I flew down to South America on Thanksgiving day. My plan: to run a marathon in Vina Del Mar and visit Valparaiso, a city I really enjoyed when I was in South America in 2014. My research told me that not far away, in Bolivia, there was a “Black Madonna,” a Catholic statue of the Virgin who was sculpted in the 1500s, I decided to make my way to her and to spend a few days in Copacabana, where she is enshrined.

The first day I visited the basilica, I had high hopes of seeing her and sitting in her chapel for a while to see if she would speak to me, but I was disappointed. She wasn’t there. Had I come all that distance only to encounter an empty glass case? All the guide books say that she is never removed from her shrine, so what was the deal? But then a local man told me they turn her around sometimes, facing her away from the chapel (so she can rest?), leaving the case empty so far as the public is concerned. He told me I should go back and check to see if she was available to hear the prayers of supplicants the next day.

When I returned to the cathedral the next day, there she was! A glowing apparition of turquoise and gold, lighted from beneath, her dark face (not very dark, actually, and looking quite European if you ask me) held a peaceful, even neutral expression, while she held the baby Jesus in her arms (who also looked completely unimpressed).

I sat in the chapel for a little under an hour, watching two women and their menfolk adorn the alter with fresh flowers. After the flowers were situated, each of them sat in a pew and prayed, mouths moving, offering (I assume) both praises and requests. Sitting in that echoey chapel, I tried to feel into her. Did she have any presence? I’ve felt a distinct sense of awe sitting quietly at other sacred sites like Lourdes in France, Glastonbury in England, and the shrine of Izanami in Japan. But here I felt nothing. She seemed like a doll and more than anything, I felt pity for her, spending all of her existence locked in a cage. She looked posed, like a model, for the adoration of men (more on this someday soon in my new book—stay tuned).

Chalking up my visit with her as something to check off a list, I turned to other tourist activities, took a tour of the two islands on the Bolivian side of the lake that still feature some intact Incan ruins (Isla del Sol and Isla de luna), then I took a bus back to Bolivia’s big city: La Paz.

In La Paz now I wanted to take two walking tours—one in the morning at 11:00am and the other in the evening which would include dinner. After the first three-hour tour of the central part of the city, I had some time to kill, and decided to take a break at a café near the San Fransisco Cathedral.

I order a double latte in the café and at to rest my feet. On the walls, there was a display by an artist called Roberto Mamani Mamani. Vibrant colors depicting indigenous life and Bolivian landscapes grabbed my attention the moment I noticed the paintings. I’m a sucker for COLOR. Maybe growing up in the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest has made me irritated with muted colors, but anyway, I love bright primary or just off-primary colors. Mr. Mamani’s colors are like candy. LifeSavers, actually. Or Skittles. The whole rainbow in every image. Geez, I’d like to meet the guy who sees Bolivia in these bright colors, I said to myself.

One large painting especially jumped out at me from a distance, and when I got up to look at it closely, I saw it was entitled, Madonna de Copacabana. I studied it. Yes, there she was, a woman holding a child with a crescent moon beneath her denoting that her fertility had already led to her having given birth. But this Madonna was full and inclusive, not tiny and encased as the madonna in the church in Copacabana. Besides the baby Jesus, she also held other round faces in her embrace, indigenous faces. Clearly the artist was depicting her as Pachamama, Mother Earth. Arms open wide, she receives the whole of humanity. And her own features were truly in the image of the local indigenous people—round and dark—not thin European features as the Madonna in the Basilica.

I fell in love with her! She spoke to me the way the Madonna in the church had not, and I felt a tingle on the back of my neck. Determined to find out more about the artist, I asked the waiter about him and learned that Mamani is the most famous painter in Bolivia. My server gave me directions to his studio, which I thought I understood would take me out of the city center, but I resolved to go there the next day. I wanted to see Mamani originals before leaving La Paz, and perhaps even get a print or a poster of the Madonna/Pachamama.

That evening I took a Foodie Tour. Those of you who know me are laughing about this, since my palate was honed on Mac ‘n Cheese and hotdogs, and nowadays—even upgraded by a higher education and exposure to people who are devoted to food—I’ve not risen to delicacies much beyond mexifries from Taco Time. But truly I like to try new things, and I do love good food if someone else is preparing it for me. Beside, one of the hardest things for me in travel is eating. Outside of tourist areas where there are not English menus, you’re guessing and pointing. My anxiety always goes up, worried I’ll get something inedible and I’ll go hungry or have to get by with a bag of peanuts. So this time I decided to let someone show me the local cuisine and to enjoy the company of a handful of other travelers.
That night on the tour, we stopped at two of the stalls in the public market and ate first a pastry and then a thick smoothie with puffed rice. My three foodie compadres and I were full before we even got to the main courses. To give us a chance to digest and re-build our appetites, our guide Max took us on a walk up to a place called Jaen street. This is where the art galleries are.

And there, in front of us, was a gallery devoted to Mamani Mamani, the same artist I was introduced to only that afternoon! It was the only gallery open this time in the evening, by now about 7:30 pm. I was so excited! We’d stumbled on the very place I was planning on spending the next day finding.

I asked if there was time to go in. This request, I want to point out, represents a departure for me. Normally I wouldn’t want to put anyone else out, but one of my new commitments is to take up space without feeling apologetic. If no one else wanted to go into the gallery, I could catch up with them later. As it turned out, everyone was interested in seeing the paintings of the most famous painter in Bolivia.

I wandered the gallery. You can see the love in Mamani’s brush strokes, the energy of the mountains channeled in the concept of the world he depicts on the canvas. Once I’d been through the gallery, I asked the clerk if she had a copy of the Madonna and she did. I bought it straight away, pleased with the happy coincidence.

On our way out the door to continue our eating tour, Max said, “This is his home, you know.” We paused to look back at the building, and then Max added, “Please wait for one moment.” We all paused while Max took out his phone and made a phone call. I now assume he called the number on the outside of the building but at the time, I thought he needed a moment to make a personal call. He spoke to someone briefly and then he said. “We must go back inside. The artist is coming to sign your picture.”

Though it was past what I would consider working hours, inside the gallery, there was Mamani, a short, dark man in a painter’s apron, obviously called away from his work, smiling and ready to meet his new fans.

He wrote a little note to me on my poster, signed it, and posed for pictures. Gracious, smiling, and generous, he signed the pictures my new friends had purchased and then drew pictures on the backs of their prints!

What luck, all of this.

I could conclude that perhaps the Goddess was leading me in the discovery of Mamani and a more connected interpretation of the Madonna I’d gone to seek out. I don’t land on this interpretation because as I said, I’m agnostic. Faith for me has suffered over the last decade or so, but I was elated by the happy coincidence of finding the painting, the gallery, and the artist all in one day—and for the FEELING of a sacred synchronicity organizing itself on my behalf. Feeling is enough. Especially if the feeling is “happy.”

G is for Gratitude

Aug 13
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

G is for Gratitude

You saw that coming, right?

Recently I was listening to an interview by Dan Buettner who has spent many years researching the Blue Zones, those handful of places on earth where big percentages of the population live over 100 years. He made a statement that surprised me. He said that there is no evidence that practices of gratitude make people live longer or that they significantly improve a person’s level of happiness. That’s interesting, I thought, because I’ve felt chagrined for years struggling with the idea of “gratitude.” Maybe I could let myself off the hook.

Let me clarify. I’ve always found it easy to be grateful TO specific people in my life for the gifts they’ve offered me—in time and material—but a greater understanding of gratitude has often baffled me.

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you…” Seems like advice you might hear from any number of positive thinking gurus. Almost every self-help author I read encourages us to keep a gratitude journal. But the very idea of gratitude denotes that there is someone to say thank you to. Who? And what about when times are hard? Is it not ludicrous to be grateful for EVERYTHING—even experiences of abuse or injustice as the Bible verse seems to suggest? That’s just denial, right?

Last week, the issue of gratitude came up in my own therapy. My therapist said she sometimes simply feels an overwhelming sense of joyful appreciation, and she thinks of that as gratitude. A light bulb went on for me. “Joyful appreciation!” Now, that makes sense. Joyful appreciation is something I can easily cultivate.

  • For the beauty of this place I live.
  • For my friendships, many of which span decades and have seen me through hard times.
  • For the opportunities life has afforded me.
  • For the chance to contribute to others as a teacher, author, therapist, and coach.

And (here’s where the shift happened at the idea of calling gratitude “joyful appreciation”), I can ALSO find appreciation for the dark moments of unkindess and injustice that have come my way. How can I have joyful appreciation for some of the hardships in my life? Well, not because I condone or accept them, I can tell you that. But I CAN deeply appreciate myself for how I’ve put my hardships to good use. Growing up, my parents were a mess for much of my childhood (details in my next book—for now, take my word for it), and for many years all I felt was pain and disorientation at how my head got screwed on wrong during those years. But in my late twenties and early thirties I made a commitment to heal and to suck every bit of wisdom out of those hard times that I could, to put that wisdom to use for humanity in any way that presented itself. And I’ve spent my entire adult life doing just that. I have viewed my life as a project in making a person out of myself—someone I could trust and rely on and that others could, as well.

There have been some pretty significant setbacks and confusing decisions to make in the course of this project so far, but each setback has required that I re-commit to the experiment. And I have. So, I suppose I can authentically say that some of the “bad” things that have happened to me have given me opportunity to appreciate myself for my own strength and determination—and also to appreciate the way other people have shown up for me.

This week, I’m looking out for things I appreciate as a way of cultivating the feeling of joy inside of me because one thing Dan Buettner did say contributes to long, happy life in the Blue Zones is the lack of “time-urgency.” Slow down and smell the flowers. Let joyful appreciation settle in your body and savor it for a few moments. That’s my plan. What’s yours?

F is for Faith

Jul 14
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

F is for Faith

As I mentioned in “B is for Beliefs,” the meaning of faith has changed for me. I used to have faith “in” something (or Someone). And faith was framed as a cognitive commitment to a series of doctrines. I always struggled to believe some of the things I was taught I should, and my faith suffered for that. Many evangelical tenants require a person to believe things that are incredible, impossible even, for me to agree to. I couldn’t always figure out how to be both faithful AND intellectually honest (that said, I’m not claiming to be perfectly intellectually honest even now—I’m a work in progress).

Hebrews 11:1 in the Bible defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I never really understood that definition while I was in the church because the things we were meant to be assured of (eternal life, salvation from our sins) were so hard for me to wrap my mind around. Now, of course, I don’t think one can ever have total assurance of something one hopes for. But this second part of the definition resonates for me these days.

I have plenty of conviction of things not readily seen:

  • My ability to handle, with a roughly sound mind, whatever life throws my direction.
  • My value as a human being even if I am not serving, helping, catering to, placating, or otherwise being useful to someone else.
  • The general goodness of human beings.
  • The certain shadow we humans also carry, both individually and in the collective consciousness.
  • The possibility that humanity can and will evolve to be kinder to one another and to the earth.
  • My ability to grow and expand into greater self-authority and, therefore, into deeper wisdom for my own life.

You may look at this list and think these small convictions, but I don’t think so. If we don’t trust self and life at least a little bit, the only reasonable response is either paralysis or constant vigilance. I have lived with both emotional paralysis and vigilance, holding still and watching for bad things to happen or for people to be mean. And bad things HAVE happened and people HAVE been mean, but these never came from the direction I was watching—always from some unexpected place I didn’t think to look. I can tell you that it’s better to decide to carry optimism and trust around in the body than to live eyes-darting to and fro, ducking from danger.

Faith doesn’t come easily for me unfortunately. I’m not a naturally relaxed person. I worry a lot. I have to recite my chosen convictions to myself often. I say things to myself like, “There are as many people committed to growth as there are those wallowing in hate.” And I look for evidence that SOME things in the world are getting better (women have the vote in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia since 2015, for example), even as so many things look bleak right now. Without closing my eyes to what is dark and needs changing, I choose to practice a state of Faith, and this opens my heart to also see goodness and wholesomeness and to sort out where I can personally take action.

I wonder what faith means to you, reader. I’d love to hear your reflections.

E is for Energy

Jul 11
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

E is for Energy

Maybe the one thing I’ve noticed about my own approach to dealing with the massive number of transitions and losses in my life these past couple of years is the way I’ve sourced my energy. I’ve decided there are two pots of energetic source to draw from: Fear and Presence.

I’ll tell you right now as I write this that where to source my energy to get through the tasks in my day is my biggest struggle—in life. Always has been.

By the time I was a teenager, the landscape of my family was complicated. My mother’s remarriage involved a lot of conflict with her new husband. Then there was a new baby brother she wasn’t equipped to fully take care of, so I was surrogate mother much of the time (Hi Matt. Love you!). By the time I was 14, my stress levels were through the roof. Since my mother and stepfather broke up and got back together again many times the first several years they were married, I never knew when I got home from school if I would find an empty house or if my stepfather would be there waiting for me.

My stepfather and I didn’t have a good relationship. He was young (only about 14 years older than I), unprepared to raise four children, perhaps confused about the marriage he’d found himself in. I don’t know all that might have been going on for him; what I do know is that he was a loose cannon. Sometimes he was chatty and seemed to want to befriend me while other times he cruelly bullied me, even physically struck out in violence periodically.

During my high school years, the one time of each day that struck fear into me was walking down our street after school. The bus dropped me off at the top of the block and my house was second from the end of the cul-de-sac. I had to pass about ten sets of homes to get to my end of the street, but I couldn’t see our driveway until I was only two houses away. I didn’t know until I was nearly home whether or not his car was in the driveway.

A slow tension built in my body as I walked that 150 yards each weekday. My chest tightened, and my stomach grew sour. I could feel myself rounding my shoulders to protect my heart. If the car was there, I would prepare to put my head down and walk straight for my room. If the house was empty, I would spread out and relax before my brothers arrived from their middle and elementary school busses. During that walk, I was suspended between fear and relaxation—not knowing which energy I would need to present with.

Many years later, I’ve found myself in a similar suspension. I needed to transform my life, but so many things had to be put in place. And then the deaths set me into grief. I find that too often, I round my shoulders and draw from fear to keep me moving through. Fear generates my motivation to go to work. Fear urges me to pay my bills. Fear motivates me to go to the doctor. Fear is at work in zillions of decisions. I move through the day preventing bad things from happening. And then I find there is no energy for joy or play or relaxation.

Sometimes, though, I can still the voices of fear and bring a laser focus to this very moment of time—to the life that exists right NOW, before anything bad has happened. Right NOW where this breath, the computer on my lap, the dog on the bed next to me, the clothes strewn around the room, the sun coming in the window, the sound of distant traffic, and the bird chirping on the fence outside my window is all there is. I can notice the aftertaste of coffee and feel of my glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. And I can draw from this moment right NOW to move me to… this next moment right NOW. The motivation to move into the next moment is only that the next moment is what arrives.

And here, right NOW, my chest cavity opens. I notice I’m not afraid because I’m not looking for a metaphorical car in the driveway. Not waiting for a shoe to drop. Can’t stop those shoes from dropping anyway, can we?

Here in this moment, enough energy is only needed to BE, not to produce or generate or fix or heal or… anything.

I’m practicing this laser focus in the mornings before I get started on my massive “to do” list because this is a better pot to draw from.

 

 

D is for Death

Jul 9
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

D is for Death

“When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.”
― Thich Nhat HanhNo Death, No Fear

You’ll think the subject of death a strange choice for someone who is focusing on “vitality” words. I would have thought so too until yesterday.

In the morning I got a sudden flurry of texts with bad news. A dear friend passed away. Suddenly. During the night. Alone in her home. She wasn’t even 60 yet. I want to tell you more about her, but I see that her family hasn’t posted anything about her passing on social media yet, so I’m not going to tell you her name or share identifying stories about her at this time. I’ll only say she’s someone I’ve blogged about before and she’s as dear to me as can be.

I was shocked by the news, and at first I wept for myself with pity that death had visited loss on me again. Too many losses in the last two years have left me raw, dangling at the edge of depression.

As the day wore on, I vacillated between tears and numbness. Then in the early evening, as I loaded my dishwasher and took care of a few other household tasks to give my mind some relief from heaviness, I began remembering several instances when my friend had comforted me during sad moments. And times when we’d collapsed into laughter together. Times when she’d depended on me for support. Times when she’d mocked my seriousness in exactly the right way at the right time. Memory after memory flooded in. Our friendship was an uncomplicated gift from beginning to end. Most of us don’t get many like that.

I felt a sudden rush of joy. Surprised, I sat down and let the feeling in and then I had an experience like nothing I’ve had before. My friend’s energy was in the room with me. I’m not saying her disembodied spirit was there—I’m not claiming she was literally visiting me (who knows?). What I’m saying is that I had conjured her laughter, simplicity, and salt-of-the-earth generosity with my memories.

My friend and I had run A LOT of miles together over the years. Out on the trail we talked about everything. From frivolous to grave, our conversations meandered. I can’t think of many topics we didn’t touch on at some point because we had so much time for wandering trains of thought. Because of this, I knew what she believed about death. I knew she wasn’t afraid of it. Expected an afterlife. Held that she would see loved ones again. In fact, she was one of the few people I’ve ever believed when she claimed not to be afraid of dying. Her phrase was, “When it’s my time, I’ll go,” and she made decisions in her life based on that assertion.

This morning as I woke (unlike yesterday morning when I received the news), I could feel myself making peace with death himself. He visits EVERY SINGLE ONE of us. Usually he comes many times for those around us before he brings us to the end of our own lives. He visits us because it is his only job. Everyone you know and everyone I know will transition out of this life. With my friend’s passing, I’m seeing that I can’t be happy unless I stop standing in front of this ocean, stop trying to keep back the coming tide with my hands held in front of me like a police officer directing traffic to halt. For the most part, dying isn’t in our control, so we waste our precious life resisting it, don’t we?

Something opened up in my chest yesterday. Today I’m breathing in gratitude for what has been instead of grief for what will not be. I know my friend would prefer this perspective. Gratitude is how she guided her life.