Altared Perceptions

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Altared Perceptions: Summer 2012- Cultivation

Published December 26, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Better late than never!!

What a great theme for our summer spiritual assignment!  The creative team worked July through September building a progressive decor as part of our cultivation.  The idea was to create a growing passion-flower, beginning small and climbing up the wall throughout the summer.  It also included the plant bearing fruit.

What a wonderful idea!  I love the choice of the passion flower for the summer assignment… what are we cultivating?  How can we not only make something grow, but how can we grow ourselves?

This was a great challenge for me.  Although I didn’t write about it, I did work on my challenge throughout the summer.

summer Altar 3

Summer Altar 1

 

 

My choice for growth came through the Symposium on Mythology in Santa Barbara, California, sponsored by the Pacifica Institute and the Joesph Campbell Foundation, as well as serving on the planning committee for the Celebrating the Mythic Life Conference held in New Paltz, New York.  My work with mythology is not only limited to what I do with students in the classroom, but in my personal journey.

In Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to share the myth-centered work I do with my students.  My hope for the presentation was to bring ideas to other educators to use in their own classes, particularly the creative writing project that we do.  Since that time in September, this has grown into an online blog featuring pictures of my students’ work, and the possibility of working with the Joseph Campbell Foundation on a 9-12 curriculum that features mythology while meeting the Common Core Standards and the PARCC framework.   Myth is such a strong part of who we are and how we relate to one another.

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As the church decor “grew”, so did my hopes for expanding upon what I consider to be very important work.  As the fruit began to appear, I started to see some of my dreams regarding both the Symposium and the Conference begin to come to fruition.

The Celebrating the Mythic Life Conference in New Paltz brought me growth of a more personal nature.  Partaking in ritual, listening to fabulous speakers, and actually immersing myself in mythology helped me to learn more about the archetypes that reside within me.  After having withdrawn from the world for some time, it was a way for me to begin to ease myself back from the cave.   It is still taking my some time to figure out what it is I really want for myself at this point in my life, but I do know that the work of Joseph Campbell will play a huge role in whatever it is that I will do!

The final stages of the decor, with its upward-stretching branches, reminded me to continue nurturing the work that I have been doing.   As I watched the vines grow, so did my spirit and my resolve to keep myth alive.

summer altar 7

 

 

 

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Altared Perceptions: March 2012- “Perception”

Published March 4, 2012 by Susan Woodward

According to Rev. Scott Taylor, “Perception is not always about getting it right; sometimes it’s about seeing it all–about noticing what we’re leaving out of the picture. Stepping back and getting a wider view doesn’t always come naturally. It takes work and intention, and some assistance.”

As I gazed at this month’s altar, I have to admit that my initial reaction was disappointment.  Not that it isn’t beautiful… it certainly is.  However, what I saw seemed so simplistic that I wondered what kind of meaning I could pull from it to tie in with this month’s theme of perception.  But then, after re-reading Scott’s words about stepping back and getting a wider view, I was also reminded of a wonderful quote from Wayne W. Dyer:

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

How’s that for gaining perspective?

And so I began to ask myself about the symbolic meaning of the chosen decorations… what message could I find in them for me this month that would help me in examining my own perceptions of the world?

First, I noticed the green background.  Green symbolizes growth and new beginnings… fitting for March as we await the Vernal Equinox and the promise of Spring.  I, too, am anxious for growth… growing past my fears and allowing myself to let new buds of knowledge and experience form as I enter the next phase of my life (I turned 50 two weeks ago, and evaluating what’s next has been predominant in my mind).  The areas I would like to tend and bring new growth to are in my writing and re-evaluating what I want to do with the rest of my life.  Am I making a difference with what I am doing?  Do I still have the same passion with all the added stress of the media view of public education and the mandates coming down from the state?  How do I perceive my role as an educator?  How AM I perceived by others?  The perception of students, parents, administrators, the general media, and even the governor sometimes has me wondering how much longer I might stay in this profession.  How can I truly grow in the classroom when I often feel constrained by the pressure of conforming to producing data on state tests?   Larger classes, administrative duties, added meetings… all these are taking time away from preparing for and doing what I truly want to do: teach.  Maybe if I can find another way to perceive what is going on, I can once again sense growth not only in my students, but in myself.

For the irises, I turned to a dictionary of flower symbolism, and this is what I found:

The flower symbolism associated with the iris is faith, wisdom, cherished friendship, hope, valor, and courage.  The iris is often used in Mary gardens because the blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows which ‘pierced her heart.’ Iris is a Greek name meaning “rainbow,” and in mythology, this is the name of a rainbow goddess (“Living Arts Originals”).

Altering perceptions in life definitely involves the list of qualities above, so how fitting to find an iris on this month’s altar!  How I perceive myself and my role in the educational field is certainly going to include having faith in myself, having the courage to stand up for what I feel is right for students in the classroom while being wise enough to still find a way to give the state what it wants, all the while hoping that I can strike that balance effectively.  On a personal level, I feel like the flower that has not yet fully bloomed.  I am not the tight bud because I am not closed off from the knowledge of what I need to do for myself, but I am nowhere near the full blossoms either.  I am that flower that is beginning to open to this new stage of life that holds such promise of beauty as long as I persevere on opening.

The iris is a perennial, its bulbs producing flowers year after year, unlike annuals that last for only one season.  I want the changes I make in my life at this new stage to be just as on-going instead of short lived.  Also, notice that the bulb is not planted in soil, but in a dish of water.  Its roots are not anchored to one place and is therefore more mobile, able to be moved easily.  This reminds me of the detached branches from last month’s altar… able to leave the trunk yet still flourish on their own.  It’s another reminder of freeing myself from anything that binds me… including the public education system if need be one day.

The piece of driftwood at the forefront of the altar is another reminder of this.  It is wood that broke away from its source and, usually via water, made its way in the world.  At first look, it seems to simply be a dead piece of wood that serves no purpose; yet if that is true, why do so many people collect it and put it in their gardens?  It may have been worn down by time and no longer produces any new  growth, but it is still revered as an object of beauty.  Who knows where this piece of wood originated as it broke away from the tree and moved on?  Who knows what it has seen of the world?  That’s how I’d like to view myself in my old age: a piece of driftwood that managed to detach itself, travel around, and still remain an object of beauty.  For something that appears at first glance to have no use, driftwood is still perceived by many as nature’s artwork… otherwise, why would people bother to pick it up and take it home for display?

Finally, we have the pussy willows.  I again turned to a dictionary of symbolism for their meaning:

The flower symbolism associated with pussy willows is motherhood. When grown commercially, pussy willow shoots are picked just as the buds expand in spring, and can last indefinitely once dried. The branches can be put in vases or the buds can be used for table decoration. Pussy willows are one of the earliest signs of spring (“Living Arts Originals”).

Another early sign of spring, like the iris and the green background… but notice that it says that the pussy willow can last indefinitely.  That’s what I want for the changes I wish to make in my life; I want them to be indefinite, not just for a season.  As a symbol of motherhood, I am reminded of my own role as a mother, and how my love for them is indefinite… even if I someday detach myself and make my own path elsewhere.  These pussy willows have been cut from their source, yet their simplistic beauty will linger.  That’s what I want for my relationship with my children.  Whether they are the ones to uproot and move onward or I am, I want them to know that my love will always be with them.

From my original perception of simplicity in this month’s altar, I am surprised and pleased by what I have found in taking the time to explore its beauty and finding meaning there for me.  Reiterating what Wayne W. Dyer said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

Source:

“Living Arts Originals.”  2008-2011.  <http://livingartsoriginals.com&gt;.

Altared Perceptions: February 2012- “Courage”

Published February 5, 2012 by Susan Woodward

“What makes a king out of a slave? What makes the flag on the mast post wave? What makes the Hottentots so hot? Who put the ape in apricot? What do they got that I ain’t got?”

“Courage” — and that is the theme of February.

This is something I have been struggling with for quite some time and now, as I approach the golden age of fifty in two weeks, is really a good time to find my reminder of that which I seek… my courage.   I know I have it, but reminding myself of that fact seems to fall short (see my earlier post “Lessons from the Yellow Brick Road” for more).

The “altar” this month reminds me of how courageous it is to let go of our comfort zone.  The branches of the tree from last month have now broken away from the trunk and are free to find their own way.   It reminds me of how difficult breaking away can be.  Who can imagine a branch flourishing without the trunk to sustain it?  Yet these branches fly free among the moon and stars of the Heavens.   Letting go of all that we have known and “branching out” on our own is a true act of courage.  I remember what it was like for me to leave everything behind and begin a new life in Rochester where I didn’t know a soul.   It scared the hell out of me.  Like the floating branches, I felt like I had no roots.  However, in detaching myself,  I discovered a whole new life I never could have imagined.  Has it been perfect?  No.  Was it the right thing to do?  A hearty yes!

Adorning the branches are the white flowers of last month along with both evergreens and new leaves.   For me, I am reminded of how the white flowers represented the winter snow on the January altar.  Winter is a season where all seems dead.   Growth has halted as the world is at rest.  But February (and Imbolc) brings the promise of new growth, which is symbolized by the green leaves and the evergreen branches.  This reiterates the courage in the detached branches, as it takes a brave soul to suffer the loss of the old ways to make way for the new.  Death of former patterns and things that no longer suit us has to be suffered through if we are to reach the new growth that awaits us.  Yet even though we may let go of parts that no longer suit us, there will always be that which remains to remind us of our beginnings.  The birds that soar with the branches once nestled in the tree left behind.   The birds had symbolized those we loved and nourished in January, and that love does not leave us, even as we leave and take flight.

I also noticed the blue color of the stars and the ring around the moon.  For me, this is a two-fold symbol.

First, leaving our comfort zone and all we know can be sad in many ways.  When fear rises, nostalgia has a tendency to kick in and make us long for the comfortable parts of the past, even if they don’t really suit us anymore.   That’s why some people fall back into old patterns when the new ones get difficult.   From my own experience, I fell (several times) back into an unfulfilling relationship because it was easier than being courageous enough to go on alone.  Nostalgia has a way of coloring the memory.

But blue is also a color of serenity and peace.  I can only find peace within myself by having the courage to detach and follow my bliss.

In this way, the blue of the stars and the ring around the moon represent this conflict.  Although it may be sad to leave and move onward, having the courage to follow our own path is what will ultimately bring peace.

The same conflicting symbolism holds true for the blue netting that floats above the branches.  It could be viewed as the safety net that may catch us if we fall once we’ve taken flight, or it just might be the net of the past that threatens to ensnare us if we lose our courage.

As a safety net, the blue could bring us the peace of knowing that we can often count on people from the past to be there to help, even as we branch out on our own.

On the flip side, it could represent things from the past that never quite leave our memories and could trap us if we let them.

As I ruminate about my own courage and think again on my earlier post, I know that I am still looking for that physical symbol as my reminder that I do have courage.   I need and want that reminder as I venture forth so that I will no longer fall into situations that threaten to trap me in old patterns.

Altared Perceptions: January 2012- “Love”

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Rev. Scott Taylor’s sermon today reiterated the monthly theme of “Love”, but focused on how lack of self-love has led to a “numbing” of our souls in always expecting the worst in situations.

I gazed quite intently at this month’s altar as I listened to Scott’s words.   The more I heard about self-doubt, self-criticism, self-loathing, and self-defeating behaviors, the more I saw the scarcity of branches on the tree.  It reminded me of how I have written about my feelings of being disconnected and isolated.   Before the decorations were added, I would highly doubt that even Charlie Brown would have chosen this as a Christmas tree!  It must have looked bare, scrawny, and neglected before the love was added.   So many times I, too, feel like that tree must have looked in its natural, undecorated state.  One of my Mayan-sized resolutions for 2012 is to work on that feeling inside myself by letting go of fear of rejection.  If I were this tree, I would certainly feel neglected, scrawny, insignificant, and not lovable.  Too often, I DO see myself that way (ok… not the scrawny part…), but in learning to let go of my fear of rejection, I can learn to love me.

Even the trees without an abundance of branches still have something to offer.  This tree is able to provide a branch for a bird feeder to offer sustenance to others.  Like the tree in December, this one also is a gift.   In loving myself, I can see what I CAN do for others instead of focusing on my self-imposed limitations.   The hearts can symbolize not only the love that the tree has for the birds in providing them with food during the cold times, but the love that the birds have for the tree in providing that food as well as perches to rest themselves upon.   No matter how I view myself, I know that I always have the ability to give to others who don’t see the limitations that I do when I look in the mirror.

The flowers at the base of the tree are white and remind us of the snow at this time of year (well, most often at this time of year, anyway… no snow presently in 2012!).   The snow is a blanket of beauty spread upon the Earth, but most often it is viewed as a reminder of the cold that surrounds us.  But this tree offers its gifts in the midst of the cold… a place to hang the bird feeder and a place for the birds to land and rest.   And winter is a resting time.  The Earth is at rest after working hard to provide its inhabitants with the food that we enjoy year round.   We all need a time to rest after hard work… winter reminds of that.  It’s a time to recharge our batteries to get ready for the work ahead.

The heart at the top of the tree is to remind us of love… love for others, as well as love for ourselves.  The tree top is placed on the tip-top of the trunk of the tree… the same trunk that I viewed as sparse and unwanted earlier.

Again, I am only sharing what I see in this month’s altar, and if anyone would like to add comments here, I welcome them gladly!

Altared Perceptions: December 2011- “Engagement”

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

The theme for the month of December 2011 was “engagement” and we were asked to think about how we not only engage with others, but how we engage with ourselves and the world at large.  

When I first saw the decorations in the church, I was awestruck.  I have always admired the creativity of those who decorate the sanctuary, but this really did blow me away.

The overall effect was quite dazzling, and this picture does not do it justice.  What I see about how this relates to the theme of “engagement” is how the tree is personifies the act of giving.  It reminds me of an earlier post that I wrote about For Giving, Not For Getting.   Notice that there aren’t any gifts under the tree.

This takes away the notion of “getting” something; however, the tree is shaped like a person, and the gift bow is ON the tree, symbolizing that the gift is the person herself  (I shall say “herself” because the tree is obviously depicted as a female!).

I also like the stance of the “person”: hands on hips as if to say, “Not what you were expecting, huh?”   For some, this might be surprising, like my students whose first question to me after returning to school after the holiday break was, “What did you get for Christmas?”

I loved the idea of engaging in being a gift to others instead of thinking about what one might “get” for the holidays.

The detail of the “head” of the person is a lit star.  For me, this symbolizes how we bring light to others.  No matter what tradition one celebrates at this time of year, light seems to be a central focus.  There is the Star of Bethlehem that the Wise Men followed, the lights of the Menorah to commemorate the continuation of light even after the oil ran low during Hanukkah, and even the return of the Sun God on the Winter Solstice for Earth-based believers.  No matter what one believes about the symbolism of the light, this reminds me that we should always strive to bring light to others, especially to those who live most of their lives in darkness.

The detail of the shoes makes me think about how I might try to “put myself in another’s shoes” more often.   As part of being a gift to others, what better gift could we give but one of empathy?  Not pity, or sympathy… but putting ourselves in their place and try to bring to them the most joy we can.  This applies to all year, not just during the holiday season.

The beauty of Nature was depicted by the snowflakes that descended on either side of the altar.   And true to the spirit of being kind to the Earth, the decorations were made out of scraps of tin foil and white plastic garbage bags.  Things that are normally thrown away in our society were transformed into something lovely.

While I am not entirely sure what the “Altar Society” had in mind when creating this work of art, these are my impressions.  I most certainly welcome any and all engaging comments… I would love to hear your thoughts about what you see!

Altared Perceptions

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Although I am not quite sure if the correct term at a Unitarian Universalist Church is “altar”, I thought the name of this new category I am adding was pretty clever, so I hope that Reverands Scott, Kaaren, and Jen will forgive me!

What has always struck me at our church are the beautifully decorated meditative focal points (ummm… altars?).    Ever since I became a member two years ago, I have admired the creative and thoughtfully poignant decorations in the sanctuary.   Each fits in with our monthly themes at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, and I have decided to share my thoughts about what these creative people have brought to us.

For the first two, I shall have to apologize for the picture quality as I was using my phone camera.   I took pictures of the December display, but it only occurred to me today to begin writing about them as I snapped a shot of the January altar.  Beginning in February, I will use my “real” camera and hope that the pictures will be of better quality!

This is a bit of background about the decor from Betty Jane Evans:

In case you didn’t already know, I’ll give you a little history. Madlyn Evans created the decor each week by herself from the beginning of our church until she retired several years ago, passing her leadership on to Anita Rosenfeld, who leads the decor team of Karen Evans (Madlyn’s daughter), Elaine Anderson, and me. We each do the decor one week each month except for holidays and/or special occasions (flexibility is essential) such as the decor that was up for nearly a month in December.

Thanks for sharing!

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