Catching Up with Life – Practicing Faith

Beech Mountain, NC ©2018 JRobin Whitley

‘When the powers of nature are the focus of your awareness and your thoughts, you come near to spirit, near to the source of all life. This is why most people love to walk in the woods or by the sea: they come close to the original source, and it is healing just to be in its presence. It cleanses you, brings peace of mind, touches your heart and brings you home to your soul.’
~ Chris Luttichau

The past few weeks I’ve been out of town. I was only gone for two weeks and it’s summer so I wasn’t worried about my condo. The dog went with me, so no worries about that either. Yet, here it is a week later and I’m still catching up on getting my home back in shape.

While gone, nature didn’t stop being nature. The bills and emails all those things that make up “daily life” at home, still happened. I don’t have a personal secretary (though my dog Birdie thinks she is my boss). There’s no maid that comes to clean.

I left my condo clean and in order so that when we came back, we could just pick right up where we left. My hosts and family allowed me to wash my clothing too so that when I got back, all I had to do was unpack. Sounds perfect doesn’t it? We go on a trip, have fun, see family and come home and everything works out perfectly. We might as well laugh at ourselves when we think anything in life works out perfectly.

Murphy’s Law is something most of us are taught at an early age. Yet, even at this age, I remain the idealist. If I plan it, it is so or will be so. No, that’s not really working for me for those who may ask. It means to continue facing disappointments. I remain hopeful nonetheless. Not hopeful that the world will turn as I plan or that life will stop with disappointments. My hope is in something hard to describe. Many call it faith.

As I write, my heart and mind are aware of the many who no longer want to talk about God or the church. It’s understandable because as a lesbian,  there are those around me who still discuss my sinfulness. The irony of it all is how boring my life is when compared to most folks. That’s not to say we can’t be boring and commit sins. I just wonder how they know so much about the state of my soul.

Faith. We use the word willy-nilly at times in the Christian tradition. I say that because it’s one of those words all Christians are supposed to use. Perhaps we use it too quickly. One of my spiritual directors told me never to pray for patience or faith. We laughed about it because I had been praying for both. Why did she say what she did? Because in order to have patience, one has to learn to wait. In order to have faith, one must learn to endure trials.

Oddly enough, the writing that helped me embrace a more realistic way of looking at faith is Herman Hesse’s book, Siddhartha. If you’re curious, the link is an open source PDF for reading the book. I always prefer a real book rather than its electronic version. I like being able to hold it in my hand. That’s beside the point. What helped me look at my faith differently by reading the book happened BECAUSE it was outside of my tradition.

As I try to summarize what helped me in the book, I find that the BBC’s description of Buddhism best summarizes both the book and what I could see in Hesse’s writing:

“Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life and do not worship gods or deities.”

BBC Religions

 

This sentence, in particular, strikes me, “…Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life.” This blog started out with a quote about nature and it’s because I think the natural world is one that best teaches about the blessings of

A tree with prayer flags.

faith. A tree does what it does and it’s neither right nor wrong, but it just is a tree. The beauty of a tree reaching to the sky never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

Sometimes it seems that those of us who grew up in the church (and the South perhaps) think that if we have faith, nothing will go wrong in life. Some of the more fundamental Christian churches will preach that way. Perhaps it’s something that is the undercurrent in all of the churches in the South. I can’t speak for anywhere else.

Yet, we all know so many good people who have horrible things happen to them. Faith won’t make us be something else. Real faith as I now begin to see it means to accept what is and know that there’s a way through the trial. The way may not be fun and most likely won’t be pretty. When we have a community of loving and kind people, then we can have faith to get through the challenge.

In two or three weeks, life really threw me some curveballs. Nothing that means the end of the world for me, but there are trials with no clear way through. There are things happening to beloved family members and all I can do is be here and be me. I have no magic and I cannot take the pain of life away from them. It’s hard to watch someone you love suffer. My thoughts return to the tree. All we can do is remain a steadfast presence for those who need us.

Many of us know Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I first heard of the book at some event in college. Some group was doing a skit of the story. I’ve read it and told the story many times throughout the years. I think of it when I walk among the wonderful trees in my neighborhood. There are many gifts the tree “gives” but the essence of the book throughout is the power of presence.

Faith does not try to make us something other than that which we are. As I talked with my priest about the challenges my family is facing right now, he said, “Just be you Robin. Just be you.” As my beloved aunt fades, my nephew and his wife walk through a dark valley, as my niece and her husband seek hope, I am helpless to DO anything. Yes, I can pray, but the larger part of praying is learning to BE PRESENT to the holy. Only once we are present can we know the act that is necessary.

Life is holy, sacred, and good. Yes, it can also be pernicious and in the worst of times, feel like hell. The power of presence is that our loving and kind presence can transform those hard times into gold. Not the gold we can sell, but the golden light of the soul. The light of the soul that comes from being present to yourself in life, being present to nature, being present to the Other.

 

 

 

 

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My Own Kind of Pride Celebration – Juneteenth 2018

Though this year has been challenging in many ways, it has also been good. I’m having my own kind of pride celebration now. I’ve been blessed to have accomplished a lot of my life goals. After finishing my third book, I have been thinking about the next creative project. Do I start on book two of the series? Do I do the audiobooks I wanted to do? Or music? Music keeps playing into my heart and mind, perhaps it’s time for music to be created. But what about painting? Am I giving up on painting?

Bread & Wine – Watercolor

The truth I realized is that I paint when I am happy and content. Maybe that’s why people liked my paintings, they came from feeling loved and happy. It’s not that I am unhappy here on Beech Mountain, but I am still unsettled. Having lived here for almost a year, it is beginning to feel like home. I can’t say I am content, though I love the solitude.

One of the challenges I face as my art grows is how to balance the sacred and what some would call the profane of my life. I am a lesbian who is also Christian. For me, the lesbian part is as sacred as the church connected part. I have always been a religious person and I knew at an early age I was different. I didn’t know the word “lesbian” until I was older.

Once I learned the word, I can’t say I was proud of being one. Every time it was spoken during that time, it was in a condemning way or a way that sounded dirty. I wasn’t dirty or mean, just afraid. It’s only after decades of practicing saying that, “I am a lesbian” that I can say it without feeling my heart in my throat.

 

In today’s climate of hatred, I am cautious again. After being in a town where I was free to be who I am, I’ve felt I had to be more careful here. I didn’t know anyone on the mountain and for the longest time thought I had to be the only lesbian on the mountain. I’ve learned that I’m not, but like me, those who live here tend to keep to themselves. I’m okay with that. There is still comfort in knowing that there is someone who gets me on the mountain even if we aren’t close.

Passion Flower – Watercolor

Today I decided that I wanted to write about being proud of being a lesbian. It’s taken years of prayer and good counseling to get to the place where I can be proud of who I am instead of afraid of who I am. My goal in life has always been to serve G_d and one day to find the right person for me. After my recent divorce, I may have to accept that there is not a person for me. I am okay with that for the most part. We all have our moments. But back to my topic of being proud.

Growing up, we were discouraged from being proud in a braggart way. I’m glad of that. There was, however, a pride that was a family way of being. We were hard workers. We were smart and quick learners. None of us were (or are) perfect, but all of us are good, decent people. Just because I am a lesbian doesn’t make me any less of a good, decent, person.

 

People have accused me of things I’ve never even thought about doing. I will state again that I am of a religious mindset. Most of my thoughts are theological or musical when I’m not worried about hurting someone’s feelings. As I age, and my activities are limited due to health challenges, my thoughts turn to quality. I want to be better at writing, playing music, drawing or painting, living. I want to be good at living. This is something I can be proud of and exclaim to the world.



I am celebrating Pride Month in my own quiet way. I can’t get to the parades. My heart and mind are focused on what is happening in our political landscape for the immigrants right now. I want to find ways that I can encourage those who are still able to physically get involved and encourage the rest of us to keep heart.

 

A little bit of light will go a long way. Be proud of your light whoever you are, whatever color your light casts. You matter. I matter too. The more we embrace the goodness of each being, the better our world becomes. I hope you take time to listen to the Victor Wooten song below. His song is full of the good news of life and I believe it speaks my truth. I see God in you. I see God in me.

 

 

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New Music Coming

I have been so busy with writing in the past year that music took a back seat in many ways. It is time to get back into creating new music as well as keeping up with the old. Many of my readers were after me to begin the sequel to my novel. My mind wanted to complete my short story collection. My muse, however, has other ideas and they are all musical!

 

Dan Shepherd and Robin play guitar for congregational sing-a-long. Photo by Pan McCaslin

 

Anyone who knows me knows that I have always loved church music. We just completed a wonderful concert at Holy Cross where we also sang with Banner Elk Presbyterian’s Choir. I hope to have a link later this week on Robin’s Radio for you to hear the concert if you like sacred music. Elaine Kallested*, our choir director, has given me a chance to play on an anthem and play with the congregational sing-a-long. Dan, the guitarist who plays with me here, was nice enough to also allow me to play with the Holy Smokes group and sing a few harmonies.  I loved that we sang some songs I grew up singing with my Whitley family.

 

It was great to be able to play my guitar again. I’ve not played as much as I want since moving here. It also makes me want to play and sing more. I will be playing two solo pieces for worship on June 17th if you are in the area. My hope is also to begin singing in Beech Mountain and Banner Elk

Singing jazz and blues at It’s By Nature Gallery in Sylva, 2012.

when I find the right venues. As I practice, I miss playing with my friend David Brewin and The Shepherd’s String Choir. The difference playing with another artist or a band is that the performance pressure is eased with other musicians. I am still new to the area though.

 

I was blessed to have the opportunity to sing at an event sponsored by the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation. My realtor, Irene Sawyer, helped me find a great place to live AND she gave me the opportunity to sing for an appreciation dinner for patients and their caregivers. The event was held at The Chetola Resort lake area in Blowing Rock and will be held again in the fall. I’m going to be able to sing there again, but my hope is that I can find other ways to sing in this area.

 

For those of you who haven’t heard my music yet, let me tell you a little bit. Though my formal training was in voice (classical), I play guitar and sing a variety of music. These days, I usually only get to sing classical music with the church choir. My preferred genres to sing at gigs are folk, pop, blues, and jazz. You can hear a bit of my original music too. Though songwriting is not my strength, I have written some songs. Ordinary Miracles was my first CD and it came out in 2015 after being awarded an artist’s grant from Jackson County’s Arts Council. The CD has a folksy feel which was my goal.

The next CD I would like to put together is one of the English Country Dance Tunes that David Brewin and I played together. There are not many of these songs recorded. They are rewarding to play and relaxing to listen to. You can hear them and buy them online at J. Robin Whitley’s CD Baby site. Since I no longer live in the same town as David, it may be a while before we can get more of the tunes recorded. He is also back working at his blacksmithing job. As he often says, “blacksmithing pays more than music”. While that’s true, I certainly hope that David finds it worthwhile to record a few more pieces. His musician interpretation and skill as a lead guitarist is a gift to all who listen.

 

 

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*Elaine Kallestad is an Organist and Choir Director based in Boone, NC. Serving as a musician at Holy Cross Episcopal Church for 11 years, her church music career spans more than three decades.  She has worked in both large and small church parishes in Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Freiburg, Germany.  Her work has also been ecumenical as she served in many different denominations, including Episcopal, ELCA Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Methodist, and Evangelical.  Her studies include the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (Organ Performance) from The University of Texas at Austin, a Master of Music degree (Organ Performance/Church Music) from University of North Texas, and additional studies in Organ and Musicology from Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany.

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Beech Mountain and a May Rain

The morning is rainy, but it is a pleasant May rain. The smells are the earthy smells of a summer rain. The birds still sing as though the sun still shone. A kettle for tea boils on the stove. The dog sleeps on the couch. Swishing sounds come through the open window as a car passes far below. The month of May moves quicker than usual it seems. Though, if I am honest with myself, so has this entire year. Not that I’ve lived on Beech Mountain an entire year yet, but if time continues to click by so fast, the anniversary of my move will be here in a flash and not a tick or a tock.

At this writing, I am pleased to have made it through my first winter in the East Coast’s highest town. The below zero temps and copious snows made it the best winter in many ways, and the worst in others. It wasn’t the worst winter I’ve lived through though. Tecumseh, OK still holds that record in my life. This winter, as I made a fire to keep pipes from freezing, I gave thanks for that winter in Tecumseh because I had learned how to keep a fire going.

The trees are finally greening out here. It seemed to take longer than when I lived in Sylva, but that is hours South of here and which means it’s much warmer. Even the Southern Appalachians got snow this year. Beech Mountain had a snow in May in 2017, so there’s still that. I’m not worried though. My Fiat made it through the winter without ever having to use the tire chains.

 

When I first traded my 4WD Rogue for the Fiat 500, my friends made fun of my choice and warned me it would always be in the shop. The joke wasn’t going to be about my car, because it is a new Fiat. They had to be thinking of the old ones. My way of debunking their joke was to change the meaning of FIAT to this, Fine In Any Terrain. I have had to replace my windshield wipers, but they did a ton of work in the short time I’ve lived here.

A view from my Fiat this winter.

Beech Mountain is a dusty place. Partly it is the fact that there are a lot of dirt roads up here. The dirt roads are well maintained, but they are still dirt. Add the wind to the mixture of elements and even if one didn’t live on a dirt road like me, dust is bound to swirl. The dirt road in Tecumseh, well, that prepared me for the worst case of anything. This dirt road near my condo seems like a dream road.

 

How can a dirt road be a dream road? First you have to know that I was raised in the country. I learned to love dirt roads growing up. The first best dirt road led to my

Parking for the Orchard Falls Hike.

Grandma and Grandpa Whitley’s farm. During the summer when things got dry, even rolling up the windows (before air conditioned cars) to keep from dust getting into the car became an adventure. Dad wouldn’t drive to fast, but he also didn’t want dirt in his cars.

 

My second favorite dirt road led down behind the house where I grew up. As kids, our parents and the Thompson family would often walk that dirt road to my Aunt Imogene’s house in the summer. There were times we rode bikes and when dad could hitch the pony to the cart, some would ride in the cart. Down that dirt road lived the Hatleys. They always had a dog that scared the daylights out of me, but they were always so nice and it was the only place I was brave enough to go sell items for school fund raisers.

My sister and I loved to ride bikes on that dirt road. Once we learned how to get past the Hatley’s dog safely, we kept that road busy. My sister and I both loved nature and bike riding. We would ride to the Bull Hill area or to Aunt Imogene’s and back. We often raced down the last part of the hill as though we were motorcyclists in some race. After my sister had a bad crash (this was before bicycle helmets), we were more cautious in the downhill races. We still loved this dirt road and took it anytime we could.

Barn – Watercolor by JRobin Whitley 2014

 

The thing I love about the dirt roads here is that in addition to being well kept, they are good for walking. As a person who is in constant pain, one of the most recommended activities for such disabilities is walking. Yet, walking on concrete or asphalt worsens the pain. In Sylva, I tried to keep physical by walking up and down our road near the house. The asphalt only aggravated the pain and there wasn’t enough of a shoulder to walk on the shoulder of a road.

 

Here on Beech Mountain, in add

Deck of the SkyBar at 5506′ Beech Mountain.

ition to copious dirt roads, there are copious trails. There are places I could still bike if I had the balance to do so. There are mountain bikers and touring bikers who travel regularly on the mountain. The Beech Mountain Resort changes the ski lift to a bike lift in the summer. This week I found a way to get up to the SkyBar so I can attend one of the Mile-High Yoga classes.

 

There are many ways I can stay active and healthy here, while also being in tune with the ways my disabilities limit me. Just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean I am dead. I keep saying that to remind myself that there is still a lot I CAN do. I’m so excited to live here as the year begins because I want to hike more trails as I can. The beauty of living here full-time means that I can hike on my good days, but on days when I must stay inside, it’s like staying in a tree-house. There are always many ways I can just BE here on the mountain in peace.

 

Falls Trail

 

Rain is falling down my chimney and hitting on something that sounds like a bell chiming. It is raining hard now, but not a downpour. The birds have tucked into their nests and houses, only chirping randomly. The clock ticks peacefully on the wall. I pick up a book and a cup of coffee. Then, as I walk past my guitar, I change my mind and decide to sing a song of the blessing of warm rain.

 

יַעֲרֹ֤ף כַּמָּטָר֙ לִקְחִ֔י תִּזַּ֥ל כַּטַּ֖ל אִמְרָתִ֑י כִּשְׂעִירִ֣ם עֲלֵי־דֶ֔שֶׁא וְכִרְבִיבִ֖ים עֲלֵי־עֵֽשֶׂב׃

May my discourse come down as rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass (Deut. 32:2).

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Thoughts on Being

Living alone on Beech Mountain is certainly a process of living in the now. One of the important practices in meditation is learning to just be present to the moment. Thoughts on being are prevalent in all religious traditions. NPR even has a great radio show called On Being with Krista Tippett. She interviews great speakers from around the world to talk about being.

In my experience, being can be challenging if it means I must sit still. Sitting still is a type of challenge for me since I am a wiggly person. Since getting older, I also move to try and deal with the pain that is constantly

Grayson – He was a very good cat!

present in my body. For the best example of what I mean by merely being, think of a cat.  I no longer have a cat, but our cat, Grayson was great at being. I often called him my Buddha cat. It always seemed that when I was having problems paying attention to “being” instead of “doing”, Grayson was sitting at the window merely observing the world as it passed by.

My wife was better at being still than I was. But, learning to be present to the moment, as meant here, is more than being still. Just as Grayson was able to be all cat in his “being”, our being means to be all you and for me, all me without trying to be someone else. It means being present to all that makes up the person you are (not who you want to be). The only person who can know if one is good at that type of being is the individual.

A new part of my “being” has been very hard for me to accept. It is accepting my physical limitations as I accept my physical illness and challenge. Yet, as I continued to push and try to be who I was in the past, those actions only caused more harm to my body, peace of mind, and relationships with others.

Being a spiritual person has meant that in my life, I paid more attention to the interior process than the body. Constantly working to train the mind, heart, and soul to be godly was my vocation. That vocation played out in music and church work. I also enjoyed softball, biking, and hiking. Though competitive, there was no interest in harming myself to win.

Because of being attuned to my body, I thought that meant I took care of my body. Though I did in many ways, one of the most acceptable ways to destroy one’s health is also one of the most rewarded ways of destroying health. Many call it work and for me, it turned into workaholism.

Growing up, I knew at an early age I was a lesbian, though I didn’t know the word for it yet. I only knew that my crushes were on girls and I dreamed of growing up to marry a woman. I did have crushes on a few boys and those were the ones I spoke of aloud. But in my childhood dreams, I was the boy and I always had a girlfriend. That wasn’t happening as a child, but it was a dream. I learned quickly that I had to find ways to divert attention from myself. Luckily for me, work did the trick. It was also a good thing that I had a good singing voice. As I began to sing at school and at church, it seemed to be a good cover.

Many will ask what this has to do with “being” and I’m getting there. During this same time, I had always been a religious kid too. I was merely interested in God and the Bible without understanding the religious condemnation at the time. All these years later, it’s become clear that some of my natural gifts combined with my physical and intellectual capacity for work empowered me to become my own wizard of oz. The only thing is it caused me harm.

Busy all the time means that someone is ignored. Always on the go means several things: not eating right, missing quality time with friends and family, waste of natural resources. Sometimes a body has to stop. Rest. Rest is the part that we Americans want to leave out of the equation for happiness. I don’t mean vacations that require more money, time, or travel. I mean sleeping. Unwinding. Reading. Being quiet. What many call unplugging. Yet, many of us are afraid of unplugging because in that place of solitude and stillness we come face to face with who we really ARE.

There are some things that can be changed about who I am. I can cut my hair, wear different clothes or makeup, ink my skin. Yet those are all exterior changes to the body. The body is a temple for the source of our being. The changes we can make to our body are merely adornments. Not taking time to rest or listen to our heart and mind can cause physiological changes. Those are not the ones we want or need. What does it mean to be you? What makes you afraid to be you? How are you creating smokescreens to divert YOUR attention away from who you really are?

 

One of the things this place on Beech Mountain is not a thing, but a place. I have a place where I can be quiet and simply BE. Even the little town below us has a sticker with the word on it.  This sacred place allows me to let the dust of the world settle and see what remains. Every time I can be patient with myself and have courage, these things remain: G_d, spirit, music. Another way of saying that for me is faith, hope, and love. I must also admit to myself in those moments that there is an essence of life that is uniquely Robin. G_d does not want that essence to change for Robin was created for a divine purpose whether others recognize it or not.

 

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Robin will be giving a talk about her book and the power of community on May 5th in Albemarle, NC. Please join the conversation at Second Street Sundries at 1:00 p.m.

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