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Now . . . A Pause from Self-Improvement

Who is this one who’s convinced she must improve me?

She tramped through the oxalis on a wet January evening, wondering at the recirculating advice device that seemed to be her brain.

A “retreat of solitude.” That’s the way she had described her coming week in the half-collapsed cabin, hunkering up to a leaky wood stove.

“Alone with my own thoughts” she had said. “Away from the breakneck speed of screens, terrorists, presidential candidates. (Really? Him? Again? She thought. That’s reason enough to hide in the woods for two years, not just a week.)

She had loved the packing for her one-woman, one-week Thoureau-esque sojourn.

Figs. Almond butter. Five kinds of tea. A dozen candles. One flower in a pot. Two soft, well-worn comforters. A quilt made by her Grandma Esther. Layers of warm, soft clothing and pajamas. Two pair of slippers and one pair of boots.

Chocolate. Now she had anticipated everything.  

And then, after a two-hour drive through the mountains, she had arrived. Unpacked. Lit a fire. Fondly surveyed the ambience. It was just as she had imagined it.

But now what?

There was a buzz in her ears. She’d never noticed that before. Was it the after-sounds from the drive there? Tinnitus? No matter, she thought. She decided to lie down, rest from the road noise.

And the internal voices weaved in and out, up and down. Full of their bad advice, she thought, remembering her favorite poem. She slept. When she awoke it was twilight. She grabbed a couple of figs and a handful of nuts. Drank the last of her coconut water, the fuel for the trip here.  Then she slept without dreams in the complete silence of the forest.

The buzz was still there when she opened her eyes at first light, an alto mosquito in her ears keeping her company. So much for the silence that brought me here, she thought.

After that, the buzz seemed to have set up a station in the center of her brain. It reminded her of the sweet, calm voice that had guided her to create her getaway. Only this drone was far more bossy.

First thing tomorrow you’ve got to start walking. Four blocks at first, then each day more.

When she opened her journal and picked up her gel pen, she noticed a list taking form.  She  scribbled away, in awe of the force that had overtaken her. Finally she had to pause to let her wrist unwind.

She re-read the words that had spewed over the page.

It was a bucket list for self-improvement.

Cut your hair.

Lose twenty pounds. Before summer.

Sign up for that Spanish class.

Adopt an Indonesian girl through the Save a Child Foundation that guy on the bus keeps telling me about.

Organize the photos of my family. My life.

Oh yes! My spiritual life! Meditate. Make use of this journal to find the rich inner vein. Get silent.

That’s why she’d taken the retreat! She’d almost forgotten.

After that, on and on. Someone inside her head had a very full agenda for her.

I’m my own makeover project, she thought.

She tugged on her boots, desperate to escape her out–of-control inner Pygmalion.

At once she was welcomed by the mist. As it settled over her hair and jacket, she felt an instinctive pull to the creek below. As she strode toward the creek she noticed she was walking faster and faster, as if she were trying to escape a stalker. She superstitiously glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. She stopped. Filled her lungs with the moist air. Exhaled. Filled her lungs again with the lichen-laced beauty of the surrounding scrub oaks.

Glancing up, there it was. A doe. The word floated through her mind. (A female deer, the voice sang).

But then, for a breath or maybe two, she stood, their eyes locking. And there was no word for the feeling. One being. And there was also no word for the Silence.

The Wildish Truth

Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar.  We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.

But it’s Cheryl’s unassuming-yet-profoundly-deep writer self that has drawn me to learn from her as a memoirist and a writer. After spending a week last summer in a retreat that she led, my writing became more honest and gritty. The rainbows and ponies all but disappeared.  And I continue to feel the draw to memoir, fed by brave writers everywhere as I piece away at telling my own life tales of trauma and healing, my own ongoing journey of transformation.

Last week Strayed spoke to an overflowing audience of thousands here in my medium-sized college town.  Her honesty packs a wallop with a whole lot of people, it seems. She was full of anecdotes and good spirits, as usual. And a bit starry-eyed from the Hollywood attention and it’s deeper power of healing below the buzz. She shared a wealth of healing moments and metaphors within the story and the film.

She rolled her eyes at the relief of reviewers who loved Witherspoon for portraying a “not nice” woman on screen. “I think I was nice all along,” she grinned. “But what I learned from the journey, which was a journey of transformation, in the end, was not the quick “aha!” of the usual Hollywood solution. I wanted to portray what was real for me.”

 “I learned what transformation looks like: one foot in front of the other. A gradual and ordinary, gentle sense of acceptance.

It’s learning to accept what’s true. That what’s true is true. It’s an incredibly radical thing. I don’t want it to be true…that I have to live without my mother. But I will. And I can do it well.”

And this is why I love Cheryl Strayed and the message of her memoir Wild.

Her burdens, so different from those I carry, are also mine.  And her growing understanding about what is true…really, matches my own. Really.

 

Starting Close In

To learn a poem by heart is to feel it in my body. To learn a poem by heart is to live with it in my pocket. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. For a time I forgot how it feels to stay close to my own marrow with a poem as my guide.

But sometime a couple of months ago, Irene, one of my beloved yoga teachers, read a David Whyte poem I’d never heard before. (Wonder of wonders!)

And I was hooked. I found it. Tucked it in my bag. Took it with me to the hospital before my knee replacement surgery. For awhile afterwards my brain wasn’t hanging on to words very well. So I read it. A lot.

It felt like it was written solely (or soul-y) for me. It’s my constant companion in Physical Rehab, for reasons that are immediately obvious. But it has also become my heart’s mantra. Start close in.

And so I offer it to you. From the poet’s heart to my heart. To yours:

 

Start Close In

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

To find

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

listening

to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

When Liminal Time Meets Technology

It’s Epiphany morning. Here’s what I wrote at earliest light, following my purest intentions and my personal tradition of defining Epiphany as a time-out-of-time. Just before a tiny techno glitch grabbed me and shook me by the heels:

I love this liminal time.  The time between dark and light. I resist electricity and grope my way by candlelight before meditating each morning. The light grows gradually as I sit, then pick up my pen and journal and stumble my way back to waking awareness, writing all the while to remind myself of the intersection between the external world and my own voice, between the group heart and my own. The upheaval of the holidays is behind and what’s left is to live into the tender newness.

My morning practice of early January is resolution-free. I listen to the stirrings of newness, without acting or even making a “priority list.” My only goal is to find my own deepest commitments. It’s a time to clear the mind, a time of waiting and listening. Allowing the tumult to settle so my inner life can open into the deepest sea of kindness.

What I’ve learned is that Jan. 1st is just too soon after the holiday for me to hear my deeper promptings. So for many years, Epiphany, which happens to be today,  has felt like my own personal, quiet holiday. Some years I’ve spent the day in silence. Others I’ve dedicated the day to challenging myself to live in mindfulness (and forgiveness when I forget). Whatever I do, it’s a propitious date for settling once again into myself. 

What arrives from the transitional, liminal time, feels deeply grounded in kindness, rather than ego.

But what if whatever arrives comes from the ethers of technology? I hadn’t allowed for that . . .

At a pause in the writing/being state, I took just a little peek “to keep up with email.” Why not? I thought. I answered a couple of crucial ones and smiled as I glanced over the blogs and newsletters of a couple of friends. Peace. Kindness.

And the next moment I realized that I’d lost everything that had been patiently waiting for my response in my inbox. One of my soft resolutions this year has been to refrain from reacting to problems immediately, unless there’s a crisis.

And this. Was. A. Crisis. I was convinced, even as I saw it was not.

Technology has a way of interfering with my purest of intentions, just as it supports them. The proverbial horns of a dilemma. Do I disrupt the quietness of the morning by solving the email problem, which means asking for help from my loyal spouse, who is blessedly helpful and gifted at tech support?  (I know. I’m a very lucky woman.) Or do I continue savoring the silence and deal with it later? And, if I decide on the latter, will I truly let it be until then, or will concerns about the problem leak into this perfect clean slate of a day?

A sigh slipped out as I asked for help. Then a pause for gratefulness that I could ask and probably receive it.  Followed by a deep realization: this was not an either/or proposition. In the moment I could see the opportunity to do this one thing, deal with the missing email, in exactly the same way I would approach a day of silent meditation or dedicated writing time. With peace. Equanimity.

Freedom. And that is what I chose.

 

Where in your life could you choose to treat a hassle with a little more kindness?  What triggers the reactive compulsion for you? Just notice. Make a list and choose one. Check it out. Where do you have a choice to do something different?

 

“Candle Light Balcony Session” by Sven, CC by 2.0

My Not-So Silent Night and How I Recovered

Years ago, when my children were small, I set a modest goal of celebrating the return of light as it is practiced by most of the people of the world. My thought was that Winter Holiday was a chance to give my children an appreciation for global diversity at the same time they honored their own religious heritage. By Christmas Eve, what they had gained was a deep respect for Mother in Meltdown. Read More>>

To Gratefulness Leaves and Life as It Is

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I live far away from my blood kin, so we  created a new extended family right where we are. The same eight adults and eight children have celebrated Thanksgiving and other holidays for over twenty years together. We’re larger now that most of the kids have partners and some have babies. We’re pretty much like any other blood kin of aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents, complete with both beloved and annoying traits. On a holiday these are often one and the same. Read More>>

My Economic Meltup

“Economic melt down.” The words have been reverberating for more than a month now.  When it all began, I went right back to the amusement park in my mind, but I ended up taking the Roller Coaster from Hell. Come to find out, I wasn’t alone there.

“The mind is a place unto itself. It can make a hell of a heaven or a heaven of a hell,”  John Milton said. The news of the last week, as well as the month before, has placed a whole lot of folks in the latter, direct from the thrill ride of the election ups and downs, regardless of which candidate they favored.

As in any crisis, my first response was to think of myself. Shameless ego. First question: So what does this mean to my life?  I noticed the  second thing I did was to envision my family and loved ones with nothing. Very uplifting.  Whole lives in the gutter. Pain and helplessness. This image soon dissolved, fading into photos of soup lines in the Depression. Grapes of Wrath. Superimposed with the faces of everyone I know and love and millions I don’t know but might love. In a new technicolor release. Twenty-first century hell. Read More>>

2015 Visualization

Ever since Election Day, I’ve noticed my mind’s been a carnival or an amusement park. There’s the roller coaster, with emotional highs (mostly) and lows (some), based on my beliefs about whether the best candidate won or whether the ballot measure is just. Then there’s the spinner,  which mixes the news up with my opinions about it, twirls it around and around until my brain is dizzy. And then there’s the House of Fear, which replays scenes from past elections and leaders, re-playing all the scariest images of political assassinations from my youth.

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a soothing email suggestion. It puts my mind at ease and helps me find a seat on the bench, watching all the amusements from a peaceful distance.  I have no idea who the author is, but I’m grateful, and it’s simply too good not to share with you.

The year is 2015.  You glance at the television one morning and see Obama having another of his many press conferences.  He has now been in office for almost 8 years. Read More>>

Letting Go of Encumbrances

Fall has long been my favorite season. Once I came across these words (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), and they seemed to encapsulate everything I love about the season.

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. The fall season allows us to see our lives reflected in the beauty of the land all around us: the rolling hills, the harvested fields. The sturdy trees and the thrill of their colors, the harvest moon, the intoxicating chill in the morning air, the farm animals as they seek shelter from the cold. As the trees let go of their leaves so we too must let go of our encumbrances. And as we let go of all that is superfluous and unnecessary in our lives, we receive the gift of inner peace. Ultimately, this is autumn’s greatest gift to us.

Today I canvassed door to door to remind voters of tomorrow’s election. As I crunched through the fallen leaves,  I noticed my mind racing with fear and anxiety about the outcome.   I could see the purpose of trying to get out the vote, but how was my  obsessive thinking helping my candidate get elected? I decided to see my fearful thoughts as encumbrances that were falling with the leaves. Within a couple of blocks,  I noticed my mind grew a little calmer. It didn’t slow me down in my efforts to get my candidate elected, but it was a much more peaceful walk.

What encumbrances of thinking would you like to release this fall? If you’re in the mood, take a walk and watch them fall around you, along with the autumn leaves. See what you notice. The ones that don’t want to let go, the ones that are ready and surrender easily. They’re all there to help you on your way.

A Celtic Beginning

November 1st. The Halloween ghosts and goblins have gone home to divvy up their treats and  harvest festivals are upon us. Today (which actually began last night at dusk) is  Sawhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The word “bonfire” comes from the fires that were lit everywhere for safety from wandering spirits. The bones that were left after the New Year’s feasting were cast on the fire to burn.

I love all the pieces of ancient folklore I picked up in the twenty years I taught mythology. Every year at this time I celebrate coming indoors. In the shelter and protection from the rain and cold, I am grateful.

The first month of the new year was called Samonios, meaning “seed fall,” a reminder that from the seeds of darkness, new life will spring. Today I wonder what seeds are being nurtured within me.  It’s too soon to tell but I notice the mystery lives in that not knowing.

It’s in that spirit that I’m writing my first official Oasis blog. So instead of a post-sugar hangover this year, or in spite of it, I light a morning candle wondering and waiting, committing to the patience and curious to see what will come of this new beginning.

The Big Zero and My Aging Brain

What’s the big deal about approaching another decade?  Six-Oh. Six-Oh. Six-Oh. A few months away now, but increasingly the numbers echo in my brain.  Why does the simple zero at the end of a number give it so much power, especially when it’s applied to age? In fifth grade, I learned that a zero was a nothing, just a place holder. It can’t be multiplied or divided and it doesn’t count when you add or subtract.

But put it at the beginning of a new decade, like what was long ago ‘the big four-o” or more recently “the big five-o,” and it rises to a whole new level of significance. Greeting cards focus on these marker years. Their already lame jokes get less funny the higher you can count and the closer you personally come to the next big O. Read More>>

Who Would We Be Without Our Stories? (or How I Found Inquiry)

I love stories. I was an English teacher for twenty-five years; I taught mythology, where my first lecture always defined human as meaning-making animals. How did they make meaning? Through the stories they told each other about themselves and their world. Throughout my career I encouraged teens to read stories to each other, to themselves and to younger children. We told our own stories and then wrote them down and dived into the oral tradition by telling myths as they were meant to be told, in a circle with the lights off.  I created classes where kids could share from their deepest being the stories that they had lived, crying together and then creating new, healing stories.

Up close and personal, my own drama-filled story continued to teach me about something deep, archetypal, powerful.  I told my stories again and again wrote them down, and groped my way into meaning in the process. The stories I created about my stories had deeply changed my own life. And I knew the human bond of love that forms when people share their stories together.

So what attracted me to a process that asked the question, on bumper stickers yet, Who Would You be Without Your Story? I don’t know, except that when I first heard the question a gong rang deep inside.  Who would I be without my story?  The question was a silent opening beckoning me inside a new relationship with inner life. Read More>>

Navigating the Twilight Zone of Caring

It’s 4 A.M. The phone rings.  Your mind jumps into hyperspeed. Do you know where your child is? Your ailing parent? Your spouse or best friend?  Although you get to the phone before the answering machine picks up at ring five, the trip seems like slow-mo underwater ballet. You receive the dreaded news. This is bad. Real bad. Maybe you go to the room at the hospital with the puffy couches before they tell you how bad. But at some point soon it’s clear that someone will need to be fully available to manage the emergency for the foreseeable future.

You have just entered the Twilight Zone of Caring (TZC) that most of us will visit in our lives more often than we like to believe. Your world suddenly has nothing in common with the mild-mannered life you had been navigating only the day before.  All you know is that, for a time, you will need your best wits about you, perhaps served up with a little divine intervention, to be able to do truly help someone you love.

I’ve been to this netherworld more than once in my life. In fact, I’ve found myself there way more than you want to know. And in the process I’ve discovered amazing pools of reserves, a deep and calm wisdom, and a lot of good news in the middle of crises. The last time I made the trip was just this year, when my single twenty-something son was badly burned and lost everything in an apartment fire. When I first talked to the doctor at the Burn Center, he said we were about to begin a marathon. A marathon? I thought. Don’t people usually train for those? Read More>>