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.
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.
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
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems
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