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Biding & Abiding

It’s scary! It’s a mystery! It’s Novel! These billboards of the mind have captivated me for two months of living in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. Collecting silver linings has kept me sane. So has connecting with other people, whether it’s with a wave or a Zoom, or a goofy quarantine video with Suz Doyle & friends. And then there’s the infinitely challenging practice of remembering again and again to look at what’s right in front of me. The cherry blossoms which cycle from bud to blossom to fruit right outside. The seed sprouts in the kitchen window. One step at a time, focused on noticing when I go too far into the future, or “borrow trouble”, as my dear 97-year-old friend Anna Marie tells me on Facetime, locked down in her wonderful nursing home.
 
I’ve been a good sport about everything in this interim world, tried to help out where I can and to “keep myself safe.” After all, most of the immediate casualties of the viral war are far away, so far, I think. But as time goes on, the novelty of the challenge starts to wear off. A voice keeps saying: Job well done! Now, where were we? Time to return to normal!  I’m just now beginning to realize that I’ve mostly been biding my time since this all began. As if everything will return to The World Before. Part of me has been patiently holding her breath and waiting for that to happen. I wrote a poem about that (see below). At this time of life, instead of going out and kissing strangers on the mouth, I put myself in a little Time Out.
 
Or Time In. There’s a luxury of time now to read a poem or write myself into deeper understanding. Time to read from an inspired or a sacred text or a book of meditations. Time to pray. Words from a hymn from my childhood come: Abide with Me. I go straight to YouTube, and there’s a clear voice (Audrey Assad), sweet and beautiful, singing the old, bittersweet melody, still healing and relevant to many stricken by the virus.
 
And I take the only path that brings me home. The choice to truly abide in all of it, with and without the silver linings. This is the new life, I think. A life of holding close to the slowing, the staying, to the world as it appears to be, ever greener and bluer and full of daily miracles. More words come unbidden, like the ink dripping from my pen. And that poem is still being written.
 
May we all learn new ways of Abiding together.

SgB

 

Biding

This complicated engine parks at the station,  
And we wait for some signal of what’s coming
from some far distance.
I hear birdsong and not sirens
Count calendar days and not the stricken.
One of the lucky and protected ones,
I take the measure of life at full stop.
I feel the pulse of relief inside the fear.
I always wanted to slow down, I think
As I light a candle. Sigh once and twice.

But the body count mounts, somewhere far away.
Shaking up attempts at sleep, jumbling dreams
This too will pass, I think
As I stir the soup, feed the starter, make the brownies,
Help with masks, ride the bike, trek into the stars.
I’ll bide my time. Wait this thing out, I think
But this doesn’t keep it from coming
straight at me, a ghost stalking silently in ever closer circles.

Distraction is best, I think.
I stir the soup, write the check, eat the brownies,
Walk the body, Zoom the friends, wear the mask. Plant the seeds.
This will be over soon, I think, waiting and biding away.
But I long to get these hands good and dirty,
to go out and hug strangers,
maybe even kiss them on the mouth.

Does Weathering a Quarantine Make me a Better Person?

When I was seven years old, I was quarantined with Scarlet Fever. Given a room to myself outside of the family fray, with only a radio for comfort and food delivered to my room, it wasn’t half bad. After all, I was getting lots of TLC with none of the responsibility that this usually entailed. I was a voracious reader who wasn’t allowed to use her eyes. My little room had a radio whose only station brought the news and country/gospel music so important to my small southern Missouri town.

I discovered boredom. Then I started noticing something I called my “big self,” which seemed huge, able to see me while I was me, both in me and outside of myself. I thought of it as God or maybe angels. I floated out there for a while, and then I landed back in my little girl self. I have a vivid memory of looking at my legs and discovering they were skinnier. I had boney knees just like the cool girls in second grade. I was coming out of quarantine a better person.

I want that to be true this time, although I could care less about the bones in my bionic knees, as long as they take me on the walks in fresh air so necessary right now. But I want to see my life from more than a social distance. I want to be able to recognize the hidden gifts, despite all the anxiety and fear. I want to remain deeply curious and open to the world of suffering without being overwhelmed. I want to show up in all my authenticity from my “big self” as I try to wrap my head around this almost global quarantine.

As my heart breaks for the losses of so many humans I’ll never know and the more immediate ones close to me, it breaks open too. Last week I finally dissolved into sobs when I learned that a dear friend was hospitalized by the Novel Coronavirus Sledgehammer. After the sadness was the physical relief of tears, and I remembered what I’ve always known: tears are a lubricant that allows the heart to expand. Many times a day I send prayers winging to all those whose losses I hear about daily. I cry or rage at the unfairness. Then I cover my face with a mask. I write a check to the food bank. I connect with friends far and near. I set up some Zoom calls. And now I sit down to write to you. Having surrendered to the feelings, I can see little things I can do from my own little place in the Universe. I’m able to act.

I don’t know if this makes me a better person, but I do know that growing my heart so it’s big enough to hold the whole mess and take small actions makes me happier. I’ve discovered so many things from this distance-beyond-social distance during the last month, but one thing stands out. I want to stay in touch with my human tribe during these times. And that would be you.

I’m simplifying my mailings to merge my blog posts and newsletters. I plan to post short reflections, called “Water from the Well,” once or twice a month. At least once a season (around each solstice or equinox), these will be longer and will be embedded with a curated list of all the amazing resources my inner librarian keeps collecting. As always, if this no longer serves you, please unsubscribe. Your inner freedom is important to me.

All love, from the Distance-Beyond-Social Distance,
Susan Grace

The Courage to Look Under the Hood

I’m not a mechanic, although I experimented with it once, when I was 23. My husband and I owned (and lived in) the required VW van that summer. A funky hippie book called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive became our bible. I decided to try my hand at tuning up our VW bus, thinking this would prove my commitment to the feminist cause. It so happens that this was just before my Midwest parents’ first trip to visit me in my newlywed life in the Oregon forest. The result of my efforts under the hood was a stalled van by the side of the road, a rental car, and a unique camping experience.  This is a longer story, and a good one, but not for now.

And yet…somehow this all seems relevant today. Life in these particular times seems to engage my inner mechanic, the quick-fix problem solver. But when I rely too heavily on this approach, I always discover how very difficult it is to just remember to keep in tune from the inside out, to take the time to check in with myself before taking the next action. This is especially true when the outer world presents so very many invitations to solve problems in advance (think COVID 19). A big part of my identity rests on coming up with solutions, something that often provides huge immediate pay-off. It’s also an ancient habitual loop for me, stemming from a belief I’ve had since I was about two years old.  Life Rule #1: I’ll be okay once everyone around me is okay. But the long arcing spiral of reality has taught me that there’s always another problem right around the corner to solve, either for them or for me. And it’s never over.

Lately I’ve been supporting and maintaining relationships with loved ones who have given me lots of chances to focus on their needs, their fears, their problems. Glad to help, except for one thing. If I do this for too long, it gets more and more difficult to find my way back to myself. My habitual landing place in my journal is preempted by lists and responsibilities. Meditation gets trickier as the mind just keeps answering each thought with solutions. Top off this tendency with a generous helping of worry about global or political news, and it seems hopeless.

Pretty soon I don’t even want to open the engine compartment to look under the hood. Who cares about my authentic thoughts or feelings, anyway? I think. All you need to do is (Fill in the blank: Use hand sanitizer. meditate more, eat less, find a new diet, eliminate dairy, get more cardio every day.) There’s a strange pay-off to this because sometimes I’d simply rather live in denial or avoidance. Also (and this is important), sometimes I just don’t want to feel things, so being an Instant Helper is a useful dodge.

But even more important, there’s that big part of me that wants to protect herself and keep things exactly like they are. The one who fears the changes that might come from truly listening to my inner guru. So instead of applying a flexible mind and the curiosity to see what I might do differently in my life, instead of showing up for me, I perseverate about all the sources of worry around me. I overdo my preparations for all the scary possibilities, and I lose myself in fear. When I do this, I also lose my effectiveness as someone who hasn’t abandoned herself to the fears so rampant in the so-called Real World. I’m no longer that person I want to be, the one who can hold the bigger context in the midst of all the flights that imagination offers.

When I’ve abandoned my inner life to the ongoing needs that the outward world seems to demand, I’m simply not functioning on all cylinders. As hard as I crank on the ignition, it just doesn’t seem to start. So I leave myself behind by the side of the road while I take the sleek new rental car, filled with others’ thoughts and feelings and advice, for yet another spin. The funny thing is that, when I do slow down and give attention to that still small voice, there it is. Humming away, as it has been all along, that pure neglected inner guide who has been drowned out by all the demanding voices, inside and out.

This thing is worth not forgetting: the hardest shift of all is to even remember to slow down and calm down enough to listen to my inner wisdom. When I do, I remember that, yes, it takes courage to peek inside and look at what’s really going on. At first it often feels awkward because that timid inner being is deeply distrustful, for good reason.  But once I remember this, I’m better capable of making that 180-degree shift. I have the courage to overcome the influence of others’ fear loops and look under the hood. I say a prayer, meditate, take a long walk in nature. And there she is, patiently waiting while I’ve given my heart and attention to all the so-called problems around me.  I open my journal or find my laptop, and I listen. And listen. And listen. The gas line clears, the tuning light comes on, I begin to question assumptions that no longer work. Clarity appears, gradually.

The inner tuning light flickers on and then holds. All because I found the courage to open that engine compartment, to take the risk to find my way back home.

Mermaid Life / Walrus Life

Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be a Mermaid.
Then Always Be a Mermaid.

Every morning these words, carved on a plaque directly across from my meditation space, greet me. I’m in my Ocean room, a space dedicated to my Orisha, Yemaya. Some explanation: In 2003, I visited Cuba to learn about Afro-Cuban folklore and music. While there, I discovered Orishas, archetypal guardian spirits who guide your life, according to the Santeria faith. Curious about who my archetypal fairy godmother might be, I requested a formal divination. I met with three Babalaos (or priests), who chanted and tossed black and white stones on the floor. After some discussion, their conclusion was unanimous: Yemaya, the ocean. My Orisha.  

Returning home and sponge-painting a room blue to create an underwater cove, I remembered the Santeria priests’ warning. Yemaya must have an anchor. In the mythology, her other half is Okulun, who lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Unseen, he anchors her so the waves don’t tip her over. Since then, every time I go near the ocean I take a small blue jar of water with a tiny anchor inside. In a tiny private ritual, I fill it with ocean water and take it home to place on my altar.

Also in my meditation space is an altar with objects that serve as totems, or wayfinding symbols to take me back to my essential self. When I light a candle, I see the blue bottle and I’m reminded to be anchored in the mystery of that which cannot be seen. I often see meditation as a time to dip into a watery, less linear state of mind. It helps me remember a different self than the one who navigates the daylight world and reacts to the challenges served up by everyday land-bound reality.

In that dreamy underworld space, I can swim with purposeful abandon, gracefully flip my mermaid tail and dive to clean underwater castles and shipwrecks. My inner life as a mermaid is pristine, uncluttered with daily compromises and responsibilities. I treasure this mermaid world. It’s a place where I can commune with the ineffable essence of the deep unknown and still stay anchored to my inner world with equanimity. But then there are the twists and turns that real life brings up. The troubling feelings and thoughts that keep coming back for examination, requiring a look at less charming aspects of my inner life.

That’s where the walrus Walrus comes in. Long ago in Anchorage, I spent hours in a tourist shop seeking a totem, a “power animal” to call my name. My eyes kept coming back to a tiny walrus, carved from ivory tusk. This attraction definitely wasn’t what I’d planned. I had in mind something sleek (say, a wolf) or something sturdy (like a bear or a moose, even). Definitely not a large, blubbery animal who’s mostly stationary.  

But there she was, refusing to let go of my imagination. I bought the tiny icon and brought it home. Then I did a little pre-Google research on walruses.  They feed in the mud and muck, excavating for their food by using their extremely sensitive whiskers, “mustacial vibrissae,” as detection devices. I can relate to that, I thought as I placed my tiny totem on a small craggy rock on my altar. And there she has perched for thirty years. A reminder of the nutrition to be gained from the darker challenges that life offers.  Over time I have been reminded that what is pretty or acceptable or even graceful or fun may not take me to my deepest truth. My walrus amulet reminds me to be brave and to learn to have compassion for less attractive or appealing parts of myself.

She serves as a reminder that, as much as I love the pretty mermaid dive, sometimes her song may be a distraction fueled by denial.  Over time I’ve learned to trust something I think of as the walrus dive. I’ve learned to value shadow work, which has taken me into (and through) the troubling, ugly, unacceptable things in the world and in myself. Through extensive inquiry, I’ve discovered that even the pettiest or most troubling thoughts and feelings deserve respect.  The walrus world may not be as pretty or pristine as my imaginary mermaid world. But when I dive into the muck and messiness of my thinking, I often discover the innocence of even the darkest recesses of the psyche,  I return feeling truly anchored in the truth and kindness of the deepest mystery.

The Tastiness of Reality

I’ve been carried into the new decade on the tail end of a flu comet, one that wiped out the last couple weeks of the old year. Just before that, Ram Dass, a spiritual guide to me and thousands of others, took flight. As I begin 2020 and think about his brilliance at summing up the life of the soul, I’m remembering his reminder to me, words I have carried for years: You aren’t a pumpkin. You aren’t a mother. You are a soul.

As I resurfaced from Influenzaland, in time for the New Years, I was reminded of other wise words of Ram Dass: Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality. I’ve been sitting with that as I think about what my Planning Self might list as goals (or even intentions) for the coming year. But this Planning Self still had the brain fog of flu.

Luckily for me, years ago I realized New Year’s Resolutions haven’t worked out because in truth most anything good in my life has come from inside out. And so I set aside Epiphany, on Jan. 6th for reflection, celebrating my own personal holiday. And so this year, once again I remembered what I’ve always known. Change comes for me at its own speed. From a slight pause and a step to the side. Often the new way comes as natural as breathing, from inspiration to exhalation, a bridge between the old world and the new. Now that I can breathe, now that the flu is gone, I can trust all of it and measure my intentions, mixed with reality. May you find your own breath, your own voice, your own way, remembering the tastiness of reality, even sweeter than your planning self might believe.

Savoring Sweet Speed Bumps

Signs reading Tope seem to sprout every few blocks throughout Mexico. You don’t even need to know Spanish to figure this out. The body is a pretty good translator after a couple of times: Tope means Speed Bump, it tells me. This is a lesson quickly learned and frequently repeated, especially in rural areas of the country.

I returned a couple of weeks ago from an amazing Muertos (as in the film Coco) fall trip. The two weeks since then I’ve been unpacking, physically and spiritually.  In normal times this would be enough of a Time Out before the coming of holiday festivities. Instead, as one friend described, I’ve been more or less waterboarded by facts, images and cries for attention from every quadrant of life, from physical and financial details to media to consumerism.

Overwhelmed by this hyperstimulation, I’ve completely reassessed holiday activities and plans. In the past I’ve managed holidays every which way: doing it all, going away, giving up Hanukkah for Christmas and Christmas for Hanukkah and everything else for Lent. Every year I pare down my list of celebrations and gifts and social commitments, with varying degrees of success. But I still tend to approach the season as something I need to get through, with creativity and panache and a prayer, until I can get to my favorite holiday of Epiphany in early January, once all the stress and arrangements and celebrations are all over. Not a great way to treat the whole month of December, which I could be savoring if it just didn’t all feel like too much.

What I need right about now is a good Tope, I realized this morning. No, I thought, I need several, sprinkled through the next month. A little space, a pause, a backbeat syncopation, a quick-pulsed silence. This thought allowed for another, less habituated voice. Call it the Inner Witness. Loving Awareness. Call it Restraint. Call it taking a moment to just to breathe, in the words of a song written by my favorite daughter, performed here by the Singing Out choir in Toronto.

Now that my family commitments are fewer, now that I’m more careful about staying out of overwhelm, I’m so aware of the cost of always being on, of joining with the cultural consensus on overdoing that seems to define the season.  I chose to take a break today from anything that is absolutely non-essential to ask myself how I can be most useful.

Then it came to me. I can be a Tope! I thought. I can move just a little slower, perhaps. Or take several mini-pauses throughout the day. I can aspire to be a person who might be actually able to compensate for some of the holiday crazies, having suffered through it myself and lived to tell about it. As a client who I just finished talking to articulated, I can Chill the F~ Out.

Yes, I thought, this is about chilling out as I engage with the bells and the lights of the season (on cruise control, if possible). And it’s about warmth too, as I slow down with a hot cup of cider for a good conversation now and then. But most of all it’s about speed bumps. Lots of sweet little speed bumps.  

Photo by Mariana123castro [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Between the Living and the Dead

The Halloween fear factor stopped grabbing my attention years ago. Adrenaline shows up enough in my life at irregular intervals without my courting it. The allure of tiny candy bars and packages of promising an immediate sugar lift has taken a little longer. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s something even more primal than cortisol and sugar about this time of year.

The slant of light. The rapid encroaching darkness. The allure of a good bonfire. It’s bone deep. And so for a while I‘ve settled into Celtic New Year or Samhain, which better fits the feel of the season for me. Bonfires. Pumpkins. This ancient pagan tradition honors the thin veil between the living and the dead, and it also falls exactly between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice on Oct. 31st. It’s a time when the mysterious space between the two reveals itself. The next day, All Soul’s Day, in many Christian traditions, a time to pray for the dead. I’ve done all of the above.

For many years I’ve heard about The Day of the Dead in Mexico. I love the Mexican people. I loved the Coco movie. I’ve been particularly intrigued for a long time by the indigenous cultures in southern Mexico. Then a few weeks ago a friend offered us his place in Oaxaca, Mexico next week for the festivities. It’s a city full of art, life beauty. So how could I say no Muertos?  I’m delighted as a metaphysical tourist, but I’m intrigued at a much deeper level.

Lately my life has been reminding me of the encroachment of the ultimate Mystery, as loved ones leaving this world one by one. My brother. A beloved healer and friend. There’s a sense of loss and grief and then a wondering. The numinous space between worlds has beckoned in recent poems I’ve been writing,. Some of my buddies have called them my “Bardo poems.”  (In Buddhism, Bardo refers to the transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth).  

And so next week I’m extending my curiosity about the season celebrating the living and the dead by traveling south to Oaxaca City to share in the joyous reunion of families. We plan to walk in cemeteries, appreciating the beautiful connection between families alive and their departed. I plan to admire the beauty of the family ofrendas and build one for my own dearly departed.

There’s a certain soft, numinous beauty in anticipating it all. To be continued…as life and death seem to just keep playing on the edges of my everyday reality.

Biting, Pinching, and Love

I have two younger brothers. I only bit one of them. Honest. It was during a heat wave mid-summer. Mother spread a quilt in the yard under the locust tree. I was five, and my baby brother was four months old. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the cutest, sweetest, softest thing ever. I wanted to pinch his cheeks. No. An urge came over me. I wanted to bite him. Just like in the Gingerbread Man story. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so much. And so I took a bite of his little thigh. He wailed.  Mother searched for clues. a bee? A diaper pin? I put on my already perfected innocent face, and I got by with it. Good job, me.

For years I secretly believed that this impulse made me abnormal. But it turns out that even regular people barely contain their urge to pinch cheeks or hold cute things a little too close. Or bite them, even. Social scientists have labeled this “cute aggression.” More about that here.

About forty years later, I got word that the same brother was entering end-stage liver failure.  I took a red-eye from Oregon to Missouri. When I got there, the doctor said he had about 48 hours to live, so we all went about saying our goodbyes. At first he was non-responsive, and then at one point he asked me to call his friends. He talked to each of them and told them he loved them. His daughters, ages 9 and 11, were in the room with us.  I mopped out his mouth with a swab, a palliative care practice that the nurses had suggested.  There was a sense of completion.

His eyes popped opened and he looked at me straight on.

What’s going on, Susan?

I decided there was no point in hiding the truth.

You seem to be dying, Mark.

He pointed his finger at me and said,

Bite me.

Seriously? I thought. How did he know?  This was spooky. I imagined that his life had flashed in front of him and he had finally seen through me. The gig was up, I thought, after all these years.

I can’t die. I’ve gotta help raise my girls, he said.

I stayed with him as he went in and out of a coma state for three weeks.

During visiting hours I was assigned to the corner space.

Then he’d point at me and say, My sister says I’m dying. But I’m going to be around for my girls.

Bite me.

I was glad to serve as motivation, and he did rally. All grown-up, instead of biting him I gave him lots of shoulder and back rubs. And he was able to get a new liver, thanks to the donor and many angels along the way. It lasted him 16 years.

And he did indeed raise two amazing young women.

But last week it was time to really say goodbye, as organ after organ failed. I will miss him, but I find solace in knowing that he completed his mission. Without biting or being bit again, as far as I know.

A Birthday Madrone & A Manicure

I keep forgetting and remembering and forgetting everything I know to be true. In the rapid flow of things, keeping track of habits that no longer serve me is often beyond my mindfulness capacity. But when I take time out of my life to slow things down, an insight almost always emerges that allows me to remember again.  And so for many years I’ve used my mid-summer birthday to do just that. This year I indulged myself in an introvert’s delight: a (mostly) silent retreat dedicated to quieting down.

I joined a very small group of women, blanketing ourselves in meditation and yoga and nature.  I took slow walks, determined to  steer my thinking back to these things: A lake. A hillside of rhododendrons. A blue ceiling peeks through the giant fir and cedar trees. But it was a little madrone tree that caught my attention.

The Pacific Madrone is native to a small swath of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s a bit exotic to a not-native Oregonian. At first I was struck by its sheer beauty, its shedding paper-like layers exposing a rainbow in a natural palette. As I stood in quietude, I reflected on the layers and layers of life I have lived in the last seven decades, the last fifty years of marriage, the last forty years of householding and family. The papery bark was splintered and worn, even more beautiful contrasted against other times, other layers.

Then I learned that the madrone sheds its bark every other year, and I wondered whether this was its birthday. As I walked along, I came across another tree, a smaller and older one, with a grey body and leafless limbs. I looked closer. Inside the carcass a hardy green stem was volunteering. Soon the old limb would fall away to make way for the vital green center. Life was already beginning to renew itself.  I stood still for a few minutes, my mind further silenced by the Way of Things.

In the days that have followed, returning to this everyday world, I have forgotten and remembered and forgotten many of the things I learned. But the beauty of those layers and the brilliance of the green core of life have stayed with me. I begin again, a little shabby from wear, but retreaded and ready for the next year.

But just for good measure, when I return to my everyday life, I take myself out for a manicure and pedicure. I quietly celebrate the layers I continue to shed, and I choose a color that reminds me of the newness waiting to be discovered.  For a time, these often-busy hands will remind me of what I might forget.  

Birdsong Solstice

As solstices go, the winter one gets most of the press here above the equator. Perhaps it quells the primal need for the comfort and serves as a cosmic reminder that the darkness of the season is not a one-way ticket into forever darkness. For whatever reason, nearly every culture north or south, the longest night of the year is met with candles, lights, fires.  We gather in the cold and dark for the warmth of the human community and to remind ourselves that the sun (or son, however we spell hope for the future) is once again being reborn.

But Summer Solstice is like a younger sibling that doesn’t stand a chance here in my hemisphere. After all, there’s so very much to do in the warm weather. Graduations. Weddings. Festivals. Road Trips. Air Trips. Home Improvements. Family Reunions. Not to mention Gardening. Swimming. Hiking.  And then there’s the summer Beach Reading List, somehow closely tied to the imperative to relax! Quick!  And on. And on.  Most of us are so carried up in the joyful whirlpool and the busy-ness of summer activity that there’s no time out until fall.

This is the exact opposite of the actual source of the word Solstice itself (rooted in Latin for “sol” or “sun,” combined with “sistere” for “standing still.”)  Especially at Summer Solstice, ancients observed that the sun seems to stand still in its seasonal movement before reversing direction and moving on in its inevitable trajectory to the next season.  Situated as we are in our whirlpool of activity, we tend to forget the “standing still” part.  Whether or not it’s possible to set aside the actual longest day of the year for some stillness, most of us can use a little time out sometime during this week to catch our breath (if nothing else) before jumping back into the whirlpool.

I write this now as the sun stands still above me for a few minutes, as I reflect on sundown two days ago, on June 21. For the very first time this year I was privileged to honor the season in a way that fit me just right. I’m a member of Jubilate, a choir of women of all ages. This year we sang at a benefit for a local wildlife refuge, to celebrate the upcoming full dive into summer. During rehearsals last week, we listened between songs, inviting migrating birds to join us as we sang. The quieter we got between practicing our parts, the more willing they were to show up.

Then we gathered on Solstice itself to sing and celebrate nature under a canopy of tall trees. The resulting performance/ritual was a potent combination of praise for the earth and a plea for justice in the world. As we sang and listened and sang and listened, poetry of birdsong and woman-song merged, and the movement of the earth seemed suspended in the stillness. What emerged was a deep gratitude for this world, punctuated by birdsong. And so it is that I’m doing my own personal re-branding of Summer Solstice. Birdsong Solstice. A time out. A sweet pause in this greenest of seasons to thank the world for continuing to spin.

After the Fire: The Kindness of Truth

Spring Cleaning this year has a vengeance all its own in my home. We decided to go for it, and to (get this) remove everything from our under-the-house crawl space/basement. Did I mention that we’re digging out the floor so we can stand erect? Did I mention that the ceiling is fiberglass poking out of sagging chicken wire? Did I mention that it contains the overflow of 40-plus years of living? That we’ve raised two kids, helping move their stuff in and out with regularity through various ages and stages? That this includes their twenties?

When we consulted with a company about replacing the ceiling, a very concerned contractor pointed out a fire-blackened suitcase, worried that we had an undetected fire down below. We opened it and found it stuffed with the singed and charred remains of a life. The life my son lived before his apartment hit flash point in a fire about twelve years ago. Living alone, he defied medical logic, waking up instead of falling prey to oxygen deprivation.  He got himself out alive, and his place hit flash point a minute after he walked out the door, wrapped in a neighbor’s blanket. This qualifies as Number 1 on my personal list of inexplicable and miraculous life experiences.

Opening the suitcase, crouched in the basement, we discover a curious collection of items: old tech manuals, a social security card, a few priceless mementos: post cards, birthday cards from family and friends. These are all that’s left from the period we now refer to as “before the fire.” When I called him in his “after the fire” life to share my find, he said he remembered where he had kept these: in his file cabinet. Apparently, the thin metal frame was an over-achiever at its job and functioned much like a strong box, keeping a tiny bit of his past away from the flames.  

I salute its loyalty as I stand here now, holding a birthday card blackened around the edges. It’s an old Far Side cartoon card with a caption on the front that reads What really happened in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn on the night of the Great Chicago Fire. There’s a cartoon drawing of a goat, a pig, and a cow. The goat, holding a match just behind the pink pig’s butt, says to the cow, who is looking on, Ha! That was a real flame thrower.  Now it’s your turn to light one up!

Get it?

On the inside the card says Hope that your birthday’s a real blow out. The card was signed Johanna, and she gave it to him six months before the fire. Inside she had written, “on second thought, I feel I may need to clarify that. I do not mean it literally. Please.” This was followed by her birthday promise, the offer to make curtains for his entire apartment. She doesn’t remember how or why she chose that particular card or wrote those lines. And the curtains were never made.

I don’t know how this kind of thing happens. But it’s not the first time I’ve been humbled by the unexplainable way of things. As I look at the card today, posted right here on my bulletin board, I’m left with no logical answers. Mind is stumped, as it is every single time I come face to face with events that defy logic and yet have the audacity to still exist, rocking my world a little off its certain center.

The big miracle, of course, is his survival. And then after that is a trail of little ones, always shyly hiding at life’s edges, the reminder of an unseen world that I often don’t notice.  But when I do remember to trace the thread of Mystery, I discover a truth that is stranger (and kinder) than the fiction we create from past memories. But I am grateful for all of it.

“F”ing the Ineffable

I am 5 years old. For a brief moment, I’m alone, on a break from my usual job of making sure everybody in my family of five is fine. Sitting under the locust tree on a hot summer afternoon, I look up at branches, then sky. And I suddenly know something I had long ago forgotten. A voice, in my bones;

You are not your name.  You never were.

I repeat the syllables over and over: Sue Son Hi Sner (Susan Heisner). They fell like nonsense. And then there was Big Feeling, a very very big one, this world place beyond the name. Past this place they called the world.  It seemed like I was there, too, with that voice that told me about names.  I knew right away that this was the greatest and biggest feeling ever. I made a note in my little-girl self, “Remember. Think about this every night. Right after the prayer that says I might die.”

And then the words stopped.  I had no idea how to even try to describe this to my ever-present mother, who knew everything about me. Even as a chatty and loquacious child I knew no words to describe how big this territory was. It became my secret, this deep sense of enormity and unity.

If not her, then who am I?

I would forget and remember and forget and remember this for the next sixty-plus years. And yet this one moment, one of my very few memories from childhood, would guide my curious and inquiring nature.

Each time I try to describe it, I’ve come to the edge of language and been forced to leap into metaphor. I’ve landed on a continent often lost, but one that I knew to have always existed inside, beyond, around, and below and above this name, this particular “me.”

It lives in the land of the Ineffable, The Home to Everything That Doesn’t Know or Need Language.

The land of mystics and poets and artists.

The land of forever. And yet also the land of now.

Always ineffable.

And yet…I keep trying to “eff” it. I’ve dedicated myself to finding the words, images, sensations, definitions, stories, reminders of what is truly true.

The light and indescribable and ineffable and nameless essence of me.

The landing in the subtle and wordless silence of all that is.

Which does (and doesn’t) have a name.

Because that is the mystic’s path, and, like it or not, that makes it mine.

Unstuffing My Double Stuffed Life

Oreos may be my favorite cookie, and cookies are my biggest weakness. That’s why I’ve banned them from my life, my home, my conscious awareness for the last twenty years. But nowadays I’m figuring out how to live beyond harsh restrictions and trust my relationship with any food. And so I’ve become slightly more open to questioning my assumptions.  Oreos pose a slippery slope of temptation that I haven’t honestly been able to trust myself to climb until now.

I was surprised the other night when a comedy spoof about Double-stuffed Oreos caught my attention. I was never the kind of kid who opened them up and slowly licked off the gooey white center. My strategy was to pop half of one in my mouth and chew them up quick while nobody was watching. So this new sticky, lard-like development in food technology called “double stuffing” was no big challenge of will power for me.

But the image of being double stuffed has caught my fancy. I see the evidence of overstuffed lives all around me. This is clearly a big deal in this hyper-stimulating world, and I’m hardly immune. Even though it’s been on ongoing practice for me to de-clutter possessions and clothing, I sometimes feel like I’m holding back an avalanche. And then there’s my schedule. It’s carefully curated and controlled so that I can keep all my commitments to everybody else and still include myself.  My tendency when overwhelmed is to just try harder and do more, and I become the best CEO of my own life possible. All in an attempt to hold all the stuffing.  After that, I revert back to my Type E woman self, a hangover from my thirties not completely resolved by a wonderful self-help book of that time. The subtitle is Everything to Everybody, and I don’t think I’m alone in this unconscious pattern.

My life becomes dedicated to a complex net of support and care-taking, community, relationship, family, spiritual practice, exercise. And then there are the “hobbies” like singing, reading, and writing. Not to mention the work that I love, supporting and challenging my clients as they grow and thrive.  Sometimes this life feels triple-stuffed. And, it’s no coincidence that my body feels the same.  Because when my life is too stuffed, I use my “got-to” of eating for comfort or to get some instant energy or to fog out the feelings of overwhelm.

All these warning signs tell me it’s time to unstuff my life ASAP. I’ve learned that the best course of action at this point is non-action. I double down on meditation, longing for a permanent retreat from it all. But by the time my stuffed life is at this stage of overflow, long silent retreats aren’t the immediate resolution I need. Short-term solutions are my best response as I move through this ordinary life. This might be as simple as locking the bathroom door and breathing deeply for a few minutes. Or sitting down each morning to meditate for ten minutes or to fumblingly write my way to the light of clarity, a practice which goes by the wayside when I’m so busy with Everything and Everybody Else.

Ironically I’m finding a Rescue Remedy in the very technology that creates the overstimulation. I’ve become a podcast junkie in the last few years, and I’ve had to learn to curate my list to avoid over-stuffed ears. A couple of these which have made the cut because they’ve been a balm to the nervous system are Nocturne and Nothing Much Happens Here. The last one is my newest love, offering Sleep Stories that are such a refuge and antidote for the too-muchness that is sometimes my life.

I’ve also been trying out a couple of apps to refine my meditation practice and to drop into sleep more easily: Calm and Waking Up. Both of these are beautifully designed and both involve a monthly subscription fee, so they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for everybody, including me. Starting today I’m participating in a two-month “online retreat” with Adyashanti, a teacher for whom I have great respect, to refine and reinforce my commitment to unstuffing my overfull brain. My clear declaration of  intention, as God (and you) are my witnesses: To Unstuff my Overstuffed Life.

Photo by Flickr user “theimpulsivebuy,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, cropped

 

Prayer…?

What is prayer? This is a question that has followed me for years. The answers have shifted with my relationship to the mystery of life. I’ve explored it in my personal journal, with my spiritual advisors, within my meditations. I’ve tried to summarize all of this in an essay and failed miserably. Which led to more questions, and a few heart-known answers. My mantra, my prayer nowadays?  Show me what I’m missing.

I did my best to summarize the process in this poem, partially written last spring. I offer it to you on this cold January morning.

 

Prayer …?

I no longer kneel because my newly minted knees don’t like it.

Not bowing, I forget humility sometimes.

Bedtime prayers so I can face another day

Breath and mantra to calm the lizard,

To welcome Hypnos, invite Orpheus

Any spell that would let me finally let go.

 

How good it once was to lay my burdens down.

To surrender to that mysterious Force.

There’s an urgency these days

A desperate need to not waste a precious prayer

When so much is at stake. I stop, frozen.

 

How to say something real and true?

Caught by a familiar undertow of confusion,

Help! Something inside cries out.

Then words arrive.

May I stay with in the Tempo of My Own Understanding

Yes. That’s it, I think. The Big Ask.  A place where help is needed.

How very fragile the temple of my Understanding seems from day to day.

I listen again. More words:

 

Not temple. Tempo, you lame brain!

Don’t bore me with your philosophy.

Listen to me.

There are things that need solving.

So many.

Interesting problems.

With staccato solutions.

Do this. Do that. Be clear. Be here.

 

Good point,

I think, lost in the list.

But then this morning arrived.

The sun woke the birds.

Slowly. The stream bubbled hello. Flowingly.

Then, caught in a faint rhythm from this solid turning earth,

For one second.

Quiet.

 

This is what I keep forgetting, I remember.

The world reveals her beauty despite its warts and blemishes.

And then a new prayer arrives:

May I see what I’m missing?

I listen again.

For any tempo, perhaps a quickening.

A tiny double beat here, a giddy possibility there.

 

Solid but with a trill.

Along with the constant constant constant beat

Of the pulse that holds it all.

Now. Now. Now. Now.

Not then. Or When. 

Only now. Now. Now.