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Crappy 2020 Holiday Letter

About a month ago a friend sent me this meme. It was right after my husband and I escaped the firestorm in the ancient forest that melted our two-story cabin AND outhouse into a pool of scrap metal. Some might have thought it insensitive or in “poor taste,” whatever that is. I laughed a full belly laugh, for the first time in weeks. It fully captured everything words couldn’t.

I haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one to COVID or fire, so perhaps it’s easier for me to tap into a sense of the absurd. Lately, I’ve been thinking of writing a holiday letter for the first time in years. Instead of the cringe-worthy shiny happy facts of the classic letter, I envisioned a month-by-month list of unpleasant surprises, with various non-lethal outcomes.

For instance, this past month, after the fire, we planned on a do-over of the night of our actual anniversary, the day we were evacuated from our summer home. We chose my husband Geo’s birthday, and a friend offered us a couple of overnights at their cabin on the Oregon coast. A few days before the trip Geo began having severe nerve pain in a tooth. We thought we’d leave right on his birthday right after his visit to the endodontist to relieve the pain. Which couldn’t happen yet, apparently, although he was given something to relieve the symptoms. We went on our getaway to the coast anyway, and when we arrived we decided we could just peek at the first presidential debate that first night without spoiling the mood. Bad plan. We came home a day early, with tooth and heart pain active.

This was a week ago and so much has already transpired on the world scene that I’ve lost count. When I’m too tuned in to all the crazy bad news, fear just seems to follow and I quickly lose my sense of humor. I figure these experiences are a tiny sampling of what people around the world are experiencing during this longest year in recent human history. Our situation is different (and luckier) than most. I’m no longer responsible for the education of my children, grandchildren, or teenage students. Not caring for an elder with precarious health. We are healthy and virus free. We haven’t lived in lockdown for months, and we have tons of green space and good air, now that the smoke has cleared. For all these things I am truly grateful.

A new tally begins as I savor the lingering beauty of Indian summer. There’s a slant of light on the garden. A colorful green, gold, and orange backdrop as we circumnavigate the hills and town on our bikes. Gradually I let go of the Crappy 2020 Tally and the fear of the Dark Days Ahead. Tonight I’ll sit down to write a few letters encouraging my fellow citizens in Georgia to vote. I’ll call a friend whose father was just moved to hospice care. And maybe I’ll tune into a soothing escape show (Looking at you, Great British Baking Show.) Without the tally, it’s all just life, following the directions, one step at a time.

May you relish the absurd and the beautiful, of this entire messy world in this stressful but crucial season.

Be the love,

SgBDivider

 

 

Poem: Grandmother Snag
Redwood Snag

You were there in your place last Monday
before the fire winds spiraled in.
Half of you, anyway,
the top part ripped away long ago
leaving only
your red cedar shell,
small protection for your ancient heart.

Held fast to the hillside
by spruce, yew, fir cousins.
I showed you to my human mother
while she still had legs and heart
and she loved you too.
And now you are both with me,
still and rugged as ages
untouched by time or by fire

Susan Grace
Autumn, 2020

 

A Battle Cry for Love: Noli Timere Part 2

Love is Letting Go of Fear. I read this book over and over while nursing my daughter Johanna in 1982. Home on maternity leave, I made it a focus by asking myself every so often throughout the day when I was operating from love or from fear. (I’ve often thought this may have been my worst parenting advice ever for reasons involving safety. She was the kid who went down the slide face first while I stood by, no doubt meditating on fear and love.)

Today, adult Johanna continues to throw herself into everything she does. She has been deeply drawn to the yoga of Bhakti, the path of devotional love. How wild is that? I’m getting my comeuppance, shall we say.

I’m wearing my Nolo Timeri (Be Not Afraid) button for many reasons these days, and she’s one of them. Johanna has made her living for the last five years singing and teaching yoga at studios and churches and festivals throughout the country. I’m guessing you know what this means in COVID times. I’m still coaching myself about love and fear and reciting Nolo Timeri.

What does my “fearless” offspring do during quarantine? She finds a mantra online from some teacher in India, chants it daily, and adds her own twists. She asks all of her friends and colleagues to join her in a global mantra for healing. (Did I mention that she thinks very big?) She spends the summer, with the help of my bonus daughter Lyris, setting up an online studio and editing the videos sent in from dozens of Bhakti musicians. She’s hosting a new channel, One Heart TV, to unveil the new music video. And all profits will go to a foundation I love focused on helping children in Nepal, like my other bonus daughter Priti, who is still under lockdown there.

And Johanna is doing all this and going through with the formal release during an unprecedented conflagration of forests all around. Maybe this is what love looks like when you’re not afraid.Healing Mantra Sangha Cover Image With Names

What I do know is that watching the video and chanting this mantra along with Noli Timere bring me a sense of equanimity during a dark and smoky time.

This Tuesday, Sept. 15th at 5pm PST, you can join in the live premiere of this new music video, “Mantra Sangha: Health & Healing,” on Facebook and YouTube, or join the Zoom call to participate in the artist meet and greet. All the details are here.

Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid,
Susan Grace
 
P.S. I’ve discovered that Noli Timere were the last words of Irish poet/playwright Seamus Heaney, in a text message to his wife minutes before he died in 2013.

A Battle Cry for Life: Noli Timere Part 1

On Feb. 5th, just before the pandemic took over life as we knew it then, my friend Susie gave me a button that looks like this (Noli Timere is “Be Not Afraid” in Latin). I left it on the console of my parked car during the lockdown months. When I discovered it again a few weeks ago, its message took a deeper hold, amidst this summer of confusion, infection, and political craziness.

I decided it was just the message I needed to share in my world and made it my campaign button for the duration. And so I put it on my jacket last Sunday as we headed over to the mountains for a 51st anniversary trip to our summer home in Oregon’s old-growth forest. That evening as we sat in the deep greenness over the creek with some neighbors up the canyon, I shared my new campaign button. We talked about fear, mostly focused on Portland and the election. We slept the deep sleep of the forest. Twenty hours later, we were ordered to evacuate our cabin. I slipped on my jacket, along with my campaign button.

Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid.

Evacuating the cabin

Evacuating, looking back at the cabin

Breitenbush wildfire 2020

Driving away, looking back

 

 

We drove the two hours back to our year-round home, chased closely by gusty yellow, hurricane-level winds. Calvin, our dog, began trembling and hiding before we even left the cabin or smelled the smoke, and he shook all the way home. That night the firestorm burned the entire summer home community of about 70 cabins. This morning I slipped on my jacket once more, and there it was: my campaign badge, Noli Timere. Be Not Afraid.

These words come from the highly acclaimed 2019 epic novel Overstory, which encompasses the sacredness of all trees, all families, all beings. Much of the story is based on the timber battles of the 80’s here in the Pacific Northwest. I was here to witness that battle, that cry for the life of trees. I have since come to see the ongoing devastation of our forests and delicate climate caused by greed, ignorance, and selfishness, even as I savor my time at our little refuge in the forest.

Smoky Oregon airNoli Timere. Be Not Afraid. A Battle Cry for Life. Today I glance at the message as I slip on my jacket. We receive the news that most everything is gone. I look at the images of all the fires and furies attacking this land that I love.

We are safely sheltering from the heavy smoke in our year-round community now, unlike the thousands of my neighbors who lost everything a few days ago. Evacuees are everywhere here in this valley, and they are met with a truly astounding generosity. This outpouring has little to do with fear. I’m moved by the simple offering of human comfort, people to people, masks on and distanced socially, delivering blankets and food, knowing that our hearts know no distance.

P.S. Let me know if you’d like a Noli Timere button and I’ll let my friend know.

Dropping The Soggy Towel

Last Friday I found myself dangling above the current of a local river, on the advice of a boat-patrolling sheriff, who was busy catching up with my husband, somewhere downstream with the overturned canoe.

Earlier, in the instant that we were tipping over, I had grabbed my dry bag and a huge, funky, double-sized beach/picnic towel. I’ve never felt more one-pointed in my focus than I did once I got his directions. No matter what, I was to hold on to that branch (and my pack and towel). Ten minutes later, the rescue boat returned for me. After we made it back to the dock the sheriff handed back my items. The towel must’ve weighed fifteen or twenty pounds. But still I had clung to it. I had saved it.

He said people often do that. Hold on to whatever they’ve got, whether it helps or not. There’s a big lesson there. It reminds me of the way I’m holding on to my Sense of Myself as a Master of most anything, when there’s a sturdier branch, a kind of surrender to what actually supports me and always has. I’d like to drop the soggy towel now, please. A wish and a prayer.

Sitting at God’s Bus Stop

It’s Vacation Time, not the easiest assignment for the control freak that jumps into my body when the pandemic of stresses we call 2020 reaches a new level. My alarm system doesn’t even seem to know that it’s summer, some days. It just seems to go off without any provocation whatsoever. My days go most smoothly when I can truly stay present with what’s in front of me and handle essential decisions without getting caught in the grip of anxiety. Not an easy task, given the vigilance required to outsmart this virus. But vigilance fed by fear so easily tips into hypervigilance. Have you noticed?

So much of the future is completely unknowable right now. And yet plans do need to be made. It’s a highly complicated form of gambling involving hope, best guesses, prayer, and a toss of a lucky coin. Even those of us who aren’t in the direct path of the pandemic are taking calculated risks while attempting to live the lives that we have. And then along comes August. A time to let go. And the problem-solving mind, so helpful for daily vigilance has a few problems with that.

Hands off the steering wheel, my Wise Self reminds. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now, I calmly notice.  And then the scared creature-child inside pops out with one whiff of the news. See all the good reasons to steer? Really hard? She trots out all her proof, and I move from social-distancing-and-face-covering-hand-washing caution to trying to control everyone around me, in ways subtle and not-so subtle. And the cycle continues, from fear to letting go of what I can’t control (most of it), and then reverting to all the Life Controlling Skills that seemed to work so well before, back when I believed that life could be controlled.

It’s a tricky business…

The other day I heard someone talk about “sitting at God’s Bus Stop.” This reminded me of some of my best memories of traveling, when all I could do was just that: wait at a bus stop or a train station or airport until I knew what to do next. Often this was the time when I could truly observe and experience my surroundings. For me, that’s about as close as one can get to the Mystery of life we sometimes call God.

So that’s how I’m spending my summer from now on. Giving my mind a vacation. For me God’s Bus Stop looks like this: hanging out in nature, listening for what is true and good and holy. I’m lucky to be able to go “off grid” at our rustic mountain cabin for days at a time, without phone or news. When I realize the world keeps turning without me, I come back with a calmer perspective. There’s more clarity about what to do about this world and when (or how) to do it, I’m better able to live in easy and light vigilance without the “hyper” part. To take the action that is mine, the one that truly matters. This has great relevance during this time in history.

So that’s where I’ll be the rest of the month. Waiting at God’s Bus Stop. May you also surrender to the pure pleasure of the summer that remains, even as you prepare for all that fall may bring. Because this season of abundance is too good to waste. And who knows what might show up while you’re waiting?

A Remedy for Blindness: Kindness

Since I’m in a state and county with very low COVID-19 numbers, and since I’m in a category both privileged and protected, I’ve had a luxury of contemplative time for self-reflection. What has emerged is a much deeper understanding of the power of the question, especially when it comes to my own thinking filters.

My whole life I’ve been someplace between intrigued and obsessed with questions. Life’s Big Questions. Living the Questions. 4 Questions and Turnarounds.  My favorite question of all? “What am I not seeing or noticing?”  This one is especially challenging, since the part of me that would usually answer is so unaware that it can’t see through the fog.

Months ago, when the pandemic hit, I asked my favorite question. I began to see how little I knew about everything from COVID-19 to the future. This was humbling but not personal, since we were (and are) all in this together. But when the pandemic of racism exposed itself for all the world to see, I began to realize how very many blind spots I had. And this time the cost, to others and myself, has been personal.

The past month I’ve been taking a deep dive to look at what I’ve been missing, with the help of some excellent books and films and videos. I’ve taken care to dose myself with self-compassion as I go about discovering everything I haven’t been able to see until now. This kindness has taught me my own innocence. It has taught me to keep going. To ask another question: What do I do now that I know? This is a question I’m still living with. The first clear answer came today. I’m sending this to you, my friends, with a list of my most educational and inspiring discoveries so far.

May these assist you in your own updates. And don’t forget to serve yourself a generous portion of kindness as you go.

Love In, Peace Out,

SgB

See No StrangerSee No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valaurie Kaur

Kaur’s TED Talk: 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage

 

Mindful of race Ruth KingMindful of Race by Ruth King

Sharon Salzberg interview with Ruth King: Sharon Salzberg has long been known for her approachable style and for bringing Metta Meditation (or Loving Kindness Meditation) to the West. In this podcast, Sharon interviews Ruth King on her work with mindfulness, racial conditioning, and justice.

Van Jones on Racial JusticeVan Jones on Racial Justice (Youtube): “A continent of new common ground has emerged and we don’t know what it is…” A moving five-minute clip about the meaning of these moments.

Films: Selma, 13, Just Mercy, Malcolm X, The Hate You Give, Do the Right Thing. An avid Film Femme, these are among my favorite power tools for self-education.

My White Bubble

I’m a creature from a very white bubble. Until I was 15 I went to segregated schools. I’ve lived for fifty years in one of the whitest states in the country, largely because of the militant opposition to people of color throughout its history. When I first moved to Oregon, sunset laws were still in effect. In some small towns right by the city limit sign was another one: “If your face is black, don’t let the sun set on it here.” I’m coming to realize, even though I didn’t create the bubble where I live, it’s been embarrassingly convenient for me.
 
Apparently it’s even more difficult for white bubble creatures to understand their own racism because, with few people of color around them they’re more susceptible to stereotypes. I’m just beginning to remove the blinders that have kept me from seeing this. It’s been a bit uncomfortable but ultimately freeing to admit this. I highly recommend watching this video of the launch for the book White Fragility for some basic insight into this particular condition. 
 
Yesterday four thousand people, almost 10% of the residents in my small city, took a knee in respect. It’s not much, but at least it’s humble, and it’s a start. Donation to racial justice organizations seems significant, too. But it appears I have some serious inner work to do on the ways I unconsciously assume and protect my privilege. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming task, especially when there’s such a need for immediate action. But I understand now there’s so much more, if I’m listening and serious about real justice and equity.
 
I can actually say I look forward to discovering what I haven’t seen before, listening, and learning to repair the damage. A new and significant form of inquiry, available right here in a bubble that’s beginning to glisten with a  few more tiny rainbows of color.

Where’s Your Anchor?

Most of us have been living in some pretty dang choppy waters for a while now. Adjustment after adjustment after adjustment, with an eye on some horizon that’s still pretty murky. A perfect prescription for seasickness. I know this state. And car sickness. And general vertigo. What I’ve learned to do from yoga is focusing on a drishti, an object in the near or far distance, to bring your outward focus inward, supporting inner (or outer) equilibrium.

Without a view of the far (or near) distant future, I’ve been noticing more internal vertigo, a frequent disorientation, with all the unknowns and the moving ground under my feet. Once I remember what truly matters, I’m fine. Breathing, slow and steady, helps. Or prayer, especially on dark and anxious nights.

And then I remember a private interview with some Babalaos, or priests in the Santeria community of Cuba, a few years ago. Once they uncovered my guardian spirit, Yemaya, the ocean, they became very concerned. It turns out that people of my archetypal temperament need an anchor connecting with the deepest parts of the ocean. As it so happens, Yemaya’s consort is Okalun, who lives unseen in the deeps and can be counted on to prevent capsizing. The priests were bent on convincing me that I should take an anchor home with me in a very large blue ceramic pot, probably not advisable with post-911 security.

But I’m thinking of their advice this evening; with no focusing point on the horizon, I suddenly feel the crucial need for an anchor. Where is my anchor?  I think. And there’s such simplicity in the answer, a deceptive simplicity: It’s the love. The deepest mystery of the love. Anchor And Heart

And from that knowing, everything becomes clear.

Love is profoundly deep, beyond description, but some things are not a mystery. Love would object to treating anyone as inferior, especially refusing them their humanity or their life. The cable to this anchor is unfrayed, unafraid. When I recognize this, the vertigo is over. I know what to do. And I lead with love, the best I can. One step at a time.

Anchored in the Mystery of Love,

SgB

Much Ado about Anchors

Anchored in one place nearly three months, there’s a surprising relief from all the movement that my life has become during early retirement. We sometimes talk about being “weighted down” by our dog or our responsibilities, as we take off for adventures near and far. But I’ve been noticing lately that I LIKE my anchors, the ones that keep me connected with the ground of my own heart and life. As a part of the “vulnerable population,” I’ve appreciated the Time Out required by this pandemic. There are days that I feel too confined, when I experience briefly the powerful inclination to bolt. I’ve been here before, many times in my life. Especially when I’m on a retreat or in the hot seat of change. 

I figure I’m not evolved enough yet to live in a free-float state, and so my mind finds itself fixating on the advantages of anchors once again. Even though I grew up smack-dab in the middle of the country and never set foot in a boat until I was grown,  anchors seem to find me. When I went to college I lived in a fancy sorority with an enormous anchor right above the colonial entrance. I was an “anchor sister”, bound by some rare combination of privilege and exclusivity. No Jewish members or people of color (out of respect for their own “separate but equal” sororities), they said. I was always slightly embarrassed because I sometimes secretly appreciated the identity and the status that the microscopic pin on my breast conferred on the enormous university campus. I felt strangely and reluctantly tethered to some tradition and idealism within the strict confines of convention.   

I’m coming to a deeper understanding of the pain that privilege caused many others. What I began to experience as an anchor that weighed me down was a form of access to the privileges of my race. Although I argued against the policies, I wore the pin.

The glamour had worn off by my junior year, so I exchanged the pin for a wedding ring and took off for the West Coast. Within weeks I was anchored again to a new identity as a part of a hippie couple in the counterculture. I was more than privileged to be able to instantly reject my conforming conservative Midwest background, in favor of work shirts, boots, and blue jeans (preferably from the Salvation Army). No skin color change required. Within a year I sold the sacred pin, the only gold I’d ever worn, for five bucks at a garage sale.

I thought of myself as a nomad, unweighted down by things. After graduate school we took off for a six-month off-season trip to Europe on five dollars a day, hefting our backpacks on and off trains and hostels.  We thought we were only anchored by the clothes we carried. But by the time spring rolled around we felt disconnected, rudderless, and ready to get ourselves anchored again. We moved back to the Northwest, where  I eventually got a job that felt like a calling, gave birth to two children, and celebrated the stability that followed.

I only came to see anchors as an image of transformation in recent years. (more about that in next blog post). The question of where to anchor my attention has become a part of my practice as I facilitate inquiry. As I meditate. As I live my own inquiry into the heart. I’m using a piece on Anchoring in Self-Empathy every morning nowadays, as the outer world changes and shifts in sometimes frightening ways. Here’s the link, with a big word of praise for the work of the Wise Heart folks.

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.