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New Beginning or Groundhogs’ Day?

Friends,

It’s been weeks since the official inauguration, where we all learned about the power of poetry from Amanda Gorman, a gift from the next generation. (Just for a couple of feel-good moments, check it out here). Ever since that day only two weeks ago the word “inauguration” has been tumbling around in my mind. Technically, an inauguration is simply the acknowledgment of a new beginning, and this is a time of year and a time in human history when the whole world is longing for a shot at that. And yet most of us are still waking up each day on Groundhog’s Day, only worse because, along with the isolation caused by weather, there’s another little wrinkle called the pandemic. Our coping skills are limited and the usual go-to’s aren’t open anyway. What we once may have faced as a test of discipline or creativity has started to get on our collective nerves. Folks who do well with January resolutions may be sailing off into some unknown socially isolated sunset to live happily ever after. But for many of us, it’s still Groundhog’s Day.

As I was contemplating these deep thoughts, I realized what I needed was not a resolution, but an inauguration of my very own. I started thinking about a pledge of allegiance and I wrote the poem I’m sharing this month. This year I’m determined to no longer be a self-improvement project in my own mind. As long as it’s my own personal inauguration of this new season, I pledge to myself to bring along all of me as I create each new day, beginning again, practicing kindness in a world torn by suspicion and doubt. Now all that I need is a bumper sticker, I thought. Then just yesterday I stumbled on the perfect words from Raymond Carver, suitable for slapping on the best of bumpers:

It is the tenderness that I care about. That’s the gift this morning that moves and holds me.

May we celebrate tenderness and the soft pink pearls of morning light. And may this be what moves and holds us through the coming year. My inaugural prayer for us all.

With love,

Susan Grace

Poem: “Inaugural Pledge”

I believe in Life in Breath in Love,
in the United States of Mind.
But I pledge allegiance
to the scattered states, too.
The confusion sloth and torpor.
the many everyday sins.
All have a place at this table
as long as they lay down their weapons
and show up with big appetites.
We’ll break bread, drink wine,
surrender to the slaughter
of what we thought we knew
about ourselves, about each other.

And then we’d arise and go forth
day after day,
step by creaky step,
restoring the peace,
marching to the promised land.
welcoming the forgotten and scorned,
uniting against the common enemy,
the masters of lies and deceit,
but most of all
delighted by the soft pink pearls
of morning light
– Susan Grace, 2021

Gratitude from the Cocoon

Hello and Happy Epiphany!

Last night I Zoomed with five high school friends who’re exactly my age, having graduated in the same year. Some of them I’ve known since I was ten. All had successful careers, now mostly behind them or replaced by community, church, and family service. All of us have Cocoon 39353 1920been lucky, hard-working, and clever enough to be financially stable in retirement.  Most, but not all, are well-traveled. Most, but not all, are doting Zoom grandparents. All, not most, are thankful each day for our lives and health.

The check-in began with our hit parade of insights and fears about the pandemic and politics, richly interwoven with memories of our shared youth. Then there was a noticeable pause. And it was Vicki who confessed first. I’m so content with this quiet life. I don’t want to go anywhere, change anything. I’m just peaceful. Then one by one each woman testified to the deep satisfaction of solitude and living in a kind of day-to-day flow: the creative surprises that have emerged from quarantine. We realized we’ve become “homebodies,” an identity that would have gagged us at a certain time in our lives.

Today I still see the face of each vibrant woman in her early seventies, combined with a clear memory of each face at different stages, all the way back to the girls we were at 16. There’s something transcendent in each face, something more at home with itself, something less stressed and more rested than ever before. Apparently cocooning is a powerful regenerative beauty remedy.

I’m so humbled and honored by the sacrifices being made to keep me and my generation safe. I remember the frenetic pace and the stress of trying to hold together career and family as it came at me from all directions during my householder years. I can only imagine how much harder it is for those of you whose lives have become infinitely more complex in the last year.  I realize that you’ve borne the brunt of the pandemic, as you’ve shouldered the need to protect us from the ravages of this plague.

I want to say thank you, but those two words don’t describe the gratitude I feel in my heart. This may be the first time that many of us in the cocoon have ever been truly rested. We hope to do you proud when we emerge, and now, here we are. In deep appreciation of this world between worlds where you took good care of us.

And so I begin each morning with a prayer of gratitude and a poem. For you. For us all.

SgB

Morning Prayer

Bless the fuzzy dream world.
Try to remember it as body arises,
foot meeting the floor, slowly staggering to the toilet.
Praise the plumbing that still works.
Watch as body releases water.
Boils water. Makes tea (and thus more water)
Heart beats of its own accord.

Open curtains.
Breathe out the sleep world
(in praise of fog rain sun snow).
Notice the flurry of to-do’s and no-don’ts,
the packages of maybes
piling up on the doorstep of waking,
helpers with the best of intentions.
Ignore them for now.
Light candles of gratitude for the warmth of being
Sip the tender morning light. Savor it.
Go forth.
Remember these things.

Susan Grace. (2021)

My Octopus Teacher


Film Pick for January: 

My Octopus Teacher
An interspecies love story…

Featured image by GLady from Pixabay

Awaiting the Light Together, Yet Apart

We human creatures are moths drawn to the magic of light. We have always come together during these short days to celebrate light and to remind ourselves that the dark will not last. So the final insult of 2020 is not being able to share that comfort at a time when so many of us are facing loss, stress, and disconnection. And yet here we are. Groping our way through the unknown without the traditional comforts of celebration, song, laughter, and prayer within our larger human community.

From Christmas celebrations of nativity scenes and candlelight to Dewali’s Festival of Lights in India to neo-pagan solstice celebrations, we have always derived comfort from the light during the darkest time of year. (Even the anti-holiday Festivus, which began knee-deep in the irony of Seinfeld sarcasm has quickly become a holiday with its own rituals and an invitation to create new ones, which will probably involve twinkling lights.)

If there was ever a year for a light in the darkness, this is it. But while we may long for the nostalgic holidays of our real or imagined past, the reality is that, no matter how we struggle to make this season the same, it’s just not. The shared repetition of our little and big rituals is missing. And it’s tempting to just skip it altogether. But that’s even sadder. However, there is some good news, a little glimmer of light. Now that the mold is broken, we have a chance (and every excuse) to slow it all down, to simplify, and to create something more personally satisfying.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the liturgical calendar of traditional Christianity as I’m not a traditional Christian (whatever that is). But I have found deep meaning in two of the less familiar rituals of the season. One, Advent, anticipates the season, and the other, Epiphany, closes it. I first discovered Advent because it involved chocolate and ticking off things on a calendar, two of my favorite things. But while I was frequenting a monastery during this season a few years back I realized there was more to it.

During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a ritual time of patience, a time of waiting. Each week focuses on a theme: hope, peace, joy, and love. As the candles burn the light gets brighter by the week until Christmas itself, when the Light of the World is celebrated. I’ve heard it described as a deepening of the relationship with the divine, of that which passes way beyond human understanding.

I find myself returning to this practice with a new focus this year. The beauty of this ritual is that it doesn’t need crowds of people. I can meditate alone on these things or share with my pod or my family. And because Advent is ultimately about “Longing for Union with the Possible,” when has there been a better time to do that?

As I light my candle to peace this morning, I notice that it’s already here, and I say a prayer that each of you will find hope and patience in your lives each day while we wait for the light to return.

From my hearth to yours,

Susan Grace

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Remembering the Inner Sanctum

6 am. November 10th. Silence. Solitude.

I creep around my room in the worshipful dark, lighting beeswax candles and placing the last of the season’s peach dahlias on the windowsill altar. The first real fog of the season has newly landed on the hills outside the window.

For this moment, before the fog lifts, I embrace this inner sanctum. 

There’s a big breath and a sigh as I surrender to a deeper peace than I have felt for months.

I create a little altar for the family cabin which burned to the ground on Labor Day:

Altar to Breitenbush cabin
And then I remember what I’ve forgotten during the tumult and strife of recent life. Something ancient and deep and comforting. A peace that has been here all along, beneath the screaming headlines and the pandemic fear. And like a spell has been broken, here I am, with all my parts. I am Re-membered.

The Remembering Thing is big enough to be the basis of ritual in nearly every world religion. It’s the prime directive that enables the words of sages to resonate through the ages.

I understand this now in a whole new way. So much is forgotten when I’m in reactivity, no matter what spiritual tools I use to maintain peace of mind. And so, today, this morning, I’m welcoming myself back home with an act of remembrance, perhaps as simple as lighting a candle. Or creating a little altar to remember something I loved and lost.

Because fall is the time for remembering what we have, what we’ve lost, and what is never truly gone. 

Join me?

SgB

 

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary

Breitenbush Hot Springs Sanctuary from Trip Advisor/HappyMunching

Poem: “Sanctuary”
(for Breitenbush, 2020 )
They say the firestorm took the Sanctuary.
The vaulted wooden arches, the soft carpet
built to receive the deep bows of a child,
windows opening to the sound of
roaring river in the gully below.
The setting small enough for quiet whispers
Or the sound of voices meeting voices in song
Yet big enough for rampant drumming,
under tall tall trees and blue bowl sky.

Here this winter morning,
within this home sanctuary,
the big beyond exposes herself,
draped not in smoke but only a mauve whisp of cloud.
Here the slow dawn reveals
glimpses of the great beauty.
Here candles greet morning light, 
gently waking up the far hillside.
And love of what was shines bright,
Tucked close in this heart 
and in little altars Everywhere.    

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.

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.