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The Wildish Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Close In

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

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

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

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

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

 

Start Close In

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

To find

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

listening

to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

When Liminal Time Meets Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom. And that is what I chose.

 

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

 

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

Major Gratitude for Shelter from the Storm

What’s the difference between major surgery and minor surgery? I’m at a special pre-op session led by the hospital physical therapist. I had no idea. Didn’t care. Hospitals aren’t my thing. I just wanted to get this knee replacement over with without breaking stride in my full life. I know. I missed the irony at that moment, but I get it now. I get the punch line to the joke, too. Minor surgery is someone else’s. Major surgery is mine.

My Major Surgery was three weeks ago. By every account it was a success. I’m no longer a short-term resident of La La Land because of the pain medications. Friends and health care folks comment on how well I’m doing. My walker sits on the sidelines, no longer needed. I find it possible to track a thought long enough to tease it into a paragraph.

Now that I’m not quite so immersed in my Major drama, there’s room for a much bigger vantage point, I’m more deeply moved by all the generosity around me: the well-wishers, the cards, the visits and chocolate. I’ve made room within for the life force spun close around me, and I’m blessed by it. Now that my body is recovering and beginning to believe that it can trust the Universe again, I’m able to embrace “minor” events that occurred while I was absorbed in my “major” one. I’m less overwhelmed by my surroundings and way more interested in the world around me. There’s room inside for everything from sobering world events to holiday merriment.

More than ever before I’m bathed in deep respect for the suffering endured by loved ones and strangers, as they try to make the world around them a little kinder. My heart is cracked open when I think of those who step up and do what is theirs to do, whether it’s miss Christmas with family to fight Ebola or stand together during personal or community tragedy to keep Hope alive. Just today I learned that a loved one will be given the support he needs to find housing out of the rain and wind this winter. The faces of those who have made this possible for him are the ones I collect in my personal bundle of Major League Heroes. They find ways to give my brothers and sisters shelter from the storm. That is Major.

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Twilight Zone of Caring

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

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

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