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Spider Sense

During my slow recovery from a broken bone and surgery this fall, I’ve given myself the luxury of silk. Spiderweb Silk. The spider on my windowsill creates its miracle of tensile strength slowly and steadily. As I watch I think of the body magic that is healing my body with very little help from me. With plenty of time on my hands and a new curiosity, I’ve dipped into the human Interweb to find out more about spiders.
 
Newsflash! Spiders aren’t all hairy monsters who devour their own. Only some of them. About 40% can get cranky enough to consume each other. Biologists who focus on the social life of spiders discovered that adult spiders seem to forget how to behave together after being alone too long, which causes them to become aggressive. They’re still not sure why some spider species like to hang out together while many eat spiders if given the chance. As it turns out, spiders raised in groups almost never try to eat even unfamiliar spiders. When they remain together, they respond to chemical cues and remain tolerant. But when they’ve been isolated, the familiarity is lost, and that’s what leads to intolerant and aggressive behavior. 
 
I’ve seldom ventured out on my own two crutches at all, but last week, I headed out with the help of my trustworthy life partner and nursemaid Geo. Out of necessity we went to a big box grocery store where masks are still required. People are my favorite! I thought, looking forward to the quick exchanges of connection that are part of the human social world. I tried the “smiley eyes” thing out as I motored around in my electric go-cart. People mostly ignored me, which felt lonely and awkward. Then at the check-out line one guy, his mask down below his chin, told me that I was cutting into line. I saw that this was true and I apologized, but he just glared back. 
 
Immediately my mind got busy judging him. Then it began to criticize other people’s pandemic behavior. There are some very sticky thought webs about that subject, I noticed. I couldn’t wait to get to my safe and predictable home, shocked at how one interaction had shifted my whole mood. Back with my spider and its web, I remembered another spider factoid: most spiders create a new web every day. Then I remembered that I had forgotten for a minute: the energetic kindness of strangers who have bounded ahead of me to help open doors. The beautiful emails and cards of sympathy and kindness. The meals prepared and cheerful visits of friends. 
 
There was such clarity in that moment that I began to spin a new web based on my simple truth, backed by more than 70 years human social life. No matter who smiles at me or gives me crap or what gets spun in the news cycle, I know for sure that most humans are not unkind. I could see the likelihood that our species will get less cranky as we get out more. I think we’ll learn again how to tap into our basic human need for kindness and connection. And when I’m in doubt, I remind myself of the words of spiritual eco-activist Joanna Macy: “Let life through, in the biggest doorway in your being.” When I do that, there’s enough room in my heart for all of creation, including cranky humans and spiders.
 
May we all remember that in the coming months.
 
SgB 10/2021

Letting It Roll

Resistance
 
I tie my limbs with rubber bows
red yellow blue green
remembering not to hold,
I breathe and count rep by rep
the movements of slow recovery.
 
—SgB

Now has come an easy time. I let it roll.

 
Thus began my personal mantra for the month of August, courtesy of my favorite poet William Stafford. And so at the beginning of last month I changed my daily practice to include rolling around town and country on my electric bike. Clever, huh? But then, a couple weeks in, I hit a pile of loose gravel.
 
My understanding of letting it roll changed radically in that moment. I was forced to drop immediately any idea of managing the situation. There was no choice but to let the Universe roll on without my guidance. So much help began showing up, from the angels on the spot who helped out at the scene, to my husband who was impeccably on call for the first two weeks, to the long list of family, neighbors, and friends who came forth with offers, food, and encouragement. Now a metal plate and a few screws are holding the fibula back together while I experience the meaning of surrender and dependence and still manage a humble brag concerning my Athletic Injury.
 
Now has come an easy time. Right here. Today, I remind myself, with my leg propped up on various surfaces around the house, I’m finally freed of the lessons brought by the pain of the first two weeks. I repeat the Easy Time mantra frequently, even while I continue to give up some pride and gratefully accept help. Since there will be no wild times requiring bearing weight for a total of nearly eight weeks, I’m learning all kinds of other things about asking for help and releasing a few dozen unexamined preferences. My walker and I roll along fine when I keep these things in mind. But sometimes I forget, and then come the thought storms about how long this will be, how pathetic I am, how bad it is for my body and mind to be largely sedentary for four weeks, how unbearable the pain is.
 
Suddenly it’s not an easy time anymore. Everything becomes harder and I get lost in a little pity tea party. Then I take a sip of the nettle tea my friend sent to help knit my bones. And I notice I’m breathing fuller and my monkey mind is taking a nap. And the serene beauty of autumn takes over the healing.
 
This is that easy time. And I am grateful.
May you find some easy times and places this Autumn.
 
And may you let this good time roll.
 
SgB 9/2021

Why I am Happy

I hate summers.  Every year by fall the words tumble out. Admitting it seems sacrilegious. And yet there it is. Even today, as I savor the summer world waking up, I know that it’s not completely true. I don’t really hate it. But still.
 
No. Not still. That’s the problem with summer, I think. All the hubbub and activity. Summers are composed of too muchness. Overwhelm. Not enough stillness. So big. So busy. So much coming and going and not enough time to land. 
 
 
 
 Like most everyone around me, I’ve been trying my best to make up for lost time with family and friends while responding to the reality of a rapidly shifting world. Yesterday I sat for a time in my garden, trying to catch up with myself. Essentially nothing from my activity-based checklist is completed, and yet already there’s that sense of depletion. A phrase from a beloved poem by William Stafford, Why I am Happy popped into my mind. My framed and beautifully scribed copy burned in a forest fire last fall, but the wonderful thing about words is they don’t burn but keep doing their magic as long as we can string a few phrases together.
 
The next words, I let it roll, come into my mind.
My to-do list for the next month just got a whole lot shorter. 
 
And so we come to my summer wish list for you, my friends: 
 
May you let it all roll as you remember the peace and ease of the blue and free lake you already carry inside yourself.May that elusive peace of mind be your guide as often as you can during these precious days.
 
It’s a wish and a prayer. For you. For all of us.
 
SgB 8/2021

Now That I Know

Now that I Know…

These are the words of my spiritual director, a radical priest who holds space in a small loft in Portland. I’m not a Catholic, but I trust this guy.

I’ve just weathered the traumatic accidental drowning of a friend and an addiction crisis with a family member. Both were situations requiring me to find the ground under my feet ASAP while at the same time surrendering to all the things I couldn’t control even if I wanted to. Other people’s needs seemed to dictate my days. 

Now that I know, he said quietly. 

What?  I asked, leaning in.

What did you learn? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? He asked.

For a moment the overwhelm and fog lifted. Clarity. A felt sense of calm, a perspective. A way to move on.

This question is one I find myself still when I’ve just been through Something.

What do I know NOW? After the anxiety and confusion and losses of the last couple of years, it’s a critical question. What lessons has this time in history offered up for me, at a deeply personal level? The old growth forest and my summer home, two things that anchored me to the deep healing of nature are gone.

I’ve lost friends to Covid and to QAnon. With or without my mask, people who once smiled or waved seem somehow distant. Elders in my community seem more frail. And my 14-year-old dog struggles more every day on our one-mile stroll/sniff.

Life. Now that I know its losses more personally, how do I renew my vows, now that I know how very fragile the things I always took for granted are, what do I know?

I look around me this summer morning. The ground is still there. My heart is still beating. My feet are still walking. The sky that served up a Heat Bubble last week is offering clouds and the sweet distant ocean moisture.

Now that I know the JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out) on the complications of community and over-commitment, there’s a steadier connection with my own clarity of purpose, with my own heart. With solitude and sovereignty of my very own life.
Now that I know this joy, how willing am I to throw it away trying to create the world from Before Times? Sounds a lot like a new episode of my ongoing life challenge setting boundaries.

I’m not willing to give up too much of myself to others. But will I? Sometimes. And that’s okay.

Because when I remember this simplicity, this moment, I have the necessary grounding to discern what’s worth keeping. And then I venture with a deeper understanding of what I need in the Now Time.

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.

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]