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 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.
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.
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]
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.