two things: 1/12/17

1) The Wake Up Project is an Australian-centered mission to promote kindness and mindfulness. Five years ago I followed them but somehow I lost track — maybe in one of my occasional email subscription purges, which I regret. Click the link above for more information; I’ve signed up again. One of my dear, dear friends shared the most recent email from the founder, and I thought it was so great I wanted to share it here, and say why/more . . . but first, the email:

With all that’s happening in the world, I see 2017 as a profound call to personal leadership. More accurately, I’d call it an invitation to spiritual warriorship – to train and nourish our heart’s tremendous potential for kindness towards ourselves, each other and the earth.

To me, this means stepping up and honouring the ordinary magic of our daily lives. Learning how to protect our minds, listening for guidance and living from our hearts.

May I offer three areas to focus on this year:

Feed Your Mind Beautiful Things: Never has this been so important. Feed it truth. Feed it inspiration. AKA uplifting literature, wisdom, poetry, comedy, music, podcasts and good journalism. Surround yourself with people who nourish your mind and open you to new possibilities.

Adopt a Practice of Intentional Stillness: Set aside 5-15 minutes a day to relax and rest in the unchangeable part of you. The method doesn’t matter – sit, journal, pray, swim, stretch. It’s all about calming your mind, befriending yourself and listening to what life wants from you.

Once a Week, Pause and Ask Yourself “Who Can I Be Kind To Right Now?”: Really listen. It could be a friend, lover, family member, stranger – or it could be the same person each time. It doesn’t need to be big – e.g. send a text, make a phone call, leave a note. Or it could be big and risky. Step by step, kindness becomes your #1 spiritual practice. Set a weekly alert in your calendar to keep this practice alive.

Always remember….

“There is a LIGHT in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

So there it is. This is your year to Wake Up the best in you. To befriend yourself through unapologetic gentleness. To discover a profound rest in your human imperfections. To awaken the revolutionary (and essential) qualities of kindness, courage and creativity. This is spiritual warriorship.

OK! The reason this struck me the way it did is that like most of us, I’ve been just so scared of the incoming government, and a big part of that fear is that we’d all just get worn down and quit fighting. That the media will cave (as they have already done to a large extent), that the fighters will be loud at first but gradually they’ll (we’ll) subside because of exhaustion or because they’re systematically shut down, and that those of us with truly little power will find our powerlessness too hard to accept so we’ll start saying things like, “well, I’m just going to be kind/ paint/ write/ knit” and without diminishing those things AT ALL, they are too easily, I fear, a transition to acceptance of the situation. I’ve been scared of that, and I’ll just claim it for myself: I’ve been scared that will do that.

Te-Ata, Chickasaw

But this letter orients that effort in such a powerful way: spiritual WARRIORSHIP. My mother is descended from a Chickasaw woman named Ela-Teecha, so I am going to imagine myself a spiritual Chickasaw warrior. I found this beautiful photo of a Chickasaw woman named Te-Ata (Bearer of the Morning) and since I don’t have a photo of Ela-Teecha, I will instead hold her in my mind as my spiritual warrior image. (Wasn’t she so beautiful?) The Chickasaw belong to the Five Civilized Tribes, and were relocated, along with the Cherokee, on the Trail of Tears.

And so I will follow the guidance of the Wake Up Project and do the things I’d planned to do, but as spiritual warriorship. Somehow that feels different to me — and I will march and protest and write emails and make calls, too. And that is enough for one powerless person.

2) Speaking of Ela-Teecha, here’s what I know about her:

A friend did a quick exploration for me through Ancestry.com and uncovered so much information — often thrilling, sometimes painful (slave owners in Georgia) — and in the documents, she found this. I read it again and again, and adore “married into the great Choctaw family of Leflores.” The description of Ela-Teecha sounds exactly like my mother, exactly: straight black hair, very high cheek bones, and small black eyes … — medium size and slender build. That description can of course look a lot of different ways, and she undoubtedly looked nothing like my mother, but my mother fit the description too and that’s a bit eerie.

Ela-Teecha, my ancestorOH!! I found her! After she married Smith Paul she went by the Anglicized name Ellen. She lived from 1797 to 1871, and if I joined Ancestry, I could also see her grave, and probably find out exactly where she is buried. Wow. For a rootless person like me, that feels utterly amazing. I was able to snag her tree without joining:

I love that one of her sons was named Tecumseh, and another Mississippi. I’m unsure which of her children led to me, but I think that must be knowable. My father’s paternal line is a series of abrupt, violent stops, but that’s not my whole story. I know my father’s mother descended from a line of Alabama Coushatta, so on both sides I am descended from native people and their toughness and resilience live through me.

This is not really of interest to anyone but me, but I’m glad to stash this here for later finding.

Find your own model, if that will help, or maybe you don’t need one, maybe you are ready and able to fight your own way, just out of your own core. #resistance

better than ever

See the twinkle? This is at Millay's home, and he was tickled pink to be there.
See the twinkle in his eye? This is at Millay’s home, and he was tickled pink to be there.

I have a great friend in my monthly poetry group named George. First of all, George is the most knowledgeable person about poetry I have ever met. Ever. And he can recite huge swaths at the drop of a hat. He’s older than me, I don’t know his age, but man I enjoy his ability to do that kind of recitation. Last year he took a road trip vacation to Steepletop, Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Maine. That’s what he did for his vacation. So George is definitely 100% my kind of guy. And his eyes twinkle and he’s very funny in a sly way that you might miss if you aren’t paying attention. (And he does yoga! There doesn’t seem to be much of anything you might randomly mention that George doesn’t do.)

Every month when I see him and ask how he’s doing, he answers, “Better than ever!” I hadn’t noticed the pattern; last month in my delight at his answer, I commented on it and he said it’s always his answer, and it puzzles people. Once a grocery store clerk said, “I wish could say that,” so George told her to stop what she was doing, immediately, and look at him. Then he said, “OK, repeat after me. Better.” “Better.” “Than.” “Than.” “Ever.” “Ever.” With his characteristic twinkly smile, he then said, “Now you know how to say it!” He said that it’s an important way he helps himself feel good, and when he gives into the various troubles of aging, and dwells on them, he does not feel very good at all and starts going downhill. So “better than ever!” is not just a verbal trick, a magic mantra, it’s a way of orienting himself to this day of his life. His shoulder might ache, but hey — today he is better than ever.

That aspect of George resonates with me, although I don’t say that phrase. What I do say, though, is “wonderful.” Oh, this is wonderful, that’s wonderful, you are wonderful, the day is wonderful, my sandwich is wonderful, that ice water is wonderful, YogaGlo is wonderful, my friends are wonderful (or gorgeous, or beautiful, or amazing, or magnificent). A lifetime ago, when I was getting to know the members of the very large family I married into — and before I realized that ‘wonderful’ is my most characteristic word — I was talking to one of my husband’s brothers, and after a while he leaned down, frowned a little bit, and said, “Really, Lori? Is it wonderful? Is everything wonderful? ‘It’s just wunnerful!’” And then he cackled. I still am not entirely sure if he was making fun of me, but I think he was.

This occurred to me as I was re-reading my last post about my. . .well, ok, I’ll say it. . .wonderful week. (But it was!) I saw what any editor would identify as the gross overuse of those words. Gross overuse. Anyone can see that, come on, it’s egregious. For heaven’s sake. Bad writing, leaning hard toward purple.

But here’s the deal, and I just mean this from the bottom of my heart. My friends truly are beautiful, and brilliant, and amazing, and wonderful, and gorgeous. My daughters truly are all those things, and magnificent, and loving. The sky really is wonderful. The things I mentioned really were extraordinary. I think I share the impulse with George, and I think it is probably why we are happy people. I don’t know if George has always been this way, but I have always been this way. My former brother-in-law commented on that when I was 21 years old and I’m still unconsciously at it.

So maybe it’s not your automatic way of being in the world, and maybe you 100% love the way you are in the world and so good on ya! Maybe you enjoy a bit of a grump (my husband in NY has a daily need to mope) now and then, and that’s just fine. I do too. But I think that if you just pause for a second and notice that sky, you’d see that it’s wonderful. There it is, just doing its thing, putting on a dramatic, ever-changing show for you, and you’re probably not noticing it. And then I think you’ll feel a little spike of happy. I think if you paused for a minute and really tasted your food and thought about it — wow (oops, another of my oft-used words, wow), that salad is really wonderful, so fresh and crunchy, and the pepitas just make it all work, and blue cheese ohmygod, it’s really wonderful — another little spike of happy. Really see your friend when you’re talking to her, just really see her and you’ll see that she is super wonderful. Magnificent. There she is, being herself in your life. Wow.

Those teenagers danced all the way across the bridge going over the highway. Maybe it was that wonderful sky.
Those teenagers danced all the way across the bridge going over the highway. Maybe it was that wonderful sky.

But really — just pause for a second. LOOK AT THAT SKY! Is it not wonderful? (Also: George is wonderful, and so are you.) Right on.

going rogue

With gratitude to my friend (and former health coach) Jeff for that phrase in the post title, I too am going rogue with my meditation and mindfulness practice. Last night I went to Shambhala to listen to a public talk on the “Culture of Awake.” (“As more and more people introduce principles and disciplines of wakefulness into their lives, such as mindfulness or yoga, we are together cultivating a culture of awake. In this talk, we will explore some of the basic principles of this culture that can give deeper meaning to how we live our lives and help transform our world into a better place.”) I’ve been feeling heavy and blue, and hoped that listening to the talk would lift my spirits in some way.

Of course that’s an unfair expectation of a talk — it’s not the speaker’s job to do that for me. He was a perfectly lovely smiley man who waved his hands in circles the whole evening, and he did do this one exercise that I found meaningful, and I’ll come back to it at the end.

mindfulnessBut he opened by saying that the whole world is becoming awake, isn’t it wonderful. And he had this blissful smile on his face. He reminded us that mindfulness made the cover of Time Magazine, and you can’t be more mainstream than that! And I felt thrown out of the room by his opening premise. No it isn’t! The world is not becoming awake! Just before I left for the talk I watched news of ISIS destroying ancient art, and a report on the discovery of the identity of Jihadi John, the Brit responsible for beheading so many people.

We’re freezing and the global climate is transforming dangerously and too many Americans (and others) laugh and mock and say “then how is this ‘global warming'” with idiotic gaping grins betraying their stupidity. Morons are in charge of important subcommittees. The world looks pretty dangerous and stupid and threatening to me, and I am in pretty deep despair about the cruelty of the Republicans in charge. (The Democrats have their own problems, including naivete and being bought and all kinds of things, but they don’t tend toward the same breathtaking cruelty.)

The world does not seem like it’s waking up to me. However much the affluent white people sitting on cushions in gold-painted rooms might say it is, it just isn’t.

What is the point and purpose of meditation and mindfulness? Is it to become smug in your own practice? Is it to delude yourself into thinking this is how the world is? Surely not; that seems the very opposite of the point, at least as I understand it. Isn’t the point of it to see more clearly what is?? To get rid of the story as much as possible — and this seems as dangerous a story as any other. This is like any other delusion, surely, even if it’s dharma-ed by a dude on a cushion in front of an altar.

And so I do the exercise he taught, which he called “Finding Home:”

  1. Feel my weight
  2. Move the center of gravity from my head down to my heart. Feel my embodiment.
  3. Open my awareness out to the world — from which I’ve never really been separate.

And from that position, I try to encounter the world as it is, not as I really wish it were. I continue my own meditation practice alone, I remain mindful as much as I can, I find value for myself in these things, and I think I let the rest go, the institutional parts. I seek the lightness and kindness and compassion that meditation and mindfulness can bring, but I will do that on my own.

And sheesh.

ecstasy, then laundry

laundryThe post title is a straight-on reference to the title of a book by Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  I was thinking about this yesterday when I woke up, actually, and then as my challenging day unfolded it came front and center. I’ll start at the beginning.

I’ve been staying up too late the last several nights for a variety of reasons, and then sleeping a bit late each morning. It’s not my best rhythm, and when it’s combined with the incessantly gloomy skies we’ve had, it’s not my best head, either. So I woke up late and as I lay in bed doing my morning ritual, reflecting on what I wanted from the day ahead, I felt so flat, so uninspired. Even less than that. So I was thinking about this as a natural part of life: the exciting newness of a change is gone now, and the days are still the same kind of days. Of course. That’s one great thing about change at the beginning — at least the kind of change you seek out on purpose — it revitalizes you and disrupts the ordinariness. For a while, until it also becomes ordinary.

And while I am so very far from enlightenment, I do sit at the foothills of the trail that leads to the path that eventually takes you to the highway that ends up, eventually, at that bodhi tree. At least I have some new skills to help me deal with things. That’s enough.

So I finished my morning ritual, went into the kitchen to make my coffee — another very pleasurable ritual, that — and then turned on my computer, only to find that I had been pretty seriously hacked by someone in Germany. My browser was changed to google.de, and I had been locked out of all my email accounts. While I was in the midst of dealing with all that, which brought its own traumatic memories of our being hacked so horribly in NYC, a friend called with a personal crisis that was just close enough to one I’d had in my life that it rattled my bones. Like a 10 on the Richter scale level of rattling. When I hung up the phone with her, my whole body was shaking and I couldn’t stop pacing in circles. Marc called and I talked to him and broke down crying, remembering my own situation from 2005.

When we hung up, I knew what I needed to do. I changed into my yoga clothes and hit the mat for a vinyasa flow class. I needed to find my way back to the present, back to now, and back to my own body and breath. At the beginning of class my mind wouldn’t stay with me, despite the fact that the class moved quickly and demanded a lot of me, required me to think carefully about positioning my body and breathing. By the end of the hour, as we moved into savasana, I still wasn’t there all the way. I lay there and my old experience was in me so deeply that tears ran down both sides of my face, just missing my ears, in a steady stream. I tried to relax into the earth and just be, and my mind was not still. Then the teacher told a story I’d never heard, about the origin of the pose:

shivashaktiWhen Shiva first saw Shakti, he was so completely struck by her beauty that he fell backwards and lost all desire for anything but that moment. She walked towards him and danced on his stomach, and he had no awareness beyond the moment.

I can’t find that story online anywhere, but it’s so lovely, and it helped me in my roiling moment. I felt Shakti dancing on my own stomach, I felt the ground under my shoulders, and head, and bottom, legs, feet, hands. I felt my breath raising and lowering my chest, and my face and jaw relaxed. It was better.

But it wasn’t behind me all the way, and my shower didn’t move it, breathing didn’t relax it, just feeling the feelings didn’t relieve me into the present moment, a pizza and craft beer at my favorite place in Austin didn’t wash it away. I came home, did the laundry, opened my computer, worked, and lived another day of my life.

022515And that’s what it is. Life is sometimes like that. Inner experiences can whammy you, sucker punch you, just when you least expect them. Spiritual efforts like mindfulness, yoga, meditation, (pizza and beer…..consumed mindfully!) don’t magically wipe everything away. They aren’t magic wands, they don’t eliminate difficulty. But they do help, and they do give me a way to approach difficulty so that I might get something from it instead of just being tormented by it — a seed of wisdom, a connection to the suffering of others, a deeper awareness of my own experience, a more peaceful body. An ability to hold it and know I can hold it, and still engage the world with openness and kindness.

And that’s pretty good.

it’s so poignant

A few evenings ago, there was a piece about Glen Campbell on the nightly news. He’s in stage 6 (of 7, the final stage) of Alzheimer’s, and he can no longer speak. Of course during the piece they included bits of his old music and performances, including Gentle On My Mind, a song I’ve always loved so much. It lifts my heart somehow, and sends it outside. I remember him, and that song, from my late childhood, and remembered what he looked like. Seeing him on the news, after not seeing him since he was so popular, was a little bit surprising, but not all that much. Decades have passed, of course he has aged. He is dealing with a brutal disease that always wins. I felt sad, aww, Glen Campbell, I always liked his music.

But then I tracked down the song on YouTube and saw what he actually looked like back when that song was popular. Oh how young, how baby-faced, his hair trimmed and styled so neatly, the show so innocent, really, his lack of sophistication in performance at that early point. Everything stretching out in front of him, all possible and unknown. It kind of wrenched my heart. My sadness for him got into my heart, instead of just being an idea of some kind.

lifeIsn’t it our ending that makes the whole thing so very poignant? We have our time in the sun, our time where we flower and bloom, our time of long strides and loud voice, and then the road inevitably takes us along to its end. And looking back from that perspective, it all takes on a different cast. All the things we worried about — if we can even remember most of them — were just ephemera. The things we took such pride in — careers, accomplishments, our stuff — were also just ephemera. But they meant so much to us, we lived our short lives with our eyes, hearts, minds, focusing on those things. The troubles we had, mostly small and forgotten but some we weren’t sure we would survive, those look different too. There’s a kind of tenderness toward life, and ourselves at those hard times, that we just don’t have the perspective to hold when the troubles are hitting.

None of this is to say that therefore we shouldn’t worry about what feels worrisome, that we shouldn’t pursue careers and accomplishments and stuff — that’s just not my point. It’s that those things that feel SO very important bloom and then pass away too. The whole of our time here, sitting up and looking around and chasing butterflies, touches me so deeply it makes me cry. We’re really something. We love anyway. We give of ourselves to people we love and sometimes to complete strangers. We reach out. We try to make our stands, to leave something behind. We care for each other, sometimes tenderly and sometimes very inadequately. We’re lonely, we ache. We have deep longings, some of which are never met. We screw up, sometimes royally, and sometimes we didn’t mean it and sometimes we did. And then we’re gone. Most of the time we live as if we have all the time in the world, and only recognize the brevity of it all when our hands are forced.

It’s just impossible to hold that awareness all the time. We have groceries to buy and errands to run and bills to pay, for heaven’s sake. But I always think it’s worth pausing for just a minute to look at your sweet life, and the landscape around it — friends, family, towers you’ve built, life you’ve nurtured — and see it for what it is: a short-lived experience that is more precious than we usually acknowledge. It passes through our hands and into others’ hands, and then into others whose hands we might not be around to see. And then into others who won’t even know our names, what we loved, what gave us anguish, how we smiled, that funny little quirk of ours.

Notice it. Be present. It’s passing through and away right now, catch it now. Look out the window, see the breeze in the leaves, or the lights in the building across the street. See the sun heading up, and down, and trading places with the moon. Go out and look at that moon, let the stars dazzle you as they used to when you didn’t know anything about them but their beauty and wonder. Put your phone away and look gently at the person across the table from you, and ask how they are doing, and listen. It’s all over way too soon.

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there’s always more than one way

you can find any image on the Internet
you can find any image on the Internet

Hey, yesterday’s post was number 1,400. What a nice number, and how nice to notice it, like when you happen to see your odometer rolling over a nice round number. And wow, 1,400 posts, that’s a lot. Posts from my old blog, Thrums, have been pulled in here (and wordpress just categorized them all as “big picture stuff” instead of taking the categories I’d originally assigned), and from the previous Queen of the Pillbugs blog over on squarespace. Even though I ebb and flow, and even though my blog has shifted focus — it used to be primarily a knitting blog — I am always glad to have this place to record my thoughts, and my life. So here’s to the next 1,400 posts. OY.

Over the years I’ve tried in spurts to do meditation. I wanted the benefits I heard about, wanted the stillness, wanted to find the clarity that meditaters seem to have. And of course it’s hard; people will say, “I tried, but my mind kept jumping around.” Yeah! Of course, that’s exactly the point! Your mind keeps jumping around. They call it monkey mind. That’s the point, learning how to discipline your monkey mind by noticing that it’s doing that, and bringing it back — no matter how many times you have to do it. I found it hard in a different way. When I tried to meditate, I dissociated or had flashbacks. It was very frightening, actually. And it’s not just me; many people with trauma histories cannot meditate.

I heard a very moving piece on NPR in 2009 about a psychiatrist named Michael Grodin, who works with traumatized Tibetan monks. Meditation is obviously such an enormous part of their lives, but when they tried, they had flashbacks to the torture they’d endured by the Chinese. Regaining the ability to meditate was essential to them. Eventually he found a technique that lived within their own experience. They held a singing bowl in their hand and gently struck it when they began to meditate. Of course that’s part of beginning a meditation for so many people, but not IN YOUR HAND. What it did for them was to connect them to the moment, to connect them physically to the moment. The bowl’s vibrations linger in the hand for a long time, and feeling those vibrations allowed them to remain in their body and in the moment.

So yesterday afternoon I was doing my daily yoga practice and had an insight. I was moving from upward facing dog to downward facing dog and my body felt like it was moving at “the great hinge,” which is how I experienced my hips in that movement from one pose to the other. I felt so fully in my body …. that’s not right, it’s more like my insides and outsides fully meshed or something. That’s not right either. I don’t know how to say it. Maybe it was just a different way of being fully present.

I’ve always had a very strange relationship to my body. It was invaded so frequently when I was a child and a young teenager; it was not my private body. I kind of separated myself from it in a strange way. Here’s an example: sometimes I’d say, “No don’t worry, I’m not crying, just my eyes are crying. It’s just my eyes crying.” It was so separate from me, and of course it makes great sense that I would come to feel that way during my childhood. So what occurred to me on the mat yesterday, as I felt so wholly connected in and with my body, is that being fully present during yoga, bringing my mind back when it wanders, back to the movement, to the pose, to the position, and being present right there with my muscles and bones, blood and heartbeat, well that’s a mighty good way to learn how to be present too.

So if meditation is hard for you and you want to get some of the benefits, you might try yoga — and keep bringing your wandering mind back to the pose. My mind wanders like this: “ooh, look at how the skin sags above my knees now, like my grandmother’s used to do…” Back to the pose, Queen. Mind back to the pose. Of if yoga’s not your thing, find another. There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Lots of ways to find your way to being awake.

boring-ness

It’s really funny — when I was going through the very long year and a half of unrelenting terribleness (all of 2012 and the first ~half of 2013), I worried that my posts were so heavy or dark that you would get sick of it and just quit reading me. Again with the introspection, again with the suffering, jeez enough. On occasion I thought I’d better write a different post, a “happy” post, but decided the whole point for me is to be as authentic as I can about my life, so that’s what I wrote.

Now I’m on the inverse side of that. I’m in a period of reflection, change, growth, and joy (except for the damn days-long headache) and I imagine that you’re getting so bored with that. As much as I love that you read my posts, this blog is really for me, to say “I was here and this was my experience of life.” And so I hope you stick around no matter what’s going on, even during prolonged runs of trouble or joy.

Yesterday was extraordinary, and the very best part of that is that the extraordinariness was in the ultra ordinary. I wasn’t sitting on Borobodur, in Ubud, on a boat in the Mekong, prowling Hanoi, panting for breath in Borneo, looking at clouds on Macchu Picchu or Lake Titicaca. I woke up, made coffee, went to the farmer’s market, did some yoga and later some meditation, tended to my life, listened to music, made a delicious dinner, read, and slept. ORDINARY. And yet it really, really wasn’t. You’d have to be me to appreciate some of these things:

  • I woke up later than I’d intended but had a night of completely uninterrupted, dreamless sleep. (for the win!) Instead of freaking out and jumping up, throwing clothes on and racing out the door at high speed — after all, I’d wanted to be there when they opened!!!! — I thought it doesn’t matter when I get there. It just doesn’t matter. Take your time. My kids will understand how startling that is. And so I did my morning ritual as I always do, I made my French press of super dark coffee, I dressed (red shorts!) and put on my normal tiny bit of make-up (i.e., mascara and lipstick), checked that I had small bills in my wallet, lingered a bit with my coffee and put the rest in a thermos, and walked out my door. Stood in my breezeway and saw what a beautiful day it was. Smiled.
  • There were a lot of slow drivers on the road — Sunday morning, I suppose — and each one taught me, reminded me to take it easy. My temper flared up with the first one and I literally gasped….why! I am in no rush! Put down your shoulders, breathe. And when I came up behind the next one I smiled. Thank you for the reminders. I am in no rush, it’s a beautiful day, just be here, look around. (Kids, can you believe it?!)
  • such a beautiful day
    such a beautiful day

    Got a great parking spot and didn’t race to the market — and not just because I got there 10 minutes before it opened. (Lesson learned there, in light of the first point above!) I stepped out of my car, got my market bags, and stood in the sun with my face turned up to it. Wondered why I haven’t gone swimming. I live in Texas! We have amazing places to swim here. Noted to myself: go swimming. I wandered through the park on the way to the market stalls, enjoyed the reflection of the clouds in the lake. Isn’t it a beautiful day?

  • At each stall, instead of just buying the stuff quickly and moving on (and I always did that because I didn’t want to be annoying to them, they’re busy), I instead moved slower than I usually do and looked each grower in the eye and paused just a couple of minutes to talk to them. And each of those conversations made me so very happy. They were without exception warm and friendly and gracious. I left each stall feeling a little taller.
carrots of all colors, peaches, tiny sweet figs, tomatoes, pesto (cilantro and pecan!), okra, and farm eggs.
carrots of all colors, peaches, tiny sweet figs, tomatoes, pesto (cilantro and pecan!), okra, and farm eggs.
  • Slow walk back to my car, feeling the rising heat on my neck. Isn’t it a beautiful day? I arranged my purchases in the car so the tender stuff wouldn’t get crushed, and pulled out of the parking spot. As I got on the busier road I saw a ladybug on my windshield and it made me laugh and cry at the same time. Hello, sweet little ladybug, how ya doing. It hung on all the way home. I played Man, by Neko Case — an amazing hard driving song that you can’t listen to once, so I listened to it the whole way home and felt so much joy I thought I might leave my body.

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Really do listen to this fantastic song. And not for nothing, I was in the audience at this performance, dancing my brains out. Her music was vibrating in my bones. IT WAS AMAZING. 

And all that was before 11am. I felt so happy I could not stop crying, just grateful for this amazing life, this amazing day, and I thought about the horrors, the bombings and death and starving, the terror, the fear, the imbalance of the world, and it broke my heart too. Those things were happening right at the same moment. Children were being tortured and abused by their parents here and there, right at the same moment. Women were being raped and tortured, right at the same moment. And just for the day, just for that one sunny day, I got to taste some of the joy. If I don’t taste it when it presents itself, I am a complete idiot. For my turn will come again, and it may come in ways that are so terrible I cannot even imagine them. It may break me. But for that day, joy was on my tongue and I am so grateful for that.

when small becomes infinite

I don’t want to become one of those proselytizers — only able to talk about the new important thing — but I just had an experience that was so wondrous I share it here in case it helps you think about trying to be more mindful of your moments.

Every day for the last few weeks, except for the day I walked from Columbia down to Chelsea, I have done 30 minutes of yoga. Every single day. I don’t have a DVD player so I use an app on my phone (Pocket Yoga, I really like it) and do my session at home, in my living room. Mid-afternoon at some point, I change into my yoga clothes and head over to my wonderful yoga mat, which I leave unrolled in a nice empty space by my French doors. There’s a little fountain there, and the afternoon sun comes through.

the light is so bright through the doors that my phone camera darkened everything else.
the light is so bright through the doors that my phone camera darkened everything else.

The app allows you to customize the music at different stages of a session, and the only customization I’ve done is the music for the last few minutes in savasana, corpse pose. I replaced their zen-ny music with Away But Never Gone (The Wailin’ Jennys). You can click the link there to hear it on YouTube.

So today, after a 1.5-day brutal headache wound down, I set aside my laptop to do my 30 minutes of yoga. When I am there on the mat, I am there on the mat. When my mind flits around I just bring it back. I am there to do yoga. I am there to be present in each pose, to breathe and just be there, doing that. When it ends, I can flit around all I want, worry about this and that. I can afford to give myself 30 minutes just to do these poses.

At the end, during savasana, I had this profoundly beautiful few minutes of just completely and wholly being there. Tears were sliding down the sides of my face and I felt my heart beating and in completely being there, I felt HUGE. I felt part of every single thing, and I didn’t have thoughts. (Which is usually very weird for me, but not in those minutes.) And it’s the strangest thing isn’t it, because actually it was a very small thing, a no-thing, a not-doing, not-thinking, not-talking, not-taking-in, not-planning, not-regretting, not-interacting thirty minutes of just being there. It could feel like the biggest waste, but instead it felt like every damn thing, all of it. The minutes were so long and when the song ended and it was time to get up, I felt like I’d been through something tremendous, something so special, something that enlarged and soothed me and left me open to the whole wide world.

I want more of that. Wouldn’t you?

de-storying the re-storying

Not too long ago, July 17, I wrote a post titled “re-storying for compassion.” The whole idea there was to subvert the mean little stories I tell myself when I get frustrated with others by imagining just one other story that might be true. Instead of “she is a giant jerk,” maybe “she is stressed out because her baby is sick.” That way I don’t ruin my own day and react [perhaps] unfairly to someone else, thereby increasing my potential for compassion for myself and others. It fit with an idea I’ve held for such a long, long time — our little stories, the templates we rely on to make sense of an ambiguous world.

Of course it works to the degree I’m willing to allow it to work. If the woman at the grocery store does indeed seem to think she’s the only one who matters, and acts snotty and rude when I ask her to move her cart enough for me to get by, it becomes mighty hard to hang on to my alternative explanation. Oh, I can hear me now: Yeah, right, maybe she’s just glad to get out of the house because she’s been taking care of a sick child, but she still doesn’t have to be such a jerk. Jerk. I’d already realized that this is a flaw in my alternate-explanation strategy, but still found the effort valuable.

But a bigger issue has occurred to me, and it comes via meditation and studying Pema and listening to a number of dharma talks. One problem, one big source of our own suffering, is the story we tell ourselves—the constant stream of stories we tell ourselves. A thing happens, it is its own thing, but the story we tell ourselves about it takes on a life of its own. Perhaps a friend was supposed to call at 4, and by bedtime she hasn’t called or contacted you in any way, and she doesn’t pick up when you call. That is the thing.

  • Maybe you tell yourself a story of worry: “OH, I’ll bet something terrible happened to her, she has been having a hard time lately and she’s been kind of scatterbrained, and what if she got in a car accident?”
  • Or maybe you tell yourself a story of abandonment: “Yeah, she’s been kind of cool to me lately, and she seems to be spending more time with her other friends, I’ll bet she’s tired of me and doesn’t really want to be my friend any more.”

Both of those stories have the power to make you very unhappy, and maybe they even keep you awake through the night, twirling them around and around. You might even be responding to the same tiny clues for both stories — her mood has been quieter, a little removed. But there you are, off to the races in your head, and everything that’s happening has nothing to do with reality.

Mindfulness

One important consequence of meditation is strengthening the ability to be with what is, what is actually happening, and not running off into thoughts that take you into the imagined future, or into a version of the past. And as much as I liked my idea of telling a different story, it is still just a story. It is all made up, it’s all in my own head, and it takes me out of and away from the moment I have to live.

So the moment: Severe aggravation, acid dripping into my stomach, mouth tightening, shoulders clenching aggravation. There she is, her shopping cart parked squarely in the middle of the aisle so no one can get around, and she is not paying the slightest bit of attention. That’s what is. The mission for me is not to make up a different reality but to confront my own nastiness, my own disruption. The cart is. She is. I am enraged — what is that about? Am I really in so much a rush that asking her to move her cart is worth such inner drama? I get to practice something in that moment, I get to learn something, and I get to learn it from her. I breathe, I lower my shoulders, I pause. One second, that’s all it takes, really. My inner flailing, my inner snarl, my agitation, it all gets to take a damn break.

I never thought I would be considering retiring my ‘little stories’ idea; it has been so useful to me in so many ways, and I’ve held the concept for decades. But things change, I change, and it’s time to open my hand and let this one drift away.

Have a wonderful Monday, everyone. xoxo

changing a changer

One of the stablest things about me is that I seek to change things — myself, my responses, my views of the world if they are causing me problems. And so I undertake these various projects, or sometimes I just work on one thing, one small thing. What usually happens is predictable—and not just for me, because change is hard: I/we enjoy the change, stick with it and then slip back to the former state. Another time, later, down the road, we try it again.

implicationsBecause this has been the pattern for me, changes never stuck around long enough for me to notice and grapple with the implications of the change, the way that change ripples into other parts of my life. Among other things, this means that the attempted change stayed localized in some way — ok, I went back to eating badly. That’s the sum effect.

Since I instituted my anti-flailing project on June 27 (what a silly and funny name, but it has a specific personal meaning for me), there have been a lot of shifts inside me. I was trained as a scientist and so I think about other things that could be happening that may be partly or even entirely responsible for the changes — maybe it’s not the new things I’m trying, or not just the new things I’m trying. But I’m staying focused here, and in my life, on these changes and was thinking yesterday about the unexpected implications of them.

Doing just one thing — this one small, focused effort has had such a huge impact, I am kind of dizzied by it.

  • If you are my Facebook friend you may have noticed that I’m really not around there very much. I used to check it throughout the day while I worked, and while it felt fun and connect-ey, it also kept me from being as efficient as I could be in my work (which cost me money) and it also left me feeling fragmented at the end of each day. What did I do that day? Everything and nothing. Doing just one thing at a time has broken my knee-jerk need to check it, my practical salivation when that little red number appeared indicating something new.
  • My mind is not crammed full of trivial crap I could not care less about (cf the Kardashians, what Angie and Brad are up to, “You won’t believe what happened when this husband did this!”, the nine simple ways to feel happy right now, the three foods women should avoid for a flat stomach, why Boehner’s orange face looks like that today). Instead I can seek out information about things I do care about, like the horror in Gaza, the tragedy of our country’s response to refugee children, worries in Ukraine. I have to take those in very small doses, but I get to control my intake.
  • My mind is so much quieter, the water feels very deep and still. It’s a funny thing, but I feel much less self-focused, self-tizzied. I feel more like a quiet watcher of the world, a thoughtful participant in it, rather than a frantic observer of myself—why did I say that? why do I do this? what do I do about the other thing?
  • My entertainment is still time spent with people I love, reading very good books, watching good movies, but I’m also spending time with Pema Chodron and dharma gatherings.

This goes very pointedly and experientially with doing one thing, but it is also its own thing: Taking care of myself. Again, a shocking web of unexpected consequences:

  • Movement: I so look forward to doing yoga every day, with pleasure.(!) This is directly related to mindfulness, but I hadn’t expected to look forward to it the way I do. I’m not very flexible right now and have to modify so many of the poses pretty dramatically, but I enjoy it. I enjoy stopping what I am doing to go to the mat. I enjoy being there, in that moment, holding the pose, moving as gracefully as I can into the next. I enjoy holding that exalted warrior and crying, which I always do. In New York I enjoy taking my daily walks. (It helps that it’s cool here, and I have beautiful Riverside Park, but there is real joy in doing the walk itself.) I don’t spend the time worrying over work, or what I should be doing, or what waits when I get back. I just walk. I just move through the poses. I enjoy feeling my body doing those things. Never felt that before, ever. And didn’t expect it now, either.
  • Food: I’ve spent my life looking at food either in terms of calories for weight loss, or indulgences. I started working on changing my approach to food last year when I worked with Jeff, my health coach. He gave me a way to think about food — just eat all the fruits, all the vegetables, you can’t go wrong! So that’s a change I’ve spent quite a while with, but for some reason as I just do one thing and want to take care of myself, the shift has shifted a little more. I enjoy my food, I enjoy shopping for very good, fresh food for myself. I enjoy preparing a beautiful dinner of that very good food. I eat whole food only, though I didn’t set out to follow that specific diet. Somehow all these efforts have converged into making food a wonderful pleasure that is also very good for me. I can almost always make it work wherever I am, so I am not a pain in the butt for anyone, either.

Really really weird, all this shift essentially from deciding to do one thing at a time. I can see a convergence of all kinds of efforts and coincidental timing, but it came together around mindfulness. And it turns out that “anti-flailing” is exactly the right way to think about it, because the whole thing together leaves me feeling like I’ve pulled my arms in, the frazzling tizzy of all my attentional energy is quieter and still, and I’m not racing and spinning in circles.

waterThere are other implications that are a little uncomfortable for me right now; even though my mind feels still and clearer, I somehow feel like all the water around me is muddied and stirred up, and I don’t know where I am. I have to be patient and wait for the silt of all this change to settle. The quietness and solitude is good, and the inner quiet is good, but it’s a kind of feeling that always accompanied depression and so that association is pretty powerful. I am not depressed, and I think the longer I sit with the change the weaker that association will become. Change is uncomfortable even when it’s good . . . or rather, there are aspects that aren’t comfortable because they are unfamiliar, and you just have to be patient while they become familiar.

I can’t recommend mindfulness enough — just do the thing you’re doing. That’s all. Just do that thing. Bring your mind back to it whenever it wanders. It’s quite amazing and powerful. I’ve been thinking about a bunch of stuff in the midst of all this so I’ll be returning to regular posting, too. Love y’all a bunch.

a silent report

silenceI wonder why all the images from a search for the word ‘silence’ are black and white (and mostly white). That’s actually very interesting to me and something I want to think about [note to self].

Today marks the first week of my anti-flailing project and it’s been really interesting. There is really just one part to it, but one aspect is having its own repercussions so I’ll talk about them separately: doing one thing at a time, and spending a lot of time in silence.

My efforts to do just one thing at a time, to give all my mindfulness to whatever I’m doing, have been about 90% successful. I’ve noticed that when I’m very tired, my monkey mind appears and just won’t sit still. So I go ahead and just do whatever kind of silly things I want to do, however multi-tasked I want to do them. When I made my meals, I really just made my meals (chop wood, carry water). I tried to enjoy the ingredients, the preparation of them, their beauty, the smells — and then I just ate my dinner and tried to slow down from my usual gobble. Usually I eat and watch The Daily Show or something, but eating in silence and slowly has turned out to be kind of wonderful. It has not been hard to do this, at least in the first week.

During my walk last night I realized that I feel like I’m not getting anything done. And I’m probably not getting as many things done as I used to! That’s probably true. The things I do also take a little longer because I’m trying not to dash through them. But I feel so much calmer (though my sleeping has gotten weird….). I’m breathing better, by which I mean I’m actually breathing. I find I’m walking more slowly, don’t know if that’s related but it feels like it is. I’ve also noticed that my mind gets very tired in a way I’m unfamiliar with — like an unused muscle or something. I’ll be curious to see how this changes. Doing so many things at once, having so much stimulation coming at us all the time as we do these days, surely contributes to a harried feeling. It did for me. Harried and fractured. I’m feeling that a lot less, at least here at the end of the first week. I’m going to keep doing this, I like it a lot.

Silence. OK, this one is the big shocker to me. Doing one thing at a time means not also having music playing in the background. (For me anyway.) When I first moved back to Austin, it was the silence that was so very difficult. I’d never lived alone, there was always someone around, they played music or whatever, lots of sounds. Sitting in the silence then felt like it was going to be my undoing, so I got to work on that.

Now, though, the silence has become rich and beautiful. I love the silence. And I’m so shocked by that, I would’ve bet a dollar to a donut that I couldn’t do it. Yesterday I played some cello very softly in the background while I was working, and I kept lowering the volume and lowering it until it was on mute. It might be playing still, I’ll have to check. I love walking around in my house in the silence. I love sitting and reading in the silence. I love thinking and writing in the silence. And there’s surely no surprise here, but my mind has been thick with ideas. I don’t know if that’s due to the silence, or the mindfulness, or what I’ve been reading (probably a combination), but in the silence I can hear them.

I attended Quaker services when we lived in Virginia and they have meetings for silent worship, no one speaks unless they feel led to do so. And then they sit and the silence settles down again. They do this so they can hear the voice of God, which you can do in silence. Some monks live in silence. I get the power of it and every day I can’t wait for the silence. Isn’t that weird?

And it’s probably a consequence of all this together, but time seems to be moving more slowly. I dig that too. Onward to week two.

nourishment

I do not have a green thumb. I over-water, under-water, forget. But even with my black thumb, even I wouldn’t pour Coke on my plant on watering days and expect it to grow. Even I wouldn’t place chips and a Snickers bar on the soil and think I’d fed it. That’s nutty.

But of course I do that metaphorical thing to myself, in so many ways. I am now good about nourishing my body (all the fruits and veg!), but don’t think regularly about the other things that go into me. Marnie and I had hours of conversation a couple of evenings ago and we talked about self-care and doing our work. And of course I’ve been thinking hard the past few days about living my life on purpose, instead of flitting through it. I’ve been trying to uni-task (mono-task?) and just do the thing I’m doing. It’s GREAT. I couldn’t have done this during my busy years with young kids and teenagers and going to college and graduate school, obviously. Multitasking was our family M.O. back then. But that was then, and this is now, and I have the luxury of focus.

Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you'll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson"
Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you’ll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson”

And so yesterday I turned off the music, sat in the chair in my bedroom — a place I don’t usually sit — with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Marnie read a passage to me that left us both in deepest-heart tears, the heavy ones, the ones that come from seeing yourself in a work of art, of having yourself given back to you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve come home, finally. (Here is the NYTimes review of the book.) The people who have mentioned it to me, always with urgency, are the kind of people who think about big things. I sat with the book (the actual book, not a Kindle book) and my moleskine and my favorite pen and read. I read slowly, savored, stopped to reflect. I made notes, wrote out passages that meant something to me, wrote tiny annotations of thought. I read that book, and don’t want to stop until I finish, but I also don’t want to just frantically consume it — and I have other things to do. I read 50 glorious pages.

Reading such amazing writing made me think about nourishing myself and my own writing. I am not Anne Carson, cannot write like her because I am not her and don’t have her voice, but I want to do in my own way the kind of thing she has done. I want to find the way my book needs to be written, and I need to push and break and find a new way. And to do that I will need nourishment, I will need to read exceptional writing. I’ll want to spend my time feeding myself the kinds of things that fill that well. Besides reading Carson, tonight or tomorrow night I’m going to watch Ida, a beautiful complex movie. As David Denby said in his review of it in The New Yorker, the movie “again and again asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.” Those are questions that interest me, they’re questions that are relevant to me, and here Pawel Pawlikowski has been thinking hard about them too and produced a beautiful and thoughtful piece of work. More on the movie later.

Of course I’ll need to laugh and break into crazy dancing when Donna Summer comes on my playlist. And when I’m dancing, I’ll need to just be dancing. I’ll need to see my beloved people and be with them. But I can’t go where I want to go if I feed myself chips and Coke and a Snickers bar—Facebook feeds and news I don’t give a crap about and blank TV-watching. What words, ideas, thoughts do I want to fill my head with, especially as I grapple with my own writing? Not those, they’re not going to get me where I’m headed. Figuring things out, yo.

do that thing

heya toots! apropos of nothing in the post, but how can you not grin when you look at that face, I ask you.
Heya toots! Apropos of nothing in the post, but how can you not grin when you look at that face, I ask you. An old picture but a good one. Sweet Oliver!

Two nights ago I returned to walking — just bring it back. It doesn’t matter that it’s been a while since I walked like this, that I had been walking regularly and then lost the habit. That’s all irrelevant. Just bring it back. Just return to walking. I hadn’t downloaded the podcast I’d planned to listen to, so instead I listened to music.

One song after another on my playlist dragged me around in time. Some songs dragged me back decades, some to last year, some dragged my heart into sadness, some jazzed me up (Spice Girls!). And that is the very essence of the kind of multi-tasking I am hoping to let go of. I was not paying attention to my walk, I was not seeing where I was going, I wasn’t really there. My legs were walking but my mind was everywhere else.

Thank heavens I noticed! I had to switch the music to something not so distracting (I highly recommend any cello any time) and I kept returning my attention to my walking when it would drift. And you know what? I noticed my legs carrying me around, and how wonderful is that? I know a bunch of people right now who would give anything to be able to do that. I belittle my legs (chubby wiggly thighs, c’mon), call them short (like that’s a big problem?), hide them because they’re so white (and?), and there they are, just carrying me wherever my mindless mind sends me. I wouldn’t have noticed that. I wouldn’t have noticed the way the air smelled; it had rained that day and the air was humid, but there was a smell of damp dirt in the air and I love that smell. Wouldn’t have noticed it. I saw the carefully tended homes in my neighborhood, each with some frippery in the yard, evidence of the owners’ pleasures in their homes. Lights on inside, families feeling at home. I saw the sky and the way it was padded with gray dirty-ish clouds, and with tiny windows of blue peeking out in the intervals.

It’s so hard to do just the thing you’re doing. Just do that thing. If there’s something whirling around in your mind and you can’t let go of it, then stop doing the other thing and just focus on what’s worrying you! You can really only do that for so long, it turns out, even though it might feel like you’ll never be able to stop. Same with crying. Going ahead and doing that thing might just let you exhaust it for a while. And then you can go do the thing you weren’t really doing. Just do that thing.

Remember when we were kids and we’d lie on the floor and put a new album on the record player and just listen? We’d listen to one whole side, beginning to end, and then flip it over, maybe. On our backs, arms out to the side maybe, just listening. Eyes closed maybe, reading the liner notes maybe, staring at the album cover maybe, but otherwise just listening. When is the last time you just listened to music? I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been for me!

Being mindful can also make you much more grateful, I think. Being mindful during my walk led me to notice my legs and be really grateful that I can just do that, I can just get up and take a walk. I was telling a dear friend the other day that it seems like nearly everyone I know is dealing with a whole boatload of shit. Apparently I’ve moved into the age group informally known as the “whole boatload of shit” age group, because seriously. Things are falling apart right and left. Some things are growing out of control — bad news. Some things are breaking — bad news. Some things that have worked for a long time aren’t working so well — bad news. And then here I am, just blithely able to get up and take a walk whenever I want and I don’t even notice that. It feels like a silly thing to be so grateful for my legs, until I think about all my beloveds who are in that nasty boat.

Again today I’m going to try to just do the thing I am doing. And when I slip and start daydreaming, worrying, multi-tasking, when I notice that I’ll just bring it back. Today I get to have brunch with some of my beautiful girlfriends and my daughters, introducing these special people to each other. And I will just be there, I promise myself.

the anti-flailing project

coffeeIn my last post, I started the process of thinking about this next stage of my life. I’ll be 56 in November. My three children are grown (well, my daughters are; my 27-year-old son has a long way to go). My daughters are in happy marriages, doing the things they each want to be doing with their lives. I love their husbands and feel such relief knowing that my daughters are OK. My grandson is happy and healthy and much-loved by people far and wide and has his mommy’s arms around him. That part of my life is covered. I’m so glad I get to be part of their lives, doing what I can for them all.

I have work, home, family, friends, interests covered. (Hey! Aren’t I incredibly lucky?) What I’m missing is some kind of frame, some way of understanding my life in a bigger way than just the things I’m doing with my days. To start, I made a little brainstorm list “what do I want to do” and it was this:

  • read thoughtfully
  • write on purpose
  • meditate every single day and do yoga at least 4 times/week
  • walk at least every other day
  • make things (sew interesting clothing, make quilts — art quilts, knit)
  • spend time with people I love
  • listen to (and make) music
  • travel
  • make really good food

What occurred to me was that these are all things I do, to varying degrees, but what I meant while making the list had to do with focus and intent. Thoughtfulness, and…. there, it took me where I was going. Mindfulness. I do the things I want to do, but in a skating fast way, a doing it while barely noticing it way. I kind of race up to things and hurl some energy at them and get done. I read a lot, throw books back like an alcoholic throws back drinks, consuming and gorging. I know how I want to read, and it’s a little different than how I do it now. I write a lot, and want to approach it a little differently. Etc.

I’ve decided to approach this like my old 40-day Restoration Project. And in fact I’m revisiting some of the same things that mattered then — because they’ve always mattered to me, and because I go in and out of being able to keep them at the center. The specific complications of my life will have to be incorporated, and it’ll present a challenge. Eleven days a month I’m in New York, where I don’t have the same kind of privacy or space. So that is a very good challenge; it’s easy to do what you want with your life when you have everything just so, but life isn’t always just so.

This time I’m not setting an end date because I am wanting to make a wholesale shift. One of the great things about meditation is that it’s an approach. You sit and then you notice you’re not meditating, you’re not present, so you just bring it back. And the “just bring it back” is assumed for everyone, it’s not a failure it IS the work, and it’s an approach that’s appropriate beyond the mat. So on all these things I’ll goof up, I’ll slip, I’ll flail and thrash, I’ll despair, and I hope to learn how to just bring it back.

How you spend your day is how you spend your life. I spend too much of my day multi-tasking but not in a good way, not in a way that’s about making good food while being with people I love, for instance. But more like doing some work and glancing at the TV and checking in on Facebook and responding to a text. THAT kind of multi-tasking, and that kind of day spent, a fracturing. And therefore that kind of life spent.

Starting today, I return (just bring it back….) to my morning ritual. That has fallen by the wayside between Greece, and NY, and all that six weeks of stuff. Today I wake up earlier than usual because I have plans throughout the day. I stretch and think about how lucky I am to have another day in my life. Focus my first thoughts on what I want from the day on a human level rather than a getting-work-done level: I don’t want to waste this day, such a gift; I want to be compassionate to myself and other people. Take some deep slow breaths and stretch. Smile. A drink of water and out the door for a walk.

our dinnerI see Karyn for mid-morning brunch, then I pick up Marnie at Katie’s. I want to be fully present with Karyn. When I am at Katie’s I’ll hold and nuzzle Oliver, see my Katie girl, then Marnie and I will go shopping for food. Together we’ll make ourselves a wonderful dinner, spend the evening together talking, maybe go out to hear some music. Meditation before sleep. So by the end of the day, I’ll have soaked up people I love, I’ll have walked and meditated, I’ll have made some wonderful food, I’ll have given some love to the next two generations in my family, and maybe heard someone make music. THAT is a good day, especially if I am present for it all.

I don’t yet see the frame, the bigger picture, but I imagine that will come to me. For today, I just want to be here for it.

flashback post

For a bunch of reasons — including the main one, which is that I was thinking about this very thing and saw no need to reinvent the wheel — a post I wrote in February 2012:

The first time I saw this map, my brain went completely blank:

mcarthur

The first time I heard how British textbooks teach children the story of the American War for Independence, my brain went blank. In both instances, I was a grown-ass woman, in my late 30s, and yet I was kind of floored. Oh, the things I’d never even questioned, the things I just accepted unquestioningly as the obvious truth. I may have been kind of slow, but I think we all do this. After all, there’s not enough time to think closely about every tiny thought we have, and most of the time it’s just not necessary.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the truth that my understanding is profoundly limited. In my younger years, every fall I read all the Carlos Castaneda books. I was most fascinated by the Yaqui ability to see, that involved seeing humans as luminous bobbing egg shapes of energy. Those who had given birth had dark spots in the lower part, because they’d lost some of the energy in giving it to the creation of a new being. I was curious about seeing the “lines of the world,” the energy that existed in a kind of grid and could be used by people if they knew how, and could see them in the first place. Setting aside those stories, I do know there’s so much going on all around me that I am unable to see because of limitations of my human apparatus. I can’t even see parts of the light spectrum, I’m limited.

Of course there are other limitations we can circumvent if we try very hard. We get stuck in our heads, locked into our definitions and descriptions, and we’re busy! For heaven’s sake, there are kids to be driven around, plans to make, laundry to do, work to get done…always too much work to get done, husbands to tend to, groceries to buy and prepare, old folks to care for and babies to feed, who has the time?

But can you stop for 5 minutes? Just 5? Set a timer so you don’t have to worry that you’ll screw up and do this for 6 whole minutes—the horror, what would you do then—but just do this. Just do this for 5 minutes. Sit still and look. See what all you can see. I took a break yesterday and decided to keep my eyes open and try to actually look, while paying attention to my mind which kept wanting to drag me to a to-do list, or to this afternoon, or next week, or back to when I was 5. I’d notice it was doing that again and let it drift away, and think “Be here now. Just be here now.” Here’s what I saw.

Birds — pigeons walking around the street, sparrows flitting around in the branches. It’s a bird’s world, my street, what is their world? Lots of ledges, lots of small branches, little hollows under eaves for nesting, small patches of ground around the trees, tiny puddles left over from the super’s sidewalk-washing this morning. It’s their world, they are busy having a bird-centered life and I’m just in it, watching out my window.

People — men walking their dogs, men parking cars, women hurrying somewhere, workmen carrying boards, supers talking to each other. Each one of those people is the center of a whole world, they have friends and families and colleagues and enemies and structures of relationships and work and hopes and worries. Some may be having a great day, some may be in despair. They’re the center of a world, and they participate in the worlds of so many others, and perhaps as they pass each other on the street there’s some kind of connection in that large structure with the person they pass, and they don’t know it. Each of those people is moving around in his or her own world, and I’m not even noticed as I watch out my window.

Dogs — On their leashes, sniffing the trees, marking the corners of buildings, stopping to sniff each other while their people wait, the familiar paths they probably take a couple of times a day. Their attention sharpens when another dog is near, which happens all the time. Theirs is a dog’s world, filled with the scent markings they and others have left, as they are taken out to do their business on sidewalks and their people pick it up for them. Their experience of the breeze may be as a source of a whole world of information.

Buildings — built by workmen, designed by architects and engineers, financed by bankers, plumbed and wired by working men (the buildings are 100 years old, so they were definitely men). The buildings have stood here for a century as life went on inside, and outside. Storms raged, night fell, garbage strikes lay at their feet, snow fell, for a hundred years. People moved in and out, some died inside undoubtedly, some were born inside probably, some fought, some were hurt, lots of people felt love inside that building, lots felt alone. All of these buildings are filled with the echoes of stories.

Wind — the branches of the trees are dancing in the wind, and there’s an entire wind-world going on. It sweeps down my street as if its funneled; it swoops down the Hudson River at the end of my street. It swirls around the faces of people walking past, the animal life is probably keenly aware of it in a way I’m not. The birds may even understand it as a road system or in some way that’s inconceivable to me. The wind does what it does whether I’m watching or not.

I hear the sound of construction in the next block, the jackhammer buzzing and vibrating the floor. I hear the hiss and cracks of the radiator in my building, spitting dry heat into my living room [note: it was February when I wrote this…]. I hear the music I’m playing in the background while I work. I hear the buzzer to my apartment every 45 minutes this morning. I hear people come and go, the door opening and closing. I hear snippets of conversation through the glass of my closed window as people pass by on the sidewalk, just the sound really, not the words.

And at the end of my 5 minutes of looking, I was struck by the whole of it somehow, everything that’s going on all at once, and I thought of the wonderful last line of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:”

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

Just be here now, exactly where you are. Five minutes. Even if you’re in the middle of hell — and I was, when I wrote that; in February 2012 my husband was undergoing cruel and murderous treatment and every day was a battle. But breathe in and what is happening where you rest your eyes? Breathe out, what do you hear? Breathe in, listen. Breathe out. Look. Five minutes.

an easy test

Granted: It was a wonderful day yesterday because I spent the day with my daughter Katie, planning a baby shower and making baby things and having lunch. Who couldn’t have a wonderful day under those circumstances?

Well, I could’ve failed to have a wonderful day. I’m worried about my work, I’m worried about a lot of things, I’m anxious about how to get more business, I’m scared because I haven’t made any money in an ongoing period of time and there’s no work on the horizon to speak of. I’m distracted, frightened, scattered. The situation is not desperate, and I can help myself with the emotional aspects and there are things I can do, a variety of things. So it isn’t that any of this is huge and FRIGHTENING, it’s just that it’s there, swirling around underneath. And it could’ve kept me distracted from my day with my sweet daughter.

But yesterday morning I did my new morning ritual. My alarm woke me up softly at 6:30, and I stretched. Before I opened my eyes, I took some deep, slow breaths. I thought about how grateful I was to have another day of my life ahead of me, and I thought about getting to spend it with Katie. The best part of the ritual, the part that made a difference for me, was thinking about what I wanted from the day, which was this: I wanted to be present with Katie. I wanted to really be with her, and be engaged with our baby shower planning. I wanted to really be with her and not turning my mind away swirling with work and money worries. Since I had this opportunity to have a whole day alone with her, I wanted to truly have the day. And so that’s what I thought about before I got out of bed.

Then I took some more slow deep breaths and smiled, and got out of bed. Mindfully made my coffee and green smoothie, breathing in the smells, watching. Sat in my living room in front of the fire, in the quiet, and drank my coffee and smoothie. Several minutes later, I read my folder of pages, closing them as I moved through them, then did some personal writing. At the end, I stood up and stretched my arms straight up, and then out, and as I knew I would, I cried. My heart felt open and I was ready for my day.

fairies
bibbidy bobbidy boo!

Did it work? You know, it really did! It worked on so many levels, even though it wasn’t a magic wand. I felt ready to live this day of my life. It felt sacred, not to make too big a deal out of that. And it helped me be very clear about my day with Katie, and what matters to me. It didn’t magically delete my worries, it didn’t wipe out those things I know and am concerned about, but it gave me what I needed to deal with them when they arose throughout the day. I just smiled and remembered that this was my day to be with my oldest daughter, a day in both our lives, a day shared, preparing for her son, my grandson, a precious day. That’s what yesterday was set aside for, and if I was distracted by other things I would not be there with her, and I would have missed it. Starting my day with that quiet thought and clarity about what I wanted from the day was key.

I’m sure if my worries were greater, more frightening, more consuming, it would be much harder. I’m sure if my alternative was not as wonderful as a day with my daughter it would be much easier to give in to the worry and fear. Maybe by the time I’m facing that situation again — and I will, because that’s the rhythm of life — maybe by then I’ll be stronger from having practiced this lovely morning ritual.

Like everything, the challenge is not allowing the ritual to slip into mindless rote actions. By the 43rd time I start my day like this, I’ll just go through the motions (even though that’s the exact opposite of what the ritual is), unless I take care with it. Even on those days I’m less mindful than others, it’s still a lovely way to start a day — stretching, pausing, smiling, breathing and smelling coffee, reading a bit in the quiet, stretching and opening my arms.

All throughout the day I want to say little things, tell you funny things, or interesting things, or amazing things I hear about or see. Facebook tickles my fingers, then. I’m thinking about a way to integrate some of that here, we’ll see. For now, the quiet is just so wonderful, and my days have felt more whole in some way, less zigging around. Happy Thursday, everyone, I hope it’s a good day in your life today.

ritual

As part of my project for this year, I am thinking about the word stable — this year, not from an external perspective but from an internal point of view. Since I have a life-long habit of dashing through things and doing as many things at once as possible, one thought I’ve had was to slow things down and be more mindful in the moments.  One way to do that is to create rituals for particular events or moments. Obvious possibilities:

  • morning
  • dinner
  • bedtime

Do you have a morning ritual? For so many years mine was hurryhurryhurryhurry and get everyone up and out and dash to work. In New York, when I worked in publishing on Madison Avenue, I woke up at 4:30 every morning so I could sit in the quiet with a pot of coffee and read and write, to prepare myself for the stressful day ahead. I’d leave for work between 6:15 and 6:30. When I went out on my own as a freelancer, I kind of lost the whole structure of morning because morning had always been focused only on getting my kids to school, and me to work. Now that work is in the next room and there’s no boss but me, I’m just in a mode of reacting. If I got no sleep, I sleep in if I can. If I have a Skype meeting with a client, I set an alarm. I mostly just wake up when I wake up and then wander into the living room.

ah, so lovely..
ah, so lovely….

Starting the day in a reacting mode is OK enough, and aren’t I lucky to be able to sleep in when I haven’t gotten sleep! All those earlier years in my life, it didn’t matter one bit if I got no sleep, that alarm went off, kids had to be up-and-at-em’ed, I had to get to work. Sorry, me, no indulging how bad you feel, gotta go, gotta split, move it move it move it. I can be kinder to myself now, and I’m so grateful for that. But I want to develop a morning ritual that nourishes me in a quiet way, that starts me on my way in a mindful, stable way. My “must-do” morning tasks (aside from dressing and grooming) have always focused on coffee, reading, and writing, and if I don’t get to do those things I feel kind of wonky all day, as if I left my keys or purse somewhere and I can’t quite place it.

I have a tendency toward grasping control and will make an Excel spreadsheet with colored cells that feed data to a secondary sheet that creates graphs and charts of the data before God gets the news. Wake up, 6:00. Boil kettle and grind beans for coffee, 6:02. Drink coffee and read, 6:10 to 7:00. Shower, 7:00 to 7:15. Etc.  Then it’ll occur to me that if I make another column alongside those in which I enter the time I actually do each thing, I can chart where the routine works and where it fails…..and BLAM I give up on the whole thing. But look there, what I said: ROUTINE. This is a routine, not a ritual.

What is the difference, really? Routines and rituals are both a series of tasks, maybe performed in a certain order, a to-do list. But the difference is a chasm, and that chasm is intent. Focus. Meaning. Here is my normal morning routine:

  • wake up when I wake up (most mornings, though if I need to set an alarm for an appointment it’s usually set at 6am)
  • make my coffee and green smoothie
  • read and write while I’m having my coffee, and when it’s finished I get to work. Some days I dress and some days I don’t, depends on whether I’m going out that day and how I’m feeling.

Turning this into a ritual wouldn’t necessarily mean tossing out those things — no coffee! get up on purpose! light candles! — although some might fade away and others come into the mix. Shifting to ritual would mean I engage the morning, I pay attention to what I’m doing rather than moving on autopilot or being distracted by my monkey mind. Since my goal is internal stability and quiet, and since I want to live and not just exist as much as I can, here’s a thought for a morning ritual. I’ll give it a whirl tomorrow and see what works.

  • Set an alarm for 6:30 but choose a soft song for the alarm. I use the alarm on my phone and can pick any song in my library. I have another app that has a variety of sounds that would be fantastic to wake up to. For the first few minutes after I wake up, stretch and think about how lucky I am to have another day in my life. Focus my first thoughts on what I want from the day on a human level rather than a getting-work-done level: I don’t want to waste this day, such a gift; I want to be compassionate to myself and other people. Take some deep slow breaths and stretch. Smile.
  • Make my coffee, being mindful at each step. Cold water filling the kettle, coffee beans grinding — smell that smell, so rich — grounds in the French press, boiling water over the grounds, take a deep breath when I stir it before adding the plunger. Make my green smoothie, noticing each step. Smell the almond milk, the banana, the spinach, the peaches. Watch the whirling mixture become thick and creamy.
  • Spend the first tastes of coffee and smoothie just noticing the flavors and textures. No TV. Read the set of things I read, making any notes about things I want to keep. Write.
  • Stand up and stretch, an arms-up stretch and then an arms-out stretch to finish the ritual. This stretch almost always brings tears to my eyes for some reason — an open-heart position that I hope sets the path for the kind of day I’d like to have. I want as many open-heart days as I can have, don’t you?

The challenge will be doing this on “those” days — you know the ones. You oversleep, you slept badly, you’re really worried about something that is truly worrisome, you have unpleasant or even terrible tasks to do in the coming day, you feel crummy in any way, you’ve suffered a blow of some kind, you’re mad or hurt or overwhelmed. And just because you know those are the days you most need the thing that will comfort you doesn’t mean you can do it.

Here’s an old song that always feels like a beautiful morning to me — “Sunrise,” by Barry Manilow. It’s my current alarm song and it always wakes me up with such a nice feeling. Maybe that’s because of who I was when I listened to it in 1977, maybe it’s just those opening piano notes. Happy Wednesday, everyone. xo

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