things I have gotten used to

About a year before my life fell completely apart in October, 2012, I finally came to a bit of peace about the fact that I was going to live in New York the rest of my life, at the same address no less. (This irony is not lost on me…) Before I found that peace, I’d been too afraid to relax and believe, because I thought that if I did, if I let my guard down, the pain would be too great when I lost it. So I had just about a year of relaxing, thinking aaah, OK, I won’t ever have to move again.

And then of course I had to move again, move #81 at least. For some very good reason, I didn’t turn on myself with recrimination and self-loathing — idiot, see? You should never have fallen for that. That would’ve been so me. Maybe everything around me was just in such agony and confusion that I didn’t have the energy to spare to hate myself for having believed that.

Then last June, when I started changing my life, I entered into a period of peace, by which I don’t mean inner peace but rather the peace of not having disasters and tragedies happening around me. Nothing bad was going on for me, or for anyone I love. It was weird. It kept going. That felt weirder and weirder. Once I felt unsettled by it because I didn’t know how to understand such a prolonged period without trouble.

This morning I realized that my life is still peaceful and I’m just used to it. It’s no longer noteworthy. I’m not afraid that it’ll end — probably because I know it will. Or, rather, it will be interrupted. Trouble will come to me and/or people I love, because that’s how it goes, but peace will return too.

Here’s a short list of things I’ve become accustomed to now:

  • peace, outer and inner
  • my body, which no longer looks temporary in its shape
  • daily exercise (what?)
  • my poetry group; I didn’t get anxious before they came the last two months because I am just used to them and know it’ll be great
  • my circle of women
  • eating well, the way I want. Of course that is regularly interrupted, when I go to NY and on vacation to places that heavily feature meat, like Colombia (whose motto ought to be ‘All Meat All The Time!’). But when it’s my choice, I’m so used to eating well that it’s my go-to selection.
  • Austin. I wasn’t used to this kind of life when I moved back, and didn’t think I could adjust to small-town living. It did take a while, and there were times it was hard, but I’ve gotten used to it and feel in its groove now, and love it again.
so much captured in this picture of my book club: the ease and safety of this group of women, my comfort in Austin, and the expectation of a peaceful life
so much captured in this picture of my book club: the ease and safety of this group of women, my comfort in Austin, and the expectation of a peaceful life

Of course this isn’t a list of things I’m grateful for — that would start off with my daughters and their families. The deal is I’ve always been used to them, unafraid that I’d lose them. And that’s just the best thing.

Speaking of, I get to spend a couple of days and tonight at Katie’s. All that delicious time with my daughter, and with Oliver, lucky lucky me. I hope you are having a period of peace, I hope you have something wonderful planned for the day, and if that’s not true for you at this moment just remember that it will be true again. xo

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.

I do it my way

“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” ~Pema Chodron

I’ve been steadily meditating on that idea since last June, and it fits so beautifully — of course — with the focus on mindfulness that has also been part of my life since June. Meditation and mindfulness help you develop an ability to be in the present and simply allow what is, to be what is. (Newsflash: it is anyway, whether you ‘allow’ it or not.) The blue sky is your clear mind, which is always available even when the sky is filled with storm clouds of stories and emotions. Your clear mind is there, behind it all. It’s available to you.

If you’re lucky, the stormy weather is ordinary. A too-busy schedule that leaves you resentful and overwhelmed. Drudgery that leaves you frustrated or resentful. A bit of trouble with a friend that leaves you feeling abandoned or hurt. A project you’re behind on that makes you fearful you might lose your job. Various issues with the kids, your spouse. Those ordinary things can feel pretty big from time to time, but they’re great to practice on. Having a clear mind and not getting swept away by the stories and emotional overwhelm can be helpful (and it certainly feels better). Sometimes ‘what is’ is dire, of course — your loved one is dying, or facing harrowing treatment. Your child has to be hospitalized and the prognosis is scary. Your child is going through anything dreadful, actually. You find a lump and you have a family history. I am so so sorry, and the fact that your clear mind — the blue sky — is available to you is probably not too helpful right then no matter how much practice you’ve done, although it’s good if you can find some of it.

see? look at the bottom corner of the storm clouds...there's still blue sky behind it. There's always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.
See? Look at the bottom left corner of the storm clouds…there’s still blue sky behind it. There’s always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.

Sometimes the trouble simply comes from within. I can provide two examples from my own life of different kinds of trouble from within. The first is my son, and my heartache and anger and worry and heartache (worth saying twice) that he has again abandoned us all and refused to communicate with any of us for the last 19 months. That’s how long it’s been since he has said a single word to anyone. My heart aches, I miss him, I’m pissed off at him, I feel helpless, I cry a lot sometimes, I’ll get caught off guard by something that reminds me of him and I feel the devastation of his absence. I imagine he’ll never come back, that something bad will happen to him and I won’t know. My helplessness overwhelms me sometimes I want to lash out, yell at him, write my anger to him, howl to the sky. That’s an awful lot of weather, and here you can surely see that calling it ‘weather’ does not minimize the very real quality of these thoughts and feelings. But I’ll tell you this: meditation has honestly helped me with this. When those feelings and thoughts come, I open my hands and just sit with them. Heartache — I sit there with my hands open and feel the heartache. It hurts, and sometimes I cry. I let it be, I don’t grab it and clutch it to me, I don’t engage in battle with it, I don’t push it away because I don’t want to feel it. I feel it, it is, I remember that I am the sky and this is the weather, I take deep breaths, and the heartache begins to ease. It was a real feeling, it is a real feeling, but without all the story attached to it (stories of blame falling all around, stories of why he’s doing this, stories of the future) it’s a sorrowful and painful feeling, and it appears and is and then fades. It will come back, but I have felt it and it passed along and my clear mind returns.

In this way, actually, I have known the heartache more clearly than if I’d done something else with it. More clearly than if I put my energy into denying it (that doesn’t really work anyway). More clearly than if I sat there clutching it and embellishing it. More clearly than if I turned my head to imagine scenarios in the future. I know my heartache, I have felt it, it hurts, and it drifts away with the moments. It doesn’t stay with me as long as when I try the other approaches, and the more experience I have sitting with it, the sting is a little less, the crushing feeling becomes bearable — because I have born it. This is my heartache. I am stronger than it.

The other inside thing I’m having to sit with is an old memory that’s trying to resurface. For the last several days I’ve been suddenly consumed with anxiety so great my hands shake. My heart has been pounding so hard it can be difficult to breathe. It’s not a panic attack. I’ve been waking up throughout the night and each time my body holds a very specific kind of anxiety, gritty, filled with dread, sickening. I’ve been thinking I see a man standing in my bedroom. I have a pretty good guess what this memory is, but I don’t know yet. This kind of experience used to terrify me, because the things I already remembered were so terrible, how much worse must be the ones that I repressed? It doesn’t terrify me any more when this happens. A friend asked if I surely want to push it back down, build a wall around it, shut it down. But I don’t. I don’t look forward to remembering, but it’s my memory, from my life — not all of which has been great, but I don’t want to know only the super happy peppy stuff, that’s not my life, then. So instead of spinning out fantasies of what the memory might be (“to prepare myself”) or pushing against it, I’ve been dealing with the sudden periods of anxiety by sitting with them. Feeling them (it’s not fun). Allowing them to be. Remembering that I am the sky and this is just the weather. And knowing that I am stronger than them, I have born others, I can bear this, and it’s simply a memory of something, it isn’t real right now. What is real right now is that I am sitting in my living room in my own beautiful house in sunny Austin filled with strength and light and I know I can bear a memory. I know I can bear a feeling. I am strong. So I feel whatever there is to feel and it passes away. And maybe I’m left with a shadow, maybe I feel tired, but it passed like a storm and I will be OK if it comes again, until it’s done. And still then I will be the blue sky. And I deepen my emotional intelligence.

And one time it was simply too much, too big, my anxiety was so huge and I could not breathe and I took half a Klonopin. Because sometimes that’s how it is. That’s real. Meditation is a process, a practice, not a one-time-fix-all, but always always worth the effort. When the physical response stilled just a little bit, I was able to return to sitting and allowing it to be.

I am the blue sky. You are the blue sky. Everything else, it’s just the sometimes-shitty weather.

vibrate those wires please

not the best shot but I'm hurrying and would rather pick a goofy one of me than one that might not be someone else's best shot. My amazing, amazing friends who are also in our book club.
not the best shot but I’m hurrying and would rather pick a goofy one of me than one that might not be someone else’s best shot. My amazing, amazing friends who are also in our book club.

First: THANK YOU for what you did to help make my birthday the most special and happy one I’ve ever had. Calls, messages, emails, Facebook greetings and wishes, dinners, breakfasts, drinks, lunches, wonderful gifts and cards and smiles and hugs—the fortnight (which ends on the 11th! still celebrating!) has been absolutely magnificent so far. There will be happy birthday wishes tonight, and at least one celebration with a friend on the closing day of the fortnight (I giggle), and truly, this was the best birthday of my life. I wish the same for you on your next birthday.

that toddlin town
that toddlin town

Today I am off to Chicago for a lovely — even if way too short — visit with Marnie and Tom. I’ll go to the closing reception of a show that includes some of Marnie’s pieces AND is the release party for her latest book, we’ll eat a lot of amazing Chicago food, and we are going to a Barn Dance Apocalypse, more on that later! I’m not taking my computer so I won’t be posting again until I get home late Monday.

But before I leave I have a request. My wonderful friend Nancy has taught me a way to pray that works for me. She taught me to pray for divine harmony. I can do that! Of the many reasons I love it, one is that it helps me not act like the boss of the universe, for the truth is that I don’t know what’s best for anyone, including me necessarily! And sometimes the best has to travel a bit of a rocky road to get there, so the rocks are required.

I have a number of loved ones who are in the midst of hard and/or scary and/or painful things, so if you’d just add “Lori’s people” to your own list and keep the wires vibrating with me, I’d really appreciate it. I name them specifically in my own prayers so they’ll be covered by your shortcut. However you do it, whatever you reach out for — light, good things, divine harmony, intervention — makes no difference to me. Just add my people to your list please, and thank you.

And now, to the airport! I think it’s time to consider “the airport” my third home, don’t you?

the thing about trouble

I lived there for a long time!
I lived there for a long time!

Every day brings some kind of trouble, even if you’re in an ongoing period of real peace and happiness, as I am for the moment. I pulled something on my bottom right rib during a yoga pose three days ago and it really hurts, so I’m walking more instead of doing daily yoga, to give it time to heal. It hurts when I move, and I miss doing yoga. Boo hoo. Small potatoes trouble, to say the least. But still, my point is that there’s always something. The banana you were hoping to eat for breakfast is mostly bruised and black. Your hip aches. The cat puked. You were looking forward to dinner but turns out you don’t have the most important ingredient. Your basil patch has blight. Whatever. These small potatoes troubles are huge gifts.

And of course there are big troubles, which sometimes also clump up and assault you all at once. Cancer. Unexpected loss. Financial trouble. A what???? lawsuit filed against you. Tragedy. Trouble that stops your mind when it hits, and you cannot even process the words. Trouble that settles in to live with you for an unforeseeable future, and takes a crap in the corner now and then, depletes all your resources, and grabs you by the throat when you have a moment of thinking you might be OK after all.

It’s much harder to do this practice when the troubles are of life-and-death scale, so it’s good to work with it on the daily small potatoes stuff. Trouble comes  — I’ve pulled something around my rib and it really hurts — and I squinch away from it. I get upset. “Oh, great! And I was on such a great run of sticking to it!” I rush away from it in a variety of ways. If it’s emotional pain, my go-to place is the refrigerator. Someone wounds me with careless words, let’s say, and I hurt. I want that hurt to stop, to go away, because I don’t want to feel it. I distract myself, watch stupid TV — or more likely, I have the television on but I’m distracted and still swirling around the hurt. Maybe I encapsulate it, wall it off. Or maybe I dive in and wallow, and let the hurt become magnetic and draw every other hurt toward it. And boy have I missed a great opportunity to strengthen my trouble muscles.

There is another way, and practicing on the small stuff does help you when the bigger stuff hits. This I know, personally. You take a deep breath and settle down, and just sit with it. Those words hurt me terribly (let’s say), and I feel terrible. I feel betrayed (and for the sake of argument, let’s say it actually was a betrayal), my trust is hurt, maybe I’ve been wrong about how she felt about me. I hurt. Let me sit with this pain, let me just sit with this suffering. Let me sit here without trying to make it go away. And maybe it’s your pain and suffering I am sitting with, maybe I’m sitting next to you. Let me sit there with it, with you, without trying to make it go away. (I find it harder to do this than to sit with my own.) Let this open my heart. I see that I am strong enough to bear this, as it turns out. And my strength builds, just a little bit. I hurt, people hurt every single day. I share this experience with others in the world, and they share it with me. It’s part of being human. It is, it happened, I hurt, I can bear it, and I remember I am connected to everyone. I don’t have to create a story around it, I just stay with it.

ouch
ouch. but there at the bottom rib.

I’ve pulled something around my bottom right rib and it hurts. Here I sit with it, I see it and am present with it. I have been using my body in new ways, strengthening it, and it has felt wonderful. And now something is hurt, a little bit, and so I almost honor that by being present with it. Poor ligament, or tendon, or whatever is hurt. Let me take care of it, let me help my body every way I can. Let me help it heal. Let me continue to give my body movement and exercise, but of a different kind so my tiny injury can heal. My body is in its 56th year of carrying me around, and it’s done such a magnificent job. It created and delivered three people, and it has been strong and beautiful despite terrific neglect. It’s getting old(er) and this is part of what it means to have a body. Of course what’s underneath physical trouble is a fear of it all ending, a fear of acknowledging that life is finite. I think being able to sit with small pains gets you used to that idea. The more comfort I have around the knowledge that my body will fail in its ultimate way, that my life will end (in the future! in the distant future!!), the better I will be able to accept the endings to come, because they won’t be unfamiliar to me. It won’t be my first time trying to sit with that idea.

I remember when I had my own assault of terrible things hit all at once in the last quarter of 2012, among the most stressful events there are — the death of a child, end of a marriage, moving across the country, starting over from scratch. I remember doing my very best to stay open to it and to accept the feelings and be present with it, whatever it was. Of course the hardest part was doing that with Katie, whose pain I could not touch or ease in the slightest, but whose pain I was desperate to remove. The passing of time helped, the love and care of others helped, life finding its new normal helped, small happinesses helped, and my own strength to face it helped….and I became stronger and learned that I am strong inside. I learned I can stand there, sit there, lie there, and face it; not without flinching, not without sobbing, but I can face it and accept it in the moment. I learned that my family comes together to help each other, dropping everything. I learned that I’m actually much better alone than I ever dreamed I’d be, and that boy I can do this. I got the chance to create a new home for myself exactly as I wanted, something I’d never had the chance to do. I learned so very many things from such hideous experiences.

apropos of nothing, but beauty in the world
apropos of nothing but beauty in the world

Maybe you already do this, maybe you see difficulties and troubles as teachers — and not just in later-retrospect, but in the moment. (Even if you curse them as crappy teachers and why do you always have to be the student.) And maybe this sounds stupid and woo-woo to you, and maybe you think, Yeah, easy for you to say, you aren’t living with X and Y, like I am. And maybe you’re right about that! But it’s something that really helps me a lot, and I thought I’d mention it here in case it’s a new-ish idea to you. xoxoxo

what a world

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Whenever I say “what a world” I always think about that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy destroys the Wicked Witch. “What a world, what a world, who would’ve thought a good little girl could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”

On Tuesday I was talking with a very dear, dear friend and our conversation came around to the state of the world, which seems to be just absolutely horrible, doesn’t it? People slaughtering each other in the Middle East and eastern Europe, blood virus spreading, planes being shot out of the sky, our own political system a complete and total disaster and our country riven so badly it feels like a civil war is bubbling and one side is arming up. Eighty-five people own HALF the world’s wealth. Water is turned off to some people in a major US city. Giant holes are opening up in Siberia, global warming suspected.

And then, of course, something like this happens:

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I’d like to think that would happen in New York too, but I’m not all that sure. Go, people from Perth! Keep going.

I feel such despair when I look around. What could I possibly do about Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, ebola, US politics, the extraordinary inequality of wealth? I’m doing very well not to put toothpaste in my hair by mistake. (Note to myself: never again buy hair product in the same color tube as my toothpaste.) I think about all those inspirational people who remind us that one person really can make a difference in the world and cannot see any way that might apply to me, sitting in my chair in my living room and editing manuscripts.

So I think about what kind of extremely local impact I could have — extremely local. “They” say that putting good into the world has ripples, right? So I can respond rather than react; I can act with as much compassion for others as I can; I can try to help people in any way I can find; I can interact in a present way with others, and see the people who aren’t often seen. When I was in New Haven, Peggy and I were walking and whenever we passed someone sitting on the sidewalk begging, Peggy paused a second and spoke to them with kindness. She gave a bit of money. But what moved me was the way she paused and spoke to them. She saw them. I can do that. I can restrain myself from adding any grief to others’ lives, or to the world. I can manage my own anger, my own irritation and frustration, learn how to open my hands.

And so my tiny little efforts will have their tiny little ripples….and the world troubles that leave me in such despair will keep going. I just don’t know what to do. Do you? Where is the good little girl who can destroy all this trouble? Where is Dorothy?

the sky

blue skiesLast night I took a lovely long walk through my neighborhood. I was feeling kind of bad, unsettled, skinned-up a bit. Yesterday afternoon Marc and I took a walk together, him in Riverside Park and me in my neighborhood, us walking and talking together on FaceTime, showing each other the various sights, and I got out of breath. Man. That’s pretty sad. So I recommitted myself to daily walking and left my house last night while the skies were still pretty and blue and the clouds were white. We’ve had such beautiful weather the last few days and my walk was exactly what I needed — physically and emotionally.

Coincidentally, I was thinking about something Pema Chodron said. My friend Megan sent me an image with the thought on it last week, maybe because she remembered how much I love it.

pema

Do you know Pema? Here is her Amazon page that lists all her books, and I recommend any and all of them. The only one I haven’t read is How to Meditate. She’s an American Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, and such a clear thinker. Her book When Things Fall Apart has been a touchstone for me, and like a touchstone I return to it again and again. You can also find a lot of her videos on YouTube, like this one which I love, on fear and fearlessness. You certainly do not have to be Buddhist to appreciate her thoughts, to find wisdom and truth in her insights (or those of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk).

But the brilliance of that insight — you are the sky, everything else, it’s just the weather — stays with me, although sometimes I forget. When I remember it, troubles drift away. When I think of the full range of troubles I’ve experienced in my life, whether they are enormous (like my childhood, and Gracie’s death) or frightening (like the thing still happening in the background) or our intensifying fears approaching Oliver’s birth, or brief interpersonal troubles, I know they appear and disappear. They arise and maybe they contain noise and light, thunder and lightning, and then they exhaust themselves and dissipate, blow away, and the blue skies are still and always there. Those clouds of worry and upset and fear drift through my mind and sometimes I forget that I am the blue sky behind it all.

That my mind and heart can be as clear and wide open as that sky. That they are as clear and wide open as that sky, and I forget to remember that the rest is just the weather.

eyes full of clouds
eyes full of clouds

Here — please just spend a couple of minutes listening to this wonderful little talk by Pema about this lousy world.

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But seriously, let’s ban the perfume.