A Little Time-out

Being human is feeling all kinds of stuff we’d rather not. It’s easy to run away from “bad” feelings, to try to Facebook / eat / drink them away. Or we might get stuck in a trough, and end up thinking the feeling is who we are. “I am an anxious/depressed/angry person.”

But how about experimenting with falling into whatever “bad feeling” arises? It can be interesting to explore and befriend an emotional state, without attaching to it.

I briefly befriended a tiny unhappy girl in pink snow boots last week, and later I realized the parallels. Small girl, small inner feeling. (My own feeling states usually start out small, and if I notice and tend to them early enough in their unfolding, I can often shift them before they get big.)

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Photo by Gunnar Sigurður Zoega Guðmundsson, via Flickr Commons

The girl was one of about 10 children in a child care group I assisted for a short time. (How I, the easily overstimulated introvert, ended up in this unaccustomed space is another story!) This girl ran and laughed with the bigger boys for a while, but then I noticed she had withdrawn. Her forehead had gone all puckery.

Say this little girl is the feeling, hankering for attention. The first thing is simply to notice the feeling arise. And it might not be obvious in the noise and clang of life. Maybe it’s just a furrowed forehead or the absence of a smile or the sudden need to pull back.

I could relate, as a formerly small and often overwhelmed girl myself. So I went and sat with her.

The second thing is to go and be with the feeling. It’s not helpful to chide the little girl for withdrawing, or feed her food she doesn’t need, or cajole her into playing again before she’s ready. But we can go and sit. Be in solidarity.

I saw that she tugged at the Velcro of her boots. So I helped her take them off. The day was warm. Her feet had gotten hot.

So that’s another thing: to address physical discomfort, or bring some air to something constricted. It wouldn’t do to holler at the little girl for having those boots on in the first place, or to ignore her discomfort, or to tell her to just keep marching.

That’s pretty much my process, not that I always do it. (I do my share of eating-for-distraction!) Basically: Paying attention, opening some space. I find that just by focusing in on what hurts, I can get valuable information. Not only that, but just attending with kindness is often enough to soften constrictions and transform pain.

By the way, I did play with the girl then. I tried different silly things to see what would catch her fancy. She just looked at me all sad-eyed. What finally got some movement from her was a beanbag toss game. Sitting next to her, I grabbed a bowl and beanbags and threw them in at very close range. Then gave them to her. She basically set them in the bowl one by one, very tentatively. I cheered each one. A tiny smile. (I felt like such a genius at this point, as I am more used to playing with animals than children!) We kept it up, with me moving the bowl around and acting goofy. She finally leaned in close to grab the bowl in one hand and hold it still. By this time she was laughing and I felt like I’d won the lottery, seeing those eensy teeth again, hearing that infectious sound.

So to continue the analogy…Maybe starting a tiny “job”—after sitting with the feeling and bringing comfort—is a way back from feeling stuck. Some easy thing that can be built upon, that can end up feeling like play.

After a while, she scampered off to play with the boys some more. (Me: “My work is done.”)

No matter how we deal with our emotions, the bottom line is: There’s nothing wrong with a little time-out to care for a tender underbelly.

A Love Story

In the wake of a day devoted to romantic love, I’m thinking of a love story I heard years ago. It was in a yoga class in Point Reyes Station, CA, where I was on a writing retreat. The yoga instructor was fond of telling wisdom stories, spinning out tales over the course of a class. Two days before I was to return home, she told a story of the Hindu god Krishna.

She characterized Krishna as something of a playboy, full of mischief. In a particular village, his flirtations with the local maidens caused havoc.

I remember one example of his naughtiness: He stole the milkmaids’ clothing as they bathed in the river. He refused to give the clothing back until they came out of the river stark naked to beg him.

Then there was his flute-playing, which mesmerized the women of the village. The women, enthralled by the magic of his flute, left whatever they were doing to dance with him on the banks of the river.

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Lord Krishna with flute, via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Virumandi1

“Even in the middle of lovemaking,” the yoga teacher said, “any woman who heard his flute would leave her husband to come to Krishna and dance.”

After teasing all the milkmaids with his evidently irresistible beauty and charm, Krishna ran off with a particular milkmaid named Radha, who (though married) was completely besotted with him. If I remember right, when they left, the other milkmaids were bereft.

But in the end, the story reveals our relationship with the Divine, our one true love. The yoga teacher spoke of expanding into that feeling of being in love—only instead of falling in love with a person, we’re in love with everything.

Years later the milkmaids were said to have located Krishna in their own lives, no longer needing his physical presence to feel the magic of love. “Krishna is in my needlework,” they told his emissary. “Krishna is in my cooking! Krishna is in my flowers, he’s in my grandchild.”

(One hopes, for the sake of those poor husbands, that the milkmaids also found Krishna in their married life!)

While I was writing this post, I went into the kitchen and saw my glass of water lit by sunlight on the counter. So beautiful.

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About that mean trick Krishna played on the river-bathing maidens: As an allegory, it imparts a spiritual teaching. When we expand into love and passion, we are brave enough to appear unclothed—to be vulnerable enough to show ourselves in our true form.

The Krishna story turns out to be all about Big Love, finding magic in the everyday, feeling all the passion that comes with falling in love. When we’re falling in love, all our senses come alive, and we vibrate love-love-love, all the time, and nothing can interrupt that feeling.

(I remember a bulletin I heard on NPR last year about the European migrant crisis. Two newlyweds were among the displaced people interviewed. They viewed their trek across Europe to an uncertain future as a grand adventure. Being in love made them soft, hopeful, present, and open.)

How wondrous to imagine living this way without regard for outer circumstances. It would be bliss.

Still life inhales and exhales. We may not always notice the things that freely offer their beauty to us. We may go for weeks in a humdrum frame of mind. Or we might be in chaos, barely able to tread water.

But the minute we return to noticing and appreciating, we can expand again, and set ourselves anew to the Love Channel.

***

I had the opportunity to write a Hoosier Locavore blog post, which was all about the delicious and abundant chickweed. I link to it here because, in retrospect, I see that I find Krishna in a common weed.

The Calder Conundrum, or Lack Thereof

Artist Alexander Calder is the subject of a homegrown musical—written, choreographed, designed and directed by local talent. Calder was an artist who played with movement—in wire figures, sculptures, and mobiles. His whimsical work brought joy and wonder to people in troubled times, particularly during the Depression.

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By Alexander Calder via Wikimedia Commons

I absolutely loved the uplift of the musical, which was fun and campy as well as inspiring. The show offered a celebration of artistic commitment.

Here’s something that struck me as I watched the show: Calder (as depicted onstage) feared his work was juvenile, and at times he internalized other people’s disdain. Self-doubt, the enemy of creativity. A state familiar to many of us.

What struck me also was the way the co-directors of this musical framed our evening as an “escape” from today’s tense times. When I thought about it later, this felt like an extension of the “juvenile” indictment.

I felt that by connecting Calder—and this gorgeous production—to escapism, we did him and his art an injustice. I thought to myself: Joy is not an escape. Joy is fuel. And wonder is not distraction. Wonder is an engine.

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By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to declare that art is not optional, nor is wonder, nor is joy, nor is love. That these are essential pieces in an activated human’s soul.

The next morning I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poets” in Chasing Utopia. It says in part:

Poets shouldn’t commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne…

I thought, yes! For a poet, certain activities are suicide.

My mind went to a sentiment I’ve seen expressed: “People need to stop complaining and run for office if they are serious about change.” For some of us, running for office—let alone holding an office—would be death.

My inner argument ended up here: There are many ways to make change, and we all have our part to play. Some of us will create art that brings joy, or show people a different way of living. Let’s respect and praise and enjoy each other for the countless ways our souls shine while we do our best work, whatever that may be.

Postscript
Interestingly, after I drafted this argument, I mentioned my thoughts to my spouse on the dismissiveness of the term “escape.” (“Escapist drivel” is what I judgmentally “heard.”)

She responded that she doesn’t think of escape in that vein at all. To her, it evokes a pleasant place to go in one’s mind. Nothing negative or demeaning about it.

Apparently I got all up in arms over something that was in my own head. There I go again, doing battle when there’s nothing to battle.

Now, of course,  I realize that this internal argument has everything to do with feeling OK about myself and the level of activism I choose to undertake. With the new administration in the White House, every day there are new actions that pain me. And I want to take part in righting wrongs.

The many requests to call decision-makers…flat out drain me. It’s been tricky to figure out where to direct my time and energy. And I’m constantly judging and pressuring myself.

An underlying story informs my need to prove that I’m good enough through activism. It’s what Charles Eisenstein calls the cultural myth of Separation. The story that says I’m separate from you (whether better—if I make more calls than you!—or worse—if you are one of my many super-engaged friends whose activism goes beyond a mere phone call).

This idea of “I’m bad/wrong for not doing x” leads to …

“I’ll force myself and then I will be worthwhile” which leads to…

“I’m better than you because I care more, and look at what I forced myself to do.”

Basically, I’ve been using the master’s tools (of domination, control, force, separation) in an attempt to bring down the master’s house, to paraphrase Audre Lorde.

This underlying Story of Separation, Eisenstein would say, gets to the root of the interlocked problems we face. It’s the same root that underlies the very problems I do or don’t call about. A sense of humanity as separate from nature, from each other, from the magic of an intelligent cosmos. Which we know now isn’t true.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re talking about a cultural shift from old story to new story.

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By Manuelarosi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how keying into this bigger picture brings me back to a place of joy, wonder, and activation. So that even if I choose do the exact same actions I previously forced myself to do, the energy behind the tasks feels different. More spacious.

The Impossible

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

—Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years of his 27 years of captivity. This is his jail cell on Robben Island, Cape Town, South  Africa. When he stretched out on the floor, he could touch both walls. Photo by Judy Hostetler.

The World We Seek

“Isolation and fear reinforce each other…The mystery at the core of our existence is that simple: we are held in a web of mutual belonging.”

Joanna Macy, Buddhist activist and teacher

Joanna Macy talks about three dimensions of “The Great Turning”—the cultural shift happening all around us, taking us into a future built on justice, equity, and respect for our earth home. She divides this most important work of our time into three overarching action areas:

  1. We can hold the line, protecting what’s at risk.
  2. We can reinvent, building new structures that supplant the crumbling outdated ones.
  3. We can reimagine, nurturing a consciousness shift to transform the world from the inside out.

In recent years I’ve been drawn to the third of these. A little bit to the second. Not so much the first, though I care deeply about what happens to women, marginalized groups, the poor, and our planet.

I care, but I’m not much of an activist in the traditional sense of the word. Constitutionally I am more primed for shining light on beauty than beating back ugly.

So I admit I was at first hesitant to go to my local rally in support of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. Protests are important and needed, as are phone calls and watchdog alerts and bodily interruptions of heinous activities like mass deportations.

I’m more of re-envisioner by nature. And I don’t like crowds. I guard my energy carefully.

But my intuition told me that going to the sister march in Indianapolis would not drain me. And I knew it was important to show up and be counted as an Indiana resident in favor of ethical leadership and fairness and, well, humanity’s future on the planet.

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What I didn’t realize that riding the bus downtown, joining the jubilant women and men assembled there, would fuel me. That being part of this fantastically big (worldwide!) event would renew my hope and feed my desire to remake the world.

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I saw a very young boy with a rainbow scarf and a small sign that said “Make America Kind Again.” A man with a Steelers jacket and an incongruous (or not!) pink ribbon around his arm.

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Photo by Gaynell Collier-Magar

I saw fathers being tender with their daughters and sons, a woman in a wheelchair with oxygen tubing in her nose and a Planned Parenthood sign across her lap, and many beautiful people of all ages, body sizes, genders, and races.

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“Though she be but little, she is FIERCE.”

The day left me with a sense of unity that feels part and parcel of both reinvention and reimagining. I could see it in the creativity and passion expressed through signs, clothing, song, speech, movement.

img_5808When I got home and started to see reports of other cities’ marches all over the world, I felt an incredible lift. I thought, The world has my back.

This healed my broken heart, or began to heal it.

I know that the impact of a one-day march, no matter how colossal in size, is limited if we all go back to our regularly scheduled lives. But something tells me that this is just the beginning. If we hold to our hearts, staying awake AND kind, we can’t be far from the new world we seek.

Puzzling

A mystic is someone who has the suspicion that the brokenness, discord & discontinuities of everyday life conceal a hidden unity.”

~Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

What do you do when you have no roadmap to follow as you’re puzzling?

Friends posted this photo on Facebook, showing how far they’d gotten on a puzzle created from a map of the old homeplace. The box had no picture to guide their efforts.

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A puzzle made from a map of home.

At the same time, Judy and I were working on this “jigsaw puzzle mystery” that came with a story and a mystery to solve. We didn’t realize until we began that the photograph on the box didn’t match the puzzle itself.

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A mystery puzzle. (Spoiler: the solution to the  mystery is an anachronistic cat in the cave painting.)

At first the mismatch was disorienting, then frustrating, then a good challenge. Looking at shapes and colors and piecing the thing together was a great exercise for my sometimes-too-wordy brain.

In Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, Martha Beck reframes problem-solving as “puzzle-cracking.” Conceiving of something as a serious problem immediately brings up rigidity and judgement—which shut down the imaginative flow needed to arrive at creative solutions.

Whether we’re looking at big societal problems (er, puzzles!) or humble homey ones, it’s the same: Play, not work, is key to the process, she says.

Also, a sense of the bigger picture that we may not see, but that we know we can add to, piece by piece, by aligning ourselves with what wants to be born into the world.

In a world of brokenness and discord, how do we map our way home before we can see “the big picture?” I think it comes down to trust that a picture will emerge.

Homegrown

I got to meet local farmer Patty Langeland when I interviewed her for a Farm Indiana piece. She is the fifth generation on Langeland Farms in southeast Indiana, growing certified organic popcorn, beans, and grains. Her business extends to regional popcorn and grains production, and she also maintains a small cow-calf herd, selling grassfed beef.

Here she is five years ago (on right) at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, after delivering Langeland Farms beef to be used in “Homegrown Chili.”

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Patty has such deep roots in the community. You could say that she herself is a homegrown farmer. So many of us move far from home to find work, and change our housing repeatedly. Here’s a woman who lives in the house where she grew up (built by her grandpa over 100 years ago) and works the land where she used to play.

What I found most fascinating about Patty was the trajectory of her life from farm girl to farmer, and the detours in between.

She never expected to be a farmer, though she knew she loved the land. Like many of us, she can look back and trace the threads of learning that connect to what she does now.

She actually majored in fashion retail at Purdue for a time, and her business sense and creative flair flourished there. But when it sank in that such a career would require her to live in a city, she knew it wasn’t going to work out.

All along, she had been taking classes in the agriculture department, building on the knowledge she’d absorbed without even meaning to as a child on the farm. (A Daddy’s girl, she used to follow her father around and ask every question under the sun.) Eventually, just because she was fascinated by the agricultural arena—with no intent of ever turning it into a career—she ended up specializing in animal science when she graduated from the communications department.

Her life took a traumatic turn when her husband left her, their four boys, and the farm business abruptly. That’s when she ended up being the sole proprietor of the farm (though her beloved dad still owns the land).

It was quite moving to hear her speak of the support her local farming community gave her during this cataclysmic shift, and how her success hinged on a drought year. You can read more about all this in the story if you like.