The Uses of Joy

Yesterday morning, I met my dear neighbor on the sidewalk as she came out of her house to go to work. I was walking my dog home from a little golf course jaunt, in a sunny mood having seen a bit of sunrise and heard the birds’ voices.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, in tones that told me something was wrong. I hugged her and asked what was up. Her beloved cat has been sick, but that was just the start of it. She had gone into a sort of panic fed by news stories of imminent global food shortages, water crises, violence–on top of the suffering of one adored creature who depends on her utterly. She cares so deeply, my neighbor-friend.

“It’s a lot,” I said in sympathy, knowing my own despairing times.

“It’s real,” she said of the bad news.

“And yet,” I said, “life is so good.”

She smiled at me with great affection, perhaps a bit of wonderment, saying, “And that is why I’m so glad to see you this morning.”

“See how beautiful?” I said, gesturing to the day at large: birdsong, sycamores, blue sky, happy poodle winding the leash around us. I admired her shirt, which was emblazoned with Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

She had not known the identity of this elephant-man and was pleased to learn that he’s the Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles. (Also, he “creates obstructions in the path of those whose ambition has become destructive,” which seems like a timely duty given the “leadership” we currently endure in this country.)

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Ganesha, by Craig Moe, via Flickr Creative Commons

She hugged me again before heading off to the office where she counsels people in ill health and financial peril, people no one else listens to.

I could never do the supremely important work she does, but perhaps by fortifying her in this way that comes naturally to me, I have made a small indirect difference with her clients.

Possibly my privilege makes it easier for me to hang onto my joy (despite being rather anxiety-prone myself). Possibly I’m just extremely sheltered and unwilling to fully face up to the bad stuff. Yet it seems radiating joy can be of use to someone in pain, if it flips the script in some small way.

Now, did this encounter change the fact that later that same day someone was shot at a nearby gas station? Did it change the fact that mass shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace in my country? Did it change any dire predictions about the world’s future?

No. Still: I believe that the more inner resilience we cultivate, the better equipped we are to be there fully for each other, to anchor the shift, to hold a higher vibration, and to act from that expansive state, instead of out of fear and contraction.

I could fret about recent mass shootings, localized violence, or future projections, and go down a rabbit hole of information/commentary/outrage/worry. Or I could allow all my emotions to flow and shift, attending to them gently, and return to a steady place, in touch with my fierce joy if possible. Then I take whatever action calls me. (I used this script to call my Senators and demand universal background checks for gun purchases. I donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

Some resources: Rick Hanson’s lovely “Take Heart” post is all about cultivating inner resilience in troubled times. Jen Louden’s recent “When You Feel Powerless” speaks to the feeling of “what I do is a drop in the bucket,” specifically in the face of mass shootings. Also see my “Tips for the Anxiety-Prone.”

The Wound

A parable for our times?

A few years ago I had a wound that wouldn’t heal. It started as a tiny boil on my shin. I assumed the eruption was a spider bite, covered it with a band-aid and tried to forget it.

Then the little “bite” darkened, started to hurt worse.

Next it swelled up and turned angry-red. By now I had a quarter-sized wound that was hot to the touch, excruciating.

At this point I finally went to the doctor and discovered I had contracted MRSA, a bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. (I’ll spare you the visual. You’re welcome.)

I fought any suggestion of draining that wound, though everyone who looked at it told me it was the only way it would ever heal. The idea of a blade touching that thing sent me into the stratosphere.

Instead I tried everything else. Antibiotics. Hot compresses. Charcoal. Essential oils. Chewed-up plantain leaves! I spoke to the wound, asked it to please please please just let that infection go.

I began to think I would have to live with a grotesque open wound forever.

Needless to say, it did not drain on its own. After almost a month, I finally went to a wound specialist who briskly prepped the area for lancing.

It was as I thought: Lancing a wound hurts.

Yeah it really, really hurt. Blood and pus rolled down my shin. Awful.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The wound was deep. Necrotic tissue had to be cleaned out in a process called debridement, which amounts to vigorously rubbing a Brillo pad over the wound (or that’s what it felt like anyway).

But that open wound could even not begin to heal until the nastiness and dead junk could come out. The wound had to be expressed. Only then could my flesh begin to rebuild.

Maybe it’s like this with the body politic. I don’t know if this is a good parable, but what if… ?

What if … in this time which I like to call the Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs, we are at the very early stage of expressing the wound, readying for some deep inside-out healing?

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Photo by Jordan Small, via Flickr Creative Commons

Our country was founded on some fine ideals, but it was also founded on slavery and genocide. Horrific wounds.

The infection has always run under the surface of this country. Those of us who live with a measure of privilege, because of our race and/or class and/or gender status etc., have been able to ignore it.

Or maybe we think that covering it with band-aids will be enough.

Or maybe, like some in power, we actively move to put salt in the wound while simultaneously denying its existence.

Meanwhile people of color have never been protected from the ugliness that festers.

It’s painful to see that ugliness brought to the surface in racist words and deeds. Is it possible that this dangerous deterioration of public discourse is (at least partially?) about facing up to our collective past? That we are on the cusp of finally cleaning this wound out so our collective body can heal?

Of course, I’m not at all sure this “last gasp” isn’t the start of horrors beyond belief. But I imagine that is largely up to us. A wound can get reinfected if it isn’t properly tended to. The growth of new tissue happens slowly, in raw and tender layers.

A metaphor that only goes so far, but perhaps has some usefulness.

Morning Incantation

I scribbled out this prayer/wish/invocation in slightly messier form a while ago in my journal. It was early in the morning after a week or two of insomniac nights, and I wrote what I needed, in no particular order and with little forethought. I’m posting it today in case it is of use. 

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May it rain today, enough so we don’t need to water the garden, enough to loosen weeds.

May my workday go gently, with breaks to close eyes, take a walk, widen focus, breathe a yogic breath.

May I be nourished by my food choices.

May the morning walk be sustenance for both me and Opal.

May Judy feel restored by the night that was so fraught for me.

May I enjoy my writing time, exploration time. May I lower the pressure level yet stay committed. May I submit my work to places that will receive me well.

May I be brave and gentle. May I be fueled from unseen sources, sourced by underground streams. May I source others from inexhaustible Source. May I be a light even in my own dark times.

BodyMindSpiritEarth

I had a realization at the close of yoga class, while resting in savasana (corpse pose), eyes falling back into their sockets, head heavy on the mat. It’s just this: I have a skull.

Oh I knew that of course. In theory. But it’s weird to think of this thing—used as symbol for poison, or to provoke ghoulish fright, the bony remains of a human—being embedded under my skin RIGHT NOW.

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Photo by Kate Bunker, via Flicker Creative Commons

Maybe this is not so revelatory for you. Well, I’m the girl who recently discovered, to my amazement, that the bones of my pelvis start way higher at my sides than I had previously pictured. When I thought “pelvis,” I thought “sex organs.” I thought “hips.” I didn’t think “bony parts at my waist just a few inches below my ribcage.”

In this level of bodily cluelessness, I may be unusual, but I think not. Do we really know what goes on under our skin? Do we key into the intelligence of our organs all working together, our blood flowing, our skeletons? Do we connect to the slime and gore of our insides, cached away under the outer layer that meets the world?

It’s easy to forget all that stuff, in an age where we think a whole lot. We can end up experiencing ourselves as brains on a stick, using the body to move the big brain from here to there. This brain that will save the day! (That’s working great for humanity so far, as our “progress” continues to wipe out species and their habitat at unprecedented rates.)

On the other hand, in spiritual development circles, we experience ourselves as bigger-than-brain, as soul or Higher Self, and we know that we go on beyond the body and the body is just dust and ashes.

I submit that this laudable idea can be just as alienating, even dangerous, as the big brain idea.

Of course we are our intellectual capacity; humanity makes incredible use (and misuse) of our curiosity, our capacity for logic, and our problem-solving prowess.

Of course we are our souls; that bigger perspective feeds many a spiritual seeker, including myself.

But the bones, the blood, the viscera—they have their own story to tell, and they don’t just exist to tote us from problem-solving puzzle to enlightened insight. Divorced from the body, the mind is imbalanced, the soul unmoored.

The energy within the body IS us. The blood moves, heart beats, bones/muscles/organs support each other in an integrated system that boggles the mind AND spirit.

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Photo by Marco De Stabile, via Flickr Creative Commons

I am not a mind. I am not a spirit. Not only these. I am a bodymindspirit. I come to practices like yoga and qi gong because I want to experience myself as all three, integrated and invincible.

Like most of us I’m good at neglecting this body. I push it past fatigue, I feed it poor fuel, I ask it to digest too much too fast, I wish it would just sit down and shut up so I can do my real work, but what if my real work is…a dance? A prayer-in-motion?

What if my real work is to sink back into this body that is part of the earth, that needs me to care for it in a deep and loving way?

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What if, by disowning the body’s “ugly” innards, and ignoring its whispers and clues and shouts and cries, I’m only contributing to the disregard of our precious earth’s wisdom?

That’s the bigger picture: bodymindspiritearth. Could I experience myself as all four integrated, and what would that look like?

What dance would I offer then?

The Importance of Embracing Earnest

I’d like to praise the amateurs out there. The earnest beginners, the ones who dare to create something they’ve never tried before, who risk falling flat, who most certainly fail.

This is all of us, at some time or in some area of our lives. At least, I hope so.

I guess it is hip to be snarky and removed, to know everything already, to mock the earnest. Let me reveal my age, perhaps, by declaring this: Snark is the language of fear. When I use it myself, I feel a brief charge of satisfaction, then deflation. It hides what’s truest in me.

But there’s courage in earnestness—in daring to be a newbie or a total geek. Maybe it’s a gift of midlife (or a gift of the Midwest), but I have come to the conclusion that amateurish enthusiasm is endearing in self and others. I appreciate quality, but I don’t want to stop myself from leaping into the ring by focusing on quality alone. I want to be in the game, not standing on the sidelines.

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I have never seen artifice in my “Earnestina.”

I found a recent local production of Radium Girls to be refreshingly earnest. Community theatre is like that, people putting their hearts into collective art, allowing their neighbors, friends and family to see them in a different light, embodying all kinds of ugly and beautiful things that reflect us back to ourselves to make us think and feel.

This was an amateur production, made powerful by the actors’ passion.

Other recent examples come to mind. An octogenarian friend printed his own chapbook to share the wisdom he’s gained in 80 years. A folk musician came to my St. Patrick’s Day yoga class and performed ballads he’d written himself. A handful of women gathered for an EmbodieDance experience to move our bodies and express our spirits.

Countless others in my circle ply their creativity in poems, paintings, gardens, improv, photography, dance, textiles and more.

We may be experts or we may be newbies, and we may be more or less devoted to craft, but we all do our thing imperfectly, humanly.

Earnest people inspire me. Especially as I embark on the Tim Clare podcast Couch to 80K, a series of writing exercises in search of the Novel Within. It’s a relief to know that my initial (earnest!) efforts will be “amateurish.” To expect it.

See, I’ve stopped thinking of amateur as a bad word. I strive to be professional in my commitment, but I’ll be less lofty, more amateurish, if that means I’m all in—flubs and all.

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Nature is art. And what’s more earnest than a honeybee?

Creativity belongs to everyone. The word “art” shouldn’t be reserved for the museum or the canon. (I think of a visual artist friend who created a marvelous pictorial history of my neighborhood. Painting it on a signal box on a busy street corner, she often had people stop to admire her work. One impressed young boy told her, “You could be an artist!”)

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What my friend painted on a signal box

I’d love for that boy to understand that artmaking capacity belongs to everyone. To see this neighbor as artist, and honor her bravery, and take inspiration for his own self-expression.

The earnest artist says, This matters, at least to me. This is what I see. This is how I see.

And we’re all the richer for it.

Galloping

As a child, I cultivated an obsession with horses. I read every book written for horse-crazy girls. I imagined myself as a horse (or on the back of one) to pass the time on long car trips. A city kid, I rode whenever I could: on my uncle’s horses in Ohio, my cousin’s horse in Pennsylvania, the horses at Girl Scout camp.

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Here I am with my brother and one of my cousins on my late uncle’s horse in Ohio. Heaven!

Often these were plodding rides, but what I remember best are the times I let my horse run. Looking back, I can see that the galloping horse became a motif in my life.

At camp one summer, we were cantering along in the woods happy as could be when a branch swiped the glasses right off my head, leaving me blind the rest of the ride.

Another time, I fell off runaway Thunder, my cousin’s horse, and broke my wrist.

In my 20s there was an exhilarating trail ride through the New Mexico desert, just me and Judy and two cowboys, scaling ridges at top speed, galloping through arroyos. Somewhere there’s a photo of the two of us on top of our horses, with the blue New Mexico sky behind.

Then at age 32, I fell off a state park horse. This sent me spiraling into a health crisis that took years to resolve.

***

Horse happens to be my “sign” in the Chinese zodiac, something I found out as an exultant preteen. The Chinese restaurant’s placemat said so.

I forgot about this for a while, or discounted its significance. But recently I learned that not only am I a horse, I’m a fire horse born in a yang year (vs. yin year). Signifying great power and energy, coupled with an adventuresome and headstrong nature.

Also signifying something historically unwanted. Fertility dropped in parts of Asia in my birth year, 1966, because no one wanted to bring a girl-child in that would embody the power of that sign. While men embodying the power of the sign were lauded as leaders—go figure!—the women were reputed to be rebellious, bitchy sorts who henpeck their husbands to an early grave. (I’ll leave it to my spouse to say yes or no to this stereotype.)

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I bought this jade horse in China a few years ago, without knowing I was a FIRE horse.

“How to rein in that spirited animal?” was the question troubling potential parents (and mates) of fire horse girls born in yang years.

I’ll tell you how, in my case. You give the 1966 baby a lower-than-average level of inherited qi, or life force. TCM posits that we are born a certain amount of qi which is our base, which can be used up (and usually is by the time a woman reaches 49). Yikes.

So if you start off with less, as I did, you have to learn how to marshal and save your qi—and acquire more qi.

I have not always been great at conserving my own energy. But life has shown me the importance of that. Falling off a horse taught me that.

Meantime, the impulse to run like crazy, to learn it all, try it all—I see now that this might be the fire horse wanting to gallop. I’m learning to acquire more qi* so I can follow these impulses!

***

I’ve always been driven, but it seems like it would do me good to act more like a fire horse born in a yang year, now that I know this dimension of myself. Even if my adventures are mostly on the page or in plumbing the depths of the human soul.

And rebelliousness? The funny thing is that while I have always embraced a certain, shall we say, intensity, I also saw myself as rather meek, passive, and compliant.

But meanwhile a secret rebellion simmered inside.

When I was 21, a mentor said he appreciated my reformist spirit. Perhaps my rebellion was less secret than I thought.

And perhaps I rebel daily through the way I live, rebuking some of the edicts of society, like “you must climb the ladder” and “you must buy all the gadgets and live in the biggest house you can afford” and “you must only look at the material world when making sense of things.”

In such a society, even the act of tuning in to my own sensations, reflections, and inner knowing constitutes rebellion.

So if you see me sitting still and looking contemplative, I just might be galloping!

*Through the Dragon’s Way program, locally taught by Melissa Laborsky, MD. Highly recommended!

Resonance

On the cusp of a “new year,” what shall we plan to create? I have a love-hate relationship with the cheerleadery “new year/new you” notion that’s so rampant. So much promise! So much pressure to do/be better/more this year!

I like the reflections my yoga teacher brought to class this past week. She turned the focus from goals to intentions, and asked how we wanted to be in the new year.

So a better question than “What’s your New Year’s resolution?” might be “How do you want to show up in 2019, for yourself, for your community, for the world?”

Resolutions generally involve some measure of force. We must deny ourselves something, or push ourselves to do something. But if we choose a state of being to guide behavior, positive actions flow naturally from that intention.

Not that we won’t fall short. But we can return to the intention time and again, while resolutions go out to the curb with the crumpled-up wrapping paper.

For me, it’s helpful to choose a word to encapsulate my focus for the year. This year’s theme was alignment. Last year’s, transformation. For 2019, it feels like the word resonance has chosen me.

I’m intending to sink into who I am, resonate my soul’s essence, and bring that resonance to any interaction. (Always holding this gently, with the caveats when I remember, when I can…knowing that this might be more often than I expect.)

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“One of the interesting qualities of being human is, by the look of it, we’re the only part of creation that can actually refuse be to be ourselves. And as far as I can see, there’s no other part of the world that can do that. The cloud is the cloud, the mountain is the mountain, the tree is the tree, the hawk is the hawk.” –David Whyte

The poet-philosopher David Whyte nails it when he says humans are the only part of nature capable of refusing to be what we are. We are so adept at pretending to be something other-than-us, we can even come to believe that we are that thing we’re pretending to be.

I’ve been down that route and it doesn’t work well for my constitution. In this second half-century of my life, I’m over fakery.

It’s chancy to show up. To be fully human is to be vulnerable. It means experiencing pain and loss and doing the best I can with it. It means risking exposure and shame. And risking deep joy and connection as well.

When I look up resonance, I find several definitions:

1. The state or quality of being resonant (resounding or echoing, as sounds: the resonant thundering of cannons being fired.)
2. the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation.
3. Phonetics: amplification of the range of audibility of any source of speech sounds… (more)
4. Physics: the state of a system in which an abnormally large vibration is produced in response to an external stimulus, occurring when the frequency of the stimulus is the same, or nearly the same, as the natural vibration frequency of the system.

So it’s about sound, speech, words, but also vibration.

I find it interesting that there is a scientific phenomenon (if I understand the physics definition) by which vibration appears to be amplified when frequencies align or nearly align.

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WinterLights 2018 at Newfields

Something to try, if you like: Walk into any group of people and resonate your truest being. You may be invisible to some who are not on your wavelength. No matter. Who sees you? Who finds you? You are drawing your people based on your vibration.

You are also, I believe, shifting the overall frequency in subtle ways, making it easier for others to resonate who they are as well. To show up as yourself is a daring act and might tempt others to reveal more of themselves than they would otherwise.

You are reverberating, resounding, perhaps at a frequency beyond the capacity of human ears to hear, but make no mistake: the effect is real.

Here’s to a soul-resonant new year.