An Unexpected Gift

Yesterday, Father’s Day, brought me an unexpected gift. A neighbor messaged me late in the evening offering just-picked raspberries. Would we like some? Of course! “Check on your porch by the mailbox,” she messaged a few minutes later.

My dessert: raspberries, kefir, vanilla, toasted sunflower seeds.

How was she to know that red raspberries would bring me a direct connection with my Dad, who grew them up until the year he died? His overabundance was always my gain. Even the container they came in, a repurposed plastic food tub, evoked his (and Mom’s) habit of reusing everything.

They're half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too!

They’re half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too.

A friend tells me this morning, Surely that was a gift straight from your father.

I miss him. On Friday I received a quilt specially made from a few of the T shirts he used to wear. Yesterday morning I put my cheek against that “Seize the Carp” square and imagined his heart beating under the fabric.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

No one else will ever love me the way he loved me, a friend wrote, on losing her own dad.

A statement true and sad.

So many of us walk around with broken hearts. I think of the Buddhist story of the woman mad with grief after the death of her only child. The Buddha offers to bring the child back, but only if she can find a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

She searches house to house. Here someone has lost a parent, there a child, there a beloved brother, there a cherished friend. She comes back and tells the Buddha, I couldn’t find anyone untouched by loss.

She lets the child go.

Knowing we all share this human experience, I want to open to the love that is available all around me, in so many forms.

A couple I know slightly from down the street, seeing me standing on my bike in the bike lane, slow their car to check on me: “You OK?” (Just waiting for a break in traffic to make a dicey turn—but it touches me to hear their concern.)

A cat named Morty, leery of everyone but his deceased owner, finds me on my front step. Rubs against my knee, beaks my nose with his. Hello, new friend.

A concert of singing bowls, vibrating with tabla, flute, and didgeridoo, offers me a place to rest in All That Is.

What I want to say is this: May my broken heart be of service. May I remember that this brokenness is something we all share. May our connection help to heal a broken world.

Wild Geese Wisdom

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” comes this steadying stanza:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

I found his poem in a new essay collection called Sustainable Happiness, edited by the staff of Yes! Magazine. It reminded me of my introduction to the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…

This was my first Mary Oliver experience years ago: having this poem recited just for me by my Rolfer while he worked the fascia of my feet to smithereens. (Rolfing is a super-intense type of bodywork that pairs well with poetry.)

I give you the lovely Mary Oliver, reading her poem.

To Look Up

It hit me hard last week when the Audubon Society reported that half of North American birds’ migratory routes are threatened by climate change.

If loons find it too hot to summer in Minnesota, then what? You’d think they should just aim farther north, but will they find the food and cover that matches their needs? Are they supposed to migrate higher and higher till they fly right off the planet’s roof?

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

The scenario is not confined to some far-off future. It’s now. Southern California saw 90 to 95 percent of raptor nests failing because of drought. No nests, no procreation. How long can a species survive climate disruption?

I find I can’t stay with this topic; it’s too painful.

I felt the same last month, learning about a gigantic crater that opened in the Siberian permafrost. Scientists link the melting to warmer-than-normal summers the last two years, and say such sinkholes release vast amounts of methane.

Methane gas is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide, with 20 times the impact on climate change, according to the EPA.

In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben describes a number of self-reinforcing feedback loops that lead to a faster and faster rate of climate change. The crater is just one example. He explains the feedback loops in this video.

Here we are, immersed in our lives, going around feeling one minute one way, the next another. I feel despondent. I cheer up. My writing goes well. My writing goes poorly. I help someone. I say something dumb. I worry over my sick cat. I celebrate her recovery. I walk around my neighborhood and love the trees. I come home and feel lonely, pleased, scared, self-satisfied, hopeless, and on and on.

I’m a dizzying universe. As are we all. Most of us barely keep it together, doing what needs to be done to meet the day-to-day demands of life.

And all the while, this other thing is winging above us. This bigger picture of demise.

Rise up...

And to look up invites so much pain, which we already have aplenty.

Two things help me face the times we live in. One is external, the other internal.

On the external side, I reach out, take action, make something, do something. I connect with neighbors who care as deeply as I do. Or join a demonstration, like this Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City. (I will join a crowd closer to home, at the People’s Climate Gathering in Bloomington.)

I plant a seed. I get moving.

On the internal side, I stay still and connect with what endures. I remind myself that matter is just slow energy, and energy can’t be destroyed. Feeling into my energy body takes me to a place beyond fear. Whatever the future brings, it will be better if I stay in this moment.

“Look up and see the light from the sun. And now see everything beneath it, everything around you. You are in the garden.”

—Karen Maezen Miller, Paradise in Plain Sight

Note: If you’re on the fence about joining this weekend’s events, read Rebecca Solnit’s new essay. “Only great movements, only collective action can save us now,” she writes.

Resilient Communities and People: How Yoga Can Help

Guest post by Gaynell Collier-Magar

Hi everyone! I am so honored to be a guest blogger on Shawndra’s amazing website. Shawndra is one of my Irvington Wellness Center yoga students. She has a beautiful, thoughtful practice, both on and off of the mat. She personifies how yoga can help with resiliency in life.

Yoga is a 5000-year-old tradition of practices (the Eight Limbs) to reduce suffering and still the mind. It is not a religion. However, the practices have been incorporated by many religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and contemplative Christianity to name a few.

The physical practice or “asana” (“seat”) is meant to create resiliency in the body and mind to enable sitting in meditation for long periods of time. Unfortunately, in the West, the physical practice is often perceived as the path to buns of steel, pretzel poses, and very thin 20-something bodies.

The first lines of the Yoga Sutras state: “Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness”. The Sutras explain how our habitual ways of thinking create suffering and how we can remedy this.

When we are reimagining a future for our communities, yoga could be a useful tool.

Photo by Jenny Spadafora

Photo by Jenny Spadafora, via Flickr Commons

So how does this happen? In the physical practice, it begins with being in the present moment—in the body and the breath. To get a feel for what I mean, try this:

Notice how you are sitting now. Are you slumping? Good…notice how you feel heavy in your body. Now, sit up straight, feel your bottom sitting in your chair, feel your feet on the floor, and lift your chest. Do you feel any lighter in your body? Slump again and notice. Sit up again and notice. Now close your eyes, put your hands on the tops of your thighs and take three deep, slow breaths. Focus on the exhale.

What was your mind doing? Chances are it wasn’t making a to-do list, obsessing about the person at work who drives you crazy, or yearning after a piece of chocolate. You begin to get a glimpse of the mind becoming more still—an experience that increases in depth and length with further practice.

The practice is to notice what is happening in the present moment, practice non-reaction, and return to the present moment. Neuroscience is showing that these practices literally re-wire the brain.

Two of the liabilities of community work are burnout and lack of fresh ideas. Our ego-driven “monkey mind” robs us of tremendous energy and creativity. As we engage in practices that still the mind, we create a mindspace in which to think outside the box—and the energy to act accordingly.

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

We also create a mind that is equanimous and unattached, yet deeply caring. We create a mind that is focused and in the present moment. We create a mind that is resilient.

It is not a leap of consciousness nor faith to realize how resilient minds can create resilient communities. The Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Gaynell has been a yoga practitioner for over 14 years. She was certified as a Vinyasa yoga instructor in 2009 by Rolf Gates and is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance. She is certified to teach adaptive yoga to people with physical disabilities, having studied with Matthew Sanford of Mind Body Solutions. She has taught Vinyasa, adaptive, and 12-step recovery yoga classes in Indianapolis and Cozumel, Mexico in Spanish and English. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and owns her own landscaping business, Growing Connection.

Join Gaynell and other terrific instructors at Shine Out Yoga Celebration, July 11-12 in Indianapolis, benefiting Mighty Lotus.

Nonviolent Communication

Sometimes you hear about a thing over and over, until it seems mandatory to follow up. So it was with Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a process created by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. First I learned that a yoga center offered NVC training sessions. Then I heard of a book group studying Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Then a nonprofit’s director told me everyone in her organization is committed to NVC principles.

And this weekend, Trade School Indy offered an NVC class. All I needed to trade was a bundle of dried sage, which we have aplenty. That plus two hours on a Sunday afternoon seemed a reasonable investment. Off I went to finally check it out.

I learned that NVC is more than a nonthreatening communication style. It’s also a way of taking responsibility for yourself. As I practiced the formula (Observe, Feel, Need, Request) while role-playing a conflict, I sensed I was standing on solid ground. I hate confrontation, but NVC makes me view conflict as an opportunity to deepen relationships.

Communication Art Prize, by Fellowship of the Rich, via Flickr Commons

Communication Art, by Fellowship of the Rich, via Flickr Commons

Rather than asserting control over others through demands, manipulation, or bargaining, NVC is all about building connection over time. The idea is that we all have universal basic needs. Our feelings indicate whether these needs are met or unmet.

NVC “has been used between warring tribes and in war-torn countries; in schools, prisons, and corporations, in healthcare, social change, and government institutions; and in intimate personal relationships.” (Is there hope for the Central African Republic, where Muslims are fleeing “ethno-religious cleansing?”)

Mosque and church, by Jonathan Gill, via Flickr Commons

Mosque and church, by Jonathan Gill, via Flickr Commons

I may not be able to do anything about religious wars and other horrors, but I can create more peace in my daily interactions. Here is a (totally hypothetical) confrontation following NVC’s formula:

Observe: I notice there’s a used QTip on the back of the sofa. (Note the passive voice, a writer’s anathema! But useful in this instance, to neutralize the tone.)

Feel: I feel annoyed and disgusted. (Claiming my own feelings instead of the judgmental,“This is a gross habit. You are so inconsiderate!”)

Need: I need a clean environment, and I need consideration. (I’m struggling with how to state this. So much more satisfying to say, “I need you to not leave your medical waste out for me to find!” Any NVC ninjas in the house? Please coach me.)

Request: Would you be willing to throw your QTip away when you’re done?

In NVC’s highest expression, we request connection instead of a behavior change. “Could you tell me how you feel about this?” or “Would you be willing to spend a few minutes talking this through?” But I’ve cut to the chase above, while still (hopefully) avoiding triggering defensiveness in the hypothetical second party.

One of the women in the class called the method “disarming,” at least in role play. I’m curious to try it in real life. It seems to take a lot of hard thinking, even in the simplest of conflicts.

What about you: What tools have you found beneficial in creating peace and building connection?

To Live Passionately

A writer friend and I were talking this morning about our goals for the new year. She said she had but one resolution for 2014: “Forget fear.” Except she used another, shall we say, more pithy F-word for her intention around fear.

Later, scanning through my notebook from the past few months, I came across this passage from Nov. 7, which followed a week of extreme doldrums:

Tired of being unconscious, but scared to wake up! Yet that fear seems foolish in light of the many ways we could bite the dust—globally/regionally/personally, calamitously/suddenly/slowly—oh so many options for becoming vapor, energy, disembodied once more. [I was thinking of the Oct. 25 earthquake off Japan’s coast near Fukushima, among other things.]

FukushimaIsHere-Sticker_1So keeping that in mind, how do I live? I want to live passionately.

Did you hear about the child for whom Make-a-Wish is transforming San Francisco into Gotham City, so he can be Batkid?

Photo by Bhautik Joshi, via flickr Commons

Photo by Bhautik Joshi, via flickr Commons

You see where I’m going with this. In our dying we become superheroes.

Thinking of the Buddhist injunction to remember the unalterable fact of our own death, I ended up musing: What do we have to lose?—the exact phrase my friend used this morning.

It seems ridiculous to dither about in fear and worry when we could be gone at any moment. And meanwhile all of life is calling us to be a force for good.

So how about it? Shall we create a passionate, conscious, fearless, superheroic 2014?

We Are the Same

Not long ago I had conversations with two different poet friends, both about the connective power of the written word.

Shari Wagner said she sees her poems as vehicles for connecting human to nature, living to dead, young to old. Here’s a lovely example of this, her poem about young Orville and Will Wright, and their dream of flight.

Later that same day, Shannon Siegel spoke of writing as a way of “feeling with” someone, as in a Buddhist meditation. She had read a book called The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald. McDonald asserts that the writer’s essential task is to show our commonalities.
By Mike DelGaudio, via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike DelGaudio, via Wikimedia Commons

Shannon sent me this passage from the book:

“Stories are the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever lived. Your job as a storyteller is not simply to entertain…Your job is to let people know that everyone shares their feelings—and that these feelings bind us. Your job is a healing art, and like all healers, you have a responsibility.

Let people know that they are not alone. You must make people understand that we are all the same.”

In a time when our focus is constantly nudged toward what divides us, it is a tonic to understand that yes, everyone on earth has experienced every single emotion that has ever swept through us.

By Kahuroa at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Kahuroa at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Shannon’s poem, stretched out to you. Do you feel it?
oceans within

Sounds of water…sounds of water…sounds of water…
The Long Way, Moitessier

Memories lock selves
in place, deep within
the cells, those
inner chambers.
Recall rises up
like magic, aroused,
liberated in an instant,
a rush, an echo,
a ripple through time,
a feeling, just a feeling,
something I felt once,
something I felt before,
I feel again, I now feel again.
A swell crashes the shore,
then recedes. Waves
ebb, then flow, an ocean
of promise and possibility
rushing through my veins, life
unfolds with a touch,
a whisper perhaps, a word
spoken, a gaze, a persistent
recurrence of what was,
is now is, again, somehow.
Deflecting logic, defying reason,
this heart sings a joyous
song, thrums love’s lyric,
hums a tender entreaty:
Come with me. This
way. Look for me.
Find me.

—Shannon Siegel, (c) 2013