Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

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This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

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I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

Body is Home

Last week a younger friend, 30something, commented in an email that she needed to work on loving her body. In the note she spoke critically of certain body parts, as she has before in conversations. She didn’t like the way this and that looked.

I emailed back a rant. Of the most supportive and loving kind. I wrote:

Every time I hear you critique your body I just want to SHAKE you, I have to say! My gosh, you are stunning! And healthy! In the bloom of life! Your body works great! Fricking enjoy your fabulous body!

OK, cranky bat’s rant over, lol. Just, I really hate the way this culture trains women to despise our bodies when we are so so lovely in all our gorgeous permutations.

And having come through years of being absolutely decrepit, I feel like the important thing—the only thing—is whether or not we feel good in our bodies. If they work for us, if they’re generally free of pain, then hey. Celebrate.

That about sums up my response to women who diss their bodies. Except: After I sent this, I started to notice the slightest bit of hypocrisy.

Yes, I do feel pretty good in my body, and I do appreciate it working. I’ll wear tights to yoga class and not feel self-conscious. I’ll even wear shorts when I haven’t gotten around to shaving my white-and-hairy legs, with their various scars and divots and bruises. (I don’t care about all that. My legs walk great, and pump my bike pedals quite effectively.)

But do I really love this 50-year-old body as unconditionally as I would hope all women would love their bodies? Isn’t my love contingent upon feeling half decent, remaining trim, and staying active?

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Crater Lake and me. With slight “bat wings” starting to show. (This was a few years ago.)

Back when I was living with chronic illness (the “decrepit” period mentioned mid-rant), I did not love my body much at all. Would I now, if some unexpected health challenge befell me?

Furthermore, why do I sigh at the way my blemish-prone skin is losing its suppleness? Why do I look askance at my newly floppety triceps?

I remember Jan Phillips. last year on a tear at the International Women’s Writing Guild annual conference, grabbing the flesh under her arm and saying, “Don’t waste another minute fussing about THIS.” She wanted us all to focus on getting our creative gifts out there, because “the world needs you.”

I think of Jan whenever I feel a tinge of dislike for my own baby “bat wings.” Jan says don’t worry about it!

Then again, part of loving my body does involve focusing on it—not in a fussy/critical way, but spending time doing what it wants to do. Stretching, walking, dancing, touching, resting, laughing, playing, enjoying good food…

All things that make me feel great. And theoretically make me look great too. Though I stop short of tricep curls and whatnot. So far.

Last night Gaynell ended her yoga class with an invitation, as she often does, to gratitude: “Pause and thank the miracle that is your body. It’s the best and only home that your mind and spirit have.”

That’s the space I want to live in. No matter what, this body is my home.

Feel the Hum

More and more I am drawn to sound and music as healing forces.

It might be because I am drawing inward to “hear” the vibration in my body more and more often. There’s a hum, if I get quiet enough to notice. So I experience the healing effect of an instrument or voice as a vibrational quality that can be incredibly powerful.

Rachel Bagby, in an audio conversation with TreeSisters, suggests that we stand next to a moving body of water and hum. It’s a way of reconnecting, and shifting out of our customary ways of seeing/being/speaking. We become part of the world instead of continuing to feel separate.

She says that as you join with the companionable sound of the water, your voice won’t be alone. And by humming, you don’t enter the arena of performance anxiety that so many of us associate with the word “singing.”

I have been playing with this all week, as I cross bridges over “the run” that intersects the golf course where my dog and I walk (early early, pre-golfer!).

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This photo was taken in March, but you get the idea.

It feels good to hum and tone and tralala with water sliding by below me. In the privacy of the morning, this practice lifts me.

So does a transportive concert of Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, cello, tabla, throat singing, and flutes. (This happened Sunday, courtesy of the Irvington Summer Music series, which brought the mesmerizing Ron Esposito and his ensemble here from Cincinnati.)

So does moving through yoga postures with the support of a didgeridoo, drums, flute, and mbira (thumb piano). (This happens on the fourth Thursday of every month at my beloved yoga studio, when Adam Riviere from Playground Productions joins us with his instruments.)

If I allow these experiences to fill me, they each have the power to rearrange me. I come away different, reverberating in oneness. Sometimes a headache will disappear, or I will simply feel more shimmery and alive.

Do you have any sound or music practices that change you for the better? Tell us about it in the comments!

P.S. If you’d like to experience the healing power of sound this weekend, and you’re local to Central Indiana, come check out the Blooming Life Wellness Event happening 11-3 Saturday, May 27, at Trader’s Point Creamery. Adam will be among the musicians offering live music with yoga, and there is even a kirtan (call and response musical experience.) The event is free, family-friendly, and happens rain or shine—I will be there!

Cocooning and Re-Forming

I’ve been cocooning. I’m on a news fast. I don’t check Facebook very often.

It’s just: I’m healthier this way. And I can best hold space for others if I let go of both outrage and fear.

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“Feather” by Nathan, via Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes this might look like disinterest, or disconnection from the political realm that holds sway over so many people’s lives. I recognize that real people will be affected by the decisions coming out of Washington, and most of it won’t be pretty for a lot of us.

But if I rest in equanimity despite all that, I take back power and authority from those who would steal it away. I don’t have to give away my solid, grounded sense of basic OK-ness, no matter what dire outcomes are predicted.

And maybe by staying centered, I can be part of a cadre who will see a way to make real societal change. (I realize that my privilege insulates me from the worst of the proposals, which could have devastating impact. All the more reason to stay focused on transformation, as best I can.)

Instead of following the latest issues around health-care reform, I focus on ways to re-form myself and my approach to my own health and care.

This is something each of us can do. And we can help each other. And we don’t have to wait for anyone else to make that possible. It can happen now and now and now.

Not to oversimplify the real risks to people with major illness, disability, mental illness, and others in danger of falling through the cracks. I appreciate every single person who agitates for the little guy.

Still, surely everyone, regardless of politics, can support empowerment towards personal/community wellbeing. Especially if it costs nothing.

What costs nothing, yet enhances personal/community wellbeing? Some ideas:

  • Following Youtube videos from Lee Holden, who offers chi gong instruction to calm body and mind
  • Connecting with likeminded folks, say at one of Kheprw Institute’s many civic-minded forums and gatherings
  • Offering a smile to a stranger, chat with a neighbor, hug for a friend
  • Noticing beauty
  • Paying attention to one’s inner emotional state, and being kind to it
  • Being kind in general
  • Giving undivided (device-free) attention to a child, an animal, a friend
  • Connecting with my Facebook group, A Transformative Space, where we play with personal/planetary transformation
  • Enjoying deep breaths
  • Dancing
  • Walking in the woods
  • Forgiving someone else or yourself
  • Taking a break from media, or at least social media
  • Your idea here
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“Cocoon” by Louise LeClerc, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

My sense is that more of us could benefit from a measure of quiet introspection, even if it’s just for a few quiet moments each day. And certainly all of us could benefit from more real and caring communication.

I would love to hear what you are doing to re-form yourself, whether or not you find yourself cocooning in this fraught political season. Please comment below if you feel so led!

Picking Up the Healing Trail (Guest Blog)

It’s been a while since I hosted a guest blogger. This week the marvelously observant Katherine Hauswirth, a nature writer from Connecticut, contributes this post. (She also invited me to write a piece for her blog, and it will come out soon!)

Guest post by Katherine Hauswirth, author of The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail.

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Today, Shawndra is allowing me to visit her blog and contribute my own words, and I have gratefully received some words of hers to share at First Person Naturalist. I’ve gotten to know Shawndra a bit through her writing, and was drawn to her work because of its clear awe of nature—the topic I like best. Her admirable, dual tagline of Writer/Energy Worker conveys connection—connecting words, ideas, people with ideas, energies, the body with the mind and the soul.

Shawndra introduced me to the work of Gaian teacher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. She wrote about her here. Macy talks about “The Great Turning”—shorthand for our current age, one that’s suspended between a society shaped by industrial growth and the possibility of a new one that is life-sustaining. I examined Macy’s words a bit in The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, which launches this month:

Macy transmits hope for our ailing world in many ways, but she wonders aloud about the direction in which we will collectively turn. I, too, am unsure, but I seek out comfort in gestures of both adoration and action performed by those who, like Macy and me, are smitten with love for the world.

I continue to hold out hope that the many smitten folks out there will help our world to turn in the right direction. But today it occurred to me that love for the world also acts as a tonic for me, personally. I need to be smitten with that love in order to heal. And by “heal” I mean to feel like I am whole, like I am closer to my best self.

I had recently been sick with a minor illness, and while I was “cured,” in the sense of no longer coughing and sleeping more peacefully, I still needed to heal. The illness seemed to spark a pattern of not caring for my needs very well (or could it have resulted from such a pattern?). My schedule was off; my mind was off; my spirit was off.

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For me, time to myself and time in nature are essential for thriving, and if I can get both at once, all the better. So, despite a long to-do list, I’ve been taking myself on walks.

At the start of today’s walk I was tense, ruminating about a million pending chores and the little annoyances of family life that were stacking up in my mind like dirty dishes. Soon, though, I was happily distracted by a pair of Mallards in the cemetery pond. The female was curious about me, and floated quite a bit closer than her spouse dared. I watched her rubbery orange feet paddling for a while and moved on.

A drab-looking sparrow looked much more exciting when I trained my binoculars on her—I could see bright yellow marks by her eyes. (Later, a little research suggested she was a White-Throated Sparrow). An Osprey couple has taken up residence at Pratt Cove, a freshwater tidal marsh, on the same platform that yielded chicks last year. The female called from the nest in her familiar, high-pitched whistle. And front and center across from the viewing deck nearby sat a Mute Swan on her sizeable, cushy-looking nest, her neck folded over her body, her eyes idly watching her mate, who meandered the channel.

White Throated Sparrow by John Flannery

White-Throated Sparrow courtesy of John Flannery on Flickr

Healing feels like expanding. I am no longer “trapped” in the container of my intellectual mind, with its thoughts bouncing off the walls noisily. I am using all senses to connect with the larger world. I take it in and feel refreshed, open to new possibilities.

Awesome “side effect”: I think more generously about others when I have had these restorative moments.

Nesting Mute Swan by Mike Scott

Nesting Mute Swan courtesy of Mike Scott on Flickr

We all lose the trail sometimes. We forget to even take the time to figure out what we need. When we get our feet back on the healing path we feel more whole and hopeful. And we have more to give.

How lovely, this spring, to turn toward the sun and to watch the natural world turning in the same, light-loving direction. No doubt there is much to do for Mother Earth, but spending time with her is, in and of itself, a crucial act of love. As usual, she bestows much in return.

Katherine Hauswirth’s writing focuses on connection and contemplation inspired by the natural world. She has been published in Christian Science Monitor, Orion online, Whole Life Times, and Connecticut Woodlands. Her blog, First Person Naturalist, reflects on experiencing and learning about nature. Her awards include artist residencies at Trail Wood (Connecticut Audubon’s Edwin Way Teale memorial sanctuary) and Acadia National Park, and first place in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. She lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Her book, The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, comes out later this month.

Preserving Timeless Arts

Last weekend I had two encounters that felt like variations on a theme.

One was at Kheprw Institute, where we were discussing Charles Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.  Kheprw co-founder Imhotep Adisa suggested that our over-reliance on technology compromises our more intuitive ways of communicating and knowing.

“Reality is not limited to that one way of knowing,” Im said, speaking of scientific inquiry and measurable phenomena. (Besides: Who determines what’s worth being measured? Who sets up the arbiters, institutions, and gatekeepers of scientific findings?)

It’s definitely possible to communicate instantaneously without benefit of a text. Many of us have had that experience from time to time. And for those of us in the energy work arena, merging with someone else’s energy field is a skill we cultivate.

But the more we rely on texting to do the work of instantaneous communication, Im suggested, the more we atrophy our native abilities.

Speaking for myself, I know that distracting myself through technology can seriously gunk up my intuition. To be quiet and still enough to sense information differently, I have to spend time away from the addictive barrage of information and communication.

Later it struck me that Im’s words had their parallel in an earlier encounter, with a friend who’s devoted to preserving another dying art: traditional willow weaving. Viki Graber, a fourth-generation willow basket weaver, spent the weekend constructing a living sculpture at Salamonie Reservoir.

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The tunnel will grow thicker and more elaborate with time.

We drove up to see her, and she told us about the project. She received a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to build living willow structures at three parks this year.

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To make her baskets and sculptures, she grows her own willow bushes—14 different species!—on her property in northern Indiana. For this project though, she harvested wild willow shoots from along the lakeshore. She planted these in the ground about eight inches deep along the muddy bank of a pond, where they should take root. She bent the willow into a tunnel, complete with round windows.

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Me and my old friend Viki

For the next few years she will come back to weave new growth into the structure. A true collaboration.

Viki is passionate about sustaining traditional folk art in general (and willow-work in particular). She wants to keep these skills alive and pass them on to the next generation, and she loves to teach others.

As a functional artist, Viki makes beautiful objects that people want to use. Surely we all have the aptitude to create beauty for each other, whether that’s through physical creations or acutely attuned knowing.

Penney Peirce, in her book Frequency, suggests that we are all equally sensitive, with the very human ability to feel and sense and know things instantly. It’s just that some of us are consciously sensitive, and others unconsciously so.

I would add that some of us, like Viki and Im, are consciously invested in preserving useful, beautiful, timeless arts that the dominant culture tends to devalue.

What traditional, lost, or dying arts/skills call to you? Where do you make your mark in preserving ways that aren’t supported by our acquisitive go-go-go culture?

Microscopic Truth

My yoga teacher sometimes says “Feel the hum in your body,” when we are near the close of class.

Do you, ever? Feel that hum? Your energy body. It’s quietly there with you.

Someone told me recently that I have a sort of “presence” that seems to come from being fully in my body. I was honored, and told her that for many years I was NOT in my body. I wouldn’t even have known what that meant.

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Disembodied

These days I don’t always stay there 100 percent of the time, but I know what it is to feel into my body, to honor its communications. After years of dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, drifting along untethered, I have come home. It’s been a long road, but I now feel like I can trust my body.

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says, in this podcast:

“…if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body… And so a very large number of traumatized people…have very cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies… We needed to help people for them to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism, as I like to call it.”

As I deepen that relationship, I’ve found myself tuning in closer and finer than ever. Exploring the microscopic truth expressed by my body. I’m noticing, sometimes in the wee hours when I wake up from an intense dream, what it feels like to resist whatever’s coming up. I don’t want to feel the old ball of dread descend on me, or the worry, or the anger, or the grief, and I can feel myself wanting to reject it. Here’s a tightening of my scalp, there’s a clench in my neck, a rigidity about the shoulders.

I’m not resisting even the resistance, but allowing it all in. Instead of shutting down with “No, no, no,” I’m reaching for the “Yes.”

The other night I actually mentally said, “Come in, come in, welcome welcome,” as I acknowledged each layer of sensation and emotion. And just in the acknowledgement, they seemed to melt away.

After all, as my mindfulness teacher used to tell me, “It is already here.” And as the poet Rumi says, “This being human is a guest house.”

I’ve lived long enough to laugh at my habitual patterns now and then. Oh yeah, that ball of dread again, there it is! Oh those worry states, stealing my sleep again! There’s that fear of something that may or may not ever happen… There’s despair, I can hold that one extra gently. There’s that contraction that could easily lead to a headache if I don’t breathe into it now.

Finding compassion for all of it—saying yes to all of it—broadens my capacity for kindness to others and to life itself. And as van der Kolk would say, I own myself fully, which makes me more resilient.