What I Learned

There was a lag between my dad’s tests and the results. We knew something was wrong, and it could be bad, but we didn’t know for sure. The Saturday between his test and the oncologist appointment, I stopped over as usual for lunch after hitting the farmers’ market. It was a brilliant June day in 2011, and Dad was making the most of it in the back yard. Mom and I agreed: We wished we could just freeze time.

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Dad on a summer day

We couldn’t. The oncology appointment brought the kind of news every family dreads: terminal cancer.

I sometimes feel, now, like I’m in “please freeze time” mode. A pervasive sense of dread stalks some of my days and many of my nights. Watching swifts in their lilting flights as I walk my dog early in the morning, I have a weird sort of anticipatory nostalgia. This spring has been stunningly beautiful. The world is so inviting. And who knows what lies ahead for my family, my community, my country, the world?

But then again, who ever knows? We just think we will keep on our merry way, that nothing will ever change, but that’s an illusion.

But time can slow down a bit, when you pay close attention and know that you are really there, occupying the moment with all your senses.

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Follow the path with senses open…

What I learned from that horribly short period between Dad’s diagnosis and his death (and from what came next) is this: We can handle the worst. We get through it. There are still beautiful moments even in the awfulness. Dad speaking into a circle of family and friends around a fire. Grinning over a fat slice of cake, his 71st birthday. Going to the front door to thank the folks from church who surrounded the house in song one evening. Hugging me close, saying he didn’t want to leave us. Tender times I will never forget.

This is a tender time for us all, no matter how we show up for it, and the intensity packs a punch. I won’t soon forget standing in a parking lot with tons of neighbors spaced more or less 6 feet apart, scanning the skies for a Blue Angel flyover tribute to essential workers (including my nurse spouse, who got to be there too). Hailing from a pacifist tradition, I didn’t expect tears to well up, but they did.

There are many things I will remember as touchstones in the coming months, no matter what happens. And being here with my whole body/mind/spirit is the only way to navigate the uncertainty.

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Rooted

Gratitude: Sharing garden plants with friends and neighbors feels so abundant, and brings Dad back to me. We dug up Virginia bluebells that had spread all through his and Mom’s yard since he’s not there to thin them. We took some to Kate, who gave us two different kinds of tomatoes and 3 different kinds of peppers, plus basil. A neighbor came by with cilantro starts and went home with shovelfuls of various overgrown perennials from our yard. I have my eye on some wild ginger and salad burnet spreading in my beds that I can pass to another gardening neighbor. And on it goes.

Tip of the Day: Try this practice from Martha Beck to bring you into your body and the moment: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now experience them all at once. Guaranteed to take you out of your thinking mind and into your body.

Resource of the Day: Check out this article from time expert Laura Vanderkam about savoring time to stretch out the feel-good moments (and to make memories more vivid).

The View from Here

Program Note: When I first started this series, I had the ambitious idea of posting something daily. Turns out life is not as spacious as I imagined it would be in sequestration, and spring weather has me loath to spend any more time in front of  a screen than I need to. I have not wanted to add force to the equation, believing that “powering through” would taint the result with an energy I don’t want to perpetuate. I’ve tried to take my own advice and rest more. But… I do miss the days when I just let fly with my words, and I wonder if all the napping and stepping away from screens might also stem from reluctance to be seen. Several half-finished/half-baked posts are languishing, “not good enough yet.” All to say: I hope to find some balance and post regularly without too much drivenness. I don’t want to add more jangling to the global collective. And now back to our regularly (?) scheduled programming…

Several years ago, when I was dealing with chronic pain, I read a book written by someone with a similar condition. She wrote of widening beyond the place of pain and all its attending emotions.

One example: Her feet hurt terribly every time she took a step. But they did not hurt during the part of the step where they were off the ground. So she put her attention on the lift, not the footfall.

The spaces between the painful things can expand in our awareness.

These days when it seems like there is so much that hurts, or has the potential to hurt, where do I put my focus?

This past week we’ve seen the lifting of stay-at-home orders in my state and elsewhere. Here this is happening in a phased way, more or less status quo in my county till May 15—except the golf course opening, which foils my afternoon jaunts. I would have been glad to stay hunkered down much longer, but I know that people without a work-at-home job, broadband internet, a harmonious home, a friendly neighborhood, rainy-day fund, etc., are hurting.

Even knowing it was inevitable at some point, the announcement of this new phase brought back me some spikes of anxiety and dread. Wondering how an ambitious rollback of restrictions (“back on track” by July 4?) will play out for people most at risk, and how it will impact the front-line workers, such as my spouse, who stand ready for fresh numbers of COVID-19 patients.

I also notice some exuberance, sort of like “the nightmare is over! they said so!” And that scares me too. I live with someone facing the toll of COVID-19 every time she goes to work, and I can still entertain “it was all a bad dream”?

Then there’s the fraying of social cohesion. I’ve had this nice notion that this crisis will eventually result in a new, saner, more equitable world, but how exactly is that supposed to happen? It seems like divisions are being drawn ever deeper, scapegoating is on the rise, and the pandemic is far from over (no matter how tired of it we might be, or how much our leaders want to declare victory).

I don’t really want to document all the things that worry me right now, but instead expand my awareness to the space that holds the fear. I’m not saying fear never offers valid or useful information. I’m talking about including it in something bigger.

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View from the morning walk, leaning against my hackberry tree friend.

(Short rant: Sometimes in the spiritual development world, there’s a certain pollyanna way of looking at things, where people try to hush up the hard stuff by pasting a smiley face on it. There’s a lot of bullshit around the role we play in creating our reality, a mindset that makes it easy to ignore major systemic injustices. I’m not of a mind that nothing bad will ever happen to those who live right. New Age bunkum implies that feeling bad is basically your own fault for not being spiritual enough. That way lies madness, and further injustice. We don’t need to slap a happy face on things that are really crummy.)

So, what I’m talking about is not so much looking the other way as widening out. 

I made a very basic list of things I could count on in my journal early on, when I was reeling. Maybe it’s still useful. A place to put focus. I added to it and buffed it up a bit to put here—maybe you can add things to it too.

20200426_164339 (768x1024)Things we can count on:

  • The sun in its cycle.
  • The moon in its cycle.
  • The seasons of the planet.
  • Stars up there. Milky Way.
  • The fact that the sky will cloud and clear and cloud and clear.
  • The way buds open, flower, fruit, and fall.
  • The fact that every oak tree starts as an acorn.
  • The universal truth that everyone experiences loss and grief.
  • The space between the tiny particles that make up a body. Particles whirling so fast they seem solid but actually hold vast spaces between them.
  • The way ice melts when it’s heated. The way fire burns.
  • Gravity.

Gratitude: Friends who hold me up even from a distance when I’m falling.

Tip of the Day: This one brought to you by the one and only Fred Rogers, whose biography I’m listening to: “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices, and hopefully your choices come from a deep sense of who you are.”

Resource of the Day: Speaking of gravity: Abigail Rose Clarke, founder of the Embodied Life Method, offers a marvelous free meditation, “The Solace Practice.” It gently guides you into really feeling the way your body gets heavier on the exhale. I can’t describe it, you just have to experience it. Go here to connect with her and receive a link to the practice.

I’m Missing Out and I’m Fine with It

I don’t know about you, but I’ve cut way back on inputs lately. Even helpful meditation videos, positive media, cool online gatherings centered around dance, poetry, music… I mostly miss out.

Setting aside the amount of media I expose myself to? I really have to monitor the amount of time I spend in front of a screen.

There’s so much good stuff out there, and I have appreciated every donation-based dance class, every yoga offering, every social connection made via Zoom and Whatsapp… AND I end up quite frazzled if too much of my life is mediated through a digital platform.

Too much time in front of a screen and I get twitchy, buzzy, irritable—yet also curiously mesmerized, unable to break away.

I know that we are electrical beings (a quick web search brings up numerous articles, including this one in Forbes, of all things). That jangly feeling comes from the interaction of the body’s electrical field with that of our ubiquitous devices. I’ve gotten really sensitized to that interaction, and have been using energy work more and more to rebalance myself.

I’m drawn to body-centered activities more than ever, and also to just being outdoors. One of the great things about working from home is the chance to break up the work day with walks, naps, movement, salad-foraging, etc. Even if it stretches my day longer, my brain is clearer, body happier.

Still, I find I want to touch something real after my work day is over. (I don’t take for granted just the fact of having work at all, and I love working part time for a nonprofit I believe in—but my role is mostly about moving pixels around, no matter how you cut it).

So, nature to the rescue.

20200418_135529 (1024x768)Last weekend I went for a walk at one of our nature preserves. Oh, the wildflowers. But even closer to home, what a privilege I feel ever day: to be able to walk out onto the (closed) golf course in the middle of the day.

Today I actually lay down right in the middle of the green in total solitude and looked at the clouds for a while. At moments like that, a big part of me feels like this time in my life is utter paradise.

I know that’s a measure of my privilege, and the fact that my economic and health situations are so far stable. I try to stay open to all the responses moving through me, including joy, and not shut any of it down. And by detaching myself from machines as often as I can manage, I allow that flow more room.

Gratitude: Along with the above, I’m grateful for human goofiness and wacky autocorrects. A few days ago I had a funny text exchange with a friend that started with “70s clothes. This is taking far longer than I anticipated…” explaining she might need to bail on our social-distanced walk.

Me: Darn! Well, do what you need to do. But what do 70s clothes have to do with it?

She: /laughing emojis/ I-70 is closed.

Me: I thought it was some newfandangled way of cursing!

She: Maybe it should be! Oh, bellbottoms! Platform clogs! By all the stripper’s go-go boots!

Me: Poncho!

She: Oof! You win. /goofy emoji/

(Well, we thought it was pretty funny at the time. Leisure suits! Oh maxi dress!)

Tip of the Day: Airplane mode. You know it? Schedule some time to do it. Or in any case step awaaaaaay from the inputs.

Resource of the Day: Interested in learning how backyard plants can help keep you and your family healthy? Greg Monzel, my friend and stellar herbalist, will show how to identify and use common plants to make syrups, teas and extracts, as well as answer your herbalism questions, every Friday at 10 (or watch the replay). (Yes I know this is another online thing… but you will feel like you’re there at Wild Persimmon School of Wellness learning at Greg’s side.)

Wings

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I got up and looked through my growing collection of COVID-19-related resources, and discovered that a likeminded friend was also up at an ungodly hour curating her own list. (See Anna’s new Facebook group,Community Connections, for “creative responses to hunkering down.”)

On my list was Rebecca Solnit’s nightly live fairy tale reading. Since I was up, I decided to watch the replay. I don’t usually have the patience to watch long videos, but I was glad I stuck with it to the end (and what did I have better to do anyway?). For one, it filled my heart to hear her naming folks who were watching live from all over the world. With that black swan behind her, she was mesmerizing.

And the fairy tale itself–The Wild Swans–was well told, magically interwoven with this mysterious moment: Our current time resembling a fairy tale, a challenge of mythic proportions that no one could have dreamt up while moving through our daily routines and distractions.

But the very best thing: At the end, she told a story about an imprisoned friend named Jarvis. One day in the prison yard, Jarvis spotted another inmate throwing rocks at a bird. “Hey, don’t throw rocks at that bird!”

The rock-thrower challenged him, “Why shouldn’t I?”

Quick-thinking Jarvis said, “That bird has my wings.”

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It’s hard to spot, but there is a Pileated woodpecker in this photo, right about dead center. I took the picture last summer on one of my many creek outings with my dog. Big poodle nearby, feet in creek, eyes on beech tree/bird: That’s pretty much heaven for me.

We may be restricted in our movements–some more than others, some for reasons that predate this COVID-19 wackadoodle world–but birds still fly, and maybe they have our wings, along with Jarvis’s.

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Sunrise from the airplane that flew me to a conference last fall, courtesy of my workplace. Wings…

Gratitude: I am so grateful for my job at Central Indiana Land Trust right now. Not just that it allows me to work from home and keep my income. I serve a mission that fills me with a sense of purpose and perspective. Yesterday I helped to draft and send this “Nature is Not Closed” letter from our executive director, speaking of the solace we can find in nature (even as we have to cancel upcoming events).

Today, in a telephone meeting about our nature preserves, I learned how 85-foot bluffs along the White River were formed: They are massive outwash deposits left by the meltwaters of receding glaciers, 12,000 years ago. The river itself would have been a massive gushing thing. The land was malleable, with great gouges and piles of sediment being formed in real time.

Isn’t that a thing to contemplate just now?

Tip of the Day: Sleepless in Shreveport or wherever you are? Think of me, awake at all hours too. If in distress, take a tip from Jen Louden (who may have adapted it from Tara Brach)… Hand on heart, breathe, notice: Can anything eat me right now? Am I safe in this moment? Then consider: Many people feel the very same way as you, right this very minute. Send them your love and care, and feel that love and care in yourself. We are all in this together.

Resource of the Day: Weekend’s coming. So many options for planning some fun. Check out this evolving calendar of livestreamed concerts--Indigo Girls starts in a minute here! You can watch a Broadway play (not sure how many are free though). Have a movie night with friends while staying in your own homes. Do check out Community Connections if you’re a Facebooker, for more ideas and support.

Above all, may the 50,000-foot perspective, the geologic timescale, the wings of birds, bring you some freedom.

I, Wonder

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Lake Hawea, NZ

A quick program note: I periodically send e-newsletters to my mailing list, with explorations of personal resilience and big-big-picture musings. My heart is full as I share these missives. Click the subscribe portal labelled “Spaciousness: An Invitation” at the upper right, if you would like to partake. (My gift in return for subscribing is an e-book I compiled of my most uplifting and “spacious” posts.)

Here are some previous e-newsletters, for those not yet on my mailing list.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Here’s a photo of just one of the small things that stopped me in my tracks last week.

Damselfly with iridescent wing on my back door

I left the country for two weeks in April to tour New Zealand, my insane good fortune to have the opportunity to travel through one of most beautiful places in the world.

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Milford Sound. Dolphin at lower left of frame.

(Traveling abroad feels so weirdly privileged and consumerist. I’m so glad I went, but I had mixed feelings about the way we sort of appropriated another country as our playground, with nature as a thing to be snapped up in a photo and taken home. Yes magazine came just after we returned, with a whole issue dedicated to radical travel, summing up all the issues with business-as-usual touring.)

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Rainforest rainbow, Fox Glacier, NZ

Yet I wouldn’t give back the stupefied feeling I had nearly every day, in the presence of these stunning landscapes.

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Sea Lions near Allen’s Beach

Since I’ve been back, I’m cultivating wonder daily. Reminding myself to listen, look, sniff, feel, even taste the world. Especially on my morning outings with Opal the poodle.

Things in nature don’t have to be totally grand or far away to stupefy. This treescape against this Indiana sky is big enough to evoke wonder.

Morning walk, here at home

But in a pinch, any old ant will do. (Not pictured: eye-level ant marching up the tree trunk where I leaned this morning).

Teeny anthill. The littlest creatures can move the earth.

I mostly sit behind a desk, but I love to get up close and personal with the beings that share our world. I recently took part in a bird banding day at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary, and had a chance to briefly hold and release three different birds. Just a second or two of quivery warmth before opening my hand and watching them sail away into the treetops.

Male indigo bunting. Not my hand (but I did get to do the release.)

Meanwhile here at home, I hear song sparrows trilling every morning, and one sometimes shows himself, toward the tail end of my walk.

Song sparrow preparing to trill

Even while pumping gas, I can find a chickadee taking a dust bath in the dirt of a neglected landscape island.

I believe we all can find wonder wherever we are. We actually contain wonder: Consider the fact that our very cells integrated another coevolving organism. At our core we are symbiotic beings. According to Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, our mitochondria are descendants of ancient bacteria that became integrated into the type of cells that eventually gave rise to all complex life.

Smallest of all, and most wondrous to contemplate.

Where do you find wonder?

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?

shedding

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.