Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Prairie Skies

I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.

My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.

Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.

My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.

If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.

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My beloved and battered 1972 copy of the first volume.

 

My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.

(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)

The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.

Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.

Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.

Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.

We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.

Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.

What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.

So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.

When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).

We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.

For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.

Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.

Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.

Designing Life in Alignment

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Every year around Solstice time, we build a fire and burn what we’re ready to release, and welcome the return of the light. This year I released my rigidity, and my need to “do it all/do it perfectly/do it at the expense of what really matters.”

This tendency is in full force as I try to scratch my annual (unrealistic) itch to tie up loose ends before Dec. 31. And to plan a stellar New Year—I’m a sucker for a fresh start.

In that vein, I bought a new tool called a Passion Planner. I’m so excited about it that I couldn’t wait for 2018 to start, so I printed out some blank pages from the freebies on the website, and started planning the heck out of the last few days of 2017.

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I bought the eco-version, which is a reusable cover with an insert that can be switched out year to year. Two starter stickers were included.

Irony: I just posted about flowing and obeying internal nudges. I may be crazy, but I think I can integrate structure with flow, and this might be just the tool to do it.

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Opal goes to the petsitter.

So now I’m geeking out. I bought erasable ink pens, some stickers, and a roll of balloon-patterned Washi tape.

I’ve never used Washi tape in my life. I’m not the least bit crafty. I’m way better at writing than drawing. But I’ve started putting goofy little sketches in my planner pages, just for fun.

Now whenever I spend my early morning hour on my writing project, I’m rewarding myself with a sticker. Jennifer Louden blogged about celebrating our daily efforts, and these nerd-stickers help with that.

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Sticker!

 

I also love that the planner has space to write “Good Things That Happened” each week. I’m recording things like a heron sighting, a new client, a neighbor all happy showing me her progress after an injury.

Of course, a planner can’t advise me on the best time for a walk based on the weather and the body’s needs (or the dog’s wishes). It can’t plan for all the interruptions that pop up in life. It can’t magically make my ever-extending to-do list cross itself out.

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Holiday baking

What it can do is:

1. Help me minimize distractions and lower priorities, based on my higher commitments and plans. (A good question: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?)

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Love the “not-to-do” box.

2. Help me be more judicious in what I schedule, based on a realistic assessment of time. If I see how long something really takes, and block time, I realize that I can’t do the 10 million other things that crowd into my brain whenever I have appointment-free space.

In short, I have to choose. Choosing is always tricky.

Which brings me to no. 3:

3. Help me design my life based on my mission. This particular planner starts off with space to map the most important pledges. (OK it calls them “goals” but as I mentioned before, “pledge” or “commitment” works better for me.) It sets them up in a 3-month, 1-year, 3-year, and lifetime span. With these pledges literally at the forefront—they’re in the first few pages of the planner—I can align my daily choices more consciously.

Very exciting stuff.

But back to rigidity. I can get all tense about my lists and plans. Truly my left brain LOVES these tools. It loves to schedule every minute of my day with the intent of DOING IT ALL. In fact, my left brain reminds me of the greedy villain from every Saturday morning cartoon show of my childhood. After gaining enough power or whatever (in this case list check-offs), “Finally—I shall RULE the WORLD!”.

(I always wondered, why would anyone want to rule the world?)

It’s getting easier to talk back to my left brain, to bring it back into integration with my body and my higher Self (Soul). I can tell it, I know that you had this plan to go like gangbusters all day and check off a million things, so that tomorrow we can get up early and do it all over again, but what we really need today is some open time to rest and integrate. 

Left brain devalues dreamy-drifty time. So does society. But time to noodle is so critical to quality of life. And, it turns out to be absolutely key to my true work as a writer and energy worker.

That’s where internal listening comes in. The roadmap provided by my soul must align with the roadmap I’m unspooling in this planner.

My intention is not more constriction, but more spaciousness in my life, and the clarity gained from working my Passion Planner can help with that.

At the fire, on the flip side of my little wood round where I’d written “rigidity,” I wrote “passion.” On the other side of the card where I’d written my “do it all” refrain, I wrote “I commit to alignment.” These are the things I invoke for this next cycle.

What about you? What do you release, what do you invoke? And does a planner figure into your process? (What kind do you use, and how do you use it? I’m so curious!)

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Cat optional. (But look how imperious he is with his paw on that schedule!)

Contacting the Infinite Self

“No one’s noticing that I got MY hair cut too.”

I heard myself say this in a mock-petulant tone recently when two women friends were gushing over a mutual friend’s dramatic new haircut, the day after I had gotten my own locks styled shorter and cuter than before.

Never mind that I hardly ever notice such things on other people, or that her ‘do was incredibly striking. Dammit, I wanted some attention too!

Well this is embarrassing.

But I am learning something here: I often have this amusing need to be validated, complimented, seen.

I’m figuring out that this seemingly bottomless need is one only I can truly fill, by being with myself in quiet and care, by linking up to All that Is. It’s a need that surely stems from a dearth of self-love.

I don’t mean self-love in the aggrandizing sense of “damn, I’m the greatest thing ever (and so is my hair).” I mean self-love in terms of awareness that I am one with the Source. A Divine being of Light.

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I’m talking big-picture self-love. Turns out that it is no different from other-love, because in that expanded state I am All. There’s no separation, and no need to prove anything.

Anita Moorjani calls this the “infinite self” which has no need to please others or gain approval. Since reading her book Dying to be Me, I’m noticing how often I seek validation in even subtle ways. Like spending time obsessing over how to word an email or post in hopes of gaining a positive response. Or agreeing to do something that really doesn’t float my boat, just to feel worthwhile.

I’m not saying I shouldn’t pay attention to messaging, or only do things that please me (though how great that would be!). Rather, I want to look at the motivations behind my actions and decisions. Operating out of a sense of obligation or a need to prove something feels heavy, and it might taint the action, no matter how well-intentioned.

I’d rather act from a space of connection, feeling replete. Feeling light!

That’s the space that has no need of external validation, I suspect.

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” A writing teacher once quoted John Candy’s line from Cool Runnings (a fantastic movie about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the Olympics).

My teacher was talking about publication, but we could easily substitute anything that we hold up as a way of gaining that elusive feeling of “enough.”

In truth, we are all more than enough, because we all—at a soul level—represent holograms of that gorgeous Whole.

Remembering that, acting from that place, is the tricky part—but I’m practicing! What else is life for?

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.

A Tale of Two Projects

A  few years ago I was working on a book that took me to the west coast and parts of the Midwest to talk to people in the community resilience movement. I wrote a book proposal and shopped it around and had some mild interest from literary agents. I received a grant for research travel, and I was selected a trio of writing residencies, and I wrote a bunch of words.

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A photo from one of my sojourns–a Bloomington homeschooling cooperative based around permaculture principles.

I still have those words. Some of them have turned up in posts here and other places. (People seem consistently most intrigued by the Mudgirls natural building collective.) But I have yet to use them in some final-final form of Thrivalists. Every agent who loved the topic ended up declining because of my “thin platform.” They didn’t believe that I would garner enough readership, in other words, to make me worth the risk.

I began to disbelieve it myself. I added that to a bone-deep doubt that anything I could do would ever be good enough or come together coherently enough to produce a book.

I shelved the project, and began to work on another, supposedly interim, nonfiction book. It was supposed to be a six-month jaunt into something different-but-related: I would write of my own healing journey, and how it connected to the buried ruins of a 19th century women’s mental institution (“Seven Steeples”) where I was volunteering at a modern-day farm.

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Last week I toured a Traverse City, MI asylum of roughly the same era as Seven Steeples.

Two and a half years later…

Yeah.

Still working on that one. And I received a grant this year to further the project, which feels great! but also kind of heavy and dubious, since the first grant did not (yet) result in publication.

Next month I will hand my manuscript to a professional for editing services, thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission’s generosity.

In the meantime (while still freelancing in the farm profile arena) I periodically send out pieces of each work-in-progress to see if anyone is interested in publishing them as essays. Nope nope nope. (Though I’ve had a few very nice rejection notes!)

Till this month. To meet a shorter word count and fit a theme of “Roots,” I reworked a segment of Thrivalists about the role of fungi in rootedness. I incorporated some newer, slightly woo-woo material (sort of a mashup of both projects), and sent it to Topology Magazine. They published The Gift of the Fungi, which is ostensibly about what I learned at the Radical Mycology Convergence, but is also about coming to embrace a wider sense of possibility.

I felt a curious lack of enthusiasm for the news that the site would publish it. The old “any club that would have me as a member” dilemma? A sense that I could have snagged a higher profile outlet, if I’d persisted? Some of each.

Plus a sense of : “I went to California, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Ohio and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?”

The end product is supposed to be a book, not a little online article.

Well, then a writing buddy reminded me of something Charles Eisenstein asked in a podcast : Would you write even if you had only one reader, even if you knew that that reader might take your words and change the world… but you’d never get credit for it? He wrote a piece about how this type of loyalty test first arose for him. An excellent read if you have time.

Why do we do what we do? What is our ultimate goal? If it’s about fulfilling our purpose, taking our place in the Divine scheme of things, then words like “platform” and “readership” are less important than resonating our truth.

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Spiderweb photo by Barbara Jablonski, taken at Eagle Creek Park

In the world we live in, money and fame are gods. What we have to offer doesn’t count unless it brings in income or gains huge exposure. Charles and my writing buddy and I refute that story, and I suspect we’re not alone in that.

Oh and by the way, some ideas are percolating about that old project as I hit the home stretch (?) of the new one. I haven’t seen the last of the inspiring Thrivalists that shared with me. I can tell because of the way my blood hums when I think of putting their stories in a wider frame.

Maybe I just needed to expand (not my platform but my being) before I could put the work out there. We’ll see.

Sing Light

At the International Women’s Writing Guild‘s annual conference, I was drawn to a spiritual warriorship workshop. Here I found women both tender and fierce. From various spiritual backgrounds, we all were seeking to keep our hearts open in the face of the world’s pain. We meditated together, read, wrote and shed tears together.

One day the reading was Wendell Berry’s haunting  Work Song Part 2: A Vision, which speaks of “a long time after we are dead” when “memory will grow into legend, legend into song, song into sacrament.” The future, and what it might look like, if we are wise.

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Our writing prompt was : What I want to sing into this world is…

Here’s what came from that free write. (Read Wendell’s marvelous poem first!)

What I want to sing into this world is…
That we must breathe our despair and eat our fear. Then allow the alchemy of respiration, digestion, and elimination to work on our pain and terror until a new thing emerges on this earth. I want to sing a song of light—and yet allow darkness to be felt and seen. (Without awareness of what is hard and mean and forced, we forget the impoverished place that births our better future.) Sing light that doesn’t fear the dark but turns toward it, welcoming the whole story of our unfolding humanity. Find a way to rock the darkness like a neglected child, to give it the kind of love it’s never known.

 

And you: What do you want to sing into this world?