life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


Leave a comment

Remember the sloth. Be the snail.

Whenever I see an image of a sloth, I am reminded of my first honeymoon in Costa Rica. My first husband and I climbed a rickety, old watch tower and were held more rapt by the scene unfolding right in front of us than the panoramic view of the landscape behind us.

 

A sloth hung from the branches of a tree. It seemed, in fact, to be part of the tree, in body and in the tones of its body. Its hair had shades of white, brown, and green. I remember wondering if the green was actually moss growing directly on it.

 

 

 

If you have been reading my writing for some time, you may know that I have a naturally restless disposition. Staying still is no easy feat for me. My second husband calls me a squirrel on a regular basis. So, it was not small thing for me to be held rooted in one spot for at least 30 minutes, watching this creature.

 

The sloth seemed ancient as the tree it held onto both firmly and tenuously. We must have caught it during the most active period of its otherwise sedentary 24-hour period. It did a kind of sloth yoga in the tree before us, reaching out with first one and then another limb.

 

For a half an hour, I was still and calm. After it disappeared into the trees without even a trace, I vowed to remember the sloth to help me be still and calm. At times in life when I felt anything but these emotions, I wanted to be able to draw strength and perspective from the memory of the sloth.

 

Like so many experiences in life, the power and urgency experienced in the immediacy of the moment tends to fade in its wake. The memory of the sloth has remained, but it has not been as easy to remember the feeling of calm and grounding I experienced while watching it.

 

Since moving to Brussels, I have been introduced to a creature that offers a much more proximate and regular reminder to slow down, be patient, and persist even when life crushes you.

 

The snail.

 

I have seen many snails in my time in Belgium. They cling to garden walls, inch (centimeter?) along sidewalks, and move through dirt, grass, and forest. I seem to see as many crushed snails as I do living, though I have not conduced a formal study on the actual ratio and rate of survival of snails in an urban setting with vast swaths of pavement between often-tiny island oases of soil and vegetation.

 

To be honest, I am not sure how any snail survives against such odds. Each time I see a crushed shell, I bow to it, apologize, and share my express desire that it is in peace, wherever its snail spirit may be.

 

Being a homo sapiens, my shell feels even more tenuous and breakable. I have but a thin sheath of epidermis between my very sensitive heart, organs, and interior realm and the outside world, which seems to be sending wave upon unrelenting wave of shell-shattering energy my way. Countless times this calendar year alone, I have felt pummeled by the other beings with which I share this world. I have started to wonder about the ways I might create a stronger sphere of protection, my own metaphorical shell. Even a fragile one might help me to bear the force of the waves, at least enough to get across the concrete to the safety of an island of forest.

 

I am that compared to the snail, I am lucky in many ways. Even with my fragile exterior and even more delicate interior, I have an ability that the snail may lack: the ability to rebound.

 

The refrain from a song that I do not feel any particular ?? but that seems a propos for this rambling metaphor comes to mind:

 

I get knocked down, but I get up again

You’re never gonna knock me down

 

Of course, I feel like I get knocked down quite frequently, particularly these days. So, it is really only the first line that speaks most directly to my situation. The second line is more of a hope than a reality.

 

After attending a yoga workshop with master teacher, Jaye Martin, I found the words of a Lucinda Williams song running through my mind:

 

I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
I don’t want you anymore
You took my joy

 

You took my joy

I want it back

You took my joy

I want it back

 

These lines held a different kind of energy and a kind of determination different from the getting knocked down song previously mentioned. A person might yell out the lines to the first song with determination, but the singer of the second song doesn’t sing at all, they demand. I imagine the singer clawing their way out of a dark hole, coming up to the edge, dirt-encrusted fingernails reaching over the side, one hand at a time, and slowly, but with increasing confidence and determination, pulling themselves up onto level ground.

 

I can relate to the dirt crawling, the sound of a voice that practically growls from within, Get up. You want to choose happy? Choose!

 

Then, once you have chosen, get up off your sorry ass, put as much space between you and the one sucking the light and life from your spirit, and reclaim your joy by whatever means it might take.

 

Since I seem to be on a roll with pop culture references, how about the line from the movie, Elizabethtown, where the bubbly flight attendant, Claire, encourages the protagonist, Drew, to get over himself when he was roiling in self-pity after a shoe design he created cost the company he worked for umpteen billions of dollars and he subsequently lost his job, identity, meaning in life, etc.

 

According to Claire, Sadness is easier because it’s giving up. I say, make time to dance alone with one hand waving free.

 

And one more for good measure:

 

You wanna me really great? Then have the courage to fall big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.

 

I feel like I haven’t fallen so much as been crushed like my snail friends, but I know I am strong enough (and equally stubborn) to get back up, shift my perspective, and choose happiness.

 

For a snail (at least, in as much as I can determine from my observations), once crushed there is no coming back. For a squirrely human, there is more choice and strength of will involved in the return.

 

This week while traveling in Darmstadt, Germany, a place whose name literally translates to the intestine city, I have been dealt yet another crushing blow. I have to say, despite my determination not to be crushed by it, I spent a couple days in a dark place, feeling completely smashed to bits.

 

Each morning, however, with the sun shining and the promise of a large cup of coffee and possibility, I gather my pieces together in a pile, then gently lift them up to cradle them in my arms. I may feel broken, but I have all of my pieces. I also have my heart, an inner joy that is mine alone, and the desire to put myself back together.

 

As I have walked around the city

As I have walked around the city, I have been sent reminders of the snail within in the form of a bright yellow print of a snail hanging in a shop window and a silver pendant, which is no longer hanging in another shop’s window because it clearly wanted to travel and become an even more proximate reminder that I while I may not be able to choose how other people behave and that there actions do affect me, I can choose how I respond to their sometimes crushing blows.

 

I am clearly not the Walrus, and while I like the idea of embodying the spirit of the sloth and I am inspired by it, I know that I am also not the sloth. I can remember the sloth to help me keep the energy and impact of life forces in perspective, but I just don’t see myself ever being content to hang from the tree branches, swaying gently and peacefully. It isn’t me.

 

I am more a snail 2.0. I am stalwart, and I move through my life with fortitude and character. I am determined to find balance amidst the chaos, and I will be happy, even if it means crawling on hands and knees across pavement and broken glass to get there.

 

In other words, be peaceful and/but persevere!

 

 

 


2 Comments

This time last year…

This time last year, it was unbearably hot

From early in the morning until late at night

We would close up the windows and draw the shades

And try to keep cool in the midst of the blaze

This time last year, when the sun would go down

We would walk near the house ‘neath the cottonwood trees

A barn owl would screech her babies were near

They left gifts of their feathers for me to find

This time last year when you were far away

It was just me and my wolf dog in the heat of the day

This time last year, it was unbearably hot

My wolf dog was with me, this year he is not


Leave a comment

Life is an art form

There is a question I have often heard: Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?

 

This morning, while walking with my husky in the desert, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the two are one and the same. Life itself is an art form, and art can be a way of life.

 

It can be a Rothko, dark and brooding; a Schoenberg, brilliant but offensive to many ears; a Stravinsky, powerfully groundbreaking and shocking; a Monet, light and pleasing to the eye; a Pachelbel, harmonious and easy on the ear.

 

There are so many ways to move through a life.

 

At first glance, it may seem easier to live in a way that is outwardly pleasing and does not cause discomfort to anyone else. It can feel really good to receive external validation, a kind of judgmental pat on the back for not creating a stir in the world.

 

I have found that this way of cultivating my life tends to cause inward discomfort and dissonance, which often manifests in behaviors that then project that dissonance onto the external world in a rippling effect of resentment.

 

I think I may fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but I have not always lived there.

 

Since I was a child, I have worried about judgment from others. What do they think of the radical choices I have made? How is my behavior being interpreted? Why do some people see infinite joy and love and light in me while others see me as intentionally odious and hurtful?

 

How can one person be seen through such extreme and opposite lenses?

 

What I think may be going on is that those who see darkness feel most threatened by my pursuit. They go on the defensive by vilifying me because it is easier than recognizing and taking responsibility for their own deep sadness and discontent with their own state of existence.

 

My wish is to not simply live my life but to cultivate it with intention. Thus far, this kind of cultivation has been realized through a great deal of practice. A starting of a project, casting it aside, starting a new one, making a recording, overwriting that recording, and so on and so forth.

 

It has been both edifying and experiential.

 

And it has been anything but comfortable.

 

It is easier to vilify than to empathize. It is easier to play a victim and place blame than to take responsibility for one’s own existence.

 

I came to a point in my life where I realized that I did not wish to be a victim and that happiness was a choice. I could remain in a place of low-level contentedness that flirted with unhappiness, but I would be doing so with the knowledge that I had chosen this path. My life was all right, but I could feel that there was much missing for me to be truly living in a way that filled my soul.

 

To get to a place where I was cultivating a masterful work of art would rattle the bars on a lot of cages. It would require letting go of my fear of judgment from others.

 

I say this because I have found that the practice of discovering my own inner truth and self is not only challenging for me; it often creates unease and discomfort for others. Many people in my life have responded to this practice with threats and the kind of behavior that seems like a projection of a deep unhappiness with their own life.

 

There are many people who do not enjoy having the bars of their own life cages rattled because it forces them to look in the mirror and see the bars they have created for themselves.

 

In the present, it is easier to accept the cage to the point where you do not see it as a cage, if you see it at all.

 

I sensed deep down that one day I would live to regret the decades I had spent in a cage. I am a spirit that is not meant to be caged. I do not think any spirit should suffer such a fate, but it takes courage and determination to break free, especially when it is a cage one has voluntarily built and taken temporary refuge within.

 

It is amazing how easy it is to shed one cage and exchange it for another, and it can be an insidious and subtle process. If I do not pay attention, I can be lulled into believing that the cage is necessary. I can be drawn into another person’s cave by my desire to please and avoid painful judgment.

 

All of my practice in cultivating my life with mindfulness and intention is helping me to recognize the bars coming down around me more quickly and to break free before too much permanent damage has been done (i.e., before it becomes too difficult to get out), but my freedom seems to come at a cost each time.

 

Perhaps, this is simply my path in this life.

 

My life is art; it is a form of art I am developing. And to cultivate this method takes time, dedication, and a willingness to fail and try again.

 

So, I will keep practicing.


Leave a comment

I want to save it (a short story from St. Lourbès)

Tu veux montrer l’oiseau à ton père? la mère a dit à son enfant.

 

You want to show your father the bird? the mother said to her child.

 

A small child led his father by the hand. They walked into the garage and toward a small cardboard box. The father picked up the box and brought it to three of us standing at the entrance. Gently, he unwrapped the puzzle pieces that kept the bird in the dark inside.

 

He has been there since the morning, the mother explained.

 

I peered inside to see a song thrush. The thrush are my favorite of the bird families. They are so delicate and unassuming. Their plumage is often quite simply. They are elusive and difficult to find. Yet their voices are the most beautiful flutelike notes you will hear in the bird world.

 

He has a broken wing, the father explained to the child.

 

We have to let him go.

 

He carefully lifted the bird out of the box and placed it onto the ground. It moved quickly away from us.

 

I felt an inexpressible pain and sense of mortality watching this small bird walk and hop away from us, periodically instinctively spreading its wings to fly, as if this time those bones and feathers may lift it into the air. Did it know that they never would? I felt a pang in my heart watching it and wondering. Our birding companion’s children wanted to save it.

 

Je veux le soigner, a tiny voice called out as the child was led back inside by his mother.

 

I want to save it.

 

I could feel my own heart in those words and that pleading voice.

 

Many times, I have tried to save birds. I kept a surly pigeon with a broken wing for years before a friend’s dog abruptly ended its life.

 

We stood and watched the delicate song thrush move into the grass, stop, look around, and carry on. The juxtaposition of the four of us standing there, knowing this bird would more than likely not survive, was almost too much to bear.

IMG_4448 (1)


Leave a comment

Je suis moi

When traveling, it is easy to feel very disconnected from all that is familiar. In the past, I have made quite an effort to fit in when I have lived and traveled overseas. On this most recent voyage to France, I certainly want to speak French with as much ease and proper pronunciation as possible, but I also find that I feel more free to be myself. I don’t necessarily think of myself as solely an American. In fact, I have rarely felt like I “fit in” in the United States. I simply feel more at ease in my own skin and find myself worrying less about asking questions about culture, how to wrap a scarf in the French way, the meaning of a word. I don’t mind that people see me taking a photograph of every little detail. I like noticing the details.

 

Of course, I am also realizing that it might be freeing to leave some of the details to the capacity of my memory and others to fate. My husband tells me that it might not be necessary to take a photograph every three steps as we walk through the city of Arles. I realize that I spend so much time trying to capture everything that I may be missing out on the experience of just being immersed in the beauty of the peeling paint, the fragments of stone walls, the awe of imagining growing up in a place with such history and just thinking of it as home.

 

When I lived in Africa, after six months I felt like I was simply walking through the streets and markets of my home. Yet when I showed photographs of my life to friends and family, they would exclaim that it was as though I was living in a National Geographic magazine.

 

So, here I am taking photos of people’s everyday, trying to capture it all for my own personal National Geographic.

I also find myself struggling with wanting to buy the beautiful things I see: a pair of earrings, a skirt, a wind chime with a wren in metal on top.

 

There are so many things in the world; you cannot have them all. Perhaps, you should think of the National Park statement, leave only footprints, take only images, my husband tells me.

 

I know he is right, but I still want the wren chime.

 

I take a photo, and we continue walking.

 

I wonder if my desire to buy the beautiful things I see is connected to a desperate feeling of not wanting to regret anything in my life. I have this one opportunity to live, and I don’t want to miss out.

 

But I know that this concept, too, is beyond ridiculous. Each choice I make opens one door while closing another. And that is ok. It just is.

 

I see images of friends in foreign places and imagine their lives are more full than mine. But I know that each person makes some sacrifices for the life they choose to lead. I have made sacrifices to be where I am today, but I am better for it.

 

So now, I am working on sacrificing the very first world problem of keeping my life simple and light.


1 Comment

The universe may not care, but I do

I like to make plans. Even though advice from friends and experience teach me time and again that my efforts to take control seldom pan out the way I hoped or anticipated they would, I continue to make plans. I think it may be that I cannot handle living in a world where this is no hope and envisioning the life I want is a way to continue going through the motions of living when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.

When I imagine what I seem to want or need, I am engaging with the world, and I am participating in my own life and destiny. For me, making plans comes easily. Where I have room to grow is in accepting when things work out differently. It is in the letting go where I need the most practice.

Letting go of the illusion of control is no easy feat, particularly for one as stubborn as me. My sweetie and I adopted a three old husky/malamute/question mark just under five months ago after our husky of ten years passed away quite suddenly at the beginning of the year. Silly me, I was certain that adopting a younger dog gave me some kind of certitude that he would be in my life for many years to come, ten at the least. When his health crashed a month ago, it hit me like a bowling ball to the stomach. But I held on for as long as he held on. And he held on for me, of this I am certain. I think his soul had no intention of leaving mine ever; it was his body that was at its end. And sensing this so deeply from him made it even more painful to make the decision to put him down when his body could not catch its breath even with the aid of an oxygen mask.

I had not gone into the vet that afternoon thinking I would leave alone. In the car were packed a blanket and a bowl for water in case I had to bring him with me to my yoga training. There they remain still, for I haven’t had the heart to take anything out of the car he touched, including the blanket that covers the back seat in its entirety.

48 hours after, I began a bit of a desperate online search to find the new body his soul had moved to. I studied reincarnation and sent out questions to friends from near and far of what might be possible. Everyone told me something different, some more gently than others.

What I began to realize was that no one else’s opinion mattered as much as what I felt in my own heart. So, I began to try to sift through the layers of grief and sadness to learn what may be floating, ever so tenuously, underneath.

And I continued to listen to signs from the universe. One told told me, The universe is mostly 2°K on average and doesn’t give a shit about us. What do YOU want?

The universe may not care, but I do. And what I began to realize was that my heart, so recently nearly bursting with love for my poor fated pup, felt aimless and empty. For me, this was a bad sign. I am learning that my dharma (sanksrit for “calling”) is to be a healer. It is what fills my soul and brings meaning to my life. I know that I need to be a healer for my own self as well.

I searched and found a dog who seemed remarkably similar to be my beloved Okami in body and spirit, but the foster parent would not let us adopt him because of our geographic location. She had had a bad experience with Arizonans in the distant past and had not yet realized that all people from Arizona were bad.

I was devastated, I think less because I felt connected to the dog but because I felt that I had lost Okami once more in losing the dog who most resembled him.

In my mind, I knew this was not true. I know that no other dog will replace him or be him, though some may resemble him. In my heart, I think it quite possible that our souls have been forever joined.

Another friend wrote to me: There is no control. It’s all an illusion. Things happen because things happen. Always be letting go.

Cognitively understanding something does not make it any easier to embody, particularly when one is grieving. So when I learned that a baby male husky had been adopted by a family in Tucson, I was devastated. He had been the only male in a litter of females, which I had taken as a sign.

My sweetie is always reminding me that it is important to dance with the universe. When one opportunity changes, you have only to shift your perspective to see the myriad others. I was so upset that baby boy husky was gone that I could not see the opportunity the universe was presenting to me. I had been holding onto the belief that I needed a male because my beloved had been a male. I had not even considered a girl. But there she was, looking at me through bright, blue, baby eyes.

As I slowly awoke this morning, I remembered something that happened a long time ago when I adopted my last dog. I was living in Washington state when our neighbors had an unplanned litter, the result of a hit and run from an unaltered male, chocolate lab from down the road. There were 11 tiny, black lab mix puppies. Having grown up with a black lab female who was the runt of the litter, I picked out the female runt of the litter. When I went to pick her up, I could not find her anywhere. The large, blue bucket that had been full of water for mom was sitting empty outside the run. When I realized what had happened, I trudged back home, vowing that I would not return. My plan had been changed without my consent. Sitting at home, I realized there were still 10 other babies in need of love and nurturing and an introduction to the world. I remembered a sweet, quiet male puppy that had often fallen asleep on my feet. I walked back, picked him up, and went home with him cradled in my arms.

This morning, I will drive down to Phoenix for the third consecutive week. The first trip was with my Okami; the second without; and now I will return with a soul that may or may not be new to me. I will just have to wait and see.

Non-attachment can be a bit loathsome, yet another friend wrote to me last night.

What I am learning and relearning is that sometimes in letting go, I create the space for holding on.


Leave a comment

It can’t rain all the time

My sweetie asked me a question the other day. It was a seemingly simple question but one that I had difficulty answering.

Are you happy here in Arizona? he had asked. We have been flirting with the question of where the ideal place might be for us to live.

Huh, I responded. It was more of a grunt than a word. But it was a weighted grunt.

I don’t know, I finally said. I think that sometime in my early twenties I began to think that maybe I was just not the kind of person who could be truly happy.

It isn’t that I am unhappy. It is just that my body and mind seem to struggle with so much.

From the perspective of yoga, I would say that I have learned to tell many stories that keep me in a constant state of dukha: suffering. These stories may be ones I learned from a young age—the stories from my culture, friends, family. They are powerful once learned and not easy to unravel just enough to begin learning new ones.

A dear friend with whom I spent many hours moved to a far off land, and I have hardly heard from them. My heart feels heavy to think about it. Every now and then, I receive a beautiful reminder in my inbox or in the mail. In a recent message, my friend apologize for being out of touch and told me they were just so blissfully happy.

Blissfully happy, I mused. I wonder what that feels like? I have been in such a state of transition for so many years that I cannot say I have as yet entered into a blissful state.

I have experienced moments of bliss and contentment. They are generally connected with movement, nature, and music. These are precious moments, and it isn’t to say that the moments in between are pure suffering. Far from it.

I seem to have chemicals in my mind that stubbornly grasp onto the darker side of life’s emotions. I take anti-depressants to keep their activities and propensity to cause anxiety in balance, but I wish I did not have to.

When I talk about the things I struggle with and the questions I do not yet have answers to, my partner tells me things could perhaps be better, but they are good enough. And he is right. I think happiness lies in acceptance and what is. This does not mean giving up hope that they can be better. I think that life becomes better when we realize how good it already is.

I am surrounded and supported by so much love. I have found my voice and am singing out as much as I can. The sun shines almost every day in my corner of Arizona. And my heart is beating a steady rhythm in my chest.

The fortune I received from Chinese food takeout the other day (I treated myself after spending nearly three hours at the vet and narrowly escaping putting my dog down for a second time in a week’s time) was honest, gentle, and somehow comforting. Note: It was just as honest as the one I received years ago that read “you will be hungry soon; order takeout” but somehow struck a chord more close to my heart than the former one.

It can’t rain all the time. It could be better, but it’s good enough.

Offering to Jizo