life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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All roads lead to now

You should write a blog post called All Roads lead to Rome, my husband suggested. We had been cleaning and packing all morning in preparation to head to Rome, where my husband would be presenting at a conference.

 

Should I call it that? I mused. Or should I try a play on the phrase?

 

Well, I guess we aren’t there yet.

 

True.

 

What about one of these? All roads lead to here. All roads lead somewhere. All roads lead to [fill in the blank].

 

How about, All roads lead to now?

 

Perfect!

 

So many of the places I have lived have something unique about them, a quality that seems to draw people to them. Alaska, and especially the small town of Gustavus where I spent two summers, two falls, one spring, and a particularly dark winter, seems to draw people looking for an escape [from the lower 48, from a previous identity, partner, job, reality] and a chance to start over. Lowell, Massachusetts draws people from around the world—some of whom have experienced the trauma of genocide and been granted asylum by the United States government—and others who are misfits and artists, wishing to join other such misfits in the creation of a community of love and support for each other’s quirky ways and individual artistic expression.

 

Brussels, Belgium? Well, I would say Brussels draws people who wish to live within a culture where dialogue and debate are not only encouraged but also embraced. It is an international city with a culture that feels wide open, a place where anything is possible.

 

I am not an anthropologist, of course, and these insights were derived from looking at the world through my own unique lens during my many years of living in different corners of the globe.

 

It is easy to spend time in the past and even easier to anticipate the future, especially when the present poses challenges that make it difficult to practice being present. For much for 2017, I have meditated and imagined myself in a future time when the challenges creating such high levels of stress will be resolved.

 

When I go for walks around our quaint neighborhood in Boitsfort, I try to be present and take note of little sights and sounds that resonate with my heart. When I am at home, I watch my cats and meditate on their easeful zen way of being, imagining that someday I may attain such calm. In the sometimes chaotic swirl of the universe around me, I can sit quietly, an eye in stormy, dynamic world.

With Rome hovering ever closer on the approaching horizon, I am looking forward to being very present for the next several days in Italy.

 

A yogi I admire described a gift that was given to him by a dear friend. It was a wristwatch without numbers. The only design on the watch face was the word “Now.”

 

What time is it? He would ask me and the other students over the course of the workshop he was leading. Now, we would all respond, laughing.

 

Now, I sit at the airport, a place where people live in a strange space that exists somewhere between. An airport is an especially challenging place to practice being present, so this is just what I will do while I linger in limbo before our flight to Rome.

 

Of course, in concert with the universal swirl of motion, I had only just settled in to being present and mindful by writing about being present and mindful when my husband informed me that it was time to board.

 

All ready? It seems so early.

 

We headed to our gate and were herded into two separate areas: priority cows and other cows. As I type, we are all waiting in what seems like the longest boarding experience of my life. The woman behind me has nearly run me over several times already and had her hand with ticket and passport resting on the counter as I handed my own ticket to the flight attendant. So, I not only have a chance to practice being present. I can also practice acceptance and patience with other people and keep breathing when other cows invade my personal space.

 

Where do all roads lead?

 

All roads lead to now.


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Follow your own unique path

I write from my own experience. I write this way in part because it is cathartic and helps me to unravel my often tangled, knotty existence. I also write this way because I believe in the concept of Autoethnography, a form of qualitative inquiry that requires the researcher to put their own experience under the microscope in connection with whatever topic they are studying. In other words, since I am interested in the idea of creating self-sustainability (a sustainable existence at the individual level), I believe that it is imperative that I explore and determine how to understand this concept through the lens of my own, individual life. Whatever patterns I discover from my study, I try elucidate those patterns in a way that makes them clear and accessible. I then share these patterns in my writing in the hopes that they may speak to other people who are also at a place in their life where they wish to create more balance, authenticity, and well being.

 

I believe with all my heart that it is possible to create a sustainable world—one that can handle the interactions of so many complicated beings and systems—with a bottom up approach. In other words, if we begin by requiring each individual person to think about and embrace a life path that will bring them balance, health and well being, and joy in a way that does not compromise the right for other people, beings, and systems to exist in their own balanced way, we just might save the world.

 

It is always with this idea in mind that I approach my writing and my life. This perspective shapes my interactions with other people and inspires my reading list. Of late, I have been most inspired by the writings of Claire Dederer and Elizabeth Gilbert, two writers and authors who write from their own experience and incorporate research and teachings from people who have been their own source of inspiration.

 

Am I drawn to female authors in their 30s and 40s because I happen to also be female and in my 30s? Perhaps. I find that I can learn a great deal from the insights they have shared about their life experiences in a way that I have not been inspired by read authors of other genders.

 

I imagine that I am not alone in feeling this way and that it works both ways. I vividly recall the information that was communication a conversation that transpired on New Year’s Eve 2010, to which I was part witness and part participant.

 

I was living in Gustavus, Alaska at the time. Gustavus was and is a very small community of mostly transplants from the lower 48, who seemed to have moved to this tiny town in part to escape the culture and speed of life in other areas of the United States, to be close to wild nature, and to be a part of the kind of close-knit community that is rarely found in the rest of the world in the wake of technological innovations.

 

I was talking with a Gustavus resident who was well-known in Gustavus and all over Alaska for books he had published, most of which had been written in a first person narrative. I had read a book he wrote about the Gustavus, Southeast Alaska, and a famous photographer who had been killed by a bear several years before, and I had found the piece particularly moving. It is a book that most people read when they move to Gustavus. Those people who stay and create a more permanent life in this wilderness community tend to have a well-loved copy on display on a shelf in their home.

 

I started writing creatively and in a first person narrative shortly after moving to Gustavus in the previous summer. Because I looked up to this author so much, I was curious what he thought of my own writing and if he might offer any helpful advice as I moved forward. I had therefore recently shared some of my own writing with him.

 

On this particular evening, I happened to be near this author and a friend as they were discussing a book that had recently been published by a young woman living in another part of Alaska (Homer, maybe?). It was quite clear that these two authors (both men) were not impressed by this woman’s book. I cannot recall if they had actually read the book or were averse to reading it simply because it was written by a woman who was several years their junior.

 

What can I possibly learn from a woman in her 30s? What can she teach me about life? My once hero writer said to his friend.

 

I stood there, stunned, questions already flying through my mind.

 

Did he really just say that?

 

Was he so certain that he had nothing to learn from anyone who was not a white male in his 50s (60s?)?

 

What must he think of my own novice writing from my perspective as a 30-year-old woman?

 

I was horrified, but I still walked up to them to say hello and ask if he had read the pieces I sent to him.

 

He had, and his advice to me, which I remember quite well, was the following: I think you would make a great travel writer.

 

Travel writer? I blanched on the inside but did my best to remain calm and friendly on the outside (at least, I think/hope I did; I am not always very good at maintaining a poker face).

 

Yes, being a travel writer could be great and is a respectable career choice, and his delivery was friendly and spirited enough. However, I knew this suggestion for the actual insult that it was. His words were like an apple that had been genetically engineered to look perfect but have zero taste. It looked red and perfect and delicious on the outside, but one bite revealed the mealy and flavorless fruit within.

 

Travel writer my ass, I thought to myself.

 

I never asked for his advice on my writing again.

 

Don’t misunderstand me. When it comes to critique, I welcome it even though it isn’t always easy to stomach. I don’t seek feedback from only those individuals who will tell me exactly what I want to hear about my writing.

 

I have just been learning over the years that sometimes feedback people provide comes from a place of fear or resistance that has arisen in their own minds from their own personal experiences. The feedback they offer, therefore, might very well have less to do with my own skills and capacity to succeed than it does with their own limitations and biases.

 

What I find very interesting is that the feedback that tries to confine and limit me tends to come from men. Over the years, many men have informed me that I have to choose one passion and path in life because I will ultimately fail if I choose more than one (i.e., if I want to be a successful songwriter and musician, I have to give up writing and studying to become a yoga teacher).

 

Also interesting is that it is the people in my life who have called bullshit on this advice and have encouraged me to continue to pursue any and all passions I feel called to embrace have tended to be women.

 

My favorite response came from my husband’s daughter when she was 18. It involved an expletive (or two or three), along with deeply heartfelt words of inspiration that I could be and do anything I set my heart to. I dearly love this woman and am thankful for her continued support and encouragement, which seems to come at the moments I need it most.

 

Despite warnings of unavoidable failure, I have continued writing, composing music, and studying and teaching yoga. I have not made a lot of money in my pursuits nor have I achieved celebrity status, but I do feel a sense of pride for my dedication and perseverance. I also know that I have made a difference in the lives of people who have read my writing, people with whom I have compose songs from stories, and people I have met both in my capacity as a student and teacher of yoga.

 

I have also learned and been inspired by the women authors who have followed their passions and written about their experiences. I am indebted to them and to those women (and men because there are many) who have encouraged me and reminded me that I have much to offer the world.

 

As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, Life is long. There is no rush.

 

When I compare myself to other people and the work they are doing, which seems much for successful in the way that is embraced by western culture, he responds, They are doing something completely different than you are. You aren’t the same. You have unique gifts, and you are sharing them with the world. Plus, you are pursuing different skills, like meditation and spiritual well being that they are not working to develop. Have patience. Everything happens in its own timeline.

 

He is right.

 

I have begun to recognize that my own definition for success runs counter to what most of the world requires. I also have come to believe that this is ok. I can be successful in my own way, at my own pace, and in my own time.


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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!

 

 

 


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Mercury and me

I have been experiencing a range of emotions these past few days.

I am unsettled. I feel restless.

This emotional and now bodily response began when my music and business partner and I parted ways late morning this past Thursday. We had begun to unveil the discovery that our individual souls’ needs for work and artistic creation were vastly different than either of us had fully realized or appreciated prior to moving into a time of working together.

I am not a person who enjoys limbo.

To work together in proximity required intention, along with great transition and physical and emotional upheaval.

I left my job at a local bookstore. My music partner left his entire life on the east coast to drive to Arizona.

And suddenly, we were saying goodbye.

Were we breaking up? It kind of felt like it, but I was not certain. All that I knew was that each of our souls deserved to be honored.

In my life, I have learned to acquiesce to the needs of others. I have had difficulty saying no to any request that I know will make another person happy or will potentially encourage a person to “like me.” In attempting to bring joy to another person, I have learned to ignore my own requirements for a balanced existence. Over time, this propensity became so engrained that I literally had no idea what it was that I even needed to experience balance and happiness.

I spent a dark winter in Alaska beginning to peel back the layers of cultural expectations and fear of external judgment to find an inner voice that was in desperate need of rekindling. I cannot say that I have any desire to repeat that winter, but I came through the storm to a place of greater clarity. With that clarity came the realization that it takes regular intention to maintain healthy boundaries to live in a way that is sustainable for me. It is very easy for me to fall back into established patterns of enabling and self-sacrifice.

So when my music partner and I began to discover that our individual needs were quite different, I felt myself at a loss for how to proceed in a way that allowed me to honor his needs without losing my own self.

Hours passed, and I still had no idea what path I was meant to take.

This morning, I dawdled through my morning routine in preparation for the continuation of a seventh month journey through yoga intensive studies. I always feel like I have so much time before I need to leave, when suddenly departure time has come and gone and I find myself trying frantically to gather my belongings, coffee, and partially eaten breakfast and get into my car to leave.

Open the car door, put my plate on top of the car, jostle my coffee mug and spill coffee down my front. Run back to the house, clean coffee off of the outside of my mug and the front of my shirt and pants by splashing water onto the damp spots.

Back to the car. Place travel mug safely into the drink space in the console. Is there still coffee on the bottom? Should I try to clean it? No time. Back out of the driveway. Wave to my partner. Drive to training.

I arrived only a few minutes late and struggled to join my nine yogi companions in a manner devoid of anything remotely resembling grace. Together, we traveled on a road that led out of town and toward rolling hills and rocky outcroppings, where ravens floated above us.

Arriving at now familiar environs, we walked into a room dimly lit by candles and sunlight filtering in through several windows. I sat on a foam roller to try to avoid sending my back into recurrent muscle spasm.

Our teacher welcomed us and followed with the words, “Mercury is in retrograde. Do any of you know what this means?”

“Mercury is moving backwards?” one person ventured.

“Mercury appears to be moving backwards,” was the answer.

When Mercury is in retrograde, the universe is in flux. We are scattered and accident prone, restless and uncomfortable. We may find ourselves beating our heads against the wall trying to accomplish something that just is not working.

When Mercury is in retrograde is not a good time to begin new projects.

“Huh,” I mused out loud.

From across the room, I was met with knowing smiles. Pieces were falling into place. I began to understand that there was nothing I needed to force in this moment. I had only to be patient and let the mercurial winds pass.

All will be revealed.

Patience.