life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Creating community in foreign lands

I officially began a new chapter of my life in Brussels, Belgium on December 2, 2016, and it has been a bit of a bumpy introduction thus far. Since I graduated high school, I have moved as often as every few months to one to two years. In this transient life, I often experience a kind of push and pull for change. While I may feel the draw to spread my wings and fly, I feel an equal desire to put down roots and be a part of a place.

 

Each time I move, I experience waves of repercussions in mind, body, and soul. There is grief, curiosity, joy, pain, and a haunting feeling. It is like I have left behind a ghost of my Self in each place I have left, and this ghost version of me checks in periodically to let me know how things are going in the communities I once called home. It’s not always a pretty report, and these ghosts seem to multiply with each uprooting.

 

A friend confided in me recently, I completely resonate with BOTH your missing the Arizona sunshine, and your feelings about uprooting and moving to a new place again…Isn’t it funny the nomad in us that desires this experience, and at the same time we can recognize the challenges that come in the change and solitude. And it takes a lot of intention to build and develop a new community in each and every place we call home.

 

In my years of wandering, I have learned a great deal about my Self and how I create community. As a homebody and introvert, creating community can present a bit of a challenge. I am a musician, so I look for places that host open mics. I have met remarkable and encouraging artists and friends at open mics in Gustavus, Alaska and Lowell, Massachusetts. In these sacred spaces, I have watched little ones take their first steps, found my inner voice and courage to get up on stage, and developed an identity as a performer and member of a musical community.

 

The challenge for me in being a musician is that I like to be in my pjs and cozy on the couch with my sweetie in the evenings. It can take a lot of effort for me to motivate and go out on the town at night. Since arriving in Brussels, I have struggled with Bronchitis and a pretty nasty allergy to mold, so my lung capacity and ability to sing without coughing has been pretty negligible.

 

Another place I have found sanctuary and community has been in a yoga studio. In Lowell, I literally lived across the street from a yoga studio, but I never quite made it to a class. I was working full-time and developing a persona and business as a songwriter and musician. When I moved to Arizona, I felt my Self a drift. I had left my permanent job and identity as a park ranger. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life and I was equally less certain of how to take the first steps on thi path.

 

I went to a talk by a Prescott College alumnus, who had recently returned from three years, three months, and three days of silent retreat in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona. He was inspiring and hilarious. His partner, too, had been on retreat and stayed in a neighboring cabin. Since it was a silent retreat, they didn’t speak to each other.

 

I turned to my partner, who had been my reason for uprooting my Self from my life, job, and community in Massachusetts, and said,

 

I am definitely not ready to be on silent retreat with you.

 

I may not have been ready for a three-year retreat, but I was seeking to do some serious self-work and find direction. I felt a longing for the kind of revelations and grounding that often arise from following this kind of spiritual path, but I had no idea where to begin.

 

After the talk, I looked up the speaker’s website and found that he had a background in yoga and teaching yoga. I also had a friend who had just completed a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) in India, who told me that it was so much more than learning asana (poses). Perhaps, I thought, this might be a good place to start.

 

I found a studio that was offering a 200-hour YTT. Even though I hadn’t practiced yoga for years, I decided to dive in. I joined nine other women and several teachers. It is a unique experience to step into a space with other people and to feel completed accepted and embraced for who I am. From the beginning, I felt a complete and all-encompassing feeling of invitation and love from my yoga community. I also felt encouraged and supported in taking steps toward finding clarity in my own path.

 

Being relatively new to yoga, I could have just taken a class to begin meeting people. However, I have found that I stretch my Self more when I dive very deeply into certain realms of life that seem to warrant extra attention. It was the reason I went through a PhD program in sustainability education and also the reason I left my job to move to Arizona for love.

 

I was lucky in that I found a yoga studio created by a remarkable individual. My teacher offered incredibly depth of knowledge and wisdom and also created a safe space where we could be vulnerable and open ourselves completely to transformation in whatever forms it took. I finished the training and felt at once full, sad, and uncertain of my next steps. I knew that I wanted the feeling of deep self-exploration to continue, but I found my life in limbo once again as my husband began to pursue changes in his own life and career. I wanted to move on to a 300-hour YTT. I also wanted to pursue the school of yoga my main teacher had been most influenced by in her career: Anusara. My husband suggested that I wait and be patient before diving in to another training, especially since we might move at any time. Patience is not my virtue, but I waited.

 

Synchronicity often appears at the most unexpected and most needed of times. I spent a lot of time researching Anusara trainings around the world. When we finally decided we would be moving to Brussels, I did not anticipate that I would find a 200-hour Anusara training taking place at the exact right time within public transit distance from our home.

 

After a month of being sick and relegated to my bed or the couch in our apartment, I nervously stepped onto a tram in the darkness of a January morning and followed my GPS to the Tree of Life Yoga Studio in Tervuren, Belgium. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that I wanted to feel that magical sense of belonging I had felt when I stepped into the Lotus Bloom Yoga Studio in Prescott, Arizona.

 

I turned left and entered a side street alley and tentatively began walking in the direction suggested by my GPS. I stopped in front of a small brick building with a green sign with a white tree painted on it. I opened the door, and I was instantly welcomed by the warm, smiling face of the studio owner.

 

Relief cascaded over me as I closed the door behind me.

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Vicarious Love and Acceptance of What is

Last night, I dreamed of India. A pair of piercing eyes from a Stupa, watching me through the dark, floated in a space just above the foot of my bed.

Until yesterday afternoon, I had never heard a Stupa but already they had a strange, spiritual hold over me. Maybe this was a design for a long thought about tattoo I could get, I thought as I drove home from work after seeing the Stupa for the first time in a local store with items from Tibet. I had finally decided on a trajectory of flying ravens, though I doubted I would ever actually go through with it.

Only moments later, I thought better of it. Did the world really need another white girl from the West falling in love with the Buddha and proclaiming their affinity through ink on the skin? Would this choice make me into a cliché? Would it even matter?

A voice inside reminded me that I was  far too indecisive for a tattoo anyway. Already, I had gotten my nose pierced and taken out the stud, only to re-pierce it years later. Recently, I had taken the stud out once more. A tattoo was a bit too permanent for someone with such an indecisive character as mine.

In my dream, I was packing for a trip to India with my music partner. He was packed and ready far before me. I can remember sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom with a bag open and clothing strewn all over the floor and thrown haphazardly into the bag. He called to find out if I was ready to drive to the airport. I was nowhere near ready but told him I would on my way soon. I can never bear to disappoint him, though experience tells me it is safe to be honest.

I knew from watching a dear friend prepare to travel to India that the process was not a simple one. There were vaccines and medications to procure, appropriate footwear to find, toiletries, optics, luggage that would be easy to haul on foot, train, plane, and beyond. And then to fit everything into two bags, one that could be worn on your back and the other on the front.

There was a period of my life where I moved every three months or so.  After leaving one transient community after another and bidding adieu to dear friends I may never see again, I began to long for the stability of a home in one place and friends I could have tea with on a Sunday afternoon.

I have travelled around the world and lived in foreign places, but I felt a pang of sadness when I realized that it had been ten years since I taught English in elementary schools in the northwest region of France.

Was this dream an indication that the travel bug had found me once more?

In my dream, my friend finally gave up on waiting, drove to my house, and showed up on my doorstep impatiently informing me that we were going to miss our flight. I guess my subconscious was telling me to stay put in Prescott for now.

It is so easy to view another life and wish it was your own. But it is most often an exercise in oversimplifying of reality. No life is easy, regardless of how glamorous it appears.

So I made coffee and oatmeal, took a shower, got dressed, put on earrings and a necklace I had nearly forgotten about, warmed up my car to melt the ice on the windshield, and headed to work. On my way, I looked in my case of CDs for something to listen to. I found a mix my sibling had made for me upon my return from some foreign travel years ago, maybe Africa? On it were songs that brought to back in time. The theme song from Dawson’s Creek, a Joan Jett song from the move “10 Things I hate about you,” and so on. When the theme song from the movie “Cruel Intentions” started playing, I felt a broad smile take shape across my face. An overwhelming feeling of joy welled up inside of me, and I beamed.

I realized that I could repeat the words of Thich Nhat Hanh and know them to be true.

I was completely happy and at peace with my life, just as it was.

Here’s to happiness and joy in your own life and the lives of those you love.


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Tales of sleepless nights

My parents claim that I was a very good sleeper as a baby. I wonder sometimes if I was just putting on a really good show. I do have a flair for the dramatic and theatrical, so it could be a real possibility.

In all honesty, I cannot recall a time that I sleeping was easy. I can remember lying awake for hours as a child, my mind fixed on the hours of sleep I would get if I fell asleep at different times of the night. The running dialogue in my head went something like this:

If I fall asleep now, I’ll get X number of hours of sleep.

…..

and if I fall asleep now, I’ll get X number of hours of sleep.

…..

And if I don’t fall asleep immediately, I will be so tired tomorrow.

And so it would continue, my child’s mind worrying ceaselessly until I wore myself out and finally fell asleep.

As a child, if I had a nightmare, I would call out to my parents or sibling. My dad would rise and go into my sibling’s room.

“Marieke had a nightmare,” he would whisper in the dark.

My younger sibling would crawl out of bed and walk down the hallway to my room, blanket held up close to one cheek in a tiny fist, the remainder dragging on the floor behind them. Index and ring fingers from the other hand held steadfast between delicate lips, and a tiny pinky brushed repeatedly in sweeps against their cheek.

Once in my room, they would lie down on the floor beside my bed. Relieved by the presence of family, I would instantly fall asleep. It was years later that my sibling confided in me that they were terrified of the large, wicker bureau in my room and would lie awake, looking up at its towering features in fear until finally the morning light began seeping in.

As an adult, I tend to sleep better with a trusted companion, be it human, canine, or feline, but even then I do not always succeed. My mind can easily become active with even one thought entering the premises. One thought turns to another until I am held captive by a spiraling vortex of images and emotions from past, present, or future.

Most recently, the thoughts that have kept me awake have been from my life in Alaska. I imagine this has to do in part with my recent transition from Lowell, Massachusetts to Prescott, Arizona. Moving reminds me of the circumstances that surrounded my departure from Gustavus, Alaska. It was not a happy uprooting but felt more akin to a fleeing from a prison in the dark of night, hoping to get a headstart on whoever might be following suit.

Dramatic?

Well, I did not warn you I had the flare, did I not?

At the time, it felt like I was running for my life. There were a few friends who shared love and laughter and incredible support as I made last minute getaway plans. There were others who were less interested in the details of my departure.

Did I hear a sigh of relief from my supervisor and upper management in my division at work? I have met many people who claim that no one could dislike me, but I will be the first to tell you that this simply is not true.

I can be loving and generous and all heart toward people who embrace me for who I am; but when threatened and made to fit into someone else’s vision of reality, I become defensive and lash out in a desperate attempt to preserve my sense of self.

This is exactly what transpired at my job and with several members of the Gustavus community in Alaska. I have written about it a lot in an attempt to understand my own behaviors and those of others. I do not hold ill will toward anyone because I think we all did our best in difficult times with ways of being and perceiving the world that were at wildly different ends of the spectrum.

I am not a traditional kind of person. I am impulsive and emotional. And my practice, particularly since moving to Alaska and going through a divorce and a doctoral program in sustainability, has been to be as honest about who I am as possible while respecting and honoring other perspectives and ways of being. I do not always succeed in this endeavor, though I would like to think that each situation I move through I learn something and improve.

I was so desperate to maintain a tenuous grasp on what felt like the beginnings of discovering my own self, I cannot claim to have done well with managers at my job who seemed themselves to feel threatened by my journey to sustainability. They did their best to contain my independence and re-assimilate me into the fabric of tradition in small town Alaska where there are many big fishes in little ponds.

I played their game while biding my time and planning my escape.

Suffice it to say that my escape came at a time that has since become dark and painful when it resurfaces from the depths of my memory.

There were beautiful moments and connections with people and place in Alaska, but my leaving was not one of them.

Since leaving my connections with members of the community dwindled to a handful and then fewer people still with the passage of time. It didn’t help that I had two friends vying for the opportunity to rent my home and my choice please some and angered others so much so that my name was slandered around town.

You know that “sticks and stones” phrase they teach children? Well, names do hurt, especially when you are not there to even defend yourself.

Periodically, thoughts of the darker memories from Alaska resurface. They tend to return with the sting of a more recent happening.

This most recent happening has been building for a long time. It came with a simple attempt to “tag” an Alaska friend on a facebook post. Her name did not come up.

“Huh,” I thought. “Must be something weird with my internet connection.”

I went to her profile and saw the option to send her a friend request.

“That’s odd,” I thought again, the stirrings of something deep down beginning to rumble.

I sent her a friend request and sent a short, friendly message inquiring after what could only be a misunderstanding.

I waited.

Several hours (was it a full day?) later, I received a response, stating without any kind of sugar coating that it did not seem to be worth keeping touch as they had come to realize that our ways of perceiving the world for so very different.

I read the words once, twice, and a third time. Though I was not completely surprised by the response (her previous responses to my emails had become shorter and less personal, until all I received was one-liners), I still felt an emotional punch to the gut.

This person had been like family when I lived in Gustavus, and I had spent many hours with them and their children, in their home, hiking trails, and drinking tea.

In my mind and heart, the message read, “your perspective is one that I disagree with and am disappointed by; thus, you no longer exist to me.”

I had known this would be coming. Gustavus is small community. If you root yourself there and make attempts to belong, people embrace you. If you walk a different path, people shut you out. I had already been shut out at my work and in the music community, where I had long since stopped receiving invitations to play at music nights in people’s homes (yes, that one really hurt and is a story for another time, if at all).

When behaviors run counter, a cognitive dissonance occurs, and one must make a choice. Ignore the new information, find out more and make an informed decision, or find a comfortable way to incorporate it into your worldview.

My friend had made her choice. I had uprooted myself and others had spread word of my deplorable behavior as a landlord. We were different or at least my perceived behaviors were counter to her way of being.

I cannot say that I blame her. I know that I have made mistakes and hurt people’s feelings. Her words still hurt and hit at the part of me that even now feels raw from my time in Alaska.

So each night since that interchange, I fall asleep beginning with thoughts of my former friend. These thoughts spiral into a vortex of negative memories of other ways I felt hurt and abandoned by those who had offered fleeting support and professed to understand what I was going through, only to turn on me and project their unhappiness at my attempts to create my own.

Last night, the pattern began anew once more.

After several minutes of allowing my spirit to become awash in this storm, something clicked.

You do not have to put yourself through this, a voice told me. Haven’t you suffered and repented enough for whatever ills you have caused others and your own self. You are loved. Lowell loves you. Think of Lowell.

And I did. My thoughts turned to images of smiling, loving faces; to brick and mortar; to ghost signs and painted walls.

I felt a calmness begin to sweep away Alaska dust and cobwebs.

Hours later, I woke up to morning light beginning to seep into the room.


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Life in limbo

For days now, I have been struggling with a restless, unsettled feeling. I go to sleep worried that a future I have been imagining may no longer exist.

I feel emptiness from my lungs down into my stomach, a hollow space that I cannot fill. It is just empty. A void. Somewhere in the middle, my heart, right on the edge of communicating the emptiness through tears.

photo 1Since leaving the upper Skagit Valley of Washington state several years ago, I have been living in a perpetual state of limbo. Each time I think I am putting down roots, I tear them out of the ground just as they are attempting to cling onto the soil.

Within a state of limbo, I still manage to create some semblance of stability through actions that provide me with the feeling that I have control over some things.

I can clean my apartment, which I do with frequency.

I can shed burdensome layers of material possessions.

I can sing. I can write. I can create.

I can experience periods of days, weeks, even months where I fool myself into thinking I have control over the unknown when really all that I control is how I respond to people, place, and that which I cannot predict.

This morning, I woke up feeling like my roots were shallow, their will to cling all dried up. I wanted to hide in a dark corner, away from the world.

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I know from experience that hiding does not bring balance or happiness. I am an introvert who needs constant reminders from the social realm that I am loved and not alone.

I also know that hiding from what I am feeling will not help me find peace. I need to sit with it. What does it feel like? Where do I feel it? What does it look like? Does it have a name, shape, or texture?

I am presented with the challenge of determining if what feels real for me is a construct of my own inner demons and deepest fears.

Am I needlessly creating a reality that causes me pain? From where does this fear and distrust stem?

If I can trace the feeling back to its source, perhaps I can come to accept it for what it is and not allow it to rule my heart and mind.

I am learning about meditation, Buddhism, chakras, energy, and how to understand my higher self.

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I am lucky to have many dear friends who have become family. They live near and far but are always close to my heart.

They remind me that I am loved, that I can learn from these experiences, that I am not alone in what I feel and worry about, and that many people who have walked this earth before me struggled with similar demons.

I often find myself living in limbo, waiting for a future event that I have pinned all of my energy and hope on. This future time will be my salvation, a time when I will be free and my life will become easier.

A dear friend of mine told me the other day that the challenge is living one’s own life and ceasing to live in waiting mode. The only certainty there is in life is that you have you and you have today. And you have a chance to do things that contribute to civilization and beauty.

He reminds me that the pain I experience will also help me to sing blues songs with greater authority and authenticity. I laugh in response and try to take comfort in this seemingly small benefit.

Another person tells me that they say a mantra of something know to be true during times of unknown. I imagine mantra but am not sure I believe it in my heart. Thinking about breathing and repeating the words makes me fear that I will lose the tenuous grasp of balance I maintain by taking shallow breaths. If I breathe deeply, I risk falling into the abyss. I will not let myself go.

I am learning about acceptance of what is and how to dance with the universe. If one path I have been envisioning is not materializing, it may be time to open my awareness to what is possible and pursue a different path.

I am continuing to breath, to sit with the darkness and the light I feel in my heart.

I honor my spirit by honoring what I am feeling. It is real as I am.

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Meeting of the Misfits

921642_322774651193860_323259638_oWednesday evenings in Lowell are fast becoming my favorite night of the week. My first year in Lowell, I went home each night, made something quick and easy for dinner, and worked on my dissertation until I could work on my dissertation no more. It was a rewarding but solitary experience.

Upon completing my dissertation, I began a time of transition. I experienced a sense of loss from my academic community. I without a long-term project to fill my time, I felt aimless and without purpose and meaning.

What was a newly minted doctor to do? Why, leave her apartment and create the community she was missing.

WARNING!!

During times of transition, transformation may occur.

Ok. Consider yourself forewarned. I do not send the warning as a means of instilling fear. I consider it more of an advisement or a heads up, an FYI of sorts, to be prepared. Transitions and transformations can involve a bit of stormy weather.

I have found that the more open I am to accepting and dancing with what the universe sends my way, the more meaningful and all-encompassing the transformation. This is not to say that the experience is always enjoyable. There can be a bit of emotional roller coaster riding involved.

My most recent performance dance of transformation has been a pretty fun one with only mild discomfort, derived predominantly from forcing myself to stay up late at night on Wednesdays.

I began going to an open mic at a local bar that an acquaintance had mentioned months earlier. At first, I felt completely out of my comfort zone. I mean, I have never been one to hang out at a bar. I only knew one person. Everyone seemed to know and love each other. I was on the outside looking in, as usual.

Little by little, I felt myself come alive. It was as though I had within me a smoldering fire that, when fed just a small amount of oxygen, began to grow. It warmed my inner critic and reached out to the tips of my fingers.

I began meeting regular open mic’ers, musicians, artists, a therapist, and beyond. Strangers became familiar. I was creating the community I had been missing.

I crawled so far out of my shell that I grew to look forward to Wednesday nights above all others in my life in Lowell. By Halloween, I was standing behind the mic singing Joan Jett at the top of my lungs and loving it.

1425455_605398122855830_1169935412_oThis past week, in response to a comment made in jest, I wound up performing whilst standing atop a chair, trying to sing without laughing. A space that was once foreign had become familiar, a musical home with people I love who fill my spirit each week.

I still struggle with my inner critic—I am not tall enough, my hair is too short and wild, I am cute but not sexy, blah blah blah. But each week, I will get behind the mic and sing like my soul survival depends on it. Because in a way, it does.

Open mic is a meeting of misfits of all kinds, all wonderful, all unique.

“You are a misfit,” an open mic friend told me. I was honored to hear it. In a lifetime of feeling like an anomaly, I feel like I belong in my open mic community.

Thank you, Mill City Misfits!

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A Sense of Solidarity-Shutdown Day III

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Is it too early to write a piece about the third day of the government shutdown? I have been up thinking about it for some time, and the best ways I have found to release the musings of my mind is to process and share them through creative means of expression.

Last night, I went to a local open mic with a coworker. We talked about life and work and things in between. I felt loved and supported. I felt like a part of a community. I felt less alone.

I went to sleep last night promising that I would not wake up angry. I succeeded.

I did not leap from my bed with enthusiasm to begin this third day of furlough, but I was not filled with anger.

This does not mean that I am not frustrated and also worried. I just graduated with a doctorate, and my student loans begin at the end of this month. I have a mortgage to pay, along with rent.

It means that while I do not accept the choices of my government, I am making peace within myself with what is. I cannot change it.

What I can do is continue to communicate and advocate for my colleagues across the National Park Service and for myself.

I do not know most of my colleagues by name or even by face. But I feel closer to them through this injustice. We have all been let down by the people who have signed on to preserve and protect the American people.

It fills my soul to read the words of solidarity and community and love that come from all around the country and meet in a virtual, shared space.

My heart, mind, and spirits cannot and will not be defeated. I will not be shutdown. I am not always proud to be an American, but I am proud to stand with my colleagues in solidarity.

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Value is like swagger?

My typical commute is a five-minute walk (including stoplights) from my apartment to the Lowell National Historical Park visitor center in downtown Lowell. The most danger is trying not to get hit by a car at the merging of Dutton and Market Street. 

This week, I am commuting to Boston. I chose to take the train, thinking it would be less stressful than the drive on a packed highway.

Two mornings and one evening later, I have decided that the train is no vacation. My mind and body get all crazy like until I am safely on the train and in a seat, my ticket in hand. I worry that I will leave my apartment too late and miss the train. Even when I see it sitting beneath the overhead walkway, I am imagining it pulling away from the station and leaving my behind.

What is that?

I have run through airports and sprinted to catch trains in Europe. I have not missed one yet. In fact, this morning I arrived nearly ten minutes early and have written an entire page before feeling rumbling, surging backward, and then a slow lurch forward toward Boston.

Having decided to take the train rather than drive, I have given myself 40 minutes to sit and think each morning and evening. During this time, I write.

Most of what has come to mind is how very out of place I continue to feel in this country and culture.

For as long as I have had my name, I have felt like an anomaly. It took nearly 30 years to figure out a simple way of explaining how to remember the correct pronunciation for “Marieke.” It is like Monica but with an “r” instead of an “n.” recently, I have begun offering the idea of thinking of pirate speak with regard to the stress on the first syllable “mar.” Think “arrrrrr.”

I listened to a woman on the phone tell an invisible person on the other end to watch a movie to get their mind off of things as I was writing about delving more deeply in. I will be the first to admit that I have watched many television series and drank my fair share of red wine, but in the past few years I have tried to move deep into whatever was causing my emotional discomfort and distress.

I read advertisements that could not have been designed for me. If they were, they have failed with shining colors. 

For a bank (I had to study the advertisement to figure this out because the phrasing did not lead me to the natural conclusion):

“Value is like swagger.

You know when you have it.”

Do I have a swagger? I know I have value. I thought about this statement for a few minutes, attempting to decipher it and then decided it was not worth the trouble.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Metaphor and Language in Environmental Discourse.” We spent the majority of the class studying and deconstructing metaphors used in the English language. Most were violent and antagonistic.

Break a leg.

 Let’s go out and beat them today.

Play hard. Play rough.

Sound familiar?

I used to find it distressing, this state of anomaly in connection with my peers. Now, I find it oddly comforting. I am thankful that I am somehow unaffected by strange advertisements deciding my value for me. I would not say I am in a state of constant zen, but I am working to find peace with who I am and to go so far as to celebrate my self and identity.

I am learning to be witness but not prisoner to all of those messages out there telling me to be, feel, and define my self in ways that feel out of place with my inner voice.

Through this practice, I am creating a sustainable self and way of being in the one life I have the privilege to lead.

And in the wise words of Matthew Broderick, “Life moves pretty quick. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you might miss it.”