life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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The wolf that lives within

This past Tuesday, August 15, was the two-year anniversary of the passing of my beloved wolf dog, Okami. Since he left this reality, I have been searching for him. Every few months, I go through an obsessive online search, combing through rescues to see if I can find a dog like him. Though I know full well that there is little chance that his spirit will return to this life in a similar form as the one I knew, I somehow cannot stop myself from looking nonetheless.

 

I feel this deep longing, a kind of craving of the heart, to experience the bond of wolf and woman once more. I seem to find evidence of wolves everywhere I go, in the eyes of passing dogs, graffiti, and even stickers posted on lampposts.

In my online searches, I find many dogs in need of homes. There are wolf like dogs a plenty as well, and yet somehow I cannot bring myself to go beyond the search. Is it because I know deep down that there is no way to replace my beloved? Is it because my husband will only allow me one dog, and I worry about what will happen if that one does not fill the void in my heart?

 

It’s not like buying a pair of boots, I joked to my husband the other day (I have a propensity for buying shoes, and since my feet haven’t grown since I was 12 I have many pairs in my possession.

 

That’s right, he laughed. You better find the right size and color because you won’t be able to exchange them.

 

I know, I responded. I only get one chance.

 

It has only just occurred to me, however, that it’s possible I have been thinking about this whole wolf search from the wrong vantage point. This afternoon, after writing and reflecting on the idea of the Wild Woman Archetype written about by Clarissa Pincola Éstes in Women who run with the wolves, I experienced a moment of clarity where I wondered if perhaps all of the searching was really for my own inner wolf, the spirit of wildness that lives within me and is always present but can be difficult to find and even more challenging (and not a bit terrifying) to set free.

 

Discovering my own inner voice of Self and learning to listen and embody that voice has been many years in the making. In the process, I have found many inner voices who often wage war upon one another.

 

Since Okami’s passing, I have convinced myself that I need a wolf companion to feel complete; however, I wonder if what I need is to engage more closely with the wolf within; my own wild spirit that still lives largely contained despite momentary outbursts when the wolf breaks free and makes itself known.

 

What is an inner wolf? Is it a voice, and if so, what does it sound like and what does it say? What does it feel like to listen to it? What does it feel like to set it free? What would/could life be like if I set it loose all of the time?

 

Is it less a voice than it is a kind of familiar like the ones you read about in fantasy witch stories?

 

Searching for a wolf may not be the answer I seek. It could hold part of the answer, but it could also be somewhat of an illusion. I know that true happiness can only be found within and not without. Tolle has written about the idea that unless we learn to be fully present in the what he refers to as the Now, then no matter what we attain in the future or what problems are resolved, we will create a new set to replace them and recreate our pattern of suffering over and over again. With this idea in mind, I begin wondering if part of what caused me to feel whole when I found Okami was his ability to fill a void that I had not found a way to fill with my own spirit. When we were together, I felt like an absent half had completed my whole being. Is it possible that I could once again find a way to fill this void even in the absence of a live wolf spirit by my physical side?

 

It is possible that I need only to let loose my own inner wolf, to embrace a spirit that may already be present within me and may be the key to becoming whole. If this is true, how do I go about accomplishing this seemingly Sisyphean task?

 

As with most of the self-work I have tackled over the years, awareness seems to be the first step. Awareness of what is or what might be missing and also of what is possible. Next, it’s time to imagine what fullness feels like. Then, I will need to really reflect on what changes I can make in my life to attain that fullness from within, to embody and be whole without grasping for something external to fill a void that I fear can only be filled from within.

 

I will keep you posted on my progress.

 

I invite you to spend a few minutes reflecting on your inner ‘scape and consider the following questions:

 

Do I have an empty place inside?

Do I wish to fill this place?

 

What does my own inner wolf look and sound like?

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Free in every moment

In the absence of a living breathing wolf dog in my life, I have been seeking to find wildness from other sources. One source is the wildness that lives within me, a wildness I grew up thinking was “unladylike” and therefore undesirable.

 

As a child, I was surrounded by other girls who dressed and played the part of the delicate flower, prim, dainty. So many of the young women I went to high school with were unwilling to go outside without plastering their face with makeup to create the face they wished to show the world. Their identities required constant care and attention to remain in a state of perceived perfection, and I sought to imitate them in an effort to become an ideal female myself.

 

Time and again, I failed miserably in my attempts at imitation. Pretty quickly, I realized that makeup was not my cup of tea. For one, it took far too much effort, and it also made my skin breakout. However, not wearing makeup somehow seemed like failure to become the epitome of what it meant to be a woman. I thought that I needed to erase and/or cover up any possible blemish on my person. However, just like those perfectly red, round apples in the grocery store are the ones with the least flavor, these young women who were my role models seemed completely devoid of character. Ones who I knew to be incredibly intelligent feigned ignorance and idiocy around members of the opposite sex.

 

In my young mind, I did not completely understand what was going on, but I sensed that it was false.

 

Even still, I wanted to be like these young women, so each of my failures to embody their feminity informed me that I was not feminine or female. I was far more wild, purple heather pelted by wind and rain on the moor, my hair unkempt, legs muscular from playing outdoors, riding my bicycle and then roller blades all day long, and exploring trails through the woods in the suburban town in Massachusetts where I grew up.

 

It took several decades of suffering before I began to realize and appreciate that being wild and accepting this authenticity was not only exactly what made me a woman, but also what made me an authentic version of my Self with a capital S.

 

In the seven years since beginning this conscious journey toward what I have referred to as self-sustainability, I find that more and more often I am drawn toward those relationships that support my own wild, authentic self. In contrast, I have learned to recognize fairly readily those beings that seek to hinder and inhibit my authentic self, and so I do my best to put distance between us, as much as possible.

 

I have also discovered that I am far less willing to “tame my wild beast” to please someone else and make them feel more comfortable than I was once.

 

The Wild Woman Archetype described by Clarissa Pincola Éstes in her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves – Myths And Storie by the Wild Woman Archetype, reminds me of the tentative, tenuous voice nearly extinguished that I began to hear while studying sustainability and beginning to reach for it in my own life.

 

“Once women have lost her and then found her again, they will contend to keep her for good. Once they have regained her, they will fight and fight hard to keep her, for with her their creative lives blossom; their relationships gain meaning and depth and health; their cycles of sexuality, creativity, work, and play are reestablished; they are no longer marks for the predations of others; they are entitled equally under the laws of nature to grow and to thrive.”

 

According to Éstes, it is an “unconscious culture,” which inhibits the wild woman. The idea of being unconscious is reminiscent of Tolle, who wrote about the need for people to evolve beyond creating their identity through the thinking mind. Tolle advised, “You do not need to wait for the world to become sane, or for somebody else to become conscious, before you can be enlightened. You may wait forever.” Nor should you “accuse each other of being unconscious.”

 

According to the STAGES Adult Development Model put forward by Terri O’Fallon, each person moves through stages of development at their own pace and can move through the stages along a developmental spectrum over and over again in the course of their life. I recognize that it is not for me to criticize other people for being “unconscious” or at a different stage of development than my own. Criticizing is completely useless and unproductive and serves to cause only further suffering. Rather, I believe I must focus on my own path and my own responses to the movements of the universe around me.

 

I do believe that the solution to so many of the world’s troubles lies in an awakening for all people, and I agree with Éstes that “A woman’s issues of soul cannot be treated by carving her into a more acceptable form as defined by an unconscious culture, nor can she be bent into a more intellectually acceptable shape by those who claim to be the sole bearers of consciousness.” However, I am finding that my own part is to effect change in a very bottom-up approach.

 

I can and do attempt to effect change with those close to me (and those more distant through writing and virtual media) through the power of story and the creative process.

 

According to Éstes, “The instruction found in story reassures us that the path has not run out, but still leads women deeper, and more deeply still, into their own knowing. The tracks we all are following are those of the wild and innate instinctual Self.” Story, accompanied by the creation of music, played an integral role in my own bumpy path toward self-sustainability. Over several years, I worked my research partner to compose many songs from my own spoken stories. Each story revealed another contentious layer of my being. Each movement through the creative process of birthing a song from that story helped me confront my inner conflict, to make piece with the warring voices within, each telling me to embody a different version of self, and to experience catharsis and clarity. More often than not, this songwriting project was difficult and emotional. I was putting my self under the bright lights of an operating table with multiple versions of my self arguing over what they found when they pried me open.

 

I have written songs about my struggles with body image, my attempts to find a strong inner voice, my propensity to try to make people in my life happy at the expense of my own wellbeing.

 

The opening lines in the first of verse the song Free in the Moment are quite poignant, clear evidence of the war that being waged within to free my wild Self.

 

I have layers and layers of people from over the years

I keep losing my self in their words, it’s all that I hear

I have been inclined to let them cover my own voice

I, I gotta shed those layers and be free…

 

My path to self-sustainability is an ongoing process. My desire is to move from an ability to experience moments of sustainability (i.e., being “free in the moment”), a term I wrote about in my dissertation, Becoming Sustainable: An Autoethnography in Story and Song in-depth, to being able to live and breathe balance and a sense of freedom at all moments in my life, even in the midst of great challenge and suffering.

 

This path involves a great deal of reflection, writing, reading, meditation, yoga, long walks in the woods, and dialogue with my husband, who I refer to as my own live-in guru. It also requires a lot of self-control to avoid the behaviors that I know will serve only to increase my suffering, the practice of patience, non-attachment to outcomes and life plans, and a willingness to do my best to let go of the definitions of success, health, normalcy, etc. that western culture bombards me with on a regular basis.

 

Becoming conscious and awake is not easy. It is also often quite lonely. Nearly every day, I am confronted with the negative energy and suffering that is created by the actions of unconscious people. Their actions affect my own sensitive energy, as well as my bank account. Nevertheless, I breathe, fume, clean with a fury, and spend hours cooking to create something positive instead of allowing myself to get sucked into the unconscious void. I am not yet enlightened, nor am I very adept at not feeling each affront as a personal attack. There are days when I drink far too much wine or whiskey to ease the pain of consciousness. It’s all a process and a practice.

 

And as I am coming to realize, practice takes practice.


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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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Embracing good enough

When I feel like control over what I have generally perceived of as my life has been hijacked from my own capable hands, I try to occupy myself with tasks that offer the illusion that I am once again in control. In these trying times, I often clean. A lot. Vacuuming is my favorite activity because it shows immediate, clear results. I like putting dirty clothing in the laundry, but I don’t enjoy putting the clean laundry away.

 

If you don’t put it away, you don’t get credit, my husband used to tell me. It became a running joke between us because he could not understand my methods of cleaning.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to put clean dishes away? He would ask me, horrified that I would add more wet dishes to a rack full of dry dishes.

 

It’s just water, I would respond to his horror. That can’t make it dirty again.

 

On the occasions when I actually put dishes away, I call out across the house to my husband, I put the dishes away. I get credit!

 

I really enjoy praise for my good deeds. I joke regularly that I have earned a gold star or an A+ for my efforts. One time I found a laminated gold star on the sidewalk while walking between museum sites when I worked in Lowell, Massachusetts, and it made my month. It had been an offering from the external validation gods, and it was with immense pride that I posted the star on the grey fabric wall of my cubicle office space.

 

The many therapists I have seen over the years would likely have theories about this response to external validation, but I will save this line of musing for another day.

 

Thus far, 2017 has unfolded as the year of unforeseen, stressful financial events, some of which I cannot write about openly for legal reasons. Suffice it to say, that I have been on the prowl for activities that will provide instant gratification and the illusion of control in the wake of feeling powerless and being forced to practice unending patience, which has never been my strong suit.

 

These activities that I plan are not always well thought out, feasible, or remotely good ideas. For example, Brussels has been experiencing a bit of a heat wave. The generally pleasant spring into summer temperatures have been replaced with high humidity and daytime highs of 90 degrees (Fahrenheit, mind you. I will never again forget to specify after telling someone when I first arrived that I had moved from a place in Arizona where the highs could reach well beyond 100 degrees; they nearly had a stroke before I realized my mistake and insert the words Fahrenheit, not Celsius).

 

The activities I chose yesterday were to vacuum and do laundry and dishes (I even put the dishes away!).

 

This morning, I decided that after I finished editing a dissertation chapter I would head to the Ikea in Anderlecht to search for fabric to cover our two skylights and a divider to put up to hide our luggage in the absence of a basement or other storage space in our new home.

 

Clearly, 2017 has influenced my already questionable common sense. It really isn’t ever a good idea for someone like to me to go to Ikea. For one, it is financially risky because they have designed items their textiles, rugs, furniture, lamps, and linens in all sorts of beautiful colors and patterns with someone like me in mind. There are birds and plants and trees on everything! It is both my personal abstinence nightmare and an excellent place for practicing the middle, more moderate Buddhist path that my husband has described to me many times.

 

It takes a long time to get to by public transit, so regardless of whether I ate a meal just before leaving I inevitably wind up super hungry and cranky by the end of the journey. Today’s visit was no exception. I was practically falling over from low blood sugar levels by the time I staggered through my front door. I love how accessible and vast the public transit here in Brussels, but it is not fun plugging in an address in Google Maps for directions and to seeing the initial 31 minutes by car change to 1 hour 10 minutes by public transit, which also often takes even longer if you miss a connection from bus to metro or tram.

 

Ikea is also huge, and the experience can get overwhelming fast, particularly for people like my husband and me, who do not have a high tolerance for big store shopping to begin with.

 

So, with all of this information from past experience working against me, I pursued my plan to go to Ikea in order to obtain some kind of fabric or mat to cover the two skylights at our house that let in glorious sunshine but also lots of heat during the day and also a room divider to stash our luggage and boxes behind in the absence of storage space.

 

I set out for Ikea after eating a good-sized lunch of leftover pasta with fish and veggies. Check.

 

I arrived an hour later, sweaty but resolute. 90 degrees Fahrenheit would not deter my determination!

 

I decided to avoid the large showroom with all of its winding paths that lead through an overwhelming abundance of furniture displays and opted instead to go downstairs and just walk through the marketplace.

 

I stopped at bathmats and runners, texting my husband for his opinion because I am terrible at making small decisions that have not great meaning in the grand scheme of things. According to Buddhists, Existentialists, Nihilists, and anyone who with a grasp on life and mortality, none of these decisions really matter in the end. Still, I wanted to make the right decision so I wouldn’t get home and realize I had made the wrong one and feel that I had lost hold of the small sphere of control I had carved out in my life.

 

When I saw a display in the marketplace with one of the three dividers I had added to my wish list (or in French, liste d’achats), I realized with dismay that the only way I could view the other dividers was to go upstairs to the show room. This felt like a prison sentence. I had no desire to go to the showroom nor could I find any way to even get there without having to retrace my steps through all of the winding maze and start over. Nope. Not gonna happen.

 

I texted my husband that the divider looked kind of crappy, and he said not to worry.

 

I felt defeated, especially when I entered the warehouse area where aisles full of boxed Ikea items were stacked onto floor to ceiling shelves. How would I ever even find the different dividers in this overly abundant madhouse?

 

I wandered around glumly, hoping one of the dividers might have been the chosen item put on display at the ends of the aisles but to no avail.

 

Then, a yellow computer like a beacon of hope appeared in my peripheral vision. I made a beeling for it and clicked on the magnifying glass search icon (or recherche). I took a photograph of each divider’s home in the stacks and went to first one the other of the two that seemed of higher quality.

 

I lifted the Rïso divider, or rather, I attempted to lift the Rïso divider.

 

Holy hell, this thing is heavy, I thought. Maybe the other one will be lighter since it has canvas mesh textile between the wooden posts.

 

The other divider was even heavier.

 

Shit.

 

There is no way in hell I can carry either of these, I texted my husband. Should I try to have one delivered?

 

It’s too expensive, he responded.

 

I knew he was right, but damnit! I came to idea for a divider (or paravent), and by hell or high water I was leaving with one.

 

Besides, why were these dividers not in Ikea’s usual tidy, little, fairly manageable boxes with a million parts for me to attempt to put together with their minimalist instructions upon returning home?

 

Where had everything gone so very wrong?

 

I went back to the yellow computer of hope and typed in Jassa, the name of the divider formerly-described as crappy.

 

When I found it, I attempted to pick it up and succeeded.

 

Huh, I thought. I had not been expecting success, but as the narrator of the Elizabeth Gilbert book I had been listening to on the metro informed me, Sometimes, salvation comes in the most unlikely of places.

 

Well, perhaps the Jassa was my salvation?

 

I sent several more indecisive texts to my husband, replete with tearful emoticon faces and all; then, I decided to go for it.

 

Why not? I had come this far, and I could carry it, which would help me succeed in my premeditated mission, which would then help me to maintain my grasp on my ever-so-tenuous illusion of stability.

 

As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, it was good enough.

 

I maneuvered my cart (was I the only one who seemed to always get the cart that refused move in a straight line?) and went to the self-check out register. I dutifully scanned my skylight mats and set of 4 hangers (we always get 4 more hangers on a trip to Ikea…just because). When I went to scan the divider, I couldn’t find the sticker with the bar code on the side that was standing up.

 

Figures, I thought, trying to lift the bottom and pull the scanner cord far enough to achieve my scanning goal. Still nothing. Now, the cashier assistant had taken notice. She explained to me in French that I could find the sticker on the bottom.

 

I told her it didn’t exist and showed her. Perplexed, she got on the phone.

 

Hmmm….I started thinking. Was this a sign that I was not supposed to buy the divider after all? I could leave now and never look back.

 

After two different phone calls, the cash register assistant gave me directions for plugging in the item number by hand, and I was able to finish checking out.

 

I bought my husband a box of the oat and chocolate cookies he likes, used the restroom (always a good idea for what one person called my thimble bladder), and began the long, hot haul home. I made it to the metro and then onto the bus.

 

 

 

 

When I stood the divider up at the back of the bus, a tiny tag fell down from the cardboard cover on top. Had I just turned the divider with the other side facing up at the checkout line, it would have revealed itself to me.

 

Oh well. Chauk it up to 2017.

 

I finally staggered into my house an hour and a half later, trembling from hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. I had done it! Victory was mine!

 

I brought the mats upstairs and put them onto the skylights, imagining the rubber bottom would hold them securely in place. Back downstairs, I looked up and saw that they had already blown away. I had to crawl onto my neighbor’s roof to procure one of them.

 

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Oh well. The sun would be setting soon, a nice breeze was picking up, and I had made it home. Good enough!

 

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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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In the shadow of Shiva

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I spent this past weekend in a teacher training for Anusara yoga. The training was held in English, which was the common language for everyone in the studio. Before moving to Brussels, my husband told me that when he had gone on a PhD reconnaissance mission the city had felt very international. He had that right.

My first weekend of teacher training was kind of like studying yoga at the United Nations. There were people from countries around the world in the room and only two who were actually born and raised in Belgium. We had yoga representatives from Holland, Mexico, the United States, Finland, Italy, and Austria. If you add the people they were married to, we also had Estonia and Germany spoken for. Additionally, everyone spoke two or more languages fluently, and their English was far superior to my French. It was really quite incredible.

Fear ruled a great deal of my first weekend of Anusara training. It is ironic, since Anusara means opening to the flow. I am not a particularly roll with the punches kind of being, so there are many opportunities in each day and in each new venture for me to practice my yoga off the mat.

Was there anything really worthwhile to worry about? Not really, but my mind worked hard to find what little there was to fear. It began with my commute back and forth from home to the studio.

First, I was afraid that tram 44 did not exist. Then, I was afraid that if it did exist, I would miss the connection between the time that tram 94 arrived at the Musée du Tram stop and the 44 was slated to leave, since there were mere seconds to maybe a minute before arrival and departure times. Once I had made the connection from 94 to 44, I was then worried that I might not get off at the right stop. In fact, I did nearly miss the stop for Tervuren, but I figured it out at the last moment.

Successfully arrived in Tervuren, I then worried that I might not find the studio (I have searched for places that exist on Google Maps but are not actually present in real-time, at least not in this version of reality).

Fear does not serve much positive purpose, though I do recall my AP Psychology teacher in high school telling us that a healthy dose of fear or apprehension about a test can help you perform better. At this point in my life, fear only seems to make me a bit crazy; well, crazier than usual and not really the good kind of crazy (I had a friend tell me one time that I was fun wacky, so I guess that most of the time I am an acceptable kind of nuts). This was not one of those times, and I knew it. I was texting my husband every few seconds about every possible line item that might go wrong.

You are going to be fine…keep breathing…do some yoga!

When I still clearly was not taking this advice and then texted to ask if was annoyed with me, he wrote,

No…RELAX! That’s an order.

I then sent profuse apologies by text (seriously, I really need to stop apologizing all of the time).

My husband wrote back, it is fine. Now, just breathe and stop worrying.

If only! At least I was headed to a yoga studio, so the chances of my breathing and practicing surrender were increased several fold.

After a bit of wandering back and forth around the spot that Google Maps told me the studio was located but which seemed to be a street lined with shops across from a construction site, I figured out that I needed to walk down a little neighboring side street. There it was! A little brick building with a forest green square sign with a white tree painted on it. It would do Gandalf and Tolkien proud to see such a tree.

The sight of that tree did wonders for my spirit. I cautiously opened the door and was greeted by love and acceptance in the form of the studio owner, followed by the smiling faces of the other students in the class.

What if they don’t like me? I had asked my husband before the training. They all know each other and have been studying together for months. I am the new kid.

Don’t worry. They will like you, he assured me.

I was early to the training, benefits of not yet trusting the timing for getting places via public transit. I introduced myself to the teacher and made myself relatively scarce to allow him to prepare for the day. I chatted with the studio owner and learned that she was also American and had married a Dutch man and eventually moved to Belgium.

Much of the day was a blur, but I do recall being warmly welcomed by every woman in the training. One student offered to walk with me to help me find a local sandwich shop, even though she had brought her own lunch. We laughed and talked as we walked through the little town. The sandwich shop was a hilarious experience. There was a patisserie on one side and a place to order sandwiches on the other side. I had a time of it trying to order a sandwich and buy bread and a chocolate croissant for my sweetie. Finally, I brought everything to the register, but they would not accept my credit card. I didn’t have quite enough cash, but my new yogi friend was kind enough to lend me a euro.

Over lunch, three of us chatted away like little birds. During the training, I was met with smiles and kind words. By the end of the day, I felt relaxed and also exhausted.

Did you have fun? My husband texted me on the tram ride back. 

Yes!

 Yay! The other yoginis accepted you?

Yes!

Later in the evening, I confessed concern over whether I was good enough to be in the training.

What if I’m not good enough to be in the class? I have only been practicing yoga for a couple of years, and I have only been through the first immersion.

After dislocating my shoulder in college and experiencing recurring sublex in the years following the accident, getting up into a handstand is a bit of a frightening thought.

The next morning commute, I was a barrel of nerves again. I had gotten up early to add more rides onto my metro card, but the machine kept asking me for a pin that did not exist for my credit card. I looked up at the near full moon and wondered if the universe was having a little laugh at my expense.

My husband texted me, Practice tramming meditation…just try and “be”…it sounds like your mind keeps trying to find something to “do” and since you are stuck in a tram, it decides to “do” worrying. Instead, try meditating.

Ok, I wrote back. I love you. Please don’t leave me!

In addition to fear, low self-esteem, fueled by the voice of my inner critic, is my other constant demon. My husband offers grounding to my propensity to live in fight or flight mode for much of the day.

I won’t. Sit. Breathe.

I sat quietly on the tram, looking out the window at the blanket of snow on the ground and frost-covered trees.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I wrote previously that I have been sick for most of my brief tenure in Brussels. Having spent weeks on the couch and in bed, I was nervous about being able to make it through two one hour and a half morning yoga classes. While I was exhausted afterward, I found the movement grounding. It even seemed to help reduce the chronic cough I have been experiencing for over a month.

For each class, my inner critic was right there with me on the mat, however. Every time the instructor adjusted my asana, I could hear the voice of my critic.

He thinks you are not advanced enough to be in this class! Came the voice. Even with my little cough drops with little phrases meant to encourage, I felt discouraged.

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Despite the arguments from my rational mind, I listened to my critic. It is often easier to give in and to accept that people see the qualities in me that I fear the most worst in me than to believe otherwise. Over lunch, my new yogi comrades assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and I found my Self breathing a little easier.

By the end of the day, I was completely worn out and overwhelmed but also inspired.

It’s all practice, I thought to my Self as I hustled to catch the tram, walking carefully so as not to slip on the icy sidewalk. Practicing yoga in the Shiva room, I was reminded that Shiva is one who destroys and also creates. In my own life, I seem to move in the shadow of Shiva, uprooting my Self and leaving all that is familiar in order to create a new existence in another place.

Inhale. Exhale. Destroy. Create.

Yoga is a push and pull, and this is my mantra. My practice now is to accept and surrender to Shiva. Everything else will be revealed in its own time.

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Leaving is a severing

Your life is like a comic strip, my mother-in-law said to me this morning.

We were driving back from the Toyota service department, where I had just dropped of my Toyota Prius to have the horn repaired. You may recall reading about my husband’s and my recent journey from Arizona to Washington, which involved a near miss in Las Vegas. The accident was avoided by my husband’s super intense honking on the horn, which resulted in the horn getting stuck and honking non-stop. I think we caused a bit of a scene when we pulled over by a compound yard and my husband tried to figure out which fuse to pull out to get the horn to stop honking while I sat in the car trying to hold a contraption between the horn and the steering wheel that was comprised of a nail file that had been broken in four pieces that were folded together in order to keep the horn from honking. Any slight move I made and the delicate balance was knocked off, causing the horn to blare non-stop once more and my husband to yell from beneath the hood.

Ah, memories…

I spent the next week arguing with our auto insurance company that this was collateral damage from a missed accident and should thus be covered by our insurance plan. I eventually won, but it took my “Put your supervisor on the phone” voice and a lot of crossing of fingers and hoping for the universe to hear my pleas.

There is always something going on, my mother-in-law continued. I had already been joking that I was going to drive her to drinking with the seemingly never-ending litany of stressful events she had been vicariously experiencing since my husband and I arrived at her quiet home in a community just north of Seattle.

I agreed with her on the comic strip front. The trouble is, I think I would find it a lot funnier if I were reading about someone else’s life. My hope is that someday (hopefully, someday soon) I will be able to laugh about it all, especially when the royalties for my very successful book start rolling in.

I have spent a lot of time and energy finding creative ways to let go of my attachments. This is no easy feat because I get very attached very quickly to all kinds of things—human and otherwise—in my life. I joke that I could have easily written the book The life-changing magic of tidying up because I have literally been living that book for the past six years.

I have gotten pretty good at sending my possessions, and even some furry beings, on their own journey. Each time I enter into a larger life transition, however, I eventually hit a wall where I cannot seem to let go of anything else. In the Belgium or bust life transition, I am pretty sure I hit that wall a month ago, if not more, but still I have to find a way to sever several more tethers to my former life.

The next tether will be my car. As soon as the horn is repaired, which could be any moment now, I will drive back to the Toyota service department, pay for the repairs, give my car a hug and a thank you for taking care of me, and send it off on the next stage of its Prius journey.

Maybe you are like me, and you grow attached even to inanimate objects. At least, we think they are inanimate. Have you seen 2001: A space Odyssey? Can we know for sure?

Daaave….

I have never named any of my cars, but I still feel a bond with each one. This Prius and I have shared many miles and memories. It has kept me safe and surrounded me in its vehicular embrace through many tears.

Maybe you are thinking, it is just a car, and you are right.

It is just a car.

I am also just a human, albeit a very sensitive one.

I remember a friend telling me that I had set myself free to do anything with my life that I wanted. I was sobbing into the telephone at the beginning of my separation from my first husband.

I wanted to believe that my friend was right, that I was free, but I still felt so raw from the process of detaching myself from the tethers of a life that did not make me happy that I could not imagine the freedom and possible joy that might lie ahead.

Several years ago, I wrote a song with a friend, who shared the story of how painful it was the first time she left her newborn child in order to have some precious moments to herself out in nature. The chorus of her song began with the phrase, “Leaving was a severing, then the greatest joy.”

I recognize that shifting away from one path brings so many others into focus. It can be easy to get swept up in the comfort of familiarity and to grasp desperately onto anything that offers a sense of stability. I do this all of time and especially when I can feel the ground begin to shake and open up beneath me. No one wants to be swallowed whole.

On the other hand, I do not want to be owned by my stuff. I really do feel lighter with each item I send on its way. I also recognize the privilege I have experienced to even be writing about the challenge of letting go. I have been gifted a life where I have been able to choose what to hold onto and what to bequeath to someone else.

Nearly a year ago, I let go of a little part of myself when my husband and I decided to ditch our middle names in order to replace them with our given last names. We had taken the step to become a married couple in front of friends and family, and we wanted to create an even stronger feeling of being a team.

My maiden name became our middle name, and my husband’s given name our last name. It took me a while to decide how I felt about it. I was the one with the different last name, after all. How many people pay attention to your middle name?

As I have been writing about all of this letting go in order to transition from life in one country to another, I realize that there are some tethers worth holding onto.

I made a call to the Toyota service department to check on the status of the horn repairs to my car. As I told the receptionist my last name and spelled it for her, I realized how much it truly meant for me to share a name with my husband. Speaking the name and having it feel like a part of me, I was reminded that we really are a team, however far apart we may be right now.

I deeply I treasure the bond that has been created and nurtured between my husband and myself. It can be fragile and tenuous at times, but it a bond that we have both sacrificed and fought for.

So, while I prepare to part with my wee Toyota, I am thankful for the perspective this severing brings.

Hold on tight to what is worth holding onto. Be thankful for the gifts you possess, but do not let them possess you.

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