Live life to the fullest…

“We need to live life to the fullest,” friends say, often in the midst of conversations about someone who has died or is dying. “But what does that mean?” I asked during one of these conversations. My friend didn’t answer. We were at a party and it really wasn’t the time for such a conversation.

If I’m contentedly sitting in my living room reading a book am I living life to the fullest? I’m enjoying myself. But the injunction to live life to the fullest conjures up images of zest and joy, of almost hyperkinetic activity, a woman of a certain age (my age) whirling around on a dance floor on a cruise ship in the Caribbean somewhere or bungee jumping off a cliff or traveling by motorcycle through Mexico–not sitting quietly with a book.

I’m sitting here on the back porch on a bright, sunny, cool early spring day. I’d usually be at work but am working from home today as I nurse a painful knee. I’m stretched IMG_0344out on a daybed, laptop on lap, ice pack on knee, looking at rhododendron leaves flicking in the breeze and patches of blue sky through the leaves.

Live life to the fullest. My work day moves at great speed, with many tasks that require full attention, which is the good news/bad news—good that I’m not sitting watching the clock, but I often end the day depleted, fatigued.

Live life to the fullest. I hear a lot of shoulds in that sentence. I should use free time to engage with my writing, play the piano, get involved in some community group, go to a play or an art exhibit or a lecture or a thought provoking movie, read a good book, listen to challenging music.

I do some of those things, some of the time, usually on weekends, along with visiting with friends and tending to life maintenance tasks. But I also binge watch Netflix or plunge down a YouTube music hole, one clip leading to another clip, and on to another and…hours later I emerge.

Live life to the fullest. I imagine looking at that injunction through the eyes of my friend Fran who died of cancer 10 years ago and it becomes less about always being in motion, doing and going, and more about just being awake, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching moment to moment.

In each small second

I come from a long line of Protestants of varying degrees of fervor and belief, but I won’t be going to church on Sunday. I can’t remember the last time I went to a Sunday morning service.

As a teen and young adult I tried out various religious homes—flitting from church to church, trying them on like a dresses in a dressing room and then putting each back on the hanger. Presbyterian, Unitarian, Episcopalian. I went to temple with a Jewish friend and mass with a Catholic friend. I sat in the back of an evangelical church in Cincinnati and went to the alternative Episcopal service in a coffee house in Ann Arbor, tore hunks off the loaf of bread, sipped the wine.

I’ve continued this search, sporadically, throughout my adult life. Quaker meeting. Unitarian again. United Church of Christ with a left-leaning pastor and lots of talk of Jesus. Services at a monastery in Vermont where I sang the hymns, sat and rose, but didn’t repeat credos or approach the altar rail, not being Catholic, except for one Easter Sunday the year my friend Fran died, when I ate the bread, drank the wine—the body, the blood—needing communion, community.

Every other Sunday I get together with four friends to meditate. We talk—meditate—then talk some more. Spirituality. Faith in the power of connection.

Perhaps this trying on and casting off is in my genes. One side of the family descends from Mennonites but our line left the Mennonite faith behind and became Lutheran and then Presbyterian. The other side of the family includes Quakers who left the faith to fight in the American Revolution.

Do I believe in God? Maybe, kinda, sorta, god with a small “g”, a belief in something bigger than myself but I’m not sure what. Do I believe in an afterlife? Not really. Mostly I believe in here, now, life and if I have faith it is faith in myself, in those I love, in the power of connection.

Growing up, church was part of the fabric of the community. To be a good citizen, you went to church—my dad had faith in the value of civic involvement, doing the right thing. My mom might have had faith in God, although I’m not sure. In a journal she kept sporadically she wrote about her views on immortality—that we live on in the lives and memories of children, friends, and work.IMG_0662

So where does this leave me? I work at establishing a meditation practice, a writing practice. I stay connected to friends. I remind myself to slow down, to go for a late afternoon walk, stop to visit with my neighbor, to simply look and listen without planning and worrying and commenting, to be part of each moment as it unfolds. I tell myself that this is where divinity lives, in each small second. Sometimes it’s enough.

My neglected piano

I have a piano that lives in a corner of my living room, an electric Yamaha that I boughIMG_0667t from a friend a few years ago. I took lessons when I was a child but hadn’t touched a piano in years.

I signed up for lessons with a very patient woman who was willing to go in whatever direction I wanted to go—improving my sight reading, improvising, writing my own accompaniments to songs. But I quickly got frustrated and impatient.

Every now and then something would come together—I remember my glee at putting chords to Greensleeves. But most of the time I chafed at being such a beginner. At this stage in my life, I’m not good at beginner’s mind. I want to sit down and instantly have nimble fingers leaping over the keyboard. Unrealistic I know.

All this makes me think of writing. The need to get those mind fingers nimble, to start something, stop, try again and again. For some reason I’ve found this easier with writing, maybe because I know that on some level, all writing is practice.

And this leads me to think about flow—those moments when all else falls away and I’m just there immersed in whatever it is I’m doing. I’ve been there when I was writing, deep into the character I was creating or searching for the right word to make a poem sing, the image that will bring a scene alive. Time falls away and it’s just me and the computer. and the images in my mind and the words that appear on the screen. I’ve been there in the garden, covered head to toe with dirt, and at times in the pottery studio. I’ve been there when I’ve sung with others and the harmonies hit just right.

These moments of flow are precious and rare—too often my mind skitters and flits and I become too focused on product. The words don’t come, the pot I’m throwing collapses, the music goes off key, my fingers fumble and hit the wrong notes.

So how do I get to this place of flow? I remember my childhood bedroom under the eaves, with its long crawl space closet and a trunk filled with old clothes and hours spent playing dress-up.

Play. That’s what I need to remember. Play.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Perhaps I’ll sit at the piano one of these evenings and noodle around, approach the piano keyboard the way I do my freewriting time. Play. See what happens.

Balancing

I stand in the doorway and try to balance on one leg—first the right, then the left. I’ve been instructed to do this by the physical therapist who is helping me regain strength and balance after my hip replacement last fall. I breathe evenly, let go of the door frame, focus on one spot, and …wobble. Try again. And again and gradually a degree of stillness descends and I stand for 20 seconds, 30, more. I end by planting both my feet and standing tall with arms raised overhead breathing deeply and rooting into the ground.

How do I find that balance point internally? Pausing. Resting. I try to meditate and my mind flits and darts and swoops. Even my body won’t be still—I scratch my nose, shift my posture, stretch out my achy knee.

I go for a walk, try to still my mind and just notice, listen, see, smell, and for brief moments I’m there, in the moment. Signs of spring are everywhere. Sap buckets on the maple trees. Crocuses and snowdrops blooming. Trees beginning to show buds. Most of the snow is gone. Light lingers later in the day.

Home again, on the couch, computer in my lap, trying to write. The living room grows dark around me. The cat visits briefly, an ice pack chills my achy knee, I pause, let one moment flow into the next. No words for now.

stand in the doorway, balance, touch down, and balance again.

Small comforts

“I was thinking about comfort—how we comfort ourselves,” I said to a friend over Saturday morning coffee. “Small things. A favorite sweater. Comfort food. Friends.”

“Does it work?” she asked.

“A little. For a moment.”

Our talk had veered, as it often does, toward the perilous state of the world, each of us relating things we’d read in various news sources. I’d also been talking about difficulties at work and how I was starting to feel burned out from dealing with it all.

Small comforts. A silk scarf that once belonged to my friend Fran; a soft, warm Alpaca scarf that Mary gave me; colorful, dangly earrings from Trish; a pair of blue earrings that my sister and I chose together at a crafts gallery near her home in England. Each time I look in the mirror or touch the earrings or scarf, my friends and sister are with me.

Or I’ll wear a sweater that I knit one long cold winter, my only successful attempt at knitting a garment for myself. Whenever I wear it, I think of my mother who taught me to knit. The sweaters and afghans she made warmed us for years—one of her afghans still does wrap me on winter evenings.

Comfort. Taking care. Resting. Coming to center. This week, I committed to spending time writing in the morning rather than dropping immediately into news and Facebook. To honor this I’m sitting at the dining table, looking out at the chilly winter landscape rather than sprawling on my couch as I do most mornings. I pause frequently, staring out at trees, sun, blue sky—nothing moving, no breeze, no birds for this moment although they’ll come eventually. Still. Quiet.

My posture shifts. Elbows rest on the table, hands clasp together, chin rests on hands. I’m not religious but there’s comfort in this posture that’s old and familiar.

Tomorrow, I’ll meet my friend again for another Saturday morning coffee date. We’re both walking through our days with anger, frustration, fear simmering just below the surface and these feelings will bubble into the conversation. But we’ll also check in, buoy each other up.

I might say that crocuses are starting to poke through the leaf mold in img_0647front of the house. Or describe the snow castle that neighborhood kids sculpted out of the dirty pile of snow on the corner. I’ll tell her about the guided meditation we followed in the meditation group last Sunday, one of Tara Brach’s meditations for quieting the mind, the suggestion to “Make yourself at home in the flow of the present moment.”

The flow of the present moment. We breathe in, breathe out, let go, keep going.

Snow has been falling all day

I often resist winter, both psychically and physically. I go for a walk and feel all my muscles tightening up as I hunch into my coat, shoulders raised against the cold. I run errands and penguin walk across icy pavements. I grumble and complain about the cold and the dark and the sleet/snow/freezing rain. February can be especially tough with its first slight hints of spring—stronger sun, a change in bird call—overwhelmed by repeated storms.

I wrote that first paragraph earlier in the week, intending to post something on Wednesday or Thursday. But then I saw the news about Elizabeth Warren being silenced—my senator essentially being told to sit down, shut up, stop making a fuss. The news rendered me speechless. Ironic, eh?

A post about winter seemed irrelevant and I couldn’t think of anything to post that would add to the conversation. Then I remembered this image, which was conceived by my friends Paul and Fran over ten years ago in response to the flag becoming more and more a symbol of unquestioning patriotism.dissent

Embrace democracy, it says. Such a positive action. Every time I look at the news, scroll through my Facebook news feed I get riled up. But I can’t spend every moment with my shoulders hunched and mind spinning.There’s work to be done–phone calls to make, letters to write. Pay attention, I tell myself, stay informed, question, act when and how I can. Embrace.

Today, it’s snowing. Yesterday I bought apples at the winter farmer’s market and brightly colored primroses at the garden store. This morning I had breakfast with friends and drove home as the snow began to fall. It’s now 3:30 and snow has been falling since 10 a.m. The cat has emerged from her duvet nest and is curled in my lap. I have a mug of hot chocolate on the table next to me. Birds flit to the feeders, my next door neighbor pulls a sled loaded with two grinning toddlers bundled in bright parkas, the primroses glow against the snowy scene out the window. 

Thinking about my mom

This winter I’ve been wearing my mother’s nightgown. Loose and soft, it flows along my body to mid-calf. I don’t know why I brought it back from mom’s house after she died over 20 years ago, although I do remember feeling sad and hurt when I saw it tossed aside at the end of the estate sale. I usually don’t wear nightgowns. My typical winter sleepwear is a silky long underwear top and flannel PJ bottoms but ever since my hip replacement operation this past fall, the nightgown has been my bedtime garment. Practical, comfortable, comforting.

I’ve been thinking about mom a lot over the past weeks and months, wondering how she would have responded to a woman running for president and to the final outcome of the election. I hope she would have supported Mrs. Clinton, although I’m not sure she would have, and I know she’d be horrified by Mr. Trump.

I thought of her when I recently donated money to Planned Parenthood. She regularly gave them money because she believed in access to women’s health care, including access to safe abortions. When she was a young married woman she’d supported two friends through recoveries from illegal abortions. She felt strongly that no woman should have to go through that.

My mother was a housewife and homemaker, a staunch Republican until the first Iraq war pushed her to vote for Mr. Clinton. We had some tense discussions when I was in my 20s because she thought my feminism was disrespectful of the choices she’d made, the life she’d led. And although I declared that I DID respect her, on some level she was right—there was an edge of dismissal in my rejection of her chosen path.

There’s a lot of my mother in me and much more to say about her and about us. But for now, just this musing as I sit here on the couch with the nightgown layered over my flannel PJ bottoms for morning warmth and I look out at blue sky and the beginning of a chilly February day.