Sometimes I need a list

  1. I’m still waking early, as if needing to go to work. I look at the clock. Tell myself to relax back to sleep but it doesn’t work. I get up into the darkness and the cold. Coffee made and poured, cat fed, laptop at hand, I settle on the couch and watch the sky lighten up.
  2. Maybe I should switch my routine, sit in the comfy chair rather than the couch, face the other direction on the couch so I’m looking out the back window, sit at the dining table like I used to do when I only had a few minutes to sip and stare before shower, dress, breakfast, leave for work.
  3. Sleepiness lingers. I see neighbors walking by with determined pace, early morning exercise walkers. Maybe I should join them—but I quickly push that idea away. I prefer lounging in my pjs as coffee slowly wakes up my cells.
  4. What shape will my life take now that I’m not heading out to a job each day? I try to see that as an exciting invitation but anxiety and restlessness creep in. My house seems small. By mid-day I’m pacing, trying to think of someplace to go but all venues, except the library, involve spending money, which I’m trying not to do. I tell myself that one cup of coffee or tea at a local cafe won’t break the budget.
  5. My world is opening up, expanding beyond the confines of a job. I feel a clench of anxiety as I write that. As soon as the letters hit the screen, I counter the thought. What if I get sick? What if I (fill in the blank with any catastrophe)? I begin to delete the words then stop myself. 
  6. “My world is opening up” is not a conditional statement.
  7. I have lists of things to accomplish—calls to make; business cards to create; a website to set up; emails or letters to send to potential freelance customers; workshops to plan, advertise, organize. I have friends to check in with, a piano that hasn’t been played in a long time, leaves to rake, woodsy paths to walk, knitting projects that have lingered in a bag for years, a stack of books to read, stories to tell, words and more words to write.
  8. I’ve been playing a lot of online Spider Solitaire. A small internal voice chides me—you’re wasting time. But there’s something soothing about moving those cards around and satisfying when I win.
  9. I’ve been interested to see how my approach to the game has evolved with time and circumstances. When I was in England last week, wearing the stress and sadness of my sister’s situation, I couldn’t play—I’d try and then give up after a few moves. Now, I’m more patient. I still hit “new game” if the initial card layout doesn’t yield many moves but once I get going, I persist, undoing and trying new moves as needed until I hit the right sequence and the cards fall into place. And there’s a lesson there about play and practice and experimentation and finding my way through—and about knowing when to stop, bail out, start over with a new game.
  10. Bit by bit, may I open to my life, right now, in its messiness, starts and stops and do-overs, its pain, joy, excitement, sadness, anxiety, loss, contentment.   

Listen and let go

I seem to be blessed with the earworms I need to hear. “Today is a bright new day,” sung in tight three-part harmony, circled round and round in my brain as I woke this morning. It took me a minute to remember the song and the singers, then I placed it as a YouTube video I watched a few days ago. With the refrain softly circling in the background, I lingered in bed, cat snuggled under my chin, until I heard the coffee pot click on.

Coffee in hand, I moved to the couch where I looked out the front window at cloudy sky, green bushes and trees, a splash of pink crabapple blossom in the distance. Birds darted through the inkberry bushes, landing briefly on the feeder that I will soon take down.

Today is a bright new day.

The lawn is getting shaggy, spotted with dandelions—I need to mow. I don’t aspire to a weedless expanse of emerald green. My lawn is a mix of various grasses and weeds, including the dandelions that are springing up in their glorious yellow. When I first moved into my house I dutifully dug up the dandelions, just as my then next door neighbor did. I would see her crouched in her yard, digging out the long taproots and flinging the plants into a bucket. But I soon gave up on dandelion eradication and chose to welcome them as a sign of spring.

Gray skies have now turned to rainy skies. Lawn mowing will wait. I’m not an exacting or precise mower. I mow around the violets blooming in the side yard and the clumps of forget-me-nots that have seeded mid lawn. One summer I left a big patch of clover that the bees were feasting on. I take different paths around the yard each time I mow. Sometimes I take a freeform approach, circling and weaving, spiraling inward until I can stand in one place and push back and forth a few times and be done. Other times I revel in straight vertical or horizontal lines. No matter what pattern emerges on a particular day I always use the mowing as a time to check out what’s happening in the garden, pausing periodically to pull up a tall weed or simply admire the flowering quince or smell the budding lilacs as I brush under them.IMG_1001

 

Today is a bright new day.

In recent weeks, as the world feels increasingly perilous, as people close to me struggle with illness and depression, and as I edge toward a major change in my own life, I’ve alternated between bopping along on an even keel and then, bam, sliding down into sadness and anxiety. One day, driving home after work, I found myself inhabiting a fearful, pain-filled fantasy that my active imagination elaborated and embroidered, before I caught myself and shifted my focus outward: there’s the sycamore tree that has stood in that spot for hundreds of years, there’s a bank of tulips, a crabapple in full bloom, a dogwood.

My mood lightened and I resisted the pull back into the depths. Later, I keyed up a Tara Brach meditation which focuses on sounds. Guided by her calm voice, I listened to the here and now sounds, the overhead fan on the porch, the family talking next door, a dog barking, my cat meowing, the rumble of my tummy, the tight, sore muscle in my back, the worry that tugged at me. I listened but didn’t linger, and slowly my perspective shifted. I remembered to take things one step at a time, moment after moment, to stay anchored in the present. To listen and let go.

Today is a bright new day.

 

Late February

Late February and changeable weather. Mild days hinting of spring turn overnight into wintry sleet and rain. But one cold, damp, gray morning recently, I stepped out the front door and heard the shift in birdsong that always says “spring.” I’ve been searching the garden beds near the house, looking for those first green nubs thumb_IMG_0884_1024of crocuses and snow drops. Yesterday I spotted about 1/4 inch of tender green foliage —the first sign of early blooming crocuses.

I haven’t posted for several weeks—the world has felt heavy, especially after the Parkland school shooting. I alternate between feeling deep sadness and anger. I read, I absorb, my heart sinks, aches—not again, not again. At meditation group recently, we listened to a guided meditation from Tara Brach, titled Resting in Reality.  “Greet each moment with kindness,” she says.

I find that challenging right now—but as the days move forward I try to travel gently through the world, to rest in this here and now.

As I do, I notice:

The moon between tree branches on a cool, bright late afternoon walk.

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Sun coming in my front window, glinting off a blue pot, blue mug, blue book cover—an accidental still life

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Sensory memory that kicks in when I make bread for the first time in years—the feeling on my hands of sticky, elastic dough as I knead and later punch it down, shape it into loaves; the fragrance of baking; the crumb and taste of the first warm slice slathered with butter.

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The ease that washes over me as I listen to a musical setting of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things.

How do we rest?

 

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Life is ticking over relatively calmly in my little corner of the world. Autumn has arrived slowly and gently, with warm sunny days and cool nights. Nasturtiums and roses are still blooming, leaves are just now turning and falling. I’m back at work and figuring out how to juggle work, exercise, writing, social time.

But I’m all too aware of back-to-back catastrophes—shootings, hurricanes, wildfires fill the news and hover on my peripheral vision. It feels trivial to write about my daily concerns but I have no new words to add to the cacophony of world events.

I’m not sleeping well. I fall asleep easily enough. In fact, bed feels wonderful when I first settle in, pillows piled just so, the duvet tucked around me, the cat snuggled next to me, softly purring. The air is cool, the bedroom is quiet except for the cat’s soft purr which slowly dissipates as she sleeps. I read on my Kindle, its backlight turned low. My eyes start to feel heavy so I close them, put the Kindle aside, pull up the duvet, and slide into sleep for three or four hours before I wake, restless and unsettled.

When did sleep become such a challenge? There was a time when these middle of the night wakenings weren’t a problem, I’d surface and then quickly slip under again and in the morning, barely remember waking at all. Now I get up and wander down the hall to the bathroom, then back into bed, rearrange the pillows and duvet, shift around until my body finds just the right position. The cat stalks away in a huff to find peaceful sleep elsewhere.

I close my eyes, maybe put on a sleep mask in anticipation of morning light. I tell myself a story—I have a cache of them to draw on, imagined scenes that I revisit over and over. Or I focus on my breath, in and out. Sometimes the story, the breathing acts like a hypnotic spell and I sleep again. But I have to be careful not to acknowledge that I’m teetering on the edge of sleep. The minute I notice the imminence of sleep, I’m awake again, eyes open and looking at the window across from me, wondering if the sky is finally lightening up.

I started this post thinking I’d write about the phrase “hare’s corner”—words I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s daily Twitter and Instagram contribution. Hare’s corner—a section of a field that farmers leave unplowed and uncut as refuge for small animals. And it struck me that we all could use a hare’s corner these days, a place, figurative or real to retreat to, a place to regroup.

A quiet walk through woods, my attention in the moment, noticing the leaves on the path, the glint of sun on water, a rustle in the underbrush, the roll of an acorn underfoot. IMG_0724Or a quick pause in a busy day, when I look up from the computer and out the window, letting my eyes go into soft focus. A chat with a friend, laughter, a hand on a shoulder. A meal shared with friends, ingredients carefully chosen and prepared. Words on a page that take me away from daily concerns and into another world, open images in my mind. Hare’s corner. A brief respite, a safe space.

Where does sleep fit? Deep, delicious, restorative sleep? Here’s the thing—sleep requires surrender, vulnerability. In deepest sleep we’re unprotected. The hare, quivering in that unplowed sanctuary, won’t be asleep.

And so I wonder is my insomnia about a fear of surrender? An unwillingness to let go? In this time of personal transition, in this horribly unsettled world how do I–how do we–rest? 

In a Yoga Nidra for Sleep meditation, Jennifer Piercy talks us through slowing the breath, noticing the “waves of respiration ebbing and flowing” like the ebbing and flowing of all life, like the flow of a day. Notice the transition spaces, she says, as morning flows into night, as summer flows into winter, marked by the transition spaces of autumn and spring.

I listen to her soothing voice, the calm words, and I try to make peace with the transitions, the unsettled ebb and flow, to breathe, to sink into the breath, to allow the breath to breathe me, to sleep.

Listen. Breathe.

On Tuesday, I check into the hospital for knee replacement surgery and my stress levels are rising as I try to finish up at work, get my house and life prepped, go to myriad medical appointments, shop, see friends. Ah…I’m getting breathless just typing all that. Life these days is all about doing and distracting.

I haven’t been spending enough time simply listening to the world around me.

Sunday afternoon. I’m on the back porch, ceiling fan spinning, grackles noisily doing what grackles do, adult voices and kid voices from next door, breeze in the trees.

Silence. Listening. On Twitter earlier this week, a quote from Wendell Berry arrived like a small gift: “Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”

I imagine words dropping into a pool, sending out ripples, sinking, disappearing.

IMG_0413A couple of weeks ago, Robert Macfarlane asked: “What is the place or landscape to which you most love listening?”

I immediately thought of Maine, the cottage on Back Cove where my sister and I went for a couple of years, early morning light, distant boat motors, bird call, occasional plop and ripple of water as acorns fell or birds dived for fish.

Or Pemaquid Point, with waves crashing against rocks and gulls calling.

Or here, now, the porch, the trees, the kids, the birds, the cat crying from inside the house, the dog in the distance, sounds of a summer afternoon.

Listen to the small sounds, I tell myself, the here sounds, now sounds, inner and outer sounds.

Be silent, listen, breathe.

Be. Listen. Breathe.

Of tardigrades and…

I woke at 5 a. m. from a deep sleep. I had been dreaming but don’t remember the dream, just the feeling of being deeply under and then emerging, slowly, to consciousness. I could hear the cat scratching in her cat box in the next room. Birds were starting to call outside the closed window.

A snippet of a Johnny Flynn song played in my head—“been listening all the night”—providing a soundtrack for early morning mind rambles—Manchester bombing, work dilemmas, upcoming knee surgery, Manchester again, what’s the latest information. I resisted the urge to grab my phone and check email and news updates.

Out of the warm bed and into the chilly house. Furnace rumbling, coffee maker gurgling and coughing, cat brushing my ankles and yelling for food.

All too often, I launch into the day, as I did on this morning, feeling taut, distracted by news from the international and national stage, stresses on the home front—and then, when it’s most needed, something will sidle in that shifts my perspective, helps me pause and breathe and listen in a new way.

Coffee made, first sip taken. Cat fed and quiet. Computer booted up. Twitter feed on screen. I’ve deliberately kept my Twitter feed a politics free zone—an occasional tweet about national or international shenanigans sneaks through but mostly I read about things related to language, art, music, education.

This morning I was captured by contributions from Robert Macfarlane about tardigrades. He linked to an article from New Scientist, in which I learned that tardigrades are also known as water bears and are tough, tardigraderesilient creatures that can survive years of dehydration.

And as is the way on Twitter, what began with a link to a scientific article then led in a different direction, this time to a song from Cosmo Sheldrake praising tardigrades.

Sometimes all that’s needed is a nugget of information and a song. I listened to the song, and listened again, then set about my day with a much lighter heart and mind.

What helps you to shift perspective?

 

Transitions?

I’m teetering on the threshold of change—and I’ve never been very good at transitions. I went through a tumultuous period when I was in my early 20s, a newly minted teacher who realized that teaching high school was NOT my calling or my talent. I was living at home, struggling as a teacher, and feeling like a failure. My parents didn’t know what to do and sent me to their minister for counseling. He wanted to pray with me. I politely declined and left. I eventually found my way through that time, left high school teaching behind, got a degree in counseling, moved to New England. 

Fast forward to my early 40s. A love relationship just ended. Tip-toeing into middle age. Beginning to feel burnt out in my work as a counselor. MFA writing degree almost complete. Deeply uncertain about next steps. I sought out a therapist, looking for support as I sorted out feelings and figured out what came next. I got someone who led me into some sort of visceral place—I cried a lot in those sessions. I wish I could say I emerged cleansed in some way. In truth I’m not sure. But I found my way through to a calmer, more contented place. 

Now I’m in my 60s, trying to figure out what it means to “grow old,” how to find my way through this final adventure. I’m healthy. I’m solvent. I’m surrounded by friends. Life is good. But I worry, especially when I lie awake at 2 in the morning. It’s all so ephemeral. Friends move away, they die; my own health might fail (will fail eventually); financial hardship is always one serious illness away.

Be proactive, I tell myself. I tinker with my budget, trying to figure out a way I can leave my job and support myself without a full time salary. I jot down ideas for self-employment, fantasize about having time to write, to garden, to move slowly through my days. Inside I feel like the same old blue-jeaned me but then am surprised by a glimpse of my aging face in the mirror.

Something deeper is needed, something beyond numbers and logistics and plans. I cast thoughts out into the universe—any ideas for next steps, I say, please point a way.

For tonight I’m making pasta—comfort food. Earlier, in my stroll around the garden, I cut flowers and put them in a vase on the mantle—tulips and lilacs—deep purples and pinks, sweetly scented. I talk to a friend. Soon I’ll clean up the kitchen, read a book or watch something on Netflix. Sleep. Step by step, life unfolds.