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.

A little fiction for the weekend

I was sorting through online files and found this fictional snippet. Enjoy.

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Shayla imagined disasters, although if anyone asked, she would have said she was an optimist. That was certainly the front she presented to the world. She was the one who would say, “Oh those blood tests will be fine, you’re just a bit low on iron,” or “He’s not cheating on you. Why would you think that? He loves you. Just look at the bouquet he sent–it has love written all over it.”

She said these uplifting things to herself as well. “You’ll get that raise, you’ll see,” she’d say to pep herself up, “then you’ll pay off all those credit cards and be able to go on that vacation. Where was it you thought about going?”

But in the back of her mind there was a little voice saying, “but maybe…” Yes, things would turn out well, the world was more good than not good, people meant well even if they didn’t always show those good intentions, but maybe, just maybe she was wrong.

She’d shy away from this thought and retreat into her rosy world but at night when she was drifting off to sleep, or sometimes on weekend mornings when she could linger in bed, her unruly mind would drift towards disaster.

She’d begin thinking about a trip she and her friend Glenn were planning. A quick jaunt to Rhode Island, a walk on the beach–and before she knew it, their car would be crashing in flames or Glenn would collapse on the beach from a heart attack or maybe both–the chest pains ignored, back in the car, then the heart attack leading to the fiery crash. And she’d lie there with tears streaming down her face, wondering if Glenn had ever finished making his will and would his children honor his desire to be cremated.

Then she’d wake up a bit more and mentally shake herself, get up, look out at the cloudy day and say, out loud, well there’s an edge of blue sky over there–I bet the sun will be out before long.

Shayla never told anyone about these bouts with doom. But sometimes she wondered, which was the real Shayla, the bright, peppy cheerleader or the doom monger? What would happen if she switched roles, began spouting all the dire predictions and then let her daydreams swim towards happier shores? “Wow, they took how many tubes of blood? Hmmm…what are they looking for do you think?” or “Flowers. Well, they’re pretty, you can take consolation in those bright colors. But I don’t know, flowers always say guilty conscience to me.”

No, she couldn’t do that. The world was dark and scary enough these days without her adding to the angst.  Maybe this was her job–to keep the brightness turned up high, keep spirits soaring, even if it meant plunging towards death every night.

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?

 

The garden in May

Various shades and tones of purple and pink dominate the garden bloom right now.

Deep purple tulips grab attention near the front door. IMG_0682

A small rhododendron anchors the east corner of the house. This shrub was in the yard when I bought the house over 20 years ago. It was starting to look worn out but a rigorous pruning last year has brought it back to life.

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Further down on the east side, a lilac forms a fragrant arch leading to the back yard.

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On the western edge of the back yard, a spring garden emerges from a tangle of straggly trees.

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Just in front of that garden is an old lilac that is blooming profusely this year, another shrub planted by the original owner of the house. It’s survived a winter storm many years ago that split it down the middle, a more recent summer storm that brought a tree down on it, summers of drought and summers with too much rain. I’ve pruned it a few times, fed it occasionally but mostly just let it be. It’s an ordinary looking shrub once the blooms fade, can be downright unattractive late in the summer when the foliage succumbs to powdery mildew. But right now it’s the queen of the spring garden, putting out its exuberant and fragrant blossom.

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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.

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.