I’m delighted to have a piece of mine be a guest post over on Jena Schwartz’s blog, Fierce Encouragement (for Writing and Life). Go take a look! And while you’re there, explore the range of online groups she offers.
I was sorting through online files and found this fictional snippet. Enjoy.
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.
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, resilient 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?
Various shades and tones of purple and pink dominate the garden bloom right now.
Deep purple tulips grab attention near the front door.
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.
Further down on the east side, a lilac forms a fragrant arch leading to the back yard.
On the western edge of the back yard, a spring garden emerges from a tangle of straggly trees.
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.
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.
I subscribe to a writers’ newsletter compiled by Cigdem Kobu who develops and maintains the Inky Path website and writers’ community. The newsletter arrives in my email inbox each Monday and is packed with articles, tips, prompts, and other writerly inspiration. A few weeks ago, Cigdem posed the challenge to answer the question, “Why do I write?” and submit the results to her for posting in the newsletter. My brief essay appears in the most recent issue, here. Thank you Cigdem for posting this!
Spring is finally here–it felt very slow in coming this year. Each day I go for a slow wander around the yard to see what’s coming up, what wintered over well–or not. I note that last summer’s drought and months’ long watering ban took a toll, especially on shrubs which went into winter stressed. I see browned leaves, some dead branches, especially on the two mountain laurels. They won’t bloom much this year. Yet I’m pleased and surprised by the resilience of most of the plants.
At the front of the house, clumps of tulips add bright, hot colors.
The andromeda on the east side of the house is covered with creamy bloom.
The lilacs are full of flower buds, which will soon be deep purple, fragrant flowers.
The small PJM rhododendron is in full bright pink bloom.
“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 out 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.
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.
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.
I have a piano that lives in a corner of my living room, an electric Yamaha that I bought 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.
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.
I stand in the doorway, balance, touch down, and balance again.