self help

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Seemingly surrounded by wonder-full women of accomplishment these days, whether in word or in flesh, and feeling oh-so less-than and oh-so-hopelessly-limited, the age-old question ‘Who am i?’ (or put into a newer language ‘So tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’) surges forth in me as if from my very soul (though, if I am honest, I still cannot easily discern an urgent soul-longing from an envious ego-need). I pick up a book, purchased as suggested reading for an upcoming retreat, and in it I read words that bring that surge of longing forth into a full-fledged flood of tears. The book, filled with examples of persons who have found and followed their true calling, making hard choices/great sacrifices in order to do so, then devoting years of dedicated, focused and unified practice in order to bring it to fruition, reminds me that I too contain such a seed of giftedness and that ‘bringing forth what is within me will not only ‘save my life’ but is mostly about creating the right conditions in which it might flourish’. ‘Other commitments have to be relinquished; space has to be made.’ And there it is, explicitly stated, I am a gift, a jewel in the net, contain a seed of divine inspiration that is indestructible. My job is not to create the seed but ‘simply’ to make choices that give it the right conditions to grow, to plant it wisely and well.

Bloom where you are planted?

Of course, this is crux of this great tension in me, as you know, a tension that is sometimes held in delicate balance and is sometimes sprung loose in a wild swing between deep peace and contentment (‘in love’ with ‘what is’) and an even deeper desire for More (there’s got to me more than this)

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing
And are raised to the rank of prince
By the slippery ease of their light judgments
But what you love to see are faces that do work and feel thirst. 
You love most of all those who need you as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
To dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret. – Rilke

The Buddhists say my longing is the source of my suffering, the Christians say it is a sign of my longing for God (or meaning, the ‘More’ of which I speak). This Hindu text upon which the author is drawing seems to strike some sort of middle ground – that realizing my longing…that is, bringing forth fully the truth of my deeply rooted and nourished human essence.. will connect me with the Divine. (give my life meaning) . Yet, in this book, the specific lives unpacked, their gifts unwrapped, seem impossibly impossible to me. No relationships to negotiate and compromise, children to raise, bills to be paid, partners with needs and goals of their own. I suppose the author would tell me that this is my dharma then.

I just don’t know. Perhaps I am looking in all the wrong places.

On retreat with some wise women, I hunker down to soak up the sun amongst the browning and bent-over grasses of the marshland upstream from the lake, amongst the sentinel hags – snags who stand as a beacon to what was here before this stream was dammed – I am reminded that beauty AND a rich habitat for flourishing life can also result when a flow has been stopped. I am reminded of the abundant creativity and resiliency of the earth, of which I am a part, to respond to the circumstances with which it has been presented.  Does it matter who or what builds the dam that cuts off other choices?

“With each step one takes, one cuts off other options.” Back in the book, I read of Robert Frost’s iconic fork in the road.  Evidently, this was an archetypal theme for him. He also wrote of wanderers lost in a swamp and hikers caught in a mountain storm, each navigating this vast inner landscape, wondering how to find one’s way, how to listen, how to choose the right path. The hiker must look, must listen, must feel …. be willing to pay attention and heed …and I hear echoed my own words of last week’s prose poem What would you follow then?… the breaking light, the snapping twig, the gurgling (roaring?) within” and am weeping with resonance again.

One must be willing to cut, to prune, to strip to the essence. Stripping to make space for the one thing necessary. I wonder, when does enoughness mean ‘no more’ stripping?  And when is enoughness saying I am enough as I am

How to choose? If what is ‘laid out before us is life and death, blessing and curse’, how are we then to choose life?  By following that which enlivens us/makes us feel alive, following our bliss, following that which fills us with light/life. (here I am reminded of the Big Dream again… the one that admonished me to simply let myself be filled with light (love) from the roots of my soul through my overflowing  limbs) .

So what is that aliveness for me? It need not be big, in fact in the book I am cautioned to not think of it as a grandiose thing at all but to let the very smallness of it be big. Somehow I (and the author?)  lost sight of that in the telling of these larger-than-life stories that followed. This morning, the stories shared around the table of women nourished me, as will the soup that now simmers on the stove, chock full of the roots that we each carried with us to this meeting place. We shared stories of being lost and then found… losing one’s great love and finding one’s way back home. Our conversations about each of our searches for meaningfulness, about finding one’s voice, about what is ‘enough’, filled me with life.

I wonder what my body is telling me. I have been so very weary for weeks now, needing hours and hours of sleep and still yawning my way through the day, my head fuzzy, my glands swollen, my body aching.  As I walked to the head of the lake this morning, feeling so exhausted  after a full night of sleep,  my worried imagination casting out forms from my fears, I thought of my beloved husband, how deeply he loves me, what a gift I am in his life. In that moment I recognized how great a loss would be my death for him. Pondering one’s death can be a life-giving thing to do from time to time, revealing what is important… the tender beauty and wonder of it all.

With tenderness now, I listen to my body. What is it trying to tell me?  What does it need from me? How to nurture and heal my life in order to ease its weariness?

Be still

Be still and know

Be still and know that I am God

‘I am God’ is what one wise woman said at the table this morning. God is me, in me. I am an expression of something wondrously sacred, mysteriously embodied.

Just as I am.

I wonder if I ask my body ‘What is right?’ rather than ‘What is wrong?” Would it tell me that it is right to be sitting here now with my feet propped, to not feel compelled to be DOING something, or to BE something it is not. Is this what my body wants from me?

Back home, I ask my life the same question. ‘What is right?’ What is right with my life?

A long walk with a friend in which I reveal my dis-ease, nay, my despair, at this sense of an unlived life, my feelings of ‘less than’ (less than those against whom I measure my life, yes, but also ‘less than’ as in there must be ‘more than’ this). I confess my fear of never cultivating my gift and ‘living up to my full potential’.  I notice the word ‘up’ in that statement  and even as I speak it I hear the conditioning of the overculture in my self-critique. I hear its bias and basis of worth in the ego, in the exceptional, the spectacular, the larger-than-life which I imagine other’s lives to be, even the lives of my friends who feel somehow more accomplished than me.

What a healing balm my dear friend offered to me, such a simple soul-remedy, lifting me from the depths of my despair with her words of quiet affirmation of how important I am to her ‘Just as I am’.  She treasures these times of sharing our wisdoms and fears, offering compassion for pain, and celebrating one another’s humanity.   While so often I hear from someone who has felt gifted by my words, as shared here, or by my presence in some other way that ‘You are so gifted, the world needs what you have to offer. You should really (fill in the blank  –write a book, lead a workshop, offer a program, etc)”, she quite tenderly told me that I am wonderfully gifted and I am enough just being who I am in her life (and in the lives of those who know me). On top of that, she reminded me that if I was ‘bigger’, with 100’s of followers , or audiences, or participants, or readers,  touching 100’s of lives, would I then be able or available to truly touch one, then one other, in intimate ways, in deep ways, in these sharings of journeys and friendships, in the sharing of love and wisdom, in the forging of deep connections, in the holding of one another’s stories, hearts, hopes , in the hearing of one another into being.  That IS enough, and that is important. Way important

What a gift my friend gave me in not elevating my gifts into something MORE that I OUGHT TO DO WITH THEM, but instead honoring the gift to the world that they already are in my doing, living, being exactly what/how/who I am

Not who I think that I Should Be. Not bigger than. Nor less than….as the book also stated before it (and I) lost its way somewhere in the middle… swinging between the ‘twin agonies of grandiosity and devaluing’.

Were I to follow some more grandiose path, move off into solitude to apply a more single-focused self to some more noble pursuit, would I then withdraw my light somehow from the world that needs me in it, perhaps moreso than any light I might add to it in some ‘great work’ that I have imagined myself pouring my gifts into.  The truth is that any great work… project, artform, leadership role, writing, program, profession, portfolio…  I have ever tried to pour myself into has utterly exhausted me, completely draining my life’s energy from me. True, they may have left gifts in their wake, but at what cost?  They have not enlivened me. .. were not choices for life…. and I have felt only the failure of having surrendered at last to my exhaustion.  I suspect that they were just too big for me, the drop of water in a small pond that I am was attempting to fill up an ocean.

The truth that my friend spoke enlivened something deep within me, something that was stuck in that pit of despair, believing in its unworthiness and unfulfillment.   I have mistakenly believed that I needed to become something I was not in order to fulfill my potential, when in truth I need to become more of what I already am, including it ALL in the gift… my introversion, my energy needs, my wounds, my desire for deep connection, my eyes and my ears so linked to my heart.  I was mistaking my longing-for-more with a need for something other-than. Only in loving all of who I am can I nurture the true gift that I am, let it blossom.

So, with that in mind, returning to the book, what does ‘light me up’ ?  Not ‘what do I imagine would light me up’, but what does light me up in my everyday life?  I can see that it is connection, deep connection that absolutely enlivens my life.  Those aha moments when I understand another and they understand me, when the dots are connected in a storyline (like this one ), when I connect deeply with the characters in a book, or an idea connects with something deep within me, and yes, of course, (and perhaps most vibrantly) when I feel that deep connection to the wildness of the earth  in a primal homecoming way. (given this realization, I marvel at the ‘program’ I developed for women a few years back which focused on healing broken connections …between women and women, women and nature, women and the sacred, women and themselves, …. physician heal thyself) .  I feel the utmost despair when that connection is broken… connection to myself or another, connection to the earth or the sacredness of life…when my movement through life feels unmoored. Conversely, I experience the great vibrancy  of new life being conceived when that connection is made… as the spark of any union-making /love-making can do. Perhaps this is what it means to be human.

Another friend drops a note in my email this morning. In it she says this: “That sense of being so interconnected, so one,  relieves the pressure to strive to be more than we really are, not to say that we are not to be the best grass we can be wherever it is that we are planted, to be part of one supportive rhizome for a time and to take joy in the “trouble” of that.”

I wonder if she is reading my blog, or my mind. … most likely, my heart.

‘Bigness must remain close to the ground’.

The introvert is a curious creature. She longs for connection in deeply authentic ways and feels like a misfit, languishing, in circumstances where she feels she needs to rise to the occasion, step outside of herself in order to perform a role. That can feel downright dissociative –out of body—disconnected from her true self, and the energy expenditure/loss in that is great. Then, she needs to turn inward, dive deep, reconnect to herself. Swimming in depths is vital to her survival for sometimes the connection that is most deeply needed most richly life-giving is the one to herself.

Perhaps I can at last own that, on some level, I have crafted this life, have dammed up the flow in order to create a quiet, deep pond, rich with nourishment and protection, which certain other beings and life forms also find peaceful and hospitable, life-giving. I have had more choice and control in my life than I have wanted to admit, it has not merely been fear that has been a ring through my nose, but I have been following the scent of some trail toward harmony and peace. I have heard, after all,  that all one must do to entice a beaver to begin building a dam is to the play the sound of moving water. And as I noticed last week, lilies don’t blossom in fast moving water.

As my friend suggested today, though she didn’t say this in so many words, self-help books can often lead one down the path to thinking one is a self in need of help, toward the illusion that something is wrong, or missing, when perhaps there is nothing broken at all. I wonder how the quest for meaning can get diverted into perceiving something less than? It is time to staunch this flow of alleged inadequacy that is draining my depths.

It is interesting to note that in the oft quoted Mary Oliver poem, from which the ‘one wild and precious life’ with which I began, is taken, the poet is spending her day simply paying attention,’ falling down in the grass, strolling the fields, being idle and blessed’ – her best understanding of what prayer is. Slowing down, being low, connecting with the rich life that surrounds her, not aspiring to greatness at all, but letting her animal body love what it loves.

Perhaps I am okay and you are too.  Perhaps I need only ask of my life, as of my body, ‘What is right?’ that you are trying to show me. The quest for a perfect life is not so far removed from the quest for a perfect body in that regard, when in both cases we are called to love ‘what is’ for the beauty and wisdom it contains, for the way it has born us through, and for the way it incarnates something mysteriously and wonder-fully sacred.

Embrace it wholly, just as it is. That is the only way perhaps that. in the end, it will blossom.

water and fire

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I walked only as far as my body wanted, grateful for its wisdom, which I too often ignore, bullying it along as my voracious hunger-for-more often can. But this virus has tapped my energy, making my head spin and heart pound, and my body needed to move slowly today, to be still. And so, I made it only as far as the 5th water fall, a small beauty (not pushing it through to the 18th or even the 21st ) before stopping, knowing the climb back would be even more challenging today. Utterly stripped of the ability to strive for the finish line allowed me to simply be where I was. Though in truth, ‘simply’, as it may too often be construed, was far from the feeling of quiet attention and the depth I discovered by staying ‘in place’.

And again comes this recurring call to ‘less’. I mean really, how many waterfalls does one need to see, to collect like so many knick-knacks upon the shelf, marching past without truly seeing at all? And so, I sat, next to this modest cascade, suspecting it would not draw much notice from the handful of photographers, who were seeking to capture something… the moment?, beauty? perfection?… here on this autumn-hued day. (I had intentionally left my camera at home today. These photos are from my phone)

Tucked into the shale-walled cover, carved by the water, I suspect, when it was much, much higher than it is today, I was sheltered from the thundershower that later passed through. Several groups of poncho wearing hikers trailed past, not noticing me or for the most part the ever-present water that continues to sculpt the rock at their feet like a focused artist intent on her craft.

I was pondering balance as I sat, wondering about the delicate relationship between solitude and the need for human bonds, between being and doing, between fullness and space. I was thinking about how rare the day to myself had been the day before (with my husband going off to work by himself), just one day! – so healing and spacious that I found myself actually wanting to spend time with him today.

Ebb and flow

I was thinking about self-agency, choices that come from within that aren’t about external calendars – which always seem to mean catching up and catching one’s breath — but about following an inner compass. My inner compass is not broken, I just need to be still enough so that it can stop spinning, point north.

It is so rare that I am alone in my home and I wonder if this is a source of my restlessness. There is some part of me that has not ‘moved in’ completely, still has one foot outside the door on a contingency route of escape, perhaps because she hasn’t been granted space to deeply inhabit that space. She remains uncertain that this is the soil where her soul will take root and blossom, perhaps because there seems to be so little space here for her roots to find purchase. And so, she plans trips to get away to someplace… someplace where there is quiet, where there is stillness, where there is space for her. The problem is that lately she takes it along with her…. not the people (which is true, when did she last go somewhere alone?) but moreso, this sense of urgency for more, and with it the habituated/addicted busy-ness of one who is yearning to be filled. So hungry, she gorges- like a poor person, with no access to wholesome choices, binging on junk food- and returns unsated, already grasping for the next opportunity.

Instead of ebb and flow, it feels more like being stretched and constricted. For it is true that upon my return there is a crowdedness, as everything left unattended during the spaciousness of away-time crams into the cracks in the always vigilant calendar of ordinary life. And the truth is that, despite my dis-ease in being able to reach the deep stillness I seek in my away-time, (it takes so long to slow down and undo . With one other person, I have read, it takes twice as long… with 4 people, it is 4 times as difficult ) I do taste something , catch glimpses of the self that yearns to come forth and be. I noticed her yearning on that final day, in the quiet of the pre-dawn lodge, gazing out over the rolling morning fog.

This week, I discovered a poem, The Fire, by Judy Brown. In it she speaks of the need for space, between the logs, in order to not douse the flame, in order for the fire to flow forth. That fire is my light, my creativity, my loving, my wisdom. It needs to be built into the structure of my life.

I long to live an uncrowded life, to not feel the need to ‘vacate’ in order to find space to breathe. This morning, I read an article, the highlight of which for me was this line – “To create anything, we need to have the freedom to lead, unimpeded, into the murkiness of our own minds. To work, we need to be alone.”- which affirmed what I have known, have felt, have stated, but continue to seek external validation of its truth because it feels so taboo to give voice to this need in me, as if to admit it implies that I am broken somehow. The article questions why we don’t hear much of women recluses, the ‘woman alone in the woods’ the likes of Thoreau and Merton, who are revered for the nobility and gifts of their solitude. To choose a life of solitude as a woman is indeed culturally taboo -women are supposed to be relational, to put their exterior relationships above interior one- so, there is stigma attached. “ To be female and to demand such things as a retreat from life and from loved ones,’ writes the poet Leslie A Miller , ‘is difficult. To assert the need for retreat seems selfish, stubborn, even crazy.’ I am not surprised that these words come from a poet, knowing where such things as poetry come from. Look at Mary Oliver, May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf with her ‘room of her own’.

All of this is simmering in me as I sit… this plumbing of the ‘murkiness of my mind’, this soul of mine that yearns to lay down roots and bloom – and I am reminded of the oft recirculated (in my psyche) expression, ‘Bloom where you are planted’ , which has become like a zen koan for me, unanswerable even as I seek to live into it. My problem lies in knowing that a lotus flower just will not bloom in a desert, nor will it bloom in a rushing current. While I know that much of the work rests in cultivation – cultivating a quiet mind for instance, or a peaceful one, an attention one, a compassionate one , seeking beauty and contentment (joy even) in the midst of the real and everyday life circumstances one finds oneself in (which includes for me a multitude of relational expectations) , and while I believe it is true that becoming a loving presence in my world is the ultimate gift I can offer, there nags within me the bud of a beautiful blossom, an offering that my soul, rooted in the soil of solitude, might bring forth as gift. And this is the source of my longing.

And yet, and yet, I yearn for connection too. As I note in my desire to be with my husband, my granddaughter, my friend, I am not cold, not without a heart compass. Like the fire of the poem, I require both logs and the space between logs to offer a life-giving flame, one that can warm another or offer the heat of nourishment.

I want to be free to flow naturally like this river, from moment to moment, following my heart, which I know to be good, to be loving. I know that, given the space, there would naturally emerge a rhythm in me, of coming and going, of togetherness and apartness, of connecting and disconnecting. River meets rock and flows around it. Where it can widen to hold more, it does. If widening is not possible, because the rock is too hard and walls narrow, it rushes – in torrents at times –carving a space for itself in the slot. Here, it separates into channels , sculpts potholes and coves and ledges to pool into, fill up and then flow. Some places it avoids altogether, passing by and around, but still creating a cave that seeps. It cuts and smooths, becomes frothy then silky, eddies and swirls, making its way to the sea.

And when there is no other choice, it leaps over the edge, plunging headlong into the still pool it has carved for itself at the bottom.

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the autumn way

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It can be difficult to discern the trail with too much

abundance falling around you.

Seasons of growth, born of the light,

unable to bear any longer,

let go at once and suddenly

the very ground

beneath your feet, obscured,

as so many hope-filled, light-gathering moments,

released, laid down, collect

at your feet.

Yes, eventually must come this ripening, and with it

the great release

that leads to a skeletal existence,

at last. Essence revealed.

Stillness then

the only response. A watchful presence, keen

for any sign that reveals a path, perhaps

a blaze left by another

which, for now, you are content (or is it merely afraid) to follow.

You wonder, though, how might it feel to leave it all behind,

set off into woods, unblazed,

following neither creature’s tracks

nor human wanderings.

What would you follow then?… the breaking light,

the snapping twig, the gurgling (roaring?) within.

How might it be to leave

your own trace, dropping crumbs from your own pocket?

Might they at least offer miniscule

nourishment for those who follow? ….

Or help you find your way back if what is found is empty?

If you pick this one up, lay it gently on your tongue,

to dissolve slowly in this stillness,

might it reveal the essence of what was?

Subtle flavors, here at the end,

emerge before disappearing completely, hinting

at the nourishment that once filled your pocket,

now the thread

of survival you follow through the darkness.

When did you begin laying them down, I wonder?

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