Rose

Revealing the Magnificent Mural


In the shower this morning, I was noticing how the “shoulds” have a way of creeping and covering up my sense of clarity and purpose, like overgrown ivy on a beautiful mural.

Closely related to this is a habit of questioning myself, what I’m doing with my life, and whether I’m “on the right track.” This thinking is binary and constricting — right/wrong, clear/confused, all/nothing. It doesn’t leave much if any room for being, for process, and for just letting life and work unfold. For trusting myself.

Just when I think I’ve outgrown it, it comes tickling at my toes and threatening to climb up my bare legs. In an effort to cut it back before it can do this, I’m coming here to write. I’m interested in how things open up when we bring some breath and curiosity to what gets in our way.

How can some experimenting enable us to get clearer on our priorities, so that we spend less time pleasing others or repeating Sisyphean tasks and more time feeling purposeful and fulfilled by our actions?

Do questions like these occur to you too, while bathing or driving or writing or just going through your day? In the spirit of teaching what I have to learn, here’s an exercise for us to try.

You’ll need some paper and either markers or colored pencils. Two different color pens will do.

Make a fast and furious list of all the shoulds you’re carrying around, consciously or subconsciously. Don’t stop to evaluate, assess, analyze, or vote on any of them — just list.

What do you see?

Now, using a different color, circle the items on your list that are actually time-sensitive in some way or otherwise urgent. Pay attention to how you define “urgent.” (You might to read Seth Godin’s the why of urgent vs. important.)

Notice the different categories showing up in your list. For example, you might see things that relate to your physical health, others that have to do with relationships, and some that are vague and free-floating, with no real action attached.

On a different piece of paper, make three columns: At the top of one, write “need to.” The second is “want to.” Lastly, include a “not mine” category. This last one is where you can move all of the shoulds that don’t belong to you, i.e. the ones you’ve internalized that are in fact coming from outside sources.

When you’ve completed this step, how many items remain in the “need to” column? Are you seeing evidence of anything you WANT to do? How much of your life is shaped by other people’s expectations, how much by practical need, and how much by habitual striving and drivenness?

This can be a one-time thing or you could let it be a slower, longer-term exploration. Take your time playing with it. If you’re feeling pulled to take it in a different direction, by all means, do so. The intention here is to bring into focus what you can put down, as opposed to what you must and/or choose to carry.

Unlearning empty striving and returning to the power of who you already are isn’t a one-shot deal. Sometimes I forget this and think, wait, aren’t I supposed to be done with this already?

Then I remember, it’s like trimming back the ivy. You don’t just do it once. You come back, again and again, to revealing the magnificent mural of your life.

Rose

Five Deep Breaths

My wife is reading a book called “The Art of Stopping  Time, Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Each day offers a short chapter with a suggested exercise. It may be spending time in nature, or fasting from social media for a day.

Yesterday’s was to take five deep breaths every 30 minutes throughout the day, using a timer. I decided to try it.

Here are some observations:

Thirty minutes goes by very quickly. It seemed like every time I turned around, the timer was going off. I was also surprised by how much I packed into each 30-minute period. This shed some light on periods when I was focused — and the integers when I was multitasking and flitting from one thing to another. The timer gave me a chance to pause and check in with myself.

I spotted the impulse to do other things while I took the five deep breaths — stretch or look at my phone or simply keep working on whatever I was working on at the moment. It took a conscious decision to stop everything and ONLY breathe. I also saw this thought more than once: “I don’t have time to stop.” But not once did this turn out to be true. The five deep breaths took less than a minute.

At one point in the morning, I was nearing the end of a fast and furious freewrite when the timer went off. I was tempted to ignore it, but didn’t. The five deep breaths didn’t ruin my flow; in fact, they slowed me down just enough that when I returned to the keyboard, picking up right where I had left off was easy.

Full disclosure: I missed a few hours. At some point mid-morning, I forgot to restart the timer after my deep breaths. I walked to town to meet Luping for our hour of tutoring, then did some errands on foot. When I resumed my practice in the early afternoon, the five breaths turned into 10 along with some loud yawning and big jaw opening. Suddenly, the interruption was fully welcome, a reminder to get up off my ass, plant both feet on the floor, and say hello to the body.

Late-afternoon brought hot chocolate around a small bonfire with Pearl’s Hebrew school class, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, also known as the new year of the trees. Along with this small caffeine hit, the cold woke me back up, and I detected a subtle connection between the deep breathing I’d been doing throughout the day and the singing we were now doing around the fire. Come to think of it, there’s also a natural correlation between deep breathing and trees, since without them we’d be in deep breathing trouble.

Today, I’m giving it another go. Having a chance to check in every half hour may seem excessive, but really it’s a good way to get in the habit of breathing more consciously throughout the day. I’m already feeling more aware of when my breath gets shallow or neglected. I like this idea of tending to it, in the same way I would another person under my roof.

If breath is life, who are we when we’re running around being busy or trying to cram 10,000 things into every increment of time? Is that actually living?

Practices like this bring me a chance to see my default habits anew. Rather than thinking I failed some test if I forgot to set my timer and breathe deeply the whole day, I’m always more interested in what happens when I don’t judge myself but bring patience and care to the process of trying things. Anything that smacks of holier-than-thou-ness will send me running for the hills, but I will gladly play with ways to wake myself up, mentally and physically, and make more of me available to whatever or whomever is in front of me.

I have six minutes left till my next five deep breaths, but you know what? I’m not waiting. I’m taking them right now, even as my hands fly over the keyboard.

When do you neglect your breath? When do you tend to it? What reminds you to come back to yourself throughout the day? 

Rose

It Was Only a Matter of Time

It was only a matter of time. Twenty-eight days, to be more specific. Only a matter of 28 days before I’d stand up against the wall I’ve come to know so well. This wall is pock-marked, like skin that healed unevenly after years of acne. Or scarred, with years of stories painted in layers across its surface, chipping here, thicker there. It’s a wall that can support the entire weight of me, weight that feels like it will fall from between my legs like an unnamed planet, leaving a trail of blood across the sky of my white thighs. This is the rhythm of the body.

It was only a matter of time before I began to question everything again. My purpose. My karma. The kind of thing I talk out loud to myself about as I trudge up the hill carrying a bag of groceries, shifting the weight from one hand to the other as the straps cut lines across my palms. Questions like these have no answers; they are circular in nature and always close in on themselves, like moons. I put away the organic cream, the unscented dish soap, the bags of rice. I fold the bag and toss it to the closet floor. This is the rhythm of the lunar month.

It was only a matter of time before the noise of the world started sounding like wind on the other side of old windows, not rattling so much as whooshing, soothing as an ultrasound seeking a heartbeat. I curl into the womb of her arms and count my breaths, blankets pulled up close under my chin. I see why home can be called a crib; I am a tiny unborn body floating in darkness. If it weren’t for the sky I can hear outside, I would tell you this bed was made of ocean. This is the rhythm of knowing when to pull up the shades and when to leave them down.

It was only a matter of time before something in me snapped awake again and I cried out to some presence that may or may not exist. Show me the way! Knowing, always, that there’s more than meets the eye, more than the mind can conjure and that the body, this belly, this blood is a barometer of time and what it’s time for. I still don’t know, but as sure as I want to close my ears and eyes I will listen on the inside for the sound of that knowing. This is the dark rhythm of something like faith, though language feels thin today, and worn.

It was only a matter of time before I remembered the starlings in the plaza at dusk and how happy they made me feel. How much I belonged there in a country where my body had no explanation but youth and skin. I listened then, as the sky changed to indigo, and I could not tell where the percussion of leaves changed to the rioting of so many birds. That was long before babies grew inside of me, long before my name changed and changed again full circle like the belly and the moon, long before the longing that would lead me here. This is the rhythm of deliverance.

It was only a matter of time before I rebelled against wanting what I didn’t have and was never meant to be mine. Why am I here? To open again and again. To empty again and again. To realign the walls I stand against with new fabrics, dried blood-red stone walls that fortify the insides of me you’ll never see. This is my own wind howling in the deserted spaces. My own song of hollow canyons filled with air you can’t hold in your hands. My voice that came screaming out after the panic in the silent movie of a recent dream. This is the rhythm of the eyelids, the hidden places.

I come here tonight to honor this cycle rather than resisting and fighting it. To breathe sound into rage that has no source and sadness that has no outlet. Let it not pool but rush and gush forth unobstructed, like words when you open the valve and so many centuries come competing for airtime. Let them all speak at once. Let them take turns. Let a thousand languages overwhelm your senses until you rock yourself to sleep and dream of hands holding the fullness of you until you’re ready, again, to carry your own.

Rose

This Day Brought Me to Tears

“We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.”

~ Horst Bienek, from “Resistance” (trans. Michael Mead)

Everything is making me cry today. My heart feels so exposed. Like I took off my armor and left it somewhere. Like I spun the prayer wheel so fast it didn’t give me time to worry about doing it right.

David Tennant’s face throughout this surprise tribute.

Bashō (translated by Robert Bly):

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming 
out of the flowers 

My kid’s fear about a trip without her parents, and the big sign she placed in her suitcase (after she emptied it out this morning) that didn’t mince words: I’M NOT GOING. Please.

Questions like: Who would I be without my work? Without my writing? Without my people? Without “my”?

Would I know, deep down, my worth?

Mani’s words:

“You can’t receive when you have clenched fists.”

Open your hands. Open your mind. Open your heart.

“The best-laid plans are are my open hands.”

(Which Mani can’t remember if she heard in a song or if she wrote herself.)

This song.

The way our names contain us — and how we can find either comfort in being held in, or the courage to push beyond the limitations of those syllables and the energy they carry.

I am not surprised if you don’t understand. I might be speaking tomorrow’s language already. I might have wondered if tomorrow’s language would ever come or if I’d be stuck speaking the same sentences over and over for all time. But no. Time won’t have it. The hardest things shapeshift as surely as the sun is melting the snow. And they also bring clarity, in the way fire burns and purifies but is impossibly hot to stand near for long. You won’t think you can stand it, but you can.

You can.

“I will write in words of fire. I will write them on your skin. I will write about desire. Write beginnings, write of sin. You’re the book I love the best, your skin only holds my truth, you will be a palimpsest lines of age rewriting youth. You will not burn upon the pyre. Or be buried on the shelf. You’re my letter to desire: And you’ll never read yourself. I will trace each word and comma As the final dusk descends, You’re my tale of dreams and drama, Let us find out how it ends.” ~ Neil Gaiman

The last big cry I remember was in the fall. I remember because I cried in the car all the way to the base of a small mountain, then parked and walked furiously uphill over leaves so deep and wet they decomposed before my eyes giving way to earth and winter coming. I remember because I reached the peak and looked out over the river and the valley and felt my dry cheeks and the relief of burning off the tears and getting some perspective.

Then last night I lost it, which isn’t true if you read it literally. I didn’t lose a thing. I just stood at the kitchen sink with the hot water on my hands, blood from where the potato peeler nicked the nail on my left middle finger, and the soapy sponge and the glasses and plates from a late dinner. And I didn’t lose anything, really. But I did cry. I started and I couldn’t stop right away — clearly this had been sitting there, just when I’d begun wondering if I’d ever cry again, a faint hint of concern cropping up that I don’t cry more often given the state of the world.

Well no worries. I can still cry. This is good, even if it freaked my kids out a little. (“Are you OKAY??”)

Last night, lying in bed, Mani put her hands on my back. Then she said just the right words, which she has a knack for: We aren’t here to save each other. We don’t need saving. We all come in with our karma and no one can burn if for us but us.

Then you love people and things get sticky sometimes; it is so painful to see someone you love suffering and to not know the answer. But there’s a reason you don’t know the answer. Your love is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. It feels all wrong; surely you should be DOING something and the impulse to DO something is the same thing as the impulse to FIX it, SAVE THEM, make it BETTER.

There’s no saving.

So my heart is open and I cried and today, right now, I look out the kitchen window and the branches of the pine trees are swaying in the breeze. The sun is strong, and I’m surprised to glance at the clock and see that it’s after 4:00pm. The earth is turning and the seasons are changing and this is one of those moments when I can SEE time. And how bendable it is, and how it both requires so much faith and also none at all. All at the same time.

“We can know a lot. And still no doubt, there are rash and wonderful ideas brewing somewhere; there are many surprises yet to come.” ~ Mary Oliver

The mind loves to catastrophize. To seize the moment but not in a carpe diem kind of way, more like in a we’re-so-fucked kind of way. But it is a lie. A trap. Don’t fall for it, I tell myself. We no more know that things will be awful than we do that Mary Oliver’s “rash and wonderful ideas” are brewing and surprises are yet to come. Good surprises.

You want to write? So write.

You want to cry? So cry.

You want to love? So open your heart and know that it will break over and over and over and over.

And you will hug someone you love so tightly and suddenly your two bodies will be the shape of sky, which of course is impossible to imagine but perfectly reasonable in the ways of being.

After the fire, you will feel cleaner somehow, and heightened of senses. A bird in the morning will tell you winter is just a word, and you’ll spit out those two syllables with your toothpaste while the shower’s running and you’re standing there naked in the small bathroom looking at all that grey hair around your temples.

Time is not passing us nor are we passing time. Young people will be grown adults someday, full-bodied and with memories of their own, and someday we — you and I — will be the memories themselves. Long, long after we’re gone.

So yes. This day has brought me to tears. Because of love. Because of how empty-handed I feel sometimes. Because of how unbearably beautiful it is to be alive.

Rose

The Art of Stopping Time

cccpIt went by so fast. I thought it would feel like forever. I thought it would be awkward. But it wasn’t at all. It was the most natural thing in the world, to meet myself there for a whole minute. To look into my own eyes in the way I would a child, or someone I love so very much. The relief of it. The tenderness of it. The way when I played with the deep furrow lines between my brows, my expression changed. From loving and kind to amused to angry to simply relaxed. I watched my pupils grow large in the dim living room. I saw the ways in which my face hasn’t changed at all since childhood, and I saw the depth in my eyes of being.

I looked into my eyes and thought about how thought had nothing to do with it. Just to be. Just to be here, with myself. That is why when the one-minute timer went off, I was startled. That was a whole minute?

As I write this, Mani has a hypnosis on – a man with the most wonderful Scottish brogue. He is talking about procrastination. He is talking about stopping time, and how long one second feels when time is stopped. He is talking about suffering, and how one minute is 60 times longer than one second, and an hour 60 times longer than one minute, and so on, and really, how long do you want to prolong your suffering?

Looking in the mirror for one minute was a bit like stopping time for me, which may explain why the timer came as a surprise. I realized just how rare it is that I stop and just see. Take one full minute to see. To just see myself or whomever it is in front of me. We avoid eye contact, at least prolonged eye contact. Culturally, it’s considered rude or even aggressive. Yet to meet someone’s eyes, especially your own, is such a gift. To stop and really just see. Not listen. Not take turns even. Just see equally – I am here, you are there, here we are.

Can you imagine if in a presidential debate, the opponents had to sit and just look at each other’s eyes for even a minute? No words, no rebuttals, no interruptions, no arguments, no evidence, no attacks, no defense. Just looking. Seeing. Two humans sitting together.

To look at myself in the mirror without words is to see my humanness. I am flawed, which is to say human. I am worn, which is to say human. I am creased and marked by time, because time does not stand still. And yet the illusion of it – that time is a thing I am bound by – that also melts away.

I don’t know what else to write. The hypnosis is ending with the words, “Wide, wide awake.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe taking a full minute to look in the mirror is a worthwhile daily practice. A way of saying, I am here. I am here and I am wide, wide awake. My eyes are deep with love and pain and care and little brown specks in the green and black pupils wide wide and awake in the dim room.

My face is my daughter’s face – this morning in the car, she said how every time an adult meets her for the first time, someone who already knows me, they exclaim how much she looks like her mother. “Sorry,” I say, faux-apologetically. But I can tell we are both ok with it.

I have this face that is timeless and not timeless. I resist the urge to look at the timer. I hear the clock on my dresser ticking. One second after another.

**

This was an unedited ten-minute freewrite in one of my current writing groups. If you’re looking to jumpstart or deepen your writing practice, join me for “What If You Knew?” (October 10-21), my next two-week group. Limited to 12 participants. More details and registration here.