Just keep swimming . . . and blogging?

Labor Day has come and gone, and with it the season most riddled with paradox.  If those long light-filled days of summer are so lazy hazy, why do they seem to slip away in a flash?  Plausible theories may explain why time seems to speed up as we age. But even as a child, the freedom from routine that summer offered always seemed to end too soon. 

My last post began the summer that I would give myself a hiatus from all things writing-related. No blog posts. No revisiting drafts of stories or starting new ones. A break that surprised me with an unfamiliar liberation. I meditated more, hoping that concentrated practice would let that monkey mind know it’s okay—actually it’s good—to let go of thoughts, leave the brain to make space for something far more settling than words.  

The pull of social media somehow diminished.  Was this a sign? I wondered. Some indication that, even in a time when the need for connection and community seems more urgent than ever, a little retreat goes a long way toward restoring a sense of balance, not to mention priorities?

Toni Morrison died this summer, which had me hankering to revisit her first novel, The Bluest Eye. I would have been 20-something when I read it. I still have the original paperback copy. Its impact on me was profound. 

Decades later, a full-fledged fan and a writer myself, I see it in a much more informed light. I relish the hindsight glimpse into the archetypes and themes that would get richer and more mythologically complex as her body of work grew.  

Decades later, months from turning 70, a more conscious vulnerability has me in its grip. The qualifier matters. Feeling vulnerable is not a new sensation but something about the time of life and the times in which we live make it all the more visceral. The world into which I brought my daughter (1986) was hardly the best of times but you can’t be a weed-smoking child of the ‘60s without believing in your power to change the world for the better.  The dark cloud hovering over what feels like the worst of times gives me pause, at least long enough to remember that everything changes. Doesn’t it?

***

Open-ended days are prime for reflection, not to mention restlessness. Years of feeling so driven do not give way easily to a less urgent rhythm.  I would use that energy to do a clean sweep of folders sitting in file cabinets. Even knowing that clearing space would open me to what might come next, I worried about the effect of seeing all the efforts and projects behind me, hearing voices from the past in a dull ‘this-is-your-life’ chant.

Reminders of disappointment surfaced, along with an affirmation of deep-rooted tenacity. I smiled when I came across this gem –

Chubby black dog
Barking up the wrong tree
Now there’s big trouble

Many of the school-based workshops I conducted were a collaboration with visual artists. This project was a mix of learning the art of hand-made paper, writing poems, and putting it all together. 

Then I saw these words on a prep sheet I used for another writing workshop.

If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.  –Lin Yutang 

***

I look out at an autumn landscape, leaves fading, even beginning to turn. There’s a metaphor here. 

It’s been said that a writer’s work isn’t finished until it’s read. Even if you write in a journal religiously, there’s an assumption that you’ll go back, take a peek at your thoughts/observations/feelings in a given time and place.  

Some say it takes courage to write.  For me, writing is an assumption. I love the puzzle of it—images and thoughts into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs that, when I’m most in the flow of it, become stories and essays that hopefully resonate.

More than one person has said it took courage for me to learn to swim at 66. For me it was more a question of finally doing something I’d been wanting to do for some time. Courage? Maybe. Or better yet, learning what buoyancy truly encompasses. 

Just keep swimming, the delightful Dory from Finding Nemo, tells me again and again. 

And I turn that metaphor on its head.

Just keep swimming . . . 

. . . and blogging?

I may not like the clunkiness of the word.  But I’m still at it, going on ten years since my first post, inspired by other writer/friends who had joined the web(log) bandwagon. Many have quit the habit, new writers find their way. But there are very few to beat C. M. Mayo, an inspiring and gifted writer indeed, for continual reinvention, and with it, the reminder that a blog is what you make of it.  I’ve come to think of mine as a notebook of sorts, public in the dialogue it makes possible between a writer and her readers. 

Letting Go

The other day I became obsessed with finding two books I could not easily locate.  It was a reference to one of them—The Family of Man—in Sally Mann’s wonderful memoir that set me on my mission.  The other book, To Be Nobody Else, bears a connection in my mind to The Family of Man, mostly for the photographs that make for a compelling narrative. They speak to a certain time in my life.

I looked in all the logical places I would have placed them after they’d been released from boxes following completion of a renovation.

I created stories – did I lend them to someone? Did I use them in a writing workshop?  Did I share them with a visiting friend who inadvertently tucked them under the sofabed? Books have a way of disappearing, then turning up in unexpected places.

Let it go, I said.

I looked at the same shelves over and over again, a strategy that sometimes works when my mind or eyes are not playing tricks on me.

Are they under a couch?

Let it go, I said.  They’ll either turn up. Or they won’t.

But I couldn’t let it go, and my last-ditch effort took me to the last place I would have expected to find them—a crawl space where my husband stores old files. Apparently some overflow boxes from the renovation were tucked away here, until they were forgotten.

I can breathe better now.

* * *

I grapple with letting go. The two concepts—‘grapple’ and ‘letting go’—would seem to be a contradiction, maybe even an oxymoron. Years of doing yoga have me yearning for ‘effortless effort’, that sense of moving from pose to pose with such fluidity that I’m (almost) light as a feather. I have my moments of grace, and I’m thankful for the patience and, yes, the consistent work that has brought me to these moments.  But I can’t help thinking the greatest insights come during the plateau phases or the walls we hit when striving for something. It’s the reason I decided to learn to swim at 66. 

There’s an image that comes to me sometimes when my breath moves into a slow, easy rhythm during meditation. I’m sitting on the edge of a high cliff, very much at peace. How I got here is beside the point.  To watch Alex Honnhold do his free solo climb of El Capitan is to bear witness to being as in the moment as it gets. Letting go is not an option.

Language is my métier. ‘Let go’ is a world apart from ‘let it go.’ One added word brings a pause. The free fall of letting go now has room to negotiate its landing.  

***

On a visit that my daughter used as an opportunity to clear out clutter (pre-Marie Kondo) she handed me a small box fashioned from a cut-up manila folder. Decals (a bat and a cat) adorn the outside of this time capsule. Inside is a cornucopia of candy wrappers, her private stash of indulgences not readily available in our home. 

I smiled.  This was not deprivation by design.  Her sweet tooth, like her father’s, found satisfaction enough during family outings, movie nights, birthdays, Halloween.  Or so I thought. No surprise that she’s become the baker her mother never was.

As I move into my own decluttering, is it time to let this precious memorabilia go? My daughter insists it is.

***

A very large Webster’s dictionary sits in a cubby all its own in my office. It’s something I acquired many years ago—1962, to be exact—an award with a name as cumbersome as the dictionary itself.

Take a peek. Read the inscription.

Elsa Ebeling—now there’s a name worthy of a short story.

I was just twelve when I graduated from eighth grade. A December baby, I would enter kindergarten before I turned five. In the middle of fourth grade I was plucked out of my class and moved into fifth grade. They called it ‘acceleration.’ I could only see it as displacement, but who was I to complain?

Eighth Grade Graduation Day, 1962. Valedictorian. As if the isolation of being singled out—oh so smart—weren’t enough, here I was standing on a stage looking out at a sea of faces, speaking words (mostly mine) but possibly made a little loftier by a teacher’s coaching. I finished my speech, back to my seat, a sigh of relief.  Only to find myself called back to the stage when the award was announced. 

I can still feel my heart thumping.

The gift of an oversize dictionary was, is, and will always be cumbersome.  It requires a table, maybe even a room, of its own to be of any practical use.  We kept it on a low bookshelf.  Sometimes I would lug it out for more than a basic definition of a word, other times just to be awed by words and illustrations that might open me to something unknown.

To call it an underutilized, if not underappreciated, tome is an understatement. 

Today, as I pull it from its cubby with every intention of letting it go, I can’t help seeing it as the embodiment of a very particular moment in my life much better expressed without words.

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

Last week found me a little more adventurous than usual on Instagram. I posted a photo, with a  caption, a bit tongue-in-cheek: ‘Cozying up for some inspirational reading. What will I choose first?”

If the purpose of social media, in its varied forms, is to let people know what you’re up to, get a conversation going, well, this photo says it all loudly and clearly. 

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

A day or so later I posted a selfie, the me (almost nobody) knows. I almost never post photos of myself, except within some cultural context: a museum, a reading, a rock concert. But, as I said, I was in a playful mood. Days later I was still getting responses.

Buddhist wisdom tells us intention is everything. What does it suggest when many of the less whimsical photos and posts I share—snapshots I deem artsy, New Yorker cartoons, essays on writers or books, news stories (sometimes political, more often not)—don’t necessarily spark the kind of conversation social media was set up to foster? 

Is it me?

Is it the nature of a beast more eager to feast on the up close and personal, moments as in-the-moment as it gets, than take the time to chew on fodder not so readily digested in the blink of an eye?  

Chanukah, the festival of lights in a season embodied by darkness, has come and gone.  From a standpoint of Staying Healthy with the Seasons, there’s something anomalous about all the frenzied gift-giving and partying that goes hand in hand with what Madison Avenue pumped up as a time to be merry.  Introspection—going inside, literally and figuratively—is the real call of winter. There’s a reason bears hibernate. 

Right now I’m introspecting (yes, that’s a word) about Idris Elba. Retro as the whole notion of ‘sexiest man alive’ may be in a #MeToo world, I can’t help but smile at his smile on the cover of People. It seems he was ‘robbed’ of that title in 2017, when it went to Blake Shelton (a travesty, indeed). But here we are, a year later, where my wait at the supermarket checkout found me deliberating whether to buy the one remaining copy on the magazine rack. A cover line—Did a Romance Novelist Murder Her Husband?—sealed the deal.  Oh, I’m in store for some meaty reading.

Apparently even more beefy than I realized at first glance. Hot Idris is followed by a host of runners up, cleverly anointed: John Krasinski: sexiest man of action. Chadwick Boseman: sexiest superhero. Chris Pine: sexiest dreamboat. And that’s just a sampling. My heart positively throbs when I see Terrance Hayes: sexiest writer 2014.

Glibness aside, I marvel at how the mind works. Months after hearing Terrance Hayes read from his work, his poetry continues to cast a spell. His latest collection, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is astonishing for its vision, power, and timeliness. 

 In the midst of all this introspecting comes a riveting James Baldwin essay from the New Yorker archives, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” that only adds to the despairing chill. Please don’t remind me we’ve been here before. Please let me believe that some of the progress we’ve made counts for something that allows me to be lifted by a feel-good holiday movie, Green Book and a subtly powerful play by Conor McPherson, Girl from the North Country. Set in Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota, and built on the songs of Bob Dylan, it’s nothing short of a reminder of Dylan’s brilliant way with music and words. 

Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you a king

Inspiration takes many forms, although a more apt description of what happens when a piece of music or a movie or a book captivates me is a sense of being infused with some aspect of it. 

Great fiction is often my best reboot. Then there’s meditation and the simple act of taking a walk. Crisp winter mornings, with the reflection of clouds in a lake, are a particular pleasure.

 And even if I may not, in this lifetime, experience the dissolution of ego that brings with it the sense of oneness with the universe,  I get glimpses of what might be that peaceful prelude to heightened consciousness via meditation.  

Or, again, via music, for the way it can’t help but infuse itself into the body.  In Michael Pollan’s thoroughly researched, personally validated examination of the new science of psychedelics and why they may be a powerful tool in psychotherapy, not to mention our understanding of consciousness, he makes note of an experiment in which  “pieces of music that held no personal relevance for volunteers were played for them while on LSD. Under the influence of the psychedelic, however, volunteers attributed marked and lasting personal meaning to the same songs.”

He also has this to say:

“If you want to understand what an expanded consciousness looks like, all you have to do is have tea with a four-year-old.”

Surfaces

I am by nature a person who likes order, everything in its place even if that place requires some reordering from time to time. Case in point: I have a thing for scarves. Just when I fear I have too many, I reorganize. Voilà—no more digging into a drawer to stumble on one I almost forgot I had. Abundance, something I do not take for granted, often becomes a nudge to divest.

There’s no having too many books, on the other hand.  The conundrum here is organizing them in a way that makes sense:  certain shelves devoted to poetry, others to art, novels grouped in ways even I sometimes puzzle over. I have my own logic (not alphabetical), which makes it all the more frustrating when I can’t locate a particular book that somehow is not on the very shelf in the very room where I was so sure I had put it.

Then there’s my kitchen. I certainly managed well enough before we reconfigured storage for plates, cookware, utensils, pantry staples. But a well-thought-out upgrade makes for a more efficient entertaining and cooking space. The pièce de resistance has to be a drawer devoted to spices 😉

Hard to say whether my affinity for order has a genetic component or is an acquired predisposition that comes from years of living in small apartments where the slightest disarray would seem magnified. And it hardly matters. I have a theory about space: the less you have, the more efficiently you use it.  Move from the small apartment to the large house on the hill and, for some reason, you have trouble finding room for everything.

All of which makes it amusing to me when I walk around my house to see things placed on surfaces everywhere. The bed in the room that was my daughter’s seems to have become my laundry sorting and folding surface.  I take my time, let freshly laundered clothes and towels sit there, until I’m ready to fold. Which could still be days before I put things away,

Issues of the New Yorker sit here and there, a visual point of pickup reminding me of articles I haven’t finished reading, new issues I haven’t even skimmed.

Whatever it is that brings some semblance of order to our lives is a good thing. Being a slave to order is not a good thing. Then again, order is one step removed from ritual, which is nothing if not a way of ordering our lives.  There’s no creating stories without sitting down regularly to write. There’s no quieting the mind in a meditation practice without sitting, paying attention to the in and out of breath, acknowledging the spin of thoughts and feelings that keep us from truly settling into the here and now, which brings us back to the in and out of breath. Open to any page in any of the books by the always enlightening Pema Chodron and something is bound to resonate. Here’s a Zen story I love from Comfortable with Uncertainty. It goes something like this: a man is by himself in a boat on the river in a boat at dusk. When he sees another boat coming toward him, it makes him happy at first to think someone else is enjoying the river on a summer night. The boat approaches faster and faster. The man stands up, screaming now for the boat to turn aside. The boat smashes into him. It’s an empty boat.

The mind is a knotty entity, sometimes leading us to perceive things not there.  As I keep trying to fathom the wisdom of Buddhism, I do my best to let that bigger thing called Mind remind me that everything really does change. Impermanence is the real order of our lives.  Barely a week ago, in this wintry Northeast landscape, the surface of the lake I walk around when weather permits was frozen solid. A bombogenesis that left me with a new word to play with and lots of snow gave way to much milder weather and a lawn I can see again. Today the lake is once again frozen. Think of all the shapes water takes and the metaphors it embodies. Even when surface water freezes, something is going on below.

 

As I sit writing, I get word of the death of someone once married to a cousin of mine. I have not seen her in years. What her death brings to the surface are feelings about the distance—in miles as much as mind—that loosens family ties once so tightly bound.  Expectation surrounding rituals (birth, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, funerals) once a given, gives way to less absolute assumptions. Death brings a pause to any order in our day, not to mention our lives. Memories close to the surface, colored by time, may make us long for something long gone. Deeper memories paint a truer picture of the home we left, the one we can never really go back to.

 

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

An autumn morning, window open to the cool air. I settle myself on a gray cushion that puts me in the mindset of meditation, choose my music. No sooner do I close my eyes than I hear a thud (or two or three) that sounds alarming. How can I possibly stay put with Henny-Penny running through my brain? I get up, look out the window open to the deck below. Turns out what I’m hearing is the sound of one (or two or many) hickory nuts falling. Branches are dropping, too. I look up at the tree. A squirrel is flying from branch to branch. Another squirrel has landed on the deck railing. Autumn is their rush hour.

A few days of that thump-thump and it feels like old hat. I can do what meditation appears intended to help me do. Acknowledge the sounds, take in the thought, get back to the breathing, the moment.

So often so much easier said than done. I reassure my chattering brain with a story that speaks to my dilemma.

A student tells her master about her morning’s meditation experience. “My mind was clear,” she says. “Thoughts did not get in that way.” Her master’s response: “That is good.” The next day she has a different experience. “My mind would not quiet down,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking.” Her master’s response: “That is good.”

There’s a part of me (the expansive one, I call her) who trusts the wisdom here. Sit long enough to let the chattering brain slow down and you know it’s only good. No need to be hard on myself if one day’s attempt at meditation doesn’t quite bring serenity. It’s not about goals. It’s not about judgment. It’s about simply being in the moment to the best of my ability. Every day is different. Change is the only constant.

There’s another part of me (the contracted one, I call her) ruled by a mind afraid to lose even one thought.

Some days, the face of that horrible man with orange hair slips out of my consciousness almost as easily as he seems to have invaded it. Some days, the anxieties surrounding the future of our world, the anger and tears fueled by calculated acts of mass murder dissipate. This is not about denial. This is not about feeling helpless, a word I’m hearing too much lately. This (I think) is about giving in to a larger reality that knows everything changes. Day by day. Month my month. Year by year.

On any given day, when I’m out for a walk, there’s a certain tree on the road whose large leaves I marvel at, especially the way they appear to be shooting off branches from the lower end of the trunk. I think it’s a linden. Only when I finally decide to stop for a closer look do I see that this is a tree of two trunks, one truncated and giving rise to its own network of branches. Appearances can be deceiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with unnatural fluctuations in seasonal temperatures, leaves are turning. Soon enough autumn’s peak moment will come and go.  Trees will become a lacework of bare branches, though this winter will bring to my home panorama spruce and boxwood touches of green.

Then there’s the lawn itself, a long time coming. I marvel at how quickly seeds become grass.

 I look forward to a yard without mud puddles from melting snow. This has not been a situation of neglect. It’s more a question of living with a man for whom interior and exterior design are all of a piece. If you’re going to finally get around to the lawn, you do it with a vision. You do it with a sense of landscape as an extension of what you see through the windows and glass doors. My house has always been a work in progress, major renovation when we first moved in (1995), followed over the years by an addition (2008), more interior/exterior repairs and updates, a new kitchen just this past summer, and last but hardly least, landscaping.

Everything in its time.

Everything takes time—unloading the dishwasher, reading emails, checking in on Facebook and Twitter. Sorting real news from fake news. Doing laundry. Reading. Doing yoga. Going out for a walk. Sitting down to write. Some things feel as if they take too much of our time. Some things feel as if they’re never done. And how is it that those moments and events we look forward to months ahead of time—a concert, a visit from an out-of-town friend, a wedding, publication of book—seem to have arrived in a flash?

Everything changes.

Right now it’s raining. The wind is blowing. And those hickory nuts are falling fast and furiously. I’m tempted to take a break from writing, snap a few more photos. It’s what these times have programmed into us: capture the moment, iPhone at the ready, with or without ourselves in the picture. Because we can. If we wait too long the moment will pass, something will change. And in the instant it takes to snap a photo, how often do we stop to think about what we might be missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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