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the only act

Begin again
And again
That is the only act
This constant stepping into the next from the now
The yolk pouring from its shell
The crown breaching from the mother ship.

Begin again
And again
With or without us this is the only direction
Our true north
Even when we desperately try to steer in a different direction
Deaf and blind to what is.

Begin again
And again
Birthing ourselves into death
Teaching ourselves through failure
Holding our hands to the flame
Until we wake up.

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luminous waking

In luminous waking,

Half here, half in that other world,

I feel my parents’ faces on mine —

A geologic strata of limestone covering granite,

Layers of earlier eras

Calcified and yet not immune to weather.

My jaw is tensed, lips pinched, tongue bracing.

Intentionally, I relax it all,

One tiny nameless muscle at a time,

And return to terra firma.

 

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vulnerable

As I get older, as my power grows, as my voice both mellows and deepens with a slower, earned cadence, I become more vulnerable.

Of course, this worldly wisdom brings with it knowledge of all of the ways that life could appear on Monday and then look upside down and utterly unrecognizable by Friday. The knowledge that the breast under my hand in the shower could be carrying a tumor. That the next phone call could announce a heart attack or a lost job. And that even joy brings with it change–friends and children moving away, turning of chapters.

The vulnerability isn’t just about wisdom, though. It is like a geologic layer in my body that has been gradually returning to the surface. It was there as an infant and then went gone underground, pushed there by the stories and needs and words of family, teachers, institutions, doctors, partners, and the daily news. Pushed down and filled over with layers of thorns, sharp rocks, and rubble.

The practices make it rise. Do your practice, you hear again and again. Meditate. Go inside. Move into the body. Write for yourself. Practice. All — so it can seem — to reunite with self and to find more ease.

But instead, the practices rise up this semi-permeable layer of vulnerability, made from the softest bone. The inner jaw. The tip of the elbow. The delicate back of the heel.

The practices brush away those denser protective layers until the chalky white protrudes into the soil of right now. Until it comes into contact with all of the doing of life — all of the ways that we try to be useful and busy and good.

The vulnerability sucks. It hurts. And really, all I want to do is eat over it, Netflix over it, or even become smarter than it. Because it is mute – not interested in conversation in the usual sense — and demands that I sit in quiet and let the bugs crawl over me, let the tears run down my face without wiping them away, let the clouds pass. Vulnerability demands that whatever arises is just right.

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listen

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” Hildegard von Bingen

All day long, we listen to others. The constant churn of news and the pithy statements of acquaintances stream across our screens, while music and advertising, Netflix and the buzz of our phones pulls us away from our inner voice until it is so faint we can hardly recognize it.

Other people’s messages, some of which might be well-developed and robust but much of which is vapid and tinny, fills our ears and eyes. We live through others’ lenses, through others’ voices.  Recently, I canceled all of my therapy appointments, not because I don’t like my therapist, but because I realized that it was another way in which I was blocking my own inner voice. Ironic, yes, since therapy is theoretically one way we learn to listen; but it can also be a crutch when we let another person’s voice tamp out our own.

I returned last week from five blessed nights of being in silence on a retreat. By the final day, I was beginning to discern a small gurgle, the original source of creativity and wonder, the deep well of my own voice. Now, back home in the noise of the news (“disloyal slime ball”) and school forms, of the dog whining and the dryer singing its end-of-cycle tune, I am trying to listen.

I wonder about this world that is so full of noise. Does the noise — and I use that broadly to describe the fear-laced, hurry-up static that crackles through so much of our daily lives — make us anxious? Or, do we create the noise in order to avoid the silence because it makes us anxious?

In talking with a friend who also has high school kids, we shared notes on how prevalent weed is with teenagers — like, really prevalent; like aspirin prevalent–including a lot of very successful, high achieving kids. We agreed that it’s a form of self-medicating to deal with the stress of their hyped up lives that bounce from one form of testing and competition to the next.

“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” If so, may I suggest you listen harder, breathe more deeply, and live more vividly? ~ Mary Oliver

Few kids are okay with silence. It’s not even a known quantity to them, and when it does occur it’s as unsettling as the sudden soundless gap that arrives just before the monster attacks in a horror film. (The new horror film A Quiet Place plays with this cultural fear.) It can’t be good; that’s the message our society gives us about silence.

Because there in that pond of quiet lives our selves. Lives our real desires. Lives our truest hurts. And none of this — beautiful and difficult — is something the world wants to cope with.

Take schools, for example. Sure, they’re noisy by nature. But I’m not talking about “outdoor voices.” Rather, it’s the noise of testing, the noise of worksheets, and the relentless pace to do more — even if for very little clear reason — that keeps kids (and their parents) so stressed they can hardly pause to question the system or demand something different. Everyone is just too zapped attempting to keep up with some phantom line in the sand.

If they could pause and feel into what they really want to learn, would it be geometry and American literature presented in the same way without a nod to personal relevance, or even to real world application? And if they could pause and think about how they learn, would they want to sit in rows of six and take in facts in order to regurgitate them on a test without a nod to personal passion, or even to the world’s very real needs? I doubt it.

It’s scary to stop and listen. You hear just how deeply broken things are. But you can also find the spring. In geologic terms, a spring is water that comes to the surface from an overflowing aquifer. We need to get in touch with our own geology. Quiet is what will allow us to refill our wells to the point they can bubble over. This may sound like metaphor, but I’m certain — from my own being’s experience — that it is truth.

Silence leads to boredom. Boredom leads to curiosity about heretofore unnoticed things — our breath, the crack above the fireplace, the song of the returned robins. Curiosity leads to new ideas. New ideas lead to creativity. Which leads to greater understanding of one’s self and one’s world. And can, sometimes, lead to rabble rousing of various sorts–mischievous, political, artful, compassionate; but no matter what or how it leads to a way of being that does not swallow anything whole.

So, just this: Listen.

 

A sampling from Saint Hildegarde: https://soundcloud.com/rachmaninov-1/o-euchari-de-sancto-euchario

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April snow

All night, the flakes have come. Yesterday, on the drive home from Wisconsin, they came. Now, at noon on a Monday, they fall. Singular. Slow. Lazy. And yet they come.

It is April 9, the anniversary of my father’s death. Don’t ask me how many years; my mind doesn’t work like that. But too long.

I remember his voice. Dictating notes into the night in the room next to mine. Good natured teasing. Asking if my insurance was up to date.

I used to never dream about him, but now he appears. I can always hear him. That deep voice.

He wears a yellow mustard polo shirt over faded Levi’s. Clenches his jaw. Laughs. Drinks a beer. These were things he was good at.

“See you outside,” he tells me from one end of an Irish pub, which I then try to wend my way through and across, but when I finally reach the back door and push into the evening air of the alley, I can only see his backside disappearing around a corner.

All day. These flakes cover up the tulips that are an inch or two out of the ground.

All day. These flakes confuse the spring birds.

On the highway last night, the flakes smattering on my windshield, a heron flew across the highway. It’s large, dark body such a surprise, as though pulling the sea behind it.

Inches below the earth, the peonies I transplanted to my father’s grave are waiting for their turn to go on. The curtain call seemed to be imminent, but now they’ve gone back to sleep.

And yet they’ll come. They always come. A brilliant, fragrant reminder of the awful loss.

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barstool

The best thing about traveling might be the slices. The moments. The unexpected, unsought slivers of other realities that reflect back to us how ephemeral and yet resilient, how unique and yet shared our lives are.

Two nights ago, as my family sat in a bar on Frenchmen Street listening to our friend and his band literally play the blues and eating cheap BBQ wings, I went in search of something less meaty. The Lebanese place a few doors down was oddly quiet, so I tried the divey place across the street with an unlikely menu that included seared tofu, an avocado and egg sandwich, and vegan chili.

I chose a place in the middle of the bar and the bearlike tender took my order, which included the drink I’d discovered earlier on the trip–a Pimm’s Cup. This one turned out to be the McDonald’s coffee equivalent of the earlier drink’s single origin pour over.  I sipped on it a bit reluctantly as I took in the view from my stool.

An older woman was propped on her mobility scooter in front of a slot machine, a red plastic drink cup of change in one hand. A 20-something kid with high cheekbones and wind rumpled hair charged in from the street, pushing his bike in with him and propping it against the wall. He immediately went to the woman standing over her and announcing, “I followed them and told them to fuck off. They won’t be back.” She nodded only the slightest bit, whether in agreement or gratitude, I couldn’t tell. “You okay?” he asked, to which she nodded again. Then he planted himself at one end of the bar and began to harangue the bartender. Whether he was a regular or a fellow employee on a break, I couldn’t tell, but the tender’s lack of appreciation for him was clear. They had an ornery exchange about the time —the tender having asked the younger guy, who was on his phone what time it was, and the guy complaining that he wasn’t his servant.

At the other end, a pair who were also friendly with the bartender, devoured a giant plate of tachos–a combo of tater tots and nachos–that the cook, a tall, muscular guy wearing one of those Polo shirts with an absurdly large pony logo on the breast–brought out. “Hot sauce, please; the good stuff,” said the woman, and the tender went straight to a little fridge and handed her a plastic squeeze bottle that seemed to be made just for her.

Looking over all of this at the far end was the eye of a television. It was tuned to CNN, and I squinted trying to read the latest Trump firing, before the cook sauntered over and changed the channel to a movie. Two women were driving an old hotrod of a car through what appeared to be sunburnt California hills, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. Chained to the hood with handcuffs, a third woman was sprawled on her back, screaming with pleasure at what was evidently a bizarre joy ride. From a faraway hill, Kurt Russell spied them and gave a malevolent smile from his deeply scarred face before taking off toward them. Once he caught up, the next several minutes of the movie–all the way through the delivery and first piping hot half of my egg sandwich–were of Kurt ramming his car into theirs as they all hurtled over hills and off road, the woman on the car losing one of her handcuffs as she whipped this way and that on the hood. There wasn’t much dialogue, but I did catch, “Honey Pie, I’m real scared!”

A couple in their fifties came in wearing cardigans and slacks, nice haircuts and expensive-looking eyeglasses, and planted themselves at the farthest slot machine–the older woman now having taking up residence on the middle one. They ordered glasses of wine, which arrived in plastic flutes, and were still there when I left, not talking as the woman pulled the arm.

The kid with the bike disappeared out the back, and a short guy with a reddish beard and a swoop of hair that he tucked behind one ear took his place. He and the bartender started exchanging friendly notes about the new Fantastic Beast film. “Yeah, that’s definitely the brother,” said the leprechaun newcomer; “I slowed it way down and freeze framed it.”

As I was paying my tab, I turned to him, “When does the film come out?” They were already a few minutes beyond that conversation, so he paused. “Fantastic Beast?” At this, he burst out–I’m pretty sure jocularly, but I wouldn’t put all my money on it; “I knew it! I knew you were listening!”  I gave him a smile and a thumbs up, left a few bucks on the bar, and walked out into the waning light and growing crowds on Frenchmen Street.

 

 

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framed

It’s that endless gray and deep cold of February that suggests there never was such a thing as summer, and there will never be anything akin to spring. All of that is a dream. This is the now. This is the reality in which we will live forever.

That is how it feels this morning at 7:30 as I drive my son to band practice. With just a half a cup of coffee in me and a bit of morning meditation to wakefulness, I notice the world.

Every day the same drive. There is the orange cat that sleeps on the back of the sofa in the picture window across from the school driveway, one leg stretched over the back. The speed humps, intended to slow fledgling teenage drivers on the side streets, are so covered in snow that they’re hardly noticeable. I pass another mom driving her son. I knew her back when the boys were in grade school, both of us recently divorced. She’s been married and divorced again since. Does she know that her right turn signal is on? The bare branches of oaks and maples stab at the sky, angry at their nakedness.

And there at the corner standing outside his half opened door in a robe is my friend the artist. He’s holding a small garbage bag and is looking ahead, not moving, as though testing the morning air and wondering at getting from the house to the curb, through the snow, through the cold. He looks like a painting. Not moving, draped in the fog of his breath, lit by the thin grey morning sky, framed by the doorway.

I take him in — the ineffable beauty — and drive home to make lunches, to shower, to wait for the plumber, to walk the dog. To carry on with this life.