This morning, I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms lifted over my head, lowering and raising and lowering, and aching and burning, and I began thinking about something else entirely. I remembered baking bread on Sunday afternoon, while listening to the Sunday Edition on podcast, an hour on Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written by Victor Frankl in 1946, shortly after he was released from a German concentration camp; his parents, brother and pregnant wife all died in concentration camps, a suffering I cannot fathom. And yet, Frankl wrote a book that is still in print, its words still luminous with love. On the program, his biographer discussed the fundamental flaw in the pursuit of happiness—the pursuit itself, the pursuit of a goal that cannot be forced into being, if happiness is even a reasonable or desirable pursuit at all. The more you chase it, the further from you it speeds. And, said the man, the relentless focus on the self, on creating happiness for oneself, dooms the enterprise. It’s only when we turn away from ourselves and focus on others that we become—not happy, but whole. We find meaning in our life because we’ve reached beyond ourselves.
Love is meaning. The only way to fully inhabit the self is to look, listen, love beyond the self.
I sat in kundalini yoga, my arms aching, and remembered, and remembered more: yesterday afternoon, chopping mounds of onions and sweet potatoes for our Thanksgiving dinner, listening to another podcast: Tapestry, with Mary Hines, an interview with a woman who had corresponded with Omar Khadr when he was a prisoner at Guantanomo Bay; the woman had become his teacher, and she testified on his behalf at a trial. She talked about the fear of God in a way that made this fear make sense: not cowering under fear of punishment by an angry god, but fear of refusing God’s invitation to action. Fear of making a choice based on the shallow terms on which we so often base our choices: fear of being judged by others, fear of looking foolish, fear of being singled out, fear of taking a stand and having to suffer the consequences. When none of these worldly or earthly pressures could shake the more profound fear of not doing justice, of not doing right—this, she said, was the fear of God. I look in awe at those with courage to stand firm in their convictions; does this strength come from a bigger place and purpose?
Do we know what is right? Do we know what is just?
The woman on Tapestry spoke about being pulled in an unexpected direction, a direction not of her own choosing. An invitation, an opening, a tidal pull, a crack where the light gets in.
As I sat in kundalini, I asked myself, as my arms spun circles and ached terribly, where am I pulled, who are the others upon whom I turn my gaze?
Stories, I heard.
You have stories, you already have stories, and stories pull you always out of yourself. Yet you resist their pull, you resist even the idea that you might be good at something, that you’ve written stories that are like gifts, in a way, that mean something larger than yourself—that don’t belong to you.
Who are you to say you should change course and seek a new outlet for your desire to be of use in this world? That’s not pull, that’s push, that’s pursuit.
I am so tired.
I stayed up to watch the Blue Jays game on Sunday night; the Blue Jays game and the presidential debate. After the debate, the Blue Jays won, which was fun. But I found myself unable to shake the image from earlier, of a composed, self-contained woman being stalked around the stage by a much-larger, hostile man, his eyelids narrowed, his rage and disgust scarcely contained.
It disturbed me.
Today, when I walked to yoga class, I had to pass by a number of men who were working on the hydro lines outside my house. I was one woman, they were many men. I did not fear them. But somewhere in the back of my brain, I wondered whether these men might speak of women the way that Trump was heard speaking of women, I wondered whether Trump is telling the truth and most men (or even some men, or even a few, which is more than enough) view women as sexual objects, to be desired or loathed, end of story; or are we to be “championed and revered,” as another Republican (Paul Ryan, to be precise) said when rebutting Trump, which sounded almost as terrible, in a weird way, as if I, as a woman, could not operate on my own steam, as if I, as a woman, were a figure of worship, mythical, not quite real. And then I shook my head and thought of all the open-hearted men in my life. And I kept on walking.
I’ve always chosen to believe that I can be myself, as a woman—small in stature, ordinary, complicated, messy, curious—and be accepted as an equal in any situation, and much of my experience confirms this; but when confronted with the evidence shown in that debate on Sunday night, my spirit shrank, a bit.
I wonder whether other women feel the same.
Here’s how to do AppleApple’s mindfulness meditation: an example taken from a moment last week, when I was at her soccer practice, sitting inside the car, and it was pouring rain. It was my “easy” day of the week. I’d eaten supper in less than 10 minutes between piano lessons and leaving for practice (and picking up Fooey at a friend’s house). The idea is that you ground yourself in the moment by going through a gradually diminishing list of what you see, hear, and feel. Feel refers to physical sensations, rather than emotions. It’s incredibly simple and can be done anywhere. You are also supposed to breathe deeply while making these lists to yourself.
I see … rain drops; lines on the car windshield; a red blinking light that makes no sense; the word Ford; the steering wheel
I see … my blue water bottle, the mcdonald’s sign, the grey cloud cover, trees
I see … my computer, my hands, my ring
I see … both legs in black pants, these words
I see … the blue background of my computer screen
I hear … rain drops on the windshield, the bumping noise when this laptop hits the steering wheel as I type, the sound of the keys being hit, rain drops slowing, raindrops pattering
I hear … the typing, my breathing, the sound of a car engine, raindrops
I hear … a car passing behind me, rain, my mouth chewing gum
I hear … rain, cars
I hear … rain on roof
I feel … an ache in my right upper leg, dry lips, the need to swallow, an itch on my foot, my back curved uncomfortably against the car seat
I feel … my right leg against plastic, my left leg against the door, my back pressing the seat, an ache in my right shoulder blade
I feel … warm, my mouth wants to move, the itch on my foot has not gone away
I feel … the laptop pressing my legs, my nails and finger pads hitting the keys
I feel … an itch in my left armpit
Often when I do this exercise, I only get to the first seeing ones. Often, that’s enough to ground me in the moment. I admit there are moments in which a person does not want to be grounded but would prefer an escape. As someone with a lively imagination, I often prefer escape. That said, escape isn’t always possible or even preferable and this exercise helps me deal with the reality I’m actually in.
I have used this mindfulness meditation in the past week on a variety of occasions: while driving to a soccer game in the middle of nowhere, feeling lost and late due to having to take a major detour around construction; after a run in the heat when I was feeling light-headed; in boot camp while lifting weights; by the water at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto before my panel on Friday.
I plan to write more about the panel later this week.
PS The above photo is from a different soccer event from either mentioned in this post. But it will have to do for illustrative purposes.
At the beginning of this year, I had the idea of choosing a theme for each month, something I would particularly focus on, no matter what else was happening.
January’s theme was daily meditation and writing.
February’s theme is writing, travel and rest. I did no writing while travelling. None. Instead of writing, I rested—it was mental rest as much as physical rest. The time spent driving proved unexpectedly peaceful, as if my mind had been craving space. How often do I let myself stare out the window, how often do I let my mind wander? There are moments, certainly, throughout the day, but these are of necessity brief, fleeting.
Spacious wandering. Staring out the window. Can I do this more often? Can I give myself permission?
I was ready to write again when we got home!
I was also ready for a few changes. In keeping with February’s theme of rest, I am trying to get more sleep. This means going to bed earlier. I managed to be in the bed with the lights out before 10PM all week, and it made the early morning exercise so much easier, and more sensible.
I’m also five days into a two-week experiment with giving up caffeine (especially coffee). I’d been drinking a lot of coffee, and in truth, it seemed to feed my nervous energy and anxiety. Peppermint tea is an okay replacement; I can’t complain (can I complain?). My insides feel steadier. Rest.
As in January, I continue to meditate. This week I’ve been combining meditation with movement because it keeps me awake. It also gives me a chance to practice some kundalini yoga at home.
I haven’t chosen a theme for March, yet.
Other themes I’m interested in exploring in the months ahead include: reading (imagine sitting and reading for a whole month!), research, music (songwriting/recording), photography, yoga and meditation, swimming, writing fiction by hand. What would be on your list?
My word of this year is PEACE.
Usually I test out a few words and make an impulsive final choice right before meeting with my WOTY friends. This year, peace was the first word I tried and it felt immediately right. Maybe it’s the way it makes me feel the instant I say or think it. Just to repeat the word peace makes my breathing a little deeper and steadier, seems to calm or comfort me.
The word peace seems connected to the state of being I described in my previous post, on my changing relationship to writing. I don’t want to suggest that I’m no longer anxious about what I’m writing, that I’m not scared sometimes when I write, that I don’t worry about what I’m making. I’m saying that I can feel those emotions and still sense beneath them a sturdiness of purpose and identity that feels solid or rooted, or whole. Maybe, I think, confidence and purpose pours forth from a place of peace.
I am also drawn to the word because pacifism is an important part of my faith tradition. What does pacifism mean, as a lived principle? I want to study how to make peace a part of my life and being. I want to reflect on the concept of peace—is it merely the absence of negatives, of conflict or war? Or is it, rather, the presence of something powerful, even in situations of conflict or distress? Yes, I think so. Peace exists underneath. It can be the source of something, or it can be a state of being. In my meditation right now, I’m exploring the difference between a state of mind that is created by positive thinking, such as “You can do this!”, and a state of mind that is not dependent on exterior forces or encouraging self-talk. It can’t be forgotten or mislaid. It’s just there. It’s like water flowing underground, or like a river that is always flowing. Peace like a river.
What I hope not to explore this year is passivity—an offshoot of the word peace. My intention is not to ignore or avoid conflict. I want to figure out how to address and acknowledge conflict, how to engage with different opinions and ideas, how to disagree without feeling threatened. How to let others be. How often do I choose not to speak my mind, or not to step up and engage, because I’m uncomfortable acknowledging that to do so would be to admit disagreement? It isn’t that conflict doesn’t exist, it’s only that I’m pretending it doesn’t exist. That is not, ultimately, a peaceful stance. It is a passive stance.
Here’s what I believe: Problems can’t be solved or resolved without some conflict, some clashing between different points of view, some emotional discomfort; it often feels easier to walk away, to ignore the problem or complain about it behind the scenes, without confrontation; and sometimes walking away is a measured decision, if we’re not prepared or strong enough for confrontation, or if the problem isn’t worth the risk of disruption to an important relationship. But if change is wanted, change is needed, change is longed for, it’s worth asking: How does change come about? What’s my part? All change is disruptive. It causes discomfort. This year, I challenge myself to engage, to disagree, to disappoint, to carry uncomfortable emotions, to take responsibility for my beliefs, and to express them from a place of peace.
Peace is a kind word. It’s a caring word. I think it’s a word that will take me outside of my own head and desires, and connect me to others.
This year, I’m going to rely on the strength of this word. It’s shaping up to be a year of travel, of new responsibilities and ventures, and of trying to keep my shit together while the whirl of our family’s activities and personalities, mixed with my own ambitions and desires, spins and dances and pulls me in many different directions.
Peace. Peace. Peace.
Immersion is the word of the week. On Monday morning, our family switched off holiday-mode and jumped into the deep end. I feel like each day has doors that open into different rooms, sometimes into wildly different rooms, and I open a door, step over the threshold, and adapt to whatever role is required of me; and then it’s on to the next door.
The key is to keep the other doors closed while securely inside any given room. Every once in awhile everything will tumble out into the hallway, where it will need to be sorted, organized, and assigned back its proper place. Or, I find, it’s helpful to leave stuff in the hallway. Forget about it. Don’t sweat it. It will be waiting for me when I’m ready to sort it out, eventually. (The hallway represents email, I think, more than anything.)
On Monday morning, I opened the door to the swimming pool with my eldest daughter, and she taught me how to do a flip turn! What a fabulous and unexpected beginning to this new year. I’ve been terrified of learning, but she gently urged me to try, and try again, and by the end of the lesson, I was able to sprint to the wall, flip turn, and sprint back again — my mind lost in effort, my fears lost, too.
I neither believed I would be able learn this new skill, nor imagined I would ever try to learn. It was such a happy surprise to discover that this new skill was within reach; and I couldn’t have done it if someone else hadn’t believed that I could, even when I didn’t believe it. Is this a metaphor for an approach to the every day? To attempt new things, even slightly unwillingly, even if you can’t quite see the point? To allow yourself to be coached, nudged, gently? To take pride in the smallest of achievements — that too. Because, I thought, if I can learn this, imagine what else I can learn!
The writing adventure has filled quickly. As of this posting, there are two spots remaining, and a few drop-in days, so if you’re mulling but interested, get in touch. I’ve had several people wonder whether the adventure could be for them, as they are not writers, and the answer is, yes: think of this as a creativity workshop, with writing as the medium.
Time to open another door, now. It’s a lovely threshold to step over. All this week, I’ve been meditating and then diving directly into writing (fiction) for several hours, while turning off my phone and email notifications. It’s bliss, but it’s also highly productive.
Wishing you a day of immersion and focus whatever doors you may open.
Here we are, day one of a new year. I’ve walked the dogs through gently falling snow flakes. The children slept till 10AM. We have this one last day of our unusually relaxing holiday to do as we please, each of us, before the new year’s schedule clocks in tomorrow morning.
Of course I am thinking about what I’d like to do this year, in addition to what I’m already doing; what would I like to try, what experiment shall I undertake, what challenge, what adventure, what’s calling? And I have a small idea, a possibility I’ve been mulling for awhile that seemed affirmed yesterday by the conflating coincidences of driving across town on an unexpected errand while listening to an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was talking about the creative impulse. The creative impulse is not benign, she said (and I paraphrase). If it isn’t put to use, if it isn’t acknowledged and fed, if it isn’t set free, it will find its own damaging purpose.
I began thinking about rage, just under the surface.
I was driving along a street I don’t very often take anymore, and it triggered a memory: that I’d stopped for gas, at a gas station that no longer exists, in fact, with two toddlers strapped into car seats in the back of our old red truck. I was enormously pregnant with my third child, and it was hot, a summer’s day, and we’d just gotten a load of groceries. I filled up the truck with gas, and as I was walking around the hood of the truck to climb back in to the driver’s seat, a man approached me. He looked, if not homeless, then close to homeless, and with a rough voice he asked if he could bum a cigarette.
My response shocked even me.
Rage. It was rage that poured out, with no warning, no pre-emptive interlude. “Do I look like I would have a cigarette?” I snapped at him, almost shaking with my fury, indicating my pregnant belly.
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
I got into the truck and slammed the driver’s side door, vibrating with rage.
I didn’t know what had come over me. I didn’t know why I was so very angry. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be feeling what I was feeling in that moment.
But now, I think maybe I understand. Like raging people all over this earth, my wider, deeper emotions were not accessible to me at that time in my life. I was repressing a great deal: disappointment about my career, the sense of boredom and aimlessness as I struggled to be a stay-at-home mom, exhaustion from the drudgery of the day-to-day. There were many things I was not telling myself, or allowing myself to feel, because I couldn’t have borne it. So when tapped or triggered, there was only one emotion on offer: rage. Rage is a defensive emotion. It lashes out so as to prevent us from feeling anything else.
I’ll never know exactly why the man’s question set me off, but I think I was afraid of him, and did not want him near me. I felt vulnerable. I also felt morally righteous. Whatever it was, I was feeling something for which rage was a cover. I was ambushed by my own inexplicable fury.
I think unless we allow ourselves to experience a full range of emotions, including those emotions that indict us for our own failings — jealousy, envy, disappointment, humiliation, fear, uncertainty, grief — we will be at the mercy of that one emotion that is always on tap, always available, a defence against what the world may think of us, and what we may think of ourselves deep inside. Rage rage against the dying of the light. Yes. But rage rage against the accusations that we know to be true, and the terror of being fragile, and the admission of loneliness and failure, and the misery of not knowing everything best.
Rage rage against being human and fallible.
Rage rage against culpability.
Rage rage against knowing thyself, because to know thyself truly is to know some awfully dark truths, is to acknowledge enormous imperfections, and ugly vanities, and moral failings.
Yet I maintain that it is better to know thyself than to remain lodged in clotted rage, railing against the world, and spewing harm and hurt. The hurt your rage will cause to your own self is far greater than any hurt you could bring upon yourself by knowing yourself truly. It is only when we see ourselves as vulnerable and weak and wrong (rather than wronged) that we can see others with compassion, and love too.
And the rage will diminish.
It really will. It will not shock you with its sudden emergence, or hurt those you love most dearly. You will feel its potential, yes, but you will know what it means, and hear what it’s saying: you will feel behind the rage to the emotion that rage is trying to protect you from feeling, and you will be able to name it, and to access it, and to experience it. It is only through experiencing the deeper emotion that you can understand yourself, and get through that emotion.
I am alert now to my own rage. I know it’s trying to tell me something more profound. Why am I so angry? Is this moment deserving of my anger? So rarely it is. Almost never, in truth. And pouring out my rage, pouring it onto to someone else, is unacceptable, always. I believe that. So if it happens, when it happens, I try to name that too. To apologize immediately. Never to let myself off the hook. To reflect. There is always more work to do. Because it is easy to mistake rage for purpose, for fuel. At least it’s better to feel something than nothing, maybe? But the opposite of rage is not emptiness, it’s not nothing, it’s not depression, it’s not powerlessness, it’s not silence. The opposite of rage is connection.
Here is my idea. This coming year, I would like to host writing adventures in my home. It will be an experiment, I confess. The point will be to use the physical act of writing — writing by hand onto the page — to bring us into a meditative state of focus, in which we can access memories, draw them forth. We’ll leap from the intensive imaginative images we’re experiencing in our minds into the adventure of fiction. The exercises will be guided, the space will be safe, and none of us will be able to guess in advance where we might travel to on any given evening. Being or becoming a writer is not the point. The process is the point. Play is the point. Adventure is the point. Discovering and mapping our own inner imaginative space is the point. Anyone can participate. Everyone has a creative impulse. This is just one of a myriad of ways to express it, but it’s the method I can offer, if you’re looking for an opening, if you’re looking for a way in. Or out. Or deep down.
Please send me a message if you’re interested and I’ll keep you in the loop as the idea becomes a plan.
Happy New Year!
PS The title of this post is the first line of a poem by Rumi called “The diver’s clothes lying empty.” Look it up if you don’t already know it. Read it out loud. It will tell you everything I’ve written here, and much more.