mentors: the body

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The quasi-Pentecostal world I grew up in was a world of the spirit, of feeling.  Our bodies were present of course – our legs carried us to church, our hands leapt skyward in worship, our voiceboxes grew hoarse with singing – but the body was only a container for the spiritual.  And it was easily led astray, easily tainted, and destined to be abandoned one day.  The idea that the body itself had wisdom,  that it, like the rest of the physical world held old echoes of order and knowledge, or thrummed with the power to guide the spirit, was completely foreign to me.

On top of that, I was a sedentary, bookish girl.  I got an F in the one Physical Education class I didn’t manage to avoid.  If ever there was a person disconnected from their own muscle and bone, it was me. The discovery of my body as a wise mentor has been a slow one.  I’m sure it began with a connection to foods and nutrition, but I think my real awareness came when I began to do yoga daily.   The quiet focus, intentional alignment, patient postures, slow breathing, all began to work on me, ironically, in a deeply spiritual way.  One morning, my online teacher said,  “Breathe deep, spread your arms wide, take up space,” and something clicked for me.  I could take up space in the world.  I didn’t need to apologize for my belief or unbelief, for my difference, for my feeling.  I could stretch my arms, speak out, inhabit the ground where I stood.  Trying to hold a balancing posture gave me an idea of how muscles can work in opposition, one leg pulling, the other pushing, but both aimed at creating a beautiful form, a powerful line.  It’s the embodiment of what I’m constantly facing with my work – the push of family against the pull of words.  Tension, the body is teaching me,  is not the enemy, but a friend.  The lessons are plentiful, and every time I roll out that mat, I learn more.

Yoga gave me confidence to push my body even further.  I took up running in January, something I’ve tried and given up on about every two years since high school.  But the strength and balance I found in yoga helped me confront the challenges of running in a new way.  And as I’ve stuck running out, my body has responded with more to teach me. For example, the beginning of a run is always terrible.  Every single time.  But it gets better, and thirty minutes later, I feel like the Queen of the World. Progress is made incrementally.  I’ve worked my way up from couldn’t-run-a-full-minute to three miles straight by going just a little further each day.  First I make it to that post, then the next day, the tree, the next day the stop sign.  It’s not that much different from writing a novel: press through the mental blocks, each day get a little distance, and the results will come.  I never saw it so clearly until I’d practiced it with my own legs and lungs.

As Jigar Gor, an Ayurvedic physician, says, “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.”  One of my most important mentors lives with me every single day and I'm pretty astounded by that.

I’ve got another couple mentors I want to share, so more to come.  Feel free to add your own thoughts about the body as a teacher, or to share the mentors you’re encountering in your own life.

As Adriene Mishler says, “The awesome in me bows to the awesome in you.”

mentors: Tasha Tudor

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It’s been hot here lately.  Every day I watch brave floral optimism blossom then shrivel with the arc of the sun.  At night, we drag out the hoses and give our flower beds courage to face the next day. I have dreams of a Tasha Tudor-style garden, but it is early stages yet.  I baby along a single poppy, four or five zinnias, a handful of sweet peas, short and unfragrant.  In the books I have of Tasha’s garden, everything is lush and cool and lovely and Tasha is never flustered, never sweating through her improbable dresses trying to unkink a length of pale green rubber hose, never standing over empty beds wondering where the seeds went or why those plants all died so quickly.  It doesn’t discourage me.  I pour over her books anyway.  Over the years, I've come to welcome her as a mentor.

Lately, with so much of my life shifting, I've been thinking about these teachers we come across, the ones who unknowingly shape us into the people we are becoming.  Tasha comes to mind first because she was a gifted commercial artist and illustrator, but she proudly defended her life as a homemaker:

“Whenever I get one of those questionnaires and they ask what is your profession, I always put down housewife. It’s an admirable profession, why apologize for it?”

So often I find myself torn between vocations, but Tasha didn’t seem burdened by that dichotomy at all.  As beloved as her art became, she didn’t see herself lessened by her commitment to homemaking;  she admitted she illustrated so she could afford flower bulbs and corgis and her 1850’s-homage house.  I find it a pleasure to keep a tidy house, to keep the cookie jar stocked, to crochet a blanket or sew a pair of pants, to have a meal ready when others come home.  Whenever I’ve ignored these things for the sake of more “important” work, I feel untrue to myself.  But Tasha reminds me it is possible to go this way, to craft a life that holds both my work as a writer and my work as a homemaker in equal value.

“I’m perfectly content,” she says. “I have no other desires than to live right here with my dogs and my goats and my birds. I think I’ve done a good job of life, but I have no message to give anyone. If I do have a philosophy, it is one best expressed by Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” That is my credo. It is absolutely true. It is my whole life summed up.”

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I can't imagine Tasha rushing through her life, wringing her hands over her busyness (like nearly everyone I meet these days).  I imagine her purposeful and committed, showing up each day for the narrow band of things she wanted her life to encompass: her garden, her family, her books and art.  There's no sense of drama about Tasha.  She wasn't trying to save the world, to fix every injustice.  She created.  She nurtured.  She lived.  And so many of us have found her a refuge, a point of light.  If for no other reason, she's a worthy mentor because she shows us that we change each other by being unapologetically true to who we are as individuals.

So inspiring, isn't she?

I'll write more about other mentors later, but I'd love to hear about any you have.

reVision

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A few months ago I pulled out my journal and wrote:  I’m changing my life.  I’m not even sure I knew what I meant when I wrote it, I knew it didn’t mean anything earth-shattering, but I could sense a shift coming.  Every once in a while things just click into place and you find yourself moved from one space to the next.  Around that time I got rid of my smartphone. (Best decision I ever made, truly.) Since then, a friend and I started working our way through The Well-Educated Mind.  I really committed to running. I recalibrated my writing goals to make them both more consistent and more manageable.  I started outlining a new novel.  I let go of some restrictions I’d put on myself that weren’t serving a good purpose.  I got rid of time wasters (like watching Netflix/movies at home) that were cluttering my creative process.  I started working on projects I’ve been procrastinating for years.  Somehow, without thinking too much about it, I really did start changing my life.

*

For our anniversary, we rented a house overlooking a tidal bay on Puget Sound.  In the mornings, the sun shone off the water and osprey circled overhead, cormorants rode the low air streams.  Later in the day, the tide lifted its skirts and left a mudflat behind.  The herons moved in, dozens of them, joint and feather, long gray necks snaking into the silt to find clams, a luckless fish.  We made coffee on the stovetop, dark and gritty, sat by the big windows watching their strange high step across the muddy plain in fascination.  Hour after hour, water returned, the herons waded, their long legs disappearing inch by inch until they lifted their wings and fled.  The low lands filled in, the flat became a stream again, a river.

On the second day we slipped our kayaks into the high tide and paddled toward the ocean.  The air was scented with brine and rot, that particular tang of the sea.  Jelly fish floated around us, yellow, orange, a skirt of white – giant eggs poaching under the surface.  I have a bit of thalassaphobia. (I came to kayaking partly to confront that fear.)  So while my husband was delighted, I thought, oh my god, if jellyfish, what else is under there?  That’s all it took for the panic to rise up.

The value of being afraid in a kayak over a body of water is there’s nowhere to run.  I had to force my mind to reason, force my arms to paddle, my breath to slow.  It wasn’t long before the anxiety had passed and I had gained that small accomplishment, the vanquishing of a fear, to take with me for good.  It occurred to me later, tucked back into the house, scrubbed of sea salt and sweat, that changing your life in any way at all hinges on facing down fears.  (As a perfectionist, my fear often involves failure.  Better to never start something at all than to do a poor job, or to quit midway.)  You have to take yourself in hand and risk it.

Sometimes changing our lives though, is really about changing our thinking.  I turned 47 this month, and the last of our kids graduated high school in May.  Cue midlife angst. Halfway through your life the doors start closing.  For almost five decades I have made choices, traveled a path, and that creates natural limits.  For example, it doesn’t really make sense for me to go for that college degree at this point (too much money when I’m already doing what I love and don’t plan to change it.) And there are other things – big things I thought I wanted earlier in my life that are unlikely to happen now.  There’s fear involved with shutting those doors – will I get to my deathbed and regret?  (Probably not.)  But I’ve been working on facing those insecurities, redefining the idea of “success”, changing my language, being confident in the direction I have chosen for myself.  It takes just as much intentional work to do that as it did to paddle through a bay of jellyfish

.I’m someone who believes fully in the value of a small and focused life.  It’s a constant challenge to own that in a big, splashy, motion-forward culture.  I keep refining, letting go of the things that tangle me up, make me feel inadequate.  Some of those are outward things – the smartphone, social media, the television – but there’s an equal amount of self-talk, intangible expectations, perfectionism, and discontent that trap too.  If I’ve made a goal for 47 it’s to deal honestly with the interior struggles as well as the outer struggles.

June 19, 2018:  I’m changing my life. (Ongoing.)

the silence has become beautiful

It is spring.  Lovely, soft, unpredictable spring.  The Grosbeaks came back only yesterday, even though the Stellar's Jays have managed to hatch and fledge a whole brood of black-capped miscreants already.  The young Jays take turns tipping the edge of the bird feeder and squawking at me through the window.  With my characteristic unreasonableness, I adore them.

Spring often feels like a mere blink of petal and color but this year it has slowed down.  I've noticed things I've never seen before, like the gradual transition from catkin to helicopter on the maple trees, and the daily transporting of sticks and debris by the hawk couple, the incremental brightening of the days.

Awhile ago, I broke my smart phone.  The days right after were quiet, unusually efficient.  I found myself entering the same peaceful, zen-like state I remember from the pre-internet era when we didn't own a television set.  It was restful.  I began to have ideas about never fixing the phone, about a life totally disconnected.  But eventually, reason, and the need to text my family, won out.  I took it to the repair shop and handed it over.  While I waited for an estimate in the chilly shop, I fantasized that the phone was beyond repair, that the middle-aged man with the Dwight Schrute-shirt was going to come back out from behind the curtain looking downtrodden and tell me "I'm terribly sorry, there was nothing we could do..."and I'd be free, truly free.  Liberation!  But the curtain parted and my phone emerged in the palm of the smiling repairman, and I knew it wasn't to be.  $10 later I was out the door with a fully functioning phone.  It felt heavy in my purse, and loud, though I hadn't even turned it on yet.  I sat in the parking lot and thought for awhile.  The decision wasn't hard.  I turned on the phone, went to the settings and started deleting apps.  When I was done, I had dumbed my phone down to phone, text, camera, and a photo editor.  Everything else was gone.

That was back in March, before the equinox.  Spring has unfolded for me in its own space since then, unphotographed, recorded only in my memory and in the few lines I jot down in my journal.   I have watched the rhubarb grow from a wrinkled knob into its open-armed beauty, day by slow day, and never mourned the lack of telling.

Awhile back I read a book of essays on making a simple life.  One woman wrote that she and her husband had given up the radio (they'd been rid of the TV for a long time.)  "For over a year now we've lived without voices in our home save those of the real, live people who live here or those of visiting friends."  She does not feel lonely, she claims.  Rather, she has learned to love silence, and the music of her own world.  Just now the breeze is blowing through new leaves and the ducks are chattering about some disturbance up on the pasture.  Chopin is playing on the stereo.  The rocker I am sitting in creaks patiently.

What I've noticed most is the absence of strain.  No anxiety, no anger or irritation, no feeling of missing out.  I used to be so full of ideas that I didn't know how to start.  Every day my mind filled up with more and more until I was bloated and unable to move.  I feel slimmed down now, clear-headed.  The things I am responsible for are manageable and I have space to deal with them.  Alone with my thoughts, I can breathe.  "The silence I was always compelled to fill up has become beautiful to me..." says the woman with no radio.

Says the woman with no smart phone.

Pax.