The Muse tells me it’s time to break for summer, and like the Wife (heads up, husbands) the Muse is always right. To that end, I will be on vacation from my blog until the beginning of September, when, I hope, you will join me again.
To tie up a loose end before I vacate: The Sweater has been completed. The Twenty Year Sweater Here is a photo.
I know. I never said I was a good knitter, did I? Check out the oddly puffy sleeves. When I put The Sweater on, I’ve got a weird Shakespeare-in-winter thing going on.
This morning I am going to go outside and paint a watercolor. Even though I have a boatload of books to review and three writing projects awaiting various revisions, I am still going to shove them aside and do a watercolor. It won’t advance my career or make me money, but. . .
I am the product of two very different people. My mother has, as my dad likes to say, two speeds: slow and stop. But I think he might be envious, since he’s fast and faster. I tend to be more like my dad, until I remember that I’m also part my mom. Once I asked her how she avoided over-doing. She told me that she does three “things”—“things” being chores—per day, and once they are done, she’s off the hook and free to do what she wants. (I believe one of the “things” is making the bed, so you see she’s not unduly stressing herself.)
When I find myself in a muddle of work, I remember her words. Painting a watercolor this morning is going to be more satisfying than disciplining myself through a revision and what’s more, I suspect it will free up other creative areas in my brain, making me more effective when I get back to writing.
If you’re more on the driven side like me, maybe today you can try to do one thing you truly enjoy, for no other reason than that you truly enjoy it–see how it goes.
Until September, then. Have a lovely summer.
I originally wrote this post one year ago, after the Boston Marathon bombings. This Monday, the Marathon runs again. In the intervening year, there have been, worldwide, more bombings, more acts of terrorism and aggression, more unrest. Sometimes it seems like the shadows are taking over. But the beauty of being human is that we can decide what we want to believe. And then we can believe it. I still choose to believe that a million lights of kindness will cover the darkest acts of atrocity. And I always will.
Grief is linked, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to the lung and large intestine organs and, like anger, fear, joy/sadness and worry, it plays a fundamental role in our health. Our lungs hold and distribute the oxygen that sustains life, so our inhalation is quite literally the act of taking in life. When we exhale, we are letting go, in the trust that our next inhalation will come. Without this exhalation––this letting go with trust––we can’t take in another breath; we can’t take in more life.
It is the role of grief to facilitate the letting-go process. When we grieve, we are letting go of that which no longer serves us. Grieving is the process of sifting through the loss to discover the essence that we wish to carry with us. And then allowing the rest go, so we are able to take in another breath, to continue living.
This week I am grieving the lives lost and maimed at the Boston Marathon bombings and underneath that, I am grieving the awareness that there are people so separated from the basic heart of humanity, that to maim and kill innocent lives is, to them, an acceptable act. But my grieving has unearthed an essence in the tragedy, to wit: the darkest acts of atrocity are covered by a million lights of kindness. In Boston, people ran toward the bombing scene, seconds after it happened, to help, heedless of their own safety. Social media spontaneously sprang into action to coordinate emergency information.
Everything is revealed by highlights and shadows. We are moving forward as a species defined by our immense kindnesses in the wake of our isolated evils.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
excerpted from The Ponds by Mary Oliver
Sometimes I don’t sleep well. I’ll fall asleep right away, but then I wake up, usually about 2 or 3 am, when the liver meridian is strongest. One of the liver’s jobs is to synthesize the events of the day before, deciding what to keep and what to discard. So when I don’t sleep well, I guess there’s so much to filter through, that it wakes me up.
The good news is that I’m privy to my subconscious thinking in those wee hours. Small situations of the day before loom ominously at 3 am, and since I’m awake I can, if I want to, figure out why.
The other morning I was thinking about someone I barely know and I felt funny—bad funny. Instead of shoving it under the rug I decided to poke around in the depths of me and see what I came up with. And it was this: I was comparing myself to this person and judging myself against them in a little subconscious competition. I realized if I do this with someone I barely know, I must do it with everyone. Not that it’s a bad thing–I think it is in our DNA–survival of the fittest.
But if it is a subconscious behavior it leads me–controls me. If, on the other hand, I am consciously aware of it, then it becomes another opportunity to set myself a little more free. I can realize that there’s no comparison between me and someone else. There’s no comparison between anyone and anyone else. Each of us fits into our lives, hand-made for that life. There’s no one else who can fill it or live it.
We are all incomparable.
We, in the west, tend to think of worry as something unproductive. “You worry too much.” “Don’t worry about it.” “Stop worrying.” The old bromides underscore our rejection of worry as something worthwhile.
Worrying, however, is very worthwhile.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the emotion of worry (and the energy it generates) is linked to the stomach and spleen/pancreas. These organs are physically responsible for a great deal of our digestive processes. They mix our food with enzymes, and create muscular contractions to roll the food around ensuring that the enzymes are well-distributed and that the food comes into contact with lots of surface area so the nutrients can be absorbed into our physical body, keeping us healthy.
The role of the emotion of worry is to do the same thing with less tangible “food.” Ideas and experiences need to be rolled around, looked at from several angles, broken down or teased out into more distinct concepts before they can be absorbed, or discarded as the case may be. Without the worry, we would swallow ideas whole, without knowing whether they contained any nourishment for us, without knowing if they filled our needs. As we worry, we are being honest with ourselves about what our needs are, and in this way we are strengthening our integrity.
Another benefit of worrying is that as we mull our needs over, it probably doesn’t escape our notice that everyone else is doing the same thing. This commonality connects us and, aware of the connection, we possibly now start worrying about whether others’ needs are also being met. In this way, our integrity further develops, since we now respect both our own needs and others’ needs.
So go ahead and worry. It’s good for you.
There is a trend I’ve been noticing in the public forum lately–that of men publicly respecting their wives. Not the age-old, rather patronizing professed admiration for their mothering skills, but a real respect for them as partners beyond gender stereotype. It is perhaps most noticeable in Barack Obama. He clearly and publicly respects his wife and perhaps this has given tacit, sub-conscious permission for all strong men to publicly respect their wives. My own husband is a case in point, although he didn’t need the permission of the commander in chief to extol my virtues (as he sees them, others may disagree). He has been on my side since day one and made it no secret.
Another notable respecter-of-their-wife is mega-author Stephen King. I don’t know him personally, but I did read his “On Writing,” a book that is part memoir, part writing advice and a paragon of clear thinking. He doesn’t go on and on about how his wife, Tabitha, is the “wind beneath his wings.” He just tells it like it is, inserting her contributions into his success where they belong. There are plenty of them and they are pivotal. In this way, he is paying her the compliment of genuine respect—he’s not overstating it, and not understating it.
It’s a good trend—this trend of men being strong enough to be vulnerable enough to give someone else the credit they deserve. Women are strong. That’s just a fact. And as more and more men stop trying to ignore that and more and more women accept their own strength, we become the partners we’re supposed to be.
Mother Theresa spent five decades ministering to the poor of Calcutta. For her life of selfless service you would think she would have felt fulfilled, but you would be wrong. In letters she wrote and asked to be burned after her death (but were not), she admitted to her advisors and priests that she felt empty, lost and even tortured. Those were her words. Her advisors said that just showed her closeness to Jesus—that she suffered as he did. That’s one interpretation, but here’s another: She wasn’t filling her own needs, and so she didn’t feel fulfilled.
We’ve been conditioned to hold up the selfless life, the life of sacrificing one’s own needs to help others, as admirable. But what are we really doing when we do this? We are denying ourselves the compassion and love we think it is so admirable to give others.
We’re supposed to be living selfish (in the meaning of self-care) lives; lives of compassionate self-care, not lives of willful self-neglect. If we truly take care of our own needs out of self-love and self-respect, we will have learned compassion for ourselves, which naturally awakens compassion for others, since we will have understood the connection of all things.
So when Mother Theresa admitted that she felt empty and that she continued each day through self-will, she was actually ignoring self-compassion and its fulfilling, connecting aspect. She was left feeling empty, because she was empty.
Like the oxygen mask in the airplane—the one you’re told to put on first before you help someone else—it’s your job to take care of yourself first, because how much are you helping, really, if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen?
I almost passed this post over to Buddy the Adventure Maltese, because I attended a writers’ and illustrators’ conference all last weekend and today I go to Boston to physically graduate—march up that podium and take that diploma. But then, looking out the window at the mist rising off the pond, sipping my morning tea, listening to the bird song, I realized I did have something to say after all.
The natural world sustains me. Each small universe of flower, bird, and water life nourishes me in a vital way. It recalls to my mind a phrase I read in “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen; “. . . the peace and healing of the night sky. . .” and I remember how reading that resonated.
When I got home from the three days of indoors imposed by the conference, I walked around my gardens, looking closely. I greeted each new daffodil and the emerging arugula. I said hi to the tiny growth of peony and the buds of the quince. I greeted them as friends.
I came to this relationship as a child. When I felt wounded by life I would go into the woods and sit down on the ground. As I sat in stillness, my eyes tracing the line of a leaf or twig, a change came over me. Trying to describe the sensation visually, I would say that the pearl of my soul, cracked and gapped by life, would rise out of my body and flow into the natural world–a world filled with the same pearl essence. This essence flowed around and through my soul, filling it and making it whole. Once whole, my soul would slide back to its place inside of me and I would shake my head a tiny bit, coming to myself. It didn’t seem odd; I thought everyone did this.
The natural world has sustained me; still sustains me, and I’m grateful that as a child, I was not overprotected from it. Reading “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, about nature deficit disorder, I wonder the cost of separating today’s children from the very thing that nurtures them. We are part of the natural world, whether we accept it or not. And to separate ourselves from its healing capability is to refuse a gift that is our birthright.
Grief is linked, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to the lung and large intestine organs and, like anger, fear, joy/sadness and worry, it plays a fundamental role in our health.
Our lungs hold and distribute the oxygen that sustains our life, so our inhalation is quite literally the act of taking in life. When we exhale, we are letting go, in the trust that our next inhalation will come. Without this exhalation––this letting go with trust––we can’t take in another breath; we can’t take in more life.
It is the role of grief to facilitate the letting go process. When we grieve, we are letting go of that which no longer serves us. Grieving is the process of sifting through the loss to discover the essence that we wish to carry with us. And then allowing the rest go, so we are able to take in another breath, to continue living.
This week I am grieving the lives lost and maimed at the Boston Marathon bombings (and newly, the MIT officer) and underneath that, I am grieving the awareness that there are people so separated from the basic heart of humanity, that to maim and kill innocent lives is, to them, an acceptable act.
But my grieving has unearthed an essence in the tragedy, to wit: the darkest acts of atrocity are covered by a million lights of kindness. In Boston, people rushed toward the scene of the bombings seconds after they occurred heedless of their own safety, in their impulse to help. Social media spontaneously sprang into action to coordinate emergency information.
Everything is revealed by highlights and shadows. We are moving forward as a species defined by our immense kindnesses in the wake of our isolated evils.
Depression is anger turned inward, so they say. And just as outer anger reminds me to go deeper within myself to find the boundary that is being challenged, likewise a feeling of depression is a red flag to alert me to inward turning anger. I think of the process as our bodies nudging us to health. Since all health—emotional, physical and spiritual—is intertwined, excavating what we can helps uncover beliefs that encourage our well being.
The other day after a workshop, I was feeling low. Not just sad, but the low that warns me to pay attention or risk the slide down the slippery slope. So I went inward to explore. The way I do this is to tell myself words that may be triggers to what precipitated this feeling. In this case, the word that resonated through me when I unearthed it was “value.” Something about the idea of value jump-started an anger that I turned inward—a self-anger that I refused to see consciously––until my low mood keyed me into it.
Value, says my dictionary is “the importance or preciousness of something.” It also says value is “the usefulness of something held in respect of a particular purpose.”
Within these two definitions, a truth lay ensnared in the thicket of my low mood. Teasing it apart, I realized I had unconsciously held the belief that my value was determined by my usefulness, or to put it another way, my contribution to pleasing others. Did I make my parents proud? My teachers proud? My friends happy? If yes, I had value. Don’t get me wrong, this belief has its good points—it keeps me motivated to push myself and to do my best. But because I did not hold the other–and I think perhaps more important definition of value—that of “the importance or preciousness of something” I was only half, not whole. And my inner being was pushing me to be whole.
Once I realized that both definitions of value must necessarily be held in my consciousness for me to be healthy, the thicket was cleared and the self-anger released. (And I felt a lot better.)
So now I know this: We all have intrinsic value. We all hold a value that is separate and inviolate from our usefulness.