On stopping time and help arriving just when you need it


I am one of those cautious people who resist speed. I harden up in fear and can’t relax into it, let alone feel the thrill and joy of being on the edge or out of control. I had a flash of insight this morning after a heart-opening yoga class that my problem with speed extends to a wish to stop time from passing so quickly. The correlation drew me in and showed me something surprising.

I had had a late night, one of those unavoidable parenting experiences that at first I resisted. Once I acquiesced, the night was quite revealing. Our 13-year-old son had taken the light rail with a friend downtown, to attend the Orioles game. The O’s (who’ve been in a long downhill slide since July) scored ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. That’s two grand slams and a couple more homers just for good measure. All those at-bats take a lot of time. My son’s friend had already fielded his own father’s warning that they must leave after the seventh inning or find another way home. The friend volunteered me; they stayed, and were rewarded with a spectacular homer-fest. Continue reading

Alone time practices connect to joy


Self-care is an evolving discipline for me. I was labeled selfish and moody as a child, often sent to my room for being too emotionally intense. It may have been a practical strategy for a mother coping with four young children, but I didn’t understand that at the time. To this day, my alone time feels subversive. The deep core of Puritan work ethic and dedication to service in our cultural story can be misappropriated to guilt people, especially women, into caring only for others.

And yet, most spiritual traditions teach the importance of attending to oneself as an essential part of a life well lived. Modern teachers sometimes invoke the airplane oxygen mask as metaphor: you must secure your own mask before helping another with theirs. There’s also the cup of tea metaphor. Only once you’ve filled your cup to overflowing will you be able to give someone the tea that has spilled into the saucer. Continue reading

Creative play is key to resilience and possibility

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“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” ~ Julia Cameron

I’ve been following my heart more and paying attention to a) what it guides me to do, b) how it feels to do it, and c) what the aftereffects are. Yesterday I was reminded that I have more resources in potentially frustrating situations when I’ve been creative at some point in the day. Yesterday morning, inspired by Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books Series,” I played with arranging random but interestingly-titled books in stacks to form poetic phrases. Later, I spent maybe twenty minutes doing a quick watercolor of clouds over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge while at the after party for the annual Bay Swim.

That evening, when faced with a cranky, most unpleasant teenager, I seemed to have endless patience with him. Instead of the usual reactionary “who do you think you are” inner voice goading me to say things I’ll regret, I kept trying different tactics to reach him and bring him back to his usual sunny self. I stayed calm and nimble, creative instead of triggered. What’s behind this magic? My first thought is that creative play inoculates me. It puts me in a good mood, so I can face challenges with resilience. And, while that’s true to a degree, there’s something deeper at work here. Continue reading

Working past limits to learn from a wise teacher: my body


Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.

Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading

Mirroring the courage to speak up and tell new stories


I’ve long been fascinated by the ways that my inner and outer worlds mirror each other. Even way back in college, I somehow knew that annoying people are reflecting something in me that I don’t like. I’m devoted to dream work and my morning journaling for the insights and clarity that often come, and to writing in this blog for the same reason. I tend to regard this reciprocal conversation as a way to diagnose what’s wrong from the inside out, more so than to notice and appreciate what’s right outside, and how it reflects goodness on the inside.

Yet it does work both ways, and it’s going on all the time. When someone I respect questions or refuses to encourage my latest grand scheme, that is showing me the degree to which I am not on board with it myself. But it’s also true that if I look around at my comfortable home, good health, lovely neighbors, engaging work, responsible husband, and yummy food in the fridge—all that is reflecting an inner world that is safe, healthy, and full of good companionship, worthiness, love, creativity, intelligence, security, and nourishment. Continue reading

On knowing, despair, unknowing, joy and the wisdom of the body


Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes

I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.

During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed. Continue reading

Choosing joy while allowing room for sadness


Where there is sadness, joy.

Of the four temperaments, I tend to swing between choleric and melancholic. Think Rabbit and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories. I find it difficult to be around gloomy, negative people because they tend to awaken a deep sadness within me, and pull me down into their misery. Early on, probably through parental influence, I developed a coping strategy of talking myself out of my sadness. After all, what do I have to be sad about? I have a roof over my head, clothing, food, a good education . . . . The list is quite long, yet this exercise often just makes me feel guilty when I am sad, even so.

A child has no idea of the burdens or shadows a parent or family or culture is asking her to carry. I was always a sensitive child, absorbing the emotions of others, too thin-skinned to resist. In the face of all that pain, it felt selfish and uncaring to be joyful. At any rate, when confronted by the sadness of others, it seemed an insurmountable challenge to summon joy. Sadness felt like an anchor, dragging down any momentum to joy, preventing even full sails from driving the boat of my life forward towards the distant horizon. Continue reading

Love is courage in action


Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Given that outer is a reflection of inner, love begins within. I sow love by bringing its warmth and compassion into the cold, dark, unloved places deep inside me. I wonder it’s this region that is moved to tears when touched by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Or the beauty of the world in general, which has much to teach me about love. Red berries touched by snow, whitecaps on water, a young boy singing the high soprano notes opening “Once in Royal David’s City.”

The film “Still Alice” is a lovely exploration of this verse. While she, and her family, hated what was happening to her well-honed intellectual mind, they made the choice to seek solace in the love that bound them together. That love, and the attendant grief of loss, illuminated unique aspects of each of them. The youngest daughter, Lydia, had the fiercest courage to face her emotions, and so she let her love turn to curiosity. She asked her mother what she was experiencing, giving her the precious gift of being witnessed. To stand in helplessness with that much power requires tremendous love and awareness. Continue reading

Encountering the secret presence at the heart of nature


It’s one thing to name the stories that are replacing damaging ones like superiority and scarcity, and it’s quite another to bypass description and go straight to a sensory, emotional response to an experience. In recent years, I’ve been learning and experimenting with practices that cultivate embodied connection.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that I had been communing with places for many years through my watercolor paintings. Beaches, coves, and trees have called to me with their colors and light. The act of paying attention, of looking and deciding what to paint is the beginning of a conversation. Mixing paints and working them on the paper is akin to choosing words and putting them together in a sentence. It is no small thing that painting outdoors feels good and gives me peace, that I love doing it. Continue reading

Restorying my way from longing to belonging


The other day I outlined Restorying to a longtime friend, whose honest feedback has raised many questions in my mind. I’m so used to this frame — we live by stories, have built our world on them, our current ones are mistaken and damaging, let’s find better ones — that I forget how shocking it may sound to someone who is just trying to get along and live a decent life. I shouldn’t be surprised when confronted with this resistance; I have experienced it many times myself, and it’s taken me to some dark places. My friend admitted that he avoids pulling on that thread, for fear of unraveling the whole sweater.

It’s not hard to understand: once you see that we are in the grip of stories that need changing, where can you possibly you go with that? Within our cultural fabric is woven the sanction to avoid the void, to eschew the unknown. Sure, my friend has his Qigong, his Taoist understandings, and he even agrees that our culture’s denying of the world of spirit is causing harm. But there is a powerful resistance to look under that rock. Why summon the Three Strange Angels of D.H. Lawrence’s poem? Better to go about your business and hope they never turn up. Continue reading