Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Eye of the Hurricane

Being in the unknown is hard for me. Truth be told, it's nearly impossible. I have immediate and persistent physical manifestations that remind me I am struggling. Like many people, my dis-ease appears in my breath. I can't get a deep breath. Each time I try to inhale, it is like a bird flying freely and then smashing into a window pane. The breath reaches the spot right before my lungs open and gets turned around. I try again and again until finally I can get a deep breath. But the multiple attempts render me even more anxious and frightened. This newest COVID surge has got me back on the crazy train and I'm in a daily battle with my breath.

The teacher in my meditation group told us yesterday that she likes to start her day by stepping outside and feeling the weather. But before she does that, she says, she does a brief inventory of how her internal weather looks. My partner Nancy is from New Orleans and has lived through dozens of hurricanes. Last night she was talking about the eye of the hurricane-- the moment of quiet where it seems like the storm is over, but it's not. When the storm comes back though, is unknown. Without warning, BOOM!, it's back. When she was talking last night I realized that this is how I feel when my breath is tight. It's dark and ominously still and scary and I am petrified in waiting for what comes next. I hate this moment. I want it to be over. My weather right now is that of a hurricane, in the eye of the storm, hidden indoors, trying to avoid the inevitable winds and rains and floods that I know will come before the storm is over.

About a month ago, one of my oldest friends disappeared. She's still there, but she doesn't want to be in contact with me. The circumstances are complicated and confusing. The truth is I don't fully understand why she doesn't want to be friends anymore. I tend to be direct, maybe too direct. I want to work it out, talk it out, get to the bottom of it all. But that's not her way. I understand now that her way is to do what she's doing-- to disappear. 

In response to her dropping away, I've had to do some uncomfortable self-study about my reaction to her disappearance. My feeling of discomfort is familiar, like a mild version of my anger, fear and frustration about COVID.  I am sitting in wait, anticipating if and when this friend will show up again. But my real feelings are bigger than that. I am mad. I am hurt. I am outraged. In not giving myself permission to feel those feelings, I am putting myself in the eye of the hurricane. I have rendered myself powerless, waiting for her to make a decision. Sitting in the eye of the storm is the safest. I'm contracted, not letting myself feel the full range of real feelings about this friendship. I know why I'm sitting here, waiting. I fear that if I let myself go beyond the eye of the storm, into the turbulent emotions that are really there-- the mad, sad, and rejected feelings-- that I will not be able to turn back, that I will be saying goodbye to the friendship forever. 

It's the same with COVID. In really sitting in it, acknowledging how painful the losses are, I am letting something in that I really don't want to let in. I am opening myself up to a reality that deeply saddens and frightens me. But being a bird banging into a window over and over is not fun. I don't like being here. I would rather be in violent wind and rain, knowing what is happening, than in this waiting, the unknown, anticipating the destruction at any moment. At least after the stormy weather I know there will be a moment of calm.

And so it is-- the only way out of this emotional hurricane that has hijacked my breathing is to move beyond the eye of the storm. I must venture into the torrential rains and gale force winds of anger and sadness and loss and fear. I have to make room for all of that before I can step out into a clear blue sky. And even as I write these words, understanding their truth, I can feel my chest soften. I feel a sense of relief. I can breathe again. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Longing

I am aware of great longing in myself and others these days. Longing to get on an airplane and celebrate Thanksgiving with family. Longing to hug my best friend instead of nod from a distance. Longing to make a plan of any kind without contemplating the new rules and the new fears. 

My sister Katherine gave me a bizarre, complicated craft project for my birthday a few weeks ago. It is a sticky sheet with thousands of tiny color-coded squares that, when filled in with thousands of tiny crystal beads using a tiny tweezer-like tool, makes a complete image. Mine is of three dandelions in a rainbow of light. It took me a while to get into it, but now I find great pleasure in the tiny-ness of this project. Tiny bead by tiny bead it is slowly coming together.

Last Thanksgiving my two sisters and their families came to stay and we had a houseful of crafty, musical, hilarious people. Tons of food, games, and family dynamics. It was a multi-day love fest. The dining room table where I do my new beading project is the same table where we all sat last Thanksgiving-- painting water colors, playing cards and Bananagrams, eating meals and chatting. As I placed the little crystal beads on their respective squares, my mind wandered to this time last year. My heart smiled as the images flowed through my memory.

For a moment it was as if I was looking down at myself; I was standing at a crossroads and my choices were to go towards the longing or to be in the present moment. In one direction were dustings of last year's memories still floating around me like smoke from a candle just snuffed. In another was me, sitting at my dining room table beside the warm, lit fireplace, the sounds of my daughter and partner somewhere in the house, my lukewarm, half-filled tea cup sitting next to my beading project. It was a micro-moment where I somehow made the choice to be here. As if waking from a dream I was back in my project, engaged and enjoying the present moment. I was aware that the longing was still there but it wasn't nagging or painful. It didn't take away from my joy. 

Thanksgiving looks very different this year. And I'm okay with that. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Goodbye. For Now.

I'm getting ready to rally my family to make a Gratitude Tree. It's a Thanksgiving ritual that I started when my daughter Lucia was four years old. Now sixteen, she's not super into it but agreed to do it as a birthday gift to me. I schlepped the collage supplies up from the basement and they sit in wait on the dining room table. To make room for the Gratitude Tree, I will have to take down the Ofrenda I made for the Day of the Dead this year. I have on it photos of people who have died, people I loved who I miss and honor. 

This morning as I sat at the dining room table drinking my coffee, I spent time looking at all of the images of those people. I've been thinking a lot about my dad's death. It's fresh in my mind because of the recent passing of my sister-in-law, mother to four wonderful children, the youngest of whom is just twelve. My brothers were just twelve and fourteen when my father died almost twenty-five years ago. I'm thinking a lot about them, wondering how Dad's death changed their lives.

My dad's death, and all of the deaths I've experienced in my life, affected me profoundly. When my Nana died, just a few months before my dad, I had my first understanding of what a soul means to me. Being raised in a secular household, we didn't talk about what happens after one dies, so I had to create my own understanding. After Nana died, I could still feel her. The memories and the visceral sense of love from her was still with me. And then when Dad died I felt it again. The longer they were gone, the stronger the sense became. I understood this internal sense to be the presence of their souls. In my ad-hoc, non-religious definition of what the soul is, I understood that the soul never dies. This gave me comfort then and it gives me comfort now.


When I look at the images of my grandmothers and grandfathers and my father and my Uncle John and my sister-in-law Shannon and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I feel a sense of peaceful company. These beautiful souls are still with me. I wonder what they would have thought about this time we are in now. This Pandemic. This political mayhem. My Jewish dad used to have a large marble bust of one of the popes. On it he placed sunglasses and a scarf around his neck pinned with buttons from different lefty candidates and pro-choice campaigns. My dad would have been so outraged at the state of the world. My dad would have adored Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 

I am grateful that my grandparents didn't have to live through this time stuck in their assisted living facilities or alone in their apartments with a nurse, no family able to visit. My memories of them are of swimming, the lake cottage, the fourteenth floor apartment on Lake Shore Drive, ice cold carrots in the square tupperware in the fridge and fresh picked corn on the cob in the summer. My memories of Uncle John are filled with laughter-- silly, borderline inappropriate jokes that only he could tell, and always a warm smile. The memories of Shannon are the most fresh, the ones that have got me thinking about my brothers. Shannon--a mother, filled with love and nurturing energy, buzzing around to make everyone happy. The missing is sharpest in the beginning. Maybe the soul hasn't quite settled, isn't yet available to the living. 

I remember the sharpness after Dad and the others I loved died. It felt like an undigested meal, uncomfortable and irritating in my stomach. But over time, the sorrow broke down and found a home within me. The memories were no longer painful. They were nourishing and comforting, reminders of the presence of their beautiful souls.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Shutting Down

Our country is on high alert. Everyone is nail biting and processing and perseverating on what's happening next. The waiting is unbearable. I have put myself on pause in order to function. I pretend that I am living on a very small planet with just a few people. I walk my dog hoping no one will stop and talk to me about the elections. The news is too much. What do I believe? Who do I trust? Nothing is simple. I am a big picture person, someone who doesn't focus on the little details. I've never been one to analyze the nuances or subtleties. My family laughs at me because I basically feel my way through life. I wait until I feel clear and then I act. 

It's not that I don't care about facts. I do. But these days, in order to get to the truth, I have to find my way through so many opinions and facts (real and misleading), numbers, policies, precedents. It feels like I'm a first grader trying to work my through a comprehensive legal brief on social security tax fraud. It's too much for me and so I turn off. I depend on other trusted people-- my partner Nancy, my daughter Lucia, and my very political friend Genessa, to glean through the garbage mountain of bullshit and tell me what I need to know.


Once, when Lucia was in fourth grade at a brand new school, her teacher sent her and another boy Peter from their portable to the main school building to deliver a note to a fellow teacher.  Lucia, having only been into the main building a handful of times, assumed that her classmate would lead the way and do the job. But when the got to the classroom Peter told Lucia to go in and deliver the note. Lucia, scared and unfamiliar with the scene, asked Peter repeatedly to do it. He continued to refuse. On Lucia's final request Peter looked directly at Lucia, closed his eyes and slumped his body against the wall and, in a slow robotic voice spoke the words, "Shut-ting do-own....." and became completely unresponsive. Lucia had no choice but to deliver the note herself.

When Lucia shared that story at dinner that evening we all laughed at the situation. It was such a creative and effective way for Peter to get out of something he didn't want to do. And by shutting down himself, Lucia had no choice but to take the lead. Though his actions left Lucia in a hard spot, Peter was clearly coping in his own way. He must have sensed that Lucia would be okay doing that task. And she was. Lucia and Peter went on to become friends and have weaved in and out of friendship for several years now. 

I used to feel bad for not being up to date on all the current events, consumed by the news like my parents. But I realize now that it's not only that I don't want to, it's that part of me can't. It's not the way my brain works and I don't want to force it in that direction. So now, like Peter, I am shutting down. As the waiting continues I am a broken down robot, dead battery, short circuited, mainframe blown. I am shut down. Every day I turn on for a few minutes and ask Genessa what I need to know. Then I go back inside and wait again. I'll turn on again when the waiting is over. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hope vs. Despair


Yesterday morning I got up and did a morning write. What came to me in those early hours, less than a week before the presidential election, was how I long to keep hope alive. I meditate often these days. At the end of my stillness, I ask myself, "what is it you long for today?" Almost always, the answer is hope. I want to keep that energy alive in my body because the opposite, despair, is on the other side, pulling me steadily into that dark, heavy cave. 

Hope feels like warm water all over, a calm steadiness in my chest and belly with a very slight flutter just around my heart. I feel peaceful in hope, filled with color and the promise of possibility. In despair, my chest tightens and it feels like there is a vice around my lungs; I can't get a deep breath. There's gray everywhere and my imagination disappears.

I spend my days moving between these two big feelings-- hope and despair. I prefer hope but no matter how I try, I can't banish despair. It's too strong. It wants to be heard too. When I think about the election, I want to bring hope to the process, to the outcome, but as soon as I lean into that feeling--the awesomeness of changing this administration, of saving our earth and our humanity--there is despair, that dark smokey ghost looming right at the edges of my shiny yellow hope. It reminds me that it's okay to have hope, but I must also make room for despair--the possibility of my longing not being met, of this current administration prevailing.

I imagine there are a lot of people in this situation right now. We are worried and hopeful and scared and excited. I believe in the power of energy and the power of the people. I believe that our intentions matter. I believe that the energy behind making phone calls and writing letters to Texas and North Carolina (even if the letters are never opened or the phones are never answered) makes a difference. These things help keep my hope alive. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar give me hope. Watching the twentieth hurricane this year hit New Orleans and the fires continuing to burn in Southern California gives me despair. 

Hope and despair. Both are real. Both are here. What I understand a little bit better from spending time with both of these emotions is that they are working together. The presence of each allows me to know the other. And, though I don't want to feel despair, when it shows up it is sending me a message. It is telling me is that I am strong enough to hold that feeling too, even if I don't want to. I must make friends with despair, to welcome it in the way I welcome hope. When I do this, when I close my eyes and let despair settle in without the struggle, I can feel it starting to quiet down. I'm not fighting it, not pushing it away. And after a while of letting despair be there, just like a mother sneaking away from her young daughter's crib after finally getting her to sleep, despair tip-toes out of the room. And hope comes back.  


Monday, October 19, 2020

Freedom

Fall has come like the click of a camera. All of a sudden the leaves have changed. The air is cool and I want to eat soup. This morning I woke up well before sunrise. As I drank my coffee and stared out into my back patio, I found myself thinking back to last year at this time. In October of last year I had just sold my business. I was experiencing a new kind of freedom for the first time in almost twenty years. I was unencumbered by work and energized to have more time and space in my life. 

It took me a while to really feel that freedom in my bones, to not check my email several times a day, to shake the feeling that I had something to do even when I didn't. By January, I noticed that I felt different. My weekends really felt like weekends. Instead of keeping a running list of tasks I had to complete, I was imagining projects I dreamed of doing. I was lighter in all ways.

And then in February Coronavirus hit. My immediate response was fear. We're all going to die! My next response was relief. I didn't have to figure out how to run a business in this new, unknown mayhem of our world. And then guilt. I had sold my business to a dear friend and loyal employee and now it was her problem. Suddenly I didn't feel so free anymore. 

And now we are nine months into Coronavirus and I am reflecting on the very concept of freedom. I am not free in the way I once felt free. None of us is. We are more more limited in where we go, who we see, what activities we do, than ever in our lives. But those very limits, it seems, offer me a sense of freedom. A freedom from.

As I rounded the corner from the stress of running a business into Corona times, I fell almost immediately into this new tiny world of my home and my immediate family. I go to the grocery store; I see a handful of friends, mostly one-on-one, very occasionally;  and I volunteer at the senior center once a week making hot lunches for delivery. But other than that I am at home. My world has become very small. 

This new, small world offers me a freedom from obligations that I didn't even register felt like obligations before. I am free from the responsibility of planning trips to see family, from organizing activities to fill the school breaks. I am free from rsvp-ing to dinner parties or planning them myself. I am free from coffee dates and school events and block parties and neighborhood meetings. There are clear moments when I miss those things. Yesterday I had an all-day ache to just talk to a friend in person, to hang out and drink a glass of wine and eat almonds and olives at one of our kitchen tables.

But the overall feeling I have in one of calm. The simplicity of my life is clear and present. Nine months into this new way, I can feel this simplicity in my body. It's the feeling I had when I was girl, spending time at my grandmother's cottage on Pelican Lake. Nothing to do. Nowhere to be. No one to become. This feeling is my constant companion these days. The call of obligation and expectation is only a whisper of my past; I can hardly remember living that way. 

That feeling leaves me more regularly now, as we near the most important election in our history. I find myself in a panic. My chest tightens and my ears get hot. I feel a swell of blood behind my eyebrows. I am petrified. This morning when I woke up I went into our living room and meditated. As I rested in stillness, periodically looking out the window at the sky starting to lighten, I imagined our world feeling this way. I imagined a calm flooding over Trump and Biden and Pelosi and Putin and Johnson and all the world leaders. I visualized this calm washing over my family and friends and neighbors and community. I envisioned it and I prayed for it.

I am grateful to have this period in my life where I am aware and present to this feeling of calm I have now. I hope that, when things in our world change again, when the expectations and obligations of my life become bigger and louder, I will be able to touch back into this feeling and experience it the way I am now. 




Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who Am I?

When I was in India a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Arunachala, a small mountain in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India. The plan was to visit the mountain early in the day, but my friend Suchana and I had missed a connecting flight in Dubai and my luggage had also been lost so, between the lost time from our missed connection and the hours spent trying to track down my bag, we were many hours late. By the time we arrived from Chennai to Arunachala to embark on our mini-trek, it was already late afternoon. But we still wanted to visit the mountain. Our guide, Saran, took me, Suchana, and the three friends who'd arrived a few days prior to the base of the mountain. It was still light when we started our journey, but, by the time we were back down it was pitch black. I remember squinting to keep sight of my friend Sonja's white clothing to stay on course.

At the beginning of our trek Saran told us to internally chant the mantra, "Who Am I?" 

"Not with the hope of getting an answer," Saran encouraged, "but rather to simply open up to that question."


Those few hours in the pitch black were disorienting and, at times, scary. There were all kinds of animal and people sounds and no lights to guide us. I recited the mantra, "Who Am I?" over and over. It calmed me and kept me focused. Had I released the mantra and invited a specific answer to the query, I would have become distracted and disorganized. I might have lost my way in the dark, fallen, or injured myself in some way.

But I got down the mountain. We had a cup of chai and went home to sleep. Though my luggage had been lost and I'd spent several hours wandering around in the dark, I felt calm and happy. The next morning, my luggage still nowhere to be found, I donned a pair of borrowed disposable underwear and continued on with my day.

Since I sold my business exactly one year ago, I have been on a similar journey. When I left that almost twenty-year commitment, I gave myself permission to be open, to inquire of myself, "Who Am I?" I'm a seeker, maybe too much so at times. That question, "Who Am I?" is a blessing and a curse for me. The other day while contemplating my professional future with my partner Nancy, I said that I dreamed of teaching Yoga Nidra meditation full-time. But then, as quickly as I voiced the dream, I said, "But who am I to be able to do that?"

That inner voice that spoke back to me was not one of curiosity or openness, it was one of criticism and restriction. The irony wasn't lost on me. As soon as I heard my inner critic say, "Who am I?", I heard Saran's voice adding on top of it, in a more gentle, loving voice, "Who Am I?" It is a tiny difference in inflection, but a monumental shift in perspective. The former, "Who am I?" is a finite question, one that commands a definitive answer. The latter, "Who Am I?" is a question that provides ongoing, ever-changing self-reflection and contemplation. It invites the possibility to change and grow and discover. 

So, as I acknowledge this one-year anniversary of making a big life change, I am reminded of the importance of staying open to, "Who Am I?" instead of bogged down by "Who am I?" It means being unsure, walking through the dark sometimes. Especially now, when so much is unknown--our county is socially and politically in shambles, the Coronavirus is a mystery that continues to challenge us in almost all realms of our lives, and our very earth is screaming for help. How can I know who I am right now, much less tomorrow? How can any of us? 

The mantra, "Who Am I?", gives me hope. Today I might feel devastated by online school challenges. But tomorrow I might feel grateful for a laughter-filled family dinner. The world is always changing. The people around me are always changing, and so am I. I'm grateful for the memory of that nighttime trek with Saran and my friends. As I, along so many of you, struggle through these very uncertain times, I can rest in the wisdom that we don't have to know all the answers. We just have to keep asking the right questions. 

The Eye of the Hurricane

Being in the unknown is hard for me. Truth be told, it's nearly impossible. I have immediate and persistent physical manifestations that...