Friday, May 29, 2020

Schooled by Sourdough

I, like millions of other Americans, am part of the great bread baking bonanza that's emerged from the global pandemic of Covid-19. I've always been a baker, but now I'm even more prolific.

Several weeks ago my friend Wolf gifted me some of her sourdough starter. She dropped it off in an 8-ounce ball jar with a taped note of instructions on how to take care of my "Fraulein Maria," the name Wolf had given this gift that would keep on giving.  The first thing I'd need to do was to feed Fraulein Maria. I moved her to a bigger jar and give her one cup of flour and a half cup of water. Then I stirred her, put a lid on like a tilted beret to give her some air, and went to sleep for the night.

The next morning I could see that Fraulein Maria had had a busy night. She was at least two inches taller in her glass jar and her nocturnal expansion was clearly an invitation to bake some bread. I made two delicious loaves of sourdough bread which took several risings, kneadings, and overnight in the fridge for a total of about sixteen hours from start to finish. But the bread was delicious and I was thrilled to eat and serve bread that had its own family lineage. I continued to feed Fraulein Maria, noticing my increasing obligation to find ways to engage her. I made delightful crispy crackers with olive oil and rosemary (like seven times). I baked several more loaves. I put her in hibernation in the fridge for a week just to get a break from thinking about her.  Then I felt guilty and I took her out again. I placed her on the counter next to a Christmas cactus and a tin of flour and I fed her every night. Last week I woke up to an exploding jar. Fraulein Maria's little green beret was lifting right off her head. That day I made four loaves of bread and two batches of olive oil crackers. It was exhausting and fattening and I realized that I might be done with Fraulein Maria. I might have to kill her.

But I couldn't, and I still can't. In searching my soul about why I simply cannot release Fraulein Maria to the disposal or the compost bin, I can see that this is my pattern. Once I become attached I have a hard time letting go. In the course of my life I've had so many relationships that seem to reach their natural end point and I struggle to hold on. Starting in seventh grade when I moved to a new school, I still clung to my best friend Meredith from my old school. It's continued on like that for years, clutching people, fearing the loss even if the actual relationship wasn't working. For me, letting go, saying goodbye, is a sign of failure. If I let go I've failed at the friendship, the relationship, the job, the sourdough.

Maybe Fraulein Maria is here to teach me something. What is her lesson to me?  I might just start ignoring Fraulein Maria. I'll passively notice her drying out in the jar until she's created a hardened coat of beige paint on her inside walls. Or, one afternoon before feeding I'll impulsively induce euthanasia by running hot water into her vessel until there's just a film that I scrub out with the brillo pad. Either way, I will have to live with the feelings of letting her go, of failing Fraulein Maria. But I'll be okay. I've been there before. I've lost friends,  had break-ups, left jobs, and I've gotten over it. The sense of failure goes away eventually. And seeing clearly now how ridiculous my obligation to the sourdough starter is, I have new clarity about my clinging tendencies with humans. That historic feeling of being a failure because I choose to let go of someone or something is a bunch of bullshit. Sometimes we just need to move on. It's how life works.  I'm not ready to let go of Fraulein Maria yet, but soon, very soon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Be like the Beavers

Last night in my writing class, all of the participants wrote about nature in some way-- about being in the forest or being a butterfly or comparing themselves to a seed in the earth. For each of them, there was an element of finding themselves in nature. As I listened to them read, I could sense a feeling of peace as they each recalled their experience of being in the beauty and simplicity of the natural world. It was so serendipitous and magical. I myself had been working on clarifying, through writing, my own recent experience being in nature the day before.

On Monday I was walking along Lake Washington at about 6:00am. Every Monday morning I offer an online guided meditation, and that day my plan was to focus on the inner resource, the internal respite we can train ourselves to connect with in times of stress, struggle and dis-ease. The lake was still and there were just a few boats quietly anchored in Andrew's Bay. The air felt just the right amount of cool and there were only a handful of walkers and runners at that hour. It's my favorite time of day. Thinking about the meditation I would lead in a few hours time, I was contemplating what my own inner resource looks like these days. In that exact moment, I noticed two little beaver heads slithering across the surface of the still water. They were close in, maybe four feet from the shore. I stopped to watch them for a moment, but as soon as they sensed me, they dove under the water, safe from my towering presence on the shore.

"That's their inner resource," I thought to myself, "they have such an immediate, uncomplicated response to a potential threat. They know how to find safety and security right away." They just dive down into the deeper water, safe from the predator on the shore. I imagined their slithering bodies gliding down, down, down into safer waters and emerging further away from the shore, away from my curious stare. In that moment I wished it could be that easy for me-- to dive under the blankets of my bed or hide in my closet-- to elicit a sense of safety and well-being when I feel overwhelmed by commitments or filled with shame for some stupid social faux pas. 

But we humans are complex, maybe too complex for our own good. Even when there is no imminent physical threat, our advanced brain structure makes it hard to calm the mind. While the body may be safe and protected physically, too often the mind is on its own journey of memories and experiences that seem to have very little to do with the moment at hand. 

When we are infants things are different. In infancy we are more like the beavers. In those early days, we respond reflexively, from our reptilian brains. Then, as we grow, experiencing and internalizing different life events, we move away from those innate impulses and become overloaded with response possibilities. We essentially bury our intuition, that innate knowing. Instead of diving into clear water, it can feel like we're mucking through the milfoil, unsure of when our feet will find the sandy bottom of the lake again.

My teacher Astrid says that our intuition, our deepest, perhaps most innate knowing emerges when we can get everything else to quiet down. She says that intuition is patient and it will wait for stillness before it shows up. I imagine it like the calm after a storm where the light is clear; the air strangely soft and electric at the same time. This moment when we just know our truth. This wisdom about intuition has been an important and enduring lesson for me; it is one of the reasons those early morning walks in nature have become a vital part of my day, and really of my life. 

Being in nature is restorative. On the most basic level, it makes us feel good. The very oxygen we take in when we walk in the forest is healing and rejuvenating. But it's more than that. Being in the simplicity of nature is a clear reminder to our overly complex psyches that things don't have to be so complicated. It helps reconnect us with quiet, with a stillness that invites in this inner peace, the one that is so obvious to the beavers in the lake. 

We all started from that effortless place, that baby place where we are simple-- we eat, drink, sleep, suck, pee and poo. And we've become these complex, multi-faceted, constantly processing organisms that get lost in the muck and the milfoil. There's a lot of stress these days, a jigsaw puzzle of ways to worry and despair. Sometimes we can't physically get to a forest or a lake, but we can sit quietly, look up at the sky, close our eyes, listen for the birds. Or we can go within, to a memory or an image. We can get quiet, take a breath, and listen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The opposite of a Grateful Dead Concert

I am coming to terms with the fact that I am an introvert. After years of running a business, being a relatively public figure, I am happily settled into this new role of being a talking head behind a tiny screen to just a handful of people. It suits me. They say that extroverts become energized from being around people and introverts get energy from being alone. It only took me fifty years, but now that I've been in this required solitude for over two months I can see clearly that I am an introvert. I do miss people, but I am also quite content, actually energized, by this aloneness.

When my twin sister and I graduated from high school in Chicago, we went to different universities in different states. I went south to Missouri and she went east to Indiana. This geographical parting was an opportunity for us to define our independent identities for the first time in our lives. Having mostly ridden on the coattails of Katherine's social ingenuity and popularity, I realized when I got to college that my shyness would be hard to manage without my twin sister as a crutch.

Without my social liaison I felt eternally awkward; I assumed that there was something wrong with me, that maybe I was missing a part. I was like a deer in headlights, constantly trying to figure out how to engage. I struggled socially and threw myself into the academics of college. I made the most of the social expectations and eventually learned to fake it a little bit, to play the part of extrovert. I found a group of friends. I went to parties. I did the college scene. But my favorite part was always the end of the party, when I could go home. Katherine, on the other hand, seemed to roll right into an extension of her high school celebrity status-- wildly fun and popular, the life of the party. During our freshman year in college, Katherine started following the Grateful Dead. She loved the scene and traveled all over the country with different friends to spend weekends in the mosh pit of free love.

The summer between our freshman and sophomore years of college I went to one Grateful Dead concert in Wisconsin with Katherine and some of our friends. We camped for two nights and spent the long, humid days steeped in the fog of pot smoke and patchouli. I hated it. It was like all the expectations of college on crack. And ecstasy. And speed. My senses were overloaded and I had the immediate desire to hide in the tent. I felt lost in the love fest. I spent the whole two days in a raging battle of my inner judges- judging everyone around me for being who they were, then turning the gavel onto myself and criticizing my own uptightness, my inability to just let go and be happy.

The abundance of contact and community and interaction at the Grateful Dead show was too much for me-- too much humanity; too much chaos. Though people were kind and loving, making and sharing food, giving out miracles, selling their bizarre and amazing creations, swaying with joy in their colorful, feathered, flowing frocks, I couldn't find a way to be in it. I was exhausted by it. I just wanted to go home.

And now, thirty years after that Grateful Dead concert, I am home. Literally and figuratively, I am home. I loved my life before, but as I look back, there were long periods where I simply endured, white-knuckled it and faked it really well, made the most of it until I could get back home and recharge. I wouldn't trade any of the past, and there are certainly days right now when I wish I could open up my world a little bit.  But mostly, I'm relieved to be home, in my element, living in the opposite of a Grateful Dead concert.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Wisdom We Once Had

Last week I had a major meltdown. I called my friend Jamie from the QFC parking lot and talked it through. It helps that Jamie and I have known each other forever, raised our kids together, and she's a therapist. One of the wise things Jamie said was that this time is hard because we have nothing to note the passing of time-- no dinner parties, no long-awaited vacations, no conferences or family visitors. For better or for worse, many of us feel like we are in one long groundhog's day. The interminability of this is relentless and exhausting.

Yesterday we went to our friend Cuc's house to celebrate her 50th birthday. We all sat strategically away from each other on a patch of concrete in front of the house, sipping champagne from disposable cups and eating pre-packaged snacks. At one point Cuc said, "My word for this time is 'interminability.'"
"Mine too!" I exclaimed, feeling supported and understood by this kindred spirit six feet across from me.

At one point, during our driveway 50th birthday champagne celebration, Cuc's six-year-old son Max was taking polaroid pictures. He couldn't get a good shot because he had to stand so far away from us. "Someday,"I said, "you'll be able to get closer to us and take a better picture." To which he said, more to the sky than to any of us, "Why is everything temporary?"

And there it was, another jewel of wisdom from a brilliant young soul. This has happened several times since I started writing. I'll hear something and it will jump out into a neon-laced cloud above me and flash "this must be written about!" That this six-year-old kindergartener could see this experience of social distancing as temporary while his mother and I see it only as interminable is amazing!

Plato believed that we are born with innate knowledge and that, rather than learning ideas, we are just recalling them. I've heard it said that we are born knowing everything we need to know and, as we move through life, we slowly lose that knowledge. I have, for many years, believed that, as children, we are more fully connected to our true nature. The connection to our essence is free flowing and clear. Through socialization and formal education, structure and the norms and values that pervade our growing up, we lose the clear connection to that innate knowing. We can get it back, but it is work, much like peeling an onion, listening for questions that need answers and being willing to ask them-- to ourselves and to the world.

And sometimes we get a gift, like the seeming non sequitur offered by six-year-old Max, "Why is everything temporary?" And just like that, in flashing neon clarity, was the truth. This is temporary. Everything is temporary-- the shelter in place, a rainy day, being six-years-old, the feeling of interminability. The future is brighter. My heart feels lighter. I am hopeful and inspired. Thank you Max.

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