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


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. 

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