Sunday, February 24, 2013

Focus on the Windshield

Given that my word for  2013 is “Possibility,” how could I not click on the AARP video ad I saw on FaceBook:

“Watch our new video and find your Real Possibilities for work, money and community.” The text of the video:

"A car has a rather small rearview mirror so we can occasionally look back at where we have been. It has an enormous windshield so we can look ahead to where we are going. Now is always the time to go forward and re-imagine all the possibilities that lie before us."

When I got in my car several days ago for a couple hours of exploration in western Lewis County, my eye dropped onto the sideview mirror’s warning: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” The juxtaposition of those two messages got their hooks into my imagination.

Our past can dog us even as the future is coming at us. There is nothing wrong with our past-well, there are always some regrets: things we wished we hadn’t done, things we wished we had done, and those we wish we were still doing-but the thing about it is, it’s over. We can’t live there. And if we keep looking back and letting our longings for what is gone take priority, we die. And we start calling that death life.

As AARP implies, it is good to look at where we have been a little bit, insomuch as our past can inform how we want our future to look. But mostly that big windshield is where our focus should be. And keep your eyes off the damn sideview mirror where that past wants nothing more than to catch up and snag you.

When I was driving across the country last summer, toward my new life, CuRVy’s windshield was my frame on the world. The life in the rearview mirror was getting farther away with each mile. All I had was this moment and this sky with these jaw-dropping clouds and this abandoned farm with the tilting windmill and this soy bean field with perfect undulating rows and this ditch full of water lilies and this circle of snow-capped mountains and this Venture.

And now what I have is Possibility.

Lent, as I have said annually on these pages, is my favorite season. It has been a time of turning inward, and giving myself permission to be self-focused. I have walked in the garden to see what is peeking out from dormancy. I have done collage to see what in my life has been stuck underground and wants to spring forth if I let it. I have built a fire and wrapped in a blanket for hours and not felt like I “should be doing something.” Because I was doing something: I was struggling to bring forth life out of death.

I am finding that inward walk harder to do in my new life. Without a job to provide a framework for my days, without the open space outside that frame that is clearly mine-mine to paint a dark sky color with an awakening streak of light splitting it open-I am having a hard time identifying what time is mine and what belongs to something else. But things change. This is a year of change, of adapting, of being open to new life. I am finding my way.

On Thursday, I went to the last session of my drawing class. I learned a lot in the class, and not only about drawing. For one, I was surprised to discover how much I like drawing faces. What was most surprising is that I have always thought the ability to do so was light years beyond my capacity. Apparently only because I never tried, and I never asked for what I wanted: to learn. I had my eyes firmly glued to the sideview mirror and the voice in my head whining, “You can’t,” arguably the two most debilitating words in the English language. The thing about drawing faces, I discovered, is that my rendering can look nothing like the model. But then I find one little thing: the too-wide mouth, the too-short forehead, the too-narrow face that isn’t quite right. I make that one small adjustment and suddenly the familiar face pops into recognition. Or at least comes closer. And I say, “Oh!” and then “Wow!” “No, I can’t” becomes “yes, I can.”

I observe again the significance of small adjustments over Capitol Lake before yoga on Wednesday. The gulls are fighting their way into some invisible wall of air, flapping hard and making little headway. Then, turning ever-so-slightly this way or that, they catch a current going their way and glide with ease.

As I watch the gulls, my mind drifts to myself trudging up the snowy hill on the Elk’s golf course, half a mile down the hill from my home, along with dozens of other children pulling sleds, heads bent and shoulders hunched pushing into the frigid wind. It is hard work. Then we turn, take a running start, fling our bodies onto our Flexible Flyers, and careen back down the hill shrieking with that exhilarating mix of terror and delight. And then we do it again.

The whispers I am hearing in this season of inwardness is to keeping looking through the windshield, to glance into the rearview mirror for what worked in the past (and what didn’t), to listen for what I want, to engage in the struggle, to make small adjustments as needed to direct myself toward my desired future, to stay open to Possibility.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Spring Mourning

I left the Pacific Northwest as my life was teetering on the leading edge of summer. I was 24, and I was off for adventure. It was the end of May and spring was beginning to morph into summer in the PNW, too. The trees were greening, flowers were blooming, birds were nesting. With my new husband, I was heading out to tour the country in our homegrown camper-retrofitted VW bus: Orange Crate. It was 1976 and the country was celebrating its bicentennial. At the end of our Great Adventure we were moving to the other edge of the continent, where we would bounce between the mid-south and the deep south, though we didn’t know it yet. And I didn’t know it would be 37 years before I saw another Washington spring.

I am not a fan of southern seasons (especially summer), except for spring. Spring in the South is magnificent. It begins early, when children (and me) are still hoping for a renegade snowstorm. The daffodils bloom in January and every year people exclaim about how early they are. As the air warmed, weekends found me in the garden: looking for the hostas to poke up out of the nothingness of frozen earth; for the sedum and green shoots from the banana tree to emerge from the ground among last year’s frozen stalks; for buds on the brown hydrangea canes that I took for dead the first year; for the pansies I had planted in October to come out of hibernation and grow into the spaces. I watched to see if the Lenten rose would begin blooming at the beginning of Lent or hold off until Palm Sunday and stood eye-ball-to-eyeball with the cardinals in the greening Rose-of-Sharon tree out my second floor window.

The dogwood begins its step-dance toward glory. First the bud, then petals that take their sweet time opening like the roof of a planetarium to reveal the seeds like the stars, and then turn snow white and take on bragging rights. The shy redbuds edge in around the dogwood along the interstates, and the azaleas try their best to steal the show. I am not a fan of azaleas eleven months out of the year, but when the blazing scarlet and orange, the demure pink, the deep purple are flashing their stuff in yards across the awakening city, it is good to be alive.

All of this to say, in my three and a half decades away I never returned to the PNW in the spring. I came in the winter for Christmas. I came in the summer because I despise the southern heat and humidity- and summer is glory time in this corner of the land. I came in the fall because it is still summer in the fall in the South as I waited impatiently to turn off the air conditioning. But spring in North Carolina is not to be missed. And so, in the autumn of my life now, this will be my first one here since my 24-year-old self moved from spring into summer several lifetimes ago.

I go looking for signs of spring on Friday. It is a spectacular cloudless day; Mt. St. Helens shouting out against the blue. I find clusters of tiny snowdrops-a fairy angel choir rehearsing Easter. A solitary yellow wild strawberry blossom. Half-a-dozen reticent blooms on the espaliered forsythia. Tiny crocuses peek up cautiously just above ground level. The buds on the flowering quince are a little bigger and one of the daffodils has a swollen top. There are tiny buds climbing the stems of the chrysanthemums that should have been cut down after the first frost.

As I write it is raining again, the misty almost-can’t-see-it rain. The weather forecaster called it wet fog the other day. It’s what makes the summer here a gloriousity- when it finally comes sometime in July, when southerners are looking for escape. I look forward to rediscovering this forgotten season in my new old home, but I am mourning spring in the South. I anticipated this. I already have my ticket to North Carolina in April.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


"And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss" (J.K. Rowling)

I have been doing just this for nearly a decade and a half now-sitting in a cafe with a steaming mug of coffee and writing in a journal whatever is in my gut and seeing where it takes me. I've been sharing a more thoughtful version with whoever wants to read it for almost four years. But always it is a reaching down deep into myself, usually with pretty much no knowing what I will end up with.

I have a new favorite word: Choosh. And you won’t find it on Google-at least I couldn’t. It is a biblical Hebrew word meaning “sense” or “feeling.” It is onomatopoetic-which is my lifetime favorite word-capturing the sound of a rush of breath that emanates from the deep reaches of the spirit. It is a word that speaks not of rational deliberation and assessment, but of inner vision. It is what you sense, not what you know.

I’ve been thinking about that word all week. When have I experienced choosh? When have I known deep down into spirit what I should do or what I thought would happen that defied all reason and fact? Certainly when I bought my house. It was ridiculous to think I could financially manage that, and crunching the numbers bore out my doubt. And I had no evidence that I could take care of a house all by myself. Then there was the garden: it was a mess. But my choosh was that it would work out, and I was the only one standing in the way of letting it happen. I bought that house, and that garden, and in the five years they were mine my life was changed.

When I first saw Ed Jones at the University of Washington in 1973 in the dorm we both lived in, I had barely been introduced to him before choosh, I knew I would marry the skinny man from the midwest with the wildly curly hair. Three years later it was irresponsible to conceive a baby with no income other than a graduate student stipend, but choosh we did it anyway: Nicholas. People kept cautioning me not to be so certain our second baby was a girl, and it would have been okay if it weren’t, but my choosh told me that she was: Emma. Deep down sensing.

I heard about a position that might be created at Pullen Baptist Church. I had no earthly business thinking I could be a financial secretary, but deep down spirit informed me that I was to go after it; and I did, even before it was open. And Ben, who recommended I be hired, listened to his choosh too, and took a chance on me. I grew that job and grew in it for 11 years before another choosh told me it was time to leave stable employment in the midst of a recession, to pack up and sell my house in a sluggish market and move across the country.

Those have been the big evidences of choosh in my life; I’m sure there are hundreds of small ones. Or are there? How often do I close my eyes, shut out the noisy world, and ask what is in my gut? Or just know without even thinking about it? There are the two or three times I have rolled down my window at the intersection and handed a dollar to the downtrodden person holding a cardboard sign asking for God to bless me. Once I handed someone the lunch I had just bought at Subway. Why? Choosh. A rush of breath that whispered “do it.” 

Sometimes I hear my choosh and let doubt persuade me to ignore it. And then feel disappointed in myself later. That happened recently, and I still feel bad. I pray that young expectant couple at the gas station who rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night without any money, got gas in their car to get home. Christina Baldwin writes beautifully in her blog this week of story happening at a rest stop on I-5 near Portland, her experience of listening to her choosh that surely changed lives: hers and the desperate mother’s.

Sometimes our decisions are driven by circumstances. We follow the yellow brick road, doing what we have to do, what gets thrown at us. We may go along for a while, trying to make the outcome different, all the while knowing in our deep spirit choosh place Oz won’t be where we end up or where we want to be when we get there. We close our eyes, shut out the racket, and ask what is in our gut, and finally follow it home. 

Do we take time to listen for our choosh? Will listening to what our inner guidance is telling us help us make decisions? I don’t know. But I am going to start paying attention. I shouldn’t have to be knocked over the head with it. Lent begins this Wednesday. I am going to engage a practice of slowing down, quieting my head, shutting out the world’s wisdom, and listening for my spirit wisdom. I am going to listen for my choosh.

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray” (Rumi).

[I am suspending my practice of using only the week’s new photos in my blog to share some photos of the inner spirit of flowers in my Raleigh garden.]

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Another Breathing Lesson

On New Year’s Day, two tiny daffodil sprouts bravely poked through the soil in the pot on the deck. A month later there are a dozen, but still only two inches tall. The early flowers grow slowly in this climate this time of year. As the air warms they will grow faster, and be blooming before you know it; but life in the winter is not in a hurry.

I learned a new word this week-I heard it twice on the same day: Imbolc. It’s a Gaelic word that means “in the belly” and can refer to the birthing time of lambs. Imbolc was yesterday, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Life in the winter sits in wait in the belly-the belly of the earth, the belly of the creatures, my belly-until the time is right for birth and breath.

Yesterday was also Groundhog Day. That silly day when we look to a shy furry creature in Pennsylvania to tell us if there will be more of the same or if the time is right to erupt into spring. My friend Dori has embraced the day as her favorite holiday and made it personal. Is the time right to burst into whatever has been waiting quietly in the belly, or does it need more time to incubate in the dark? In honor of Phil not seeing his shadow, it is a spring-like day here. But though I look closely, I find very few signs that spring is ready to pick up the pace.

In the seven months of living with my mother, I have literally slowed my pace. She has taught me to match steps with her without impatience. Walking more slowly gives time to notice the temperature of the air, the smell of the evergreens, the clouds gliding across the pale sun, raindrops clinging to fir needles, the sound of the birds whispering in the bushes, the mountain glowing in the setting sun, the way the fog floats among the trees like visible breath.

It takes time to make the transition from unseeing speed to intentional awareness. I don’t get up and go to work these days-rushing from one thing on the list to the next, trying to get through the day’s tasks before quitting time when I can go home and try to breathe before a new day starts it all again, often continuing the list in my head even as I semi-sleep. I am more aware of my breath all the time now: the drawing in and the expansion of the breath in my belly...the movement of the air into my heart space...and the exhale into the world as I let go of that one, pause, then take another one in. I expect this is what happens to people when they retire: they have to relearn how to breath, and it doesn’t happen quickly. One of things rolling in my belly is how to return to work-which I must, eventually-and still remain in this conscious, unhurried way of living. Perhaps recognizing that desire is the first breath.

It’s been a busy week. One day a doctor’s appointment with my mom. Another day I need to accompany her on a couple of errands. Yet another day is my drawing class. Wow. Busy. My life has slowed down-I have a whole new definition of “busy.” But I don’t feel idle, just lucky to have the opportunity to concentrate on the breath.

Yogi Julie in Raleigh, in her 50s, after getting us into a pose that stretched my notion of what I could do, would tell us “two more breaths here.” I would think, “are you kidding me?” I breathed as slowly as I could, but her sense of time was slow. Trying to breathe fully, I still often took four breaths to her “two”; but by the time we came to her end, I was more comfortable with the discomfort. In my current class with the 20-something teacher, we are told “two more breaths,” and before I can finish one, she is on to the next thing. I contribute the difference to age, theirs not mine. Older people are more aware of time, and in less of a hurry to move from one breath to the next. I am glad to be here. I am glad to recognize the discomfort and take time to become comfortable with it. I am glad not to cram as much busyness as I can into each breath.

My friend Christina Baldwin, in her book The Seven Whispers, suggests three intentional breaths to begin each day: the first to let go, the second to be here, the third to ask now what? My living is somewhere between breath two and breath three. Moving from the letting go took time and it feels good to be here in the moment. I haven’t finished Christina’s book, but I am curious to see if she reveals what comes after the third breath. I suspect that moving into what’s next is not as easy as just asking the question and listening for the answer. But when we learn to breath slowly enough, we get comfortable with the discomfort. Maybe after the question is asked and the answer is revealed in its time, the next step will be as natural as one more deep stomach expanding breath. Meanwhile, being comfortable with uncertainty is today’s gift. There is time to think about what wants to be birthed and what needs to be buried, and what is still waiting for spring.

Note: I did birth a new blog this week about life with my mother. It’s called “Daughter on Duty: Walking with My Mother in the December of Her Life." I would love for you to join me there.