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Creative Writing, mindfulness, Nonfiction, personal growth, yoga

Brave Little Yogi

I did a brave thing the other day: I went to yoga.

No, it’s not Firefighter-Level bravery, but it was – for me – big. I have been living in this small city two years now, not counting the four that I spent during my undergraduate years. It’s an odd place – gritty and working-class and “a dump” are all different ways I’ve heard it described. I think all three are true.

It dawned on me awhile back, while talking with my therapist at the time, that some of the anxiety I was feeling then was in part due to feeling lonely. I have a web of beautiful weirdos I call my friends and family; they are more dear to me than my own self. But they’re not here, in this city. They’re there, nearby, or over there, a little farther. Seen regularly, but still: not here. In the age of the Internet and constant job churn and endless graduate degrees, relationships get scattered. And with technology being what it is, it is quick – though not simple – to stay in touch, and keep the connections alive.

And so, I went to yoga.

Week after week this summer, I have driven by a cute yoga studio and been curious. So after a long week of babysitting (rife with “I don’t like you’s” because, no, chocolate chips don’t count as breakfast) I decided to sign up for a class. I figured the “Happy Hour Yoga” with a post-class glass of wine would be a good way to break the ice.

I did what any sane person interested in this studio would do: I Googled it. And spent a few days looking at their Facebook and Instagram.  Would it be friendly? Or zen? Or filled with skinny Lululemon clones? Cut to a few hours before the class: scrolling through Instagram and Facebook (again) to see what kind of people go to this studio, as if looking at the website for the 67th time would make know who was there and what to say and how to act. Would I have to start conversations with people, or would they chat with me first? I very conscientiously picked out a cool Beatles t-shirt to wear increase the chance of having a “Go-To” tidbit about myself. (Writing that is embarrassing. The truth will set you free, but not without embarrassing you first.)

As I parked, I noticed the parking lot was not very full – fine, I’m 10 minutes early, just like the websites said to be if you’re new!! I approached the door sort of from the side, because for some reason, the thought of approaching it head on seemed aggressive and like it would shine a spotlight on me. It looked just like it did in the pictures online; good, this yoga studio is not filled with liars and people who use stock images. A good sign.

I entered to find only the owner and one other woman, and after checking in and an awkward little chit chat about how the owner and I are both Kates, I awkwardly hung up my sweater and took off my sandals. The class itself was great. I forgot that yoga in a studio kicks your butt because you can’t hit “Pause” on the teacher. Mentally, too, it was a genuine challenge for me to quiet my mind and match breath to movement. (I suppose that’s the real benefit of class – that call to be mindful and present in community, that call to resist the urge to compare and despair). I failed a lot, and forgot the names of poses, and definitely wore the wrong shirt because it was a more active practice than I anticipated. But there were also good moments.

At the end of class, we all went to sit in the lobby and have a very generous glass of wine. (My kind of studio!) I’m not sure why in my head, Happy Hour Yoga would be filled with lots of naturally cheerful, chatty women who would intimidate me by their sheer yoga bliss, or why I thought it would be like a cocktail party at work where everyone is looking to find that one person they can glom onto for the night. In my worry about how to work a room full of people, I never got the opportunity to worry about an intimate group of strangers. That was for the best.

I found myself with two women probably 10 and 15 years older than me, with probably a quarter of a bottle of wine in my glass, with a heart and ears open to listen. Am I going to brunch this weekend with these ladies? No. But I learned that the owner has two children, and another on the way; that business is slow to start; that my anxiety is dwarfed by her real risk in this venture. I learned that my fellow yogi uses her art degree and sculpture skills to arrange displays for Macy’s, and has tried every studio in the city. And I learned that doing the thing that seems hard is good and vital and not at all like you imagine. It is different, maybe better, maybe just what you need.

Christian, Creative Writing, mindfulness, Nonfiction, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Living the Questions at the Kitchen Table

If you are lucky enough to get time for vacation, you know that the week leading up to time away is a slog. The hours pass slower, and slower, and slower, until the clock seems frozen. The work feels more tedious and all you notice is how tired you are and tense; how urgent a break is.

What a gift it is to retreat and relax. This past week I stayed in the Adirondacks with my entire family. The environment up there is stunning: dark curves of mountain against pale blue sky, every shade of green dancing on the leaves, lakes as rich as sapphires. My muscles began to melt, and the weight of my body relaxed. My mind was at ease, concerning itself only with what book to read next or what snack to munch on. Success was measured by how much time I spent laughing or laying in the sunshine.

When I am there, my heart becomes extra tender and I feel a sense of yearning: everything seems simpler up at the lake. I have always had a soft spot for the wilderness, which might explain why I moved to Kentucky after graduation or why I love the parts of the Gospel where Jesus retreats to find some solitude. I am introverted by nature, and a lover of solitude by nurture. The tall pines and the mist in the valley seem to protect and nurture that.

I am tempted by the dream that living in such a place would bring those things I seek most: freedom, peace, joy. If only I were there, not here…. If only I were able to retreat…If only I could get away from the anxieties of my day to day life. Life would be just that much richer.

But then I realize I am only dreaming. Life is complicated everywhere, and in different ways. And our human longing does not leave when we “escape” to anywhere. The questions are there – in the desert or the mountains or the suburbs – and they are waiting to be lived, regardless of the environment. The questions are there, too, in the midst of a busy work week or in folding four loads of laundry or in checking email at 7 a.m. But maybe escaping the ordinariness of our lives is the easy road. It is true that some have the vocation to live a solitary or secluded life, but it’s truer that most of us do not. It is harder to live the questions at the kitchen table than in an Adirondack chair with toes in the sand.

Clearly a time to retreat is necessary. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,” says Matthew at the start of Chapter 5. Luke 6:12 mentions that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” And yet it would be a mistake to stop there. What follows in each passage is a return to community and great wisdom: the Beatitudes. The yearning for a break, for a little clarity and simplicity, is a call to Wisdom. We need to heed that call, but we also need to recognize what that wisdom is for: the here, the now, the ordinary community in which we find ourselves. We need to heed that call for our own peace, and for the world’s.

Uncategorized

For the Weeds

It is the perfect summer day: 75 and sunny, with a handful of marshmallow shaped clouds dotting the pastel sky. Vacation is imminent and fruit is ripe and juicy. There’s still plenty of summer on the horizon. 

So why do I feel this way? Tired though I sleep well, needing something more in spite of deep gratitude and joy in my life. 

This past week’s Gospel had Jesus telling the people to let the plants and weeds grow together. Only at the end of it all will God then pull out the weeds and throw them into the fires of Gehenna. Scary language and scary when we think about the message in terms of good v. bad people, heaven v. hell. 

What struck me when I heard this though, two things occurred to me. First was God’s great kindness and patience. There are weeds? Let them grow. They are not a concern for now and so, not really a concern at all. A classic grown up move: “I’ll deal with it later, don’t worry about it.” The second thing that popped into my mind was an inward, mindfulness-based reading of the story. What if instead of concerning ourselves with good and bad people and God’s response, we turn inward? To our own good and bad parts – our good and bad thoughts, actions, feelings?

Thich Naht Hanh (among others) writes about approaching our bad, sad, and negative thoughts and feelings with a kindness and patience similar to God’s in this Gospel. Acknowledge the feeling with a sense of both friendliness and detachment, and the feeling loses some of its sting. 

God is kind and patient and is big enough for strange moods on beautiful days. I think he is inviting us to let these weeds grow in our lives without concerning ourselves with pulling them up. Let them grow, alongside the fruits and plants, and God will deal with it later. 

learning, mindfulness, Nonfiction, personal growth, projects

Mindful Babysitting

During the summer, I work as a babysitter/nanny to two adorable, challenging, wild little girls. The girls are 8 and 5, old enough to play together nicely, though the younger one is just barely 5 and still understands so little of the world (grunting doesn’t count as asking for help). The 8 year old has a host of special needs which makes things … interesting. Her anxiety and sensory issues lead to some interesting and challenging behavior. Luckily for me, these are the kids I love and the kids I work with regularly. Perhaps even more luckily for me, this is the year I am reading and learning about two particular topics: toxic stress in children and mindfulness-based teaching approaches.

While the kids I work with during summer certainly don’t have toxic stress (which is usually a result of grinding poverty, neglect, and violence), the big take away from some workshops I’ve gone to is this: kids respond in a way that seems reasonable to them at the time and kids often don’t know any better. Behavior communicates some kind of meaning and our job as The Adult is to help them express this meaning in better ways.  Many children have literally no idea what that means or looks like: what words should I use? What does “calm” feel like? Adults have to model it, over and over and over and explain it while they do. 

This summer is serving as a laboratory for me to implement some of the techniques and strategies I am learning through some great professional development reading. Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, by Patricia A. Jennings, has a lot to say on responding to behavior using mindful awareness. Interestingly, most of the book is about what ADULTS need to do to elicit better behavior, through their own mindfulness and self-awareness. So far, here are some things that are working: 

  1. Routine: As adults, we can feel out-of-whack if our routines are impacted too much. This stresses our fight or flight response, impacting our cardiovascular system, immune system, cognitive function, etc. And we’re grown ups! – we have at least some awareness of what’s going on. Now imagine you’re 3 feet tall and you still don’t understand how to tie shoes or why cars have red lights on the back of them. Imagine every day is different and you don’t know what to expect. That can’t feel very comfortable, and adds stress to your tiny body. For some reason, we think of “routine” as a militaristic, no-fun concept. But routine can be simple for kids. Even the littlest sense of structure takes away a lot of stress for kids, especially those like the 8 year old I watch. She’s already anxious – let’s take some anxiety out of the environment by having some structure, like breakfast and lunch in the same time, same place. Small steps make a difference. 
  2. Don’t personalize the behavior: It is always amazing to me how irritated and mad I can feel at small children. They are so wildly frustrating sometimes that it is hard not to take it personally. For example, we had to clean our rooms the other day. The little one gets right to it, no help needed. The older one, though, spent time sulking and just lounging on her bed fiddling with the radio. My level of frustration kept rising as I kept reminding her what needed to get done. (“What a brat she’s being! Why is she making this hard?!”) Feeling my anger, I noticed it, took a breath, and tuned in. I again asked her to start cleaning, and sullenly she said she was trying to get the radio to work. I realized that she was jealous of her sister, whose boombox was playing loud Disney tunes as she cleaned. All she wanted was to have some fun like her little sister was doing. I offered her my phone to use instead (Taylor Swift, for the win!) and finally she got working. I could only help her solve the problem and tackle her job by being mindfully aware of my own feelings. If I stayed angry and took it personally, I would not have seen the situation in its full reality and found a solution. 
  3. Attacking behavior with warmth and love: Children are wildly perceptive. For their survival, they need to be well-attuned to subtle emotions. Unfortunately that means for us adults, they sense when we feel tense and frustrated and angry. So when a child is acting up, though it’s very easy to respond with frustration, that can often lead to a spiral of bad feelings and worse behavior. Using a key mindful technique of slow and deep breaths, I am able to help lessen my negative feelings and thoughts. Then, I try to really look at the kiddos: they are so small! Look at how soft their skin is. How do you get teeth so tiny? I tune in to the physical reality of their littleness and the frustration melts a little more. Now I can approach with more love: are you hungry? Can I get you water? Would you like help? Do I need to tickle or dance the bad behavior away? This doesn’t always work (sometimes kids are like adults: just grumpy and in need of wallowing) but it at least makes me feel more compassionate and helpful. 

These things are hard to do largely because they demand a lot from us cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Mindful awareness of breath, doing body scans, and using other such techniques, though, are a helpful starting place. Through my jobs I am seeing that working on children’s behavior has to start from adults working on their own emotions and actions. So here’s to a summer of mindful experimentation and many, many deep breaths. 

Christian, learning, Nonfiction, Spirituality, Uncategorized

In Genesis, there is this funny and beautiful thing that happens where stories repeat, nearly identical in nature, but the characters are different. What happened to Abraham now happens to Isaac. I’m sure there’s a reason behind it – layers of meaning rooted in theology and history. It means little to me though, except to be equal parts confusing and amusing. I’d ask more questions about this – why the repetition, what does it mean for Israel, or about God, or in my own life – but I wonder if those are even the right questions to ask. Or if I need the questions at all.

Questions are important and necessary; they demand and invite and bring light to the cracks in a text. But they have to be the right questions, or we don’t get anywhere. And if they aren’t the right questions, maybe it’s better to just sit and rest with the text.

At the end of my time in Kentucky, I sat down with my program director and a volunteer coordinator to  process my year of service and community. I remember speaking about how I admired the people there for their commitment to reading and knowing Scripture. Certainly, they read it in a different light and there is a danger to continually re-reading something like Scripture – it can start to feel like you know it, period, end-of-story. But my co-workers and housemates all had a regular, personal relationship to Scripture, which is to say they all engaged myth, story, poetry, wisdom – daily. I wanted that, I said, but it can be so tedious – after all, there are so many rules and so many “begets”. The programmer director, a woman whose relationship to Jesus was personal, hard-earned, and earnest, gave me this advice: “I just ask God to let it somehow speak to me, and then I read it.” That was it.

She didn’t sit with the Bible and a commentary; she didn’t interpret or analyze or underline – though at times these are perfectly valid and appropriate approaches. She read it and let it sit in her heart. I think of Mary, who “reflected on all these things in heart” when she, for whatever reason, said yes to God.

Sometimes the question is a barrier. A way to have some power over a text that is remarkably profound and confusing and important.

I’m trying to read the Bible, and I don’t recall why I started, and I’m not sure what I’m hoping to get out of it. I’m still only in Genesis. It’s slow-going. Reading it, I see how imminent God is; how poetic; how personal. He lets Abraham bargain for Sodom & Gommorah. He sends signs like rainbows, and compares his promises to the stars in the sky. Those are things in my world, here and now. More often than not, though, it seems to make little sense and I wonder if my understanding is doing anything to build my relationship with God and with my world.

I pray that it is. I pray that it’s making me see a little more clearly. I pray that even if it isn’t, I can be connected in relationship to these characters, and the scores of Christians throughout the ages who found value in this practice, and to this God who is, frankly, bizarre and still mostly unknown to me. I put down my questions for the time being, and reflect on all these things in my heart. Maybe it’ll work.

 

Creative Writing, Nonfiction, personal growth, Poetry, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Boredom

It’s two weeks into vacation and I’m finally going to say it: I’m bored.

I have a list of projects to tackle, and ample books, and a car, and, oh yeah, the Internet. But boredom is clever and can slip through the cracks. It settles thick on your chest and rattles your ribs. As I think about each of things I know I love doing, all I am meeting is a big wall of resistance. You know how Wile E. Coyote winds himself up, ready to finally catch Roadrunner, and then hits a wall? Or falls off a cliff? That’s how I’m feeling.

Each of these words feels so heavy to type. The words in my books seem foreign. I’d love to write poetry but I have less than nothing in the tank. There’s not even any sunshine to nap in! I can’t even be productively bored. But I suppose that’s the point sometimes.

“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder.” – Padraig O Tuama

Christian, learning, Nonfiction, personal growth, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Unplug. Reconnect. Repeat.

I’ve been recently reading through Genesis. The Creation stories are wonderful to revisit. Perhaps it’s because in springtime, we notice the earth and sky and water teeming with life once again, and for maybe just a moment, we can see what God sees when He created this place. What I love most about those stories is that God creates an entire day for rest. And as the world multiples, and covenants are established, and uh, floods and fire destroy towns, there is still the day of rest.

Slowing down is not a one-time deal. If you’re at all like me, and love self-help nonsense, you read constantly about the power of “unplugging”. As if you pull the plug once, and *poof*, life is better.

But we need to be consistently, regularly finding time and space for rest. And while there is value in taking a day, a full Sabbath, sometimes it’s not always possible. Our culture doesn’t really support that. That’s where I find mindfulness useful. In the middle of a busy day, I can tune into the sensations of my present moment and rest.

Here are some things I’ve been doing to make more Sabbath moments in my life.

  1. Eating breakfast at the table, sans news or podcasts. Taking at least 20 minutes to ease into the day, even when all I want to do is connect to the “Worldwide Bloodstream” as they say on Broad City.
  2. Getting farm share veggies, every week. I drive a little (ok, kind of a lot) out of our way to pick the best bok choy, select radishes with fake enthusiasm, and pretend I know which herbs are which. But I’m eating more greens, I smell air and dirt regularly, and it forces my brain to be present to, you know, the actual earth.
  3. Watching more movies! “More screen time?” you may say, skeptical that this is remotely mindful. But movies demand our time and attention: close the curtains, pop some corn, and put the phones down. For a few hours, my mind is calm and engaged on a single story: what a rarity! We’ve already completed a week of “men” movies (12 Angry, All the President’s, A Few Good), as well as Tom Cruise week. Side note: Did you know that Risky Business is just serious Ferris Bueller?
  4. Phone calls. They are making a comeback, I swear. I recommend quick 15 minute phone calls while you walk or sit on the stoop in the nice summer weather. Simultaneously gets you outside of your own head and back into your own life.

I am bad at these things. I spent the last two nights sleeping poorly because, guys, have you ever used YouTube? They have videos on everything. Not to mention I have every song ever on my phone. But it’s a work in progress. And on that note, I’ve gotta get away from the dang computer screen and go find a Sabbath moment.

Creative Nonfiction, learning, personal growth, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Slow Down

It’s officially summertime: the calendar says so, the freckles on my shoulders say so, and the thick, sticky air seems to agree. The summer can be a time when things get frantic. Being from New England, I can attest to the pressure to enjoy the good weather while it lasts. Enjoy this sunshine and warmth, dammit! But I, for one, am looking forward to trying to fight the summer frantic antics. This summer is all about slowing down.

I’m in my 2nd year of working in public education, and truth be told, I’m still adjusting. People regularly proclaim how lucky I am to have summers off. I can’t disagree; it’s an excellent benefit. But instead of thinking, “Gee, I am lucky!” I get hit with a pang of guilt. Surely I should be doing more. Most people work year-round. Most people don’t have the privilege of weeks or months off.

My response to “I’d love summers off, too!” is not eloquent or witty. No, usually I stammer about the poor pay, or the 12 months worth of work stuffed into 10 months, or the fact that well, I’m hourly, so I have to find a summer job, like I’m a 16 year old kid looking to mow lawns. Yes, I work in summer, too! No, I’m not getting defensive, why would even think that?

Our culture and its Protestant work ethic is deep-rooted and pervasive (I got stuck with its pressures and I’m not even Protestant!!). Of particular importance lately is being productive. Improving ourselves, making progress, getting better and doing more. What a wildly unsustainable way to live a life, though. To live as if the point of life is to get better and do more all the time can only lead to feelings of burnout, or feelings of failure. What if we work hard, work better, work more, but don’t improve? Don’t make enough progress? Don’t earn enough? What is ‘enough’?

At the end of winter, the weather, the election, and the stress of work all sent me to seek some help and perspective with a very kind, very funny therapist who consistently challenged me to be mindful and investigate my own assumptions. I’ve since stopped needing to see her (for now, at least) and I’m thankful for her introducing mindfulness practice into my life. The point of doing the dishes is to clean the dishes, not go somewhere faster or think about work. The point of going to work is to contribute some skill and earn money in return, not prove our worth or validate our existence. The point of living is, well, to be alive: alive to every moment of our lives, alive to every sensation and observation and moment – fast or slow, full or empty.

So this summer, instead of guilt or pressure to “do something” with my time, I am simply going to be alive to the heat, to the sun, to the freckles on my skin, and trust that it is enough of a life to fold laundry, and drink cold coffee, and read until my eyes fall closed for a nap.

Christian, Creative Writing, personal growth, Poetry, projects, Spirituality

10 Observations

Recently, I listened to a conversation with the poet Marie Howe. If you don’t listen already, On Being is a great place to hear poets, physicists, and other big picture thinkers discuss…well, the big picture. And the small picture. Really, it’s just a wellspring of inspiration and mystery. Anyway, Marie Howe mentioned that she has her students do an exercise where they must list 10 observations. Not metaphors – no “The sun shines like a golden earring” or anything. Simple, physical, as-is observations using the senses. Of course I scoffed as if I were above this and could do it no problem. Wrong. It’s hard to do, and so very helpful – whether or not you write. If you practice meditation or mindfulness or any kind of organized religion, this is good to do. I have been starting with 3 – 5 observations. Today, I built it up to 10, and stitched together what follows.

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Creative Writing, personal growth, Poetry, Spirituality, Tuesday

Tuesday Poetry

Lent has come and gone, Easter and spring are busy making themselves known. I’ve done so very little writing, instead focusing on the joy of a good bit of travel and spring cleaning now that warm temperatures are here. I’ve been trying to practice more intentional mindfulness, not just mindfulness in the midst of anxiety or worry. This poem was the result of that. 

Continue reading “Tuesday Poetry”