Friday, March 26, 2010

Nights Like These, I Want to Be the Speaker in a Mary Oliver Poem

I went to an art exhibit today centered around "the figure"--bold ceramic creations that stretched assumptions about the human body. While I was pondering this art, my hubby got the call; we'd been expecting it as budget cuts began to affect more folks we knew. In July, we will most likely be joining the 40 million+ Americans without health care coverage, due to his job being dropped to part-time.

Suddenly, the elephant in the room has actually learned to talk. The questions start bubbling: What about finishing school? What about possible future children? What about the world that we imagined? We know we're not alone in this questioning, and we also know that, as Americans, our lives will still be privileged on the worst of days. But funny how quickly the mind breaks away from the body in times like these, when it screams I'm in charge now! Even now, my cheeks are flushed, my shoulders hunched forward, my whole body heavy with "What nows?"

Last night's post subject seems a wee bit ironic in hindsight...As an artist, I am used to society either deeming the work I do as "not worthy of health insurance" or making it impossible for me to receive benefits by keeping me part-time (adjuncting, for instance).  I have also been down the road of catastrophic-only insurance plans...and spent more moola on unnecessary tests (needed due to stress, go figure!) than I ever plan to again.

So...I will not let this post become a rant, no worries. I will choose this new road as an opportunity to simplify my life even more, to connect mind + body into something stronger than fear.

Feel free to quote me these lines in the next few months. Unwelcome change can actually be what leads to a fuller life...We shall see. Now's the time to walk the talk. Now's the time to see what life has to offer vulnerability...

Glad I have the opening daffodils today--evidence that expected change can be lovely, bright; they're proof that we can't keep a season for long. So are poems:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

"Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Anabaptist Learns Tai Chi: My Own Health's Reform

It may sound funny, impossible even--but I'm always trying to leave...myself.

My mental bags are continuously packed, my metaphorical pedal pressed to the floor called "go!" In many ways, I'm trying to get away--or at least, I tell myself, move forward; I'm often longing for something in the past, something dizzy in the future. One thought barely has time to process before the next to-do list blooms. 

Over the past two years, I've added other priorities to my mental to-do lists:
*set aside time for silence (not even music in the background, which is sometimes excruciating!)
*test reality in the now
*say no with respect for yourself when necessary--and accept that you can't please everyone
*walk in meditation
*eat something mindfully
*learn to receive gracefully
*do morning yoga or tai chi (if only for 10 minutes)
*get a monthly massage

When I claim I don't have time to re-connect with my body, I find others who know the power of "centering down" because I know the consequences if I don't (life's "dramas" spike, digestion gets iffy, sleeplessness settles in my covers, suddenly a month has passed & I have no idea how my friends and family are doing, etc...) My big sister might say, "Ah, but you can think about slowing down because you don't have kids!" Yes, there's a crunchy layer of truth to this. But... I also know parents who take a half hour every day to center themselves, to refuel in a way that does not include turning the mind "off"--but rather, reconnects to it.

Most often, my quest to reconnect includes going to a weekly yoga class, a Quaker Meeting, or on a long walk by the river; even cooking calms me down (sometimes!) enough to braid together body, mind, and the current moment. Since 2007, I've been drawn to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction MBSR, a daily routine of both meditation and meditative movement. I chuckle when imagining many congregations I know being asked to sit mindfully for more than three minutes; I chuckle, but I come from these same wooden pews. I have to practice slowing down my life...then, and only then, do I see and experience things I would've never noticed otherwise.

You'd think a poet-songwriter would have "slowing down enough to focus" down to an art...but we writers use our minds so much that our bodies often get left behind. We forget them in order to get things done, to be productive, creative, social or (fill in the blank here). I'm probably not the only one who was subconsciously taught that mind was holier than body, that their careful separation was ultimately a good thing. Real education takes some unlearning too, yes?

We've heard a lot of talk about the body lately, what with health care reform making fireworks. I do have to wonder how much we still stubbornly take the body/mind connection for granted, how repetitive mental stress contributes to overall well-being. So I'm hopeful that I will live to see the day when worrying about having health care benefits is a thing of the past.

Until then, I can work on my own health's reform. I won't need 2,000 pages to know a daily practice, however flawed or inconsistent, is a good kind of reaching...

"In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger--these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone..." (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World) 
 Photo credit: B. Lachman 2004, Dale Chihuly exhibit

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Annotated Life

Like most writers, I crave good reading.

For about five years, I've been hooked on THE SUN, an ad-free journal that leaves me feeling--quite simply--more connected to reality, the underbelly of humanity (Insert Hallmark commercial here, sure. But it's true.) When I read something that moves me, challenges me, or just plain knocks my socks off, I tend to annotate it: write notes in the margins, highlight passages, dog-ear the tiny tips of pages to lead me back, again and again, to that sense of connection or emotion felt so fully.

As a writer, I spend a lot of my day on my computer. After dinner, sometimes I feel as though my awake time rushed by without me as much as pulling out a tail feather.

So how do I change this sense of constant motion tied to a lack of mindfulness? How can I annotate my everyday life?

* * *

It's no surprise that many read-ables once found only in print are now available on the Internet--or at least parts of them are. THE SUN is no different, and this morning I came across an article called "Computing the Cost...How the Internet is Rewiring Our Brains."

Worth a careful read...especially for those who spend hours in front of a screen of any kind.

I'm not about to say that technology is Diablo-worthy. This blog is proof of my swirling thoughts on its "reign," proof that I'm always looking for others who struggle with staying in the "in-between-ness" of it all. Any tips and testimonies on balancing the high-tech whirlwind are always taken to heart.

I come from a culture that knows how technology can separate us, speed up our lives to the point of living one blurry day after another. Sound familiar, anyone? But I also claim a family of writer friends and mentors whose daily goal is to communicate; ignoring the Web's dominance would be dismissing a Goliath way to connect. Yet it seems we are creating generations of "skimmers"--and not only when it comes to reading.

As a teacher who roams the streets of a college town daily (this sounds more mysterious than saying "I walk most places"), I notice conversations--or lack thereof. In class, my students shy away from deep reflection, even in ten-minute intervals. Fifty minutes of not having a laptop or cellphone in front of them seems like torture on some days. More than this, though, I notice a dwindling vocabulary (this applies to me at times, as well!). The same phrases used, over and over. Short sentences, interrupted statements, the f-bomb used as multiple parts of speech, eyes that tell me brains are ceaselessly multi-tasking.

In war-torn nations, a limited, repetitive vocabulary is a sign of years of "survival mode." But here in the U.S., we maintain the ranking of world's biggest military and consumer power. Are we on "survival mode" somehow?  If so, what are we running from--or perhaps, the more logical question--what "keeps us running" at such high speeds and in such constant stimulation that our face-to-face language is literally being taken away from us ?

* * *

In THE SUN article mentioned above,  Nicholas Carr admits "there are broad social and economic changes underway that reward Internet use. If you cherish the ability to concentrate deeply and be reflective, you need to set aside time to read and think every day, so that those circuits in your brain don’t get erased."

What does it take these days to center us? What happens when our only "me time" occurs on a daily commute or in front of a TV screen? Somehow I doubt that adding a favorite Web page to my "bookmarks" list will give me satisfying inner-reflection or deeper digestion of the real world around me.

Or is it too much to hope for a pendulum swing in the brain--back to a time when we could go for a day, half a week, without high speed anything...? I don't know, but I want to believe it is possible. For now, I'll know my power to reflect and connect presents itself quietly throughout my day--first, in the decision to turn off my computer. At least for the rest of the afternoon.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Maneuvering Mentor-ship

I have a writer friend who takes her poetic mentors very seriously: their names are tattooed in an elaborate calligraphy-ied band around her arm.

What if we all carried our mentors so publicly? Would we/do we always joyfully claim them? Obviously, sometimes those who affect us the most are so close to us, we don't always acknowledge their powerful influences...and sometimes we look for mentor-ship in the "safest" of places. In 2010, that might mean we let technology feed us more "mentors" than real life.

According to, a "mentor" is
1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

I don't know about you, but I crave guidance from those who have "been there" before me--at certain times in my life, wise women of many ages have quite literally kept me breathing out and breathing in. (Not that men haven't also, but women have been vital to this rocky road of moving away from my religious/cultural community and into a life of marriage and art and chasing the wider-world-muse.)

I've had a lot of time to spend alone at home this winter. I'm writing and reading and trying out soup recipes; I'm penning letters and deep spring cleaning. And I'm also craving some of the old music/media that once "mentored" at least a part of me. This means that Tori Amos has shaken the walls of our house on more than one occasion this past week. Her lyrics remind me of a time when I first questioned feminism, relationships, my voice, and other people--when I first put my version of the "truth" into a song, a story, a conversation--and stood by it.

Other women have encouraged me to express the self in deeper ways, but my mind first jumps to fictional characters, musicians, and authors (most I've never met) before those real-life mentors. Am I more in tune to the "Millennial Generation" than I like to admit? Do I have a more consistent "relationship" with TV characters (say, Meredith from Grey's Anatomy, as a random--though some days sadly true--example) or certain Facebook "friends" than I might with in-the-flesh people? Am I a mindful mentor to someone else? Do my mentors sometimes teach me things/attitudes/habits that are actually harmful or unrealistic?

As winter softens into spring and I become less of a willing recluse, these are questions I will keep chewing on...

Here are some of my past & present "mentors":
* Laura from Little House on the Prairie--I was drawn to her sass, and the TV show was one of the few things we were allowed to watch growing up
*poet Sharon Olds--taught me I could write about anything; she still reminds me to stay rooted in my own body
*writer Gloria Anzaldua--humbled me into seeing a different version of history/heterosexism, changed the way I see immigration laws
*12th century abbess/composer Hildegard von Bingen--I still want to believe in songs and words that come from somewhere "Bigger" than ourselves
*The speaker in the Psalms
*Tori Amos--when I play out, it's just me and my piano ('nough said)
*Dar Williams/The Indigo Girls/Patti Griffin--taught me that songwriters can be serious poets too
*Felicity and Angela from "Felicity"/"My So-Called Life"--walked me through high school and undergrad, fed my "need" for drama in my life (I am a recovering "angst-addict"--well, off of the page, anyway!)
*poet Julia Kasdorf--showed me that American Mennonite women can write from the very core of the self--and thrive doing so
*My Grandma Ruth--told me to write instead of turn on the TV--but has also carried on generations of expected silence, passive/aggressiveness
*My big sister--though we've chosen different paths, she models what it means to be a mindful wife and mother.
*Mi madre--as cliche as it may seem to claim this mentor, my mom continues to teach me to reach for what matters; that it's never too late to tell the world, "No this is who I am."
* Fellow writers via emails, Facebook, etc.--I'm grateful for these "web mentors" (but nothing compares to sitting in the same room with them!)