Launching a Daily Practice

Years ago I blogged weekly, then it became monthly. Like in many things that feel good but require discipline – meditation, writing, exercise – my practice has become slapdash. Laziness is the only reason. My alarm goes off at 5:30 AM just like it did when I diligently got up to write the first draft of my memoir for more than a year without missing a day. Yes, I did do that, I remind myself. Now I hit snooze and seize an extra 15 minutes of slumber – about 3 times before getting up – now with only enough time to get ready for work.

There’s another reason why I posted less: self-doubt. Is this interesting to you? Am I being self-indulgent sharing on here? Do I think I’m Karl Ove Knaussgard or something? I’ve abandoned many drafts with this kind of thinking, wrestling with why should I blog? Why I should even write anything, anywhere – period?

Yet I like knowing about my fellow human’s day-to-day lives – moments, glimpses, meanderings. What are they thinking and talking about, what are they eating? Reading? What’s the view from their window when they woke in the night, the encounter on the street they live on? Who do they live with? What we each do with our time on this planet fascinates me. As my own time grows shorter, even more. So what the hell.

Here’s the thing: my aspirations and illusions are few but I like writing. The process helps me think and when it’s good, I feel as if I’m wake-dreaming or something. And in this space I have both my beautiful solitude and a community, connection. And I want to get my writing muscle back and I know that exercise is the only way. So I’m going to do that here by making myself accountable to this space and you.

I’ve become less inclined to raise my hand to challenges, less willing to push myself out of my comfort zone. And every time I hit ‘publish’ it’s a little bit of that jump off the cliff. In that spirit, as well to get my writing discipline back, I’m going to (try) to blog daily. Not long pieces, just something every day. I haven’t figured out the particulars yet, morning or night and what and all that. We’ll see.

I am inspired by a wonderful author, blogger and champion of other writers Cynthia Newberry Martin who wrote about one true thing about herself every day for a year. She too wanted to push herself out of her comfort zone. I looked forward to and loved reading those daily posts and remember the pleasure and interest I took, years later. (Check them out here.)

So now I’ve written what I’m committing to, I’ve dilly-dallied and edited all day, anything to avoid actually posting this. But I’m ready to close out an Easter Sunday of rain and clouds, flashes of sun with a glorious finale sunset – by going ahead with a promise and ‘publish’. Thanks for reading.

Around the Corner

I’m sitting in front of my glowing wood stove grateful for this gloomy, rainy day. Sunny would have been fine too but on days like this, I feel license to do inside things. If it were more beautiful outside I’d berate myself for not going for a walk or at least pretend to clean my messy garden. But there’s a chill and keeping an eye on the log situation becomes an important task. Not that it’s really very cold – but there’s my excuse for sitting here on a Saturday afternoon.

Ruminating is valuable and lately I feel pressed to do more of it and to pay closer attention to what’s going on both in and around me. Besides, tomorrow’s my birthday and certainly a significant reason for reflection, as if I need one. Mind you, I don’t bemoan any additional years on my downward, post-50 slope. As far as I know, it’s better than the alternative. I love life and am very curious about what the future might hold – even as I reflect on the past.

This year is full of personal landmarks. Twenty years in the same job, twenty years since I bought my house, and twenty years since my mother died (when she was only 6 years older than I am now). And this May, Molly graduates from college. All of this feels momentous, rich and significant. For these twenty years I’ve maintained this sometimes challenging balancing act of stability through some significant insanity. And here we are, pretty rock-steady, my kiddo and me, both wondering about what the future holds.

As I listen to Molly ponder her next steps, I wonder the same. Sometimes I’ve felt paralyzed by the challenge but lately, I’m inspired and feel almost giddy with a sense of possibility. All I need to do is just carry on to the next corner to see what’s there, right?

And plan the party.

Carving a Life

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The other day I was visiting a friend with enviable wood piles stacked around her house. One stack in particular caught my eye. I took a few photos of the wood and asked my artist friends to help identify it. Sure looks like cherry (most agreed) although the bark is birch-like. See how it curls away like paper? For the first time in forever I had an impulse to get my chisels out and start carving again.

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I used to identify as a sculptor. To pay the bills, I waitressed and in Japan, taught English, working as little as possible so I might have time to hack at some piece of wood or stone. Mostly wood. After I left Japan, I moved to NYC and by necessity, worked in less noisy mediums like painting and collage. Then I went on mission with the United Nations, got married, had a baby, worked like a dog to hang onto my house and clothe and feed my daughter as (virtually) a single parent. I still count my pennies to hang onto our beloved home but Molly is a Senior in college now and starting to feed and cloth herself. We’re both at the cusp of something. And that beautiful wood stacked for burning, called to me.

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I still have my incredible tools given to me 30 years ago by a remarkable Sensei in Kyoto – that’s another post entirely – a beautiful story. I have space in the basement and nobody would be disturbed by the repetitive thwonk-thwonk-thwonk of my mallet hitting my chisel into the wood. Even if I just get a piece and set it up and sharpen my tools and then — sit… just sit. That’s a lot of what carving entails for me: sitting and staring at the wood or stone. It can take days, weeks, before I want to touch it, before something comes over me, like a spirit – a weird force and I go at. The thing is to wait for that moment. It’s magical.  At least that’s what I remember.

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Behind my house in Kyoto – with bad hair and worse shoes.

I have this feeling of being on the brink. Of what, I don’t know how but it feels exciting and mysterious. Maybe this is just what I need now — to go back to that mystical contemplation until I recognize something and can excavate – that’s the experience I remember from carving. And the sheer physical, emotional joy of that spirit moving me.

I thought I wouldn’t sculpt anymore – I have enough big wooden things collecting dust around my house (shipped all the way from Japan – oy!) and I discovered how much I love writing and that when it’s going well, I also can reach a kind of ‘zone’. And honestly, I don’t want more stuff and that’s what you end up with. But that wood caught my eye – like a chance at love and I don’t ever want to say no to love.

Carrying Air to the Lungs

I’d been thinking a lot about breath lately, trying to breath better – if you will. Which is why getting hit with bronchitis feels like some weird message from the cosmos. What do I need to pay attention to? Am I going about this all wrong?

My mornings begin with at least a few minutes of meditating. I focus on my breath in between thinking about going back to sleep, what was my dream, or what do I need to do today? If my mind is particularly squirrel-y, I count and perhaps pause at each inhale, exhale. During the day, I do my best to breath from my diaphragm not my chest.

Being so conscious about my breath, I feel WTF? about getting this diagnosis. No cold, no sniffles, no flu – just all of a sudden a weird sensation of wheezing and a cough as if I smoked – and I never have. What am I missing, universe?

I know I need to do it harder – to more vigorously exercise beyond my preferred yoga – to make myself breathless. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen and the benefits to the body AND brain have been impressively proven, etc. etc. I try to walk sort-of fast around the track with my friend although we’ve been slacking. Still, I rarely sweat. I never run and I a haven’t ridden a bicycle regularly since before Molly was born.

Now that dear Tetley is gone, I must intentionally go out to walk. Without my dog companion I feel naked and am missing so much in my little hood: the up-close view of bluebells in bloom on my neighbors’ lawn, the glorious full moon glimpsed only while driving, fresh morning air of spring, the early, the late light of day as I trail after his wagging tail. Oh, don’t get me started on how I miss my little guy!

I told you last time how I listened to him dying, counting his last breaths but leaving him be because somehow, I felt he wanted to be left. And what could I do anyway? We die alone and I think, dog or human, it is rarely easy. I sat, respectful and moved by being witness to his death. And oh, the beauty of my uncomplicated grief! He loved, was loved and now, he is missed. Terribly. But even the sadness, feels rich and dear.

I am not used to uncomplicated grief. And breath feels profound for me – my mother died of lung cancer at 64. Diagnosed in Spring, she died the following Autumn. My husband chose to end his life by halting his breath. I cannot think long about breathing, the finite-ness of our inhalations and exhalations without launching into such musings, loaded like my bronchial tubes today, sticky with grief.

So what is there for me to learn here? Perhaps to not approach breath with just reverence, but to expand my lungs, thus brightening my brain, pumping my heart. This sounds so simple – exercise? Then why do I feel almost moved to tears by the notion of pushing myself beyond where I am comfortable, beyond my calming breaths, that there’s something more, something I have been missing and now it’s time to make a run for it. Or something.

How’s your breath? Any suggestions?

A Good Start: On Dreams and Meditation

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I would like to do a better job of remembering my dreams. I rarely do. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks – telling myself pre-sleep: “remember your dream!” Nothing. At best, I manage a snippet. My intention is to learn more about my subconscious, to improve my discernment in every sense of that word. I’m tired of making the same mistakes in my life but if I don’t understand where they come from, I probably will. Hey, it’s only taken me to the other side of 50 to fully embrace this idea. Better late than never, right?

Recently, a pretty mundane remembered dream-scene inspired me to start meditating again — a discipline that in the past has been helpful. In my dream, I am searching for a different wake-up sound on my alarm clock, something besides my usual bird twitters. While the choices on my real clock has only said bird sounds, rushing water (effective perhaps in hurrying one to the bathroom) or horrible beeping noises, my dream clock included the mesmerizing chants of Tibetan monks. In my dream state, of course I choose to be woken by this chanting.

And when I actually woke and (eureka!) remembered this, I took it as very clear guidance. Wouldn’t you? Now, when my electrically tweeting birds wake me, I hit snooze but instead of burrowing deeper into my pillow, I scoot up into a lotus position and for 10 minutes or so until the birds start singing again, I focus on breathing, on silence. With each inhale I imagine filling up a reservoir of peace that might sustain me through the day.

Sitting for a few moments after opening my eyes, I like to observe the night change to day. This week, mornings were either shrouded in fog or spectacularly red – once in particular, the world beyond my windows seemed on fire, the crazy reds almost tangible so densely did they fill the atmosphere. In half-consciousness, I basked in those magic rose hues until they were absorbed into the normal light of a day. A good start.

Do you remember your dreams?

Where’d My Mojo Go?

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Where’s it gone? Where’s my fire? Waiting around for a lightning bolt of inspiration is not the answer, so this morning I sit rubbing my mental sticks together hoping for at least a spark, maybe enough to ignite a long-burning flame. I know what it takes – I’ve done it. For years I had disciplined practices for yoga, for writing, meditation. Had. I have no idea what happened. It’s been awhile and have no excuses, no good reason.

I churned out a complete manuscript while Molly was still living at home. I made her breakfast, her lunch and took her to school each morning just after 7. I did all this and still managed to write – as if in a trance, for an hour. I did that. I marvel now. Now, I go to work at 8 – giving me almost another hour and my daughter’s away at college so time is all mine. Plus, I have my own little room to write in. There’s no reason I couldn’t get in a few yoga stretches and a page or two.

Instead, I sleep a little later and when I do get up, I dawdle away my precious daybreak reading other people’s blogs or worse, scrolling through Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Really. I admit this shamefully. Instead of doing what I know makes me feel centered and purposeful and healthy – writing, yoga, meditating – I aimlessly fritter away my time with mental junk food.

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Why is it so hard for me to get back into that magic zone? I know I’ll be happier, so why don’t I just do it? I have piles of books to inspire and guide me. In the dark moments before falling asleep at night and rising in the morning, I sometimes mentally write a post, start an essay, another book – and poof! – by the time I get back here to this chair, it’s gone. I know the trick about scribbling notes. Trust me, I have plenty of scribbles. But I’ve still got to put my ass in the seat and lay down the words, take my spot on the mat and stretch out my achy hips. And I’ll feel better.

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It takes regularly sitting, breathing, focus, writing, breathing. Writing becomes like a meditation only my fingers move. And don’t, don’t move away from this screen, this lovely clear, empty, distraction free space. No emails, no news – that’s the end. That’s what sucks away the morning, leaving me no richer, providing no sustenance.

It’s discipline – practice. Life feels much better when I have a practice in place. I carry the focus, the story, the posture with me throughout the day — a rich, quiet center that feels like the true me. I move through the day carrying whatever story I’m telling, with a sense of my body moving, standing tall, stretching, breathing, being in the world — not just within the parameters of my working hours, ringing sales at the cash register or staring at computer screens to answer emails — but a rich interior life I get to carry with me. The life that doesn’t pay my mortgage but sustains me just as much.

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That’s what I want back – that sense of who I really am in the world. That’s why I write, stretch, sit, breathe – a way of being that gives me joy. It has to do with seeing more than what is apparent – that which is only visible if you pay attention both inwardly and out. When I have a practice in place, I feel an incredible awareness of time and space with every breath. How delicious breathing becomes!

I know this — so why have I slipped? Why is it so hard for me to get back in the groove? Now it’s colder and darker in the mornings – even more of a challenge to crawl out from between the sheets. But that’s just another excuse. I have no good answer for losing myself like this.

I feel like I’ve come clean here, confessing to you – and it feels good. Having spent many years reaping the benefits of the AlAnon rooms, I know the power of ‘admitting’ and I suspect, I’m not alone. Any one else with ‘mojo’ problems out there?

Over the Hill

My birthday is this week. Again. Since I slipped over to the downward slope, everything goes so much faster. Once again, it’s time to celebrate. But didn’t we just do this?

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I’ve never been particularly coy about my age, but this year’s number does sound a little shocking when I say it. I’m how old?! It’s hard to believe. And I cannot ignore how our society perceives this number. I am increasingly less employable with every year. My age group has the most difficult time getting hired and most of us, still need to work. Retirement? Ha! So I better hang on to my job. And how many years left there? In a bookstore? While I still feel confident in my company’s ability to survive the Amazon storm, I’m also not stupid. And as my bones become brittle, will I really be able to hauling boxes of books to schools? Oh yeah! Students are, or will be soon, using tablets so I won’t have to, right? So much to keep up with! If only I could get paid just to keep reading. I’m so good at it.

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And then there’s the memoir I’m writing that I hope to sell to a publisher. Yes, I’m still working on it and it’s becoming a better book — really. But have you looked at the back flap on any book jackets lately? New authors are (attractive) youngsters. Who wants to read about the adventures, the romance, struggle and resiliency of a geezer? (Okay, I know I’m not quite a geezer – I just like that word.) But publishing, like much in the world, is the realm of the young. First time fifty-something author? Not so many of us.

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And I can’t ignore the physical dimensions of aging. I know there are things that I can do to look younger for my author shot – like color my hair. But since I suck at maintenance I’d soon end up with one of those skunky-stripes across the top of my head – right up there with crazy-clown lipstick as a bad look for an older woman. See, it’s not that I lack vanity, I’m just realistic. Besides the fact that coloring my hair is not what I want to spend my time or money on, better to look like a sea-hag from behind. When I turn around I can get the reaction “oh, she looks good for her age” rather than have the hair of a sixteen year old and a face of a, well, 55 year old. I’d rather hang onto my silver strands than risk that cringe factor.

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At this point, as long as nothing major fails in the body department I’d like another 3o years or so. Preferably with the ones I love. I know that’s a tall order – the people we love don’t always stick around and that’s heartbreaking.  I won’t even go there (for a change!).

I don’t mean to be depressing. I am not depressed, rather, I’m contemplative. We humans are a marvel of nature and in nature, everything has a season and all that. I’m glad to be here to keep marking the seasons.  I’m not horrified at the prospect of aging. I embrace it and intend to do it as well as possible. Like the New Year, I think of my birthday as time to take stock. Where and what do I want to be doing in X number of years from now?

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Oh, never mind all that. Better to savor the moment, seize the day. Pay attention. That I can do. Cheers and happy birthday to me. And while we’re at it, happy birthday to you too – it will be here before you know it!

My Canine Love

Weekends, even when I’m inclined to linger in bed a little longer, Tetley, my Cairn Terrier, gets me up. Now that he’s an older dog, he’s more of a sleeper himself, staying curled at the foot of the bed later than he used to. But he’s still going before 9, sidling up beside me, nudging me with his wet nose. I can buy myself more lazy time by scratching his ears and usually, he’ll rollover onto his back so I can rub his belly. Soon, squirming upright, he shakes and starts pawing at me, sometimes punctuating his gentle punches with little guttural pleas to get the hell out of bed.

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Especially during these winter months, I’m inclined to hibernate, but Tetley gets me outside a few times a day – at least for a walk down the street. I feel the weather, taste the air, notice the changes of the seasons, the comings-and-goings of the neighborhood. I pay attention. This morning the roads were slick with black ice so I stepped carefully, walking only on the snow covered part of the street.  He pees his way up and down the street, sniffing and sometimes barking at phantom or real squirrels. These days, with the branches bare, I watch the birds – Nuthatches, Cardinals, Woodpeckers – darting around the wood. Mourning Doves were perched around like clergy waiting for their flock to show up on this Sunday morning – I still hear their insistent cooing an hour later. I look up at the sky – today, beautifully blue and clear after yesterday’s snow. At night, I watch the stars, where the moon is, whether waxing or waning. These little jaunts, I notice the world in a way I might otherwise not. Thanks to my beloved dog, these walks become a kind of meditation.

Tet on wintry walk

Tetley is getting old. Molly was in second grade when he entered our lives and now she is in college. He’s the only dog I’ve ever owned – my only canine love and as true a love as I have ever felt. I purposely forget his actual years – we’ve been saying ‘about ten’ for awhile now.  Small dogs can live quite long lives and I trust (and pray) Tetley lives to a very ripe old age. He’s still fit, although his teeth aren’t great and his breath smells like a swamp. He prefers not to have to leap up on the bed anymore, (I lift him) and he sports a distinguished white goatee. Recently, we’ve noticed he gets underfoot and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s just a tad blind. That’s okay – I’ll lead the way, aging too with my aching love for him.

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Cold Nights in Old Houses

As I was falling asleep last night, the patched-up cast-iron furnace in our 1930s Cape, kicked on with a burp and a heave. We crank the thermostat right down when we go to bed, preferring the cold for sleeping. Besides, oil’s expensive and we try to be energy conservative. But temperatures dropped so low last night, even the radiators in our bedrooms got hot. I was reminded of frigid winters at Machamux.

Tom on a wintry walk with two 'roomers'.
Tom on a wintry walk with two ‘roomers’.

Machamux was Tom’s rambling, leaking, old house across from a rocky little beach on the Long Island Sound. I landed there in early summer of 1987. Back in the States after almost 4 years of living in Kyoto, I had no idea where to go or what to do next with my life. My friend Laurie told me that Tom, her Dad, a 70-something but ageless and charming man, rented rooms and might just have one available for me.  Tom, Machamux and everyone in that ramshackle house, were just what I needed for my American re-entry. Settled in my  room, I felt home.

Now there’s a fat book’s worth of Machamux stories to tell, almost all remarkably joyful and hilarious ones, but this is just a memory of the warmest-cold house I ever lived in. The house was drafty as a wrecked ship so mostly we hung around in the living room and kitchen area where the wood stove was always stoked as were our glasses at cocktail hour, beginning promptly at 5. Tom drank martinis with pimento olives. As ‘roomers’ and visitors wandered in, newspapers were shoved aside on the saggy couch to make space. Laughter and good cheer warmed the room and we took turns standing near the wood stove, letting our backs heat up rather than turn away from the usually lively banter. We took our time going up to bed, knowing our rooms, would likely be cold enough for our breath to be visible. But when it got really, really cold, like it did here last night, the baseboards running along the perimeter of our rooms hissed and gurgled, emitting rare heat with cozy old-house smells. That felt luxurious.

I met R at Machamux back in 1987 – his room was at the top of the house. That’s one of the stories I have to tell another time — about a love that got lost — then found again. And together now, so many years later, we savor our shared history of two old drafty houses made warm by love, fire and sometimes reluctantly, very old furnaces.

Inspired by an Unseen Eclipse

It’s almost sunrise. I force myself to leave my warm bed on this Sunday when a lie-in is possible. Glancing out the window, the clouds in the East are discouraging but the grays of the dawn sky are taking on a yellow glow and there are hopeful breaks of blues. Hidden behind those clouds, the Sun is about to be eclipsed by the Moon and I’d like to see it.

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There’s not an open view to the East from my house so I think about driving to the beach but instead, I just walk around the neighborhood searching the sky. Shuffling through the leaves in my driveway, I pull my hood up against the damp chill. To my right, the hedge twitters and beeps with Chickadees and Nuthatch and a squirrel scrabbles up the Oak tree. The neighbors are quiet – no leaf blowers, no cars warming up. In the distance, I hear the hum of the highway traffic and sweetly, a church bell tolls from across the river.

As I turn the corner, a drizzle fogs my glasses and the clouds have turned back to dull grey, closing off sky-views behind a dense wall. There will be no views of this morning’s rare solar eclipse, no glimpse here of the Sun with a Moon shadow. Not in my neighborhood. I turn back to the warmth of my house.

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I like to see these unusual celestial events, to gaze up at the sky and think about spinning through space in a universe so much bigger than ourselves. I like these visual triggers to ponder the mystery of existence, to climb out from under the mundane crap cluttering my mind: my desk at work piled with paper, the bills that need paying, the house and yard that needs cleaning. Oh, there are infinite ways I get lost in minutia every day, the lists and worries. But this morning, these things shrink away. My thoughts are in a bigger place: the miraculousness of Earth spinning around the Sun.

I remember that right now, in time and space, my friends in Japan are in their night even as I watch this day’s beginning. With pleasure I think about a dear friend in Tasmania celebrating the warmth of Spring as I ready, reluctantly, for winter. Everywhere around this earth, humans – asleep or awake – experiencing joy, sorrow, birth, death, so fast and endlessly moving yet present, now. Incredible.

I need these reminders of the vastness of the Universe so that my paper-strewn desk, the leaves on the lawn recede, at least for a time, to the appropriate corner of my being. Even as I missed the personal visual, I feel the joy of an expanded consciousness created even by imagining the shadow cast by the Moon over the Sun, behind a bank of clouds.