The Little Things

I’ve begun packing. Our new life on the East coast is still eight months away but I’ve begun to bundle in bubble wrap those things I don’t use but don’t want to lose. It would be far easier to send these silly tchotchkes to Goodwill – after all, they’re just ‘things’ – but I can’t seem to find the resolve. The attachment I have to them is visceral and giving them away at this point is like giving a part of myself away. I did not feel this way when I was younger, when I moved across an ocean and back again. Then, I gave most of what I had away to friends with ease. At the time it was like a cleansing but I realize now that I knew so very little about myself. I had no connection to my own history and thus no connection to the things I kept around me.

But now I do. And it’s these things I’ve packed away – my grandmother’s vase from Germany, the desktop magnifying glass my grandfather used to examine the coins he collected, the wooden puzzle boxes with inlaid images of Mount Fuji my sister and I were given as children, the Bible my mother carried with her through three marriages –  these things connect me to my past and to the blood flowing through my veins. They tell the story of who I am and how I came to be. 

These stories are important. And yet, if a calamity occurred and everything was lost the energetic imprint of these things I hold in my hand would still be held in my heart. 

With the image still fresh of Afghan families huddled by the perimeter walls of the Kabul airport desperate to board a flight that will take them to an unknown destination far away from where they are, and as Haitians emerge newly baptized by the waters of the Rio Grande to gather under a bridge in the sweltering heat of our southern border I am more than aware that the circumstances of my life are sweet blessings.

With that in mind, it’s healthier for me to see the task of deciding what to bring and what to leave behind as a joy rather than a burden. And in the process I can refine the vision I have of the life I want to live with my beloved human and beloved feline in rural Virginia. I can refine the vision of how I want to walk through a world that is so beautiful and fragile.


Your Creative Heart

When I was a child I loved September. I loved school shopping. I loved the smell of a new lunchbox, fresh new clothes, breaking in new shoes and the sharp graphite tip of a bright yellow number two pencil whose perfect pink eraser was still intact and whose pristine finish had yet to be marred by my biting incisors.

But that was then. This is now. And as we enter the second September of the pandemic, it’s a struggle sometimes to hold on to my optimism, my hope and my motivation. I know I’m not alone. Let’s face it. The past year and a half has been one heck of an endless slog.

What do you do when you know you’re reaching critical mass? When you know the stress of all we’ve been through and all we’re bearing witness to weighs too heavily on the heart?

Inspired by a friend whose journey as an artist has been so much fun to watch, I pulled out my own art supplies. The creative process, whether it’s at an easel with a fresh gessoed canvas, in your kitchen whisking a roux or with pen in hand and a story to tell, is the distraction we need. It offers us room to breathe. The creative process slows down time and provides space for honest reflection. It provides the clarity we need to be honest with ourselves about how we are experiencing life in this New Normal.

Where is your creative heart? Music? Visual arts? Cooking? Writing? Is it time to get your creative heart beating again?

Lately I’ve been seduced by the practice of ‘slow stitching’. Letting time pass one slow stitch at a time. My Aunt Mimmie taught me how to embroider when I was young and slow stitching has nudged awake a joy I’d forgotten. I’ve also been working on a series of mixed media pieces called ‘Family Album’. This collage is from that series. The man on the left is my great uncle William Harrison Barber, known as ‘Henry’ to his friends and family. The text on the right is from the last postcard he sent to his brother Robert. From the moment I found his postcard in my mother’s collection of family ephemera I felt a connection  to this man. I can’t explain it. I just did.

Henry wrote the postcard in 1903 from the Oakes Home for the Consumptive in Denver, Colorado. He tells his brother, “I don’t look like a sick man but appearances are very deceptive with lung trouble.” His doctors tell him he is not improving and advise that he head to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Henry knows that if his health doesn’t improve when he is in New York, he will never see Colorado again. He’s only twenty-three. And he never makes it to Saranac Lake.

His story has given me pause to reflect on what we do to survive and the connection between good health and creativity. 

Throughout the pandemic it’s been my adventures with basket making and needle felting and wet felting and eco-dying and collage that have brought me comfort. They’ve kept me sane and quite possibly alive.

William Harrison Barber was a musician. He left his studies in Boulder to pursue a career in music and found some success with his ditty ‘Dainty Flo from Idaho’. I’m sad that music didn’t save his life but I bet it brought him comfort. 

Can exploring your creative nature be a comfort to you?


Knowing What is Unknowable (and trying to sleep)

Insomnia is like the buzz of a fluorescent lightbulb about to burn out. It’s the annoying clack of your office mate’s pencil against their desk. The cackle of canned laughter coming through the floorboards from your downstairs neighbor’s television. Insomnia is silence broken by the gristled smack of someone chewing with their mouth open.

I’m irritatingly sensitive to sound. And I hate insomnia.

When sound breaks through the cocoon of quiet I need to have wrapped around me in order to work, it’s easily remedied by distraction. Moving to another room. Taking a break. Walking outside. Eating. 

They say that when insomnia steals what you hope will be a deep, restorative sleep the remedy is similar. Distract yourself from the fact that you are unable to sleep with a good book or a warm drink or anything that doesn’t involve too much mental energy or screens.

So when insomnia sat on the edge of the bed in our hotel room in Charlottesville last month and incessantly tapped its pointy little finger on the crown of my head I did what any intelligent human being wide awake for no reason at 3AM would do. None of the above.

Instead, I tossed. I turned. I yearned for sleep and each time my eyes closed and I thought ‘at last’ a new stream of consciousness would flood my brain. It was like a movie of my life that had been cut and pasted out of sequence and it made no sense. My thoughts bounced from the red dress I wore for my first grade school photo to lesson plans I wanted to write for my yoga classes. My brain played pin ball with whether or not the new refrigerator would fit in the kitchen to how we would move the family furniture languishing in a Pennsylvania storage locker. Did I really have to keep the cookie jar from my childhood? My grandfather’s turquoise Jim Beam bottle in the shape of a star created to celebrate my birth place become our 49th state? 

All the while, weaving its way through these warped concerns like a repeating weft with a broken shuttle was a singular truth. My insomnia was not about how to move furniture from one state to the other. It wasn’t about my red dress or cookie jars or Jim Beam bottles. It was about trying to find order in the unknown. Which seems to me to be an impossible quest.

Knowing that, however, left me reconsidering the question ‘are we making the right decision?’. I realize now there is no answer. The answer is unknowable. So I release fear and move forward with love and trust. And I sleep really, really well.


Creating Connections with an Old Bag of Tea

We power through cups of tea at our house. I’ve been saving the wrinkled and wet used tea bags in a bowl. Don’t judge me. I have my reasons.

Not quite finished. The dark flecks are tea. The red pigment comes from pounded rose and geranium petals.

In June I began a year long virtual course of study with India Flint. India is an artist who works with plants and found objects to create beautifully dyed paper and cloth. India’s course of study is why keen eyes might find me in the wee hours of the morning gathering handfuls of eucalyptus leaves from along the bike path that parallels El Camino Real and stuffing them into the pockets of my baggy cargo pants.

India Flint, and this course, is why I save used tea bags.

India’s teaching style is that of a storyteller. Rather than providing precise step-by-step directions – like the sort you’d find if an Ottolenghi cook book – she weaves a tale of her experiences with the plants she is using, the mistakes she’s made, the lessons she’s learned. She gives permission for us to take what we need, to leave the rest, and to be inspired by her life’s work.

I’m inspired.

Our first journey was through the making of a book. I didn’t have much of what was needed – proper paper, a sewing machine, a very sharp pair of scissors – but this course is filmed with such care and beauty it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t playing along. I was still learning.

Which is how, this morning at 5 AM, I found myself carefully deconstructing a dozen or so tea bags, emptying their contents into a bowl and spreading the fragile paper out like one might smooth a bedsheet.

But there is more to this story:

Over the weekend my friend Diane – a talented and dedicated artist – gifted me Beth Pickens’ book Make Your Art No Matter What: Moving Beyond Creative Hurdles. This is a book that weighs much more than it should and its Times Roman font is a point size or two smaller than my eyes enjoy. The first chapter, however, is about time. Something I’ve been pondering lately.

And here’s a little more to the story:

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I’ve not seen since before the shut down. Carolyn and I laugh when we’re together. We laugh a lot. But yesterday, as we were talking about how the pandemic changed us, we thought of something that stopped us in mid-giggle. The shutdown gave us time. And now time feels more precious. Both Carolyn and I are discovering how different life is when we treat time as a gift and not a commodity to burn through. We’re learning to say ‘yes’ to what we love. Even if that means saying ‘no’ to something we love less.  

And that is how I found myself at 5 AM this morning gently opening the tea bags that had been drying for a day instead of reading emails and absorbing all that had happened in the world as I slept. India’s course is inspiring me to explore. Diane’s book is encouraging me to love my inner artist. My conversation with Carolyn is reminding me that time is precious.

Deconstructing tea bags is a slow, careful process. While I sat at my desk, my Ottlite breaking the pre-dawn grey, I fell into a sort of meditative reverie. I thought about the tea, how far it had traveled – the Ashwaghanda from India and the green from Japan – I thought about the farmers who grew and harvested the tea then bundled it off to factories to be processed. I thought about the work it takes to create the paper that holds the tea and about how I was moving the process of creation forward by turning the old tea into dye and the these fragile scraps of paper vessel into a new vessel.

It was a profound moment to experience that deep sense of connection. It felt new to me because it wasn’t cerebral. The connection came from my heart. 

I hope I can hold on to that feeling of connection.


Power Tools

While training with International Coach Academy, Power Tools were the bane of my existence. A coaching concept to help shift the perspective of clients, at the time a Power Tool felt too much like mental slight-of-hand, as if a few well-timed questions gave me the ability to trick my client into moving from doubt to trust, from trying to committing, or from reacting to responding. It all seemed too easy. Too magical. Akin to a magazine article proclaiming ‘Ten Days to a New You!’

But coaching isn’t magic (although it can feel that way sometimes). Change doesn’t happen overnight. And, as a coach, it’s not my job to shift a client’s perspective. The client can do that all on their own. My job is to remain present, to remain curious and to ask a few well-timed and on-point questions. When I do my job well a client can move from doubting themselves to trusting themselves, from trying to achieve a goal to committing to a goal, and from reacting to a situation to responding to a situation. 

My changing perspective began when I experienced first-hand how substituting one word for another had the potential to displace a less than desirable attitude for one that offered joy.

Such a simple thing. Changing one word. Simple, in fact, to the point of being embarrassing.

How many times do you find yourself saying a version of any of the following:

  • I need to get up
  • I need to go to work
  • I need to do the laundry
  • I need to email (fill in any name)
  • I need to cook dinner

What would happen if we changed those needs into wants? As in:

  • I want to get up
  • I want to go to work
  • I want to do the laundry
  • I want to email (fill in any name)
  • I want to cook dinner

I told you it was simple. But did you feel it? Did you notice a shift in how you felt about each one of those sentences? A shift from avoidance to engagement, procrastination to anticipation and drudgery toward achievement.

Words have power. They have the power to influence our perceptions and perspectives. Words are tools we use to find clarity and understanding. When we understand their power, we see our world through a different lens. 

Words are tools. 

They’re…wait for it…Power Tools.


What Makes Today Special?

What makes today so special? What makes any day special? Is it the blinding blue sky or grey torrents of rain? Maybe the four mourning doves who have found their way to my home, who have sat in my potted herb garden – have shat in it, too – and eaten my thyme. Maybe that’s what makes today special.

I’ll go for a walk later, toward end of day when the blue turns pearly and pink through the branches of the redwood trees. It’s the time of day that dogs are walked and children run in circles as if life were to be lived with reckless abandon. Sweaty and red faced they won’t notice the cool breeze blowing in from the Pacific while I tighten the drawstrings for the hood of my favorite sweatshirt.

If, while I’m on this walk, I look toward the Santa Cruz mountains, I’ll see pure white pillows of fog folding over the ridge and slipping down the slope to fill nooks and crannies. It’s my favorite thing. A beauteous thing. 

After I’m home and have had a bowl of soup I’ll step out onto the mirpesset to watch the full moon rise over the buildings of this town, its light reflecting back to me the stories of everyone who has ever looked up and dreamed. I’ll look for the planets, lined up like soldiers across the ecliptic plane. Not long ago Jupiter and Saturn were so close they almost kissed. And before that Mars, all bold and red, was as big as I’d ever seen. Before I go back in I’ll take a moment to marvel at the stars I can see and to wonder if anyone is marveling at me.


My Grandma’s Cellar

I’m lucky. Blessed, even. Grateful. I am surviving a global pandemic (knock on wood). So is Ben. We are surviving. We are grateful. The pandemic has only a small impact on my income. I know just a handful of souls that have contracted COVID-19. They’ve all emerged on the other side. No one I know has contracted the virus and lost their life.

There is no doubt I’m fortunate. But this collective global experience is not easy, is it? We’ve been angry, sad and exhausted. We’ve been giddy with good news until hope crumbles. During these times I fall into what I’ve begun to call ‘pandemic malaise’. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The word ‘malaise’ may be too tender a descriptor. Pandemic Malaise is much more than general unease. 

As a child I was dumped at my grandparent’s little row home most weekends because my mother was the lead singer in my step-father’s country and western band. They had gigs most weekends and when they did I spent Fridays and Saturdays at grandma and grandpas. I didn’t mind too much. There was a playground with swings just across the street and my grandmother made my favorite foods – BLTs or Minute Steak sandwiches with horseradish and catsup sauce. At night we’d play gin rummy sipping 7-Up and eating pretzel sticks. 

But at least once every weekend I was asked to fetch something from the basement. Pandemic Malaise is like my grandparent’s basement in Allentown, Pennsylvania because my grandparent’s basement was this young child’s worst nightmare.

I hated being sent ‘down the basement’. The stairs, simple unfinished planks of wood, creaked and threatened to send me plummeting to the hard cement floor with every step. The single lightbulb dangling from the dark beams above me cast deep and endless shadows filled with ghosts, spiders and bogeymen across the detritus of my grandparent’s long lives. The dank, sulfurous air chilled my bones. Even in summer. Sometimes a breeze from the kitchen’s open window would cause the hinges of the door to moan. The door would close. The warm light from upstairs would disappear and I knew I’d be trapped forever.

When I fall into Pandemic Malaise it feels as though I’m a ten-year-old trapped in my grandparent’s dark basement uncertain as to when I’ll be able to see light again.

As the light at the end of this long tunnel begins to grow a little brighter, we may be tempted to compare our experience of the pandemic with someone else’s. We might even determine that a friend’s experience doesn’t begin to compare with the horror of our own.

We cannot do that because we cannot begin to understand someone else’s journey these past thirteen months. All we can do is offer the compassion and empathy that comes with knowing that we’ve all been through, and are still working our way through this huge, calamitous, extraordinary event.


Fear or Faith: My Choice

Can you keep a secret? The trainings in which I’ve been entrenched since before the pandemic’s shutdown began are coming to a welcome end and I find myself with a strange amount of time on my hands. But please. Let’s agree to keep this little admission between friends. I don’t want the universe catching wind of my twiddling thumbs because you know as well as I do that empty space loves to be filled. I’d like a chance to see what I do with all this spare time before that happens.

But I’m wondering…now that I have the chance to dive into all those ‘things’ I’ve always wanted to do but never had time for…what’s stopping me?

I’d like to blame the bout of ‘pandemic malaise’ I’m experiencing but to be truthful the malaise I’ve encountered on and off these past twelve months is fleeting. Maybe it has more to do with the weather, which has been unseasonably chilly and wet for mid-March in Northern California. Or maybe what looks like malaise on the outside is really, on the inside, indecision and fear.

Indecision I understand. I’ve always seen both sides of every coin. But why fear? What’s that about?

In a recent coaching conversation I wondered if the fear my client experienced was less about feeling unprepared for the tasks she needed to complete in order to move her project forward and more a fear of wasting time. It was easy for me to share that observation because that is where most of my fear is rooted. I’ve been alive longer than I have years left to live. I don’t want my time wasted. Besides, I need to earn my keep while my jiggly human form still takes up space on this planet. I need to draw a salary. Make money. Pay bills. I don’t have time for flights of fancy.

I wonder, though, if my excuse, “I don’t have time for that”, masks a harder truth. My interests, outside of teaching yoga, require focused attention. Commitment. Awareness of both my strengths and my weaknesses. They require a willingness to learn.

Yeah. Who has time for that? Especially if the final result is an amorphous unknown.

Another friend of mine is an artist. Seven or eight years ago, when we first met, she was learning to paint. Now she wins awards, exhibits regularly and is about to have her work published in two books.

I wonder if she felt her time was wasted while she was learning to turn a flat circle into a sphere? I wonder, when she first picked up a paint brush, if she even considered time?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we give fear permission to stop us in our tracks? It can be fear of the unknown, fear of time wasted, fear of hard work or fear of financial insecurity. Or, in my case, all four.

Rather than giving fear carte blanche to run our lives, maybe it’s faith we need? 

So. Will turning my fears of the unknown into faith in myself lift the malaise? Will it help me find the motivation and momentum I need to make the transformation from someone who watches from the sidelines into someone who’s willing to take a chance on herself?

Good question. I can’t wait to find out.


What I Did During the Pandemic: Take a Writing Class

I thought I’d mix things up a bit and decided to take a 6-week writing class. The format of the class is simple: a writing prompt is presented, we take fifteen minutes (give or take) to write, and then we read what we wrote. Comments and questions are welcome. There’s no critique.

I struggle to write on command. I’m a lazy writer who waits for the muse to strike and when she doesn’t moves on to others things on the ‘to do’ list. And so this class is tickling my brain in new ways. In good ways. 

One of yesterday’s prompts – a poem by Langston Hughes – tickled this:

The sun slipped behind the moon. It seems so simple as I write the words: the sun slipped behind the moon. And in that moment – that singular moment – spirit was made visible. The universe became a sanctuary of peace. The banter of strangers and the rhythmic click of camera lenses being attached to tripods and trained toward the Australian dawn stopped. Just like that. Everything stopped. Birds called on one another, confused. Sandy termite mounds turned red in the changing light. The air fell on my skin cool and moist. At least I think it did. And then the sun slipped out from behind the moon and we took our first new breath. I expected my life to be different after witnessing the infinite. That perfect black hole in the sky. But it was an illusion. I forgot. It was only the moon. It was the moon all along.

It’s not faux humility that has me admitting the obvious: this is not award winning writing. But it’s something. Something that made me think and process an event that happened almost a decade ago (which seems unbelievable to me).

Things are shifting. Changing. More of my friends and acquaintances are receiving vaccines. But it’s not over and we will have to balance solitude and hope in our hearts for a wee while longer.

So – twelve months in – what are you doing now to challenge yourself that you weren’t doing a year ago? 


In Search of the Elusive Authentic Self

In my coaching practice the issue of authenticity is a featured player. More often than not clients will, at some point in the session, tell me they are either:

  1. Searching for their authentic self
  2. Struggling to live an authentic life
  3. Questioning whether their motives are coming from an authentic place.

What has to happen for the conditions for self-doubt to manifest? When do we begin to feel we’ve lost touch with the image we hold in our mind’s eye of who we believe ourselves to be? And how can we return to the clarity that keeps us grounded and focused on the values we cherish most? When we answer those questions authenticity becomes less of an intention and more of a truth we live. 

When I was a child I was teased for having two left feet. More often than not I had fresh or fading scabs on my elbows and knees from all the falls I took. Like a puppy learning to leash walk I was easily distracted by metaphorical squirrels. I tripped over sidewalk cracks, missed steps when climbing stairs and walked into people, poles and walls in my pursuit of something different from the task at hand.

As an adult, while my elbows and knees have healed, not much else has changed. I’m still easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. I still stumble. I fall, enraptured by the aspirations of others at the expense of my own. My admiration for the high bar others set for themselves ignores the higher bar I’ve set for myself and fills my brain with ‘you should do this’ or ‘you should do that’ at the expense of my heart’s song. This longing to be someone I’m not steals validity from the wonderful life I’m living. It diminishes the dreams I have. It diverts my attention away from the values most important to me and ultimately away from my authentic self.  

The best we have to offer the world is grounded in personal authenticity. When we lose sight of that – when we feel lost – how do we find our way back? The answer to that question is as unique as the journey we’ve chosen for ourselves. But I find these suggestions useful:

  1. Get away from the noise. Take a day to yourself. Set work, obligation and commitment aside and give your heart the space to expand.
  2. Breathe with intention. When you feel unmoored, close your eyes and breathe. Lengthen the exhalation until it’s longer than the inhalation. Imagine the in-breath moving into the soles of your feet and connecting you to the earth.
  3. Trust your instincts but know that the answers aren’t black and white. Some of us choose to listen to our heart. Others listen to our brain. But what about the space in between? What is that space saying to you and how does it align to the authentic life you want to live? Is there an equilibrium to be found?
  4. Honor the truth that journeys change. There are detours, road closures and surprises if we choose to spend some time exploring roads taken less often. It’s these moments that help us take the next step.

When we look carefully, we discover that the sense of self is not a particle that never changes, but rather a flow, a wave of thought and feeling that can increase and decrease and is therefore not permanent.

—Shinzen Young, “Brief Teachings”