Wise words from my friend Jordinn Nelson Long
One of the awesome things about being a minister is that occasionally, it is my job to go hang out with a group of amazingly kind and generous and spiritually alive colleagues. To learn, to ponder the big questions, to worship, and to sing and eat and play.
This past week, the topic of our professional renewal days was mindfulness. We had an outside presenter, Home Nguyen, along with us, and I was pretty excited. He was a lively and gentle teacher who radiated compassion; for the first time in meditation I really believed that however I was breathing was okay, and that all I needed to do was keep returning to my breath from all the scampering errands my mind likes to make. He was also just a little bit bad-ass, and funny, and he told stories about his own challenges with sitting that made me think, maybe I CAN do this meditation thing for more than five minutes at a stretch.
When a coffee maker began making its series of puffs and gurgles during one guided meditation session, he added it to his instructions, letting us all admit that we were hearing it. Instead of seeing it as an interruption, he suggested it too could be a teacher, and we let it be part of the present moment.
One of my favorite things he taught us was a series of six yoga poses he created based on the work of Amy Cuddy. (If you have not yet watched her TED talk on how our body language shapes who we are, do that next. Not now, but next. Or soon.) The poses were completely unthreatening, no athleticism required, and could be done in a chair if standing was a challenge.
The next morning, the last morning of our retreat, I woke early and walked down to the lake and found a dock that beckoned me to come do Home’s yoga poses. Remembering another mediation idea I’d read the day before, I also picked up three beautiful autumn leaves to place on the water, to watch them float, and float away, working to let go of some things I’m holding that aren’t helping me thrive. When I got to the end of the dock, I put the leaves at my feet, and took my “Blessings” stance, the first of Home’s poses. [Pretend you just ran through the finish line – first! – at the Olympics. Hold your arms up, head back, chest open, joyful. Now soften your arms a little bit to let the blessings of life pour into your outstretched arms, and you are doing it too.]
As I moved into the “Power” pose, hands on hips like Wonder Woman, a little breeze came up, and one of the leaves blew into the water. I looked at it, watched it float, noticed how I was reacting to the fact that this had not been my plan. The flash of tension passed, and I realized it was okay for it to happen the way it was happening. I let it go.
I opened my arms into the next pose whose name I don’t recall, an open-arms, welcoming-embrace pose. I was breathing. Feeling good. Feeling ever so spiritually mature and grounded.
Then, I put one hand on my heart and one on my belly, a pose Home called “Kindness.” [Or maybe compassion. It’s hard to do yoga and take notes at the same time.] Whichever, this pose had nearly wiped me out completely when we learned it the day before. I had been overcome with tears and sadness because I could so vividly feel it as a hole, a longing, a loss of the babies who I once cradled there, the lover who I have not yet found who would want to rest his head on that place against my heart…
But, in this new day, it started out kind of okay. It came to me to sing the Loving Kindness sutra as we have it set to music in one of our UU hymnals, so I did – I got through “May I be filled with loving kindness, may I be well, may I be peaceful and at ease, may I be whole,” and started in on the “You” verse, noticing who bubbled to mind. A couple of people came and went, and then it hit me who I wanted to send it out to, who I wanted to be filled with loving kindness – my 18-year-old son, one of those fledged babies, who has used his wings, at times, to fly dangerously close to the sun, and the tears started to flow again. I kept singing, holding him in my intention, and then:
Someone was firing a shotgun, and it was fairly close.
I paused; this seemed like it demanded a new sort of mindfulness, in case the lesson of the present moment needed to be learned rather quickly in order for me to be able to return to my breath. Ever again.
I looked in the direction of the sound and could see, on the next point, a duck hunter lowering his gun. I considered: I was dressed in a bright turquoise jacket, standing on a dock in outstretched poses, singing. I decided I was highly visible, possibly audible, and safe enough, so I continued to sing, tears fresh on my cheeks, laughing. Sometimes meditation teachers draw students back to the present moment with a bell. Sometimes it’s a coffee maker. But I gotta say, I’m not sure there’s anything better than a shotgun over still water early in the morning to get the job done. Wake UP. Be HERE, NOW.
It was, like, INSTANT coffee!
A colleague led us through the six poses again in our closing ritual after breakfast. This time as my hands came to rest on my heart and my belly for the kindness pose, instead of trying to keep my tears from becoming sobs, I had to refrain from laughing out loud. And under my palms, I could feel my breath and my own precious, human heart.
The teaching is always this: everything changes. The present moment is the moment we have. The next moment will be along shortly; it will be different. Our job is to show up as we are.
And folks? PSA: It’s hunting season. Dress brightly when praying outdoors. Sing in the woods. And be the love you want to see in the world.
One of the recurring themes of my ministry internship was “framing.” I learned, observation, direct coaching, and experience how it could change the tenor of a discussion or lift a conflict out of a rut to have someone in the room ask kindly and with genuine curiosity, “What if we framed that a different way?” Or, “How could we reframe that in a positive way?”
I heard it often enough, and results were sufficiently impressive, that it has become part of my own set of stock phrases, and last fall I joked (sort of seriously) about getting a bunch of different frames and hanging them in my office, and calling it “Lyn’s Frame Shop.” After my success with the origami mobile I made a couple of months ago, I began to think, actually seriously, how I might create some sort of wall-mounted objet that would remind me, in a wordless and beautiful way, to be mindful of how I am framing my thoughts. Or more precisely, to be mindful of the thoughts that I am choosing, or allowing, to frame my feelings. I can half see it in my mind’s eye: a large frame, inset with a variety of frames in different shapes, sizes, colors, textures. At first I imagined it as something flat and still, but after my success with the origami mobile project, I wondered: could I somehow hang the frames within the larger frame, so that they could move and turn? What if the frames had glass that magnified, distorted, or reflected? I wondered how deep it would need to be to work, and whether there should or shouldn’t be one picture, or several, that one would see through the various apertures.
I realized it could be part of a series, because as I began mentally adding glass, I remembered another art project I didn’t make, because I don’t like broken glass: the Divorce Mirror, which would have been a regular mirror, but broken and the pieces reset at slight angles to the original flat surface so that one’s reflection would show up in pieces instead of whole. It would still be the viewer’s reflection but more of a cubist, Picasso sort of look, at least in my imagination. Perhaps, I thought later, with some places where instead of mirror there would be clear glass that allowed the viewer to see through the mirror to something beyond the self.
I was describing all this Art I Haven’t Made Yet to a friend in an email and had an exquisite little “Aha!” moment when it dawned on me: I don’t have to learn how to work with glass or spend hours of my life looking for frames at yard sales – I don’t have to actually make any of these things to share them, because I am a writer! I can write the picture straight from my imagination to yours, without the mess of glass shards, drilling, spray paint, or whatever it will involve if I do ever attempt to make one of these things.
I’m not ruling it out, mind you, the actual making. But don’t hold your breath, and if you want to make it the way you imagine it, or make some other thing that it makes you think of? Send me a picture, okay?
On the wall of our den hangs this print by my friend Ann Eldridge entitled “Consider Change.” It shows a Monarch caterpillar that has attached itself to the underside of a leaf and hangs in the classic “J” shape that precedes the shedding of its stripy caterpillar skin to reveal a chrysalis.
Ann is a keen observer of the natural world, the sort of person who will spend hours watching a caterpillar that, to the quick glance, is just sitting there doing nothing. She has watched caterpillars writhe around as they get themselves firmly secured to the silk pad that will be their anchor as they pupate; she has seen the skin split and the green jewel of the chrysalis come into view. She has described to me her understanding of what’s going on inside that caterpillar skin: “Basically, it’s liquefying its insides and starting over.”
I love my “Consider Change” print, because in two words and a picture that is only slightly larger than life size, she presents a metaphor that has served me at various times as a challenge, an affirmation, and a comfort. Right now, I’m feeling it as affirmation and comfort. Maybe I’m spending more time than I usually would sleeping and watching Netflix because I’m pupating, and not because I’m a worthless, lazy so and so! This liminal space thing, where one thing is over and another has yet to begin, it does not feel so much like vacation to me, although my calendar is more open than it has been in years. It feels like hard work.
I was talking to Ann yesterday and when I listed all the things that are kind of up in the air in my life right now, it reminded me again: there are good reasons why I feel kinship with that caterpillar beginning to liquefy its innards and start over. It’s more than moving from one job to another, although I’m doing that. It’s more than sending my firstborn off to college, although next month I’ll be doing that, too. It’s more than anticipating moving Mom into residential care – that happens right after I get back from the drive to Arizona and back, and it’s anybody’s guess how that will go. I see the rheumatologist on Thursday to find out what a rheumatoid factor of 15 means. It’s all of this.
All these transitions are stirring up Big Life Questions. In addition to the “Who was I?” and “Who am I?” questions referenced in an earlier post, “Who am I becoming?” is the roiling, liquid-innards question of the moment.
I read up on metamorphosis, and it’s not, as it turns out, total liquidation. Some structures – legs were mentioned – remain relatively unchanged. And apparently all learning is not lost; the butterfly remembers things it knew as a caterpillar. But the rest of the body, as described on HowStuffWorks, “breaks itself down into imaginal cells, which are undifferentiated – like stem cells, they can become any type of cell. The imaginal cells put themselves back together into a new shape.”
That is my new favorite word right there, people. And it feels exactly right for those between times when one is waiting – when I am waiting – trying to figure out how to change, and how to stay myself. I’m in an imaginal state!
By the time I eclose in August, and begin my next internship – “eclose” is the science word for emerging from the pupal state – I would like to have rendered my house (and my soul) less cluttered, more organized, and more welcoming of visitors. Yesterday I read an article by a favorite poet, David Whyte, and was struck by the first stanza of “Start Close In:”
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
And that is why I am spending this week sorting clothes, donating what doesn’t fit or flatter, filing papers… staying close to home, cleaning up the messes I have made, trying to be gentle with who I am in this moment, imagining who I may yet become, and coaxing myself to take the next first step, the one I don’t want to take.
I’ll keep you posted. You keep me posted. It sure does help to compare notes!
I’m just back from a wildly energizing and wonderful week with ministry colleagues and fellow Unitarian Universalists, a week of talking, singing, dancing; a week of love and learning and soul on fire. I came home wanting to dive right into better living, particularly more exercise – but just before I left, I got a result from a blood test that showed I had a “rheumatoid factor” of 15.
Not knowing, yet, what that means (it’s a low number, apparently, but higher than zero – a normal result) I went to my trusted physical therapist for advice. Maybe yoga? A core strengthening class? To my surprise, she said no to any of it.
Her charge to me: Take your anti-inflammatory meds even when you feel fine. Eat unprocessed, fresh foods. Meditate. Sleep. Especially sleep.
She was okay with leisurely walks when it’s cool, or a swim at the lake, but ruled out, for the moment, doing anything rigorous on the grounds that my immune system is flared up and does not need me adding to its load.
I’m surprised to notice that while it seems on the surface like easy enough advice – eat well, do less, and go to bed early – I know it’s going to be hard to live it. It has become habit to eat on the fly, grabbing whatever is handy and fast, and soothing myself with sweets when I’m stressed out and hungry. I usually get into my bed at a decent hour, but with my laptop. Having my laptop in bed makes every night like a slumber party, where I stay up chatting, hearing and telling stories on Facebook.
And meditating – I can do that; I already do that. For about five minutes at a stretch, tops.
I am reimagining what it means to dive in. No big splash off the diving board after all, nothing showy and impressive, no promise of flat abs and toned arms in just six weeks. It seems what is required for me, at least right now, is more of a surface dive, starting where I am and going deeper into the quiet waters that give me life.
I think I’ll start with a book and some hammock time today. Tonight, my laptop can stay in the living room while both of us recharge for the work that is ours to do in the world.
Y’all be well, and listen to your bodies. Drink plenty of water, eat right, and get plenty of rest. Move in the ways that bring you joy. Here ends the lesson.
The past month has been a month of goodbyes for me, a month of gratitude and love and letting go, as I leave the congregation that was my first real church home, and the congregation that helped me hear my call to ministry. As I finish up my goodbyes, I find myself in an interesting liminal space, uprooted from the congregation that has created so much of the rhythm of my life for the past 15 years, not yet planted in the congregation that will be a big part of my life beginning at the end of August.
Seems like a good time to ask, “Who am I?” I attended my 30th college reunion last weekend to help me ponder the question from another angle, adding good dose of “Who was I?” to the investigation. I have had moments – and I expect there will be more – where I feel existentially dizzy. Moments of wild optimism about all the possibility ahead of me, and moments of fear that I will squander the opportunities and collapse into my smallest self.
One of the themes that has run through my relationship with my teaching pastor from the very beginning is balance, and so as an expression of my gratitude for all the time and energy he has put into supporting me in my ministerial formation, I made him a mobile of peace cranes. If you haven’t made a mobile lately, I highly recommend it as a spiritual exercise. It was ostensibly about him maintaining balance in his life – three cranes of graduated size, representing him and his boys, hold one side of the top bar of the mobile, balanced against cranes representing (roughly) work, play, music, and connection to the earth. But the time I spent on the project – choosing the papers, folding each crane with a prayer, finding beads to make the symbolism of each crane more visible, and finally stringing them all and finding how to get them to balance against one another – that was all pure gravy for me.
It gave me a very physical metaphor to play with the idea of balance in my own life, too. I had the pieces of the project with me at reunion, because I knew there would be people who could help me figure out the physics of making it work – but it pretty much stayed in the box, and I figured it out later the old-fashioned way, by trial and error. And yet it was good to have it there, reminding me to find a place of balance between who I once was and who I am becoming, and reminding me that as new things are added or old things taken away, the balancing point moves. The trials are important, and the errors provide useful information on the path to success. Also, balance is never a static thing. There is a deep satisfaction in finding that place where things do balance, and it is always a dance as the air flows and the things move.
It seems to me that one of the gifts of growing older is the lifetime of experience that tells me that even though, right now, I feel like things are fluctuating rather wildly, I will find a new balancing point in time. I can be truly grateful for this state of flux and the opportunity to test new ideas, new ways of being. And once in a while, if I am getting too dizzy, it’s okay to plunk down and watch an episode of “Orange is the New Black” or catch up on the latest internet memes.
Balance, people. It’s all about finding balance. That, and being love.
This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
So, I feel like I’m stepping into a confessional here. Forgive me, readers, it has been… I dunno. Months? Yep. Just checked; months. Since my last post. Today I read another blogger’s post, saying how she blogs in her head all the time but doesn’t actually write, and I thought hey, me too! Then she promised her readers she would blog at least once a week. I told her I was going to try to keep up. I don’t have a good track record with promises like that, but I am awesome at starting over, trying again, looking for a new way through an old problem. So, I’m going to try to keep up for one solid month, as a start. That’s three more posts after this one. I’m not promising they’ll be inspiring or interesting. I’m promising to post *something,* and to risk failure. Or success. They each have their drawbacks.
That seems to be a lesson the universe offers us over and over, that I resist every time. To grow, we need to risk failing. (Or succeeding: we need to risk change.) I took a philosophy class at some considerable expense to my parents when I was in college, but the only philosophical statements I still remember from those years came not from class, but from the Salada tea tags dangling out of my morning cuppa. “If you don’t try, you can’t fail” was one of them that went up on my bulletin board. I mean, I *get* that it isn’t suggesting we don’t try. But isn’t that so often our first reaction? My first reaction, anyway. You are probably way more evolved than I am, or you’re an adrenaline junkie who says yes to everything.
So, my recent soul work has been to make really sure, as life presents me with opportunities to risk, that I look past any initial reluctance for a second possible reaction. Maybe a third… it’s called “discernment” in my line of work, and my next post will explain why I decided to go to trapeze school in March. Stay tuned.