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beginnerdom

Make a start. See what happens.

Let it break

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

— From “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte

A few years ago I was in a state of, shall we say, spiritual disorientation. A limbo between a very solid What Had Been and a blackly obscured and unknowable What Was To Be. That liminal state where it feels like there’s no ground under one’s feet (usually because, in every respect but physical, there isn’t). All I knew for sure was that everything felt wrong. All I felt able to do was wander around – literally. Searching, maybe, or simply keep moving lest I get sucked into the black hole that yawned, terrifying, at the edge of my consciousness.

In retrospect, I was in the very early stages of one of the most massive, devastating, and necessary changes of my life. This feeling was Life shaking me awake from what had become a deep and complacent slumber – you are more than this, it whispered. Time to move on; time to get going; what lies ahead you have no way of knowing, it irksomely quoted Tom Petty.

I had no conscious inkling of this at the time, though. I just felt generally unsettled and awful, with nothing I could point to as a reason. There was no evident injustice causing my despair, no major loss inspiring this grief. Nothing I could use to explain in a way anyone else could relate to. It was coming purely from within—utterly invisible and impossible to describe, so I didn’t try. I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, I wandered through the hills near my home, crying a lot, not understanding. I wasn’t suicidal but had the thought more than once that if death came for me I wouldn’t mind. I’d go quietly.

It was rough.

One day my wanderings took me to a familiar hiking trail, drew me toward a familiar tree. It wasn’t a particularly magnificent specimen. It didn’t stand out except for its position relatively close to the path. It was a scraggly old pine whose lowermost foot of grayish bark had been scraped or eaten off by some creature or other. It seemed elderly. It was a being that I always felt compelled to greet in some way, with a touch or a wave, as I moseyed by.

Today I stopped, my heart full of questions that had no words. I leaned against my tree, back-to-trunk, breathed, breathed, my inner critic judging me as usual for being pathetic and dramatic. My ego terrified of being seen by anyone who passed by.

Despite all this, as soon as I connected myself to the tree I felt the web of intelligence it shared with all the other trees, with the ground, the ancestors beneath, the sky above, the all of it. The whisper of breeze through the leaves overhead, the rustling of life in the undergrowth—none of it was random noise. It was the harmonious hum of all existence, the lucid voice of the everything.

I was in a holy place, I knew. Guidance was available. I didn’t know what to say. What to ask. I just knew I needed help. So I asked for that. Asked for help.

Listened. Nothing.

I feel like my heart is breaking, came my silent confession.

Then let it break, I heard in noiseless response.

Let it break.

I did. Then and there, the elderly tree still holding me, I let my heart break. A quiet, heaving, knowing sob. An opening, finally, into the expanding territory of my soul. A painful stretching of the heart to take in all I was becoming aware of. Permission, finally, to feel it all—even the stuff that hurt. Especially the stuff that hurt. It swept in to fill the void for a moment, nearly more than I could bear, but enough to glimpse where this all was going.

For a second, just then, there was orientation. Ever so briefly I felt my place in the world again. The tree helped me see not only where the ground was, but where my ground was. For an infinitesimal moment, I could almost make out where I was headed. It was a place I didn’t understand yet. There were no answers, but there was information.

Let it break. My heart needed to break, my space to crack open to allow for this expansion. Much of my suffering had come, I realized, from trying to Keep It Together when clearly It was not even a thing anymore. Trying to sustain a shape that wanted me to shift. Holding fast to a branch as the current of life endeavored to move me downstream.

There was also the suffering caused by trying to leave the darkness too soon. An old metaphor that never fails to wow me is that of caterpillars transitioning into butterflydom. They literally liquefy in their chrysalis. This cannot be comfortable. Interview any moth you meet: they will not, I’m sure, look back upon their cocoon days with nostalgia and longing.

And it doesn’t end there: they must, once they awaken—giant new wings wound around them in this space that is suddenly and clearly too small—fight their own way out, however long it takes. To help a butterfly out of its cocoon is to kill it. It must break out on its own.

So must our souls, stirring in the confines of what is no longer ours to be. There has to be a break, a tear, a rending, as we emerge new into the blinding light. None of it is comfortable. All of it is necessary. It is nature. Our nature.

It took ages, lots more miles of hiking and plenty more pain, but eventually my outer world did come into alignment with what I was catching foggy glimpses of in those first days.

I’m remembering this now, I think, because I find myself in the midst of another one of these giant, nameless shifts that is taking its sweet time revealing itself. It’s showing up as anxiety and despair running through every channel of my life—some acidic compound, perhaps, being poured through the lines to purify them. It’s having me crave silence, sleep, alone time, wandering. It’s inspiring inner critic attacks about how I need to be more productive or at least dooooo something with or about what I’m feeling. It helps to reflect on an earlier occurrence of Whatever This Is. I did eventually make my way out of the chrysalis, tottered confusedly for a bit in the blinding newness, and grew accustomed to the new self that had been gestating during all those months of perplexity and pain.

It’s the hardest work of our lives, and can be the most fascinating if we stay awake to it. To recognize something is amiss, acknowledge that where we are is no longer relevant and something else is calling to us. To not deny it, fix it, contain it, or even define it. And definitely to not paint a veneer on it so that things still seem shiny and okay. On the contrary, we need to move forward into the mystery. To allow our hearts and our worlds to break, to be upended, to sit motionless in the dark and let ourselves liquefy. Trusting that eventually we will emerge and unfold into something far bigger than our old minds can just now hold.

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I am tired of …

By Hao Tran

Whenever I came home, my father called out: “the American.” I didn’t think of it too much until years later. Had he meant it as a tease for my weight and baldness, my relative wealth, or something more?

My father lived through three wars, all his life almost, was a POW for seven years after the fall of Saigon, tried to be an American here in California, and then decided to go back home in a small poor village to live the rest of his days.

I often think of his calling me the American because I am not sure if I feel that way. After 45 years of living here, eating American food, speaking American language, working in the Federal Government, I still don’t feel that way.

Lately, all I heard in the news is the evacuations from Kabul which seemed quite orderly to me compared to the last days of Saigon. If not for the 13 dead young soldiers, all will have been forgotten in a matter of weeks. Then the repeating, reliving of 9/11, the tragic attacks that killed thousands of Americans. Oh, so sad.

And yet, I still don’t feel American. What I feel is a bigger, broader and deeper pain for the world. We don’t talk about millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, and thousands (upon thousands) of Afghans, millions of amputees who still need artificial limbs, rubbles that have been bombed over and over.

If it is all about America First, count me out. I want no part of it.

If it is “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” I don’t want any part of it.

We need to get off our high Suburban SUVs and the 60 thousand-dollar Teslas and look around.

Go with me. Be a vagrant for one day.

It doesn’t look like much

By Rosslyn Chay

It doesn’t look like much but I will take what I can get. No haggle, no fight, a beggar can’t choose. I will live with whatever seems possible — not strike out an inch beyond my limits. Don’t worry, it’s not too much to ask of me. I will stay in line without you instructing; be quiet till you ask me to speak; exhale only when you are pleased.

It doesn’t look like much — it’s the Asian female way — diligent, efficient, subservient. Seems so natural and automatic how this body moves. This arm stretches out for the teapot before you notice your cup is empty. It’s easy. It doesn’t look like much, really. Doesn’t take much to lift the china and top up your tea; doesn’t take much to put you before me; doesn’t take much to watch, and learn, and watch for what you might need.

It doesn’t look like much until I begin the work to undo it — to untangle and unlearn how my body stands and walks; stepping aside or shrinking itself in thrall to yours. What an elegant waltz we are in; I, your willing partner following and attuning to your shifts even when you never invited me to dance.

Dinner at our house was …

By Michelle Hynes

Dinner at our house was… not delicious. Perhaps this is why I’m so intent on every meal I serve at home being pleasing to the eye and to the palate. If I try something new, and it falls flat — I’m crushed. I might even cry. It’s ridiculous, I know, to invest so much in whether the salt, the sweet, the texture is perfect. And if you know me—you know I didn’t use a recipe. I might have run my eyes across a cookbook, sure… but follow a script? That’s just not me.

I am a planner, though. I know what we’re going to eat next and how many meals I can cook before the next grocery trip. You will never go hungry at my house. Not for food. Not for love. Not for all the deliciousness your heart and your hands and your mouth can hold.

Dinner at our house was not delicious. It didn’t feed the soul. It had rules, and a certain predictability. Sometimes there was tension, or tears. Dinner at my house is different. I’m rewriting that old story every day, for myself and for you.

Dinner at my house is delicious. It is welcome. I invite you to be nourished, to feast at my table, to taste the bounty of this land and of this life. 

Please scream inside your heart

“Theme parks in Japan have banned screaming on roller coasters, because it spreads coronavirus…. and advised riders: “Please scream inside your heart.”

– The New York Times, July 2020


Yes, scream
Shatter its walls
Let the shards and the goo
and the light spill out
Let the lava infiltrate your being
    and then burst that open too

You say you’re about to crack. Good.
Let go, crack, crack up, crack loose
Crack so that it scares everyone
Crack so that you lose all your friends
    all the respect
    all you’ve been so fastidious about building

Nobody, dear. Nobody has ever known what they’re doing
The ones that do
ask questions
    constantly
    Forever
    undermining
    their own premise.

Foundations are shaky at best
Wobbly, like your reclaimed wood desk

Actually no, shaky isn’t best—
Muddy is.

Let the shards of yourself
sink into the silt
    Wriggle downward
    Find soil
    Take hold
    Sprout anew
    Fight through
    Wilt
And try again

Please scream inside your heart
Let the scream echo against the cavernous walls
now that you’ve cleared the detritus:
Everything you thought you were meant to keep safe
    build from
    treasure always
    pass along

It went up in flames the second you laid claim to it.
Since then you’ve been grasping at ghosts
Sticking price tags on illusions
Chasing them hungrily down aisles with your empty shopping cart
    With all your might. With all you have.

Please scream inside your heart
Scream, “Stop!”
Scream, “Enough!”
Scream, “Don’t you see?”
Scream
I     DON’T     NEED    YOU     TO     SEE     ME    ANYMORE

Careen past the other shoppers and out into the sea
Stop trying to be clear or transparent or
    Colorful or
    Opaque

Lay down your street-performer juggle-balls and wade into the water.

Please, please scream inside your heart and set your essence free.
Every single thing your heart can see is in the way.
Scream past it. Scream it open. Scream it free.

On the body

By Jan Martinez

I’m curious to know where the voice starts. Today I began my morning with a 5 Rhythms Dance meditation, followed by Theta music with binaural beats, so it feels as if my whole body is one harmonic instrument with resonance across time and space.

The balance of sensitivity and the awareness of boundaries has always been so important for me. I’m not clairvoyant, but perhaps I’m clair-sentient. Often odd sensations course through my body, some fleeting, some chronic. Today I’m reminded to ask if they’re mine.I recall times across the country or the globe, unwittingly I took on the pain or illnesses of my family members, frustrating doctors. Then only to find that they weren’t my ailments, my diagnoses, to begin with.

Lately I’ve had such pain in my upper back and arms. I attributed it to overwork or tension while typing, but now I wonder. Since my father’s death, my mother’s had similar pain, and after dancing today, I recognized I was literally carrying her pain. And in the dance, I put it down. So how to stay in compassion and not take it on…

It is said that the arms speak the truth of our hearts. I feel this as I write, or when I paint, or dance. Creativity flowing from my heart through my arms to my hands. The flow of warmth when I embrace a beloved friend or family member, in the warmer—or very much warmer—embrace of my husband. In this way, I find myself settling into the truth my mother won’t speak: how very, very much her own heart is hurting.

My neck speaks (1 min)

Sometimes it’s so hard to bear the weight of all these thoughts, the onslaught of ideas and songs and stories and pictures that go off like fireworks filling the sky, too many to appreciate any one, or like flower petals and rice thrown at a wedding.

Sometimes I want them to drip down like droplets of rainwater into my heart and then slide one by one down the thick rope-like vines and tendrils into the cenote of my belly.

There, in that cold clear water they can permeate and infuse my whole being like blood, that life force that courses through the pathways and underground tunnels of my veins.

Body scan, then write

Foot on the gas, the brake, gas brake gas brake. The echo of it in my right shin.

“Uh-oh!” I said out loud when the truck in front of me didn’t begin moving the instant the light turned green. The old Boston driver coming back. The only place I’ve ever been aggressive: behind the wheel.

“Uh-oh!” The most passive-aggressive phrase I could have mustered. Northern California has fully infiltrated the psyche but not the body. Another four seconds and I would have driven under that truck. As it was, I maneuvered a dangerous swerve around its right flank it as it made its perfectly timely, perfectly safe, perfectly unrushed left.

Me, though: gas brake, gas brake. Rev rev stop. Rev. Stop. Go go go. We’re supposed to be going now. Drumming my fingers at every red light. Every meal. Every episode of Jeopardy that counts as quality time with my husband. Every moment of lying in bed, not asleep but too tired to accomplish anything of note. Scroll, then. Shop. Hypnotize self with a reality show in miniature. No use reading: my eyes simply scan the words while my mind whirls. The flywheel again. It doesn’t stop. Too much momentum. Too much to do. Too much.

Gas brake. Gas gas gas, rev, rev, motor uphill, careen down. Brake for the turn, or not. List sideways and nearly tumble off the cliff. Careful!

A few days ago I heard a silence so silent I knew it was the earth speaking. No other voice could be that deafening. My shin bones become the stalks of the redwoods, the columns of the cathedral, the ode to the everything. Equal weight, gravity. They know no brake, no rev, only reverence. They stand in holy stillness.

I always felt I must

By Tess Bradley

I always felt I must change.And I reason that this is not only a function of my family conditioning, or A-meritocracy or some larger socially constructed system where internal pressure is spawned by the outside. I am somehow convinced that I must change because I am evolving.

I want to pull off the velcro of my past. I want to pull the past off of me with a loud, satisfying noise that rips open like a rain rattle, like the single most satisfying belch ever to light up the inner esophageal and intestinal universe. Bbbbbrrrrrrraaahhh!

I’d become an air plant. I’d be one of those seedlings that can fly! A dandelion daughter protégé. Set up a second life as an expatriate to this continent, this island, this Earth.

I always felt I must change.

Memorize the capitols, start each day with reading the news, breathe through my diaphragm, and get married. Knowing I’ll do none of these things, and the tension building.

Completion is a point on an arc. I must follow that arc. First, I must build the Arc. I must believe that two by two I will be saved by God through following his explicit diagrams.

Let me fill in some of these holes! I see my mother bracing and astounded as I speak at the table to her friends.

This desire to change and the pressure to be-someone-who-is-complete shoot me out of a canyon again and again.So how can I blame myself for flying over your head?

When I Get Home

By Jan Martinez

What is the feeling of home? That quality that confirms we’ve landed safely and gently into some sacred, familiar ground? It’s a worthy question and one I ask because how else will we know? It isn’t just the shape of the door through which out bodies and hearts can pass so easily. It’s much more than that.

I recall my second, or was it my third, trip to Ireland, landing to familiar air and moisture, landing into an abundance of greenery. Then falling into that soft bed in that chilled room, the radiator oh so slowly pumping out heat to penetrate the cold. But in that space I felt the lyrical hug of the entire island envelop me. Home, I felt.

Or the second time I visited Bali, leaving Denpasar, driver circling statues of Gods I didn’t know, but who maybe did know me. That mixture of smells—exhaust fumes, incense, smoky champaca filling the air, the regular offerings of reverence. And even as we’d landed physically after 36 hours of travel, I felt home.

Here, surrounded by my 100-year-old lady of a house, I feel it most intensely. The way her creaks and quirks have settled into my bones. The way her corners have softened to allow me to slip easily from one place to another, as if swimming. She trips my husband up every now and then, just for fun. She has that sort of sense of humor. 

Here I feel safe; I feel free. Expansiveness and coziness coexisting. One day I may have to leave. So I have to know, have to believe, that whoever Home is, I’ll be able to carry her with me.

Splendid Imperfections

By Rosslyn Chay

The clouds—
ever changing—shape-shifters
gaining bulk then losing weight, then drifting high
above the atmosphere into the ether.
Imperfect beings made to perfection.
Imperfect
to any minds with no space
for fluff. It’s bound
to bump into someone
who sees it as imperfect,
deems it as imperfect.
But imperfect
belongs not to it—
a title, a label, put on it by another
who’s clouded in the mind.
A puff without integrity
or a billow of full potential?
As it glides across the sky—my pocket
of sky framed by the window—it boasts
its full glory, baring its shadows,
taking up space, un-
reservedly, un-
hurriedly, un-
apologetically filling
the sky, blanketing it.
How splendid this perfect being dons its imperfections.

Go on, announce your presence:
Roar and rain.

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