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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An invitation from the planets—and from me

Adorably, since posting this the first time, Mercury shuffled things on me and I had to change the date of the mini-retreat. Until and unless Life decides differently, I’ll now be holding workshops on June 11 and July 9.

Dear friends,

Those of you who are astrologically inclined (or who are, like, on Instagram) know that Mercury is in retrograde at the moment. Astronomically, that means the planet Mercury appears to be moving backward in the sky. On Earth, it’s a lot of spinning beach balls on computer screens, dropped calls, traffic detours and misunderstandings.

Mythologically / energetically, Mercury is the god of (i.e., embodies the energy of) travel and communication, so its apparent reversal messes with our incessant human desire to move forward, forward, forward.

In fact, I’m writing this on an airplane because the TVs and WiFi are both inexplicably busted. (I may have had something to do with this, actually. Knowing I’d be traveling this week I bargained with Mercury that it could have the entertainment systems in exchange for flights being on time. I hadn’t thought of the parents with little kids who need their iPads. Sorry about that folks).

This is sort of the point though. I don’t know about you, but in order to write I need to be in a place where I’m free of the tyranny of technology and efficiency. Otherwise I’m constantly abandoning what I’m working on to respond like a well-trained dog to the email ding. Or taking a quick break to see what’s up on Instagram. Or rushing through an otherwise spacious evening to get to the ‘finish line’ of plunking down on the couch to watch Better Call Saul.

One of the gifts of Merc Retro is being stirred from this hypnosis through interruption. Our plans are thwarted. The voices constantly flowing into our ears become staticky. The delivery method of so much (the Internet) is spotty.

Sure, we can fight it and get miserable, which I’ve already done a good handful of times in the last week — like when my Very Important Errand was thwarted by a city-wide road race that made it literally impossible to get where I needed to go. My hand and throat were sore for a full day after from screaming and punching the steering wheel. Of course the errand was never that important. The urgency I felt was, yet again, the itch to get away from myself.

What if instead we allow ourselves to trust—versus dread—that whatever we attempt may go sideways in this next little while? Can we surrender to the apparent direction we’re being nudged in: to give ourselves moments to simply sit and listen, and see what emerges from deep within, from the void of not-knowing? 

Here’s what invites us to look at it as part of a fantastic, orienting article:

Mercury’s retrograde cycles, however disruptive they may be at times, offer us the ability to gain greater objectivity in a particular area of life. In normal waking consciousness, and in an increasingly over-scheduled, distracted world, we have left ourselves precious little time for reflection. For many, once we are on a given path, we can end up myopically married to it, losing all perspective; viewed in the right light, Mercury retrograde becomes an opportunity to re-approach important aspects of our lives with renewed vision.

Whether or not we ascribe to this particular orientation*, and regardless of the position of the planets, there are always steps we can take to free ourselves from this myopia and find renewed perspective.

You might experiment with a media fast: 24 hours of not letting anyone else’s stories into your ears and eyes and heart. No TV, social media, articles, books, podcasts. I know, terrifying. But when I did this last week I was in awe of how the hours stretched, how much time I had to just be human, to take in what the world actually is beyond the miasma of noise that usually has my attention.

It doesn’t have to be this extreme of course. You could simply allow yourself ten unassailable minutes every day, maybe when you first wake up, to be with yourself, be with the page, be in contact with what you know to be true beyond the world’s insistence.
And for now, while we’re in this strange period of being forced to a halt anyway, see what liberation you can find in just … going with it.
One way is to join me for an upcoming mini-retreat (how’s that for an inelegant segueway?). The next ones [are now on] June 11 and July 9. Merc will be direct again by then, so the opportunity will be competing with lots else you could be doing on an early summer Saturday. Your soul, your fellow writers and I will be honored if you end up choosing us.
Wishing you ease (and surrendering to typos),

* I am not astrology obsessed by any means, though I do think there’s a lot to it. For those who dismiss it as utter poppycock, here’s how I heard a friend explain astrology to a hardcore scientist some years back. If the moon – the teeny tiny celestial body that it is – can do what it does to the oceans, and if the average human body comprises 75% water, how can we not think the planets hold some sway over our lives?  

I’ll never understand …

By Michelle Hynes

I’ll never understand why some people don’t seem to care. Why they’re not curious about the way things are, about how other people came to be. Why they don’t feel compassion in the face of great suffering.

“Holding ambiguity in public is part of being human.” Wow. That idea really struck me, on a day when the next thing I’ll do is hold space for a group of people to talk about collaboration.

“I don’t know” is such a powerful sentence. “Let’s find out together,” maybe more so. Who knows what you might find when you take a walk with someone you don’t know yet? It feels both wonderful and terrible to embark on that wandering.

I’ll never understand people who don’t want to know more. Or, maybe I do — but I just know that I will never be that way. Even when the questions lead to more questions, it’s hard for me to close the door and say “enough.”

I’ll never understand everything, no matter how hard I might try.

I’ll never understand…

By Tess Bradley

I’ll never understand the truly polite woman.
The one who stands like a first lady on my left shoulder.
Is she real? Or is she artificial, poised like a human figure sitting for a portrait to be painted.
Is grace real?
Can we find it in nature?

Yes, yes, yes!
Hordes of voices are yelling from my mosh-pit mouth.
There’s loads of grace in nature.
Take trees. Take birds– any birds!
Okay, maybe not penguins particularly.
No! Even penguins!
Take peacocks. The stillness, the still life.
The profile of a woodpecker.
The wood print of any profile.
The beak. The crest.
The backward leg joints.
The fan of feathers resting or spread out in the sun like a hand of Bicycle cards, red or blue playing cards.
Surely you can locate dignity in your own body, if not in your mind.
The bones of your prehistoric wings.
You, hanging upside down like a bat, a butterfly.
Cobalt blue against white and black, with harvest moon yellow orange.

Is my beauty the same thing as my dignity?
Is my dignity the same thing, or at least holding hands, with my divinity or our collective will to fly, to be driven, to be grateful, to be still and to honor life?

Can we be still?

I’ll never understand…

By Hao Tran

When I close my eyes in search of a memory, something comes to my mind right away.  I see an escalator moving up and I am on it.  The steel steps move smoothly under electrical power of some machinery underneath.  So powerful, they lift me up and up against my inertia, my will.

I kid you not, this is the first thing that comes to my mind.  I am holding onto the black rubberized railing gritty from many sweaty palms.  It moves along too with the escalator.  I am heading to a bright lit space above, with thousands of kilowatts of neon lights.  It is so quiet.  So quiet.  No motorcycle noise like a thousand lawnmowers going off at the same time.  No cigarette smoke.  No people talking loudly.  No chanting in a pagoda nearby.  No jost stick smell, the kind of smoke that reminds me of funerals and cemeteries.  The kind of smoke that is comforting as it is hurting at the same time.

It is the transition of leaving, entering, and reentering.  I never understand how I always climb that elevator thinking about the dark place lit by candles and kerosene lamps and wish I could turn around and go back.

I’ll never understand …

I’ll never understand.

Period. End of story.

I’ll never understand numbers. Money. Time. The truth of mathematics is so elemental to the understanding of life on earth that my body naturally rejects it. I don’t want to understand this because if I did then I’d have to do something about it.

This is a temporary ride anyway. I’d rather just enjoy it – watch the swirling, blurring scenery as it rushes past, confused and inside out. Feel the breeze on my face, maybe even get a little sick. But I’ll still laugh and I’ll still scream and when the ride comes to a stop I’ll file off obediently and wander toward whatever’s next. I won’t argue or ask to stay on. I won’t even buy another ticket. I’ll walk into those woods that I’d only glimpsed for a microsecond before – seeing now that they are still and deep and hold secrets that I’ll never understand.

Don’t ask me to make sense of anything. Keep me from hard edges and known quantities. I surrender, my head snapping back as I’m pulled forward and backward through time – the coil both mortal and immortal. I’ll never understand how it works. Leave that to the beautiful physicists. I wonder if they get to heaven and go, “ohhhhhh, I never thought of it quiet that way, but damn, I was close.”

I don’t want to get close to anything but the grass underfoot. To the droplets of fog mist. To the gratitude buried beneath layers of worry. To the invisible beating heart of the world.

I need you to know / I don’t want to know

By Jan Martinez

Dear Mom and Dad,

I want you to know that the stories from my childhood still have the power to crack me up. What a funny expression, crack me up – to break apart, like a fragile egg, or the shell of one of those buildings on a wild west set, pure façade designed to break apart in a staged explosion. An explosion of laughter, in our case. Oh my, we had so many of those together.

Like that time in high school, Dad, when I was on the phone with Pam, extra long phone cord, curly like a piglet’s tail, wrapped around me and stretching over the kitchen island as I stood next to the refrigerator whispering and giggling. How you walked up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and held up a giant green bug inches from my face, its acid chartreuse wings fanning calmly as I screamed and drop the phone. And you there laughing your ass off. I was so mad, but all that cracked away as my own laughter burst through.

Or Mom, do you remember that time in the Ozarks? You and Barb were in the front seat of Nana’s car. Nana was in the back between me and Bambi. She was the only one who knew how to navigate the winding roads to get to the picturesque town at the top of the mountain, but her directions were vague. At best. Beyond comprehension. Yet at every wrong turn you made, she let you know it. “Why did you turn there, Honey?”

Bambi and I were so car sick by the time we arrived, we talked about getting Halcyon along with our double gin and tonics. You and Barb were frustrated and furious. Nana of course was just fine. But after lunch we all laughed, and Nana ordered a chocolate dessert so rich she said it gave her tongue 10 orgasms. Yeah, Bambi and I still crack up over that one.

So Mom and Dad, I need you to know we’re still laughing. And I hope you all are too.

I don’t want to know the answer to all of life‘s mysteries. All of life’s questions. For example, why one bird sings before another. Why one person becomes dear and another does not. Or how it is a friend can climb high onto a cliff, so high that he then has to affix a cot horizontally onto the sheer rock face. Then to sleep risking a rain shower of pee from climbers higher above. Why this appeals to some and not others is something I can never know. Nor do I really want to. Somethings just are.

Something else I don’t want to know

To a fellow diner at Taverna Rossa:  I don’t want to know your excuse for sitting down next to our table in a crowded restaurant and greeting your friends with a joke: How many Mexicans does it take to cut down a tree?I don’t care about the excuse that led you to this place. The way you sat down, opened your mouth, and didn’t stop talking for the hour we sat near you. I don’t take it personally. I doubt you noticed the friends sitting across from you, so how would you ever possibly think I might be offended?

I need you to know / I don’t want to know

by Michelle Hynes

I need you to know… That I care. That I hurt. That I didn’t mean to hurt you.

It’s hard to write today, from this place of distraction. This pen, or that one? The purple sparkly marker will have to do. It moves across the page so smoothly. Who cares, if it’s hard to read later?

I need you to know that showing up means I love you. My hair might be a mess, and I can’t find my shoes or my keys. But here I am. Do you want some tea?

Sometimes showing up is the best I can do. I might be ill-equipped or under-prepared. I’m not proud of that. But here I am.

Here I am. I need you to know that the best I have right now might not be my best. Maybe tomorrow I will be sparkly and bright and my shirt will match my socks. Today is not that day.

Here I am. I need you to know that I care about being here, now, with you … even if I don’t know what to say. Let’s sit a while. Have some tea. Maybe you will hear all I need you to know. What I need you to know. I need you to know. I know I need you. I need you to know.

I don’t know what to do with this minute, this time, this space. The end.

I don’t want to know what you think. Honestly, thanks for offering — But I just want to sit here a while with what I think. There are too many other voices, some days. I just want to hear my own. Selfish? Sure, maybe. But have you ever craved the deep quiet of no voices? This is how the forest feels to me, or the ocean — just the murmur of leaves, the rhythm of waves, alone with the soft sounds of nature in my ears and under my feet. I don’t want to know. Just listen.

I need you to know …

by Hao Tran

… that I fail every day.  I am stealing this line from a recent movie “The Dig”, and that’s the line I still remember.  That’s the best line of all because it is so true.  It’s so assuring to know that I am not alone, and it is OK to admit failure, and it’s OK to live with it, and it’s OK to try to do better.

The fact is, or the truth is I am not sure if I have left any impact that has changed the world, a world remade as my friend David eloquently said it.  I think I did, and after sixty-six years of trying, I must have done some good and made a difference somewhere.

Many years ago, I was on one of my trips to Đồng Tháp province, the poorest place in the Mekong Delta, the place my father called the end of the earth.  It was the place where the landless and the displaced peasants went because there was no place else to go.  It was also the place where the cranes returned because everywhere else in the Delta had been destroyed or farmed to death with rice fields and shrimp farms.

I was with my friends from the International Crane Foundation and we spent weeks helping the villagers, if you call it that.  We did what we could to sample the soil, teach the kids water chemistry, help teachers with lab equipment.  We were the rich and environmentalism is the luxury of the rich.

One day I was walking around and I saw a small house, a hut, and woman with a toddler were looking at me.  The child was so small like a malnourished primate.  She was unwashed, almost naked with so little clothing.

I reached out and cleaned her face with a Kimwipes.

The mother looked at me with wet eyes.  “Strange man,” she said.

I write into being …

By Michelle Hynes

I write into being the shape of my grief. Or, sometimes, my joy. I work things out on the page. Friday writing is a special place — just my voice. And yours. Each in its own time.

First thing this morning — 7:30 — so early! My brain was filled with the voices of rural teachers. It’s my job to write into being a year of work, of toil, of learning. To somehow make many snippets of interviews into a quilt that honors the space between and among people I might never meet in person.

I write into being who I am, who I’ve been, who I aspire to be. I write into being, and offer to you, the world outside my window. Well, that’s not quite right. The world exists without me. But I see just a square of it, for most of each day — and  I offer you that square, my view of it. A square of dark chocolate, or quickly made cake, or the raised bed in the garden that might hold flowers or fruit.

I write into being my own view of what is. I write into being my own view of me, in this season of life. It’s just a moment, not something that endures. I write into being a dandelion, a bit of fluff, that might be blown away by the next strong breeze.

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