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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.

Featured post

Dismantle Grammar

Right now, much of the world is taking scythes to the hedges and corn stalks that have, for generations, trapped us all in a maze of excruciating conformity, very much including the arbitrary rules of English grammar. The way I’m seeing this necessary demolition show up in Soul Writing workshops is pretty cool. 

Conformity

Having spent my adult life in a torrid love affair with the English language—specifically the written word—I’ve remained blind to its flaws: namely, the way it, like so many tools of white dominant culture, serves to control and oppress. It has constricted many a brilliant voice before—or worse, shut it down before it’s had a chance to say anything at all.

At the tip of this awful iceberg are the otherwise privileged native English speakers who, for whatever reason, couldn’t onboard the rules drilled into us in school, and therefore don’t know when to use ‘your’ versus ‘you’re.’ Who the fuck cares? Is any of this not a reason not to write? 

Yes, for many, it is. It’s precisely what freezes us up. It’s where the self- or other-imposed label of “I’m Not a Writer” gets slapped on our little sweater, and the world is instantly deprived of a powerful voice, probably forever.

More tragically, awfully, evilly, there are folks who did not grow up speaking, let alone writing, ‘proper’ English. They either struggle and strain to learn and use it, or are dismissed and rejected if they can’t.

In her Huff Post article, Are You Asking Me to Talk the ‘Right’ Way or the ‘White’ Way?, Jolie A Dogget says, “Proper English elevates whiteness while reinforcing the inferiority of everyone else. Anything that deviates from that is wrong and needs to be corrected. This reinforces for privileged white students that they’re the default and that everyone else has to conform.”

By the way, I’m learning that whiteness doesn’t refer just to skin color. It is a vast societal structure designed to elevate some and oppress others. It has its own set of rules to which we conform or not, and therefore determine how successful we are. (One of those rules is actually termed “Worship of the written word.” Yiiiiikes.) This is the water we swim in, so distinctions like these can be jarring when we first encounter them, especially to folks like me who have benefitted from this system their whole lives. If you are feeling the quite natural discomfort that comes with wandering into this territory, I invite you to join me in getting curious and reading up about it.

Dismantlement 

Anyway, in part, Soul Writing is an attempt to dismantle this and repair the damage this has done to all of us, and the courageous folks who show up are doing just that, it in amazing ways. When we bypass the mind, the critic, and the rules hanging out in our psyche, the most unexpected and moving combinations of phrases come through. There is so much beauty in the sentence fragments and the made-up words, or when a writer’s inner eight-year-old suddenly grabs the pen. If we’re lucky, occasionally someone will gift the group a piece written in a language other than English. While maybe we can’t track the meaning of the words with our brains, there’s plenty that moves and impresses. Our hearts and guts follow exactly what is going on and have plenty to say by way of celebration.

This is ‘good’ writing. This is healing writing. This is the writing that frees us.

It’s an imperfect attempt at dismantlement, of course—I myself am very much in recovery. I made it through the merciless obstacle course that is the mastery of written English because I started from a place of privilege and, through a ‘fortunate’ combination of brain chemistry and desperation to conform, absorbed all those random rules right into my marrow. My mental and emotional bandwidth has been known to get clogged with trivialities like misused apostrophes and hanging prepositions. It used to be a point of pride—as though my knowing how to ‘properly’ punctuate a sentence was something that made me desirable, superior. (Shudder.) It gave me a leg up. Still does. But I see it now, at least. I see how ugly it is, how unhelpful, and how truly harmful.

A quiet reclaiming

As welcoming as the Soul Writing process is, I know there are lots of people who stay away from it because, for all the ways the world has effed with our natural flow, their “I’m Not a Writer” identity is so deeply embedded they wouldn’t go near anything writing related in the first place. 

Makes perfect sense. Still, I’m guessing there are things that want to be said through you. If you’re not ready to write or share in a group, maybe you can sidle up to the page on your own today. See what comes out when you’re letting the words fall through you. What language are they in, what order? How did you write (or draw, or dance, or think) before you found out there were rules to conform to? Before you understood that there was only one way through the cruel maze of our broken society?

Take up your own scythe, your pen, your sharpie, your spray paint can, and write just one sentence in your own voice. Dismantle grammar. Say what you need to say.

You are always welcome to join us to practice more.

Today’s the day

By Jan Martinez

I noticed something new this week. (What a boring way to begin—okay, let’s be boring.)  All experiences are one.

Let me start again. This week both my parents would have had birthdays if they’d lived. They’d have been 81 and 87, Mom and Dad, respectively. So I intentionally gave myself space, after a 40–hour work weekend, to allow life to show up as it would. And it did. Here’s what I mean, the whirlwind tour.

Wednesday—no Tuesday!—afternoon, I was sitting in the sunshine reading when I received a text showing my husband’s car crunched together with another on a major highway. He had taken the photo and sent it, so I let him call me. And he soon did.

Lots of back-and-forth, and I readied myself to pick him up as his vehicle wasn’t drivable. This became convoluted because he didn’t know exactly where he was and had started walking, declining to go with the tow truck. I eventually found him at the Detroit Zoo, which was nowhere near where he thought he’d been. Yes, that was Tuesday.

Wednesday was my mother’s birthday—peaceful and ease full. Thursday was my father’s birthday, a meeting with my teaching partners of The Wisdom WAY Master Class, and the beginning of my fast and purge for Friday’s colonoscopy. So it also invited me to contemplate my own death—by anesthesia, perforation, or a dreaded diagnosis. Of course I’m fine. A little “musical” as they say, which is typical.

So much story to say that there truly was one taste, one experience. A kind of structure underpinning all those varied, rich, purgative experiences of life and the inevitability of death. A steadfastness, a flow of something indescribable. And today was the day I got to see it.

Can you be a gentle reader?

I’m finishing up something I’m hoping to publish and, as part of the process, will soon send it out to a few folks to read. Thinking about how I’m going to frame it, a few requests come to mind. I’ll ask that they only point out anything that is glaring in its ignorance or obtuseness or confusion. That they don’t compare it to the great literature they’ve read (after all, I have no training, no degrees, no academic grounding whatsoever in what ‘good writing’ is—and anyway, this isn’t written in that spirit). Mostly I want to know how it impacts them, or if it does.

Above all, I’ll ask that they be gentle, please. This is a vulnerable new creation that needs to be handled with care. Naturally I will pick people who are likely to do this regardless of my requests. It is so essential to have safe people around our creations, at least to begin with.

This puts me in mind of those old-timey pieces addressed “Dear gentle reader.” Surely it was a nod of respect, referring to the reader as a gentleperson/woman/man. In this moment I’m moved to reclaim it as something more literal. I want to invite us all to be gentle readers.

Cultivating a posture of receptivity

There is room in all writing, all art, all the world, for scrutiny. It’s the posture most of us walk around in all the time, with which we approach everything: price tags, newspapers, social media posts. Attention spans are short these days. Not to mention how poised we all are to be offended. The metrics are “is it worth my time?” “Is it entertaining me?” “Am I pissed enough to respond?” If something doesn’t prove to be one or all of those things within the first few words, generally we move on. So in a way it’s natural that we’d approach others’ work the same way, regardless of context.

Part of what we’re doing in Soul Writing workshops is dismantling this automatic way of moving through life. We first encounter each other’s work by listening to the writer read it. We do this gently: energetically we’re standing back a few paces back from the piece and its creator, letting the words wash over us, and noticing what sticks in our mind, arises in our heart. What soaks into our skin and imperceptibly enters our bloodstream. What changes us.  

This wouldn’t be possible if we were hunched forward in our chairs, foreheads close to the zoom screen, eyes squinting, brows furrowed, pen clutched in hand, poised to capture the first inconsistency we hear and spit it back venomously at the writer as soon as we can.

To make sure there’s no trace of this, we shape ourselves differently to start with, beginning each session by connecting with ourselves, with our feet, our spines. Sitting straight in our chairs, shoulders dropped, attending to the space in and around us, observing how it shifts with our intentions for it. We do nothing, will nothing. We simply notice. And this carries through to how we write—often watching with wonder as words fill the page as though through us—and of course how we listen and respond to each other’s work. Through this practice we become trustworthy stewards of our friends’ vulnerable new creations.

Noticing

I started learning taichi recently and what struck me immediately is that the empty space surrounding me is not empty at all. It is palpable. There is a definite something I am moving through. There are molecules to visit with every millimeter of motion. It has me—even after just a handful of lessons—moving around with a new attention on the space immediately around me. Noticing how it responds, welcomes, even pushes back if I go too fast, try to breeze past it.

Can you shift your attention to this way of noticing? Can you assume a posture that allows you to simply behold the air you breathe, the writing you read, the people you talk to?

Granted, it would be naïve and even harmful to be this way with everything. There are things written and said that are wildly misleading, hateful, and ill intended. This isn’t an encouragement to look at everything through a lens of blind acceptance.

Still, I wonder what is possible when slow down and take a broad, soft focus of all that is coming in, all that we’re moving through. Maybe if we take a beat to notice how it affects us, we might even get better at discerning what is and isn’t ‘good’ – not objectively (there is no such thing), but for us. Regardless we become more generous in our lives, meeting with kindness what is offered to us, freeing the other to give more, express more, become more alive.

Help yourself

By Teresa Jacobs

The tablecloth flaps in the wind, threatening to upset the settings that sit on top. Each place is marked with a smooth white plate, a golden piece of square fabric, and a heavy fork. There are no place cards because the guest list is fluid.

She invites each person she interacts with in the days prior – store clerks, her children’s teachers, colleagues, and neighbors. Most folks think she is friendly and a little strange, and the combination causes the adventurous to accept her invitation at least once. Everyone agrees that the meal is always exquisite.

This week there is a small group assembled. Jim the bus driver, John from the store – he’s a regular – Patty from school, and her own family. The table is piled high with the bounty from her garden. There is a succulent late summer fruit salad spilling out of a deep ocean blue bowl. Her small hands hold the bowl gently as she passes it around the table encouraging the group to help themselves to seconds and thirds. The group talks softly with occasional swells of too loud laughter that happens when unfamiliar people endeavor to connect and please each other with story.

She moves slowly but with certainty as she works her way around the table. Her comfort is obvious – a person at ease with others. Her smile is genuine and her pleasure with the assembly of humanity at her table is a salve for the times.

Beside myself

By Hao Tran

I never thought that a singing voice could move me, but it did. I am a purist at heart and I have argued and argued that music is all about sound and sound only. Adding words to it is like adding weight to a cart and asking the oxen to carry more load. I practice music without words. I look for beauty in the chords and harmony between instruments. I deplore the puzzled look by people who wait for me to sing every time I lift the guitar. But, something happened.

Yesterday, I browsed the YouTube channels looking for guitar performances of a piece I am working on. So many good players, all playing brilliantly different versions of Historia de un Amor with the beautiful bolero 4/4 thumping beat. Oh, so beautiful.

Then I wandered off to the next and the next. A girl was in a contest. She lifted her voice and the words came out. There was something in her notes: nectar, honey, lemon. I heard pain, sweetness, longing, passion and love–something magical about the music with words that I had not heard before. Perhaps I had been wrong all this time? Perhaps I didn’t listen? Perhaps I had shut out the words? Her voice was the magic, the passion, and the feelings that only a human voice can show.

I was beside myself.

Beside myself

By Anna Bray

Beside myself in the sidecar of my life
Sits many other “me’s”
There isn’t just one
And why they need to be along for the ride
Instead of inside
Is a curiosity

There’s cautious Anna
Adventurous Anna
Protective Anna
and more

Sometimes they all cram in together as we zoom around the roads of life
Sometimes one wins out, calling “shotgun”, relegating the others to take a back seat

But make no mistake – the sidecar occupant is the driver
The one calling the shots
The navigator
Through the curves and tunnels, the mountains, and beach byways

It’s a wonder we get anywhere at all
With all of these new drivers taking over
When they feel bold enough
Or needed enough
To take charge

And “we”, the chorus of me
Is another curiosity
Why we? The many “me’s”?

The sidecar is blue, shiny, egg-shaped
With a thick white line and two think red lines slicing down the center

It thrums excitement when I look at it
The “we’s”, the many “me’s”, always want to be a part of it
– Inside
– Beside me
– Calling the shots 

If I just kept going …

By Jan Martinez

We climbed to the top of the bleachers. In our 60s, still agile as mountain goats, walking on the seats instead of the treads. Those seats, dusty, straw covered wooden planks.

Then the cows came in, each one led by a child or young teen often no taller than the animal’s shoulder. On closer inspection I could see they weren’t cows, but steers – aggressive, mid to heavy weight in class, grades one or two.

In the center of the barn stood a woman in boots, flared jeans, and a surprisingly frilly smocked top. The 4H judge. The cows paraded around her in a circle as the judge announced their merit. Or lack.

“I like this guy because he has a straight back,” she’d say. Or, “I have a problem with the way this guy walks.”

We went outside to see Bailey, Larry’s great niece, with her steer, a mean guy named Gatsby.

Mean or nice, Gatsby would be in the freezer by the fall. This was already a known truth. But did Gatsby know it? I wonder. I don’t think cows have awareness of self – something called theory of mind. Or is it the Mirror Test? This is reserved for primates, including children, elephants, and some crows – a personal favorite. And this means that they recognize a discrete self. Put any one of them in front of a mirror with the paint mark on their heads and they’ll likely try to clean their heads, not the mirror.

As I gazed into Gatsby’s enormous dark eyes, I doubted he had this awareness. If I just kept going I’m sure I could wonder some more. Instead I turned and went back into the barn.

Around in circles

By Michelle Hynes

I love a labyrinth. I’m looking forward to seeing the ones at Grace Cathedral, perched at the top of a San Francisco hill. I often forget, though, that we have a few much closer by — a short neighborhood walk away. One of the nearby churches even created one in their parking lot during the pandemic. Somehow that doesn’t quite work — I can’t still my mind on an urban street.

For going around in circles, I prefer the beach or the garden. No real destination. Just picking up rocks or pulling weeds. Going around in circles with my feet until my thoughts can stop circling, settle in to some kind of straight line.

Going around in circles. This can feel like an endless road to nowhere… but also like freedom. Birds circling in the sky. Going around and around on two wheels on a summer day. Roller skating — a middle school memory of a rink with a wooden floor and 80s music.

Going around in circles can feel like going nowhere — or anywhere. No need to decide. Just keeping on a track, in and out, around and through, the endless spiral of a life still unfurling. Going around. Shaping the track of the day. Shaping myself into a perfect sphere, like a soap bubble. Going around, blowing around, just being taken by the breeze.

Around the corner…

Around the corner, there’s a donut shop. I can hardly eat anything there, but its sheer nearness distracts me. They’re closed on Mondays, and at 2pm, and any time they run out of donuts. They’ve been advertising frantically for bakers and baristas. Sometimes they’re just closed — too hot, no staff, no donuts.

It’s a small frivolous thing. And also a close-by reminder of what’s happening to the workforce. To retail. To the small certain joy that there will be a mochi donut around the corner after lunch. That this small local business will still exist next weekend. 

Around in circles

By Tess Bradley

A round, in circles.
Clouds.
Circumambulating.
A child grabs an armpile of round lids, round cups, the yogurt container, the frisbee, and traces wildly. She is manifesting near perfection. The grace, the power of this shape feels more of a miracle than an art activity on a rainy morning.

Out the large tile of glass panes is the wet sand, the railroad ties soaking with black brown sky juice, the weeds and steel pipe climbing structures screaming I’m so shiny, I’m so free.

The electricity inside of the child is vibrating above the music that is playing out of the plastic tape recorder at her side.

The lightning in her being lifts her up out of the lightweight curved seat. The chair falls on its side, two legs sticking sideways. The metal is dry, rubbed, dull.

The child squeaks and half turns her head to see, again the mastery of her mistake. I did that!

The chair doesn’t work now. We move on— to the door, how she knows the pivot of the button AND the twist with two fists, or one hand with a straight elbow.

She flies out of her heart and circles back. Her eyes on the pirate ship – the ship ladder rope wet, the sunlight, yellow. Mad delight.

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