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beginnerdom

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beginnerdom

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.

More than anything else …

By Laura Hughes

More than anything else, I need space to be me. To explore. To sink into my feelings, my self, my depths. To know who I am at 43, vs. who I was at 23, or 29, or 33. To discover what pleases me, now. What brings me alive. What encourages me out.
(I seem to know plenty about what irks me).
But, at 43, gosh – nearly 44, what’s important to me now? What really matters?
I must be close to dead on halfway through my life. (If I’m lucky). So, surely these questions are ripe for the asking.
What pleases me? What builds a steady foundation for me to show up in the world each day? Not as my best, but, my most real… my most true.
What opens my eyes? With awe? With shock? With wonder?
What opens me?
And, most importantly, what actually matters? (Of the thousand places I could turn my attention).
Yesterday, I felt exhaustion. I woke up in a strange apartment, in fog. Chilly outside, and in. Disoriented. Destabilized.
Throughout the day, my weariness began to build – but I didn’t want to acquiesce. I had things to do, people to see.
And, as it turns out, exhaustion is a feeling I prefer to turn away from; to power through.
Yesterday’s particular flavor of exhaustion felt familiar – from COVID. And at one point, I pulled out a test, just to check.
But, I had plans last night. Evening plans. Plans to cook for a friend. Spanish food. (Since we met in Spain.)
I’d let her know I was having a hard time. “Me too”, she’d said.
And that was what became most important. Cooking for a friend. Sharing too much wine. And delicious bites of perfectly curated cheese, veggies, potatoes, olives. (As perfectly curated as I could manage from Trader Joe’s, anyway).
Why so important?
Because somehow, something in me knew that cooking in this strange apartment, and sharing with a friend, would warm me. Would allow me to open. Would bring me home.

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