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Walking Slowly

“Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.”

– Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: time Management for Mortals

Walking Guy

I first saw him about 15 years ago, way up in the hills where I lived. Wispy light-blonde hair that hung between his shoulder blades. Jeans, t-shirt, a bomber jacket either worn or carried in a loose fist at his side. Converse sneakers. Skinny. In his 30s, or his 50s.

He was walking. Just walking. Not decked out for exercise. Not (as I concluded after several months of encountering him in different spots) headed anywhere. He walked. His face always neutral, looking in no particular direction, never acknowledging passersby.

I started to wonder, of course. Where did he walk? For how long? And of course … Why? I wanted to follow him. I actually entertained the thought that maybe I was the only one who saw him. That he was some kind of urban bay-area yeti.

As humans do with mysteries (and as I do with absolutely everything), I made it about me. This dude must have a message for me, I decided. Why else would I keep seeing him? Was he my white rabbit? If I trailed him would I end up somewhere mind-bending and marvelous?

There was something about his vibe, though, that made him decidedly un-trailable. He wasn’t hostile, but there was a certain impenetrability—one that told me that if I was to engage him, even at a distance, I’d be violating something sacred.

Years after I’d first seen this fellow, I started dating my now-husband and told him about my possible hallucination (he might as well have all the questionable facts up front, right?). Then one day we saw him together. Now I had a witness, someone to wonder with me. He became Walking Guy in our shared lexicon.

One time saw him talking to someone and our minds were blown. Walking Guy is a person who knows other people! OK then. Another day we saw him walk up the front steps of a house, unlock the door, go inside. It was his house, we realized. WG lives in a house. Not some rabbit hole or mysterious Brigadoon. Moreover – buckle up – the house is on the next block from ours. Walking Guy is a neighbor.  

Of course, confirming WG’s humanity and proximity did nothing but make this more of a mystery to me, and further convinced that there was something I need to learn from him.

Productive

On days that feel particularly overwhelming, the question that comes to quiet me is, “what if all I ever did was walk and write?” WG certainly certainly shimmers into the periphery of my thoughts in these moments. Sometimes he actually walks by.

I’ve always loved to walk, but it’s tended to be a don-spandex-and-march-up-the-hill endeavor, always following the same route. It’s a task, a goal, the point being to work off the calories consumed that day, or to earn (yes, earn!) a good night’s sleep. If I wasn’t walking with a friend, I’d have a podcast or audiobook shouting into my head, or getting a phone call in, or …

You know. I was being productive.

Since getting back on my feet after having surgery in June, I’ve had no choice but to stay close and walk slowly. At first it was just moseying to the end of the driveway with my elderly chihuahua, the two of us taking a full two minutes to shamble all of 30 yards. From there I began teetering cautiously around the block, not realizing just how hilly these ‘flats’ I supposedly live in still are. Nor did I realize how beautiful they are. How teeming with life and beauty and care, from the well-tended gardens to the awesome graffiti to the wild things growing up signposts and out of holes in water main covers.

Still, hanging over my gratitude for such a swift and steady recovery, for all that I’ve come to see and appreciate in my state of near-motionlessness, have been the threatening storm clouds of All I Must Get Back To once I’m fully well. Even as I amble, the steep hills loom symbolically, beckoning me to strike out for them just as soon as I can.

The project

To be clear, my life is not especially overfull. I’m not ambitious. I don’t neglect my relationships for the sake of achieving more professionally. I am naturally easygoing, and am at my best when things are simple and spacious. And against the backdrop of a world in dire need of saving and ambitious folks passionately committed to doing so, I’ve felt more than a little guilt over this.  

Hence my other priority: fixing myself. Most of my adult life has centered on self-development, which, in my current forced slowness, I have come to see as one big project to literally repair what is wrong with me. I’ve been endeavoring to transform myself into someone who leaps out of bed every morning, joyfully driven by some singular purpose, who has the stamina to juggle an impossible amount, to make everyone happy, who is lithe and strong and fierce and influential and makes a whole lot of dough.

That if I am not that, I am broken.

The project hasn’t been without its benefits. I have become inarguably more embodied, grounded, bolder. But it hasn’t really helped anyone. It’s been largely self-serving. A vanity project, really. An attempt to blend into the surround, in my case the San Francisco bay area, where everyone with the privilege and resources to do so is up to something huge and impressive.

I wonder how I might have come to this place more genuinely, joyfully, and whether I ever needed to crack a whip over my own back to become who I am today.

As with all such shifts in perspective, this one was fomented by a major event that has forced me to stop everything and simply watch as the false narrative crumbles like an apocalyptic cityscape. It’s been overwhelming, confusing, peppered with doubt. It is ongoing. The rebuild will take the time it takes. It’s also, I must keep reminding myself, happening smack in the middle of a life of astounding privilege. Nothing in this world is working against me… except me.

The next slow step

For now, I’m experimenting now with putting down the whip, seeing what growth can be if left to nature, wandering in the direction from which I hear life call. As I take my slow walks, I recall the question that has asked itself to me, persistently, for years: “what if all I ever did was walk and write?” I conjure Walking Guy and, when I do, I instantly feel the alignment that comes with being right where I’m supposed to be. Maybe that’s why WG’s space feels so impermeable. Integrity will do that. When we’re not fractured or seeking or hiding—when we are genuinely lined up with ourselves—it becomes very difficult for anything we don’t want in our space to barge in.

I’ll start adding things back in as it feels right to do so. For now, I write, I do writey things (like hang out with you fine people), I work, I eat, I sleep for a devilishly unearned 8 hours, and … I walk. Quite literally just put one foot in front of the other. I let my body tell me how fast, how far, and when it’s time to stop. I acknowledge the inner voices who still scream, may never stop screaming, “It’s not enough!” I give thanks for the privilege that allows me to live this way, and for the genuine joy and kindness with which I feel able to greet all who do approach—which feels far more healing for the world than throwing myself hard at life. I endeavor, simply, to do no harm.

And that feels like plenty for now.

WRITING PROMPT

What question, or person, or apparition, or symbol, has persisted for you? When you get really quiet, what is consistently there, pointing you back to yourself?

Set a timer for ten minutes and keep your pen moving in response to the prompt: “It was always right there.”

Postcard from a pixelated self

Here’s 10-minute free write I did a few days after a recent surgery, when I was still drug-hazy, largely inert, incisions still hidden under gauze. It’s a messy, staccato, close-in memory of the day: itself a fleeting moment compared to the span of time that has ensued. Kind of a postcard from where I’d been, written and sent to myself to retain the essence of what happened. I don’t know if I would remember any of this by now had I not scribbled it from within the fog.

Complications during the procedure left me with five incisions—which I’ve been gigglingly referring to as ‘stab wounds’—and a bladder injury. It’s all healing well and pain has been minimal. Still. Life these past weeks has been … surreal.

We usually don’t know what the biggest moments in our lives are til we’re long past them. We adapt and we forget. Which is why it can be important to write from inside those moments, to get down some notes, just in case. No matter how pixelated you are. No matter how much your body is hurting, or your heart. Write just for a couple of minutes. Just sentence fragments. It doesn’t have to be for anyone but you.

I wrote in response to a prompt from a deck of cards authored by Natalie Goldberg. I had no idea where I’d go with it. We never do when we write this way. That’s the point. That’s the beauty. 


“What did you bring—in your purse, on a trip, to a party, in your suitcase, in your book bag, in your car?”

ID, Kaiser card, form of payment. All in a little purse the size of a pants pocket. Phone just in case—lifeline. Nothing else. Wear no makeup, lotion, scents, they said. Not even chapstick (that may not have been a directive but I took the advice to rather an extreme).

PJ pants, green t-shirt, hoodie. The last time I’d walk swiftly and upright for weeks. Unencumbered, bouncy, nervous. “May I use the restroom?” A last nervous pee. The last – no, the penultimate – one that would go from my body directly into the toilet until the next calendar month. I brought a full bladder instead of a full purse. Travel light, pee heavy.

I brought my friends in spirit, my family’s love, my nerves. High blood pressure when they first took it.

“Are you stressing?” the nurse asked. She reminded me of my friend Christy. Put me at ease.

“I am a little nervous.” (A little?)

“We’ll let you settle. Check it later.”

In the meantime getting piled on by people bearing equipment, all kind, all meant to heal, to care. Those circular pieces of white tape slapped on my chest to monitor heart rate and who knows what else.  An IV, first to draw blood (she spilled some—is that normal?) then to push whatever was needed. Fluid, drugs, anesthesia.

“First you’ll get a drug that feels like a cocktail. It’ll make you feel good, relaxed.” The anesthetist was Ray. I remember it made me feel a little dizzy. My body felt no fear anymore but my mind still had questions. They were answered by darkness. A few hours of it felt like a few minutes to me.

Rising back to half consciousness with all the accessories gone – the shower cap, the monitors, the compression socks. My glasses were back on my face. Sea sick. Helped back into my clothes, the drawstring plastic bag that had held them now full of medical supplies we didn’t know we’d need. Alcohol wipes, extra tubes.

I was bringing home a catheter attached to a urine bag attached to my leg. I was bringing home a battery of meds to help me not feel anything. “Whoa,” said the recovery nurse when she saw the the pile of bottles.

I brought my uterus. I left without it.

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 astrology.com 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?  

Dear Muses

I found this today. It’s a piece I wrote in December 2014. The muses have answered, gently. It hasn’t been nearly as chaotic as I feared. In fact, it’s been great fun.

Dear Muses,

I’m stuck. You know this. You know because you’ve been knocking on the door, calling and getting a busy signal, sending registered letters that get returned. No such addressee. Return to sender. No solicitors. Go away. I’ve refused you. I continue to refuse you. Have you given up? Or have I gotten so wonderful at refusal I can’t hear the knocks, the rings; no longer see the letters dropped through the slot?

Is it fultile to contact you now? After all I’ve done to shut you out? Insulting you, disrespecting you? Judging you as too mischievous, too brazen, too dangerous to be in my life?

Because let’s face it. If I let you in you’d trash the place. Upend tables with trinkets placed just so, rip out pages of rule books, open the cages and let the birds fly free. You wouldn’t listen to me when I say stop, quiet down, you’re making a mess and upsetting the neighbors. You wouldn’t care that you were embarrassing me as you ripped open the heavy velvet curtains to reveal me, naked and uncertain. None of that is your concern. Your mission is to free me and you’ll do whatever it takes. No matter how thoroughly it disrupts my life. Your job is clear. You won’t stop til it’s done. You’ll ruin me if you must.

And still. And still. I’m tempted, drawn, seduced. I feel about you now like I never have. I’m so bored in this house, with its dark, neat rooms and silent order. I fear that if I swing open the door I’ll want to follow you out into the day, into the danger of the unknown, unprepared, fragile, sensitive to the light and the noise. I’ve become a shut-in, you see. A recluse. Set in my ways.

But I want to come with you, muses, because I see now it’s the only way you’ll be of any use to me. I can call to you but I must acknowledge your replies. When I send for you I need to expect that you’ll show up, like you have, again and again, only to have me respond by drawing the blinds, pulling the covers over my head and pretending to be asleep until you went away.

I hear you knocking, calling—god knows you’ve been writing—and all because I’ve asked you to. I’ve needed you to. Next time you knock, I hope I have courage enough to go to the door, peek through the hole, maybe even pull it open to the length of the chain. Submitting, eventually, to your ever-invitation to come out, come out and meet myself.

Please, muses, don’t give up on me.

The agony of conscious incompetence

I wrote this for my coaching school’s blog in 2011, the same year I started aikido. At the time I didn’t connect the two. (Hindsight can be a lovely thing.) Though the context is coaching, hopefully it’s clear how this applies to any practice.

I was recently introduced to a learning model that’s opened up a lot of space around my own development and my work with clients. It’s known as the four stages of competence, the stages themselves being: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is when our blind spots are still blind, and we’re blissfully ignorant of what we’re capable of growing into. (Or maybe it’s not so blissful, and that’s why we seek coaching.) Once introduced to the new possibility or skill we want to develop, we may begin vague cognitive understanding of it, but the rest of our system has no reference for it yet. We don’t yet know what we can’t do.

Conscious incompetence then ensues. This is the stage when we are aware of the thing that needs to shift but we haven’t yet shifted. It’s having the desire for change while feeling stuck being how we’ve always been. I’ll talk more about this in a second.

Conscious competence comes when we’ve gotten the hang of the new skill or quality, but it’s not yet second nature. For example, if we’re learning to drive a car, we still need to pay attention to which way we need to turn our ankle to reach the brake pedal, remind ourselves to check the rearview mirror, and largely ignore whomever is riding with us so that we can concentrate on what we’re doing.

But eventually, finally, blessedly, comes unconscious competence, when we’ve embodied the new skill and it starts to happen automatically. We’re cruising with the radio on full blast, with our attention on the scenery, on our companions, on our own inner life.

But let’s back up for a moment to that second stage, conscious incompetence. This phase can be pesky. Actually, it can be hell. To use the driving example, it’s the stage when your mother is sitting terrified in the passenger’s seat, digging her nails into the dashboard and pushing down on the nonexistent brake pedal with both feet, shrieking at you to not hit the squirrel. It’s rolling backwards down hills and bouncing off the side of the garage. It’s making mistake after mistake after mistake and thinking you’re never, ever going to get it.

Can you see how this applies to growth edges in self-development? You are invited into a new narrative that is possible for you, but which you have not yet embodied. It can be immensely frustrating to see a new way of being in front of you, understand and be inspired by the possibility of it, and yet still employ your old set of behaviors because it’s all your system knows to do.

I had a client who had always believed that he was the catalyst for everything that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. He didn’t think people would do things if he didn’t remind them. Once he realized it was possible to trust that the world could take care of itself, he began to taste the joy and freedom that comes with being able to let go. So he didn’t understand why, soon after he had this realization, he was still micromanaging his employees and doing the lion’s share of tasks at home. He became frustrated with himself and wondering why he was “sliding.” Which, of course, wasn’t the case at all. He was just learning.

When we encounter conscious incompetence, I think we have a choice. We could let our inner critic grab the mic and begin a running commentary on all the ways we’re utterly inadequate, for not being The Better Person We Know We Can Be, which invariably snowballs into greater self-loathing and a much slower progression toward the new way.

Or, we can remember what it was like to be a teenager learning to drive a car. We can observe toddlers learning to walk, falling on their little bums again and again and again. We can appreciate the how huge it is to be aware of something that wasn’t even in our consciousness until now. We can give ourselves permission to fall, and crash, and fail, and cry. We can surround ourselves with a support system of folks who will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us, forgive the messes we make, and remind us how far we’ve come.

And then finally, when we’ve reached that blissful state where we’re so used to our new way of being that we’re no longer aware of it, those same folks can remind us of the time when we thought it was impossible.

And this is the gift we have the privilege of giving our clients as well: letting them bounce off as many garage doors as they need to, and reassuring them that one day, they’ll be on cruise control.

None of our business

However life chooses us to be of service in it has absolutely nothing to do with us.

Calling is not a choice. It’s not what we think we like or prefer or have aptitude for. Our egos have plenty of ideas about what we’re supposed to be good at: what we excelled at in grade school, what is “marketable,” what will make the biggest splash, what we’d spend our days up to if we had a bazillion dollars and grillions of hours to devote.

Passion has nothing to do with what any of us came here to do. Desire: bupkus. Drive: meh. (Eek, sorry guys. I know these are the qualities most of us well-intentioned and productive westerners spend our lives cultivating, polishing, pining after. I think, unfortunately, they might be red herrings.)

It’s that gift part. It’s the calling part. It’s the quiet mystery. It’s the wonderful, insane, “how in the hizzizle did I end up here?” phases of our lives. Those are the times life is nudging us in the ribs, encouraging us forth to be of some actual use at this silly, short-lived party.

We know what’s ours to do, I think, when it’s something other than our own agency pulling us toward it. We know what’s ours to do, I believe, when we’re shocked that we’re doing it at all. We know what’s ours to do because it hovers above and around us in gentle, persistent presence. There might be resistance, drama on our part. We might ignore it or make ourselves sick willing it to go away. But it doesn’t.

I am conscious of two endeavors in my relatively brief, error-ridden life that have not gone away: writing and aikido. Ask me any time before 2011 if I saw myself as a martial artist and I would have snarfed red wine directly between your darling, delusional eyeballs. Ask me if I’m a writer and I would have until very, very recently given you my well crafted, overly prepared and rather arrogant line: “well yes, in a sense. Writing is my gift but it’s not my passion.”

I envied others’ pursuits, casting about for what I might do that was as beautiful and meaningful and powerful and exotic: why had I not devoted my life to being a landscape architect or an acupuncturist or a glass blower or a parent or a dancer?

All the while god chuckled, tears falling down its formless cheeks in knowing amusement.

Because in all my tortured searching, questioning, beseeching to be shown the path, it was right under my nose. When I finally looked down and saw I was walking the damn thing, I realized too that there had been no choice in the matter – it was never my call to make. It’s just what was. And as I’ve allowed these two strange yet inevitable bedfellows to turn toward each other, they’ve begun an almost effortless dance that has had rapid and surprising effect. In a way I am shocked. In another, it feels like nothing.

If an endeavor has swept you up in this way (fixing old cars, caring for your elderly parents, going on ten mile runs, channeling the dead, walking dogs, having coffee after coffee with burnt-out coworkers, taking improv classes, letting people stop you in the street and tell you about their lives … or, I don’t know, aikido) – even if you’ve only been up to it for a year or a month or a day – you might know what I mean.

If you’ve ever dug up a piece of garbage you wrote or painted a decade ago (right before you quit in despair and futility) and realized that, at the time, you were actually channeling the divine into a piece of fragile and fleeting beauty to live here on earth … perhaps you feel me.

Everyone else, keep looking. No doubt there’s something of this nature that’s whispering to you, waiting patiently to welcome you into its peculiar, irresistible lair.

What we find ourselves in the middle of—even if we’re busy ignoring it—might actually be the very thing that’s rippling out into the world in waves of goodness and truth. It might be as challenging as it is enjoyable. It might bring us to our knees in its name. Or it might feel like nothing special: it’s just who I am; it’s just what I do.

But it won’t release us from its embrace.

As with most things, reading this won’t connect anyone to their calling in a firework-burst of sudden comprehension. As with most things, we’ve got to find this out for ourselves in however much time it takes (and then forget and find out, forget and find out, again and again in the ever-widening spiral). As with most things, it will probably involve a struggle of some kind. But perhaps this can serve as a kind of a reminder-buoy for the times you find yourself lost, treading water.

The point, though, is this: if you’re fighting like hell to make your purpose known in the world (or to yourself), ease up for a moment. You likely don’t have to try so hard. Instead, ask to be guided there – to be shown what you need to see. With a soft, broad focus, let it come to you. Give yourself a break from the laser-focused search. It’s not your job anyway. It’s none of your business.

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