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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.

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?  

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?

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