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Settling into the stillness

While I was a student at MIT I forgot how to be still.

I was so madly busy, so go-go-go that every time I came up for breath, I twitched restlessly, sure I must be missing or forgetting something.

I would go home for Christmas, and in the days that followed my arrival I was relentless. I fidgeted. I poked and prodded. I asked “What’s up?” over and over, helplessly, of anyone afflicted with my presence.

One year, in a fit of desperation I sat down to my mother’s piano (an instrument I do not play) and proceeded to teach myself Bach, one agonized note at a time. I played the same piece over and over and over for hours, for days until my fingers flew almost gracefully over the keys.

I played until every nerve in the house was frayed just like mine were and — in the moment when my sister finally yelled at me to stop — I thought that in their annoyance my family at last shared a trace of my pain.

This affliction was usually (thankfully) short-lived. Within a handful of days my anxiety dimmed from a pitched fervor to a disquieting buzz that settled in my bones and could be mistaken for “normal”. I could come to accept that for a few short weeks there might be nothing I needed to do — no imminent crisis that needed thwarting, no pending deadline I had somehow forgotten.

But I could not settle into stillness.

The first time I tried in earnest to meditate was the winter after I graduated with my Master’s degree.

I settled down on a cushion and dutifully crossed my legs. I set my timer for the recommended 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my breathing. I pressed “start” on my cell phone timer.

I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I was shifting again — my hand reaching instinctively to kill the timer as I rose to my feet and settled myself back at the computer.

Sitting in stillness with my thoughts was unbearable.

I tried again in the following days — setting my timer. I never made it the full 20 minutes, but sometimes I counted myself lucky to endure five as my thoughts raced in tight, anxious circles and I struggled to remember my breath.

I gave up eventually. I quit.

I decided meditation wasn’t for me; the way I’d decided it wasn’t at age 10 when I’d read about it in a book, sat down to try it out, and remained still for a (very patient) three minutes before deciding I must not be doing it right.

I guess I’d expected some kind of a mystical experience, but all I got was me — concentrated and intensified and uncomfortably near as I struggled to follow, not dictate, the rhythm of my breath.

But as we enter this particular winter — as we enter into the liminal space between winter’s first chill and the snowy onset of winter’s depths — I’ve noticed something in me has shifted.

No longer am I the girl who can’t sit still.

No longer am I the girl who found a 20 minute meditation stretched out like an infinite, bridgeless crevasse I was unable to cross.

No.

These days I find myself sitting in stillness more often than not, in vast stretches of empty hours spent on the bus to and from work or on airplanes as I criss-cross the country with the alacrity of a hockey puck.

I used to fill these spaces with noise, with words, with pages and pages of the books I voraciously consumed — stuffing my head to the brim with thoughts and ideas. But these days, more and more, I find I’d rather just sit down where I am and watch and breathe and contemplate the world as it slips silently by out my window.

On the eve of this particular winter I’m finding myself settling into a new and yet familiar stillness, settling into the moments of soft introspection as my attention draws inward even as the trees draw in their sap.

I find myself welcoming, not dreading, the impending cold that will keep me hunkered down. No longer does the threat of this seem anything other than delicious as I settle myself down for a kind of inward-turning hibernation.

I find myself feeling, for perhaps the first time since I arrived at MIT, like I’m incubating the seeds of something entirely new.

I find myself returning to the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I’m sinking myself into the stillness now, I’m waiting into the winter.

Because I do not yet feel ready for thought as I settle, ever more deeply, into the person I find I’m busy becoming.

What about you — who might you be becoming? Let me know in the comments.

 

I come back (a writer’s manifesto)

I come back to my words.

Over and over again, I come back to the smooth glide of pen on paper or the rhythmic caress of fingers against the keys of my keyboard, worn smooth and soft with use.

I come back to my writing because it brings me back into myself, back into the person I have always been, but who I sometimes forget myself to be.

I come back because the words bloom in my chest like petals unfurling in the flustered warmth of my unsteady heartbeat.

I come back to my writing because when I was a girl I used to take my journal and sit under a tree and when my pen touches paper today I can sometimes still feel the rasp of tree bark pricking into the skin of my back.

I come back because my words feel sun-soaked and luscious as they reverberate in my head and their warmth tingles as the thoughts race each other down my arms toward where a miracle of biology transmutes the stuff of dreams into ink, slowly drying on paper.

I come back to my writing because writing was always the thing I did for me. It was the way I chased away the ghosts on lonely October nights and the way I passed my lunch breaks in high school. My writing was the way I busied myself in my efforts to feel less alone.

I come back because the words guide me ever closer to that hopeful and dreaming person I once knew myself to be.

I come back to my writing because every time I put pen to paper — it pushes me a little bit farther back into me.

Lessons from a dead bird

The dead bird is flat as a pancake on the sidewalk. It looks small — just a baby, then — perhaps an adventurer tumbled inadvertently from the nest, or the shy quiet one forcibly defenestrated by an aggressive older brother.

What surprises me is the remarkable flatness of dead bird’s body. The bird has been compressed entirely into two dimensions and I imagine that if I peeled it up from the sidewalk it would feel in my hand not unlike a sheet of paper.

I don’t pick up the bird.

I cannot invent a good explanation for how the bird became so flat. I imagine the height a baby bird would need to fall from to become so perfectly flattened by the resulting splat — I cannot believe the trees overhead are tall enough — not even factoring in the possibility of softness in the growing bones of a baby bird.

Perhaps the bird has been run over. But how it would have found it’s way from the street to where it lies fused with the sidewalk, I cannot imagine.

The bird’s shape regards me mournfully, its feet curled up into its chest in a mockery of the way I myself have curled up on lonely nights — flattened by exhaustion and the weight of a world I struggle to endure.

Perhaps this baby bird is a metaphor. Squashed flat not by any specific force, but merely by the weight of life itself — a metaphor for my own worn and weary heart.

I pass the dead bird on many subsequent evenings, watch as it seems to melt slowly into the crannies of the cobbled sidewalk. I am the only person who seems to notice the bird, a tiny tragedy of blue feathers and grasping feet pressed helplessly into the paving stones below.

The bird does not decompose in the gross way that bodies usually do — becoming a nest of maggots and liquefying entrails. Due perhaps to its flatness, the bird has desiccated on the sidewalk and so it decomposes not unlike a sheet of paper, becoming dirtied and besmirched by the passing feet of passers by. It’s feathers melt away until it is little more than a skeleton pressed flat into the sidewalk.

And then one day it is gone.

One day it’s gone and when I walk by on my way home from work, I find I miss its steady presence — I miss the daily reminder to let life ache a little in the hollow cavern of my chest, to let the world feel sharp and painful for a bittersweet moment.

I miss the daily reminder to feel again, after so many years of choking numbness. In this small, helpless bird I have, at last, found a reason to ache in a way I could never justify aching for myself — for the ruin that seems to have crept into my own life as I plodded on, so utterly unaware.

I miss the daily reminder to mourn for the baby bird that wasn’t, for the living birds that invested so much to incubate a fragile egg and — more than that — I miss the reminder to mourn for the small tragedies that litter everyday life like the litter that lingers along sidewalks, tucked away in shrubs and nestled among tree roots on my walk to work each morning, or the litter strewn along the freeway that I pass by each day on the bus. I miss the reminder to mourn for the flowers that have melted away too soon, under the weight of a persistent downpour.

These days I am eager to mourn, because it is only from sorrow that we begin to imagine a better way, it is only by travelling through sorrow that we remember joy. And so, even as I mourn, I am beginning to dream. I dream dreams of sidewalks free of garbage and empty of dead baby birds.

And my only regret is the bird’s body vanished to dust before I could scrape it up from the sidewalk and give it burial befitting the gratitude I feel for having experienced its gentle reminder. A reminder served by fragile feet curled up helplessly against flattened bird belly and the triangulation of a beak pointed straight toward the heart.

 

Now it’s your turn! What has touched your heart lately? Let me know in the comments.

 

Heimat and homesickness

In German there is a word, Heimat, which rather famously doesn’t have any direct translation into English. Most commonly the word is translated as “home” or “homeland”, words which are respectively, too small and too large to encompass the feeling of Heimat.

Heimat is more than a home and less than a homeland. It is the spaces that made you, the places that live tenderly inside your heart, it is not one place but many places — places that somehow add up to something whole.

When I first learned the word Heimat in a German class during college it seemed to me a revelation. A word that I had been looking for ever since I had left my home and flown across the country to go to school at MIT. It was a word I hadn’t known I’d need until I had moved away from home and found myself unable to explain the way I missed my home: not so much with sadness, but almost viscerally — as though the rocks and trees themselves were a part of me that I’d left, planted in soft soil some 3,000 miles away.

I still feel that way. Even after living in Boston for almost seven years, the city has never felt like home. My Heimat is still a piece of Northern California roughly described by the boundaries of Humboldt County, a place that is indelibly etched on the ventricles of my heart.

I mention this because the weather in Boston has been remarkably reminiscent of home this past week and I’ve been feeling more than a little homesick (heimwehkrank) as I listened to the rain pouring down outside my bedroom window and remembered so many nights spent similarly as a child in my bed at home.

This week I thought I’d share a little something I wrote about it:

It’s raining in Boston — a grey, cold rain that reminds of Christmas in California even though today is the first day of June. The sound of the rain dances in my soul and I feel blessed and washed clean of the weariness and heartbreaks that have gathered in me since the moment I first boarded a plane, almost seven years ago now, and flew away from the rocky beaches and tall trees I call home.

I boarded that plane with my heart in my throat but with a miracle stretching out before me — an unfolding of possible futures that had felt limitless.

As I flew across the country and away from childhood, as I descended into adulthood, I felt at once impossibly small and still larger than life, tucked away in the confines of my seat.

Now, seven years later, I no longer feel the same swell of possibility that floated in me as my heart caught in my throat. Seven years later and I feel bone-weary and over-wrought in a way that leaves me wondering, more days than not, whether it is still possible to keep on going when I feel so very tired.

And the miracle is that I do.

Day after day. Year after year.

Each morning I march off into the dawn like the “good” girl I’ve always aspired to be.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I can feel in me an exhausted yearning for tall trees and rocky beaches. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I miss my home some days the way one might miss a lost tooth — as though there is a palpable emptiness inside me that I remain unable to fill.

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I long to go home. Someday.

On some not-so-distant future morning.

But not this morning. Because on this morning the rains have come to wash my weariness clean and I can almost imagine that the swish of cars driving by on soggy streets is the sound of spruce trees — swaying in the wind.

 

Now it’s your turn! What does Heimat mean to you?

 

Facing the fear of being seen

The thing about fear is it rises up in your throat until you’re choking on it and you think you might be about to puke. Suddenly your hand isn’t your own anymore as you feel your way into the words, taste them on the tip of your tongue, and then can’t quite bring yourself to put them down on the page.

Fear is the nagging voice in the back of your head that says you can’t say that and warns that they might not like you if they really know who you are. And because you got used to hiding at an early age, you think it’s safest if no one ever knows the real you.

After all, even you aren’t sure about that person you fear you might be.

The thing about fear is that it’s staying home when you want to go out and not offering help when you see someone who is lost on a street you know like the lines on the palm of your own hand and you’re tempted to say hey, where are you trying to go and maybe I could help?

But you don’t because that’s not the sort of thing that people do and no one asked you and everything feels easier if you turn aside and look away and above all you don’t make eye contact.

Because if you meet their eyes they’ll speak up after all and say hey, I’m looking for this place

And even though that’s exactly what you wanted to offer a moment ago, now you’re choking on the thought of how you’re in a rush and it’s so inconvenient to stop and you don’t know the area as well as you thought and you wouldn’t be of any help anyways.

And this is why you mustn’t make eye contact.

Dodging gazes — it’s been the way you’ve lived your life since you were small and you learned that teachers wouldn’t call on you in class if you didn’t make eye contact. You learned that you wouldn’t have to raise your trembling voice and worry what the other kids would think. That maybe you were showing off because you always knew the answers. Even though you weren’t and you didn’t want them to think that. (School was always easy for you — but people not so much and this is where you stopped make eye contact.)

But the thing about the fear is that you’ve finally come head-to-heart with the fact that fear is the only thing that’s still holding you back.

That it’s the lump in your throat that’s growing like a cancer until it eats at your voice, until time after time at the very last moment you’re forever turning your head aside and averting your eyes because this is what you do:

You never, ever make eye contact.

And what you’ve only just begun to realize is that eye contact is the beginning of everything — a solitary moment that says I’m here and I see you and look, you see me!

And that for just an instant we see eye to eye, two as one, separate and together — and together has always been larger than I.

Which is how I know that, no matter how frightened I am, it’s time to start making eye contact again.

It’s finally time to be seen.

 


What fears are holding you back?

It’s a question I’ve been bumping up against all over the place lately as I struggle to find a way to grow as both a writer and as a promoter of my writing. Because as much as we like to pretend it’s a dirty word, writing without some self-promotion is an awful lot like shouting into the void.

And the truth I keep running up against is that I’ve built my life around a pattern of hiding. It’s a pattern that began in school when I was the smart kid, the one who always had the right answers but didn’t have the right friends, the one who always stuck out in the crowd. The older I got the more different I felt and the more isolating it became. 

As a defensive maneuver, I retreated into myself and in doing so I initiated a pattern of hiding. Of hiding me, not from myself, but from everyone else.

It’s a pattern that still haunts me today, even as I’m struggling to be a writer and it’s a pattern that I now recognize is holding me back.

Which is why I’d like to ask:

What patterns or fears might be holding you back from achieving your dreams?