"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Adventurer Soul

The last morning.
From the beginning the trip fed me surprises.

After an easy flight and a long wait I was finally being led to the shuttle that would take me from Phoenix to Flagstaff where I would catch another shuttle the next morning for Lee's Ferry. A man led a small group of us through the airport, away from the company's fleet, and out to the pickup area. There a small white shuttle sat with a familiar looking figure at the back helping someone load their luggage. Big Ed!

Big Ed, the Navajo driver who shuttled us to Lee's Ferry on the first trip, was going to be driving me the whole distance this time. Not me personally, although it certainly felt like that as I sat behind him and we chatted. He hadn't changed that I could see - the thin braid, the bandanna headband, the cheerful happy face. He asked where I was going and what my plans were. I told him and that I remembered him from before and I expected he would be driving me the next day. He confirmed that.

Toward the end of our trip to Flagstaff, Big Ed asked everyone where they wanted to be dropped. One women, sitting alone toward the back, said she was going to the Courtyard Marriott, which was my destination. I looked back and asked if she was headed for the Canyon. She was. At the next stop I went back and sat next to her.

There is no good explanation for what followed. So it can only be a miracle.

We went to dinner that night, traded stories, laughed, talked about the adventure ahead of us. She had questions. I had answers, and stories from my first trip. Shelly, short for Michelle. A California city girl. Young enough to be my daughter. Starting over at midlife after raising and teaching four children, now in their twenties. Tender heart. Adventurer soul. Courageous spirit.

We sat together on the shuttle to Lee's Ferry the next morning, chose gear next to each other, packed together and got in the raft together, talking the whole time. When we stopped for camp that first night, we decided to share a tent and a campsite. We rode together the next day. And so it went for the rest of the trip. An easy companionship that simply existed without either of us discussing or deciding. We took pride in our ability to pitch and break down our tent quickly and efficiently. We developed routines, again without actually deciding on them. People thought we were mother and daughter traveling together, and then shared in our state of wonder at our actual relationship.

At the end of the trip, after the long bumpy school bus ride from the river at Diamond Creek to the reservation at Peach Springs, we pulled into a lot where a now-familiar white shuttle waited to take us back to Flagstaff. There was Big Ed, standing with his big smile and bigger presence.  I was so happy to see him that I surprised us both by hugging him.

At the rest stop halfway to Flagstaff as Shelly and I were chatting outside the shuttle, Big Ed came up to us. He was holding the medicine bag I'd seen hanging from the rearview mirror of the shuttle. He said he'd been thinking of the two of us the whole time we'd been gone, wondering how we were doing. He wanted to share stones with us that held medicine, that he'd been given and carried in that bag. He told Shelly she had seemed so sad at the beginning, but that she looked different now. He reached into the small painted leather bag, and a small group of stones and crystals followed his hand out.

Shelly received hers first. A round polished stone of black and white. Beautiful and smooth and compelling. The veins of black creating pictures that changed with every glance. A stone of stories and hope and promise.

There was a stunning clear crystal in Big Ed's hand that my eye was drawn to, and I almost reached for it. But he handed me a completely different stone. This one looked very much like a small finger, reddish, slightly rough, rounded at one end, with a slight indentation at the other. It's hard to tell if it was shaped by man or the forces that shaped the Canyon we'd just left behind. It looks like it could have been a tool, or a bead that just needed a hole to complete. Or it could just be a small symmetrical miracle of weather and water.

Big Ed said we should carry the stones with us, and hold them when we needed to be reminded of the gifts of the Canyon.

At first I was disappointed. Shelly's stone seemed better, prettier. Big Ed's words were for her. He offered no special words of wisdom or insight for me. What message was I supposed to take from that?

The message is the mystery. I have a stone that is more question than answer. He didn't have words for me because this isn't the time for answers or outer wisdom. It's a time of deeper questions, inner wisdom. My stone reminds me that while there is a part of me always looking for the one answer to all the questions, true perfection is at its core imperfect.

Shelly and I rode together with the same shuttle company to the airport the next morning. No Big Ed this time, but he was there with us regardless. I expect he'll always be a part of our friendship, as he'll always be a significant part of my relationship with the Canyon and the River.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Great Unconformity



I won’t be in the Grand Canyon physically until next week, but most of the rest of me is already there.  As I pack, every item I put in my duffel reminds me of the first trip. While I work to get things ready here so I can leave feeling like I’ve left ducks in a row for Walt, I already feel his absence next to me in the raft. Every story I read about the Canyon and the Colorado puts me back there. I feel my whole being lighten whenever I’m given a chance to talk about how much I’ve fallen in love with that place. Memories from the first trip resurface as I look at pictures, reread my journal, remember the person who was in this place two years ago.

Big Ed was the Navajo driver who took us from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry. He informed us early on he was Navajo, not Hopi, which turns out to be an important distinction. His single braid, bandanna headband, and slightly accented speech were the first indication that I was leaving the world as I knew it behind. He told us the Colorado River changes people. He joked that the changes would run deeper than our sunburned faces and blistered feet and two-weeks-without-a-shower fragrance. I was eager to discover what the River and the Canyon had for me, how I would be different at Diamond Creek 13 days down river. I had hopes: a deeper understanding of God, my marriage revitalized, renewed energy to finish a career that was sucking the life from me.

As it turned out, I was able to retire just a year after that first trip – three years earlier than we’d originally planned. After two weeks in the Canyon with no demands other than simply being and enjoying my experience, I came home knowing deeply that I was not willing to lose any more time than I absolutely had to. Now, at the end of my first year of retirement, I know that was one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made. It’s an interesting symmetry, two Canyon trips bookending my last year of teaching and my first year of retirement.

While Walt and I left the Canyon feeling closer than we had in years, the day-to-day wiped that out pretty quickly. Both of us are at the beginning of old age, but each is traveling the road very differently. A friend provided the analogy of a bridge. I’m moving forward, eager to see what’s on the other side of the bridge in front of me. Walt seems uninterested in what’s across the bridge, and is content to stay where he is golfing and napping and watching television. While we decided together that I would do this trip solo, I worry about crossing one bridge too many. About losing sight of each other completely.

It seems like I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand God. The minute I thought I had an answer to a question about God, a new question would emerge and I would be left more confused than before. I grew up with a mom who used God as a weapon and taught that God hated liars. I went to churches where we were taught that following rules and Jesus made God happy. I joined a cult where I was taught that all the answers to all the questions were in the Bible. I had questions all along. Questions for which the answers always seemed weak or wrong. Questions that were taken as doubt and rebellion and answered with scripture that told me to believe and not question. The questions would not go away, so I asked them in different places. Buddhism offered sanctuary and a new way of seeing, being, thinking. I didn’t find answers there, but I did find new questions that left me feeling more alive and somehow on the right track.

I figured if I couldn’t find God in the Grand Canyon, I probably was never going to. Natural beauty, solitude, vulnerability – the perfect conditions for hearing the God voice. What I found was a realization that the mystery that is God, and the magnificence that is the Canyon, are both far beyond my human ability to corral and define and absorb with any level of complete understanding. The existence of one, the Canyon, seems to me to prove the existence of the other, God.

While we were in the Canyon, it felt like we were guests in God’s garden. Evidence of God’s presence was so palpable there was no way to deny it: the grand vistas, the falling trill of canyon wrens, the bright tropical blue of the Little Colorado. The rainbow that emerged over the canyon wall at dusk while we listened to the trip leader tell us stories. The full moon that lit our nights with the gentleness of candlelight, and the dark nights that revealed universes beyond comprehension. The River itself carrying us along like a sentient being whose purpose was to teach us how to be human, maybe more than human.

If I can’t really grasp the mystery and magnificence of either God or the Canyon, the next best thing is to spend time with them.

When I decided to go back, I didn’t really think about how I wanted to be changed this time. I wanted the feelings I had then. I wanted to experience the Canyon without the distraction of the anxiety inherent in any new adventure. I wanted to spend time in God’s garden, and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of his face this time.  I still want those things, but there is something else, too.

About halfway through the first trip we stopped at a place called Blacktail Canyon. At the back of the canyon there is an exposed place in the rock called the Great Unconformity. While this unconformity stretches through much of the Grand Canyon, in this place it’s low enough to touch. Geologically an unconformity is a place where there is missing time between layers of rock. The Great Unconformity spans over a billion years. In one of my favorite pictures from that trip, I’m standing with arms outstretched, hands on the canyon wall, a billion years unaccounted for in between. I’m grinning at the camera like that missing time makes sense. The truth is just the opposite. Like so much of the Canyon and floating the River, the vastness of it, the aliveness of it, the Great Unconformity is far too much to absorb.

The fact that no one has an answer for why a billion years are just not there leaves me both unsettled and almost giddy with the mystery of it.

One of my favorite things to do as we floated endless hours on smooth water under skies as moody as March was to ask questions of the guides. Most of those questions were of the “what’s that?” variety. Some were “who are you?” questions. Some were about the history of the Canyon. All of the questions had answers, and I found that satisfying, even as those answers triggered more questions. As I’ve prepared for this second trip, the company has sent a number of emails inviting me to ask them any questions I might have about the trip.

The logistical questions were all pretty much answered on the first trip. I’ve done as much research as is possible, and read every blog post the rafting company has written. The questions I have about who the guides and passengers are, I don’t want answers to until I can see for myself.

The most important questions I’m taking to the Canyon can’t be answered in an email. Certainly not by the employees of the rafting company. Maybe not at all.

I wonder what’s going to happen to my marriage as we seem to drift farther apart each day. I wonder what this next year of retirement will bring, and what might be the best next steps for me. I wonder how I can matter. I wonder what’s going to happen with my brother as he learns to live with Parkinson’s, and fades away from me like the last embers of a campfire. I wonder about my relationship with my other brothers as we all cope with the loss of our middle brother differently, and not always in a loving way.

I wonder how much time I have left. I wonder about dying and death and what, if anything, is on the other side.

The poet David Whyte says, “a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.

Soon I will make a second pilgrimage into God’s garden, his personal cathedral. I take my questions with me, tucked in my bag along with sunscreen and a map. Instead of looking for answers this time, I will release those questions, and search for new ones. Questions that will shape my end of days, my marriage, my relationship with my brothers. Questions that will reveal my true shape and calling and open my heart to all the uncertainties of life. Questions that will lead to more incomprehensible questions that will carry me home.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Facing Fear


I felt fear three times on the first trip to the Canyon. The kind of fear that comes from the brain stem and calls on all bodily resources to do what it takes to survive. Heart pounding, stomach clenching, and breathless. An inner voice screaming, “Run!!!”

The first time was the dream, or not, in which something crawled over my bare arm in the night. I tried to scream, but nothing would come out of my mouth. I woke up enough to look for what had to be a snake, but saw nothing. Weirdly, I went right back to sleep.

The second time was as we approached Lava Falls Rapids at mile 180, rated 8-10 on the Canyon’s 1-10 scale of difficulty. We had run 64 rapids in the days before, one of which, Crystal, is considered as difficult as Lava. All the runs were successful. No one ended up in the water, no one was hurt, and everyone had fun. We had scouted Lava: all the guides and passengers who wanted to hiked above the rapids to determine the best way to approach them. The guides were the most sober they’d been the whole trip. All the instructions we’d been given at the beginning of the trip about what to do if you ended up in the water were repeated. Our guide (nicknamed Turbo), a constant trickster in camp and always smiling, became serious. He asked us to be silent in the approach to the rapid so he could concentrate on finding the best line – the route that had the best chance of getting us through without crashing into rocks or being sucked into holes that would pull us to the bottom of the river. The roar of the rapids warned us to enter at our own peril.  Turbo shouted, “Hang on!” The raft crashed into house-high waves we couldn’t see until we were in them. At that point, there was no time or space for fear, and I released myself into the moment, screaming and shouting, along with everyone else in the raft.

The last time I felt fear in the Canyon involved jumping off a ten-foot cliff into the River. We were just a couple of days from our take-out at Diamond Creek, the end of the trip. I was feeling fully alive and fearless. Up to that point I’d hiked narrow ledges, climbed steep rocks, and was an old hand at hanging on through wild rapids. I was cavalier and even excited for the experience right up until the moment I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down. My body seemed to think I was standing at the top of a skyscraper and did everything in its power to make me walk away. Everyone else had gone once. There was a line behind me of people excited for their second turn. All but a couple of the two dozen passengers on this adventure were raring to hurl themselves off this cliff – again. I needed to decide, and quickly, so that I didn’t become the focus of well-meaning attention. The choice to do the trip in the first place was about facing fear. I knew I’d be sorry if I let fear dictate my actions this time. So I walked away from the edge, turned and ran toward it. And jumped. Screaming all the way to the River.

In the months, weeks, and then days leading up to that first trip I lived with more fear than I was willing to say out loud. It started with the Acknowledgement of Risk form we had to sign. I made fun of the language while at the same time wondering if I was up to so much risk at age 62. Trauma. Mental anguish. Impaired health. Injured. Death. Hypothermia. Heat stroke. Snakes, scorpions, fire ants. All were subtly downplayed. All were mentioned, I assumed, because at some time someone had experienced them. One of the books I read prior to that trip was about all the deaths that had occurred in the Grand Canyon, including deaths on the River. Oddly, that was reassuring. Most Canyon deaths in modern times involved alcohol and stupidity, neither of which were going to be factors for me. Still, what if my aging and moderately out of shape body wasn’t up to the challenge?

Not really trusting the list provided by the company, I was afraid of not being adequately prepared. I read and reread the list, scoured the company website and blog, studied pictures for clues. I worried about privacy, going to the bathroom, and living with complete strangers for two weeks. What if Walt and I didn’t get along? What if my new hip couldn’t handle the rigor? What if, what if, what if. I countered the fear voices with lists, and piles of gear, and reading everything I could get my hands on.

Ultimately, the anticipation of the absolute magic of what we were about to embark on won out. The minute our raft floated away from shore into the River, facing downstream in the hot June sun, all fear disappeared completely.

I didn’t even read the Acknowledgement of Risk form for this next trip until today. Walt typed my name at the bottom and sent it in last February. All the things I worried about before the first trip either happened and were handled, or didn’t happen. All the things that I didn’t worry about, and would have if I’d known, happened and were handled, and did nothing to diminish the joy of the trip.

It seems like I should be afraid, maybe just a little, as I prepare to experience the Colorado River for the second time. I do get little niggles of something gut-squeezing when I consider the ants and the scorpions and the rapids. I got lucky the first time. The more often a person goes through the Canyon, the more likely they’ll experience more of the less pleasant aspects. And this time I’m going alone. Without Walt to rely on or turn to or talk to, I’ll be on my own to solve problems and face the world in all its messy glory.

Passengers can be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through some of these rapids . . . . It is also possible that some participants would suffer mental anguish or trauma from the experience of being thrown about in the rapids.

When I read that statement from the Acknowledgement of Risk form today, my mind went immediately to my brother. My middle brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in March. Our journey with him in his physical and mental decline, much more rapid than any of us were prepared for, has been much like riding the rapids of the Colorado River. Fear sneaks up on me in the nether hours of the night when sleep should be healing me. It slithers across my arm, leaving me breathless. While I was relieved at first to have an answer to puzzling behaviors that emerged over the last couple of years, now I’d rather not make the journey through these particular rapids. Rapids that no amount of scouting will really help me travel through without a fair amount of mental anguish. I’ll think I’m getting used to this new normal, and then my brother does something uncharacteristically thoughtless. Evidence that he can no longer manage his life overwhelms hope that medication will buy him time. I look over the cliff into the unknowns of where this disease and his response to it will take us and I want to turn and run the other way.

I wonder what I’m afraid of with my brother. Snakes and cliffs and rapids all threaten physical harm. Those fears are rational, or at least have roots in something concrete. My brother’s decline will not harm me physically. The loss of him as I’ve come to know him in the last few years does not threaten my life. His is not my first major loss. But it is unique. He’s my brother. He’s still here and likely will be for some time. But all that makes him essentially him, all that our current relationship is built on, is slowly disappearing with each new cell-death at the center of his brain. So the grieving is unfamiliar. And the unfamiliar is fertile ground for fear. There is no amount of reading or information gathering that will ease the pain or smooth the journey. My newly acquired expertise in Parkinson’s Disease does nothing to soothe me or ease the fear of the huge unknown at the edge of this cliff.

What can I do except what I’ve chosen to do every time fear tells me I can’t. I do exactly the opposite of what it says. And so with my beloved brother, whom I hardly know any more, I walk away. I turn. I run full tilt and launch myself into the air. Screaming all the way, but airborne and committed and refusing to be dictated to by fear.

It may be part of the power of a River experience through the Canyon. There’s no way to get through it or life without being shaken about and suffering in some form. Living with my brother’s decline and the loss of relationship that brings is the latest rapids I’m finding my way through. I had decided that I didn’t need to jump off the cliff on this second trip on the Colorado. I didn’t want to experience the stomach-lurching, heart-freezing, run-like-hell feeling again. I might change my mind. Perhaps experiencing that real challenge of fear will give me the strength I need to continue launching myself into each new unknown as it presents itself with my brother’s illness.

When I head south in six weeks, I will travel with the sadness of the losses that accumulate daily. I will search for wisdom in the River and the billion year old rocks and the song of the canyon wren. I will seek peace under the blanket of the Milky Way. I will surrender myself, and my fears, to the heat and the beauty and the flow.



Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tremor of Love

Birthday, 2011 - Frank, Deb, Mark, Geoff

As with so many things in life, it's hard to identify exactly where things started to change. Hindsight is providing many clues that seem like they should have carried more importance. It's not like they were ignored, the little shifts from what had been normal. It's more like they were absorbed as part of aging and a life slightly off the rails.

The tremor in his arm became the turning point. A tremor he denied even as he was holding his arm to keep it still. That got people's attention in a way the many more subtle behavioral changes did not.

My brother, Mark, has Parkinson's Disease. He was diagnosed two weeks before his 60th birthday on April 6. That news created a whole new tremor, one that continues to ripple through both the family and each one of us individually as we adjust to a much-altered future.

Previous to Mark's March diagnosis, I could have brought little to a conversation about Parkinson's. Our paternal grandfather had it, but we were young enough when he died that Parkinson's was a disease old people got and had nothing to do with us. Michael J. Fox brought a younger more hopeful face to the disease. L-dopa I knew I bit about just from general reading. That was it.

I know much more now. Each answer I've found leaves in its wake a dozen new questions.

At first the diagnosis was a relief. An explanation for changes in my brother that were distressing and confusing to his siblings if not to him. He has maintained such an emotional and mental distance from the changes that he seems able to believe they don't exist.

The changes. So subtle at first. Cells dying in the center of his brain, parts of my little brother blinking out with each tiny death.

He grew quieter and quieter, and it was harder and harder to draw him out. He stopped smiling and joking. He'd stare into space, or stare at a face, with no emotion or expression. His grooming grew sloppy. His handwriting grew illegible. The house he was so proud of started to look like a hoarder who'd lost control lived there. The antique business he'd worked so hard to create, a life dream, slowly fell apart from lack of attention.

The weirdnesses started to accumulate to the point it was clear something was wrong. We thought depression. There was plenty of reason: losing his job, loneliness, a death that knocked his pins out from under. He swore he was not depressed. He said he was fine.

And then there was that tremor. And a diagnosis. And medication. And hope.

An answer to the question, and solutions offered.

Mark is the middle child of four. I'm the oldest, the only girl, and do not share the same father as my brothers. Our two brothers book-end him both chronologically and in their personalities. That we are close in adulthood is something of a miracle. A lot of that closeness is because of Mark.

Nearly ten years ago, he was released from prison, an experience he's written about at length. He went in angry and judgmental and disconnected from us all. He came out loving and wanting relationship, saying that was the most important thing. "We know God through our relationships with people." And he acted on that.

Mark's love became the glue that bound our family - four siblings with not-always-positive history, who loved each other, but whose lives had taken very different directions. He sang in his church choir and we would go to the holiday performances to support him. He organized brothers and my husband into a team for an annual charity golf tournament that I tagged along on. We became Team Lyons and a fixture at the tournament. He invited both brothers and their wives to surprise me for a birthday dinner one year, the first time we'd all sat at a table together for years. That birthday dinner celebration has become a tradition, and the best gift I receive year after year.

Before the diagnosis, as we watched Mark fade away, it seemed that all might be lost. With the diagnosis I felt a surge of hope that while things would be challenging, the essential Mark might be returned to us. I was ready to fight. So were our brothers. Mark's response was the opposite.

He took his medication and went to physical therapy. But he did not find a way to exercise, the one thing he was told provided the best chance of slowing the progression of the disease. For a time everything got worse: grooming, communication, attention. He stopped answering texts and his phone. His contribution to conversations was flat and one word at a time. The only thing that improved was the tremor in his arm, which grew quieter. He continued to insist he was fine.

Last weekend, younger brother and his wife, Mark's best friend, and I spent a day helping Mark in his yard and house. Despite the reason for our presence, it was a good day. Five of us working together, chatting in the spring sunshine, restoring beauty and order. SIL brought food so we ended the day on Mark's deck eating sub sandwiches and a homemade pie. We talked. To Mark. He said little. Blunt truth was spoken with as much love as possible. Mark needed to step up or he would lose everything sooner rather than later. If he wanted a voice, he needed to speak. We wanted to be there to support him, but could only do that if he told us how. When asked if he wanted to say anything, his only response was, "I love you."

We meet again on Sunday. This time all siblings will be present, and his best friend. Mark promised to come up with a plan for what he wants to happen, and how that might be put into action. I anticipate it will be a hard conversation. The other two brothers, who love Mark fiercely, have very different ideas about what helping him looks like. Decisions will need to be made about POA and medical POA and finances and estate planning - at the very least, that conversation needs to be started.

A tremor of hope shivers once more. I've talked to Mark twice this week. He said he's got his plan. He went to a support group meeting (and called to tell me). I've talked to both of our other brothers. We've all continued to inform ourselves about this disease that will ultimately take Mark from us. We're all committed to doing whatever we can to keep him as long as we can, and to help him walk this new path with as much independence and dignity as possible.

There is tension and fear and disagreement among us. There are family dynamics that threaten to overwhelm. There is Mark, trying to keep as much distance between himself and this hard hard truth as possible. And there is love. We, four siblings whose history could easily have broken their ties forever, end every conversation with, "I love you." That won't be enough to cure Mark's Parkinson's,  or to stop the losses, or to prevent the grieving that's already begun. But it is the only glue that has the power keep us together though what's to come.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ready


This first year of retirement is almost over. The school year for Walt is being counted down in weeks. Summer plans are bubbling on the back burner. And for more moments than could be considered random, I've begun to feel a gentle pressure. I am happier than I've ever been. Life is full of choices and travel and love. The one thing I haven't honored in the way I expected is my writing, and my writer self has begun to nudge against my heart with ever increasing impatience.

Finally, almost too late to complete the application process, I decided to pursue a training that would make not-writing impossible, and open new doors for guiding other writers. Ready to take a step, but without commitment to any need beyond my own.

On paper the week looked loaded with potential for powerful magic, great learning, and adventure. A Franciscan retreat center in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific sounded like an ideal place for learning how to lead others in a method of writing based on gentleness, kindness and a firm belief that everyone has value. Practices rooted in the belief that everyone is creative and has a voice that deserves to be heard.

The weather forecast offered brisk beach weather, with mostly sun. The list of participants, seven of us in all, included women from Ireland, the east coast and all over California. The instructors came with a strong list of credentials. I was ready for this new challenge after months of take-it-easy retirement.

I arrived at Serra Retreat in a flurry of stress and anxiety. Issues with the shuttle bringing me from the airport and L.A. traffic and a surly guard at the gate conspired to deliver me at the top of the hill 15 minutes after the training was supposed to start. I don't do late, especially for something that felt as important as this. Once I set foot on the grounds, however, everything heavy and pointy fell away. I was greeted by our lead teacher with all the warmth and ease of a friend not seen for much too long.

In another flurry, this time getting a key, settling into my room, and finding my way to the space that would be home for the next five days, I released my fear and the events of the morning, and settled in.

Our classroom was originally a garage for the family who owned the place before the Franciscans bought it decades ago. A garage covered inside with gorgeous tiles worth a small fortune and imbuing the space with an earthy warmth that held us all as we opened our minds and hearts and souls to the learning we were there to receive. When I walked into the space for the first time, other women were seated in the circle that very quickly became sacred space. We greeted each other as though we'd known each other for a very long time. There was never a moment of unease or uncertainty or posturing for position. Our love of AWA, and our desire to be messengers of the method, were enough foundation for easily granted trust and a willingness to be vulnerable quickly.

During the next few days, the on-paper potential was realized and exceeded beyond all expectation.  The method of writing that had brought us together was applied to life with incredible success. Kindness, clarity, common sense, creativity, communication - all took on much deeper meaning as I watched them modeled again and again.The inevitable problems and challenges (a snoring roommate, a participant with an alternate agenda, fatigue) were solved in ways that only added to the learning and the laughter and the bonding.

And oh how we laughed. Great swooping belly laughs. Soft girly giggles. Bursts of joy and delight that left us all feeling lighter.

We talked and listened and wrote. We shared and read and listened some more. We asked questions and brainstormed and shared some more. We wrote and shared and offered feedback, marveling that our writing was so powerful, so clearly from our deepest places. We took turns leading groups and writing and receiving feedback. We learned from each other. We held safe space for each other as we took our first tentative steps into new territory. We fell in love with each other.

There were so many bits of miracle throughout the week, I was left with no doubt that this time was a gift of extraordinary value.

Serra Retreat can host more than a hundred people at a time. We were the only group there for most of the week, and never had to share with more than a half dozen others at a time. That meant we had the beautiful grounds to ourselves for morning strolls to the point overlooking the Pacific, or walking the labyrinth in the shade of giant eucalyptus trees, or sitting quietly on a bench surrounded by the fragrance of pink roses and the multi-versed song of a mockingbird. My first mockingbird experience. The complex and joyous music coming from the throat of that simple gray bird was a wonder to behold. A perfect soundtrack for the week.

The weather got more beautiful as the week progressed. While cool, our wanderings were sun-kissed. By Wednesday, we would pour from the building during breaks and find places to bask like the many lizards we shared the grounds with.

Because our group was small and our teachers wise, we had time two afternoons for trips to the beach. We walked the warm California sand in bare feet, marveled at pelicans diving pell mell into the waves, admired the skill and sleek seal bodies of surfers. There were long spaces of comfortable silence, and long girl conversations about everything and nothing.

The parting at the end of the week was bittersweet. I was full to overflowing, ready to be home and sleep in my own bed. I also didn't want to leave ever, and missed my new friends even as I was saying goodbye to them. I traveled home with a pretty piece of paper that certifies me to lead writing groups in the AWA method. I can call myself an affiliate. And as is always the case with an intense experience like this, I am changed in ways that I expect will continue to reveal themselves in the months to come.

In these first days back I continue to feel the Southern California sun on my skin, to smell the roses and the ocean. I hear the voices and see the faces of each of the women who became my sisters for that week. Ideas fill the air around me like the squawking and tropical flashes of green that the parrots of Malibu punctuated our days with. The mockingbird's song echoes still, a reminder of joy and full-throated expression of the voice he was born to share. A reminder that my voice matters. A reminder that no one is ever served when any voice is silenced.

I am ready. For exactly what, I'm not sure yet. But I'm ready.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Congregation




We arrived at Christmas Eve service late. The seats we found were in the back of the large church under an overhang, and because the service was so full, the five of us shared four chairs. The man directly in front of me was huge, so I spent the hour shifting constantly to see around him.

I usually love this service. Singing carols from my childhood on Christmas Eve, sitting with family, I feel loved and connected to the divine energy that I've called God most of my life. It's how we've started our Christmas together for the last several years and I find myself looking forward to that time as much as the food and the gifts and the games we play.

I have become an Easter and Christmas church-goer. I go with my brothers to their churches. One church, the Easter church,  is friendly and warm and the music is uplifting and glorious. The pastor tells stories that make me laugh and cry, often at the same time. And while I don't agree with all that's said, I feel love in that congregation, from the front and all around.

The other church, the Christmas church, is more formal and I feel surrounded by strangers who are also surrounded by strangers. Usually I don't mind because it's about the singing and the candles and my family.

This year things did not feel the same, and it was only partly because of the physical discomfort. We didn't get to sing as much. I was working against claustrophobia. And the sermon was long and full of threats of hell and a pedantic teaching bent on proving the reality of Mary's virginity. Three times the pastor said, "and in closing" before actually ending. There was no sense of hope or revealing of light. There was no offering of love. There were no stories.

When the pastor ran out of words and we lit the traditional candles, I felt a divine presence for the first time that evening. My youngest brother, our host, received a flame from the usher. His wife lit her candle from his. My husband lit his from hers. I lit my candle from my husband's. My middle brother lit his candle from mine, and then passed the flame on. By that time the church was full of stars, each one representing the hopes, dreams, and divinity of each person in the room. We sang together, carols as familiar and comforting as the family surrounding me. At the end everyone lifted their candles up, the stars ascending to a heaven that was this congregation of people acting in one accord for those few moments. That time was far too short for me. I wanted to stand in the twinkling light of those candles, and the congregation of common focus, for so much longer.

On the way home, my sister-in-law asked if we'd heard of the Bothell crows. She talked about a phenomenon of crows gathering each evening at the University of Washington campus in Bothell where there is a mitigation wetlands. She told us thousands of crows come in from the surrounding countryside. It seemed a worthwhile thing to see.

The next afternoon on the early edge of dusk, while SIL put the finishing touches on our Christmas dinner, five of us headed for town. Youngest brother drove, middle brother in the front seat with him. I sat in the back, in the middle, between husband and niece's fiance. Right away we saw trees full of crows, hundreds of them maybe. When we got to downtown Bothell, there was an apartment building covered in crows, all cawing and calling to each other. We could see more arriving from the distance, and as we watched and listened, we talked about the movie, The Birds. We wondered how it might be to live in that place and to be in the midst of that invasion every evening.

I thought that was it. Youngest brother said there were usually more than we were seeing, but I thought we were going back. I'd forgotten how stubborn my little brother is, and we continued to drive around. And around. And around. For long stretches we saw no crows at all. Or we saw clumps of them in the sky far away.

Just as it was on the edge of full dark, we pulled into the cemetery. The scene was movie perfect: The air was full of black shadows shifting here and there, like giant leaves being blown by a giant wind. Giant leaves that settled back into the waiting skeletal arms of winter trees. The ground was covered with crows, as were the headstones. The sound of those multitudes of crows was both chilling and awe-inspiring at the same time.

As we pulled away from the cemetery we could see crows in the sky arriving from every direction. We continued to drive around while the sky around us thickened with crows. We were on campus, heading up a hill, crows swirling and wheeling and calling all around us. Youngest brother pulled into a lot at my request. We marveled at a roof covered in crows arranged so symmetrically that it looked like each crow was honoring the personal space of each of his neighbors.

I got out of the car. For a short time I was alone outside at late dusk on Christmas night with hundreds of thousands of crows for company. The few sitting in the bushes closest to where we parked shifted to more distant branches. Otherwise there was no change. My presence had no impact. I wasn't afraid, or even nervous. Apparently, neither were the crows. Alert for danger, but sensing none. Only feeling a huge sense of wonder at the privilege of standing in the midst of this amazing congregation of corvids.

Eventually the guys joined me, one at a time, and I was glad for the human company. Marvel and wonder are much magnified when you have someone to share them with.   I didn't want to leave, but dinner waited at home, and pie and dominoes.

A little research revealed that this phenomenon, while larger than many, is not unusual. Crows gather at roosting time in part for the protection of each others' company. They sit together in trees, in a hierarchical arrangement. Anything disturbing the branches alerts everyone in the tree. Crows are smart. They have a culture. They use tools. They take care of each other. They play. So their choosing the safety of congregation seems to be more than just instinct.

As we drove home from the holiday, I thought about the two congregations: the church and the crows. I am able to experience wonder in both, but I definitely felt more alive and connected and open in the midst of the crows. I wanted to go back and spend more time with them - want to go back and watch them depart at dawn.

Traditional church feels heavy, oppressive, full of rules impossible to follow and contradictions so hard to reconcile. I've spent a lifetime trying to find the right church, trying to find a congregation to fit in with, trying to find a sweet spot of spirituality that feels like home. But when I pay attention to when I feel most connected to the divine energy that is love and grace, it isn't in church.

Walt and I went to yoga on New Year's Day. This was a special class done to music: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. In a regular class there are anywhere from 8 to 20 students, depending on the day. There were nearly 60 people in the room on this day. We were set up with no more than an inch or two between mats. Many had never done yoga before, and many people were there with their kids. Several times during class giggles were heard from the back of the room. Because we were so crammed in, there was a lot of accidental bumping into each other which resulted in smiles and reassuring pats.

Several times during the class, when we were all in a posture together, regardless of how deep, it seemed we all breathed the same breath at the same time. As with my brothers' churches, I don't know many of the people who practiced in that class on New Year's Day. It didn't seem to matter. We breathed together, moved together, laughed together. While not religious or even officially spiritual, that gathering was a congregation that felt like home to me.

I keep thinking I need to find a church. That need is a leftover one from my childhood, my years in the cult, and pressure from my brothers. Maybe this is the year that I find church in whatever congregation of living things that evokes wonder and love. Maybe it is time to accept my own soul's longings as real and enough. Maybe it's time to listen to the rustle of wings and breathings of hearts that tell me without doubt I'm not alone.


Image from www.cascadia.edu

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Break in the Clouds


I walked out of yoga last Monday into a damp gray morning that was only slightly lighter than when I'd gone in at 6:00 A.M. One of the teachers has said she likes to watch us leave the studio on these early winter mornings because steam rises from us as we move into the day. This particular class left me not only steaming, but sore and frustrated.

Three months of four-days-a-week practice has resulted in some pretty big changes. None that show on the outside necessarily, but I'm occupying my body very differently these days. It doesn't hurt to stand after sitting for a while. The chronic hip flexor pain I've dealt with in the three years since my hip replacement has improved dramatically. And when I bend over to pick something up, nothing hurts.

Some postures are much easier than they were all those weeks ago. Some I still can't do the full expression of. Most classes, I focus on my breathing and the form of the postures and don't worry about how far I get into them. When I get farther that I did the week before, it's a lovely surprise. As long as I don't expect my body to do more than it can, all's well.

Last week there were two classes in a row where amazing things happened. I did camel twice, the second time actually seeing the floor under me. I did the sit-ups with no pain at all. I was able to grab the sides of my feet for the forward bending posture where before I was lucky to reach the floor in front of me. It felt like I'd moved into new territory, was practicing from a new normal.

I walked into class Monday feeling like I do for most classes, nothing out of the ordinary, only maybe a little more eager because of last week's successes. The temperature in the studio was not overly warm (meaning it stayed around 105) and the humidity didn't seem oppressive. As is usually the case for the early morning classes, the atmosphere was serious and focused, calm and rhythmic.

From the beginning, however, I was stiffer than normal for me. I had to keep coming back to my breath because assuming my body would go back to where it had been two days before wasn't working. I fell out of postures I hadn't fallen out of for a long time. I started to get frustrated, and I could feel tears gathering in my chest, working their way up my throat. I was so glad when the standing series ended and we moved to the floor. As we settled into savasana the teacher said, as she often does, "Let the ground hold your weight." On this day the relief of that almost brought the tears all the way to the surface.

When we got to camel, the posture that is known as the emotional pose, I considered not even getting out of savasana. But I did a partial sit-up (those weren't working at all) and got to my knees for the set-up. I put my hands on my hips, breathed in and tipped my head back. And that's where I stayed. I was dizzy and my back hurt and my left leg wanted to cramp. When the teacher called us into savasana, I was already sitting on my knees in anticipation. Often, the second time (most of the postures are done twice) is easier. That was not the case for me on Monday. I got my head back, but didn't even try to reach my heels. I considered it a victory that the tears stayed inside.

When I finally walked toward my car after class, my mood matched the dark gray morning. The shame voice was ramping up, going from subtle to all-inclusive at the speed of light: All that time and work and you still suck. Is this really how you want to spend your retirement? And while we're on the subject of retirement, weren't you going to focus on your writing? What a joke.

I wasn't laughing. And I was trying hard not to listen. But it was hard, as it always seems to be with shame.

I had just put my sweaty pad in the trunk when something caught my eye. I looked up to see a break in the clouds where gold shone through. It was the first time in days that I'd seen anything but gray. That opening got larger as I drove home. Pink softened the gold and brightened into blue by the time I hit the freeway. The sky was still more gray than anything. My body was still sore. I was still discouraged. But I held that bit of light and color as a gift, and it was enough to sent shame scurrying back into the shadows.

Wednesday's class was easier. I got into camel both times. I was able to make breathing the priority, to return to my breath when the voice tried to get me to force my body into places it's not ready for yet. Places it may never be ready for.

Three months ago I made a commitment to myself to go to yoga regardless of how I feel, and regardless of how fast I see results. It's the one bit of structure I've imposed on this new retired life, the perfect amount. It may be time to add one other commitment to the mix. One, like yoga, that may not show much on the outside, but that will make worlds of difference for me on the inside. Like yoga, showing up consistently for this new commitment is how success needs to be measured. Just showing up with sincere intention, believing the light will find a way through.