"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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Core Strength

At the end of the standing series is a pose called Tree. Balanced on one leg, the other held in place at the top of the thigh, one hand (both someday) at the chest in anjali mudra.

As with all the poses, the list of directions is long and involves every part of mind and body. Lately I'm hearing one above all the others.

"Find your core."

I hear this most often for Tree Pose, and for the other balancing poses, the poses that consistently provide the biggest challenge for me. When it works, I really like being in Tree. We're told to imagine being a tree, and I can. Tall and strong, forming a perfect rectangle with shoulders and hips, my head is pulled to the sky by an unseen sun, my standing foot rooted into the ground.

"Find your core."

I imagine my tree self as something that seems solid, but is in fact fluid and dynamic. Rings of experience rippling out from a center that never changes. I find my breath, focus on my forehead, and for seconds at a time, everything else falls away. I am my core. Confident, unwavering, ageless.

On a good day, I relax in that space until the teacher directs us to change. On a more average day I fall out, or sweat stings my eyes, or I happen to notice a better tree in the person next to me. And my frustration at the obstacles all but guarantees I won't be accessing the unchanging eternity of tree for that session.

"Find your core."

What's different now than it was six months ago is that I know the core is there, whether I find my way to it on a given day or not. The core of me: the place where spirit and body intersect, the place where I'm both uniquely me and universally human, the place where unshakable love resides. The many layers radiating out from that center are my experience, but they are not me.

I look forward to the day when I know my core as intimately as I know the rings surrounding it.

Photo from Flickr

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Changing Sky

As I took my sunset walk last night, the fourth and last of this beach retreat, the evening sky was a glory of gray and black texture against the palest possible hint of blue. There was not one hint of the vivid palette of color that had splashed the sky the previous nights.

A fat half moon glowing directly overhead provided the only celestial light. The sun, who had been my constant companion during my time here, managed to slip secretly behind the western horizon without saying goodbye, hidden behind drapes of tapestried felt.

I didn't mind. Was ready for the change. The day had sent warnings. The afternoon sky was embellished with soft brush strokes of lavender gray over a translucent haze of lamb white.

I've found myself drawn to the dune grass during my wanderings. As far as the eye can see, lithe tawny arms dancing away from the wind. As strikingly and hauntingly beautiful as death can be. The green of new life is already beginning to push up from the roots, but only revealed to eyes cast earthward.

The night before, I'd watched a man set up his camera toward the sunset so the picture would be framed by dune grass.

I wonder if we humans need the anchor of earthly elements to feel at home, and safe. The endless sky here, especially with the unseasonable sunshine, has the power to lift a heart heavenward, but for now at least the soul is not allowed to follow. There is work yet to be done. And so we ground ourselves by gazing longingly into eternity through spires of grass that remind us of our mortality.

The sound of raindrops playing on metal gutters woke me up this morning. While it's still too dark to see, I know the morning sky is low and protective like the underside of a giant wing. It's time to go home.

Like the beach sky, I feel transformed, although I can't quite say how yet. The new telling of my story is 20,000 words longer than it was when I arrived. I've spent three full days in my own company, listening only to my inner voice and the voice of the wind. The anxiety that is my constant companion is still, perhaps consoled by freshly revealed truths.

On my second day here, the wind told me this, "You can never start over, you can only go forward." And so forward I go, toward home and a new adventure just beginning to green at the roots.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beach Blessing

"I'm sorry. Your room's not quite ready. It might be another hour before it is."

It's five, an hour after check-in time. I've just driven three hours and I'm ready to settle in. Room not ready is not acceptable.

The girl over-smiling at me from across the counter is probably not legal to drink. She's adorable with her long curly hair, big-eyed sincerity, and party girl earrings. I'm tired and irritated and not willing to be diverted by her alternatives.

"I'll call you on your cell phone when the room is ready. Have you eaten dinner yet? There are some great places close by."

"I don't use my cell phone, and I brought my food with me. I'm here to work and I really need to be in my room. What can you do to make that happen?"

"Oh we have a business center. You can work there while you wait. Did I ask you if you'd had dinner yet? Those are cute earrings. I really like dragonflies."

And so it went.

There were four adult women standing around behind my still-smiling friend during this exchange yesterday. When it became clear I wasn't going away, one of them offered to go see what she could do. Another came up to the counter and said, "That's the boss woman. She'll take care of you. If this were happening to me, I'd stand up on the counter and get loud until someone got me what I wanted."

I wondered why they were letting the youngest one of the bunch take the heat, and I found myself feeling sorry for her. While we were standing there waiting for boss lady to figure something out, I told her I knew none of this was her fault and I appreciated how hard she was trying to make me happy. For a second I thought she was going to cry, and then she thanked me for understanding.

Time passed, I held my place at the counter, and my new friend wandered away to some easier task. The standing-on-the-counter lady came back over, introduced herself as the young woman's mother and shook my hand. "She's so much better at this job than I am. So much more patient. I'm really proud of her."

What flashed through my brain first was relief that I'd been gracious and not unkind to this woman's daughter. That would not always have been the case, and it somehow felt like I'd aced a pop quiz. It also felt like an auspicious beginning. (I did also sort of wonder what Mom would have done had I turned mean, and was grateful I didn't know.)

Finally settled into my room, I hurried to the edge of the beach where I ended my day (and began this adventure) witnessing the kind of sunset that makes people fall in love, accompanied by the jazzy bass celebration of frogs that makes people want to make love. I felt a calm sureness, a sense of rightness, that only now in my life am I beginning to recognize as the inner love that some people call God.

I'm at the beach for three full days of solitude and uninterrupted writing. I'm here to find my way back into my story, to allow the next version to find its way to the surface, to honor the battered heart from which it needs to flow. Because of the not-done room and my persistence, they gave me a different room. This one with a view of the ocean that the other one did not have.

The the sky is blue and bright this morning, a pair of mallards dabble in the pond beneath my deck, sparrows call to each other in the salt-stunted pines. I'm going for a long stroll on the boardwalk in a few minutes to allow the sun and ocean air and wave's whispers to reach into my heart and open it so the story can flow out.

The top picture was taken from my deck right after I got to my room. The second picture was taken just before I headed back in after the sunset. Yes, I do in fact know to my core how very blessed I am to be here - both literally and figuratively.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pruning for Balance

A single robin's urgent morning call awakened me on Sunday. I could hear him through windows still closed tight against winter's damp and chill as he beckoned dawn and announced the arrival of spring. His chirrupy song is the one thing that tells me winter has finally lost its grip on time and space.

He's early this year. As are the crocuses filling my flower bed with small flames of white, purple and yellow. The hyacinths almost in bloom by my front door and the tiny pink beads sprinkled all over the naked branches of my flowering plum don't usually appear until next month at the earliest. Every part of me revels in this early passing of the season of death.

The sunshine and weirdly warm air pulled us outside to work in the yard this weekend. There's always more to do on our five acres than we ever get to, so we had lots of possible directions to go. I've learned from past experience that it's a good idea to choose jobs carefully on the first day out in spring. If I push my body to its limit, which it will allow, there won't be a second day for a very long time.

So I cleared last summer's stalks and seedheads from my front flower bed, then moved on to something that didn't require bending. Pruning the two rose bushes hardy enough to survive my chronic benign neglect was the perfect job, but ended way too soon. With pruners in hand, I started to trim the butterfly bush that doubles in size (at least) every summer. One thing led to another, and before long the trim became something much more serious. What started as ten feet of graceful dusty green leaves is now a four-foot high arrangement of sticks.

I realized as I was carefully pruning away shoots, the butterfly bush was crowding my forsythia and quince and red twig dogwood, like a bully pushing her way to the front of a line leaving those behind with nothing.

I always plant things too close together because I never believe they'll really grow. By the time I accept that the plants aren't going to politely negotiate with each other for space, it's usually too late to transplant any of them. That leaves two choices: allowing the bigger, faster growing plants to smother their smaller more delicate cousins - or pruning. Which I've always hated because it feels like undoing all the growth that seems such a miracle to me.

More often these days, though, I'm willing to cut away the aggressive growth of one plant, especially one I know will respond well to equally aggressive pruning. Coaxing the younger, shyer plants into the light feels right in a way it never has before. Giving each one the room to grow, and its fair share of sunlight, brings a balanced variety into the yard that satisfies my soul in the same way this lovely spring does.

The forsythia and red twig got trims as well, which did not go to waste.

Friday, February 12, 2010


"It may take you a few times or fourteen years to get this pose, but just doing your best will get you the full benefits."

I don't remember which pose the instructor was referring to. I'm not even sure she refers to the same pose every time, but it's always fourteen years. I don't know if I'm grateful or discouraged to hear that number.

Today, during what was a pretty yoga feeling session (as opposed to an I've-died-and-gone-to-hell feeling session), I pondered why accomplishing the pose mattered to me at all. I don't put myself through three hour and a half sessions a week to get good at poses. I'm never going to compete (yes there are yoga competitions). I find no pleasure in studying my spandex revealed fat rolls in the mirror, even if they are beginning to flatten a bit. And I have no intention of inviting friends over to show them my flexible moves - ever.

At first I went because I trusted people who went before me and swore to the amazing results. Then I went because I had paid and it would have been a huge waste of money to not go. After a while I went because of the challenge, and that's still a good part of what keeps me going back. Every small bit of progress seems like a major victory to me.

Earlier this week a P.E. teacher I used to work with came for her first class. Her body is slim, firm, shapely - as you'd expect of someone who spends her life in workout clothes. Afterwards when we connected she said, "Have you been doing this a long time? You're really good."

I didn't know whether to puff up my chest and ride her compliment all the way home, or to disclaim her right out of the studio. I had the grace to say, "Thank you." and then to quickly turn the conversation to her experience.

I'm not really good, by any standard that works for me. But I'm getting better. And I haven't had a cold in six months. And I don't fall over when I lift one foot to put my socks on any more. And the other day when I bent over to pick up one of Toby's toys I became aware that my back felt lubricated and smooth instead of the stiff ratchety pain it usually offers me when I move.

So I go back, sometimes having to force my hands not to yank the steering wheel back toward home before I arrive at the studio, because going allows me to experience my life outside of yoga more fully. And if I can trust those who have gone before me, that will only get better as I continue my practice.

I've been reading Julia Cameron's book, The Right to Write. She talks about writing every day to develop writing muscles. Not necessarily so that everything that's written is publishable or even worth reading, but so that when you're ready to write something that matters, you're in shape for it.

That's very much like yoga practice. Now I love writing in a way I don't love yoga, but it's one of those immutable laws of life. To get better at a thing, you have to practice. And although the practice part is not the pretty part, there's no way to get to the good stuff without practicing.

I'm guessing this isn't great insight to most of you visiting me here. It's certainly nothing I haven't heard/read/experienced before. I think what's reinforced for me with the yoga/writing connection is that showing up every day (or three days a week) counts in a big way. That being present, trusting the process, and focusing on whatever best is available to me at any given time is an abundance of sufficiency. Good enough for a full life of feeling deeply day by day, day to day.

photos from Flickr

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Toby and I had just reached the gate that begins freedom for both of us. He gets released from his leash, and as long as I can see or hear him, is allowed to follow his nose wherever it leads. Safe in the knowledge that he'll come when I call, I let my feet travel the familiar overgrown path and my mind wander wherever it needs.

Although midwinter, the day was gold and green and blue. It could have been a spring sky, with cloud lambs gamboling in wind-tossed fields. It could have been a spring day with bright sunlight coaxing buds to unfurl into air that held promise of warm nurturing. The bright moss and sword fern babies adorning old cottonwood trees pretended to be the spring green of leaves that are weeks away from being born.

As I was unclipping the leash from Toby's collar I heard the telltale pocking of a woodpecker. I searched a nearby tree for the origin of the sound and found him easily. A Hairy Woodpecker working on an ash tree less than six feet away. He seemed unaware of us, intent on forcing food from the bark in front of him. I watched him for a while, always fascinated at how he blends in. If not for the sound, I would never have known to look for him. Even the small slash of red on the back of his head is not enough to visually blow his cover.

The trail and Toby and my own restlessness pulled me away while the woodpecker was still busy on the ash. Toby tracked the scent of deer as though his life depended on it. When we reached the river, he dove for rocks as though his life depended on it. For the entire walk my mind searched high and low for answers, peace, and certainty as though my life depended on it.

The only thing found was the rock Toby pulled from the bottom of the river and carried proudly up the trail toward home. No deer. No answers.

On the return loop, back at the gate, my mind already home onto the next problem to solve, Toby at my side allowing the end of freedom for the day, a new sound caught my attention. A series of snaps, like a dish towel on a clothesline in a late spring breeze. I looked up in time to see my woodpecker friend fly just past my head into a nearby tree. He flew and landed, flew and landed several times before resting on the trunk of the same tree we'd seen him in just an hour before.

This time as I watched him and listened to the primal percussion of his wing beats, I became aware of an enveloping silence. As though time took a break, the earth stopped its spin, and the sunlight illuminated the invisible. Toby was perfectly still, my wise and willing companion in this gift of grace.

Once the woodpecker settled against the side of the tree, the only sound left was the rush of the unseen river to the north and east of me. No birds squabbling or singing. No squirrels chattering or scolding. Not one single car sound from the highway not that far away. Just perfect stillness.

I don't know how long the time out of time lasted, or how long it might have lasted if the woodpecker hadn't flown away, following some internal direction known only to him. Twenty-four hours later, as I sit with a mind overflowing with what-ifs and doubts, I can still feel that powerful, otherworldly stillness. And I try to find my way back into it.

photo from Flickr

Friday, February 5, 2010

Screen Door Melody

I was completely lost in my work, so awareness of the screen door banging dawned slowly. It seemed softer than usual. Did I really hear it?

The "usual" volume is when Emma, with all eight pounds of her furious feline indignation, wants in. Well into old age at 18, she's gotten more and more demanding with each year, so by now has no tolerance at all for being made to wait when she wants in. She goes to the back door, sits on the step and hits the screen door hard enough to make it bounce on its hinges and bang in its frame. She bangs and yowls with such frantic intensity that she never has to wait for long to be attended to.

This old-fashioned wood frame screen door is one of my favorite possessions, right up there with the clothesline and the blueberry bushes. Walt installed it right after we moved in almost twenty years ago, adjusting the tension of the spring, at my request, so the door would bounce gently as it closed. The quiet clapping sound of wood against wood is music that soothes and sings, "Home."

I'm not entirely sure why I love the sound of a wooden screen door. We didn't have screen doors at all in my growing up home. It was cheaper to hang obscene yellow ringlets of fly paper everywhere than it was to buy screens. In all my other homes since then, the screen doors have been utilitarian metal.

My only remembered experience with the wooden bounce of happy doors is from books and old movies where they were always (in my imagination at least) attached to homes full of love. Pollyanna comes to mind - even at the price of paralysis, I would have given anything to be her and to live her life. I can picture the gingerbread be-decked Victorian screen on the front door of her house even now.

In current time the wooden screen door melody is just part of the background music of my everyday life. I don't really hear it the dozens of times a day I open the door and release it to close - usually to let a cat or Toby in or out. I don't really hear the clock chime every quarter hour or the hum of the freezer on the other side of the wall from my desk either, but I do hear when they're silent.

So when I thought I heard the door bang, however softly, my first thought was to wonder how Emma got out because I had just seen her in her chair (actually my rocker). Something was out of synch. I got up from my desk chair, walked to the back door, opened it and saw nothing through the screen. No Emma. No Toby (who was in sleeping on our bed). No wind blowing.

Puzzled, I expanded my visual search to the edge of the patio and into the yard, where I saw a Douglas squirrel scampering away from me toward the protection of the Sweet Gum - his favorite hangout. Dougie!

These tiny little squirrels are fearless, aggressive, and sassy. They frequently chase away their much larger cousin Gray squirrels to get to the sunflower seeds. I laughed out loud in wonder and delight. The little rascal had braved the cold gray expanse of patio concrete where a red giant often sleeps and strange giant squirrels with sharp claws lurk, to come knock on my door.

I have no idea why. I only know he knocked, and then ran like hell. I hope next time he'll stay and chat, or at least wait for me to offer him a treat. In the meantime, I'll be listening a little more carefully for the music of my favorite door.

photos from Flickr

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Carrie and I are thrilled to announce our spring line-up of memoir writing classes. We've expanded our offerings a bit to include both a morning class in Portland, OR, and an evening class in Battle Ground, WA. We're prepared to expand our online class from one to two if interest exceeds the six person limit (which applies to all classes).

Please visit our new class blog, Writing the Breathings of Your Heart, for all the details. We'd love for you to join us on our journey toward truth and healing through the writing of our stories

Monday, February 1, 2010

Where Your Eyes Go

"Look to the back wall. Where your eyes go, your head will follow."

I'm in cobra, holding myself up with the strength of my middle back ("Do not put any weight on your arms, this isn't a pushup!"). My eyes slide up the mirror in front of me and make it to the stained tiles of the ceiling before I have to return my attention to breathing so I don't pass out. The back wall, behind me, is visible only in my mind's eye. I doubt my actual eyes will ever see that wall from cobra.

There are other poses where we're given this direction in some form. "Look over your shoulder to the mirror." - requiring a three-quarter twist from a sitting position. "Keep bending back until your eyes are on the floor." - with knees locked and hips pushed forward. "Don't look at the floor. Keep your eyes on your forehead." - while adjusting feet and knees to a precise distance apart.

"Where your eyes go, your head (and body) will follow."

And so I move my eyes toward whatever part of the room the teacher directs, hoping my head and other body parts know they're supposed to follow. The interesting thing is they do, after a fashion.

Those times when I looked at the floor to catch my breath, or to become invisible, or to make my feet come together - nearly every one of those times, I lost my balance. I lost my focus every single one. I started watching other people in the class, comparing and coming up wanting. Wondering if a tattoo would help.

If I can concentrate on moving my eyes, or aiming them where they belong, I get much closer to a full expression of whatever pose I'm attempting at the time.

It's mid-winter. Damp cold, stark outlines, muted colors dominate. The weariness of bearing the weight of so much darkness lays over me like the musty wool blankets of my childhood.

Yet if I look, signs of spring are everywhere. Green crocus fingers poking up from their hibernation. A robin's insistent mate-seeking series of chirps. A little more light, a little later each day.

I'm halfway through my first year as a writer. Nowhere near where I want to be, or where I thought I might be at this time. My book, having served its purpose, now retired. The next one a shadow of an idea, but no more. Several potential directions became dead-ends early on.

What I do have instead is the joy of teaching writing to women who travel the same path, my first experience with a published story, and insights about my life and writing that would never have happened without the quiet and lack of structure of these last months.

"Where your eyes go, your head will follow."

I see the back wall. I see spring. I see my teaching and my book in the world offering the hope of healing and the promise of transformation. My head believes.

photos from Flickr