Last week I was in Ireland, a country I’d never thought much about visiting. But now I am in love.
Before my departure, people told me, “You’ll love it there! The Irish are so friendly and have a great sense of humor.” Seemed like a broad generalization but they were right. Everyone I met was genuinely friendly. I took a particularly hilarious bus tour of Galway billed as “See the Sights of the Medieval City.” Yes, we saw the landmarks, but the majority of the tour consisted of our guide’s running commentary on the activities of the people and animals we passed.
Ireland is also a very allergen friendly place. The menus have a code of 1-15 with each allergen assigned a number. The numbers are listed under the items on the menu with notes about whether or not the dish can be amended. There were plenty of gluten free options and any time I asked for one, I was met with an easy smile instead of the not-so-subtle American eye roll.
The majority of my time was spent on the sacred island of Inishmore off the coast of Galway. It’s a small, windswept place of grass and stone; massive cliffs and wild waves; ancient churches and beehive huts where solitary monks spent their days. Population – seven hundred. The family of the man who drove us from the ferry to the B&B goes back 7 generations on the land. While the islanders all speak English, Irish is their mother tongue.
I went to the island because I was invited by Christine from Abbey of the Arts to assist with a retreat which involved setting up chairs and tending to the candles. They called me “Keeper of the Flame.” The rest of the time I participated in writing, song, dance, gentle yoga, long walks out of doors, and delicious, home cooked meals that included fresh baked gluten free bread and desserts. Did I mention how easy it was for me to eat there?
Within all the blessings of food, landscape, and people, the biggest gift was joy. My phrase for the year thus far has been “trust joy.” On the first day of the retreat it occurred to me that I wasn’t delving into the inner work from a place of crisis and heartache. Just joy. I spent the six days free from anxiety.
Joy is a state that transcends happiness. The capacity to remain open and attentive to the difficult emotions and circumstances is key to living a joyful life. And yet, there are times when the ebullient nature of joy supersedes a heaviness of heart. That’s where I was last week. Trusting that the good can and will continue to unfold. Not everything falls apart.
Amidst the rocky island landscape bloomed a multitude of enchanting wild flowers. They inspired this poem. May it bring you joy.
The Language of Wild Daisies (after Kim Moore)
Be cheerful, they say.
If we can manage to bloom
on this island of grass and stone
and whipping wind that lashes us
with cold from the sea,
so can you.
In your everyday cares
of meaning and money
build within yourself
a cone of sunlight,
a center of happiness.
Construct it out of sticky pollen and sweet nectar,
Gifts received. Gifts shared.
As for your petals,
stay soft and daring.
Be playful. Add a touch of pink to the tips.
Know they are held in a cup of love,
a stem of gladness,
a wide base of leaves open
like your palms
ready to catch sunshine and rain.
Above all know this.
You are not alone.
We are a wild magnitude
and there is plenty of joy to go around.
Photo © Melinda Thomas
*** To see more photos of the trip, follow me on Instagram @benedictineyogi
Happy Spring Friends,
It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you. My creativity has been diverted into poetry, most of which is not fit for public consumption.This happens sometimes when I am in the liminal space between projects, reserving energy and words for future output.
But I’ve missed writing to you. So I’m sharing with you the only thing I can. It may seem an odd choice of theme for the first day of Spring but it was inspired by painful anniversaries some friends are moving through, and something Rachel Manetti wrote in her most recent newsletter. (Thank you, Rachel.)
It is difficult to be present to another’s pain because we feel at best powerless over it, at worst, annoyed. This can translate into well meaning but callous remarks that inflict unintended shame on the person in pain. For instance, more than a decade ago a friend survived an attack. Now that day brings energetic reminders that start weeks ahead of time. To say, “It’s just a day. Don’t let the calendar rule you,” doesn’t help.
Yes, that is true. It is just a day. And we don’t have to let the anniversary of one event ruin that single day for a lifetime. We can choose what to do with or on that day. But our emotions, our times of anger and grief and wailing, they choose themselves.
Think of it this way, we are quick to celebrate the demarkation of days that brought us joy. We savor the cycle of nature’s seasons because it brings connectivity to our lives. But marking the days that brought us pain? How deeply we feel them, and how easy they are to dismiss in others.
On the Spring Equinox when we celebrate a day of equal parts light and dark may this poem help you create space in your own life to feel what needs to be felt, to hold that same space for others, and in doing so, participate in rebirth.
Today is the not the day of the
thing that hurt you.
You rise and eat and bathe.
But you are not being hurt the way
you were on this day one year ago.
Two years ago.
Still, the pain is real and resides
in the unseen parts
of your soul that remember
whether or not there was rain
and how the earth smelled even if
those details cannot be recalled.
Your soul knows this and notes it
on a calendar in your heart so
when the day comes around again
you can remember and be healed.
Photo © Melinda Thomas
Years ago I read a horoscope somewhere on the wilds of the internet that said my life “takes off” after 39 and that I would begin to garner significant professional respect beginning in mid-life — which I’ve interpreted to mean my 40’s. I’m afraid I’ve rather clung to this prediction. It’s brought me comfort when my efforts felt futile.
In April I will turn 39. A week after my birthday I will get on a plane and leave the country for the first time. I will fly over seas and land in Ireland where I will spend a week writing with Christine Valters Paintner and 12 other pilgrims on the tiny, wind swept island of Inismor off the Galway coast. There is more but I’m keeping it close. I find myself afraid to mention these things for fear that giving them voice will somehow invoke bad voodoo.
It’s hard to trust joy.
At the beginning of last year I offered a little blessing from Neil Gaiman.
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful. And don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.
Looking back I see the fulfillment of all these invitations. I found magic as I always do in nature and smiles and synchronicity. I’m a dreamer by design. I read a few good books and one really great novel. My mom and dad and child and dearly departed cat think I’m wonderful and I’ve kissed them all. I’ve made art. And I’ve surprised myself by how much I can do, what fears I can walk through, how much anxiety I can hold, and how I am at times reluctant to move out of my comfort zone.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came just a few days ago when my childhood friend Stephanie texted, “How are things going?” My usual answer to that question is “Eh” —- which is a not so veiled way to say, “I’m struggling.” But I paused. In that moment “Eh” wasn’t honest. I want to be honest so I wrote, “Things are good.” It was such a quiet, ordinary moment there in my office at the Y with the background noise of group exercise class and chatter and weights being dropped, but to me it was the Solstice and Christmas and all the magic and miracles. Still, I was afraid.
It’s hard to trust joy.
But here’s the thing about joy. It transcends happiness. It exists as bedrock beneath the deepest depression and surrounds the seemingly infinite black hole of grief where the body no longer stands on the earth and heaven no longer shimmers with stars. I know this because I’ve felt it. I know this because I’ve seen it in others whose lives have been ripped apart in ways I pray mine never will, but who somehow manage to remain in this world and laugh at bad jokes and smile at butterflies.
On this Christmas Day may you find joy. Whether it’s big joy that spills out of your soul in laughter or the persistent hope that life will get better because it could be worse. May you find “magic and dreams and good madness.” May you surprise yourself.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
The other day I was reading through Christine Valter Paintner’s latest book The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred and pulling quotes for her daily emails when I came across this gem. “Out of all the many things calling for attention: Which one is it the season for?”
In the season before I had a child my days were long, open spaces for contemplative practice. I journaled and practiced asana in the morning before teaching yoga classes. After lunch and a little rest I settled in for an afternoon of writing and work. When the work was finished, I took my dog for a walk then meditated for 20 – 40 minutes before dinner.
That season is long gone.
Today I find myself in the season of many hats. There’s my mom hat, my working hats, my teaching hat. My daughter, sister, and friend hats. My writing hat. My self-care hat. And my contemplative hat which seems to be growing smaller by the day. Some hats I want to wear are tucked away in boxes and stowed somewhere in my closet waiting for the season to change.
I lament their storage.
But when I ask myself the question “What is it the season for?” I feel liberated. I am reminded of the power of choice and freed from my need to do it all. Just because I have a child doesn’t mean I have to wear the mom hat. I could neglect my son, but I choose not to. Just because I’ve been teaching for over a decade and people seem to like my classes doesn’t mean I have to keep teaching. I could stop, but I choose not to.
The list goes on.
Truth is, I rather like my hat collection and think I’d be bored without it.
Back to the shrinking contemplative hat. I only call it shrinking because the actual minutes I devote to what might be called formal practice has reduced significantly. My 90 minute yoga practice is 30 – 45. My 40 minute meditation is but a few breaths at the end of asana, a moment’s pause before getting out of the car before work or picking up my son after. My daily journaling is sporadic.
The list goes on.
I tell myself that while practice is important because it keeps me rooted in what is essential it is equally important to keep it in proportion to the rest of my responsibilities.
Which is why I love yoga and the Rule of St. Benedict. They make it clear that practice is vital and should be responsive to the seasons. But more than that they prescribe the inner stance to be taken whether formal practice occurs or not. Thirty minutes of meditation, recitation of psalms, twisting and folding and opening the body are of no use unless I am also willing to live into the messiness of trying to be a good person.
As a little girl, when I had trouble falling asleep I would listen to books on tape. The Borrower’s is not my favorite story of all time but I listened to it often because of the narrator’s soothing English accent. After only a few minutes she got to the part about the family of people no larger than four inches tall “borrowing” hatpins.
“Butn’t hatpins?” asks the little girl to whom the story is being told.
“A hatpin, is a very useful weapon.”
And off I went to sleep.
It occurs to me that perhaps my small in duration practices this season are like hatpins. Useful little things that keep whatever hat I’m wearing squarely on my head, vertical of my heart, and easy to remove and reset when the hat inevitably slips in front of my eyes.
Which it will. Often. I’ll get overwhelmed, overworked, tired, snippy, anxious. That’s part of the season too. But what practice teaches me is that whatever state I’m in, I can take off the hat, take a breath, put the hat back on, secure the pin and remember that underneath it all, I am still me. Living this season, choosing how to respond, and loving being so very free.
*** I do not know if the current season for this blog has ended. Writing has been very difficult of late. I want to focus on a particular project and I’m not totally ready to give up these little notes. So hang in there with me as I discern. ***
Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings,
This piece to appear at AbbeyoftheArts.com on 12/12/2018