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
This is my first and only short story. I wrote in 2011. Published it on the blog under another name in 2012 and have since made a number of edits. I love this little story. I love Emeline and Jimmy. I hope you do too.
Emeline unrolled a map of North America and hung it next to the others in her bedroom. She uncapped a new, black marker and wrote “Autumn Foliage” at the top, just above British Columbia. Using a meticulous system of pushpins, journal entries, and stickers, Emeline tracked various elements of the natural world. The greening of the grass in Spring. The turn of the leaves in Autumn. The rate of snowfall at Christmas.
October was Emeline’s favorite month. She checked the weather reports and looked up images on the internet. Each day brought a new burst of color and another group of red, yellow, and orange pushpins on her map. Each day another set of stickers and records entered in her journal. From prior years observing the forest around her farmhouse in Southern Maine she knew the colors began in August. She also knew that weather conditions in the Spring and Summer had a direct effect on how much good color they would see.
This year had been perfect. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too wet, not too dry. The Farmer’s Almanac predicted the most spectacular Autumn in a century. Everyday Emeline took a walk in the woods behind her house, looking for signs of October. She looked for it in the cooling night air and the slow disappearance of mosquitos and lightening bugs.
In the August before 5th grade Emeline saw only green. “Perhaps I am too early,” she thought, “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
And she did.
And the next day and the day after that. She went to the woods every day for a week and for the week after that.
By September school had started, the air cooled, the lightening bugs no longer flickered in the twilight, and a fine mist settled on the morning air, but Emeline hadn’t put a single red, yellow or orange pushpin on her map.
The first report aired on Channel 5 News at 6, then again at 10:30 and 11. Pictures of green flooded social media. It was the lead story on all of the major networks.
“Good Evening. This in from New England. A strange phenomenon which scientists cannot explain. The leaves, usually sparkling with fall color by now, have not begun to turn.”
Each night stories came flooding in. In Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado, the leaves had not turned. Meteorologists, climatologists, biologists, could only speculate—global warming, climate change, polluted rivers. None of it made sense.
By mid-October Emeline gave up hope for a colorful fall. She watched to see what would happen in the South, where the leaves don’t reach their peak until November. But in Virginia and Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, Texas and the High Desert, all that remained was green.
The night of the President’s first address on the subject, her parents invited friends over to dinner. Emeline wasn’t too pleased about this because it meant that Jimmy was coming too. Jimmy was a year older than Emeline. They’d been friends and playmates when they were little but Jimmy didn’t like science and teased her about her maps.
“Now, James Holden, you behave yourself tonight. Be nice to Emeline. Don’t tease your friends,” his mother said as they walked to the front door.
He kicked the dirt.
Emeline picked at her plate of chicken and mashed potatoes while the adults discussed the latest collapse of the Red Sox pitching staff, the unusual number of people attending Sunday services, the bushels of apples they’d picked, and the run on canned goods, water and ammunition down at Foster’s Provisions.
“Emeline, how are your maps coming this year?” asked Mr. Holden. “How are you handling this leaf situation?”
“Well . . .” said Emeline, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.
Across the table Jimmy adjusted his pretend glasses and took pretend notes in his pretend notebook while Emeline explained her new tracking method. His mother tweaked his ear.
After dinner Emeline helped her dad with the dishes then joined her mother and the Holdens in the living room. Jimmy lay on his stomach, chin propped up in his hands. While he didn’t like science, he did like the President and wanted to hear what she had to say. Emeline sat on her knees, notebook and pen in hand.
The President didn’t say much. She and other world leaders had listened to the advice of climate experts and come up with a plan should one be needed. Though what that was or why they would need one she didn’t say.
“In this time when we all feel anxious or afraid I urge you: Count your blessings, keep doing the work that makes this country great. God Bless You and God Bless the United States of America. Good night.”
“Well, that was a whole lot of nothing,” said Emeline’s father and turned the channel to the post speech analysis.
“Shut it off,” said her mother. “Let’s just enjoy the rest of our evening.”
In all other ways October was just as it had always been. The sky was clear and bright, the air crisped, and the morning mist thickened. The squash and apples and pumpkins grew plump and abundant in markets and road side farm stands. Chrysanthemums bloomed. Acorns crunched under foot and the evening light fragmented like stained glass. Front porches were decorated with corn husks, hay bales, and scarecrows. Stores across the country stocked and sold cinnamon spice scented candles, plaid tablecloths, wreaths and garlands of artificial leaves manufactured in China—where the leaves had also not turned.
To the surprise of all, people who’d been hoping for years to see New England in the fall kept their travel plans. Tourist trains went up and down Mt. Washington. Kayakers navigated the Penobscot. Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail who started the summer in Georgia reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin sporting T-shirts that read, “I hiked the AT so fast it stayed green.” At Walden, people sat dazed on the shores of the pond, wondering what Thoreau would think of this green October.
As Halloween approached pumpkins were carved into jack-o-lanterns. Garbage bag ghosts and spiders hung from the trees. Jimmy was excited about candy and wanted to trick-or-treat as a pile of leaves but his mother said that was in bad taste. He shrugged and went as a skeleton.
Emeline did not enjoy Halloween. Not only had she dressed up as Marie Curie and had to keep explaining her costume, but the trick-or-treating was accompanied not by the twisted, naked tree branches pointing like a witch’s finger to the moon, but by an eerie canopy that blocked the stars.
A week into November the weather turned cold and stayed that way.
Just as it always did.
Emeline sat on the floor by the fireplace, her head resting on the hearth.
“What are you thinking about?” her mother asked.
“I was just wondering. The leaves didn’t turn, but everything else seems to have happened right on schedule. We had Halloween, but it wasn’t the same. Thanksgiving isn’t much more than a meal and a parade, but what about Christmas?”
“Oh, you can’t stop Christmas,” said her mother.
In December, the anxiety over the leaves was channeled into a new fervor for the Holiday Season. More twinkle lights were stapled to houses; more electric candles placed in windows. People who usually put up an artificial Christmas tree opted for a fresh Frasier Fir or Scotch Pine. The taller the better. Christmas carolers went door to door. Church pews were full all through Advent. The news stopped reporting on the strange situation with the leaves.
On December 24th, Emeline left a plate of milk and cookies by the fireplace even though she knew she was too old for that sort of thing. She awoke the next morning to a blanket of snow, presents under the tree, a fire in the hearth, and baby Jesus in the manger of their crèche.
And so, the holidays came and went and soon the new year arrived. Emeline tracked the snowfall. It started right on time and followed all the average records. She wondered how the delicate maple leaves could bear the weight of the heavy snow.
In March, the ice thawed and Emeline rolled out her “Daffodil and Other Spring Flora” map, though she knew it would be a while longer before the little pockets of sunshine poked up through the muddy earth. But poke through they did and soon the April showers brought May flowers.
“And you know what May flowers bring?” Jimmy asked.
“What?” said Emeline.
Spring bloomed. June warmed. July filled with swimming, Bar-B-Qs, and Red, White and Blue. For a few precious days, the world forgot to worry about the leaves. But as the August heat reached its breaking point and the last lightning bugs of summer lit the night, anxiety returned.
Emeline bought a new map and pulled last year’s unused box of multicolor pushpins from her desk drawer. She hung the map on the wall next to the others, gathered her backpack with notebook, pen, and other necessities of science, took a deep breath, and set out on her daily walk.
To her dismay Jimmy, who’d gotten a little taller over the summer, was waiting by the trees.
“Want some company?” he asked.
They walked deep into the woods, Jimmy laughing and telling jokes all the way. To her surprise she found him funny. His jokes were still pretty dumb, but at least he wasn’t teasing her. She was even more surprised to find that she’d been following him.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Hang on, Em, just a little bit farther.”
When they came to a stream Emeline stopped. She was tired of hiking and wanted to observe and to record. She removed her backpack and sat down on a rock.
“Pretty huh?” Jimmy said.
“Yea. How’d you find it?”
Emeline took the notebook and pen from her pack, opened to a blank page and looked out over the water, scanning the trees.
“Look!” she cried.
“Over there. Look!”
Across the water, through the tangle of oak and Hawthorne, was a single, yellow leaf.
“Oh Jimmy, it’s beautiful!”
He reached into his pocket and handed Emeline a pushpin.
I am angry.
I am enraged that a survivor’s voice was mocked. I am angry that Dr. Ford was called “a credible witness” because of her composure. Had she testified with the same display of fury as Kavanaugh those who sought to discredit her trauma would have pounced on her behavior as that of an irrational, hysterical woman.
I’m livid at the hypocrisy of McConnell who wouldn’t hold a vote on Merrick Garland because we were too close to an election but forced a vote on such a controversial candidate six weeks away from the midterms. I’m terrified at what this means for women, for LGBTQ communities, for the environment, for immigrants for the separation of powers, for the world my son will inherit.
I’m angry because I fiercely believe in choice – choice on what to do with one’s own body whether that be pregnancy or gender reassignment; choice to marry whomever one pleases and live wherever one wants; and of not having to choose between bread or medicine.
I am angry because the events of the past few weeks (months, years) are in sharp contrast with the values I hold dear. If my viewpoint were other than it is, I would be overjoyed at this moment instead of stressed out and having a weird, mild shingles outbreak behind my left scapula. Behind my heart.
Listening to the music of Tori Amos and shaking with fear and rage and the weariness that came from crying over Collin’s announcement to vote yes, I stopped at a red light on my way to pick Cole up from school and engaged in a most basic spiritual practice. I looked up at the trees and the sky. Both were still there. Steady, ancient, comforting. So often they remind me that my life is small and short and the troubles I feel today will pass. And more, that most of the things I worry about don’t come true.
The poets say our trees stand in silent witness to our human drama. But the silence is a lie. There is new understanding that trees talk. They warn each other of disease and take measures to protect themselves. And like us humans washing our hands to prevent the flu, it doesn’t always work. They get sick, they wither, they die. The idea that trees are mere witnesses to our drama is also a lie. They give up their bodies for our homes, our paper, our furniture, our fuel. They purify our air and give shade and shelter animals with whom we also share a kinship. We need them. And they need us. We give them our very breath. Each letting go for us is a drawing in for them. Each surrender a harvest.
If we could hear the trees speak in human language what would they say about the rancor in our world today? How would they express anger, joy, compassion, rage? Would they be allowed to use hot words and actions the way Kavanaugh did at the hearings, or would they have to take the more conventionally acceptable route of feminine anger expressed in tears only to be dismissed as too sensitive and emotional?
“We have a lot of women that are extremely happy — a tremendous number — because they’re thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands and their brothers and their uncles and others and women are, I think, extremely happy,” Trump said.*
He’s right about one thing, I am thinking of my son. What kind of ethos will he inherit? How do I help him navigate the landscape of manhood when I have no experience in the area? How do I ensure that he will have the strength to resist a culture of toxic masculinity that he will be exposed to just as surely as my niece will learn about mean girls and the virgin/whore dichotomy? How do I make sure my sweet boy is one of the men who cover a girl passed out on the couch with a blanket instead of his body?
How do I teach my son about rage?
Perhaps I am to be like the trees. To stand steadfast in the messiness. To breathe in his experience and exhale my profound love. To demonstrate compassion. To teach him to call his representatives even when it seems hopeless. To offer refuge and blanketing shade. And when the time comes, to show him what it means to burn.