Being Present Where You Are

The Tree Peony outside my studio door.

“Where and what your body is living is not where and what your attention is living.”
Nancy Colier, The Power of Off

The woman dressed in black shorts and a bright yellow t-shirt strode ahead of me on the trail to the creek. The magical bird song that I’d been listening to before I caught up to her was gone. In its place was an insistent business like voice asking the person on the other end of the line which stock he or she would recommend to take the place of the loser they had just sold. There was laughter, a few swear words. On and on it went. I noticed a flash of white leap through the brush to her left. A White Tailed Deer, as disturbed as I was by the unnatural sounds, moved out of the way quickly in order to find the peacefulness she’d been experiencing before the interruption.

I had encountered this woman once before on my morning walks at Ivy Creek Natural Area and began wondering if I should change my early morning jaunts to later in the day. But I loved to be there early in the morning before groups of other people arrived and my thoughts were taken up with human busyness. I enjoyed being alone in the forest and fields, fully present to what I was seeing and hearing in this world I mistakenly thought was untouched by technology.

I’m naive that way. When I’m in the woods I expect to be hear wood peckers drumming away on surrounding trees digging for their breakfast. Or watch a doe and her spotted fawn taking in the early morning sun as they graze the grass in the meadow. If I was very lucky, I might see a beaver swimming across the creek, its mouth filled with newly sprouted twigs and leaves. My attention would be as present as my body. The stress I would experience later in the day was no where in sight and my breathing was slow and deep. Being in the natural world has always been my salvation, keeping me sane in what often seems like an insane world.

I know there is no other path ahead that will lead me away from the intruder, so I turn back and look for a way around her. I find another path that ultimately takes me in a different direction. I won’t be heading for the creek which was my destination, but who knows what wonderful sights and sounds will fill my need for this short but sweet inclusion in a world not as taken with itself as the world surrounding this two hundred acre preserve.

When I start the morning here in the woods I know my day will be easier to navigate through than it would be if I had picked up my cell phone as I ate my breakfast. Without the phone spewing messages and emails some are expecting me to answer immediately, I will taste the freshness of blueberries, freshly picked strawberries, the tang of plain yogurt, and the sweetness of honey I drizzle on top. If I choose to turn the phone on all of that will be lost.

I think of that woman walking through the forest, talking on her cellphone, hearing only her own voice, seeing only dollar signs while missing the bright red cardinal flowers blooming along the trail. It seems to me that if she had made that call later, after her walk, her day might have a different ending. We all need to take time away from our busyness and immerse ourselves in places where we can be present and mindful of the world around us.

I’ve too often make the mistake of taking my cell phone outdoors when I sit on my patio. I might miss the hummingbird flitting through the garden if I’m engaged with emails. What do you miss when you let your cell phone take over the present moment?

Keeping The Spirit Alive

Making Bone Broth

Making Bone Broth

In the past few months I’ve been a bit OCD about keeping up with what’s next on my to-do list. I’ve been pushing myself and being ultra serious about going beyond what is possible in order to get my book off the ground. I’ve been working nonstop and getting tired of it all. It’s what I tend to do when I’ve got something big going on. Whether being a caretaker to my mother, or getting my my book off the ground, I always overdo.

After the book launch, which I enjoyed immensely, I had a hard time separating myself from my book. I asked, What happens now? Do I go back to the way I used to live my days, taking breaks to read a good novel, taking long walks, napping, and keeping my garden tended and in bloom?

I’ve been very tired, needing time to process what has been happening and where I am today. I’ve kept finding more things to do to keep my memoir in the forefront … writing new content, doing more guest blog posts and updating my website … never feeling satisfied with what I’ve done.

When I’ve thought about taking a break I felt guilty. I’d invested so much time and energy in this project, how could I not keep up the momentum in order to make my book a success?

In the meantime I forgot about some very important things. I neglected to take care of myself, my home, and my relationships. I hadn’t seen friends in a very long time. I’d been too busy to go out to lunch or have a cup of tea with those I’ve missed being with. I didn’t take time to water the garden when it was noticeably wilting. I started binging on chocolate and did everything I could to keep my eyelids propped open when I really needed to take a nap. I felt very resentful when I needed to cook a meal, do the laundry, or go grocery shopping. I don’t normally dislike doing those things and actually love to cook. If someone asked me for help, I got pissy. Don’t they know I’ve got work to do?

Experiencing more anxiety and imbalance than ever, I’m slowly coming to my senses. I’ve declared my home a NO SHOULD ZONE. If I feel I need to take a nap, I take a nap. If I can’t wait to get into that great book I’ve been longing to read, I start reading. I do a little bit of book promotion, write a blog post, take care of a few chores, and then give myself a reward.

Laughing through a facial.

Laughing through a facial.

This past week I took time for a pedicure and facial. I had lunch with a dear friend I haven’t seen in years. (We live less than two miles apart.) I took time to clean out the freezer. I put all of the roasted chicken carcasses I’d been saving into a big pot, along with an onion, carrots, celery, lots of herbs, dried mushrooms, and a few other secret ingredients, and simmered it on the back of the stove for the better part of a day.  As a result I’ve replenished the empty shelves in my freeze with healing soup stock. It all felt so good and my malaise about doing anything that felt like work began to ebb. In taking life too seriously and burning myself out with unending work is not helping me live a balanced life.

It feels wonderful to just putter through my days. Birthing my book has been a long row to hoe, but it’s done and it’s time to relax. I am by no means planning to stop the continued work that still needs to be done, but taking time to watch the sun rise, share laughter with a friend, or keep the garden well tended is as necessary as writing new content to keep my book in the forefront. And it keeps my psyche running smoothly.

How about you? How do you keep your life well balanced and your spirit alive?

 

If you missed it check out my guest blog post over at Susan Widener’s blog Women’s Writing Circle, here.  It’s about writing difficult stories.

On Listening To Myself

Peony #13, ©1994

Peony #13, ©1994

I’m in the middle of nowhere on my way to some spectacular site that numerous roadsigns keep telling me I must visit. I’ve never been in New Mexico before. It’s been a wonderful week of wandering this desert landscape by myself in my rental car. I have visited phenomenal landmarks, old adobe missions and cemeteries. I’ve toured art galleries in Santa Fe and Taos and hiked around lugging my camera and tripod through the countryside. This trip started in Texas where I opened a show of my photographs in Abilene last week. In the morning I’ll be boarding a plane in Albuquerque to make my way home.

As I travel along I notice there are no houses out here. The tarred road has suddenly become a gravelHelenMacCloskeyFilec (2) road with a surface similar to a washboard. I slow my pace to avoid skidding off to the side. There are no other cars in sight. My stomach begins to grumble, but not in hunger. Just an hour earlier I had consumed a huge breakfast at the B&B where I spent the night. I left stuffed with fresh melon, berries and a yummy casserole of eggs, cheese, mushrooms and onions with a hint of heat.

As I continue to drive, both the road and my stomach become more unstable. There are large rocks appearing in the road and I’m creeping along trying to avoid them. Something is telling me to turn around and go back to the main highway and forget this foolishness. But I’m stubborn and berate myself for being a chicken. Sometimes I can be a brave adventurer but my body also houses a scaredy-cat. I continue in spite of my fear.

I’ve been in predicaments like this in the past. And yes, sometimes I’ve pushed myself beyond my fright, and found nothing but joy and safety on the other side of my unease. But there have also been other times, when my trepidation has turned out to be spot-on.

I was about 12 years old and walking home from the bus stop one day, when a strange pick-up truck pulled to the side of the road next to me. The driver, a man, opened his window and started asking me questions. Like where do I live, what is my favorite color, if I have a dog, and what is my favorite candy. I felt very uneasy and fled the scene, running as fast as I could. When I told my mother what had happened she called the police. We were told that the man fit the description of someone who had been stopping other kids on the sides of area roads and trying to get them into his truck. I had reacted to my building anxiety and gotten myself out of harms way.

At nineteen, working in Queens, New York, I rode buses and trains back and forth between home and work everyday. One evening when I was late leaving work, I got on a train that was packed full of other commuters. As they got off at the various stops, the crowd thinned out until I found myself alone in the car with a man sitting several seats in front of me on the other side of the aisle. He turned around and stared at me. Again I felt a bit of anxiety, but feeling very tired and not wanting to change cars, I ignored him and stayed in my seat. A few minutes later, he got up and walked up the aisle toward me. He unzipped his pants and facing me, started masturbating. I didn’t know what to do. He was standing in the aisle next to my seat, blocking my escape route. Fortunately the train came to a stop and more people started boarding the train. The man zipped up his pants and went back to his seat.

I quickly reported the incident to the conductor. He and another conductor escorted the man off the train. They came back to me and asked if I wanted to report the incident to the Police. When I said yes, they started telling me that the type of behavior I just witnessed happened on the train all the time and that no harm had ever been done by the perpetrators. And since they had already made him get off the train, it would be difficult to find him and could cause all kinds of difficulty, especially for me. Though I wanted to report it, I felt my hands were tied. To this day I regret that I hadn’t insisted on reporting the incident, giving the police the best description I could manage. I had not listened to my intuitive voice that had told me to move to another car, and to report the incident so that other girls could be spared the jolting experience I just had.

Now I’m again listening to what my inner voice is trying to tell me. I rethink what I’m doing, find a place to turn around and head back the way I came. As the road becomes smooth again, my stomach settles down and I’m at ease. I will never know what would have happened if I’d gone on. But it doesn’t matter.

 

Here I am, years later, still listening to that voice that helps me get through the thick and thin of life. It not only keeps me safe, it helps me in my visual art as well as in my writing. The series of abstract photographs of plants and flowers I exhibited in Abilene in 1996 wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t listened to that voice telling me when to move in closer to capture the image I saw before me. Nor would I now be getting ready to publish a memoir. It’s also what stops me when I’m overwhelmed and so tired I can’t think straight. I have found that there is no better authority when it comes to what I should do next. It’s a matter of trusting myself and listening to what my mind and body are telling me.

Do you listen to yourself when it’s trying to tell you something?

I Am Not A Wind Up Toy!

IMG_0070 (1)For the past month or so I’ve felt like a wind-up toy. I’ve gone from one thing to another just trying to keep up with everything that needed doing. Part of the problem is that in early January, my husband had knee surgery. I spent a good deal of time taking care of him, making sure that his ice machine was at the ready to keep the swollen surgical site comfortable, and preparing meals for someone who normally cooks half of them. I also had deadlines to meet with my publisher and a blog and newsletter to maintain.

Taking care of some one else is not always an easy task, and can result in exhaustion and speeding around like a tiny wind up car. If you’ve ever played with one, you know they move fast. They don’t see what’s ahead of them and crash head-on into walls and furniture. They don’t really cause any damage, but if they were much bigger, say the size of a human, they could. I want to stop crashing into things and causing havoc.

My studio has stacks of old receipts and brochures taking up residence on my work table. I can’t work on my visual journal if I can’t spread out. I need my paints, rubber stamps, hand-made papers and magazine clippings where I can see them, so that I can go to work the moment inspiration strikes. I need to clean it up!

The same thing goes for my head. If I don’t let go of the clutter taking up so much space in my brain, I won’t be able to think clearly and make room for any artistic notions that my muse slings my way. I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to get some traction so that I can move forward, but I haven’t had much luck. And just like my work table, my head needs to be cleared out.

The patient is almost completely healed now. He’s cooking dinner again, doesn’t need to be checked-up on constantly, and in just over a week, he’ll be able to drive himself around again, leaving me with more time. We’re both very tired of it all and will be happy to see the end of this little adventure.

IMG_0049I’m starting to take more time for myself. I went to yoga last week and because I had dental surgery yesterday, Pilates will have to wait until next week. I’m taking afternoon naps and moments to simply stare into space. I’m planning on cleaning up my studio this week so that I can get back to work without feeling squeezed out of my space. But most important of all I will begin honoring the word I chose to guide me this new year … MINDFUL. In my overwhelm over the past month or so, it never had a chance. My mind did not stop to notice what was happening around me. Someone just kept winding me up and kept me going, crashing in to things. Mostly myself.

Today I’m throwing the key away and switching gears.  I’m starting my year over and I’m already noticing how much better I feel.

Have you ever felt like a wind up toy?

If You See Something, Say Something

up on the High Line in New York City.  Beauty amidst the crush of a big city.

Up on the High Line in New York City. Beauty amidst the crush of a big, sometimes dark city.

It’s 6:30 on a hot and humid August morning. My dogs, Sam and Max, are anxious to get back home, where Bill has their breakfast mixed and waiting for them. They’ve taken care of their “business” and I’m now awake and sweaty after a brisk walk and just as happy that in a few minutes I’ll be back in my air-conditioned abode.

As I turn the corner toward home I notice an old car parked facing out into the street in a driveway to my left. I don’t know the people who live there, but I walk these streets every day and have never seen this aged, black Volvo station wagon before. As I get closer I see its dings and dents, and someone sitting in the drivers seat. The car isn’t parked next to the other cars much further up the driveway and close to the house. This one sits right at the edge of the road as if it’s ready to make a quick get-a-way.

I live in one of Charlottesville’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods. The streets are lined with stately tree and in the spring the yards are filled with a riot of color with azaleas, forsythia, Chinese magnolia, dogwood, redbuds, and cherry trees blooming one right after another. Most, if not everyone who lives here feels safe and loves our little community here in the gulch, tucked between several hills.

It’s a 1950’s kind of of a neighborhood. When they’re not in school kids of all ages are out playing together, riding bikes, or shooting baskets without being looked after by overly doting parents. Occasionally a police van drives slowly through the area and though we hear of an occasional nearby car break-in, we who live here, are trusting and don’t live in fear.

This morning there is no one else about except that person in the car. The sun is up and the birds are singing, but it seems that most people are still sacked out or sipping coffee as they read the morning paper. I wonder who that person is in that car and what his business is.

As I pass in front of the car, I notice what looks like the long barrel of a rifle pointing out into the street from the front passenger seat. But I think nothing of it … until I’m about to turn the next corner and begin to feel a rush of adrenalin coursing through my body. I run home, dragging the dogs behind me, who now if they had their way, would stop to sniff every blade of grass we pass.

I tell Bill about what I saw. He says we should call the police, but we look at each other and agree that there must be a rational explanation for the car, the man, and the “rifle.” We’re both thinking, Bad things just don’t happen here.

Brave and brazen, Bill decides to drive around the block to see what’s up. When he returns a few minutes later, he comes in smiling. He tells me that when he drove by the scene of what I now think was all my imagination, the man was out of his car, unloading tree trimming tools. The gun barrel I saw was a long pole he was about to use to trim the neighbors trees.

I was relieved but still distressed and shaken to my core. I’ve suddenly seen my own neighborhood in the shadow of the violence that seems to fill the headlines on a daily basis in this country. That we live in a time when we must be continuously reminded that if we see something suspicious, we must say something, is nothing short of discouraging and often depresses me.

Whether we know it or not, we live in two worlds; the world of home and community where we feel comfortable and safe, and the world we read about or view on tv, in which innocent children and every day good citizens, some whose jobs are to protect us, are shot down for no reason at all. And we can’t always be sure which world we’re in during any given moment.

Had we called the police about the tree trimmer, how would I have felt to learn that he was just an innocent man, getting ready to do his job, but first having a smoke and finishing the last drops of his morning coffee before unloading his tools? I would have felt like a jerk and been kicking myself in the butt.

But how would I have felt if someone in my neighborhood was shot and killed because I never reported what I saw to the police, refusing to believe that bad things could ever happen here?

I know horrific events can and do happen anywhere. And yes, we must say something if we see something that disturbs us and could be harmful to ourselves and other people. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

But constantly being on guard and ready to speak out about the things that frighten or anger us, can make our days darker and our anxiety levels sky rocket.

Perhaps we could grow our awareness, our sense of reality, and stem the tide of anxiety and depression if we also spoke out about the beautiful things we see around us.

Perhaps if the next time we witness an awe inspiring sunset or a person doing good deeds benefiting all creatures and point it out to everyone around us, we can spread the notion that indeed we live in a wonderful world. By sharing the goodness as well as the badness, we can all be happier and live more fulfilling lives. Reality is both frightfully horrible and outrageously wonderful.

We can soften the blow of the horrible by recognizing the beauty that surrounds us.