Posts Tagged #change
Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
Happy rebirth-day to me
I don’t know the actual date of my rebirth-day. It was a Monday, the day after Easter, 2012. I suppose I could easily google it, but I prefer to let the day float in time, tied forever to the anchor of Easter. I wanders through time the way the ancients believed a woman’s womb wandered in her body.
My rebirth day began like any regular day, only slowed down. It was so hard to summon the will to get up. I’m pretty certain my husband called goodbye from the hallway, heading in to work early. I made coffee for me, hot black tea for my daughter before she scooted off to high school. I sliced an apple, sprinkled it with cinnamon, ate listlessly.
I had a full day of deadlines ahead, but I was tired as I climbed the stairs to my attic office. When I walked, my leg throbbed. I couldn’t focus, and there was a tickle in my throat. Damned perimenopause. After working through lunchtime, I decided I should go to the doctor.
“I had a terrible charlie horse on Easter morning,” I told the receptionist. “It really hurts a lot. I need to get into see someone today, please.”
“Is it swollen? Red? Purple? Streaking?”
I looked again, but it wasn’t. It looked exactly like it had the evening before, when I’d rolled my yoga pant-leg up and asked my daughter if it LOOKED swollen. Cause I could see in the mirror: it did not. Like me, on the outside my calf looked normal. The hurts were inside.
“Dr. S has a slot Thursday at 3:30,” the receptionist offered. “Or call at 8 am tomorrow and we might be able to work you in same day.”
I felt defeated and suddenly tearful. Working from home, my bedroom was just across the hall from my office. I did something I never did. I laid down in bed, while the sun was shining bright in the sky.
I sank under the covers, felt so peaceful, amazingly peaceful. I began to drift off—and then, wham! I woke with a start, as if someone had shaken me. An insistent inner voice demanded that I go, now, to a doctor. Any doctor. By this time, my daughter was back from high school. I limped downstairs and asked her to please drive me to the urgent care. I was so exhausted I couldn’t have managed to get there. I felt numb.
In yogic philosophy, samskaras are pathways worn into your thought processes by repetition, like the ruts worn into a pasture by cows plodding to the barn at feeding time. Over and over, that trip to the barn. Conditioning. Samskaras can be positive, but most of us struggle with our negative ones. The ruts of repeated beliefs and behaviors are worn so deep. Change seems impossible. My samskaras—my willingness to turn away from my own pain, to ignore it, disown it, to discount my physical sensations and emotions—a path of not trusting my own body and mind—almost did me in.
At the urgent care, I got really lucky. They were slow, and I was seen quickly. The nurse who did the patient interview was thorough. After the question about family history of heart disease, when I said my father died from a heart attack in his mid-fifties, he made a note on his clipboard and excused himself from the room. Seconds later, he returned. “We’re not going to charge you, you need to get right to an ER. We think you are having a heart attack.”
“But I don’t have chest pain?”
“Tell the ER we suspect heart attack,” he repeated. “Have your daughter drive you straight there, so we don’t have to wait for an ambulance.”
It was, in fact, not a heart attack. My charlie horse was not due to potassium deficiency or even perimenopause, at least, not directly. It was due to deep vein thrombosis, thanks to the low-dose “safe” birth-control pills that were supposed to make me feel better. And the DVT had been throwing off clots, caught by my waiting lungs, slowly filling them. “Multiple pulmonary embolisms in all lobes,” the cardiologist said. “Usually, this is diagnosed on the autopsy table. Any one of those clots could’ve caused instant death. You’re very lucky to be alive.”
And so a new samskara was born on my rebirth-day. “Very lucky to be alive.”
I know now, I was always lucky to be alive. I just had been focused on the wrong things, avoiding confrontation, denying what was true, ignoring pain, smothering joy, trying to cover up pain instead of facing it. I’d had it wrong for so long. But that day, I began anew. “Very lucky to be alive.”
Old samskaras are persistent, though. My self-defeating ones haven’t gone away.
Turmoil falls like rain, slipping and sliding me into old familiar grooves. I pick myself up faster now, though. I let the rain wash over me. I even laugh at it sometimes, laugh at myself for slipping. I remember a summer day when I was with a dear friend, someone from this new lifetime. We were walking once, and got caught out in a deluge. I reflexively began to cover my head, futilely, looking for a place to run. Recoiling, I was trying to change the reality of the rain that was falling, reverting to old habits. He, on the other hand, laughed up at the sky, let the rain wash across his smile.
I felt a surge: I was lucky to be alive, in the rain, with my friend.
“Very lucky to be alive.”
We grow old, if we are lucky. Life hurts sometimes. Pain comes, uncertainty comes, loss comes. Sometimes it feels unbearable.
- This dewdrop world —
- Is a dewdrop world,
- And yet, and yet . . .
The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote that, after two of his children died when they were very small. He somehow found, even after such losses, beauty, and the will to go on. He too must have known he was lucky to be alive.
Life is hard, change is hard. I once thought perimenopause and my changing body and crumbling marriage were the end of me. That I was powerless, defeated. It seems almost comical now, looking back. Yes, my marriage ended, the imagined future I had hoped for ended with it. And yet—
“I’m lucky to be alive,” I think, with each pink bursting dawn, each deep breath, each morning’s first sip of hot coffee, each warm hug, each aching goodbye, each day and hour I get to live and write and walk and feel, the good feelings and the hard ones, too. Maybe someday I’ll wear away my old faithful, fearful samskaras with gratitude. Maybe someday my fears will dance hand in hand in the rain, smiling, laughing, transformed.
I’m still figuring out what comes next, and I accept I always will be figuring it out. Always falling down and getting up.
Always –“very lucky to be alive.”
I believe in hope
in light in dark times
in turning off the news
in speaking the truth
in spreading beauty into the world
in the power of small miracles
in starting where you find yourself
in breathing in the moments
To anyone who struggles (which includes, I think, everyone?)—keep trying, keep moving, keep looking, keep reaching. Change requires action and effort. Sometimes action is just a walk around the neighborhood when you’re feeling lost inside. Remember, as Audrey Hepburn said, “I believe that tomorrow is another day and…I believe in miracles.”
Eyes open, heart open
Love more, fear less
Listen deeply, speak bravely
It was only a matter of hours.
The sunflower who had stood so tall, a full head taller than me, regal and commanding, had turned her gaze towards the earth instead of the stars.
I’d come back to take a daytime image of her.
I expected her to be smiling at the sun, chin held high as it had been the night before. But there she was smiling down at me, bowed, chin tucked.
Nothing stays the same. She was beautiful as ever.
No and You Cannot
Rinsing a dish, I think:
When I grow up, I want to be a poem!
flaring, burning, writhing, flaming, feel my body
shrivel to ash, feel my soul
“Ri-dic-u-lous!” the twins chorus
No and You Cannot, that pair
who live in my head, have lived there
my whole life, givers of doubt
little shivers, always with me
They’ve strung hammocks, hung lanterns
sometimes, they sleep
their relentless snoring
rising, falling, sawing—a backdrop like the cicadas
outside in the mulberry tree
I sort knives, forks, spoons, bowls
Snug in my brain, the twins curl, lulled by my clatter
I scrub at some eggy crust and quietly think:
Sweet pumice stone,
Meet beating heart
Grind it down, down
grind it down, smooth it away…
You Cannot kicks me. No (so dramatic!) screams in her sleep.
My dogged heart keeps on
enduring, enduring, enduring
Can you hear it? Like the cicadas
like the deep breaths of my hopes and my dreams
rising, falling, enduring
enduring, enduring. I’m fifty-two.
And I’ve decided: when I grow up, I want to be a poem.
Waxing moon/July 28
How many times we all cooed at
the newborn moon, cradled
in the ghostly arms of the Sycamore
we oohed, we ahhed, we sighed—
Tonight the waxing moon’s gotten herself
tangled in the twisty-fingered Sweet Gum
just outside my new window
I ooh, I ahh, I sigh—
This week brought the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. The morning of the anniversary, I woke gently. I felt so peaceful, as if I had been rocked in my sleep. It reminded me of how I slept on the day she died.
I was a new mother then, my firstborn just five weeks old. Day and night had blurred into a fuzzy netherworld, especially given that I’d spent the past two weeks strapping my (often screaming) baby into the car, and driving back and forth between my home and my mother’s home, an hour away, crying along with the baby.
My mother was thin and fragile but was seeming to do okay despite her advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, right up until she wasn’t okay at all and was rushed to the hospital.
With that news, I strapped baby Avery into the car and drove north and stayed, in my childhood bedroom, alone in the house while my siblings made arrangements to come from much further away. My husband came up and stayed as long as he could, but work called him.
It was a hot July, and humid. Heat saps me in the best of times. Then there was the constant stickiness of sweat, mine and the baby’s; my breast milk leaks and her spit up and all the messiness of the start of life slammed up against the end of life, as each day I strapped Avery into a cotton sling slung across my body and went to the hospital, where my mother was threading in an out of consciousness, more out than in.
My mother’s last words to me were “pretty baby.” I think that was what she said.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
And then my mother closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep, but it was hard to know. Hard to know what to do, so I sat by her bedside when Avery slept or nursed in her sling-nest, and I paced the room and the halls when Avery woke, fussy.
Some of the nurses scolded me. “What are you thinking,” I remember one saying. “Bringing a newborn into hospital crawling with germs?”
Now I’d tell that nurse to fuck off, doesn’t she of all people know that the baby has my immune system to protect her, and is too small to touch things herself, and she’s safe as can be, and besides, don’t you see? I need to be here. I need to be with both of these people. But back then, her scolding just set off a cascade of anxiety. There’s nothing worse than wanting to split your self in two, and that’s how I felt. Divided.
Suddenly I was summoned to a cramped room by a social worker who demanded to know how I planned to care for my mother, because there was no sense operating to fix the brain bleed; they couldn’t help her any further, and a discharge was imminent. I have no memory of what came next, but hours later or perhaps the next day, I was on a tour of the local Hospice, a gleaming new facility, baby strapped on me muttering to be fed, the Hospice lady talking on and on about pet visits while my milk let down, and my tears leaked. My body and my life seemed completely beyond my control, and I was all about control then.
The Hospice lady told me it might be days or weeks before a space became available, and that there was no way to know how soon my mother might die, but they could set up home visits. I was overcome with fear, dread, feeling completely overwhelmed.
When one of my older brothers arrived, I drove back to my home. Word came that a room had indeed miraculously opened at Hospice. Avery fell asleep, or my husband took her away and rocked her—I’m not sure which, but sprawled across the futon, I fell into the deepest, best sleep of my adult life. The sleep of an exhausted toddler. A sleep such as I had again on the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death.
On the day my mother died, my sleep had been broken by my husband, gently touching my shoulder, saying, “the phone, it’s your brother…”
It took a long, long while for me to figure out that I had not betrayed my mother by leaving, by taking a break. All I knew to do was hold on, when I should have let go.
I was too scared and tired to see the truth, that she needed me to be gone in order to let go. And there’s part of me now that thinks perhaps she also needed permission to let go herself. My brother told me he read psalms to her, and told her she could go. He had a faith that I did not. She let go. She went. And now, finally, I can see it was not an end at all.
I think the sweet dreamy sleep on the day of her death was her farewell, covering me like a soft blanket. I think the wash of peace on her death anniversary was her hello, her freed energy finding me, holding me for a long moment, then letting me go to live my life.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
Every time I travel I am energized and struck by new possibilities. As the plane begins its descent, I wiggle in my seat and think: I could live here (or there or there). The world brims with sparkling promise, the way ocean waves shimmer and dance all the way to the blurry far off horizon on a blue June day.
As the plane lands, I feel so full of life. In a flash I understand completely why even tired old horses prance so excitedly on windy fine mornings. They smell change on the wind.
I want to run to the edge of the boundaries—those fences I built or the world erected to contain me.
And then to push past that, and find the elusive place where I can live beyond old fears. Where I can revel. And completely relax. It could be anywhere. It could be inside me.
Will people think I’m strange if I prance in this spring wind?