This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.
“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.
“Spoiled,” offers a friend.
“Stubborn,” declares Precious.
Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.
Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.
So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.
These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.
Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.
When I tell people my husband has been receiving treatment for cancer, many ask—almost reflexively—“What kind?”
After thoughtful consideration, much of it conducted in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and pharmacy lines, I’ve decided this is not the most appropriate, or helpful, response.
At fifty-seven, I am sometimes fixated on causes of death for folks my age and younger. Hoping, I guess, that I might avoid their fates if I just have the facts. Take a different route, get a second opinion, stop the unhealthy habit.
So I get it, the curiosity. I just don’t like it.
If the answer to the question “What kind of cancer?” turns out to be one of the more aggressive types, will you label my husband a goner? If it’s categorized as “lifestyle related,” will you condemn him?
Each time I’m asked this question, I’m taken back to occasions when I’ve inquired, or wondered, upon hearing such announcements from others. All the times I made assumptions. I hope I never do that again.
From where I sit now, in a chair beside my husband as he receives chemotherapy infusions or next to him on the couch as he rests after radiation, the only real question is, “What can I do?”
I have hiked five miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s true, but I usually announce this with my eyes cast downward. Not because I think five miles is paltry; for me, it’s an accomplishment. My reticence is due to the circumstances of my achievement.
So, yes, I did cover a handful of miles of the North Carolina portion of the AT. But I did it with guides, people who walked before me as an example of where to put my feet; how to navigate a root-heavy curve; when to steady my pace. Those same people also toted my luggage from inn to inn as we spent our nights in soft beds after eating delicious meals prepared by hands other than ours. We awoke to smiling hosts and hot coffee before setting out for the day. (Over the course of the trip we logged more than five miles, only part of which was on the AT.)
Does it matter that I’ve never “roughed it” a day in my life? What if I mentioned the ice storm that cut off our power for four days, causing my parents and me to huddle in blankets around the fireplace, or reminisced about rolling out my sleeping bag onto the hard ground outside Mentone, Alabama, while at Camp DeSoto, or noted the semester I spent in Indiana living in a cold, sparsely furnished rooming house while teaching? Without wireless or cable? Without my husband?
If I were to talk about any of those experiences as real challenges, you would not reward me with your awe.
There are other things I might impress you with, like not marrying until I was forty-one and being okay with having lived alone so long. Trusting that my life has purpose, even though I never had biological children. Spending three days in the hospital with an undiagnosed infection that threatened to wipe out my white blood cells.
Still, I have not “roughed it” a day in my life. When I was single, I had good friends and encouraging role models who crafted fine lives for themselves without romantic partners. When I was diagnosed with endometriosis and told that any fleeting chance I might have had for bearing a child had passed, I did not think that meant my life had no meaning. I had not dreamed of having children, even though almost everyone around me assumed I longed for offspring. And with the hospitalization two years ago, I was lucky to have access to good healthcare, and to be blessed by a peace that passes all understanding.
In my younger days, I needed your approval. Never one to take a chance and then beg forgiveness, I sought permission even when none was required. Back then, I hungered for your acknowledgment. If you praised me, all the better.
My younger days are gone. It’s one of the joys of aging, this trusting of Self. At long last I no longer crave the noticing of the world. My own awareness is enough.
In the writing workshops I facilitate, we write in response too prompts. I wrote this after reading “The Hike,” by Genie Zeiger, as printed in The Sun Magazine. I encourage the folks gathered around my table to go where the writing takes them, without worrying if it relates directly to the prompt. So I took my own advice, and this is what I came up with on a Saturday morning in Nashville. What does the poem bring up in you? Write for twenty minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!
I’ve only written a few book reviews in my day, mainly because I don’t really understand them. Or maybe I don’t appreciate them properly. Is one person’s opinion of a book supposed to sway me, even when I’m not familiar with the reviewer’s background or interests? What if I love the author and disagree with the reviewer’s take? (I will admit, when the topic is one I’m not familiar with, reviews have helped me understand better about the issue/theme at hand.)
So, instead of formal reviews, I’m going to be in conversation with the author’s words when I find books I’d like to share.
First up: Mary Pipher’s Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World(Riverhead)
Mary Pipher: “Religions are metaphorical systems that give us bigger containers in which to hold our lives. A spiritual life allows us to move beyond the ego into something more universal. Religious experience carries us outside of clock time into eternal time. We open ourselves into something more complete and beautiful. This bigger vista is perhaps the most magnificent aspect of a religious experience.” (p. 176)
ALW: Just as we do with writing, or whatever our creative outlet might be, we want to move from the personal to the universal, to make room in the story or the painting for others. I love thinking about how religion, and art, both allow us to experience a wider world. (P.S. If you don’t yet have a creative outlet, get one. Holler and I’ll help you…)
Mary Pipher: “I had many meditation sessions in which I felt both joy and despair, and peacefulness and anxiety. I had moments when I disappeared into a connected golden universe, and others in which I raked myself over the coals and feared I would never be free. I would have weeks when I felt I had made no progress. Then I would have an experience of openness and compassion. I began to depend on meditation for emotional centering. My body responded to it at some level I didn’t understand. I was beginning to trust something other than reason.” (pp. 184-85)
ALW: This is not the only passage that makes me want to jump online and try to find Mary Pipher so we can be friends. I still have sits that make me want to give up, and meditation is not yet a daily habit for me, but I’ve done it enough to know it makes a difference. And her last line in that paragraph—“I was beginning to trust something other than reason”—speaks to one of my greatest challenges: learning to trust instead of trying to figure it out. And I’m open to whatever can help me do that: religion, meditation, walks around the lake, staring at mountains, writing.
Mary Pipher: “When we surround ourselves with beauty, we are likely to experience a moment. We have our ‘peak experiences’ on the beach or prairie, in a mountain meadow or beside a river. We experience moments at concerts, art galleries or the theater. … To create moments in our daily lives, we must have a new set of skills for making magic out of the ordinary. Psychology and all the great spiritual traditions teach these skills.
“Fortunately, the more moments we find, the more we learn to find them. The process is not unlike being receptive to the muse. Artists know that to access their creativity, they must somehow be curious and attentive. They learn not to reject the small openings, the little tugs on the sleeve, the miniature portals that open something vast and immediate.”
ALW: Some of my top big moments out in the world–moments that let me know there’s a connection one to another, and all to the Divine Other–include listening to the rain on the grape leaves in France with my parents; hearing Van Morrison at The Ryman; and watching the sun rise and set in Boone, North Carolina. Smaller moments might include the red leaves I saw on my walk this evening; hearing my dog snore, spread eagled on the couch; the older woman at the bank last week who reminded me of my own precious mother.
As for paying attention, for several years now I’ve been all about creating areas in my home that bring beauty to my mind, appreciation to my heart, and peace to my soul. Little altars, in some ways. Curated collections that might contain some of my favorite memorabilia: pictures of loved ones; small art pieces; rocks and feathers; candles. The more I do this, the easier it is for me to notice inspiration, and give thanks, out in the world. For paying attention is key, yes? To our souls, to our communities , and to our fellow pilgrims.
This cabin in the woods is empty now, but on two rainy days in early June it embraced twenty-four souls who gathered together to write their hard stories, the ones they can’t share with just anyone. Sometimes not even themselves. Not quite yet.
When I preach, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us,” I mean it, whether you whisper your story to yourself, mail it to your Uncle Bud, or shout it out for the world.
Not everyone who came to write with us during the 2018 Haden Institute Dream and Spirituality Conference at Kanuga shared aloud what they’d written. They didn’t have to, and that was part of the deal.
“Come write,” I say to anyone who will listen. “That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to say a word if you aren’t moved to do so.”
Even that—the writing—is, of course, challenging. I tell clients that writing is as hard, and as easy, as “Just do it.”
After we wrote in response to prompts in the little cabin, when I asked for readers, three women sitting together would, all at once as if they had practiced, shift their eyes toward the floor. Like synchronized swimmers. They made it clear they didn’t want to speak. I didn’t compel or cajole or criticize. I let them be.
Later, two of the ladies would tell me they just couldn’t talk, but that afterwards, in the privacy of their room in the lodge or on a bench by the lake, the words—and the tears—came. They were grateful, they said, and I reminded them that they had done the work. All I did was invite them to try, make the space as safe as I could, and remind them they are not alone. That’s one of the best things sharing our stories can do: Connect us to others—those who grieve just like we do—which is everyone, if they’re honest. All of us have it, that thing that threatens to silence us and prevent us from engaging fully with the life that remains. The life that is.
You might miss your father, dead some twenty years, while the person next to you in the grocery checkout mourns the children he never had. Your neighbor regrets marrying her husband, and your yoga instructor hasn’t spoken to her sister in three years. We’ve all got something.
My goal is not to force people to dwell on what might have been or is no more. Instead, I encourage people to put into words those tender parts of life so that they might gain a little perspective, perhaps. Make a little space in which they can take a breath between the loss and the present day in order to better absorb and honor the gap. We live more fully when we take it all in, even the loss. Maybe especially the loss. I am among those who believe our greatest gifts are uncovered in our greatest tenderness, those places we hesitate to touch for fear something might break loose. Famous people have said it better than I can, like Henri Nouwen:
“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” (henrinouwen.org)
I believe that “service to others” begins with our willingness to connect to our fellow pilgrims through our hard stories. Heartache to heartache, soul to soul. Story to story.
The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.
Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.
Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.” She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.
As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.
In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.
Or worse, a “badass.” MayBelle doesn’t want to be any of those things. She just wants to be herself. Maybe, in this new year, a more refined MayBelle, or even the most MayBelle-iest MayBelle she can be. But she refuses to be overwhelmed/intimidated/shamed by messages implying that she needs to be different—that she has to re-create who she is—in order to live a full life or make a mark. Her middle-aged MayBelle-ness—overweight and prone to worry, proud of her accomplishments while embarrassed by missteps, aware of time passing but still hopeful—simply has to be enough.
So in the coming days, 2018, MayBelle plans to “center down” as Howard Thurman says in Meditations of the Heart. She will rise to her strengths as often as she can. She hopes to help those in need when she’s able, tend her loved ones with care and compassion, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, push herself to be healthier, follow her heart, improve her skills, and in all things give thanks. But please don’t tell MayBelle every day has to be awesome, New Year, because some days aren’t. Some days are just plan ol’ days, full of mundane events and interactions. And while MayBelle believes there is usually something extraordinary in the ordinary, other days are so challenging they can only be endured. It’s life. And life requires more than positive thinking and exhortations to be a “badass” or claim one’s inner warrior. MayBelle actually hopes she doesn’t read the word “badass” again in all of 2018, and she’s glad her precious mother is not here to see how commonplace such words have become. (Pardon her prudishness, but MayBelle, for one, does not need the f-word on a coffee mug.)
Surely MayBelle doesn’t have to be a change agent or a goddess to live fully, serve others, pursue her dreams. She just has to be herself. So, 2018, you will not find MayBelle berating herself if every day isn’t off the charts fantastic. You won’t catch her strategizing for world–or even neighborhood–domination.
Instead, MayBelle will be over here doing the best she can. Paying attention to the world around her, writing her heart out, and helping others do the same. Making adjustments as needed, relying on grace, and counting her blessings. If she loses a few pounds or gets a book deal in the process, great. If not, she’ll still be pretty bada**.
I’m beginning to realize that my current sensitivity around the state of the world and the state of my own emotional well-being is not just a day or two of the blues. It is a tender stage of life I must make my way through.
At fifty-six, I find myself restless, wondering if I’ve done enough and curious about what more there might be to do and what it might look like. New career? Different town? Stay the course? Get a facelift?
Some folks say I think too much, worry more than I should. Guilty as charged. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to be what I am: highly sensitive and hyper aware. And I’m too old for that now. Instead I choose to embrace these qualities and work with them as best I can. There are some upsides: curiosity, empathy, creativity, trustworthiness, and a willingness to hang out in the trenches with people who are hurting. Some of the challenges include: taking on problems that aren’t mine to solve; an inability to filter out what I don’t need to absorb; overreacting to perceived injustices; and accepting what’s mine to do and laying down the rest.
In order to make my way in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed, I need to get quiet and listen deeply—to myself and my Creator. One way I’m doing that right now is by working my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. The current assignment is to list “Ten Tiny Changes” I’d like to make and then crafting goals from those. This an effective way to streamline what’s important to me. For example, from “I want to publish a book,” I get, “I will write every day.” From “I would like to teach part time,” I move to, “I will apply for the adjunct job at the university.” From “I would like to start my spiritual direction practice,” I come up with, “I will reach out to friends in the spiritual community for advice.” Wanting to lose weight morphs into, “I will walk five times a week.”
It may seem straightforward, like a “no brainer” to those who are more single minded and pragmatic, that you would list your goals and then set about tackling them. But for someone like me, who can become convinced fairly easily that I should be doing something else–or worse, that I should “be” someone else–the act of breaking my goals down into “tiny changes” is helpful. Let’s see how it goes…
P.S. How do you focus and make progress on your goals and dreams?
I’m two weeks in with The Artist’s Way Workbook, and have done my morning pages every day except for one. Not sure why I forgot that day, but I got right back to it the next morning and I’m glad for the practice. It’s helping me unload some nighttime/early rising thoughts, and providing a sense of both inspiration and accomplishment. I’m not reviewing the pages or belaboring the content, per the instructions, just writing and releasing. I can’t say it necessarily alleviates all that weighs on me, but it’s helping, this practice, and it’s even revealed a couple of story ideas for The Big Project I’m working on.
I’ve taken two Artist Dates, one to garage sales in search of art supplies—found a great drop cloth and paints—and another for a walk, during which the aim was not exercise but nature observation. Captured a few pictures and collected some acorns and horse apples and such. This is not earth-shattering blog content, I realize. But The Artist’s Way is equipping me for building a foundation upon which to rededicate myself to the writing life, a life I have fought against with jobs that don’t suit me and depression that threatens to stifle my efforts and betray my confidence.
“You must love to write and bear the loneliness,” says Robert McKee in Story. “But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”
I have friends who say they don’t like to use the word “regret,” I guess because they don’t want to admit they’d appreciate a do-over or two. I’m okay with the word, for I think if you don’t have at least a couple of regrets then maybe you haven’t really been living. As for a definition, the dictionary says: “to feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).” If you’re telling me you’ve never been blue about a misstep or a neglected chance, I’m not sure I believe you.
Certainly there are things I would have done differently: I wish I’d lived in New England for a while, mainly because I’ve convinced myself everyone there is really smart and attractive in a rugged yet sophisticated sort of way. I would have been less uptight when I was younger, and taken a few more risks.
But the One Real Regret I’ll have is not doing more with my writing. I’m not even sure what that means just yet, but I’m going to find out. And I’m hoping that by talking about it out loud it will become more real somehow.
First step: Making my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. I’ve long been familiar with Julia Cameron, and have relied on her books in my teaching. When I heard her speak in Santa Monica some twenty-plus years ago, I knew her work would influence me. I just didn’t know it would one day be the creative lifeline I view it to be now.
This week’s exercise focused on “enemies of your creative self worth.” Write it all down, even something that might seem petty, came the instructions. It all matters. So I let rip about some dismissive things said to me as a teen, and a boss I had in my twenties who was so careless with his authority that a year after I’d quit a co-worker called to say he’d just pulled with her what he had with me, telling us we might have chosen the wrong profession, even though there was no evidence to suggest that unless you counted his arrogance. Man do I sometimes wish I could show him how well things worked out for me in that very profession, but I don’t regret not telling him off, for that would just be, well, rude.
It might not make sense for regret to lead me to The Artist’s Way, but it has. And I’m going to trust it’s where I need to be every day for the twelve weeks laid out in the workbook, writing my Morning Pages, doing the exercises, taking my Artist Dates. Listening and learning—or re-learning or un-learning—and reporting back: to myself, to you, to the Creator.
P.S. Do you have a potential One Real Regret? If so, how might you prevent it?
Copyright Hamblett House LLC. Photo of Amy Lyles Wilson by Martha Grace Gray Photography.