“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” -Anne Lamott
I finally watched the movie, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. It was selected by Mindful.org as the “mindful film of the year” and really struck a chord. I’m drawn to stories of people embarking on pilgrimages of self-discovery that involve backpacking through the wilderness, and Wild features a woman who is grieving the death of her mother and decides to hike 1,100 miles solo along the Pacific Crest Trail to reclaim her life, which had been thrown into disarray in the wake of her mother’s death. Unlike my sister, I watched the movie prior to reading the memoir on which it was based. Now I want to read the book!
Watching the movie made me aware of a deep-seated desire to do something out of the ordinary to honor my own grief and rebuild my life. I yearn for a rite of passage – a touchstone for transformation.
Part of me longs to take a backpacking journey – as portrayed in Wild or The Way – or to retreat to the solitude of a simple cabin in the woods for a few months to get some perspective. I just want to stop the world for a little while to take inventory and forge a new vision – because my world changed ten months ago when my mother died, and it will never be the same again. I will never be the same. I want to create something fresh and vital from the ashes and make the most of this “one and precious life.”
At the end of Wild, a voice-over summarizes the woman’s journey:
“But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if I wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief, I found my own way out of the woods. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there on the last day of my hike. Thank you, I thought over and over again, for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know.”
-Cheryl Strayed, as quoted in the movie adaptation of her memoir, Wild.
I have some of my own “what ifs.”
What if situations that seem dreadful or unfortunate on the surface teach us something? What if walking through the darker corners of grief is part of our journey? What if people who appear as adversaries are actually helping us to awaken and move on? What if getting pushed to our limit is exactly what we need in order to change?
What if I’m here to do my work in this world by using my particular nature and programming to the fullest, rather than trying to force my nature to conform to incompatible situations? What if my nature/essence/personality is no accident and serves a purpose that I have yet to understand and utilize fully?
During the winter, I prayed for clarity…and received it. And I’m grateful for it, even though the timing feels inconvenient. I have resolved to walk through a door that, for years, I’ve been afraid to walk through, even though doing so still scares me. And that’s why I’m now praying for courage – because not doing it would be too great a compromise. Certainly, there will be other “problems” that arise when I walk through that door, but at least I will not compromise my spirit any longer. That is a burden too heavy to bear.
I think of how preoccupied I was with what “to do” with my life – meaning what kind of work to do. For a long time, I equated work with livelihood but have since come to define it much more broadly, as the energy we give to the world. The specifics of it don’t seem as important as the context in which it is carried out. I acknowledge the importance of being in an environment that is aligned with my principles and values what I have to offer, an environment in which I have freedom to be myself and to release my best, most authentic energy and talents into the world. I’m realizing that if conforming to a system or environment devastates your spirit, you must have enough self-respect and faith to move on. When a situation isn’t compatible with your nature, you owe it to yourself to say, “No, thank you,” and move forward…because it would be a waste of your precious life not to. I think it would be a tragedy to get to the end of this life and see that I wasted time failing to express my highest nature by remaining stuck in something that requires me to be someone I’m not – something that binds my wings and has lost its spirit, meaning, and purpose. Remaining stuck is like clinging to a rotten branch. It’s allowing the lower, fearful self to be in the driver’s seat. It’s not living.
No, thank you. I was made for more than that!
I wonder: Does everyone go a little crazy while navigating the wilderness of grief – each in our own way? Can you ever be the same again after losing your mother? And is “sameness” something to even wish for? Or is it one of the great delusions? (As a photographer, I would answer yes because it is becoming apparent to me that, based on the interdependent nature of this world of form, nothing remains exactly the same from moment-to-moment.)
In recent months, I have been spending time watching the Battenkill River flow. Its movement is much more dramatic than the flow of the Hudson River in front of my house. The roaring Battenkill inspires and influences me greatly and has been teaching me about letting go and dislodging the fear-based belief that my present set of circumstances is the safest, healthiest place to be.
The only thing I know at this point that my mother’s death has awakened me to the gift, opportunity, and brevity of our human life. Status quo appears to be over. And rather than focus on the time, money, and energy wasted on something that ended up not being a good fit, I can be thankful for all I have learned and the ways in which I have grown as a result. No stepping stone on our path is for naught. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without it. But it is not the end of the path. There is more to come.
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” And when it’s time to move on, may we do so with love, gratitude, and confidence.
It’s been two weeks since my last published post, which must be an all-time record! I’ve actually written quite a bit in the interim but felt most of it was too personal and perhaps wouldn’t resonate meaningfully with others. Basically, I’ve been grappling with the Life is Short; Do What You Love philosophy that has fueled me all year long. It feels like an energy that came on strong after being activated by a brush with death and needs to be worked with so it can be integrated gracefully and for the greater good.
I’ve wished I could put life on hold and retreat to a mountaintop for a few months to figure out how to proceed in the wake of my mother’s passing, when it feels as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath me, and there’s nobody looking out for me in a maternal way. The bottom line is that life is short, and I don’t want to die with my magnum opus still locked inside me. That seems to be one of my greatest fears.
On the flip side of Life is Short; Do What You Love is the paradoxical realization that no external outcome is necessary to complete or “fix” me. There is no job, relationship, project, etc. through which to seek fulfillment because true fulfillment is ultimately an inside job. I’ve learned this from experience. It doesn’t mean that any of those efforts are without value but that they are the icing on the cake of personal and spiritual fulfillment. At my core, I already am whole and complete. (And so are you.) I’ve never felt that so strongly. It’s a matter of returning to that core and being receptive to the guidance that arises.
Resolution of the paradox creeps in silently as an invitation to enter the inner sanctuary and surrender to the mystery. I have been longing to meditate every day, knowing that when I sit on the cushion in front of my altar, behind my desk, or wherever, I will fill with light, rise above the waves of ordinary life, and engage with the present moment from a place of wholeness rather than deprivation or lack. What great pleasure to feel the warmth of the wood stove, inhale the earthy fragrance of incense, and accept the invitation from spirit to sit alone in a quiet, candlelit room and journey to the center of my being!
Inevitably, I returned to the realization that while trying to integrate Life is Short; Do What You Love in a way that doesn’t upset the entire apple cart, the key is to love what you do. Love – or at least accept – what is. The full catastrophe of human life. Cultivate inner fulfillment by connecting with the present moment, regardless of external factors. When my pain-body (a term coined by Eckhart Tolle) is activated or I find myself in frantic pursuit mode (for example, burning the midnight oil with intense creativity that inevitably leads to exhaustion) and look outside of myself and the present moment for salvation, I feel like a sun that has forgotten her true identity and strength and wanders around at night trying to steal light from the moon (that, of course, only reflects the sun’s light).
But the soul is patient. It is beyond time, not threatened by it. When you’re in flight from what is, you make your hell worse because you do the exact opposite of accepting and embracing the present moment, which is a portal to infinite possibilities and personal power. It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, thinking she was so far from home and then learning that the whole time she had the power to return in an instant. You can return – again and again and again – and connect with the light.
Even in my darkest hours of exhaustion and grief, I have discovered that I am able to experience how much larger I am than my feelings – that I can take one conscious, spacious breath and breathe over the top of them. I can put my hand on wherever I feel the tension in my body (usually the solar plexus area), breathe, and be present to it – and become aware of a much larger part of myself at the core of it all. I am grateful for experiences that provide me with the realization of how much more IMMENSE I am than anything I can feel! Who I AM can hold and support all of that. With awareness, there is no need to indulge in suffering and/or distraction for a moment longer. No need to give in to inertia or to be held hostage by emotions. How liberating is that?
What’s different for me this time around is that there’s no judgment or shame. It’s all feedback. I can see areas in which I’m resisting the present moment and shutting out blessings. It gives me material to work with. As my spiritual teacher advised during a group retreat two weekends ago, I can acknowledge that, while I might not have done this or that thing right or well, I am a being of light. I’ve recalled this advice numerous times, and it’s quite powerful and empowering. You don’t get sucked into spiritual or emotional quicksand.
Reawakening to the inner light after wandering in darkness (whether in the form of exhaustion, waves of emotion, or any other kind of forgetting) is the most wonderful homecoming. It’s as if you prepared a nourishing, homemade meal then left the house for a short time. When you open the door and enter your home (i.e. the indwelling light) after being away, the comforting aroma welcomes you instantly. Had you stayed home the whole time, you would have grown accustomed to it and perhaps not have been able to smell and appreciate it at all. It’s as if you have to leave and return in order to experience how lovely and nourishing it really is. Strengthening that return reflex is what mindful awareness is all about. There is such joy in returning to the present moment, which is the only moment we truly have – the bridge between paradoxes.
The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.
I bought my new At-a-Glance weekly/monthly planner yesterday. (As a teacher and parent, my year runs July to June rather than January to December.)
It’s turquoise – my favorite color. And it felt so good to file the old one! As I transferred birthdays and such into the new planner, I noticed the notes I’d jotted down about all the “events” that arose during the past year. Although I’ve kept a running tally in my head of the major events, there were some that had slipped my mind. And – wow. It totally explains why I ended up feeling as I do: Questioning virtually every aspect of my life situation and wanting to reinvent myself. I guess the bottom line is that some years are like that – and my nature photography was the saving grace that pulled me through and helped me to find beauty and inspiration to rise above the waves rather than be sucked under. When a year like that comes along, you’ve got to cull whatever grace, blessings, and wisdom you can from it and keep going.
“There are no tough times, hard knocks, or challenges that aren’t laden with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds for those who see them through.” -Mike Dooley
The past year helped me to get my priorities straight. I am ready for deep transformation and for living a more authentic, congruent life. Life is short, and I simply don’t have the energy for anything else.
I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot this week. And that’s usually not a great sign because if you’re thinking about being happy, you’re probably not doing it. Too much thinking can be a real handicap on the spiritual path. It can be an addiction, a distraction.
It seems I’ve come to a fork in the road. One way points to Authenticity and Adventure and the other to Fear (which runs perilously close to the dense forest of Hopelessness).
I know which road I want to take. But I think I am programmed to take the other through nearly half a century of conditioning – most of it well intentioned. Realizing this is really frustrating – and at times, downright painful. Because the former route is the way of Life, and the latter is the way of Death. Is there anything more regrettable than an unlived life – remaining closed in a bud rather than blooming and sharing your gift with the world as fully as possibly?
My hair is a perfect metaphor for the ambivalence I’m struggling with. Although most of my hair is dark auburn, the roots are mostly silver. And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of putting poison on my head, and the last time I did it, it didn’t feel like “me.” I’m considering letting my hair go natural rather than mask who I really am. The way I see it, silver strands of wisdom are growing out of my head, and I’ve earned every single one of them.
So yes, I am ready. Ready for deep, voluntary transformation. For rewiring my neural circuitry. Not just talking about it or learning how to do it, but really doing it.
I have been obsessing for the past year over a situation in my life that I would like to change. With everything that has occurred in the past year, it’s difficult to sort out whether the situation is really as bad as it seems or if managing all the major events during the past year has been so overwhelming that I simply couldn’t cope with it as resourcefully as I might have been able to other years. I want to avoid making the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
One of the problems is that I can’t think of a compelling alternative to the present situation. That is because I have accumulated enough life experience to know that happiness does not depend on situations or conditions external to ourselves (i.e. “If I get/achieve this, I’ll be happy.”) I have had the good fortune of manifesting various situations and relationships my heart desired and have learned that enduring happiness doesn’t come from those things/people. The interplay of all the external conditions in our lives is constantly shifting and changing like the image in a kaleidoscope. Although I haven’t had a great deal of material success so far in this lifetime, I realize from knowing and reading autobiographies about people who have everything money can buy, that material success is not the Holy Grail of happiness. Happiness is an inner quality, an attunement and sense of well being – and when it is activated in you, the situations in your life are irrelevant.
I truly believe that, unless there are biochemical issues at play, happiness is a choice. If you’re not happy with a current situation, you have the choice to change it or to change your attitude toward it. You can make excuses for why you cannot do either, but the bottom line is that your happiness is at stake.
The buck stops here. I can no longer blame people or situations for my unhappiness or depend on them for my happiness. I simply can’t accept that anymore. The change from discontent to happiness must come from within. Period.
So I wonder which is better: To stay where I am and hope the situation becomes more palatable to my soul or to remove myself from the situation and hopefully find something more nourishing? Some people need to have the next step lined up in order to make a change, whereas others are more comfortable taking a leap of faith. As much as I’d like to be in the latter category, might there be some value – a certain depth – in remaining? Or is it a cop-out? I guess that depends on personality and intention; it is not black and white.
Perhaps there is another alternative: To stop thinking so much about it and simply be present. Show up each moment as authentic, mindful presence. Even if the outward situation seems artificial or restrictive, perhaps bringing my authentic self to it can somehow transform it into something better? Or perhaps it is at least worth a try? The gift of presence.
I have a role model for this. Back in the fall, I wrote about Lorenzo, who directed traffic through a local construction project. He spent the entire day – for weeks – spreading joy and kindness to everyone who drove by. It was incredible. I always felt that somebody needed to write or make a film about him because what he does is that inspired. And it turns out his story is going to be included in a forthcoming book about happiness! The author – who I follow on Facebook – put out a call for stories of people whose happiness is infectious and who inspire others to be happy. I thought immediately of Lorenzo and filled out the form to nominate him. He was contacted right away, and after his phone interviews got in touch with me via Facebook to thank me for nominating him. What happened next was pretty awesome. I let my Facebook community know that his story will be included in the book, and people started writing about how happy he made them when he directed traffic in our town, and sharing stories of what he said and did that made a difference in their day. What he did for each of us was both radical and simple at the same time: He noticed us. And he was kind. When we were driving in our cars. What more impersonal situation is there than that? And yet he found a way to be so present that he connected with everyone who drove by and made us feel seen and noticed. He made us feel that we mattered. Even in our cars as we were in between wherever we came from and wherever we were headed to. It certainly took me by surprise the first time I drove by him! Standing on the road all day directing traffic, he was able to be a channel of joy and blessings. He transformed what otherwise could be a boring, hot, repetitive job into a true vocation in the most spiritual sense. He was a point in which the Light came through – a beacon for us all. We were drawn to his energy and light, which he kindled within us, as well. I’d love to know how many lives were positively affected by this one man simply showing up for life and letting his light shine. Surely, ripples were set in motion!
If Lorenzo was able to do this standing in traffic, so can we. Each and every one of us. No excuses!
Why not just be happy now, DESPITE IT ALL? Believing that I will be happy if this or that were to change robs me of personal power. It places my happiness in the hands of others or fate, rendering me powerless. Really, it’s just an excuse. A commonplace and ordinary excuse. I’d rather live an exceptional life, like Lorenzo. Sometimes the best way to begin is by helping others, being kind to others, being of service.
Another way of putting it: Would you rather be happy when your clothes fit better or be happy now? Again, what’s at stake is your happiness! Our world is in desperate need of people who exemplify happiness and can model it to others. We Westerners are so good at beating ourselves up.
I’ve heard a story about a couple visiting a town and thinking about moving there. An old man was sitting in the middle of town, and the couple asked him what the people are like in the town. He asked, “What are they like where you live?” and they answered that they’re horrible – unfriendly and dishonest. He replied, “It’s the same here.” Then another couple visited the town, and they, too, were thinking about moving there. They approached the man with the same question, and again he asked what the people are like where they live. The couple said they’re wonderful – so helpful and kind. And the old man replied, “It’s the same here.”
The point is, happiness is an inside job. It doesn’t depend on external factors. You can move, change jobs, change relationships, or change any other life situation, thinking that doing so will make you happy. And maybe it will for a brief time. But enduring happiness is a quality that can only be cultivated in your own mind and heart, no matter what circumstances show up in your life.