Biodegradable Anger, Compostable Pain

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I once wrote a short poem:

“my heart is a trampoline.

you can jump up and down on it

and I will bounce right back.”

Perhaps that’s not always true.

In fact, it’s just a thing I say to carry on.  The real truth is that my heart also contains a little landfill,

where the buried anger has not quite broken down all the way.  The polymer residue of events and conversations that challenge my tolerance and patience, that cover up the kindness, are like the plastic in the real landfil;

here to stay, it seems.

And somehow I think it’s my job to clean things up. You know, to be healthy and happy.  Just for the sake of relief and enjoyment.  Maybe this is the job of every person, not just mothers tending home and babies. We’re used to cleaning up messes.  Especially the kinds of messes that return every day, like dirty socks to wash and crusty pots to scour, and cat pee— (give that one up!  Only fire works.  And maybe rainwater, but I’m still testing that experiment.  Perhaps acid rain is the main ingredient in Nature’s Miracle.)

Like plastic and animal urine, or war and violence, pain and anger are going to be with me, likely until near the time of my death, when the only thing I can do is give up the exercise of living.  Wouldn’t it have been better for me to give those things up long before that moment?  Maybe it could happen.  That I could achieve a state of enlightenment so brilliant that all of my suffering was disintegrated by luminescent love and gratitude.

I secretly wish for that, but let’s be real for a second: has anyone like that ever existed?  Even Jesus was throwing around tables in the synagogue.  If only I had a table to throw.  That  would be such a relief.

I used to be a ruminating smoker. Here are two of the most unhealthy means of processing anger:  to ruminate brings severe depression, as thoughts circle until there is no way out of the labyrinth, bringing an acute sense of hopelessness, desperation and dependency. To smoke brings loss of life.

Somewhere along the way I was able to put down the cigarettes.   I remember how I did it.  First I started taking a pill that masked the nicotine receptors in my brain, and second, I took up sewing.  Hopeless, empty hands needed a new set of motions.

Over time, I began to feel significant relief from the hopelessness.  What I learned and what I can say with confidence is that anger is biodegradable, even when it regenerates afresh.  But first, it needs to go through processing.  It belongs in the compost bin, not the landfil.  Once processed in this way, the packaging is much more convenient to life.  The processing and composting of my pain involves five specific themes:

The first is a focus on something totally unrelated to the current pain.  Distraction works on toddlers, and apparently also on me.

The second involves a physical activity that accompanies the focus.

The third is a challenging and tedious mental activity that is enmeshed in the focused task.  It’s going to need to be something that takes time—stress chemicals will remain and operate under the surface of everything I do, and leak into conversations and relationships.  An activity that allows for some healthy solitude can be incredibly healing.

The fourth is a clearly defined purpose (example: I’m starting with this pile of scraps to make x.)  Working on creative, artistic activities provides a way to temporarily transform the stain, the black spot in my heart.  It also helps to fill the hollow emptiness of loss.  The results of my efforts are kind of like compost: useful for growth.  Fertile elements from darkness.  Incubators for seeds of future projects.

The fifth involves attention to spirit.  Prayer.  Meditation.  Surrender.  If this attention is also accompanied by time in nature, the result is more lasting and uplifting.  I love to be refreshed in nature.

If you want to skip all five steps and get immediate relief in a short amount of time, hard running also has a similar affect.

If only I were at the point in my skill of composting pain to be able to let all things pass straight through.  To let the anger and the pain burn with their toxic chemicals, to be set free of the negative downward pull on my psyche without the physical, material component.

Perhaps that state of being involves the recognition of something I fail to see in the blurry smear of being upset.  Have I, like a stubborn mule, been led to some refreshing peaceful clean water to drink, but refuse to touch my lips to the surface? How have I missed the message? To simply accept a gift of peace; a thing perhaps undeserved but given, the renewable resource like water for the fire.  The message floats up to me now: release.  Do not attempt escape.

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Terrain

terrain_nBack country hiking is my husband’s passion.  So to celebrate our anniversary six years ago, he took me into the wilds of the Shenandoah, to hike a series of circular trails near and crossing over the Appalachian Trail.  It was the trip of a lifetime.  Unused as I was to carrying a fully loaded backpack and my new hiking boots, I struggled on the rocky inclines, especially the ankle busting terrain on Brown Mountain.

But what made that trip memorable was our repeated encounters with black bears.  Seventeen sightings in four days–although some of those might have been the same bears making their rounds in the wild blueberry bushes.

Now, most people would love that experience, as did my husband.  What a rare gift to be that close to unpredictable, furry, breathing, grunting nature.  And that each bear didn’t seem to mind us while they grazed on berries and turned over logs for bugs should have set my racing heart to rest.  After all, berries are tastier than sweaty me.

In my overactive imagination, I envisioned charging that ended in mauling.  Gore.  Paws the size of dinner plates with razor claws.  Teeth that ripped flesh, leaving hamburger like bodies.

It probably didn’t help that I failed to educate myself about black bears before going hiking.  I didn’t understand that black bears are not like Grizzlies, nor like the violent creatures of mythical fame.  With each encounter, my adrenaline surged and panic rose.  I begged to leave on the fourth day, asking my husband to please call a ranger to escort us out.  That was the day I went to use the little out house and a mother bear showed up with her cub.

But even being several yards next to a mother bear wasn’t enough to defeat my Richard.  He was very disappointed that I didn’t see our trip as an adventure to remember, but a trauma to overcome.

Since then, I’ve taken the time to educate myself about the nature of black bears.  I’ve taken short hikes to expose myself to the feeling of being vulnerable.  With each trip that ended in success, my confidence grew.

It took six years for me to be able to hike in bear country without jangling nerves.  I even saw this:

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Her name is Flower, and she lives on Grandfather Mountain.  She is in captivity.  But what I noticed was the difference in the size of her paws compared to the size of a bear paw in my imagination.

What was I so afraid of?

The truth is that wilderness back country hikes are challenging not because of bears.  I learned that my fear has everything to do with my vivid imagination that supplies me with a stream of dramatic, worst case scenarios.  It’s not that I fear the bears, but the idea of what it would mean to be seriously injured or die a violent death on the trail.  It’s so unlikely for this to happen, but it is an idea that persists.

So, I was celebrating in my heart with the freedom that comes with hiking unperturbed by fear.  I had a handle on my bear-scare and all seemed well.  There were waterfalls to enjoy, cool breezes, quiet peace.

Then one day on a particularly steep hike down to the river, Elliot, ever curious and full of adventure, decided to turn over a large rock. Richard saw that as a “teachable” moment, and described in detail what would happen if he turned over another rock and was bitten by a rattle snake.  How he would have to carry him up this terrain so rocky and full of roots.  And how that was a potentially deadly situation, especially since he was not carrying our first aid kit.

And I know this was an important lesson.  But all of that drama played out in my head, giving me surges of anxiety. With the idea that I could lose my beautiful boy in a random encounter with a snake, I was no longer having any fun at all.  I was reminded that anything can happen on the trail.  I remembered the story of one man who went hiking by himself in the mountains, slipped on a river crossing and broke both of his ankles.  Four days later, some college students found him hobbling with the aid of two crutches he had fashioned from long sticks.

What if it was a simple fall that turned a summer day in the mountains to a near death experience?  Some of these hikes are treacherous.  People fall from cliffs every year.  In other cases, hikers are lost and have to be rescued by search parties.  It’s not the kind of place to vacation if you don’t enjoy a challenge.

Which I do, at least physically.

It’s the terrain of the mind that is the hardest to hike.

Apparatus

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I am eight and it is the summer like every summer

when we vacation at the river up north, where my uncle keeps a log cabin.

It is on this river

I learn to water ski behind his red boat that roars to life, the sound

I recall now when someone driving a sports car beats the light at the corner.

It is this roar that raises me from the deep to glide on the surface at a speed that turns

hair into a thousand little whips.

Back at the rectangle of sand that meets the water at the cabin, we are allowed to swim unsupervised,

(there’s just too much work to be done in the kitchen, to feed this hungry crowd.)

So instead of a parent to save me from drowning, I am burdened by a red life vest that chokes my neck and pushes up on my ears.

I also wear a pink rubber nose plug with a strap

that pulls my hair and prevents me from that burning sensation of water in nostrils.

Add to that, some white wax stuck in my ears.

I lay on a black inner tube, barely experiencing the water.

The natural scent of aquatic life now muted.

I am forty four.

Still plugging my nose in the local pool

when all around me, toddlers and preschoolers are putting their faces in the water

and smiling.

Perhaps all these years I still wear the apparatus, invisible, but still affecting how I swim.

So I decide.

To place my face fully in the water

no matter if it burns and I drown.

And it’s the easiest thing in the world,

to hold one’s breath in the water, with two hands free for swimming.

What is it that keeps the water out

This mystical invisible force

Of my breath held.

And is it possible to make an invisible barrier that bars entrance

to what I don’t want to come into my heart,

the things that burn on inhalation, filling lungs and sending me to the darkest deep

where I lay on the bottom and let the carp pick my bones clean.

The Beautiful Now

When I wrote a sensitive and painful experience for my first chapter, I dared to press “send” and share it with the complete strangers of a critique group.  I thought it was brave and worth doing because of the challenge.  And in my frustration with a suggestion that some of my piece suggests I’m an “unintentional unreliable narrator” I sort of came unglued.  Anger and defensiveness ruled my days, wasting more of my energy that I need for taking care of our home education, my business and my relationship with a grieving spouse.

It was pointless and wasteful to be so upset.

I felt caught in a trap, tangled in a power play, the victim of a senseless intimidation game.

And all of a sudden, the story that came marching out of my heart crept back inside the tortoise shell where I lost the threads of the narrative.  I gave away my powerful writing momentum because I was hopeful about the experience of social connection during the writing process.

Nothing is worth letting the writing die, no matter how educated, insightful, harsh or off base the critique may be.  I don’t even know yet what specific words, phrases, lines or paragraphs are causing this response.  So all of it is senseless to me.  I was hopeful for a supportive community, but I’m just now thinking that I may need more time to develop the actual narrative without concern for how it’s written.  Maybe the critique part only needs to happen after the entire story is complete.

But is that just the perfect out for me, an excuse to avoid the discomfort?  I’m not sure.

What I do know is that when you’re struggling with a difficult, uncomfortable situation, salvation lies in the beautiful now –where the story of the past is put away and the expectation of the future is silent.

Here in the present moment, we are given sunlight sparkling on a lake in spring with the sound of insistent crows overhead, a sound that feels like the drumbeat of ‘warning! warning! warning!’ to all who travel in the trees.

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In this moment, my beautiful son.

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And the moment when we notice brilliant moss at the base of a towering pine that makes us think of the Emerald City of Oz, in miniature.

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The beautiful now when spring is just beginning, when you can still see everything in the woods.  When it’s not too heavy with humidity, when walking feels like lightness and freedom and active presence in your life.

Nature cures my insane need to express my worry.  It is so quiet and accepting of the animal that is me.

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There’s another language to be found in the clinging fungus, a language that has no words but speaks to me with patient, delicate growth.  These mushrooms are not as temporary as spring blooms, bursting in color and dropping in a week.  They don’t attract the bees and butterflies.  They grow on dead logs, finding valuable nutrients on decay.

In the beautiful now, I find comfort in their existence.  And that is enough to go on.

To Catch a Flying Snowball

Winter weather is an event in North Carolina.  A raid the grocery store, cancel school for a week, stuff the fireplace with wood, play all day outside kind of event.  It’s rare, and worth celebrating, like a rainstorm that ends a drought.

At six am this morning, I was out with my son Elliot having a snowball fight.  I caught a flying snowball that burst in my glove and scattered down my sleeve.  This was just the right kind of snow.  Heavy without being slush, deep and fresh.  Breathing in the moist cold air through my nostrils brought me home.  To catch a flying snowball in the morning and hike through the woods to the pipeline for sledding, these hours of cold that pink our cheeks, this day, a gift.

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Writing Naturally Workshops

It has come into my awareness that over-analyzing a relationship kills the love.  And since that is true for me, I also suspect that over-analyzing the craft of writing kills the stories.  I set out to begin this blog with the craft of writing as the focus, a place to share my work and discuss the back stories of my process.  I’m very curious about how writers write what they do, and what methods or ideas inspire their stories.  However, since my body of work is quite thin, I recognize that I really need to get out of my head in order to write.

And get into my senses.

And come back to life.100_3638

This is why Writing Naturally Workshops was the most beneficial experience I’ve had in manifesting my desire to write stories with clarity and feeling.  During the month of October, I joined an online workshop hosted by the beautiful writer Corinne Cunningham, who shared her wisdom and practical tools to dispel the dreaded blocks we all face.  Here is a sample of my work near the end of the course:

Day Five: Hearing
This morning, our family day. No work for Richard and no sales or orders for me. We
shower and go down to the kitchen to make bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. A plan forms: “let’s
take the kayak out on Lake Brandt!” Richard does the dishes and I gather our gear. In twenty
minutes we are gliding on a breezy fall morning, paddling against the windswept waves toward
a small island. We make up a paddling song to the tune of “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.”
Elliot and Richard try out lines to fit the tune. By the time we reach the island, all I can
hear is the sound of our voices singing together and it feels like a vacation from my childhood,
singing in the back of the car on our way up north to go camping.
“Take me out to the water, take me out to the lake! Rent me a paddle and fanny-pack,
I don’t care if I ever get back,
‘cause it’s stroke, stroke, stroke
in a sunbeam,
if we don’t swim it’s a shame!
For it’s one, two three ducks afloat
in the old, green boat!”
I smile at the memory of Elliot’s voice singing away as we float under those sunbeams.
We hear other sounds, the grumpy “CRAWK!” of a Great Blue Heron who is disrupted from his
fishing spot when we get close. Ducks in flight, beating wings. The spashing sploosh of a fish
jumping. Water smashing and exploding on the front of our craft as we break the waves.
We hear questions from Elliot (because this is a school day, after all!) Questions like, what leaf
is this tree from? And this one, and this one? The trees on the shoreline drop papery
sailors on the calm surface, spinning adrift in a floating parade.
Back at home, the silence of the empty house calls for a nap. We have a large sectional in the
living room, but my favorite place to nap is on a fifty dollar plush loveseat, broken in. At five two,
I can stretch out on it with just my feet dangling. I lay down and Richard comes over, shoving
me to the back side. Soon, he’s snoring away and I’m cramped and my feet are falling asleep
under the weight of his arms, my arms falling asleep under the weight of his legs. Funny how a head can’t sleep at the same time the limbs do.
I must have dozed off because I awoke, numb in the extremities to the sight of Elliot
perched above me on the back of the loveseat, laying like a cat on a tree branch.

****

I enjoyed the Writing Naturally workshop for many reasons.  First, it helped me to be comfortable with my impulses to write.  I am a hopeless self-editor.  For every sentence that falls out, I immediately want to scratch it away with my pencil.  As if the thoughts on the inside are not good enough for the open air.  Corinne helped me to be okay with those first impulses, and to work with the good that came through.  To learn more about Writing Naturally, and to experience Corinne’s gorgeous writing, you can visit her at http://www.corinnenoelcunningham.com/

Saturday Night Skate

Do you keep an unfulfilled desire under the heap of life that has to come first?

One of these loves will pop to the surface, just when you least expect it to appear.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me a pair of royal blue roller skates for my sixth birthday.  And because we had an unfinished basement with a cement floor, I suddenly felt like the richest girl in the world.  With the gift of those skates, I had just inherited something else: my own private skating rink.  Complete with a record player and my mother’s albums; music ranging from folksy Peter Paul and Mary and John Denver to my favorite beach album: Dead Man’s Curve by Jan and Dean.

Since our basement was not as large as a real roller rink, I was continually skating around a curve, increasing my speed till I risked crashing on my own “dead man’s curve.”  In the dim light of our basement, sheltered from the ice and snow of a Michigan winter, I rolled and sweated and took flight in my heart.

Later, the actual roller rink experience during adolescence was a bigger thrill.  Colorful lights and blasting pop tunes, cute boys and girls with feathered hair that lifted like sails on a windswept lake as they glided past me in effortless strides.

I loved to skate.

One year my father made an ice rink in the back yard.  I will remember that winter forever.  And how my brother could skate backwards and perform spins and jumps.  He was athletic and intelligent and daring.  On the ice, I felt wobbly and sore; ice skating was fun but the blades required much more balance.

I should have kept on skating when I moved out and entered college.  Why was I so easily distracted from my passion?  It must have been my desperate need to fit in.  Rollerskating seemed childish and out of fashion.  Roller blades were the popular choice, but I hated them.  Wearing a pair of those early versions of rollerblades felt like strapping on downhill ski boots and trying to move gracefully.  They hurt my feet and felt all wrong.  So I abandoned my skating and went on to parties, and guys, and later, motherhood.

For a brief time, my daughter loved skating.  On Saturday nights we would go to the rink.  It was just as I remembered it, and soon I was floating and gliding like my childhood self.  I wanted that to last.  But as time went on, she lost interest and for some reason I thought it would be awkward to go to the rink by myself.

One year I discovered that there was an adult’s night at the rink.  I went by myself.  It wasn’t as fun.  The regulars had formed a group and skate danced around the rink to form a kind of rhythm train that rushed past me.  It felt intimidating so I didn’t return.

Yesterday, on a whim, I walked into a sporting goods store and found a pair of skates in my size.  I bought them on the spot.

Last night, in the rough parking lot of the nearby elementary school, I was once again the richest girl in the world, with my own private rink.  (Until two guys showed up and let their huge Irish Setter out of the car, who immediately bounded up to me while I was relearning balance…)

But otherwise, it was blissful solitude on a humid night under a wild sky.

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