The Silence of this Little Candle

The silence of this little candle

speaks to me

like a soft lullaby.

I am cold

and the cold makes me happy.

The dark night is here

and with it shivering starlight.

Walk out into the absence of streetlights,

follow the white line on the edge

and hold his hand,

let the dogs pull you all the way uphill.

There on the summit, the sky is an upturned bowl.

There was a journey in the dark under these same star candles.

What stories did they tell along the way?

Did they hum?

Were they happy?

Were they in love?

Did he tell her sassy jokes?

Then the baby came.

And the scene is still and silent and reverent.

Those stars are still shining,

connecting me to that sacred night.

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Pergola Makeover, A Family’s Creative Project

 

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This ivy and rose covered pergola stands in our yard, a mature vision of the former owner’s dream.  When we bought our home thirteen years ago, the structure stood bare, with a single stalk of a thorny climbing rose, and a pot of English Ivy at the base.  A decade later, it became a mass of leaves and blooms, so lush and full as to inspire a daily retreat into the arched garden.  I loved it then.  I loved it when it was a bare thing waiting for leaf children to climb on.  I always thought it was a romantic sort of thing for someone to build.  A bit of poetry inside a chain link fenced yard.

Last year when mom came to visit, we discussed the idea of removing the ivy because it was a struggle to keep clipping back.  At one point the ivy from the top would reach down and touch the ground on the back side.  Mom thought it was beautiful and said try to keep it.  And I agreed.  Then this year, I noticed the entire structure start to sway in a strong breeze.

It turns out, English Ivy, so romantic of vines, is also a destructive force of weight and a hide-out for chewing, munching, wood hungry ants.  And the thought of losing our beautiful little pergola, which for some reason I’ve always called “the arbor” sent me on a mission to the garage for a shovel, some clippers, a hatchet and gloves.  And this is what I found:

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And underneath that,

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Aye!

With the help of my husband, who said a few cuss words and threatened to get out the saw and bring it all down, we worked for days removing and burning the old ivy.  Getting to this point was a huge relief.  Almost like a psychological cleansing.  A clarity of mind after a meditation.  A sigh of relief.  Whew!

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But that is not all.

I have become more aware about the magical power of intention when it comes to projects big and small.  That my focus has a tendency to draw me nearer to manifesting my imagination.  And the way Spirit provides things that I might want to make use of.  First to arrive was a gorgeous, heavyweight, textured cotton duvet from an overstuffed rack on the back wall of the Goodwill.  A couple of small stains meant it was perfectly acceptable to use it outdoors and was meant for my project.  A few days later, I was on the hunt for some hooks to hang curtain rods.  Elliot, patient, tolerant son, who was nonetheless pulling on my sleeve, bumping my side, gently prodding me like a herding dog to leave the second hand shop when we didn’t find hooks, got a lesson in treasure hunting.  “See, Elliot!  See how this works? I had an intuition that there was something in here we can use.”  Our treasure?  An old brass chandelier!

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A few days after this, four white flat sheets arrived like magic for 2.25 a piece!  The basic elements were in place.  I worked for a few days at the sewing machine and came out with four white panels for the back of the pergola, and two heavy duty drapes for the front, with fabric leftover for new chair cushions.  I even had some leftover fabric paint to make my own designs, and that turned out to be a fun day making art in the back yard, the sweetest therapy there is. Elliot enjoyed using the spray paint on the chandelier, which was his reward for being so patient while I treasure hunted.

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Richard even contributed by bringing home some galvanized pipe and hooks for hanging the curtains and drapes.

I wonder if this ever happens to other folks when they are working on a project.  Everything starts to come together, piece by piece.  The anticipation for completion builds.  Excitement is high.  Then, there happens to arrive something to thwart the completion, just in the last push to the finish line.  For me this is usually a knotted thread on the sewing machine, a crazy grinding and humming and slow to respond computer issue, a big distraction that requires immediate attention, or a mistake caused by the increased momentum and speed of the work as it comes to a close.  This time, that Canadian cold front brought us big gusty breezes, which on a sunny spring day can be so absolutely wonderful, especially in a subtropical, dense humid climate. But yesterday it was really giving us fits!  Trying to hang curtains in the gusts was testing all of our nerves.  I ended up sewing a wide hem on the bottom and Elliot helped by hunting for rocks, washing and drying them, and placing them inside the hem to weight the light cotton back panels.

And then it suddenly came all together at once.  Richard brought out the handpainted pillows and our plastic wicker chairs, followed by our old iron table that he resurfaced with tile.  Elliot brought a washcloth to wipe the dust and pollen from the table, then said, “We need flowers!” And so after wiping the dust, he brought a sad little pot of yellow marigolds for our centerpiece.  Richard, being the tallest, hung the chandelier.  I snapped a few photos, and we went inside to fix our Sunday chicken dinner.

But excitement was still high.  After dinner, guess where we went?  Not to the living room to watch a movie.  Not to our tablets or phones.  Not to the road for our evening walk.  We went on a mini vacation on a Greek Island formerly known as our back yard.  And we read about Shakespeare’s language in the sunset.

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And just in case you were worried, the rose bush was saved.

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As the moon shone above us and the candles flickered, Elliot asked, “Did your mom ever do magical things for you when you were a kid?”  And I said, “Yes. Yes, she did.  She was the one who taught me how to make the perfect blanket fort.”

 

Dream-logic

100_0286Awake before dawn, I remembered the dream.  I was a speaker for a class of adults at a community college.  In the classroom, I began telling the story of my recovery from the trauma of divorce.  The energy in the room rose with the power that seemed to be coming from within me, but also through me from a higher source.  I spoke eloquently about how the head and the heart are connected, and how that relates to your success.  As I spoke about climbing to the top of a tall mountain, then taking a leap of faith off the pinnacle with a hang glider, flying into my new life, the energy kept rising; people in the class were starting to make me feel like a preacher giving a sermon in an African American church, with lots of “Jesus LORD” and “AMENS!” being heard with sporadic bursts of clapping.  At the close of my speech, I walked out into a sunny campus where people were asking for my contact information.  I tell ya, I kinda felt like the Jenny version of Tony Robbins.

It was an empowering dream.  And then I woke up and realized that the head and the heart are almost always in conflict, and aligning those has always either sent me into financial straights or placed barriers in my ambitious efforts to achieve stability and a paycheck with benefits.

My heart gets in the way, almost all the time.

Finding what you’re resisting is the key to opening the barrier of writer’s block.

I suffer from writer’s block because I am resistant.  In a strange way, I feel compelled and simultaneously repelled from writing my stories.

I believe on some level I am called to write, but just like Jonah and the Whale, I want to hide from it.

Just about five minutes ago, I realized exactly what is causing my resistance.

It’s conformity.

The pressure to conform in my writing is even stronger than the pressure to conform in my relationships, because writing seems to have a more permanent, powerful impact.  Spoken words can fly into the atmosphere and be lost to the memory.  Words texted, typed and handwritten often stay a while longer.

In my memoir, a story that now has a real name and several workable chapters, I’m uncovering the myth of my performance as a virtuous, approval-worthy woman to find the human struggling under the weight of dogma, familial expectation, gender expectations and cultural norms.  It is difficult to write not because I am trying to remember what exactly happened to me the year I lived as a single mother, but because I’m afraid to claim that I am filled with passion, desire and rebellion.  These are things that as a woman and a mother I have been told to put away or to never acknowledge.

So now it has become complicated and tedious to unpack the truth.  Yet as I learn to recognize the influence of standard ways of being that make me afraid to write what might be harshly judged, I will work with the oppression as if it is a weight machine at the gym.

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.

Paralyzed by the Freakishness of a Unique Imagination

This novel that I’m writing is getting weird.  It’s going beyond my normal experiences of life into an imaginative realm where an apocalyptic future and primitive past are melted.  I’m also planning to weave in strange occurrences that defy reality.  The more I write, the weirder things get.  And I’m paralyzed by the strangeness of it all.  I’m starting to feel like a freak.

I keep telling myself that it is important to exercise the imagination.  To only spend life enjoying movies and books written by others is kind of lazy.  If I expect my ten year old son to develop literacy skills–especially in writing, to encourage and draw out his imagination, then I must also practice.  In order to teach writing, I must also write.  When he struggles,  I can relate.  I understand how utterly frustrating it is to navigate setbacks.  We simply cannot stop writing because it is challenging.  We must go on, or become dependent upon others to write for us.  This is dangerous, because in allowing others to write for us, we allow others to think for us.

Writing practices are critical for several reasons.

First, they invite us to encounter our own thoughts externally and bring light to the thoughts that arrive from the internal, unseen and spiritual source.

Second, the practice of writing imaginatively seems in opposition to the practice of mindfulness, where we settle in to notice the smallest details of the ordinary, and thus experience beauty.  Peace.  Recovery.  But writing imaginatively is an exercise of freedom.  It is gift that no one can take from us, even if we are imprisoned or riddled with illness. The consequence of not exercising this freedom is passive conformity to convention…a seemingly comfy space where everyone agrees and no one challenges.  The scary truth is that imagination can be be washed out of us and suppressed by dominant ideology, controlling oppression and by the fear of being outcast from conventional society.  It slips away in our need to be accepted.  But it also fades when we simply stop exercising and let others imagine for us.

I admit that I have trouble exercising my imagination as an adult.

Imagination just feels like chaos. I went to school and went to work. I got married.  I was trained to look normal.  To think normal.  To behave normally.  To be efficient.

Imagination is supposed to be just for kids.  A childish thing we put away.

And after a long time of trying to be normal, I give in and reject that.  I have to because of this question:

What if regularly encountering our imagination made us better able to deal with the fear we encounter in reality?

A regular imaginative writing practice is an exercise to build internal strength.  In imagining what might happen, I encounter fear from just enough distance that I can practice dealing with it.

In reality, fear rises the moment I imagine what could happen.  So while anxiety rises and threatens to take me down, I have to stop imagining and get mindful of the present moment. Fear pulls me into circular paths of thought that disorient and make me feel small.  Fear traps me in a labyrinth of anxiety. So what helps?

If I have been exercising the practice of imaginative writing, I’m better able to see through the veil of anxious, spinning thoughts and to recognize when I’m getting carried away in “what might happen” and thus transition back into what is actually happening.  Getting in touch with imagination before fear actually appears helps me to rebound back into reality.  It helps me to notice when I’m leaving reality so I can find my way back to it.

During the writing of this novel, I encountered a character who is nearly always afraid.  Her husband’s response to her fear is a stern rejection.  Normally kind and tender in love, he can’t tolerate her fear.  He expects her to be strong and demands it for the sake of her survival.

And this makes her resentful.  She wants him to accept that she’s totally freaked out and to comfort her.  But he is not an enabler.

He practices tough love.

How many times have I expected my loved ones to be tough in the face of their own fear?  I’ve expected this from people I love so that I won’t be dashed into the abyss of their falling down.

Fear is contagious.  I don’t want to catch it.  Because I hate feeling small and vulnerable and dependent and needy.  I don’t like to ask for help or to be utterly dependent on someone else to save me.

Today, I’m making myself move through the hardening cement of a writer’s block that’s creeping in due to fear of being so unusual.

This is the precise reason why I must go on. I wish I could write lovely comfy stories with happy endings and emotionally safe and secure characters.  But they just don’t appear on the page like that.  They come to the surface holding bags of fear and rejection and uncertainty.

Just like me.