An Unexpected Gift

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“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”Heraclitus

Sometimes the universe has plans for us other than the ones we make for ourselves.  I’d arranged to go on an overnight hike along the Appalachian Trail with a friend to celebrate the solstice.  For a multitude of reasons, we never made it to the trailhead much less out on the trail itself.

Just as my summer solstice plans were falling apart, an acquaintance sent a text with GPS coordinates and a short message “Went here last weekend. River, trees, lovely, peaceful. Go!” I don’t always do what my phone commands, but, suddenly free and wanting to shake off the stress of the last few weeks, I decided to check out the suggestion.  An hour and many miles of twisting mountain roads later,  I found a grassy pull-off at the coordinates.  A barely visible break in the vegetation at the roadside marked a path down to the river below.

The spot was as promised and more.  At the end of the short climb down the narrow tunnel through the wildly growing vegetation, the ground flattened out to a sandy shoal dotted with stones worn into smooth ovals by time and flowing water.  A slow moving river edged past the shoal, journeying around a rocky outcrop upriver, past the tree line bank opposite and meandering out of sight again a little further down stream.  Tiny flakes of muscovite dotted the river bed and shone out from the river rocks, creating a sparkling effect to the already beautiful water.  When the sunlight hit the smallest bits of mica just right, the riverbed gave the appearance of being dotted with tiny, shimmering rainbows.

It has been a long time since I’ve willingly plunged into a cold river, but the lazy current and warm day made it hard to resist.  I let myself drift easily downstream, walked back along the rock strewn shallows, and began again. I repeated this process a dozen or more times, recalling the liminality of such places – the shifting water renewing itself constantly over the thousands of years that the river has run this course and creating a fluid, flowing boundary with ever-changing thresholds to explore. In this place, the heartsong of the mountains can be heard as you immerse yourself in the very blood and bones of the land.

Such places can change us if we allow it.  At the end of the visit, I reclined back on the sun-kissed shoal feeling far calmer and more grounded than I have in a long time. I also came away with a fresh perspective on some old problems. The experience created a much needed reminder of the magic that exists in the natural world, if we’re willing to slow down and pay attention.  Who knew that a set of GPS coordinates could be such an unexpected gift?

 

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If The Shoe Fits, Be A Heel

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It has been brought to my attention that I have a superpower that I didn’t know I possessed – the ability to offend people for the most ridiculous reasons.

Case in point:  I recently invited a friend to coffee so that we could catch up.  Because I was in a celebratory mood, I put on a pair of new shoes that have an inch-and-a-half heel.  These were a happy purchase: the first pair of heeled shoes I’ve been physically able to wear in over three years.  Putting them on makes me feel like I’ve made progress that I had been told was absolutely not possible by my doctors.

The first words out of my friend’s mouth were “I hate it when you wear heels.  You make me feel short and inferior.”  It was not said in jest or fun, but in the tone of someone who has been deeply offended.  It was said in a loud, pained voice that brought the cozy little cafe to a standstill.  Well now, what to do with that….

I’m certain that the expectation was that I would apologize and be contrite for stepping on her emotional toes (pun very much intended).  Or that I would say or do something to validate her indignation at my offensively tall self. Or possible that I would reply in such a way that I would act out the role that she’d tried to cast for me.

There are a thousand replies that I could have made but my mouth opened without filtering through my brain first. I replied in an equally loud voice, “Well, it’s a good thing that it is not my job to make sure you’re always in your comfort zone.   Now, if you want to talk about this, I’ll listen, but if not, you might want to find other friends who will dress with your comfort in mind.”

She could have made a thousand replies, but instead opted to flounce out of the cafe in a huff.  It was a rather spectacular flounce too – she dropped her phone twice and managed to turn over a chair in her rush to escape from the unsympathetic tallness that surrounded her.  In a moment of lovely irony, another patron, who had to be at least 6’4″, held the door for her as she left.  That gesture alone has probably left her scarred for life.

I’m being pretty-tongue-in-cheek about this, because this kind of self-created victim-hood is just a single instance in a growing pattern of behavior. Being kind and apologetic in these situations has only encouraged her. The experience was a good reminder that compassion cannot always be the feather-soft tenderness and soothing words.  Sometimes, compassion comes disguised as hard truths and tough love. And every now and then, compassion walks in on a pair of heels.

The Temple of MSB: A Roadblock

 

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Photo Credit: Aisling Faa 2018

This morning I ventured out for what I refer to tongue-in-cheek at Sunday Services at the Temple of Mud, Sweat, and Blood, which is to say that I spent some time on a local trail trying to clear my head.  I have a favorite loop trail that is just the right length and difficulty to let me work through whatever happens to be on my mind.

After several days of torrential downpours and thunderstorms, the conditions on trail were pretty miserable – slippery rocks, shoe-eating mud bogs, and downed limbs.  Horrendous trail conditions force my focus to what’s physically in front of me and to make rapid gut-instinct decisions about each step.  If my mind wanders, there’s a fair certainty that I’m going to fall, which means a potential injury with the added bonus of a mud bath.  These are some of my favorite conditions when I want to forget about something that’s gnawing at me.

Today, there were several downed trees thanks to the well-soaked ground.  The first three were small and easily passed. About a quarter-mile into the mire and muck, two trees had fallen across the trail- the first low to the ground, the second just above waist height a few inches behind the first. This isn’t a huge barrier – the instinct is to step over the first, duck under the second, and you’re back on your way.  Except stepping over a fallen tree or log in this part of the world is a very bad idea and a very good way to step on a rattler or copperhead that you can’t see. If you take nothing else from this post, remember this: Step carefully onto the fallen tree and then scan the ground behind the tree before stepping down.

In this case, there was a Black Racer waiting there – not venomous, but still a large and potentially aggressive snake. Suddenly, the obstacle was not so easy to pass, particularly as going off trail meant wading through poison ivy and brambles.  As I stood contemplating whether to turn back, I realized that the situation mirrored  the thing that had been on my mind as I’d set out on trail – a friendship that has been holding me back and causing frustration. If the message from the universe were not clear enough, I recalled as I stared at the snake that the friend identifies the snake as her ‘spirit animal’. Sometimes, the Powers That Be (TM) leave little doubt about what you need to be doing.  So the question became – do I let a non-lethal nuisance block my way or do I find a way around it?  What amount of control over my life am I willing to give someone who would impede my forward movement as a way of asserting their own power?

In the end, I opted to sidle around the snake, rather than turning back and facing a quarter mile uphill hike back to where I’d started. A small tree at the side of the trail made for a good handhold while scrambling over both of the fallen trees.  A small drop to the ground and I was on my way again and didn’t encounter another downed tree (or snake) in the remaining mile and a half of trail.  Now, hopefully, my slithering friend can be dealt with so swiftly and painlessly.

Nourishment

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(If you need it, this is your warning that this post touches on eating disorders and body image.)

Any spiritual path worth pursuing is going to have a foundation of core tenets.  In my case, the ideas responsibility and accountability are the rocks on which everything else is built.  Over the years, I think I’ve done a decent job of upholding those two things.  There may have been missteps and errors along the way (hey, human here!), but I’ve learned these lessons pretty well. There is no blaming others or circumstances when my actions and choices have lead to unwanted consequences.  Even when circumstances are entirely beyond my control, how I respond to those circumstances is still my choice and I am accountable for that choice.

All of this being responsible and accountable works well overall… until it comes to my relationship with food.  The minute food enters the equation, those tenets become a fiery train-wreck.  There’s a few reasons for this – food scarcity as a kid, an abundance of food being closely associated with celebrations and love, and many years of emotional eating as a result. I tend not to take any responsibility for what, when and how I eat;  holding myself accountable for my relationship with food simply does not happen.  The thought of doing so scares the hell out of me because I know that, even with serious chronic health issues, this is the area where I am least healthy.

When you have a dysfunctional relationship with food, you cannot hide it over the long term. If your waistline doesn’t give it away, then your eating habits will.  A friend who had stayed with me for a few weeks pointed out how very different the food I talked about eating was different than what I’d cooked for her.  I’d fed her made-from-scratch bread, healthy lean proteins, whole grains, and vegetables.  I talked about (and ate) whatever junk was available, with little thought to the consequences or nutritional value. Do I usually give thought to any responsibility I might have for this dietary mess?  Not really.

With the new year, I began to make efforts to change how I nourish my body, to take as much responsibility for what goes into my mouth as for what comes out of it. Because there has been a disconnect between the spiritual and physical for a long time, one of the things that I am trying to do is to bring a spiritual element into the larger plan. I fell out of the habit of saying a prayer over mundane meals long ago, so it seemed a good place to begin. I am working on other ideas on how to make this connection between body and spirit, but those will be stories for another day.  For now, to begin is enough.

In From the Cold

Photo Credit: Pexels
Photo Credit: Pexels

Winter brings a time of introspection and withdrawal from the outside world. The weather does all that it can to encourage this behavior.  Even as I type this, rime ice coats the surrounding mountain ridges and the temperatures are cold enough that sitting near the window calls for a cozy sweater.  These are the kinds of nights that I am content making a ritual out of sitting by candlelight with a warm mug of spiced wine and letting my thoughts wander where they will.

Most of my 2018 winter musings have been focused on the misadventures of the last three years. The Very Serious IllnessesTM  have been mentioned in previous posts, as has the loss of Sam.  There have been other things that I’ve had neither the will or courage to put into words –  the violence that left a friend’s family shattered, the separation from my former employer, the unexpected loss of my sister.  These are bleak things to mull over on dark and cold winter’s night.  They are full of shadows and cold darkness and do little to dispel the gloom of the season.

Instead of returning to these phantoms of the past again tonight, I’ve spent the evening writing up my vision for the coming year- all the things that I’d like to happen, do, or be in 2018.  There’s a lot on there and it ranges wildly from the frivolous (crocheting a pair of yoga socks) to the deadly serious (remission continuing through the entire year).  It isn’t precisely a list of goals or resolutions but it may represent the beginning of one, with a little editing and polish. More than anything, it’s been an opportunity to let my thoughts wander to things, if not happier, then at least in from the cold world of loss.  And who knows? By this time next week, I  may actually have that list of goals written.

 

 

 

 

Direction

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Photo Credit: Pexels

Months have passed since my last post and I have spent many hours attempting to say whatever thing that comes next.  Posts have been started, deleted, restarted, and trashed again. I lose the thread of my thoughts more quickly than I can type out the words. Self-doubt frequently inserts itself into the middle of a sentence and leers up at me from the page. Posts are abandoned in various states of non-completion, sometimes as only a nebulous title, sometimes as meandering paragraphs.

This is something far deeper than writer’s block.  This restless inability to focus crosses all aspects of my life.  There are a dozen or more half finished art projects sitting on my closet shelf.  The bedside shelf where I keep books to be read is overflowing with volumes that I’ve picked up and put down again and again.  Non-essential projects at work are floundering because I cannot seem to focus long enough to finish them. I suspect that part of this lack of focus is due to stress and chronic health issues.  More likely, though, is that I am a human magpie and tend to grab at what’s shiny and interesting and as a result, have ended up with a large cache of projects that I don’t really want or need.

Fed up with half-finished projects and blank pages waiting for words, I’m resolving to stop wandering in circles this year and figure out which direction my internal compass is actually pointing.  2018 is going to be the year of deciding what (and also who) is worth my time and energy.  I know that I want to continue to write and to do so without a lot of half finished pages.  So, there, one decision made.

Other things will not be decided so easily. I am giving myself permission to fail, to abandon things that no longer serve me well, and to remove them from my life entirely. I am also obligating myself to put more effort into those projects, things, and people that I decide are important. It is time to find my direction again.

Renewal

Spring arrived in this part of the world riding atop storm clouds, but the rain has brought a welcome change in the scenery.  The mountains here are once again towering walls of green.  The spring garden is thriving with cool season greens and perennial herbs that seem to grow before our eyes.   The warming weather brings a family to the neighborhood in the form of a pair of nesting finches who have taken up residence in one of our hanging baskets.  The hatchlings aren’t out of their eggs yet, but are already being referred to as Atticus, Scout, and Jem.  A toad has taken up residence in a pot of mint and a lined skink is currently sunning itself on one of the porch uprights.  There is life everywhere you look, even in the tiny space that is my back porch.

There is even life in me these days, a renewed sense of curiosity and longing to be back in a less passive mindset when it comes to my practices and all things spiritual.  It is a marked sign of my own withdraw from these things that I have gone through the last two seasons without feeling drawn to any sort of mystery.   I’ve had no mind to dwell in places of uncertainty and the unknown has remained undiscovered in my presence.  I’m not bothered by it, as there are cycles to my practice and awareness that include times when all is silent and untold.

Yet, spring has brought a returned sense of liminality and wonder.  The scent carried on the spring breezes is new – spicy and deep-toned, touched with wood smoke and the wetness of hidden mountain streams and moss-encrusted rocks and lacking entirely the usual delicate floral notes of spring winds. The leaves whisper of undiscovered places over the next hill and the next and the next.  Dream become vivid and sharp again, full of energy and intrigue.  Anticipation creeps back into the picture, a pleasant tension that something good is on the horizon. It is time to again seek out the mysteries and the hidden.  It is time that I come back to the roots of my practices, to remember why I am on this journey.  It is a time of renewal.