Pandemic Care for Self

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Water swirls. Do we get pulled into it, or do we observe from a place of strength, like the yellow coltsfoot flowers on the left? Mariaville Lake, NY, April 2020.

In this pandemic at-home time, I don’t want to lose track of my days and experiences. To get to the absolutely vital, I need some sort of accountability, some kind of checklist that comes out of these questions: 

How do I organize my days?

How do I take care of myself?

Gosh—What is most important?

How do I live this time kindly and gently? 

Very importantly—How do I manage my day job at home (often with overtime) without over-doing it or under-doing it?

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I am a list maker. 

Even as a young teenager, I mimicked my mother’s “Jot it down—you don’t want to forget; mark it off, isn’t that satisfying?” 

As a college student with a heavy course load, I organized my days in two hour blocks of time. They ran from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six or seven days a week, in order to get all of the studies and papers completed with revisions and any technical glitches—which at the time involved a portable typewriter and carbon paper—and short breaks for meals. 

My desk sized calendar was covered with tiny smeary black pencil scritches of lists, time periods, what was left to do. Complete with panicked exclamation points!!!! and underscores for emphasis (and more exclamation points!). My body ached for movement and relaxation and something other than school. The lists kept score and I persevered.

Looking back now—the lists were brutal and effective. But not sustainable.

Lists can often scream at you only about what you have not accomplished, until out of desperation you write down things like Get Up, Make Bed, Eat Breakfast. Some days that is all you can do, for various reasons. 

Especially right now.

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Six weeks ago, I created a list. Called it A Check List. Then A Care for Self Checklist. Finally, I had to mention the Pandemic—that there is an overarching shift in the world that has to be acknowledged as I take on this Care for Self.

Pandemic Care for Self Checklist.

Bold type, 17 point font on my paper. These are big things, for big challenging times.

JOURNAL. YOGA. WALK. CREATIVELY WRITE & PHOTOGRAPH. JOYFUL HOUSEHOLD. CONNECTION. COOK. READ. RUB A BODY PART. DAY JOB HOURS WITH GENTLENESS. INDULGE/RELAX.

I use the back to jot down those “gotta remember” things, as well as exciting meal ideas from what I have here at home, future Zoom meetings, and projects I intend to tackle in small bites. However, those are not requirements with a due date necessarily; they are written to relieve the heaviness in my mind, loosen it for other things, like letting go of the list.

I spend time crying and laughing. I do completely unexpected things.

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Stickers can make things so much more fun! The spots on the list are reflections from the window as morning sun pours in.

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There’s a lot to write about this list. It has grown and shifted over the weeks.

But for now, I toggle between these various actions that feed me. I don’t expect to get every one of them done every day. I note and delight in any accomplishments—and there are quite a few, especially ones that wouldn’t normally make it onto a list.

What is on your Pandemic Care for Self Checklist?

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This sunset photo was part of WALK, CREATIVELY PHOTOGRAPH, CONNECTION (with a friend, six feet plus apart, both of us masked) and INDULGE.

 

 

Baby (Snapping Turtle) Steps

 

Look at its determined eye. At John Boyd Thacher Park (North), 2016

This newborn snapping turtle, along with its siblings, had come out of the nest in the gravel not a minute before we walked up on it, on the yellow Perimeter path at Thacher North. Coated in wet clay from under ground, it scrambled quickly for the nearby pond. Though only an inch and a half long, this baby was already fully itself, and on its way.

That’s me.

Right now I feel messy, roiling in the gunky mud of fears and expectations about the unknown. Half-baked, incomplete. But I will trust it’s about perspective: I am a baby snapping turtle, destined for size and strength I cannot imagine from my sticky clay birthing place, called to a future of sun-warmed water.

***

For the last eleven months I have been working half time.

In May of last year, a week or two before I leapt in to that job, I finished my initial Forest Therapy Guide training. On duty at the local library, I learned to scan and shelve materials, while at home I concentrated on the six month certification process, and graduated in November.

Back then I was pretty worried about taking those twenty hours a week for paid work away from my well established practices, and then the addition of the Guide training. Was I crazy? For almost seven years, I had had a much freer schedule, during which I became a serious writer of memoir and nature essays and a serious photographer. I also worked as a personal chef, accompanied a friend who was dying, trained as a yoga teacher, and created workshops for writers and artists.

Yes, I was pretty worried eleven months ago, but those who know me well were right. It all turned out fine—and in fact, excellently. Not only in my job, but in figuring out balance, even if it wasn’t the fully realized balance I so desired. Questions popped up, and I answered them as they came.

How to write? Request a work schedule primarily noon to 8 pm and then do the vital observations and editing while most of the world sleeps, between 4:30 and 8 am.

How to continue and increase my nature connection? Walk alone before dawn. Make walks and photo sessions with my hiking partner a happy requirement. Walk with friends sometimes at dinner break (mid-afternoon), and observe the seasonal changes in my city.

How to manage the inevitable exhaustion? Alternate those days of dinner walks with dinner nap days! Cry as I needed to, which turned out to be a lot.

Nesting eagle pair, Peebles Island State Park, glimpsed on a sunset self-care walk with a good friend.

***

The past eleven months, I haven’t posted any blog essays.

But I remind myself I am closing in on completion of the final draft of my first book-length manuscript.* I have written poetry for two small collections and for myself. Two of my photographs were chosen for the Thacher Nature Art Show this March, even though unfortunately I was too sick to attend the opening, see the exhibition, or even publicize it. This summer, I plan to be offering forest therapy walks in at least one place. And finally, I kept my promise to myself and posted this essay today.

I’ve been persevering, with self-compassion. Yes, alternating with panic and frustration and fallow periods, but those freak-outs allow me to come back, repeatedly, to self-compassion.

April’s first Oxalis (shamrock flower) with its fuzzy stems, searching out sun at Thacher North.

***
Now, next week—tomorrow! I begin a full time job with the state of New York.

I am feeling those same anxieties as when I started my half-time job last June: about performance, self care, managing my tendency to perfectionism, creating a new balance with forty hours a week gone, plus a commute by car now.

This challenge has been taking up quite a bit of time and energy, as at first I delved into the test taking within Civil Service, then interviews and decision making—while I maintained that half-time job.

This is not a place I ever intended or planned to be, taking an office day job in my mid-50s. I’ve loved my decades of creating a personalized daily and weekly schedule with its many layers of paid and unpaid work. I loved to be a parent, then a homeschooling parent, to run a massage therapy business and before that a tutoring business, manage a household and house and rehab of said house, cook nutritious local food tailored to multiple dietary requirements. And as part of the fabric of my life, to organize and work for social justice and community.

But in those early years, I also left no space for myself as writer and naturalist—didn’t even know I WAS either one—or for myself as a physical being who needed much more regular exercise and connection with the outdoors, along with moving meditation.

I took care of many people but not enough of myself.

When I started my half-time job I was very afraid of returning to that place of self disregard. Again, I acknowledge than in almost eleven months, I’ve done pretty well.
I also had some unexpected surprises.

I fell in love with my community again, through people I met as they came for books, DVDs, and music. I fell in love with my historic and struggling town again, through those walks before dawn. At the library I got to glory in organization and creation of order, in the quiet and in the chaos of deliveries from other libraries. I experienced kind, patient, and interesting co-workers.

A wide variety of humanity walked through the heavy wooden doors of our building and gasped at the Tiffany window behind the circulation desk. They also fought with their children, suffered daily frustrations without some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, showed me patience and compassion, and thrilled with their first library cards.

I handled a lot of books but didn’t read many at first. Then I took out piles of them, like raiding the candy store. Now I’ve settled into 20 to 30 books out at a time, and gotten to enjoy popular items along with dusty volumes pulled from the stacks. After a couple years of illness and depletion and a very sad inability to read long-form writing, I can stick with a whole book and read it over time or in an afternoon.

I hope to still work some hours at the library, because of these gifts I have found.

Post-March blizzard, curls of heaped snow compete with the curlicues and angles of the library’s 1897 architecture.

***

Now I’m going into this full time day job. I was fretting, anxious, anticipating the worst, as I pursued the actual getting of the job. I was also able to observe, feel, analyze what spoke to me, what didn’t, and know I had a choice—not something I’d really felt before.

I hate that I’ve been so wrapped up in learning these balances I haven’t been able to do the essay writing, finish all books I’ve been writing, sort and enjoy my photos.

I try to listen to those around me, those who love me, who again say I will be fine. I return to leaving behind perfectionism and fear of Armageddon brought on by my own mistakes. The details of learning how to follow all my goals will be familiar AND unexpected. I will attempt not to anticipate all the problems or things I might dislike, and be open to the surprises.

In the muck to come, I will remember my turtle-ness and my snapping-ness. My completeness and my newness. I will remember that I’m just starting on this part of the journey, and that I am well on my way.

I will hike and take photos and guide walks. I will do yoga and meditation. I will do my personal writing and my creative writing. I will travel, close in and far away. I will cherish my friends and beloveds and attend to my own wisdom.

The pond awaits.

And the sky above….

*I am presently editing the first book of essays, poems, and photos that Carole Fults and I are co-authoring, gathered from years spent together at Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, in Berne, NY. More news soon!

Doing this book editing, I realize—I have been through all this before. For example, my blog post entitled “January Thaw.” Guess what! I have been stuck in my writing when my attention just had to go elsewhere, my creative energies spread into a job search, a business build, a health crisis. I forget. Then I return to myself, and remember. Thanks to my readers, for waiting and for encouraging me in the remembering.

A Surprising Summer Sabbatical

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Dahlia readying to bloom.

This spring of 2016 has been a little strange—and it’s not just the weather.

In the cold days of February I did not venture to the beautiful new Capital Roots Grow Center to dig through bins of donated seeds.

In March, I did not plan out sections for chard, arugula, carrots, blue borage—or any novel plants, either.

I did not go to the April workday at my little plot; in fact, I did not even pencil the date into my calendar.

This spring, after six years, I am taking a sabbatical from Community Gardening.

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My first community garden plot, in 2010. You can spy arugula, chives, tomato plants, butter crisp lettuce–and a hose–amongst the horrendous weeds. I had a lot to learn.

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I call the time off gardening a sabbatical because, like a traditional academic sabbatical, this seventh season will concentrate on studied time outside of my usual setting. A pause enables me to focus on other things and will include a little required travel. Whenever I might return to community gardening, it will be with a refreshed perspective.

In particular, I am beginning a six-month Forest Therapy* certification in May. During the time I would have spent digging up my plot, fencing, planting and weeding, I’ll be reading about relationships between natural experiences and human health, learning our local ecosystems in more depth, taking a seven day intensive course, sitting under the forest canopy, and leading guided meditation walks.

Beforehand, I’ve started with a series of classes about wild edible plants. They are led by Dave Muska of Ondatra Adventures, and held up at Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

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For example, I now know that these trout lilies have edible leaves and bulbs, though proper plant identification and sustainable harvesting techniques are required before ingesting.

***

This summer I also want to finish dozens of pieces of writing about the garden, and about my life. In addition, I am wrestling with three book manuscripts stuck at various stages (hence the increasingly intermittent posting here on the blog). Finally, I anticipate moving into the world of the day-job very soon.

The richness of the outdoor life not only grounds me, it can distract as well. There is always more to do, more to experience.

Strange as it sounds to say, in order to focus on the beauty and meaning of the natural world, I have to decrease the amount of input. Or at least choose which forms I can take in right now.

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On the hill, a much more organized and bountiful garden, 2014.                                                                          (Still more weedy than I would prefer.) 

***

I have very mixed feelings about the sabbatical, like any choice to step away from a beloved activity.

Community gardening is part of how I have defined my summer life and myself, since I moved to upstate New York. It’s felt intrinsic to the new life I have created. My plan, therefore, is to pay attention and be open to how it feels to NOT work this garden.

I ask questions.

What emotions do I feel? Where do they come from?                                                                   What do I miss?
What do I NOT miss? (Aside from woodchucks.)
How do I get out in the dewy world of early morning sun, that feeds me so well?
How do I meet my body’s craving for hands and knees in soil?
What other repetitive jobs do I find meditative and soothing?

I sit with my thoughts, long and patiently. As I have learned to do with my writing–let them steep like tea, simmer like soup, rise like dough.

Then the meaning behind the meaning has a chance to show its shy self to me.

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One beautiful sweet pepper, ripened to red in its own good time.

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Some questions we can all ponder:

What feeds you?

Which are the “bare minimum” self-care activities that you know you need?
What do you want to leave —and just be done with already?

What do you desire to take a sabbatical from?
What would you concentrate on if you did?

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End of season plum tomatoes, ripening in the kitchen, 2015.

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*Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. In Japan it is called “shinrin yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing.”  I will be leading some meditation walks, required for my training, in the summer and fall so if anyone is interested,  information will be available on my business blog. More information about Forest Therapy is at shinrin-yoku.org

Part the Third, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears and I Ponder Life, Death, and Survival

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Cloudy Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Clouded Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

February 13, 2015 morning. Yesterday, after I looked up all the photographs of butterflies I’d taken in the last couple years–I had no idea I had so many!– I took more pictures of the Dainty Sulphur at the window, from different angles, and in the afternoon she moved down next to the air conditioner. By evening she was hanging at the floor trim. This morning—gone! can’t see the butterfly high or low. She might have been eaten by a spider.

There’s part of the situation where I don’t have responsibility—how far do you really chase a butterfly? It follows its instinct.

Even though one of my own instincts is a tendency to care-take (“Hey, I’ve got food here, places you can rest, even!”), I have to let the butterfly go where she will. In the same way I learned to let my teenaged children venture out into the world, and then release them completely (well, almost). I needed to let them go, for my own sake and theirs.

This butterfly, like my own children, like humans, has its schedule of daily life, and of life and death.

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn't she?

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn’t she?

February 13, later in the day. The butterfly fluttered in the kitchen; it had been over by the stove. I made more honey water but I don’t think it’s interested or has to find it on its own. I’d almost been relieved it had been “lost,” that I had no longer felt the pull of keeping track of it.

February 14, 2015.  The butterfly is living its life cycle. I don’t have to save it like some protective “master” who has more power and more intelligence. How about we live our life cycles next to each other, not intending harm, but not fretting unnecessarily about it, like I do about most animals, and most people? To do the kind thing when I can, but not to wear myself away figuring out how to save or fix the situation? What is there to fix, anyway?

Before, I said that here in my apartment and in winter, “it won’t survive.” What does that mean? Of course it will survive—it is a alive, it continues to be alive. But life is not just survival, it is living in and through the moments. We are all NOT going to survive in the end. We all die.

How long would it live in a normal life cycle? Two weeks to a month, the internet tells me.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Fritillary.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Tiger Swallowtail.

The definition of survive: “continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.” Isn’t living always a bit of an ordeal, under difficult circumstances? Is this life here in my apartment a hardship for her? Maybe, but danger is everywhere for butterflies: frogs, birds, getting trapped, getting smushed, parasites. Survival means getting through some situation—but both of us are not only getting through, but living in, our respective life situations.

I see me looking out the kitchen window, as the butterfly hangs on the glass today looking out as well into deep deep winter. Both drawn to what we are drawn to. I am not doing harm to it, not wanting it out of my life so I don’t have an obligation to it. Yes, I talk to the butterfly, Oh you don’t have to run so madly against the glass! but that is a message for me as well. I don’t have to fight against difficult circumstances, either.

If the tiny butterfly were sentient in the human way, perhaps she would wish things weren’t such a struggle for me, and even wish it could do something for me. As she hangs, rests, it reminds me of my meditation, in which I don’t have to get someplace, I can merely BE. On my yoga mat, feeling what I feel, thoughts wild or calm doesn’t matter, I note them and let them pass; I breathe. Perhaps she is just BE-ing, respiring.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

We humans like to read meaning into things. For example, I was reading the All Over Albany blog, came across a link to a local writer, Amy Biancolli, and her blog, Figuring Shit Out, went to the blog, read some of it, ordered two of her memoirs from the library and then on a drive across town, happened to hear the beginning of her storytelling on The Moth Radio Hour. Ok, so I am meant to connect somehow with her or her writing. Or maybe she’s just out there, and I’m out there, and we intersect, like this butterfly who just happened to show up in my apartment, and I am learning things from the experience.

I fell in the love with the prologue to Amy’s first memoir, House of Holy Fools, where she writes about Death in her family as “an unwanted guest, oily and shrewd, with a stalker’s bad personal hygiene and pants that gave him a wedgie…”

I am thinking about the feeling of being stalked by death, what survival means, the role of death in our modern lives versus other eras (the 1918 flu epidemic, tuberculosis, recurrences of the plague through history). How unnatural death can seem, and yet it comes to everyone.

So here’s this butterfly to remind me: stop trying so hard; stop banging around. Just BE. It is valuable to JUST BE.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans with babies, be-ing.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans–symbols of fluidity, intuition, and dreaming–with cygnets, be-ing.

Part the Second: Wherein the Butterfly Drinks, And I Consider the Bugs in My Living Space

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

I’m still talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

February 12, 2015, later that day. Since she would not come to the tiny plastic feeder that I put out, this afternoon I spilled some of the honey water right next to her, onto the top of the air conditioner. She actually came and drank! It was fascinating to watch: antennae started waving once her tarsi (feet)—through which butterflies can “taste”—hit the liquid; her proboscis unfurled, so long it went under her belly, but into the fluid; and then she stepped away and curled the proboscis up again.

See the C-shaped, rolled up proboscis?

See the backwards C-shaped, rolled up proboscis in front of the green compound eye? The feathery looking bits above that are the “palps” which sense what is food and not-food.

Thinking about her survival, I flit between hard-edged City Woman and warm Earth Mother. Well, anyway, I say, there’s your honey water for a couple days. Don’t get stuck in it. Now she’s looking all satisfied, her previously flopped down abdomen—which is the hind end, with the center part actually called the thorax—bent up high.

Am I stupid to put out this sugary fluid for food? Aside from getting stuck in it, her wings might get wet! I blow gently; no, she can pull them up just fine. Nothing like a snack, I think. I could use one myself.

I am playing with anthropomorphism again, I realize, but am really, really clear I know I’m doing it.

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The Dainty Sulphur is a small crushable creature, one of trillions.

I’ve stepped on, swatted and flattened probably hundreds of bugs its size and much larger: horrifying palmetto bugs and leaping hairy spiders in the Florida of my childhood, and hordes of German roaches in multiple student apartments. Even mice and rats were caught and drowned when they overran other living spaces. My mother always said to invading creatures as she squashed or sprayed them: You can live outside, but I can’t let you stay here. This is MY space.

I don’t mind sharing, but not with things that bite or sting me, or spread disease. I’m really allergic to dust spider bites and mosquitos, but understand that larger spiders and thousand-leggers eat such critters, so yes there is a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable bugs in my living space. I can whisk unwanted ones—bees, wasps—out the window but if they don’t go I can become insistent, and murderous—depending on how you define murder.

Luckily butterflies don’t hurt humans, though we can hurt them.

Chicago Botanic Garden.

Late summer Chicago Botanic Garden.

Carolus Linnaeus was the Swedish physician who established “binomial nomenclature,” the multitiered system of scientifically naming plants and animals. I recall the huge bronze statue (which, when my children were small, you could still belly up to and touch) of a kneeling Linnaeus at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Up close, Linnaeus’ roughly hewn figure was formed of creatures and plants alighted on him, under him, wrapping him; with the collecting bag on his hip and eyes open and curious, his eager hand reached out to touch and identify still more on the ground.

Dainty Sulphur Butterflies, in Linnaeus’ classification are truly Insecta, and moving more specifically down the entomological nomenclature, fall into Lepidoptera (moths & butterflies) and Papilionoidea (non-skipper butterflies; do you see the French word for butterfly “Papillon”?), Pieridae (whites, yellows, sulphurs), Nathalis (sulphurs) and her full name: Nathalis iole.

Like a softie, I’ll leave the sweet water there for a while, probably wipe it up and then put out fresh, for this particular Nathalis iole. (Boy I hope I’m right that it’s a Dainty Sulphur! I would hate to find out I am All-Wrong scientifically.)

I cannot guarantee this butterfly’s survival or quality of life. However, I don’t have to squash this insect either, “put it out of its misery.” She does not harm me, and in fact is a little company, on a cold cold day.

Because bitter wind chills, twenty and thirty below, cause me to hunker down inside, both of us are stuck in my apartment for now. And I am getting to know this creature better.

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn't it?

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn’t it?

To be continued.

A taste of full summer with fountains: Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit.

Remember summer? Fountains with Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit (Chicago Botanic Garden).

Part the First: Wherein the Butterfly Arrives

My unexpected visitor.

My unexpected visitor.

February 11, 2015.  I’m talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

At first I thought it was a moth. My internet research indicates it’s a butterfly, and might be something called a Dainty Sulphur. I have no idea how it materialized in an upstate New York brownstone in the middle of winter.

Could it have been hiding in my apartment and if so, where was its chrysalis? Could it have traveled from another part of the country, the pupa attached to the dried moss of my December birthday amaryllis? Or did I carry it in with my bags of produce from the Niskayuna Coop?—after all, bananas, grapefruit and even paper bags come from far away.

Further investigating Dainty Sulphurs, I find its arrival proves somewhat unusual—they are not native and don’t overwinter here or fly in every year like an immigrant species; in fact, they are considered a vagrant species, one that only rarely comes up from the south.

It seems to be a summer phenotype, too, because of the yellow hindwings. In a winter individual, the hindwing would be greenish-gray, with additional black patches to absorb solar heat.

Sun-seeking.

Sun-seeking.

If I were to anthropomorphize—which as a scientific person I tend to avoid—right now it looks like the perhaps-summer butterfly is perched staring out the window, yearning for the sun, a whole-insect-body aching for outside, to move and flutter and find nectar and other butterflies.

When I go to bed, the butterfly is still there.

February 12, 2015. I know if I let it outside, it would freeze. I know inside, it will not survive, though how long does a butterfly live anyway? However, it certainly won’t mate, and I don’t quite know if and what it needs to eat and drink.

My sentimental heart, in spite of my lack of knowledge about butterflies, caused me yesterday to put out a little water-honey mixture, like you would for hummingbirds. This morning she—further research indicated it’s definitely a Dainty Sulphur but probably a female because she doesn’t have the reddish-orange hindwing scent patch of a male—this morning she was still resting, midlegs and hindlegs on my peeling paint window ledge, forelegs on the icy glass, peering out with her compound eyes.

Do butterflies sleep? She’s in the same position, and hasn’t touched the honey-water I dripped onto a tiny flipped-over plastic cup. (I thought it was a perfect shape, like a birdbath with an edge to rest on.)

Inside, looking out.

Inside, looking out.

Her position looks like: Mom, Mom, I want to go out and play! Like my kids used to sit on the back of the couch, heads in palms and feet warm on the radiator, looking out into the snowy exterior, thinking of all the adventures to be had later in the day, once breakfast was done and snowsuits were put on.

But this butterfly has no snowsuit and I have none to offer it. If nothing else, I will at least accompany this creature as we both look out the window, into the deep snow, into the near future. I don’t want to be a well-meaning idiot, like those who “rescue” baby birds from perfectly fine nesting areas when they have ventured a ways from their nest. So I’ve gone online and further studied forms and colors, behavior, size (yes at 22 mm she is a Dainty), and learned that the honey-water is perfectly acceptable food.

Mostly I marvel once again at the variety of things I have not seen, or did not look for, that I am discovering now, thanks to my Dainty Sulphur.

To be continued.

(Many thanks to my favorite insect information and identification website, Bug Guide.net, and in addition, the North American Butterfly Association website. I invite comments, especially from lepidopterists!)

Essay Tangles and Snarls

How I felt, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Feeling defeated, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Even with a short piece of writing, sometimes the initial story gets entwined in another.

The second small bit knots up with a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth, and all of a sudden you the author face thousands of words when you were only looking for a couple hundred. All the threads of connection seem intrinsically linked. Where can you slice so you aren’t left with a chopped up pile of confusion?

On top of it, the perfectionist editor-in-your-head won’t let go: The relationships between these things are amazing! amazing I tell you! She can’t allow the piece be simple and stand on its own.

That’s what happened to a blog-bound essay, then several essays, I planned to finish in October.
November.
December.

I did lots of other writing, for small groups and for the radio. I prepared to curate an evening of local memoir readings. I applied to artist residencies and photo exhibits.

Cut to the last weekend of January. I held one of my quarterly Move with Mindfulness/Write with Ease workshops. In the cozy retreat house, I led yoga and stretches for the writers and sun-on-snow hikes up the hill onto white pine lined trails. I cooked Mexican black bean soup and sweet rhubarb and blueberry coffeecakes.

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Mexican Black Bean soup savory with cumin, multi-colored carrots,  cheese curds and fresh cilantro.

No internet or TV, no voice phone service, and only minimal housekeeping interrupted us; instead, session followed session, where everyone was writing, including me.

The themes of the weekend were phrases we use often on the yoga mat:
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

They apply equally well to writing.

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On the mats, in the welcoming morning warmth.

After one hike, I knocked the snow off my boots, made a cup of hot tea, and turned on my laptop. For months I’d averted my eyes, stomach aching, when confronted by the working titles on my computer screen. This time I clicked on the documents one by one to open them all together and finally faced down the matted tangle of five to eight potential blog posts.

I got mad when I saw how close I’d been to finished on several of them.
I got sad at how seasonal the topics “could have been.”
Then I got determined.

Over and over I learn the same lessons. That’s part of why I teach them.
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

See the pretty things hidden in the tangles?

See the pretty thing hidden in the tangles?

I can’t yank apart the knots between them, I thought; that will break the teeth of the comb, and accomplish the same thing as sharp scissors snipping haphazardly (remember to be grounded). How were the strands initially woven together? My previous efforts deserve gentleness (relax what you can) and not being in a hurry (be curious).

What do you do to a mental or writing knot?

Same as the visualization in yoga: straighten out, unwind, free, loosen, unclasp, release. Breathe!

Deep sigh after deep sigh followed, with shouts of “D’uh!” (often, embarrassingly, out loud) as I realized places to tease out a conceptual filament and drop it separate. The connections didn’t have to be quite so tight as first imagined; pictured it in medical terms, the conjoining was at the toe, not the chest, and therefore my surgical intervention was simpler, with fewer complications.

Still struggling, I asked: What do you do with a physical knot of tightness in massage therapy? Breathe into the pain, stay with it and it will lessen. Your body (and your writing) will be happy you are paying attention. Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

I did that with my essay snarls. Over and over again. What a relief.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thump! Bump-bump! Pine cone rides the wind over snowy ground. Can I fly free, like that?

I’m not finished. But during the next few months, thanks to that weekend of attention to body and attention to writing, I look forward to posting some completely out-of-season, close (if not finished), relatively unsnarled meditations.

The sun setting on my work, at Still Point Retreat Center.

The sun setting on my work, sparkling its light everywhere, at Still Point Retreat Center.

Holdfasts

Outside my kitchen window.

Outside my kitchen window.

It is September and the Boston Ivy has signaled autumn.

Stems went red in mid-August; now the big green dots of berries that popped out over the summer are deepening to blue. Shiny leaf umbrellas shade this transformation until breezes quiver the ivy and pull it away from the brick, revealing the ripe fruit.

Berries become obvious in the fall.

The part of the ivy that I ponder more deeply belongs to spring.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

For five years—five springs—I have meditated on a brick partition perpendicular to my kitchen window, along with the wall around my window and the next building over.

In March they are all covered with what looks like dried up vines.

First sign of growth.

First sign of growth–see it?

In April, from those ramblers, brown-horned growths issue, then beginnings of leaves, cherry and lime colored. Under the new foliage, tendrils creep that extend the plant’s reach; at the ends of those tendrils are what I can only see as little alien pod-feet.

Leaves and...

Leaves and…what are those?

Squishy wet, secreting calcium carbonate as an adhesive, they venture forward to attach the ivy to the brick, suction cupping step by step to climb the buildings and cover them with more and more leaves.

These sticky pads are called holdfasts.

Onto the mortar--

Onto the mortar–holdfasts.

Eentsy-weentsy gummed cushions, the only support for pounds and pounds and pounds of greenery.

Holdfasts.

The wind whips the moist leaves, pulls at the vines, and the holdfasts? They hold.

Walls of ivy

Walls of ivy

Every year, Nature’s prompt: What are the holdfasts in my life?

What are the things that, once I’ve ventured forth, clasp me firm and fast to my true self, keep me from blowing away?

—That don’t seem that strong but really are.

—That form even as I merely think about moving.

—That prepare in advance for the eventual step, wherever it takes me, whichever surface and direction.

—That understand (whether I am willing to acknowledge it or not) there will always be a next step.

hold on!

Wrapped around the old vine, growing new vine.

Whatever those holdfasts are, I need to identify and guard them, because they keep me stable and safe, and are absolutely necessary for growth and expansion, no matter how insignificant or odd they look to the rest of the world.

**

A visitor to the ivy.

A visitor to the ivy.

As summer marches in, bigger leaves follow the small ones, which expand to cover increasing territory; then those green berries appear while I am out in the mountains and going lake swimming and kayaking; next a smell of fall blows before I think it is due–while the petioles blush and glow from the bottom of each leaf to its base–which is right now, here in September. When I start to need a jacket for bike rides, the leaves turn red and brown and yellow-white, like Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes all on the same leaf.

Fall ivy.

Fall ivy.

Finally groups of birds arrive, luckily often on days I am home to watch. They fly at the walls, flapping crazy wings, picking at the berries. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they attack over and over again, determinedly seeking purple-blue morsels and knocking the already loosened French vanilla, strawberry and chocolate leaves down to the yard below. As that group moves on, some berries are left, to be picked off by the next day’s migrating flock.

The holdfasts darken but remain. Empty brick walls are looped once again only with vines, where small clumps of snow find a precarious perch in January and February. Then the light changes again and signals the slow reaching out of buds and tendrils—and fresh holdfasts to join the others.

Winter light on old vines.

Winter light on old vines.

 

To Be Human

Pollen frosted close up of roadside chicory flower.

Pollen sparkled stamens of common roadside chicory: delicate and tough together.

I’ve been off the grid for many months, in terms of writing posts, due to some health issues.

It’s been hard to let go of the happy disciplines I crafted over time in favor of other, uninvited ones: from days of writing and hiking and yoga studies and business building, to pain management, miserable medication interactions, diet changes, self-care regimens and (even though it was minor surgery) post surgical rehab.

Unable to sit on the floor and do my yoga in its usual way, I had to figure out what part of my practice “transfers.” Sometimes I couldn’t look ahead into the future, or even the next thirty minutes, so the asana practice simplified into breathing in the moment, then breathing into only-the-very-next moment.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: barely head out of water, plagued by flies.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: head barely out of water, plagued by swarms of flies that just wouldn’t leave.

Until I’m consumed by Being-Ill Time, I don’t recognize that my usual experience is Relatively-Healthy (even though I’ve done this being-ill thing before). Since February, I’ve stepped out of ordinary time–like the final months with my friend J. Because it went on for a while, illness became my ordinary time. I had to give up activities I was attached to, like honing essays for this blog.

I stayed with the disappointment, frustration, and unexpected physical weakness. I centered on curiosity, listening to what was actually going on in my body, instead of anticipating procedures with dread or remembering previous ones with trepidation.

I had to bring my self-care tools with me into Being-Ill Time, and develop some new ones. (More on that in later posts.)

Daisy--closed, preparing for bloom.

Daisy–closed, preparing for bloom.

As humans, we often have to respond to what happens that we don’t choose. To glory in the pain-free moments. To become comfortable in “waiting to see” and not making plans. Here I thought I was moving so much more slowly than in my old perfectionistic, A+ Student self. Now I have been taught to go even slower.

Of course initially my mind went crazy with thoughts: How long will this last? How bad will it get? Am I a wimp?—justifying myself to loads of imaginary detractors.

Then one day on the way to replenish my medical supplies, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about what I was up to.

I’ve been ill lately, but I teach writing and movement workshops—and I’ll be doing yoga with hiking at a local nature area this summer.

But what do you DO?

With my sister, I’m working on a book about meditation and the creative process. Progress continues on the memoir. I’ve been enjoying my nature photography as well.

But what do you DO?

Hearing these persistent questions, I could have become discouraged. No, I’m not working a typical nine-to-five job with a fancy title or perks. I’ve been sick, so certainly my business’s forward movement has been disrupted.

However, for the first time, instead of self-judging, I noticed how her thought patterns and expectations of how I measured my life were upsetting HER. The chosen flexibility and unconventional schedule of my life—which made her uncomfortable—were getting me through some tough times. My response? I didn’t take it personally. I merely wished her well and went on my way.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

It reminds me of what I used to ask my adult literacy students: Not Where do you work? but rather How do you spend your days? The question delved into who they were as people, and acknowledged that personal value is not based on how much money we make or our job descriptions. Some of us raise children, make a community, rest in retirement, volunteer, enjoy our professions or, alternatively, do meaningless repetitive things in order to pay the bills.

The better questions: How do you feel about how you spend your days? What’s important to you? What have you learned about being a human?

I’ve spent my days lately paying attention to what’s happening in my very human (concurrently fragile and powerful) body, researching, breathing, undergoing, recovering. I am living in my moments, honing skills of survival that I also tuck away for when I might need them next.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

 

To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013