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.

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.

 

Confidence That I Know Nothing–The Labyrinth

One of several trees that greet you at the entrance to the labyrinth.

A meditation labyrinth is a winding path, but unlike a maze, the traveler knows she will follow the course to the center and traverse the same path out with no fear of becoming lost. People have walked labyrinths of various forms for millennia; as they amble, they seek answers to particular questions, or to touch their G/god or Spirit or inner being.

When I began my weekend retreat at Kripalu Yoga Center last Friday with a walk in the outdoor labyrinth, I thought about self-definition, and work.

Winding the curves, tears dripped down my cheeks: I don’t want to get to the center— because then I will have to come back out, and I’m not sure what I will discover about myself in the process, specifically, my options for future paid work. Recently, before I even claim any idea as a “possible next career,” I’ve gotten scared, run away from thinking, watched too much TV, over-filled the schedule or just done nothing.

Achy and stiff, I haven’t participated in my usual yoga classes at home and have avoided extended concentration on breath and difficult positions. Yoga has merely served as a stretching regimen a couple times a week. Last year in the autumn my body was so much more mobile, technically and muscularly strong in the postures, and confident. Lighter, too.

Old habits of anxiety haunt me, a drive to squeeze everything I can out of this time away, to find answers to my questions. But at what expense? I ask as I wander. To feel the drivenness more than the experience?

I notice that there are more reds in the trees here than in New York; the weeping trees quiver with neon orange, yellow and green in their seasonal change; shadowy evergreens cover the Berkshire mountains behind the labyrinth. Exiting, the view stretches wide, with a broad grassy hill up to buildings where the first session, and then dinner, then more yoga, await me.

A community of grasses accompanies you.

I wish I’d been conveniently struck by some slam-bang inspiration about work while in the labyrinth, but then in yoga class the falsehood is revealed that when you discover something, you are then finished or complete–an impossibility, because we are constantly changing, and the world is constantly changing. The instructor reminded: take your time, make your own choices, move how you want to, experiment!

The intense physical activity scrubs me clean and pares me down, open to see daily life as simultaneously not that important and amazingly huge, miraculous, splendid. The sixth sense, we are told, is Awareness. Yoga calls me to the corporeal plane, and the spiritual plane, and beyond that, even–but by 10 pm I am so tired and roiling in self-judgment, it hurts.

Washing up before bed, I remember: when my best friend visited a few weeks ago, she commented, You believe you are not moving fast enough with this puzzle. But for the first time in your life you are looking at each piece and not trying to press it in the form right away, instead asking does it fit? does it even belong in this puzzle?

I want to trust that the picture will emerge. Mostly I believe it will, but I’ve been sidelined and undermining myself, avoiding “the work thing” because I have been afraid–of failing, or finding a big nothingness at the center of myself and my search.

The next day, during the Kundalini yoga, in the repeating pose of punches-through-an obstacle, I strike through the negative messages, through self-doubt into compassion for myself, thus revealing a glorious version of Me. It is repeated: Revelation will come and there will always be more to understand and grow into.

As we tell our life stories during lunch, my roommate remarks on my tenacity, and offers unexpected observations about my skills.

In a Kripalu Yoga session, frank acknowledgment that everyone suffers heart break leads to a vision of the body as energetic river, where damage from that pain has an impact, but can be repaired.

Words from the Prana Flow teacher: Move with courage into whatever life brings. Practicing yoga can give you confidence that we know nothing. Spending time with yoga itself will give us “nothing”–but through breathing, doing asanas (poses), and other practices, we can tap into the teacher we have within us. A bit theoretical, hopeful, maybe even too far-out. But I like it.

After fourteen hours of yoga in two-and-a-half-days, hours of breathing and meditation and strengthening of the body and compassion toward myself, listening to the body and listening to the body some more, having my value reflected back to me by others and myself–I approach the labyrinth once again, to close the weekend.

I stop at each planting on the way in: sets of willows, vanilla-cupcake-colored, Seuss-ian tufts of grasses flopping in the wind, and some unidentified saplings; I reach out to touch each one in turn, and step to the next pair, like a slow procession up a church aisle, until I come to the labyrinth entrance, stroke the wood of the arch and walk through.

Seuss-ian soft grass-tops.

I deliberately slow my gait, returning to the meditative walking that I’ve read about: sense the heel touch the ground, roll through the middle, and let the toes make contact. Then don’t do the expected forward movement, just rest there; then, pick up the other foot, shift weight and move. One step. Pause. One step. Pause. One step.

I brush against a bushy bottomed evergreen, and it felt like I was joshing a friend, approaching a teenage boy uncomfortable with hugs, him pushing his shoulder against mine, Hey, dude, whuzzup?, a camaraderie with the trees, like we were buddies, old pals, kidding around with each other, glad to see each other, relieved actually. So I stop to give each head-high evergreen a gentle shoulder bump and a half-smile of recognition.

Following that, I tromp, wide-hipped, swinging my legs with energy. Clomp-clomp-clomp. Then stand, smelling the musty grasses dry in their rustling, slipping their feathery lengths through my fingers. Next, glide forward slowly again, with few tears, in fact triumphant, bubbling over some with alternative ideas and ways of looking at Work. Think to myself with a sigh: god knows I will run into obstacles and I may be completely wrong about the possibilities, but I’ll use the yoga practice–no, I’ll just DO it, and through that, trust I will get to know how I feel about things; motivate myself by being in touch with my body–no, I’ll NOTICE motivation and excitement from within, seeing and leaving behind the berating messages, the patterns of avoidance–cleansing with breath, clearing, opening; like the trees are changing and opening to the heavy gray fall sky over lake and mountain here in the Berkshires.

I resolve to create a new Practice in my life, instead of the old Routine: new ways of walking through my days and taking care of myself. Cup of hot tea with honey in hand, I drive back home.

Of course next day I am exhausted by the weekend, and then overstimulated by classes at the computer store: required to be intellectual before I am ready, blasted by the fluorescent lights, too-loud Muzak, and super-saturated color. The coming rainstorm from Sandy pushes me to watch old episodes of Glee “while I can” and then the darned electricity never goes out! and I worry I have fallen right back into all my old habits.

But–every day I’ve eaten well, gone into my yoga room and felt the muscles loosen along with my busy mind, remembered what my community of yoga teachers taught me, heard their laughing voices, and breathed compassion toward myself. Started again with the next moment.

Yes, life is a series of beginnings, to be taken puzzle piece by puzzle piece, step by step, breath by breath. Perhaps life is also a series of puzzles, where the fun, the point, is putting it together, not the final image.

I am confident I know nothing. I have entered the labyrinth, journeyed to the center, and come back out. I’m holding the puzzle pieces, thinking.

A far-away view of the labyrinth, after you re-enter the world.