Listening Beneath the To Do Lists

thistleI hadn’t noticed it at first. The lists seemed so innocent. “Once fall gets here,” they all began, and after that came a litany: I’ll exercise more, reach out to that friend I’ve been meaning to, do that thing and make that thing and clean that thing… Fall things, productive things. I was just waiting for the right timing.

Innocent, right? Until I was on my way somewhere recently and noticed how tightly I was holding myself, how packed in I felt. All those lists, I realized, had created this quiet patina of self-scolding; there was so much to DO, after all, to get things in order. But rarely do kind statements begin with, “If only you’d…” No, their subtext is clear and sharp: Pull yourself together, girl. Fix the problem (which is you).

The truth is that for many of us, those to do lists ramp up right when the din of our actual discomfort gets too loud to bear. Instead of slowing down to notice what’s really happening – loneliness, exhaustion, overwhelm – we put window dressing on the tender spots, gloss them over with busy-ness. It’s comically bad timing: Just when we’re feeling less than together, we wag our fingers at ourselves to get it together.

But what if our discomfort isn’t wrong? What if we don’t fuel the myth that we need fixing? And what if getting low and close and comfortable with those vulnerable places is one of the greatest kindnesses we could extend to ourselves?img_1386This inner “I just need to…” is quietly habitual, a pattern we developed long ago, without thinking. It insists we only…need to… hold it…together and [fill in the blank] will be alright.

Friends, let’s just put down the lie that we’re holding anything together.

This doesn’t mean that we’re irresponsible with our loved ones, that we stop showing up for work or give up on showering. Just that we allow ourselves to be softly honest about what dwells inside.

The funny thing is, we know how to do this… when it comes to other people. If you’ve sat with a friend when she’s in distress, or a child who is twisting himself in strange contortions because something is amiss, you know: First, you listen. You just show up. When we offer permission instead of “solutions,” there’s more space for things to grow – not by coercing and cajoling, but tending and trusting. 

Brené Brown writes beautifully on this topic (and if you have 2:54, please watch this sweetest bit of animation from her, also linked at the end of this post), which she frames as the difference between feeling with someone (empathy) and trying to “help” them (sympathy). If we really want to make something better, says Brown, what we say matters so much less than the quality of our connection.

True, it’s often easier to see how to do this for someone else.  But maybe we could practice pausing at those “if only you’ds,” listening for what lies beneath them, and offering empathy to ourselves. That’s a punch list I could actually get behind.Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 4.48.35 PM

 

The solace of no solace

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This one is hard.

I heard the poet David Whyte say recently that a good elegy is a conversation between grief and celebration.

And, so. Here we are. It’s 12 days since we lost our soul companion and guardian, our 10-year-old giant of a dog, Charlie.

I’ve written about him here before, a big Collie Shepherd mix with a coat like marshes in winter: faded brown, tinges of red and beige. He had ludicrously white legs, as though he had put on bleached knee highs. He wasn’t cuddly. He did not lick. If you tried to snuggle him while he lay, he would get up, irritated, shaking himself off.  His preference was to lean his whole body in to you, or to wait, just off to the side, working the perimeter. He was steady and constant and heartbreakingly gentle.

But really, how do you write about your own breath? How do you write about the tragedy of loud silence? We talk instead about what he would have wanted: To go to the pond.

To see Charlie walk in his woods was to see a being utterly alive in himself. He would tilt his head at the word “pond,” pick up pace, bounce like a deer.

He could fly in praise of love and the arrival of someone he was happy to see, a whirling blur, impossibly fast, leaping and sailing in circles around the cars. His whole body cried: Yes! Yes! Here we are! Let us move! And off he took, sometimes crashingly.

IMG_0266.JPGGrief does funny things. It seems to slice through what is unimportant, gracelessly. It clarifies. It becomes obvious who can sit with you in the sadness, and who squirms in the face of it, or tries to fix it. It reminds you of times when you may have squirmed or tried to fix someone else’s grief, and softens you. It has a raw and merciless physicality – like a rope burn or an ache or a stone. And when that physicality dims – normalcy washing up on the shore of your days – that has its own grief, because it carries you further away from the time your loved one was here. A living body.

When we got Charlie from a shelter up the coast, he had been abandoned twice already. He was wild, skittish. 6 months old, with big feet and a body that would soon double in size, he would whine and jump and throw himself. His movement was careening, without regard for objects or people (or their bad knees) that might be in the way.

But we stuck together, and in that permission, he came home to himself. Grew into the gentle watching giant he was. Animals can do the same for us; their touch and constancy melting us into who we were to begin with. Until we are irrevocably marked by love.

In the end, as the cancer grew, his body diminished. But not his light. Charlie is buried out beneath the apple tree on the edge of the field, and the world seems to echo with him, in grief and celebration.

And oh, how we miss him.

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Mud Season of the Soul

“I will wax romantic about spring and its splendors in a moment, but first there is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I have walked in the early spring through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful it makes you yearn for the return of ice. But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created.” — Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

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Spring, that season of greeting card sweetness and abundance, starts out with some real ick. I wish I were speaking in metaphors here. When the snowbanks melt, there is sand, sticks, dirty old plastic bags. And those are the sightly bits. All of our garbage is suddenly visible.

It is the season we in New England call: Mud.

And so, when the detritus appears, we rake, clear, cut. We regard what’s been underneath the whole time. And because we know that the chaos of growth is coming, this is the season to survey the bones. To look out and ask, What do I have here? What are the shapes of the structures underneath, revealed now in their nakedness?

For me, this is a ripe time for looking at old habits and patterns.

– Where and how do I move through my days?
– What space have I created for being creative?
– What are the dry wells that need to be capped, those toxic thoughts (and connections) that send me spinning?
– How do I serve the people and places I love, up to and including myself?

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Early spring feels like the season for these stark questions. It offers a kind of invitation to burn the bracken in the early bonfire, to set out the seed trays, empty the shelves. The act of tending to what is here – even when it’s muck-covered and colorless – sends out a kind of secret faith that growth is coming. Despite the evidence, despite the pace.

I try (as much as possible, which sometimes is not at all) to honor this dank and ugly place that always precedes the season of becoming.  Because in mud season, everything we see is unformed, embryonic in its potentiality. Just, you know, not much to look at.

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Right-Sized Bites

Down on Broadway – South Portland, not New York – is an electronic sign with a running countdown. “Only 15 Days to Spring!” it says in green digital letters. Technically, we know this is true. But it is 20 degrees and snowing.  An icy crust covers all surfaces.  And we haven’t even gotten to the part where the snow melts, and months of detritus begin to emerge from the banks.IMG_2707

This is a season that can really test our trust.  Also our patience, our senses of humor, and our desire for fresh produce not trucked in from 3,000 miles away.

Last month, my family and I trucked ourselves 3,000 miles away, to Southern Mexico. Cloudless days, hot afternoons – we went outside without coats and ate roasted corn from pushcarts. I love (love!) being in warm places, and I’ve learned not to expect immediate arrival; it takes me at least a few days to stop squinting and start breathing, to actually land.  Coming back, I had a keen sense of how many time zones and latitude degrees we crossed in order to get from there to here. 

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Back in Maine, it is still winter. The season feels like a not-subtle metaphor for body discomfort: Like the pile of snow at the end of the drive, the aches in our bodies don’t go away at the pace we want them to. We want springtime, blossoms, and t-shirt days just as we want easy backs and unhindered shoulders. We are not accustomed to waiting, and it’s hard to trust the pace that gets us from here to there.

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Seeing the coming change at the level of tissue is a little easier. Tissue really does change; muscles unwind and let go, shoulders open.  But for that change to unfold, we have to pace carefully. We want just the right amount of work to invite something new.  Too little, and we feel unmet, too much, and we can react like seedlings in hot sun, over-taxed and overwhelmed.  When I work with clients, I think about what it means to take the right-sized bite; how to exercise patience and long-sightness so that they can  integrate change. 

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So I’m thinking this very long-in-coming spring is its own right-sized bite. Perhaps, with this much time to let winter run its course, we will really occupy spring when it comes. We won’t need automated signs to tell us when the season is here, because we’ll know it from the inside.

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