Focus: to draw toward a center

What an evocative phrase.      sfpt5

For me, centering and grounding carry a connotation of calm and safety. Rootedness. Of course these are concepts that have gained meaning for me over the years, not the preoccupations of my youth. Perhaps the idea of focus shifts as we age, away from a multitasking, forward motion, activity aimed at some future goal. In my seventh decade, I am more aware of inwardness, the gathering of my life’s experiences thus far. Cherishing those events and now cognizant of choice.

Yes, the reality is that many things simply happen ‘to us’. It is the sensation of being buffeted or buried by those events, which was the primary experience of my youth, which I am beginning to see is not inevitable. Instead I can try taking a stand, (oops, ‘stand your ground’) and choose not to tip into the whirling, sucking downward spiral. Opting instead for a different focus.

I am reminded of lines from a poem I wrote back in 1975. It is quite self-indulgent of me to quote my own adolescent work. But writing a blog is or can be self-indulgent, is it not? And I am always tickled to find some old writing that appears to be a scrap of wisdom delivered before I really knew what I was saying. Here are a few lines, copied from the old mimeographed page, edges browned, unearthed from my bottom desk drawer:

I was there steady at my oar, all the time

And that’s what shook me up…

…before when my heart splintered

or the turbulence of others

beat me down,

I would break and drown…

…this time I was

quiet and still beneath the crashing waves

grateful that I did not have to pick up the pieces and

start again, because there was no break,

my stroke was steady.

Now this is all sounding rather trite to me, and perhaps to any reader who may encounter this post. I’m not trying to be profound or deep, just trying to make sense of my days. (Medical tests were fine, btw; quick and easy.) My father-in-law died last weekend and his funeral is on Saturday. My spouse’s siblings will gather here, with their families, arriving tomorrow. Arrangements are entirely in the hands of their father’s wife and the situation is messy, complex and emotionally fraught. My focus is handling the logistics of feeding people and providing comfortable places for them to sleep. And I will also be trying to follow through on NaBloPoMo and post something here every day. There is so much more to say about focus, choice and time. Anon.    nablopomo_badge_2016

Afterword

Yesterday when I drafted my post, Completion, there was a section where I talked about death. First I said that death is the only real completion. But then I realized that death actually may be a good example of completion=beginning, because although I have no firm belief in what happens ‘after life’, I do believe that there is an essence, call it spirit or soul, that carries on in someway. It is the body that has completed its journey.

Anyway, I said all this, most eloquently I’m sure, but when I returned to edit the draft before posting, I had just learned about the death of a woman I knew and admired greatly. Unfortunately the people we know in common didn’t think to let me know when she died about two weeks ago. Hearing this news, especially after such a delay, was/is shocking and very unsettling.

I worked for this woman and her husband for eleven years and in a curious way was very involved in their personal lives. She and I also shared a birth date and as I said, I admired her greatly. She was active in the larger world as a promoter of connection and understanding in a way that was quite special. Yes, I’m being vague, because I am.

So I returned to my little blog post, was freaked out by the section I’d written on death, hastily took out those sentences and posted the rest. I am still shaken today, disturbed on a gut level. I think it has something to do with the fact that death and secrecy or ‘not knowing’ played such a powerful role in my childhood. In reaction to the way death was ‘handled’ in my family, I have spent a lifetime insisting that death is important to talk about, know about, discuss, share.

To be left in the dark of unknowing about this woman’s death for two weeks has triggered a lot of feelings. Something like anger toward the friends who did not think to let me know, but I see that that is old stuff, anger I did not, was not allowed to express toward my parents for their behavior when my sister died. Just writing this is exhausting, but it helps a little. I know that I am one of literally thousands of people whose lives this amazing woman touched and who now mourn for her. So all I can do now is add my breath to the clouds of emotion that have lifted her beyond this world.

Family

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve had a hard time writing a blog post for the past couple of days. The reasons are many, I suppose. There is certainly the busy-ness around an event holiday, with cooking and traveling and lots of time with people. Spending too much time with people, even the ones I love, is exhausting and makes me cranky.

And speaking of cranky, there is a lot of what I’ll call pretense about this holiday – perhaps most holidays. So if my post on Thursday seemed sort of negative or bitter, well, that’s because this country, my country, along with being wonderful in some ways, has and does behave deplorably in so many other ways. One could say that this is true of most people, as well as nations or governments and perhaps that is so.

However I find it troubling when a person or entity touts its praiseworthy values and then does not even come close to living them. It’s ‘talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.’ Most people who know me would probably say that I am perilously close to being a ‘Pollyanna’ in my determined optimism. But that veneer seems to be wearing thin in places, as I age.

I’m going to return to the pretense issue as it relates to family. Family of man [sic]: we all belong. Blood family: even before genetic testing, the net of biological connection was rather vast. I know that I have many blood kin whom I have never met. But we are family in a genetic sense. And of course there are the blood kin with whom my life is closely intertwined. There is family as a legal entity: this would include those who have married ‘into the family’ as well as any other legal joining, like adoption.

Family as a unit: those who protect and nurture one another, without specific biological or legal connections. That would include ‘friends as family’, regardless of living situation, or any of the classifications used to define people as different. These are the chosen ones, the people we want to spend time with, or more specifically, at least for me, the people that it is relaxing and comfortable and de-stressing to be with.

Unfortunately, my experience with holidays over the decades has involved many hours surviving the pretense of family as nurturing and loving. Patience and good will is wearing pretty thin in that arena. I think that part of what I am trying to say is that I have shed almost all of the illusions I treasured as a child and young adult, that the rosy pretenses were real. And I am no longer willing to wait for the idyllic future when some miracle will have taken place and the rosy pretenses (like the Velveteen Rabbit) have become real.

There is a song from the mid-1970’s, written and performed by the Steve Miller Band. If you want to take a trip to the past, click the link here. The clothes, the guitars, the hair… One line keeps playing in my head. (I believe they are called ‘earworms’?)

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

Yes indeed, the future is here.

NaBloPoMo_2015

 

Dreams

As a child, I was a sleepwalker. They tell me I would be found curled up, asleep, on the fuzzy rug in the bathroom, like a cat. I also talked in my sleep, although it wasn’t until I had a roommate in college that my words were captured for posterity. Profound things like: “Chop, chop, chop the nuts.” and “Somewhere there’s home and I’m going.” From childhood through my 20’s I remembered my dreams some of the time, but never really paid attention, so the images and feelings would slip away quite rapidly upon awakening.

Then I met a woman who was really ‘into’ dreams. She wrote detailed descriptions of her dreams every night, often several dreams, filling pages and pages, which obviously took some time. I began to ‘attend’ to my dreams more and suddenly they were more vivid and my recall was much more complete. This is a truism about dreams and dreaming. If you express interest in them by writing them down, even the briefest image or lingering feeling, or if you simply place paper and pen beside the bed with the intention of capturing dream stuff, your dreams will respond by being more present.

Another truism is that we do all dream, virtually every night. But there are so many environmental factors that interfere with experiencing and then remembering dreams that many people believe they do not dream. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to prove this point to many disbelievers, so I feel pretty confident about that assertion. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I began reading about dreams and dreamwork, Carl Jung being a true visionary (oops, pun, or not) and prolific writer in this field. I also experienced and practiced guided dream reentry, which is surprisingly powerful.

Eventually, I started a dream group with two other women. We met every other week for about ten years. That was an amazing time, writing and sharing our dreams and then sharing questions and insights that arose. I found that I had the capacity to suspend my own thoughts and just let the images of someone else’s dream enter me and stimulate insights. Okay, I am sounding sort of wacky again, but it was true. I think the other women in the group would still agree.

So, it came to pass that I taught classes in dreamwork in a few different settings and in each one I learned more about dreams. I was teaching English in a small alternative high school, with students who had troubled histories (and present lives as well.) Run-ins with the law, time spent in institutions, substance abuse and mental health issues were the norm. So, I offered an English class on dreamwork to these ‘unmotivated’ learners. We had a blast.

At first they referred to the class as ‘kindergarten’, because I would close the blinds, have them lay on the floor and take them through guided visualizations. Then they would write, in class, about what they had experienced. Sometimes I would give them art materials like crayons and paper or modeling beeswax to recreate images from their excursions into the unconscious. There were never images of gratuitous violence. I think they were as surprised as I was by the ‘material’ that came out.

A few of them began writing down dreams at home and we incorporated those into class work. Several of these young men and women had never read a book in their lives. Most did not write, or read their work aloud or own up to their ‘dreams’ of any kind. Each one of them broke through some barrier over the course of the semester. I can’t say if it was life changing for them, but it was for me. I went from that job right into grad school for education.

A few years later I had a chance to teach a similar course to college students at a local university. (Full disclosure: it was the same one where I had previously learned drafting on-the-job and also my undergrad and grad school alma mater.) These students could not have been more different than the rough, street-wise kids from the earlier class. But in spite of their privileged status and education, they were just as skeptical about dreams and dreamwork. And they were slowly won over by the experiments I forced them to make: journal by the side of the bed, writing down & sharing dreams, crafting images from their dreams and experiencing dream re-entry. With just a couple of exceptions, these undergrads had suspended their disbelief by midway through the semester. The course got very touching evaluations, from these future engineers, doctors and mathematicians.

I guess I should say what a privilege it is to hear about people’s dreams; in classes or privately. I’ve worked with many friends (and some paying clients) on their dreams over the years and I’ll be darned if there isn’t something for me in each experience. Call it the collective unconscious or what ever you like, there’s something there. When I led a three-session workshop on dreams at a local ‘New Age’ bookstore, I encountered a participant whose input stunned me at the time and still has me puzzling. She was blind. She called me on the amount of visually based language I used when speaking about dreams. And she was right! I began to learn from her about the dream experience of a visually impaired person and if I were inclined toward research or an advanced degree, I might follow that path.

As it is, my dreamwork life has, with so many other Sparks that I have Truly loved, been on hiatus while my real life took over all the space. This NaBloPoMo writing is certainly stirring up some old passions. Once they are unearthed, I will have the opportunity to Truly Triage and live intentionally, re-incorporating these Sparks of joy into my life once again.

NaBloPoMo_2015

 

 

Wood

Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation and hearing yourself say something, which you suddenly realize is a previously unarticulated, but basic truth about yourself? What I said was: “I feel more comfortable when I am somewhere where there are more trees than people.” Oh so very true, to this day. I love trees, in all seasons. And, as you probably know, wood comes from trees.

When I think about my love of wood, as in items made from wood, a couple of things come to mind. The smell of sawdust was utterly intoxicating, from my very first whiff to my most recent exposure. My paternal grandfather had a woodshop at his place in Vermont. As a girl I would stand at the doorway, inhaling deeply and sensing that magic was happening in there.

He was retired, a self-taught woodworker and he was also a stingy old bird, holding tightly to the dictates of his generation. I see that now, but as child all I heard was his strict rule that girls were not allowed to enter the shop. Ever. It was for men and boys. There was no attempt at explaining the ban by citing safety or even his private pleasures. It was simply a matter of being excluded from this enticing space.

I grew up surrounded by old wooden furniture. A lot of the tables, beds, bureaus and such were ‘well worn’, but that was a good thing because then we children couldn’t really hurt them. It was the warmth of the wood, the many shades of brown and the patina of age that I liked. Over the years I began to look more closely at the mystery of the grain, the depth and organic designs that appeared when wood was sanded and finished.

Wooden bowls and handmade wooden spoons were crossover items, combining two loves – cooking and wood. As a young adult, it was difficult for me to resist touching and occasionally purchasing small, handmade little boxes when they appeared in shops and at craft shows. They didn’t need to serve a real purpose; I just wanted them around.

Then some friends asked to store a piece of furniture in our recently purchased house, while they were in the midst of a move. It was a magnificent sideboard, replete with carving and a silky, shining finish. I was all over that thing, clearly out of place in our hand-me-down furnished home. What an incredible antique, I thought. The ball and claw feet were gracefully carved; every detail was crisp and perfect, in pristine condition. Well, they didn’t have children yet, maybe they were just careful with it.

When I learned that my friend had made the piece, I was disbelieving. No. Furniture like that had to be an antique. Nobody made that, certainly not these days. I was forced to admit that at some point in time, each ‘antique’ had been newly made by someone, but that was a really long time ago, right? Come to find out, he had gone to trade school and learned to make traditional furniture. Wow. Really? Sparks!

I wanted to learn how to do that. The rejection I had experienced with my grandfather was undoubtedly a source of motivation and as I butted my head against further sexism when applying to the school, I doubled down on my determination. The man who initially interviewed me was dismissive. I did not have any of the qualifications to enroll. That was that, as far as he was concerned. Bye, bye.

He pissed me off and I set to work acquiring the requisite experience. I needed to learn drafting, so I left my job and got hired to do very basic floor plans of buildings at a nearby university. I enrolled in a night school program at a local high school to learn how to operate woodworking machines. Eventually I progressed to a class, taught by a very sweet young man who introduced me to the fine art of hand tools. I practiced working with chisels, planes and precise measuring tools; being naturally neat, compulsive and careful was an asset.

And wood… I really got involved with different types of wood for the first time. The transformation from rough lumber to a finished piece was truly (Truly!) thrilling. The grain was not just a thing of beauty, but an inherent quality, which I would come to know through the interaction of tool and wood. The ease of ‘working’ straight-grained pine or mahogany was so different from the more brittle and seemingly rock hard challenge of working with walnut or an exotic wood like ebony.

Armed with some skills and confidence, I marched back to the admissions office to make my case. The same man tried to dissuade me, but I was determined to gain entry to the kingdom. I was later to learn that when I had first interviewed, two years earlier, they had just been forced to admit women for the first time. The Feds said: no accreditation or financial aid unless you allow women students. It was the 1980’s for heavens sake.

So, I was in the second, very small batch of women to enter the Furniture and Cabinet Making program. Many tales to tell, but what matters here, today, is that this is a Spark of joy that is still very much alive. I have neglected the pleasure of working wood for decades, but the act of Triage, answering the question of what I have Truly loved has brought me back to this elemental joy and I intend to re-explore.

NaBloPoMo_2015

Truly

A friend recently told me about a wonderful weekly newsletter called Brain Pickings, written by Maria Popova. Now in its tenth year, this gift, which arrives in my inbox each Sunday is quite a treasure. In very tiny print, above the masthead (I started my writing life an aspiring journalist) it says:

Reflections on the rewards of seeking out what magnifies your spirit.

Then I think about the masthead quote on the NY Times: ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ and I consider the dis-spiriting nature of so much that is reported as news these days. To be honest, I often think that I am “too busy” and file Brain Pickings, planning to “read it later”, but I intend to start making time. Her writing is nutritious and healing and who doesn’t need that? I could go on and on about the glory and richness of this enterprise, but I urge you to take a look for yourself… a treasure trove of deeply thoughtful writing.

A few weeks ago, Popova wrote about Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher and writer whose work I read back in my college days. Some of his ideas I absorbed and retain, but I have not thought of him, except perhaps in a crossword puzzle context, for years. Imagine my surprise when I found this quote. It would have been fairly meaningless to me as a twenty-something, but strikes right to the heart of my sixty-something quest for self.

“What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?” Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far…

What have I truly loved thus far? That is a powerful question. Each time I read it, or consider it even peripherally, something starts churning inside of me. I want to know the answer and I can tell that I do know the answer. I need only the courage to acknowledge these ‘revered objects’ that have ‘uplifted my soul’, dominating and delighting me at the same time. So I have begun remembering and assembling a list of these things that I have loved, seeking to understand my ‘very self’. Seeking to reconnect with those sparks of  joy.

One love that I discovered, perhaps re-discovered, a few years ago is what led me to creating this website and thereafter to this blog. While participating in an Artist’s Way workshop, I had to do a little drawing as part of an assignment. I can’t remember what it was; something like a floor plan or a map, I think. What I do remember is the realization that I had gotten happily lost in the project. It was just so much fun, playing with colors.

A high school art teacher had told me that I could not draw, therefore I did not draw. My family, fully cooperating with the scarcity mentality, agreed with her. My sister was a talented artist. I was the writer. Cannot exceed one of each per family, that’s the rule, right? But I truly loved doing this little drawing, so I started drawing pictures of food and writing little essays around the drawings. I called it Eating Art Work.

The other day, after a fairly long hiatus, I picked up my pencil and artists markers and – boom – the experience was powerfully fun once again. I lost myself in the pleasure of the work or in the words of Nietzsche, my soul was dominated and delighted at the same time. Here is a little piece of the drawing I made, based on the framework of an online project called TDAC. Check it out. This is part of my recipe for One Hour Chili. I’ll be doing a second draft and then I will share it here.

TDC chili NaBloPoMo_2015

 

 

 

Listen

I believe that I am what’s called ‘a good listener’ and I think most people who know me would agree. It sort of goes along with being a hugger, the welcoming-ness of open arms = open ears and heart. Well, I think I need to re-examine that self-perception. Its not that I don’t listen, but I guess that I don’t just listen. Have I always been this way, or has this habit evolved over time? I listen and then I try to fix. When I am not called upon to fix; when I am not asked to propose solutions. Unsolicited advice. Ouch. And to make me even more uncomfortable in this self-reflection, I can see that in many cases, I respond in that way because the speaker’s emotions are painful to hear. Although I pride myself on being a ‘safe person’ for others to confide in, and I do keep confidences, on some level I want the emotional disturbance to go away.

Listening obviously involves the ears. I have some hearing loss and don’t hear certain levels of sound, especially in a crowded setting. But if I am one-on-one, my ears are fully functional. And empathetic listening obviously involves the heart and that seems to be my natural response. This personality trait, if I can call it that, has just always been who (and how) I am, all my life. I can’t say it has always been easy to be so tuned in to the feelings of others. In fact it is not.

A series of articles was brought to my attention recently that actually label and to some extent explain to me who I am. Tendencies that I have always considered maladaptive have been studied and it appears that I am an HSP, which stands for highly sensitive person. They say that I am ‘biologically wired’ to behave the way I do. Imagine that!

There have been fMRI studies of the brain activity of HSPs. Can’t say that I understand all of the scientific facts, but here is a link to a 2014 article entitled: “The Highly Sensitive Brain: an fMRI Study of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Response to Others’ Emotions” by Bianca P. Acevedo, Elaine N. Aron, Arthur Aron, Matthew-Donald Sangster, Nancy Collins & Lucy L. Brown. In a section on page 11, ‘The highly sensitive brain: empathy and integration of others’ emotions’, I find this statement:

These results suggest that highly sensitive individuals “feel” and integrate sensory information to a greater extent in response to others’ affective states…

A slightly more accessible article appeared in the Huffington Post this past summer.

[HSPs are] easily overstimulated by their surroundings. Loud noises, big decisions and large crowds don’t bode well for HSPs without a little downtime to balance them out. This is because they have a very active emotional response, according to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person and one of the original scientific researchers of the personality trait.

“The reason this happens is because they’re processing everything around them so thoroughly,” Aron told The Huffington Post. HSPs process their surroundings or life events based on emotions. In other words, the more overwhelming their circumstances get, the more deeply they feel.

It’s interesting that I was about to write about the third element of listening, or rather, my intention to practice listening without offering advice or solutions. As I said previously, listening requires the use of ears and empathetic listening requires the use of the heart, but I want to engage my brain to be more conscious about just listening. I’m not quite sure how the HSP research connects with my desire to practice non-intervention listening. However the idea that my brain is ‘wired’ to be empathetic and the established fact that brain circuitry can be rewired through changing habits means that I have a good chance of achieving my goal, n’est pas?

The HSP research validates my experience of feeling porous, as if I cannot block the emotional vibrations that other people emit. What I choose to do, going forward is to embrace the ‘biologically wired’ skill of empathy and combine it with a conscious awareness of boundaries. To protect myself from absorbing too much of the emotional overflow from others and at the same time to hold myself back from rushing in to wipe up their (messy) painful feelings.

I am beginning to suspect that this particular type of care-taking behavior has served me as a shield, keeping me occupied and too busy to have my own feelings. That’s another ouch, but a healthy realization, I think.

NaBloPoMo_2015

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Less

Less is more. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever ‘get’ that succinct bit of wisdom. Since I was a child I have been teased for giving l-o-n-g responses to simple questions. As a girl it was especially apparent when I was asked about a book or a movie. I had to tell the entire plot line, including details about the setting, the clothes and movements of the characters and so on. I guess maybe that was annoying, but it was the only way I could answer.

As an adult, my friends generally come to understand that if I am telling a story, there is usually a lot of background detail that I feel is necessary. For the most part, they put up with my habit, with only some mild ribbing. I don’t know if they sometimes choose not to ask me a question, knowing that it will take a while for me to answer. My lovely daughter has been much more forthright about her reaction to my long-winded proclivity. Since she was quite young she would, and still does, interrupt my soliloquies with complaints and eye rolls.

I may be wrong, (fooling myself) but I think that this tendency to be thorough with descriptions and in my explanations is not a bad thing as a writer. Or to say that another way, I notice things, take note of details that others may overlook and carefully using those specifics when writing is a strength. Granted, I am talking about an unedited first draft. My writing, like most writing needs to be edited so that each word is necessary and that involves removing some text. (One pleasant aspect of writing a blog post is that I don’t worry much about editing or distilling the language to its essentials. Tee hee.) So, I’m back to less is more.

Now a few words (too funny!) about daily communication. I like talking to people face to face. That is my preferred method. I have always enjoyed the now fading activity called writing personal notes or letters. As we have sorted through the accumulated possessions of my parents these last few years, we have discovered a good many saved letters, spanning their own lifetimes and those of their parents. I’ve read a few and learned things  that I would never have known and that has been sweet. I’ve also looked at a few that I wish that I had never opened… There’s no need to know some of that information. However, I think about future generations who will not have old letters to open, to learn about their parent’s and grandparent’s lives. Will they look through old emails?

Less is more. That was a tangent, but it does loop back to daily interpersonal communication. As I was saying, I prefer face to face or hand written letters, sent through the ailing postal system. I’ve never been a fan of the telephone for lengthy conversations. Holding the receiver is uncomfortable, for one thing and I can’t say that cell phones have improved upon that awkwardness. Use a headset, you might say. I tried that at one point, in the pre-Bluetooth world, back when the equipment clumsy. And nowadays, its just too weird watching people talking to themselves everywhere.

All of this is to say, the phone is a miracle and I appreciate its efficiency as well as caller ID and voice mail, but I had issues with it. Sometimes calls came when I wasn’t able or in the mood to talk. Sometimes a call went on too long and I would get antsy. So, when email arrived in my life, I was a rapid convert. Write whenever you want, answer when you can, even late at night, it all seemed like a blessing. Of course misinterpretations of tone are a consistent problem with emails, as I have repeatedly learned to my discomfort.

And then came texts; ah, even easier than email, because I always have my phone with me, right? Well, yes and no. First of all, I know that people send emails from their phones, but I haven’t and don’t plan to start. Famous last words?

Issues with texts: they require a lot of finger dexterity, they can be misinterpreted as easily & badly as an email and the smart little phone is always changing words I want to send to words it wants to use. That behavior is sometimes funny, but more often a pain. So, I love the ease of texting, but it definitely conflicts with my wordiness habit. I always want to answer in depth, at moderate (not great) length, and that actually does not serve me well.

So, as regards texts, my motto is and needs to be: Less is More.

NaBloPoMo November 2015