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Not a picture of me.
All right, I admit that I’ve gotten away from my own challenge.
Last week I kicked my schedule into high gear: Rehearsals for my first professional theatre gig in a long time, which basically amounts to almost 40 hours a week of (wonderful, fun, glorious) work. Rehearsals also for two cabaret nights, one last Sunday (in which a 10-15 musical was to be written and performed within 48 hours) and one this Sunday (wherein I will share the stage with six of my favorite people). Preparing the house for a big, two-family shindig next Monday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving early. (This will be the first time Eric and I have comingled our two families in an official way, so stress walks alongside hope that all will be well and the morning won’t devolve into a scene from Flirting With Disaster.) Preparing ourselves also for a Thanksgiving retreat with two other couples who were dear to Eric’s heart before I met him, and who have become dear to my own heart as well.
So yes, morning pages became easy to forget until the four o’clock hour. Financial upkeep sometimes slipped several days. I have yet to spring out of the house on an early misty morning to jog to my favorite playlist. Best life, eh? I thought as I, once again, flew out of the house with my hairbrush still in my hair and my checklist untended.
Amidst this, a strange lack of sensation in my left breast sent me into uneasy denial last week as I rehearsed the shows, prepared the house, and waited for the meeting with my OB/GYN. The appointment on Monday produced some concern about a possible mass, and so sent me into a 24-hour dance with all the worst-case scenarios that I could muster. With three breast cancer survivors in my maternal line, it was difficult to keep the catastrophizing down, no matter how much new-age positivity I thought about applying. And truth be told, I didn’t actually apply any of it, opting instead for surrender since that seems to be my path lately. I surrendered as much as I could to my fear, my anxiety, my helplessness, and the big one that I chose to really watch. My shame.
I have been on an active path of health and healing for all of my adult life. A perusal of my bookshelves will find half of the Borders Self-Help section, followed by half of the Barnes & Noble Alternative Medicine section. (A scant 2/3 of one shelf is dedicated to fiction. I kid you not.) I spend more money than most would on organic, local, seasonal, pastured, grass-fed food. I pay thousands of dollars out of pocket each year to get the kind of health care that I want: natural, holistic, non-invasive, focused on health and not just the elimination of dis-ease. I have tried on many helping careers over the last ten years, and more than almost anything, I love to talk about how to live a life of vibrant health.
So, as totally irrelevant as these questions are, I could hear my internal judging self asking, What did I miss? How could I allow this to happen? (By the way, these are really unhelpful and, as I said, irrelevant questions, so I do not recommend exploring them in such cases.) Luckily I was able to pull myself back from going down that particular rabbit hole, and stay uncomfortably surrendered in the powerlessness of not knowing.
Yesterday morning I shelled out a lot of money (I don’t spend a lot on my health insurance, so it doesn’t spend a lot on me) to undergo three hours of pinching, poking and prodding. And I was happy to do it, because it would bring me information, and knowing (even bad news) is better than not knowing. Try it out sometime – which is scarier, the monster you can see or the one you can’t?
While in the waiting room, a woman came through with a look of grief and shock like I’d never seen. I barely, just barely, held my own fears and tears in. I sent her as much energy of healing and peace as I could muster. I thought a lot about my friend Kelly, who was recently diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, and wondered what conversations we might have depending on what I found out. I have always had great admiration for her no-nonsense, let’s-get-down-to-business-and-stay-positive spirit, and in light of her diagnosis that admiration has only magnified.
Just after noon, I was told that the mass was not there, and I do in fact have healthy tits! Winning the lottery would not have felt better. The tears were droplets of gratitude as I left the breast imaging center and went home to my dearest love, who greeted me with great relief.
So while my busy schedule has been knocking my checklist down day by day, I notice that another list is emerging. It’s showing up in the titles of these blog posts. Can you see it? At the end of my life, I wonder, which list will have become most important? Are both important, in different ways?
Whichever list(s) I pay attention to from now on, it will include regular self-exams.
Graceful Surrender: Swan Medicine. September 2010.
This weekend I attended a lovely one-day writer’s retreat in Portland, Oregon. The retreat itself was luscious, and made even more special by the presence of my dear friend Julie Jeske. Getting to Portland proved to be a bit of a challenge, and in the midst of it I noticed that I was completely surrendered to whatever the moment brought me. No angst, no worry, no anger or fear. My outgoing flight was canceled a scant nine hours before take-off. I ended up getting a flight at an airport 98 miles away, which necessitated a 3:40am wake-up so I could be on the road by 4:20. As I buckled into my aisle seat, I realized that my beloved iPhone sat in my car, in Parking Zone A/B, where it would not help me contact my pick-up upon arrival in Portland. The weekend went on in this way, and I found myself surprisingly unmoved by both “good” and “bad”. In fact, I didn’t even register any of it as “good” or “bad”. It was just what was happening, and it was all perfect. I wasn’t using my mind to convince myself of the perfection. I just knew it was perfect, and that I was okay.
I moved through the day-long retreat in a state of centered, present equanimity. I could feel my heart’s truths as if they were being transmitted on radar signals, and I could speak them without hesitation or insecurity. They just were what they were. I learned some valuable lessons about showing up to the creative process – in this case, writing, but they really apply universally.
In the morning, author Susan Piver led us through a meditation technique called shamatha, a Sanskrit word that means “peaceful abiding”. After twenty minutes we discussed what we had become aware of during the meditation; the truth that bubbled up through me was the difference between maintaining awareness of what is there in there in the moment, or sitting in expectation of trying to generate something. I can open myself to the creativity that is already there, and step into that flow, or I can try to produce something (read: something good enough). That is one sure way to a creative block.
Throughout the day we used the free-writing process to access inner voices and wisdom. Free-writing works like this: using a prompt such as “what scares you most about writing”, let your hand move across the page for two or three or five minutes, and write down anything that comes to mind, even if you end up writing “Nothing is coming to mind. I can’t think of anything to say. Did I email Laura back? I have to do laundry tonight, and pay those bills. The days just keep getting away from me…” That free-flow will usually allow unconscious thoughts, feelings or beliefs to come up to the surface where they can be seen, used, dismantled or dismissed. One such free-writing prompt produced the following insights: “I expect as a writer to write it perfect the first time. I expect myself to devote my entire identity to being a writer, and to never want to do anything else. I expect to know what I haven’t learned yet about writing, and if I don’t know I shouldn’t even try.” Valuable expectations to become conscious of, because those little buggers need to be drawn and quartered.
Again and again I surrendered to the exercises, to the fear, to the insights, to the inspiration, to everything that showed up. I continued to flow through the weekend and yesterday, on a cloud of surrender. It was magical.
This afternoon I fully realized how surrendered I had been, because I walked into yoga class and promptly ceased to be that. Five minutes in, I started to lose my cool. My body was tired and sore, and poses that are usually rejuvenating were exhausting. The first 45 minutes of class looked something like this: I gnashed my teeth, I spoke harshly to myself, silently bitched at the teacher for holding the poses so long, pushed myself through the vinyasa without gentleness, checked out so that I couldn’t allow my body to talk to me.
And then my teacher said something that woke me up. ”Your frustration is your ego’s attempt to control this situation. Let it burn up in the fire of compassion, of love for yourself.” My heart clicked open and I began slowly – slowly – to bring myself back into compassionate presence. To remind myself that every pose is brand new, every day. Yesterday’s downward-facing dog is not today’s downward-facing dog, and comparing one to the other is like comparing apples to Israel. I started to repeat to myself, “I am showing up. I am showing up.” (Because really, that’s all I ever need to do.)
By the time class was over, I could hear my heart’s truths again. I was surrendered into that which is. Even into the impermanence of my surrender.
What is your experience with surrender? How do you get/keep yourself there? Do you know how it feels in your body, in your heart?
By the way, I didn’t check in about my checklist. I think there’s something to that…more later.
Big Sur, May 2008. Photo taken by Pixie Campbell.
I remember a magazine sidebar I read several years ago, that detailed the perfect day – including all the things that various experts say must be included in your daily routine. You know, meditation and yoga and walking and a full lunch hour and a dinner at the table with your loved ones and meaningful phone calls and financial reconciliation and a nice hot bath and reading to the kids before bedtime. Yeah. The article revealed that the perfect day was about 28 hours long.
On day 2 of my Best Life Challenge I had a lovely, peaceful morning: coffee, morning pages and meditation. Centered and solid, I launched into the day and proceeded to run myself ragged with obligations – rushing from appointment to appointment, arriving a couple of niggling minutes late to every one of them. My acupuncturist moved a ton of stuck energy, an excellent healing that left me spaced out and exhausted by 6pm. Unfortunately I had also torn the living room apart for a re-paint (did I mention that I’m in a psychotic nesting phase?), and the discombobulating mess I came home to just drained my energy further. Sitting in a depleted stupor, I recognized a troubling and long-standing issue of mine – and my first insight of the BLC: I do too damn much. Eric often chats with a former supervisor of mine while Harper is romping at the dog park; the other day he updated her on all that I have going on while I’m home this winter, and how my brilliant plan to do nothing had gone awry. She quipped, “Maggie isn’t really good at doing nothing, is she?” How astute.
“I do too much, and somehow it’s never enough.” Those are the words I heard myself saying one night in a room full of strangers. The words stuck; this false belief needed some serious examining so that I could undo the tangle of habits and thoughts that it had spawned. I’m happy to say that it’s gotten better over the years, but among great days I still find myself swinging between extremes of imbalance, either cramming too much into a day or suffering the inertia of an empty calendar.
So my first insight of the BLC is to remember balance above all things. If I complete my checklist every day but end up exhausted, that is not my best life. If I rationalize my way out of tending to the items on my checklist, that is not my best life. Balance requires honesty with myself, and compassion toward myself. It’s just this balance that I am reminded of when I attend yoga classes at Zuda Yoga (my favorite yoga studio in Sacramento). The teachers there have a wonderful capacity for gently nudging me further than I think I can go into a pose, while simultaneously extending loving compassionate reminders that I am going far enough into the pose right now, in this moment. ”Just notice that you can stay in this pose even a little bit longer…you’re going right to your edge…and we all have an edge, so honor that too…it’s okay, it’s okay…this moment is all that matters…”
Powerful medicine for a woman who frequently forgets to honor her edge.
Speaking of the edge, it is past 11pm and time for me to contemplate sleep. I’m reminding myself at every turn that this experiment will not be a failure as long as I show up and honestly do my best. As I remember hearing in one Zuda Yoga class, the lesson is not for yoga/life to be easy. The lesson is in how you talk to yourself when it gets hard.
(Honesty and compassion.)
Good night, dear ones.
I have started this blog post about 17 times now, and I keep laying on that delete button. What’s up? I’m having a hard time distilling down into words what this is about for me. I have no idea if my Best Life Challenge will be of interest to anyone but myself. Is it navel-gazing? Self-indulgent? Merely a checklist that could as easily be found on page 97 of the latest copy of Self magazine?
To me it feels more profound. It’s an honest commitment to myself to, for 30 days, pay attention. To instill practices that bring me into more full presence and awareness. It sounds heady, but in the end it is about simply showing up to my life, moment by moment. The checklist is one way of monitoring progress. It’s easy to see, rather black and white. Another way is more intuitive and internal. Checking in. Feeling the feelings. Am I in joy? Ease? Vitality?
First, the checklist. There are six areas of life that feel basic and important, that need health in order for me to function well: physical, mental/emotional, creative, spiritual, relational, and financial. When those six areas are in health I am a happy camper, so it seems natural that these would form the foundation for my Best Life. Each day, I hope to tend to each area. That means:
Physical: I eat right, take my supplements, rest enough, and move my body.
Mental/Emotional: I meditate and I take 100% responsibility for my feelings, thoughts and beliefs.
Financial: I live within my means and maintain clarity about what’s going in and out.
Creative: I write my morning pages, take myself on artist dates, and devote some time each day to a creative project.
Spiritual: I surrender to what is and give thanks as often as I possibly can.
Relational: I show up and share love with the people who matter to me.
Next, the check-in. How did today go? I’d say 7 out of 10. I did write my morning pages, but sacrificed sleep to do so and ended up with only 5 hours of shut-eye. I ate right, moved my body (painted two rooms and went for a walk) and meditated. I showed up and shared love with Eric by helping him with a project that really mattered to him. But I woke up with some anxiety and didn’t succeed very well at tending to it and taking 100% responsibility for it. I lived within my means but not with total clarity. Tonight I feel overly tired and can’t really feel much else, but when I tune into my heart and belly I feel a wonderful sense of calm and presence, and a knowing that this moment is perfect and everything is fine, right here, right now. It seems like a good time to end the day.
What would be on your checklist? Share if you wish. I’d love to know.