New Years Reckoning
So much churns and rises to the surface during the night. A few days ago, I sat with my coffee and journal as I do most mornings, trying to capture my waking thoughts. As usual, only after my inner compass steadied could I turn my gaze to the headlines and other people's stories. Though I am enamored with the world, I don't know what magnets may swing too near my needle as I sleep so nearly every morning I do this scan of my inner horizon, as if it's an object on my nightstand, to ensure true north is where I left it the night before. If I can engage the first half hour of the morning with my pen steadied over the page, I rein in some otherwise missed understanding of the world. I write, listen to the hum of the refrigerator or the chatter of finches across the street, and sip my coffee. Sometimes, when there's little to sort out, I just write about the refrigerator and the finch. I aim for at least three pages of anything, and no matter what I write, mornings like that start out well.
The break of a new year is much the same. As one year's clepsammia thins, I hold my inner compass to the events of the previous twelve months. How does my living measure with the map I envision for my life? Have I lived aligned with my values? When the hourglass inverts, I face the future and envision how to rebalance lopsidedness from the previous year and further build on past progress.
As I began to write my way across the transition from 2017 into 2018, though, I noticed a distinctly uncommon wobble in my journaling. My compass seemed to be spinning. When I asked What did I do with my time? I felt unmoored, and then understood: The November before, not to over-play a broken record, had named the loser of the popular vote the winner of our last presidential election. Though I believe people can change, I don't think Trump will, and I didn't buy some commentators' hopes that his election season manner would temper after his swearing in. Instead, the weight of all the injustices ever wrought against women -- the silencing, the harassing, the violence, the unfair narratives, the pay gap -- pushed at my back and pummeled me through the gates of that new year. I had crossed threshold with a heady mix of anger, fear of the unknown, and a whopper of an election hangover.
Between the election of '16 and the swearing in last January, with my usual New Year's reckoning, I somberly acknowledged that the creative and professional plans I had thought would be my focus of 2017 had been based on an election outcome much different from what came to pass. Instead, I saw, 2017 would be not a year of embarking on new journeys, but on rehashing tired arguments for why, dammit, women need access to reproductive care; why, dammit, people for whom skin color has been the primary correlating factor for economic disparity should benefit from affirmative action; why gender expression or sexual orientation should make no damn difference when it comes to employment, military service, marriage, bathroom access, safety, or equal rights of any kind; why health care, particularly for the very old and very young and very sick and very poor -- and every child, like ours, with Type 1 Diabetes -- should be, in every civilized and wealthy society, guaranteed, accessible, and affordable; why we must be aggressive and progressive against industries that exacerbate climate change; why we must be diplomatic in our foreign relations; why we must encourage and support advancements in science, the arts, and education; and why, dammit, the individuals we choose as representatives should represent us at our best, not just for political reasons, but because, for god's sake, the children are listening.
This week, as I tried to clarify my retrospective of 2017 in order to create my vision for 2018, I saw too well that the past year, instead of moving forward, had been spent going back over the leaks in the boat we'd already built and had thought was airtight. That was the wobble. It came from the gravitas and boredom of battles re-waged. It came from tamping down celebrations; pulling back recording projects; setting aside money for the ACLU and NARAL and other organizations with other letter combinations; and delaying creation of new books in order to have time to consume more articles analyzing what had caused this great ship to dip, and how to simultaneously bail out the water and repair the leak before we all go down.
You many think I'm being overly dramatic, but that's part of what I love about you and me: we are not identically the same in our passions. And sometimes we are.
Still, the point is that 2017 has ended. To honor it, Darby and I chilled a bottle of prosecco and holed up in his recording studio to reclaim what was left of the new year. We staked out the final hours and marked them as our own, getting back to making music and writing stories.
We finished the year like that, never getting to the Prosecco, and woke up on January 1 to continue our work, which is on the Bliss Drops record that we first started over a year ago. Never mind the past. Through this New Years Eve and Day, we picked up where we left off before the election fiasco of 2016, with what is called "the Guru mantra," a Sanskrit chant that I've put to melody and chords, and which Darby has dressed up in groove. Gu = darkness. Ru = remover. Seems a fitting way to start anew: removing the darkness to bring in clarity, truth, healing, and joy.
"By reciting this mantra with a sincere heart," activist, musician, writer, and yoga teacher Sharon Gannon writes, "you will see that the power that enlightens is all around you at all times. [...] The guru is your own self, the inner guiding light."
To you, dear reader, I wish a very happy 2018, filled with love, joy, good health, creative inspiration, and the light of truth so that you may see more clearly in the darkness.
Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara, Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namaha
Brahma is the force, or guru, of creation; Vishnu, that of preservation; devo Maheshwara is behind the trials that transform us. There is a remover of darkness nearby (Guru Sakshat) and one beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my own ignorance; I honor that guru with my life (namaha).
The beauty trigger (and Lovember)
The other day, while running errands and thinking of Lovember, I passed Vendome, a local wine and liquor shop. Vendome is a few blocks from my house and I drive by every time I head to Trader Joe's, but I've only stopped in once or twice. This shop is interesting because set up inside is a little grass-roofed wine bar. Call me sheltered, but I have never seen another liquor store with a tasting room. I'm not a wine connoisseur - far from it - and have been curious to try out some tastings. As I drove by, I took note of the tasting hours.
Did I explain Lovember? I'm courting my man. Lovember is my dedication this month to take things more slowly. Savor time. Be more mindful in some areas of my life. Lend attention to my love for Darby. Like so many things, if a relationship is to flourish, it must be nurtured. Darby, his love for me, and our relationship together are some of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. Thankfully, I appreciate what I have while I have it, but to paraphrase Hafiz, the one regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I did not kiss my sweet man enough. We've had a busy few months. Now that we're in the savoring, slower, mindful month of Lovember, what better time for a wine tasting? On Sunday, I asked Darby out on a date.
We were the first ones to arrive for the tasting that evening, so for a while we had Smiley, Vendome's Sunday wine enthusiast, to ourselves. He put Miles Davis on the stereo, and as he poured told us stories about his life. Sip, talk, sip, talk. We were having a marvelous time, but I won't bore you with a play-by-play. Actually, after trying eight or ten wines, I don't know if I could. However, I do remember one moment in particular. Darby and I were sitting back, tasting the best Rhone of the evening. We were deep into Kind Of Blue. I eavesdropped on Smiley and some of the other tasters discussing Panama hats. Is there a word for the appreciation of being able to appreciate something?
I bet the French, a culture so steeped in wine, have a word for this. Miles Davis on the speakers, good wine, listening to Smiley's stories and having no need to tell my own.... In my younger days I don't think it would have felt poignant, but lately everything shows its layers, complex and beautiful. If youth is a smile, adulthood is the laugh lines that reveal a person's history. Another regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I didn't smile enough. Perhaps it's from the slowing down of Lovember. Lately I have been rejoicing in time.
Recently, Darby and I sat together enjoying a rare Saturday moment when both kids were settled in with friends and didn't need to be picked up for another hour. The conversation paused for a breath.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, looking at me from across the table.
When Darby tells me I'm beautiful, I listen. I take it in when he compliments me. I press his words into my being like leaves between the pages of a book. I want to hold them for later, but I also want to interrupt the other narrative - the negative one, the one that says I am always on the verge of failure. I've been practicing to linger on the good stuff, and let the critical mind-chatter roll away. Lately I've noticed he tells me I'm beautiful more frequently.
"Am I imagining it?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled. "You're not. It used to trigger you when I said so. You'd resist it. Now you seem to take it in."
Trigger. Nearly thirty years ago I was riding in the car with my mom through our neighborhood, when we paused at an intersection.
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked. I was perhaps ten or eleven.
It was a hard question to ask. At its root, the question is really, Am I likable? Am I worthy? Am I enough for the life that I want? Will life be good to me? Will it open to me, revealing treasures like love and appreciation and comfort? So much hinged on her answer to my simple question. I'm sure every kid wonders this kind of thing.
"Your mother is so beautiful," teachers and sales clerks said to me all the time. It was true. She was in the prime of her beauty just as I was beginning to wonder about my own. She was 5'8" and wore 3" heels. Her eye shadow was purple, her lipstick red, and she got her nails manicured every two weeks by Violet who had two daughters in my school. The answer should have been fast and easy. Yes, you are pretty, she should have said.
"Ana is pretty," she began. Ana was Violet's daughter, and indeed one of the prettiest girls in my grade. "So is Risa," she said, mentioning another girl I was close with. "You?" She paused. "I would say you are more striking."
I didn't know what that meant. I still don't. That day in the car, though, I was fairly certain of one thing: striking wasn't pretty. And if I wasn't pretty, could I still be likable, worthy, and all the rest? It felt like my life hinged on this one question.
I can imagine now how this conversation might seem from her standpoint. In all the years she was told she was beautiful, my mother was also a voracious reader. She was a baby boomer dissident. She was a latent academic who, despite dropping out of high school has now earned her PhD. She got married young, had me soon after, and offset her career aspirations. I was a bright kid with my life still ahead of me. There would be limitless career options looming after college. Perhaps she thought striking was a greater compliment than the commonplace pretty. Perhaps she thought it would keep me safe from making the choices she made. Maybe it was a feminist decision.
As that scene in the car passed through my mind, I knew what Darby was talking about. Trigger. It used to be, when he'd say "You're beautiful", I would brush it off. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd laugh or shrug or make some self-disparaging remark. I couldn't decide if he was saying it out of obligation, or if he really thought I was. Of course now I see how ridiculous that is. After all, the man and I fell head over heels in love. To me, his is the most beautiful face on the planet. I imagine he feels the same about me. But he would tell me I am beautiful and it would stump me every time.
When we live under the spell of not-good-enough, we don its cloak. We hope it's invisible to others, but when someone truly loves us, they see all the layers, and they know that beneath the stories is the true self. They see youth and wrinkles, and the beauty of time. They see our successes and our struggles. 2009 was a good year. 2008 not so much. They see how far we've come, and what it took to get here. They know the tattered edges of not-good-enough, and do what they can to fray it more.
That Saturday I looked at Darby sitting across from me. I didn't know it until the other night, but he has been stealthily tugging at the holes of my cloak. It's a strange thing to realize that sometimes the best way to show love is to hold back. He's older than me by thirteen years. He knows better how to bide time. I'm learning.
At Vendome's on Sunday, as Miles Davis was replaced by Traffic, I let the 2009 wine roll over my tongue. I turned to Darby and said, "I just love being an adult." I was trying to say how much I appreciated everything about that moment, including all the years that came before. Shot through that, I also appreciated my ability to appreciate it. That's the best way I knew how to say it.
This morning, as we were laying in bed listening to the morning awaken outside our bedroom door, I think he may have expressed it better.
"Do you think," he asked, "there's a month of Lovecember too?"
On a fairly normal Tuesday a few weeks ago, when the cloudy morning daylight was beginning to lighten the bedroom windows, Darby crawled out of bed to awaken the girls for school. The girls' bedroom is off the hallway, tucked behind a secret door and up a flight of stairs in what we call The Birds Nest. The room was once an attic, now a cozy space littered with colorful tween clothes, glow-in-the-dark stars, and books. It has a birds-eye view of the backyard, and the moon often shines through the big picture window as we go through our bedtime ritual of stories and back rubs. The night before, after reading our latest chapter in the Anne of Green Gables series, we'd turned out the lights and had a big snugglefest. On Tuesday morning, though, when Darby stood at the bottom of the stairs calling that it was time to wake up for school, we heard an angry grumble from Little E.
"Grrrrrr. I don't wanna," our little 4th grader growled from the top of the stairs.
Darby was compassionate. A few minutes earlier he had probably also said something like, "I wanna stay in bed." Any day, I'll agree. I'm a morning person, but it's a rare 6:30 a.m. that I spring out from the comforts of our flannel sheets.
"I understand, boo-boo," he called back up the stairs sweetly, "but it's time to wake up and get ready for school."
"Grrr," came the angry response from the top of the stairs. And then the soft sounds of blankets and clothes, and two girls getting ready for school.
Darby came back into the bedroom a few minutes later with steaming mugs, and as we sipped our coffee (sugar, black for me; sugar, vanilla soy milk for him) Little E poked her head through our doorway.
"Introducing... the Grumpasaurus who lives with the troll under the bridge!" and with that, Little E bounced into our room, giggling as her arms flung wide and she flopped on our bed.
Where a few minutes earlier we had been dreading a difficult morning, now there were smiles and laughter. We all cheered Little E's transformation. How many times have I held on to a bad mood on principle. Here, Little E, not even in her double-digits, flip-switched her way out of a grumpy state by calling on the oldest trick in the book - laughter. This is a skill I feel that I am just learning, and she's already a master. And she did it before 7:00 a.m.!
I was reminded of the Grumpasauraus again last weekend. Both our girls have been riding horses for several years now, but we recently switched barns where they take lessons. The new barn - Shadow Hills - is a slice of serenity. The property is tucked in and around shady foothills, and is the home for many interesting animals - two miniature donkeys, a parrot, a potbelly pig named Bacon (which I don't find funny at all, but that's me), llamas, several dogs and cats, and of course horses. On a small cliff above the main arena where the girls ride there is a quiet sitting area and a shaded gazebo for visitors to observe the lessons.
On this particular day, Darby and I were sitting in the gazebo watching Little E take her second lesson with the new teacher. Big E was off at the stables getting her horse ready for riding. Maybe it was the new teacher, maybe it was that Little E was still getting over a cold that had kept her out of school earlier that week, but midway through her lesson she stopped her horse in the shade of a nearby tree and began to cry. We could see her from across the arena, her head turned downward, little gloved hands wiping at her eyes.
The girls have both told us how they love their new teacher, and we still aren't sure why Little E was upset that morning, but like yoga and running is for me, sometimes horseback riding shines a light on an internal struggle. The teacher let Little E rest under the tree for a few minutes, and then instructed her to start riding again -- but this time, to sing Happy Birthday while she rode. The teacher jogged alongside the horse as Little E trotted the perimeter of the ring, the two of them singing Happy Birthday together. Later, as Little E untacked her horse, the teacher explained the reason for the singing. While I can't recall the exact term she used, this is what I call it: pratipaksha bhavanam.
Pratipaksha bhavanam is a term that comes up in the Yoga Sutras. It means flipswitch. Yoga was a practice developed to ease the suffering of the mind, something that we humans tend to do naturally. The Yoga Sutras distill the human tendencies that cause us to suffer down to their very essences -- how we can suffer when we mistake one thing for another, when we attach our egos to temporary identities, when we become attached to past pleasures or build our life around avoiding our dislikes, and how we suffer under our fear of loss.
Luckily the Sutras do not only explain where suffering comes from. They also illuminate some techniques on how to relieve suffering. Breath. Meditation. Moving the body. And pratipaksha bhavanam. It means "reframe your perspective". Take another view. Pratipaksha bhavanam is the practice of substituting a positive thought in order to quiet a negative one. It is the very act itself.
Despite my years of yoga practice on the mat, and my years of teaching the yoga practice in my classes, I must admit that some of my greatest lessons have come in the early morning hours before I've even gotten out the front door. Also, my guru is not an aging teacher in India. My guru - one of them - is simply counting down the months till her 10th birthday. She begs me to measure her inches on the kitchen door frame. She tells the same joke nine times in a day -- "I'm so good at sleeping I can do it with my eyes closed" -- and then begs for another bite of chocolate.
Also, when my guru wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, she laughs and sings her way back to joy. She teaches me how to do the same. I try to remember how a nine-year-old master can do it, so that I can do it too. Yoga is not really backbends and pretzel poses. It is not Lululemon or a particular body type. Yoga is bouncing out of your Tuesday morning blues with a joyful laugh and a flop on the bed. And it is also being non-reactive and allowing the flipswitch to take place.
On my secret list, a list I have never written down but is a sort of personal blogging Code of Honor, is the rule "never make excuses". So therefore, never mind the gap in posts and let us just continue where we left off, shall we?
A few months ago, a friend texted my sweetheart to say that he was overseeing an estate sale for a woman who had decided that she was done with Southern Cali and was headed to upstate New York with all her horses, material goods, and life. Having grown up in the northeast, I can understand the draw to upstate NY. In many places and at many times, it is picture-postcard beautiful. There's a built-in roughness, too, to that region, one that forces you to dress appropriately regardless of fashion, chop wood out of necessity, worry about your tires from November to May, grow anxious about the coming winter in September and October, and rejoice in deep-seated celebration at March's first sight of crocuses and daffodils. There is nothing happier than true springtime when you have suffered through a long winter. After the last April surprise snows have melted and the rain in May has moved on, June is glorious, glorious, glorious. Of course, then comes September's gorgeous autumn amid growing anxiety about the coming winter.
Although I've never lived in upstate New York, I know these feelings well. Massachusetts is upstate New York's next door neighbor, and I spent more than ten years trading cups of sugar and nor'easters with The Empire State.
I have wondered, since moving to the endless sunshine of SoCal, if the bitter northeast winters are not worth it. After all, here we never have deep lows that come from dark, cold months, but that means we are never sent soaring into the giddiness of Spring Fever. Here in Los Angeles we have the steady state of "pretty happy" most of the time. Even keel. Steady Freddy. I love SoCal, and it's a relief to wake up in February to blue skies rather than darkness, but now in my sixth year here, I appreciate more than ever that amazing je-ne-sais-quoi that occurs with the fierce arc of a swinging seasonal pendulum.
Well, in any case, this woman was leaving, and her estate sale was over. She'd sold all she could, and the next day she was heading eastbound. Our friend texted my sweetheart to invite us over and take what we wanted of whatever was left. I found the book of haikus in her boxes of tossed books, and I also stumbled upon a book called The Happiness Project.
Months and months have passed since that estate sale. The Happiness Project took a while to rise to the top of the pile of reading I always have on my nightstand, wedged between the nightstand and the wall, and squeezed into the living room bookcase. Between it and me was Grammar Lessons (highly recommend!), Tenth of December (ditto!), another reading of Wild (this time for a writing class, with an eye to craft and construction), tons of classmates essays (for said class, and the one prior), and issues of The Sun and Poets and Writers . There is so much to read in this lifetime and I'm trying to get it all in.
This week I finally cracked open The Happiness Project and am finding over and over that it reminds me of this List. The author, Gretchen Rubin, started a blog when she began her project, which reminded me of this blog that I created about halfway through my first year's List. Gretchen committed to posting regularly about her project. The best bloggers do - and by regularly, I mean at least once a week, but better every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or something like that. Reading of her commitment to her blog and her follow through, I thought, I am a blogging failure. I am not cut out for blogging. Or maybe I rebelliously thought, I am too busy to get boxed in to another regularly scheduled thing. I have a ton of discipline for running, yoga practice, and writing in general, but regular blog posting has thus far escaped me.
Never make excuses.
Okay, I won't. However, I will say this: The List of 100 Things has profoundly affected my life, and I think the reason I don't write about it more often is because it's not always clear to me how it is affecting me, I just know that it is. I do the things on my List and take it all in on a semi-subconscious level. From the beginning I'd been aware on some level of the profundity that would come along with working through the List. I knew that I would change, grow, and in fact I started the List because I wanted to transform in some way. But, also, I embarked on The List in 2012 just to get stuff done. Get stuff done in my own little private life, change quietly, without a blog, alone.
There's a story my mom told me about when I was a little girl.
As the story goes, I was still a baby in a crib, and learning to stand. Like most babies, I would pull myself up by the sides of the crib and rejoice in my accomplishment. But, as my mother has told me, I practiced only in private. My parents watched me through the crack in the door as I pulled myself up, stand, maybe dance a little, my fat little legs celebrating their new-found strength. And then, as soon as I was aware of my audience, I sat down. I wouldn't perform my new trick for anyone until I was solid in my new skill.
I haven't changed much in this regard. Perhaps it is my introverted nature. Perhaps I just like to stay focused without the distraction of others, with full concentration on the task at hand, without worrying about an audience. At some point I realized that nature was limiting. There is no way to take, for instance, yoga classes and not have any one see you. Or swim lessons. Or long distance running. And without readers, there is no way to really become a better writer. Although I have set aside this nature so that I can learn and grow, in many ways I still prefer to master new tricks in my own private room.
And sometimes, as in my excavation of how The List is effecting my life, perhaps I would just prefer to take the easy road. Not even write about it at all.
But The Happiness Project reminded me this week that this blog's purpose is partly for processing. A platform to write about the affect of the List. A place to write through the questions, perhaps, as Rilke says, write my way to some answers.
Unlike The Happiness Project, I didn't start out with categories in mind. Gretchen Rubin started her project from the jumping off point of categories. She examined aspects of her life, and filled her year-long project with exercises that would, in theory, increase her personal happiness. In my List writing, I just allowed my pen to write. Much later, as I worked through it, I realized there were general categories that items generally fell into: Self-care. Learning/growth. Family. Challenging Fun. Laid-back Fun. Adventure. Things like that.
I can't give a book review at this time since I'm only about halfway through, but this book/project does ring a familiar tone to The List. I didn't begin this List project with an eye to increasing my own happiness, but I did begin it with an eye to growing more into myself and the life that I want to live.
Which, I suppose, is a happy life.