Thursday, October 31, 2019

Day 112: Careful consideration

A few things have come together for me:

  • Taking a break from my devices this past weekend was tremendously useful to me.  I'd almost forgotten how much I value that space.  I'd almost managed to forget how often I get sucked into a device for embarrassingly long periods of time, at the end of which I feel like I've achieved nothing - even if I have read more New York Times articles than you can shake a stick at.  But honestly, how many articles about the ongoing impeachment hearings do I need to read in one day?  Or even in a few days?
  • Also of note: I have been working nearly every weekend this semester to stay on top of an overload of commitments.  (Also of note: I have psoriatic arthritis which isn't entirely under control, and I don't live my life as if that were true.)
  • Yesterday, the humidity plummeted again (it was around 1% at the local airport, which is - get this - near the ocean, people, but still the air is so dry that it sucks the moisture out of every. single. thing), and I woke up with a headache that could only be described as an extinction level event.  I always hesitate to use the word "migraine" (I'm not really sure why), but it really can't be called anything else.  I got it under control, but between it and the Advil, I was walking the fine line between unmanageable pain and nausea.  It wasn't a fun day.  
  • As a result of which, I didn't post here.  Which, interestingly, felt more like a relief than a regret.
  • Last week, someone suggested that I try a mental practice, just to see what happens: instead of framing things as a question, I let a statement happen instead.  This basically has to do with my lifelong habit of overthinking and overanalyzing everything - I can think of 20 sides to a square.  It's nice to be able to see nuance, but it's not particularly useful for checking in with my gut.
  • On my day away from digital devices, I also felt relief not to have to post here.  And it occurred to me to maybe think about rethinking my magpie year.  And I started thinking about commitments and what I said I'd do and meeting expectations and and and.  Lots of questions: should I make a new plan, with a different kind of commitment (I will post every other day/every Thursday/whatever)?  What will people think if I say, after 100ish days, that I'm not doing this anymore?  Is it actually in keeping with the lighthearted magpie spirit to allow my shiny-object-distraction soul to be distracted by other things?  Is it OK to say that I've learned some interesting stuff about myself and now I'm going to lighten up?  Should I/can I/ought I to?  And then I remembered: statements.
  • And the statement is: I don't want to post every day right now.  Or, at least, I don't want to feel obliged to.
  • Ah.  OK.  I can work with that.
So, there it is.  I'm not saying that I didn't go around a few more times.  I have a lot of trouble giving myself grace (we've talked about this), and so there's been quite a bit of: but you said!  However, the statement part of me knows this: I said it to myself.  No-one will die or be harmed if I now say to myself that gentleness and kindness means renegotiating the terms of my engagement with writing.  There are times when "I don't want to do it" doesn't cut it - but this isn't one of them.

The fun thing for me about having initiated this project is that I am writing again - not only here, but in my journal, and other scribblings that I hadn't been giving myself permission to try, and that I now am; I'm looking forward to having more time for that.  I'm spinning again.  And there's a small part of me that is thinking of trying a creative sweater-sized project again.  All of that, I think, came out of the project of committing myself to doing this one creative thing every day.  I'm good with letting that creative thing be wider than writing here.  So, I'll be here, and I may keep that day count because I'm finding it interesting, but it won't be every day.

Meanwhile, with my "blogging time" on Sunday and Wednesday, I wound up that yarn and cast on for a hat.  It's getting cold in Seattle, and Kiv needs to keep her head warm.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Day 110: Moving day!

It feels like the house has been under construction forever.  Probably because it sort of has.  We had a leak last fall.  And then they found asbestos in the stuff that held the drywall sheets together.  And then they found mold. And then the repair caused another leak which ruined the floors in another room.  So that took well over six months to sort out.  And then we figured that, since we were used to chaos, and the dog had gotten so used to the guys coming and going she hardly even barked anymore, that it was time to pull up the (frankly disgusting) carpets in our back two rooms and replace the flooring.  We've only been in the house 17 years - I guess it was time. 

So, this morning found me here:
Sitting in my car grading while the movers packed up our stuff from the storage place, so that they could put it back in here:
That's our room.  I wish I had pictures of both rooms, which have not only been refloored but (because, if everything is out and empty, you may as well get it done) repainted.  We've been out of our bedroom for two months at this point, and I am dying to sleep in my bed, and (even more excitingly) to have access to my clothes again!!  Unpacking looms, but it'll be good to be done with this project.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Day 107: Rest day

So, continuing reflection on the question of whether to take a day a week away from devices has led me to realize that there’s no question, actually. I know that this is a good practice, and I’m reinstituting it.  So that’ll mean no post tomorrow.

This isn’t something I’m doing in a really rigid way, with hard boundaries and no leeway.  (I will, for example, gladly facetime with Kivrin tomorrow if it’s the day she can do it.). It’s more about stepping away from the temptation to fill “empty” moments with what I called digital lethe in a recent post - I like that, as it captures for me the sense of the digital as a tempting annihilation of the present moment.  My memory of doing this is that it helps me to sense the spaciousness that is available beyond constant busyness.  Creativity happens there, and rest.

See you on the flip side!

Friday, October 25, 2019

Day 106: Strange day

Woke up this morning to an announcement that campus was closed due to an electrical outage, which was, in turn, due to a blown transformer.  This means I’m going to have to grade this weekend, since I couldn't get into my office to pick up midterms (bad news). But, it did have an unexpected upside.

Some friends and I walk every week that we can.  Today was a walking day.  And then, because we’d all intended to work on campus and couldn’t, we came to my house and got work done.  It felt like college or something - all of us at the dining room table getting things done, occasional comments or stories.  It was the kind of thing that is totally unexpected, but wonderfully good. I wish life worked out like this more often.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Day 105: Spitting vines

My wisteria tells me when the humidity gets into single digits.  Every time.

I'll be sitting in the dining room, getting work done, and suddenly I hear a snap, followed immediately by a hail of strikes against the doors and window.  Snap, ping!  Snap, ping!  It's like being in the middle of a wee bombardment.  (The feeling is exacerbated by the fact that, when the Marines are practicing shelling at Camp Pendleton, there's something about the way the landscape is shaped that funnels the sound waves directly to us, so boom! window rattle, boom! window rattle.)  It can get a little bit out of hand: snap, ping! boom, rattle! ping! boom! snap! rattle!

It's all due to a fairly ingenious plan on the part of the wisteria.  It grows its seeds in long seed pods that slowly dry out over time, twisting gently as they do.  Give them a good hot day with low humidity, and the drying accelerates until, with a final twist, they wrench apart, spitting seeds out as they go.  (Our orchid tree does the same thing.)  The seeds can fly ten or twenty feet easily, which makes sitting on the back patio this time of year a rather risky endeavor.  Poor thing - it's a ton of work for no reward, because I sweep the seeds up and put them in the green waste, every time.

Maybe that's why it's spitting at me...

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Day 103: Yarn!

So, I don't know if you remember the lovely braid of BFL/silk (75/25) I got last spring at Northwest Yarns in Bellingham Washington?  Well, it turned into this:
It's the Bold Spectrum colorway from Elemental Fiberworks; I'd definitely spin with their fiber again, it was beautifully prepared, and the results are lovely.  The colors aren't quite right (I'm taking this at night) - they're more vibrant than I've captured here.  I spun it worsted and then, in order to preserve the gradient, I chain-plied it.  I haven't yet figured out the weight, but it looks like maybe sport, to me?
 It's not always my favorite way to ply - any unevennesses in the singles run the risk of being emphasized, but I really don't know another way to preserve these long color runs quite so well.  In the event, I think it turned out to be fairly even. 
I'm actually quite pleased with that, given that this is my first spinning project in a really long time.  It's destined to be a hat for Kivrin, so it'll be heading back up to the northwest as soon as it's knitted up.  I'm thinking just a plain stockinette beanie, unless anyone has another suggestion?

Monday, October 21, 2019

Day 102: Rest

I love the concept of synchronicity, the idea that sometimes, things come together in unexpected but serendipitous ways.  Today, it's a column by Margaret Renkl in the NYT; she's an author whose writing I love, especially when she's describing the natural world, which she does with a deep sense of connection and joy.  Today's column is about rest, which she explores in the context of the commandment to rest on the Sabbath.  It's worth saying here that I am not religious, but the call to rest, to appreciate the world from a place of rest, and to allow wisdom to arise from rest, is one that resonates deeply.  In fact, there was a time when I took a weekly digital shabbat (idea taken from someone else), stepping away from email and texts and blogs and online anything from sundown one day to sundown the next.  I only left my phone on to receive phone calls from my daughter at college, or from my mom and dad.  I really loved the stretched-out feeling of that day.  And I loved that it challenged me to be present for my own downtime, instead of finding easy distraction in the form of digital lethe.  I spoke with a mentor on Friday about reinstituting this practice in my life - and then spent the weekend grading.  It did have to be done, but I would like to frame it as a rare instance, rather than the norm.  And then this morning, I opened the Times during a rare break in my day (reading and eating at the same time, and why yes, that is rather mindless, isn't it?), and there was Renkl's column, reminding me of the sacredness of rest, reminding me that I owe myself and the world space and spaciousness.

It occurs to me, reading this over before hitting "post", that this has implications for my magpie year.  But it also occurs to me that the goal of this year was to encourage myself to write, and to see what I learned by doing so.  And maybe what I'm learning is that I write better from charged batteries, and that recharging my batteries is a legitimate thing to plan to do.  I will mull this week, and you will be the first to know if I end up reclaiming a day from the online world. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Day 101: Pink flamingo update

Thank you, Ellen, for finding out more about pink plastic flamingos.  If you all are interested, you can check this out.  What really caught my attention (aside from the fact that the creator of the pink plastic flamingo and his wife dressed alike for 35 years)(and the fact that his pink plastic flamingo is based on a photo from National Geographic)(and the fact that they come in pairs, one with its head up and one with its head down - did you know that?), is the fact that this guy worked for a company that made plastic animals.  Not just flamingos - animals.  Which begs several questions: one, why did flamingos take off (get it, get it?)? and two, where are all those other animals?  I mean, I don't think I've seen other plastic animals on people's lawns - have you?  And what animals?  Chickens?  Cows?  Goats?  The mind boggles.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Day 100: Cats!

They keep me company as I grade.  (It takes me about 20 minutes a paper for these first papers, and there are 40 of them.  I'm trying to take it in smaller pieces, both so that I don't get too stiff and uncomfortable - and, honestly, my fingers stop being able to type comments after a while - and so I don't get impatient and nasty in my comments.)

They think they're helping...

Friday, October 18, 2019

Day 99: TGIF

Mornings are crisp, there’s a chill in the air, evening comes earlier each day. It’s that time of year, when students’ hearts pitter-patter with the utter dread of looming midterms, and the realization that they should have come to office hours much sooner, and with much more frequency. 

And when, therefore, professors’ spare hours are spent in extra appointments, and in grading the assignments of panicked students. 

That means me, too. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Day 98: That time of the semester

I really have nothing. The grading is piled deep, and there’s a conference paper to write, and even the magpie has to give way and dig in to work. Remind me again why I assigned all these things?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Day 97: Daily poem

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall -
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

       - Mary Oliver

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Day 96: Pink flamingos

Yesterday was a thirteen-hour juggernaut, at the end of which it didn’t even occur to me to turn on my computer and post.  But there is something that has captured the attention of the magpie: pink plastic lawn flamingos.

Where do they come from?

I mean, I get that, at this point, they are largely kitschy or ironic, or both. But surely they weren’t, to begin with. Surely there was some origin point at which someones, somewhere, thought that real flamingos on lawns was a really awesome thing, and that having pretend flamingos on lawns would be a cool second-best?

Or something?

I haven’t had a chance to go poking around into the origin story of pink flamingos (although I think I have to, at some point, when students aren’t panicking about midterms, and I’m caught up on grading, and my conference presentation is written, and and and), but meanwhile, maybe someone has some inside knowledge that will shed light on this pressing question?

Inquiring magpies want to know.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Day 94: Morning song

Lying awake in the pre-dawn darkness, an explosion of bird-sing, then silence. 

Hsht, hsht, I imagine a beleaguered bird mother saying, hsht!  You'll wake the neighbors!

Both of us wishing for just five more minutes - five more minutes, little ones, hsht!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Day 93: A quiet day, with none of the pictures I'd planned to post

I was really disciplined yesterday and got caught up on grading.  I'm ready for class on Monday.  And that means that, even though there's always something I could work on (upcoming conference presentation, I'm looking at you), I am not going to work this weekend.  It's amazing how spacious it feels to have a largely unscheduled weekend. 

I got to the barn early for my ride, before the temperatures rose too much, hit the farmer's market on the way home, and the rest of the day was mine.  If there's one thing that single-digit humidity is good for, it's blocking things, so...

That's Adair, knitted up with Manos del Uruguay Serena (alpaca/cotton), in the Fig colorway (which isn't showing up quite right in those photos; I'll try to get a better modelling shot at some point).  I saw this at Churchmouse when I was there in June, and feel immediately in love.  I think it's going to be one of those really versatile shawls that can go with almost anything and get carried almost anywhere.  It's already dry - I just need to unpin it and weave the ends in and it's good to go.

I took a nap, treated my chickens to yogurt and raisins, and set myself up to spin and listen to On Being's replay of an interview with Mary Oliver.  (Which I recommend highly.  I may actually go back and listen to the entire unedited 90 minutes, it was that wonderful.  I also may have ordered her Poetry Handbook and Dreamwork.  For store pickup.  Tomorrow.  Oops.) 

What a perfect way to spend an afternoon.  Now pizza dough is rising on the stove, onions are caramelizing in my favorite cast-iron skillet, and I'm just waiting for Tess to get home before dinner.  I hope that each of you got to spend at least part of today doing something that felt expansive and roomy and lovely.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Day 92: Dry

Dry is a funny thing.  Woke up this morning cold.  The house, which I've now shut up, is still holding the cold (I'm wearing a sweater); it's 85 outside, and 90 a bit further inland.  When there's no moisture in the air, there's nothing to hold the warmth.  Humidity is currently around 5%.  It never ceases to amaze me what a difference it makes to go from maybe 30% humidity to 5.  Not only do temperatures vary wildly depending on whether you're in the sun or not, but it's clear clear clear.  The blue of the sky goes all the way to the horizon - no haze to get in the way.

We haven't had our power shut off as a preventative measure to avoid utility-sparked fires (we were on the list for a while), and the wind seems not to be picking up.  Keep your fingers crossed that conditions shift a bit for the better, and keep good thoughts going for our firefighters and the folks who have gotten caught in the fires that are burning in other parts of the state.  And if you're in the same conditions - go drink an extra glass of water before you realize you need it!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Day 91: Mast year

Walking across campus the other day to class, I tried to slow down a little bit and breathe.  And look what I noticed!

It's a mast year for the oaks on campus!  Definitely not just this little one - I checked.  That's kind of exciting.  And also a bit sad.  There's so much potential in each of those acorns.  But they will largely fall onto cement, and those that don't are bound to be swept up by groundskeepers before they have a chance to realize their potential.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Day 90: Potential, Part III

In aid of what.  Exactly. 

It takes me straight back to that early idea I’d garnered, that people sat in order to create a little happy glow for themselves that wore off as they interacted with the world, whereupon they had to go back to the cushion to regain it.  Is that really why we sit?  So we can be happy?  So we can feel more connected to people when we’re on the cushion than we do when we’re actually interacting with them?  So we can come to see all of our stories about the world as just that – stories?  Do we really sit to get better at sitting?

A sidebar:  On a seven-day silent retreat last year, one of the teachers – an older, white, cisgendered woman – talked us through the metaphor of seeing our mental stories as a film.  That, as we sit and watch the rising and falling away of the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives, we can come to the realization that they are like a film, and we are the audience.  We may become absorbed to the point where a movie feels real – our heart races, we lean forward, our muscles tense when the hero is in trouble – but then we can suddenly realize, it’s a story!  And we can sit back and catch our breath and see how we are separate from the action on the screen.

This is true, and very helpful in many ways.  When my colleague dismisses something I say with absolutely no acknowledgement, it is easy to get caught up in a larger story.  No-one takes me seriously.  Or, I’m a failure and nothing I say is very important.  And if we believe and act on those stories, we’re trapped.  But at the same time, if I am a woman, and my colleague is a man, and this kind of dismissal happens regularly (and worse yet, he then repeats what I’ve said as his idea), it seems to me that to say that my understanding of that interaction as sexist and as part of a large structure of misogyny is just a story I’m telling myself – well, that’s simplistic.  And, perhaps more importantly, devoid of transformative potential.

So I wrote a question to the teacher, saying that, while I find it very useful to understand many of my stories about my life as, just that, stories, I wasn’t so sure that I was comfortable thinking about, say, racism as just a story and could she please address that?

Two days later, she said that she’d received that question, and offered a one-line answer about how, of course, we wouldn’t want to say that racism is a story.  Period.  The lack of depth and understanding were deeply troubling to me (and, I found out later, to at least one person of color in the room).  But also, I think, symptomatic of what I’ve been circling around with all of this writing – that mindfulness, as it is often practiced and described and taught today, has had its radical potential subverted by a paradigm of individual practice geared towards self-understanding and self-improvement.

What do I mean by that? 

When mindfulness is something we do on the cushion, with very little teaching about how to carry it out into the world, it is robbed of its potential.  When it is about a detached watching of the mind, decoupled from teachings about wise action arising from an understanding of the self and others and the nature of reality, it is robbed of its potential.  When we sit on our cushions offering compassion to people near and far, and then sit in a meeting unable to even recognize that we’re Othering the asshole across the table who just. won’t. listen.  Well, where is our practice then?

And I’m not saying it’s easy.  In fact, when people talk about how they couldn’t do a week-long silent retreat, I want to say, dude – that’s the easy part.  It’s doing a life-long engaged retreat in the world that’s really really hard.  And doing it without engaging in spiritual bypassing (I just love everyone!) is even harder.  It requires getting very down and dirty with some really difficult emotions.  Because here’s another secret no-one wants to say out loud about mindfulness – it’s not all about being peaceful and serene and happy.  If you’re going to be mindful of whatever arises as it arises?  Well, my friend, you are going to feel anger, and fear, and deep grief.  You are going to feel agitation, and a very strong desire to run away from all those things you’re feeling.  That’s what our minds and bodies do.  They feel it all.  It’s just that our minds keep wanting to stick with the emotions that we’re comfortable feeling (or that we feel like we’re allowed to feel – and there are all kinds of social constraints around that; another essay for another time), and tell us all kinds of stories to keep us in those emotions.

But, I think, radical change comes when we feel all the feels, as my daughters would say.

Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, in her jointly-authored book Radical Dharma, talks about mindfulness and anti-racism work.  And she calls for white folks to come to anti-racism work not from a space of “what can I do for you (poor people of color)”, but, instead, to begin by recognizing the pain that the system of racism inflicts upon us.  Not to center ourselves, but instead to understand more clearly what Lilla Watson means when she says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let us work together.” 

To understand that my liberation – the cessation of my pain and suffering – is bound up with the liberation of everybody else?  To feel that in my bones, instead of just in my head?  Well, my friends, that – that – is radical.  That is transformative.

And it can be one of the gifts of mindfulness, practiced, well, mindfully.  When it, first, engages with what Kabat-Zinn calls the whole catastrophe – not just the joy and the bliss, but the sorrow and rage.  And when it gets its ass off the cushion and into the world to continue that practice.  When the practice take place not only in the isolation chamber of our own minds, but in conversation with others.  In mutuality with the world.

If I truly look at someone else through the eyes of lovingkindness – eyes that recognize our common humanity – how could I possibly lock someone up at the border?  Separate someone from their child?  Draw zoning lines that limit the access of other people’s children to the education my children enjoy?  If I look at myself through the eyes of lovingkindness, how can I allow someone to encroach on my boundaries?  Dismiss me as worthless?  Waste my time with hateful and draining speech?

If I look at the world that way, how can I not want to find ways to adjust my consumption to cause less damage?  How can I eat an animal that has lived its entire life in fear, pain, and misery?

And, through all of this, when I regard myself with compassion, how can I not sit with my own fear of failure, my grief that the world is this messed up, the shame that I have contributed to these systems, the feeling that I am not enough and can’t do enough – how can I not hold all of that with love and offer myself kindness for being an imperfect being in an imperfect world?  Not alone in my imperfection, nor in the world, but in community with other imperfect beings.

If we all really could hang on to that, off the cushion, the world would tremble.

And so, when I see all the ways in which we turn mindfulness into an isolated, isolating practice.  When I see how the ways that mindfulness is practiced exclude broad swaths of embodiment in favor of those that align with one dominant model of being in the world.  When I see those who raise these issues being dismissed with the suggestion that they just need to sit with their feelings until they come into a more right understanding of them.

In honesty, it pisses me off.  It frustrates me.  I grieve.  And I also understand.  I recognize those things in myself and in my own practice and discussion of practice.  I see that I am implicated. 

I also feel fear.  To truly live this way?  What a commitment.  What a tremendous life’s work.  And people – to do this means, for me, that I’ve got to learn to set boundaries out of a place of love and care for myself. And that’s not the only fear. I quite literally cannot imagine what our world would look like if we lived from this place of loving presence.

That’s what I mean by transformative.  And by radical.  It seems to me that a practice like mindfulness, fully engaged with, changes everything.  And maybe that’s why, when mere mortals engage with it, we do it in our limited, human way.  We fit it into the systems we already know so well – here, in the West, systems which emphasize individuality and achievement.  It gets smaller, but also more approachable and manageable.  Explicable.  And the potential diminishes.  We practice mindfulness…unmindfully.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Day89: Potential, Part II

Once I understood that, not only did my aversion to sitting meditation decrease significantly, but I began, slowly slowly, to recognize all the ways in which I had been, at hugely important times in my life, attending with care and attention to the present moment, on purpose, without (and this has always been my struggle) judgment.  And with, as I came to understand later, compassion for myself in my struggle.

When I realized this in my mid-thirties, I immediately recognized that I’d been using mindfulness to manage a difficult relationship with a colleague.  Little by little, instead of reacting to hostility engendered by something I’d said by apologizing and trying desperately to make her like me, I had learned to recognize the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that drove me to fix it at all costs.  That didn’t stop me at first from trying to fix it, but little by little, the practice of awareness had begun to give me space.  And in that space, I could give myself the gift of time to decide – did I really do something wrong?  And if I didn’t, what would I like to do to respond to this difficult moment, instead of trying to survive it?


And once I saw that, I saw that my practice dated back even further.  To the way that I learned to watch the nerve pain in my leg, rising and falling and changing, without attachment to how it felt ten minutes ago, or how it might feel ten years from now.  Noticing that allowed me to see all the fears and stories I’d attached to that pain, and to see them for what they were – fears and stories that also rose and fell away.

Or the way I’d finally learned to manage lifelong insomnia.  From my early teenage years on, going to bed involved hours of lying awake while ruminating and fretting, worrying over what I should have done differently, or what I was going to do when the next crisis hit me.  In my thirties, mindfulness (not that I called it that at the time) allowed me to notice when I’d headed down those rabbit holes, and to kindly and gently call my attention back to my breathing.  (Note: for anyone who wants to have a sitting practice, I don’t recommend using this exact trick to fall asleep – to this day, I have to fight drowsiness when I sit in meditation, I think largely because of the neurological connections I built at this time.  I’m laughing again – the mind is a funny, funny thing!)

Dating back even further.  To when my first daughter was an infant, and I was driving back and forth across the Bay Bridge to visit my husband’s grandmother.  Thanks to his engineering class, I learned that, in the event of an earthquake, a portion of the eastern span of the bridge was meant to fall into the bay, to prevent the entire thing from pulling itself apart (this is good engineering, by the way).  And I obsessed over what I would do if that happened while I was on the bridge.  I calculated how fast we’d be going when we hit the water, and that, unfortunately, we were likely to survive the fall.  Which meant drowning, unless I could get a window cracked before we hit the water and the electronics shorted out, so the car could fill and equalize the pressure so I could open a door and get us out.  I imagined the whole thing in my head again and again and again. And again.  And again.  It was awful.  And then I read about neuroplasticity, and about the ability of the brain to rewire itself, and I decided I was going to get off that superhighway of bridge-collapse-drowning despair and rewrite the neural connections.  But to do that, I had to notice when I started down the story so that I could step away from it.  Which I did.


I could go on and on.  But what this all means is that, as I have begun to come to realize, I have long had a robust mindfulness practice.  One that has given me deep insight into my mind and its inner workings, as well as into the fundamental interconnectedness of all beings (the realization of which is, in itself, yet another essay).  A practice that did not, in spite of my flirtation with meditation in my twenties, rely in any way on sitting meditation.

And yet, to this day, when people talk about their years of mindfulness practice, I have trouble claiming the depth of my own, precisely because it was not a silent sitting practice.

And isn’t that interesting.

My reading and talking to other people suggests that I am not alone in this.  That being able to complete long sits, and, especially, long silent retreats, are considered some kind of gold standard against which all other practices are held.  This strikes me as a limiting and limited way of assessing and judging practice.  Totally aside from the problematics of assessing others’ practice, when assessing our own, is it really productive to judge it on the basis of: I sat for X hours, or Y many days in a row, or Z number of retreats this year?  As a friend recently asked me when I spoke with her about going on retreat (and I should say here that I am not against retreats in general, and that my retreat experiences have been intensely valuable in my overall practice, and that I’m looking forward to finding the time and money to go on another one):  in aid of what?

Monday, October 7, 2019

Day 88: Potential, Part I

I've been thinking a lot about that realization I had the other day that I'm not writing about (some of) the things that are on my mind the most, because I really want to get them right.  So, in the spirit of letting go of that a little, here's a short series on something that really has been occupying a lot of mental real estate lately.  Imperfect, but out there.

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  - Jon Kabat-Zinn

I don’t think it would be an understatement to say that mindfulness has saved my life.  At the same time, it is also true that I have often felt, and still feel, alienated from and resistant to mindfulness. 

I know.  It’s complicated.

I’m not even sure where to start.

I think that, because I am a linguistic anthropologist, it’s perhaps best to start with the ways that words like meditation and mindfulness are used, and the prototypes that build up around those uses.  Of most interest to me is how those prototypes exclude certain practices and people, in ways that are actually antithetical to the practice of mindfulness.  In ways that rob mindfulness practice of its potential to radically transform social structures and relationships. 

In my twenties and thirties, living in Berkeley and even after moving down to Southern California, I knew lots of people who engaged in what we might think of as present-oriented activities, especially yoga and meditation.  In that context, my exposure to meditation often came from people who talked about how hard it was.  Especially when talking about sitting for long periods, or going on meditation retreats, from which they would come back talking about excruciating physical pain, mental and emotional storms, and, at the end, a fantastic feeling of peace and oneness with everything that, inevitably, they would describe as “wearing off”.  From my perspective, I could go for a hard workout, work on my dissertation, and drink a glass of wine with the same effects, and with a lot less expenditure of time and money.

More seriously, I felt (and still do feel) a very deep resistance to the idea of putting myself into a situation that causes extreme physical pain, just for the opportunity to watch that pain mindfully.  As someone who has lived with chronic nerve pain, and who had survived several bouts of deep depression, I just could not, for the life of me, discern the need to create more pain for myself.  It felt unkind.  And also limiting, in the sense that it seemed like a practice that couldn’t be open to everyone.  I knew people, myself included, who just physically could not sit for ten hours a day.  To do so would be to ignore the very real limitations of my body.

Unfortunately, in some settings and with some people, to say that is to show, not discernment, but resistance.  And the prescription is to get on that cushion and suck it up.

I tell this story in conjunction with the definition of mindfulness above, to point to the ways in which mindfulness practice, in the West, has come to be identified almost solely with sitting meditation, and with the project of self-knowledge and self-improvement.  And I want to suggest that, while the self-knowledge gained through individual practice has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, I feel strongly that by limiting our understanding and practice of mindfulness to that, we also limit its radical and transformative potential to the transformation of the individual. (The assumption being that that is sufficient.)

My resistance to what I perceived to be a potentially damaging practice caused me to avoid sitting meditation entirely (even though I had had a sitting practice in my twenties).  I have come to see that as a form of wise discernment.  Even as I was avoiding sitting meditation, however, that same wise part of myself knew that mindfulness, and the Buddhist tenets upon which secular Western mindfulness is largely based, had something important to offer.  In seeking out information about the practice of mindfulness, I also continued to carefully watch and attend to my aversion, exploring its causes and conditions, noting how it felt in my body, and what stories attached themselves to it.

And I’m laughing at myself right now.  Because even though the next part of this story is about how I came to realize that I’d been practicing mindfulness for more than two decades before I allowed myself to call my practice “mindfulness”, I had not, until the moment of this writing, realized that, in all of the careful ways that I recognized and attended to my aversion to sitting meditation as it was being offered to me, I was practicing mindfulness. 

That is funny!

Two books changed everything for me, slowly slowly, but surely.  The first was the wise little book Buddhism Without Belief, which not only gave me permission to practice secular Buddhism, but also brought me to an understanding of non-attachment which let me – a parent who could not imagine feeling non-attachment to my children – begin to recognize the Four Noble Truths, and to explore the practices offered by each one.  That is the subject of another essay.  The second book was called The Mindfulness Revolution; it is a collection of essays about the practice of mindfulness, gathered together in one place.  In one essay, the author said something along the lines of: we don’t sit in meditation to get better at sitting or breathing, or even to get better at meditating; we sit in meditation to strengthen our ability to be present in our day-to-day lives. 


Nothing I’d heard from anyone I knew who sat in meditation had led me to believe that the practice that took place on the cushion was meant to be a practice that continued off the cushion.  I literally thought that the goal of meditation was to create a peaceful feeling that lasted for a while after the practice ended, and then wore off and had to be renewed.  And I couldn’t make that make sense to me.  But this – this made sense.  I understood it in my mind to be like going to the gym.  At the time, I hated exercise.  So when I exercised, god knew it wasn’t to get better at exercising – it was to be strong for picking up my daughters and swinging them around, for grabbing all the bags of groceries in one trip in from the car, for going camping with my dog and my family.  In other words, I exercised so that all the muscles I built up in the gym were available to me in my real life.

You mean meditation works that way?

Turns out, the answer is yes.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Day 87: More color

You may recall that I got a yummy rainbow braid of (if I remember correctly; I don't have the label here) BFL/silk this summer.  I haven't had much time to spin lately, so I sat down today to listen to Krista Tippet talk to Joanna Macy, and worked my way through green and into blue.  So, that's Red, Orange, Yellow, Green done, and Blue and Violet to go!

As you can see, I sat in the shade on my front patio, and enjoyed watching the butterflies and my chickens, and listening to the sounds of the neighborhood while I spun.  A good way to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon.  I hope you're all getting some peace and beauty today, too!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Day 86: More knitting!

So, when I'd finished the socks I showed off yesterday, I still had lovely, happy, stripey yarn left over (these are generous skeins).  So what could be better than fingerless mitts, thinks I, and next thing I know, these had popped off the needles!

Aren't they darling?  I used up every last bit of the Must Stash, and almost all of the Miss Babs.  With these, I knitted a true afterthought thumb.  Since I wanted to use all of the striped yarn, I had no idea where I'd want the thumb to be.  So, once I had my tube, I stuck my hand in, approximated where a thumb might be good, snipped, and freed up about sixteen total stitches, from which I made the thumbs.  I am a big fan of fingerless mitts, as they keep my hands happy on chilly morning walks, and, especially when driving (for some reason, my Raynaud's is triggered by cold steering wheels more than almost anything else).  So these are ready just in time for the mornings to get cooler!  (And, I hope, in time for me to get back to walking on my favorite trail.)

Friday, October 4, 2019

Day 85: Knitting does still happen around here

I am, after all, a knitting linguist, and I do still knit.  There is a shawl to show at some point, but I haven't had a chance to block it (maybe this weekend?).  Meanwhile, I have been poking away at a really fun pair of socks that I started at a long weekend of board meetings last spring, and then put away while getting through the College Blanket Saga (TM).  Once that was done, they came back into rotation as an easy and small project, perfect for the car and meetings.  And then they came swiftly off the needles.

Aren't they fun?  They're Must Stash Yarn in the colorway Ready Player One.  Totally aside from the fact that I love that book, every single one of the colors of these stripes makes me happy.  This yarn comes in two identical skeins, so that the stripes end up matching (and how awesome is that?).  My one and only regret about them is that I hadn't gotten the contrasting yarn when I cast on - I just wish I had knit the top ribbing in that, as well as the heels and toes.  (Not enough to cut the ribbing off and reknit it, though - I'd hate to toss that extra bit of stripey goodness!)

There's a happy story about that contrasting yarn.  I cast on for these, as I mentioned, at a three-day set of meetings this past spring.  These meetings are really intense, and they involve a LOT of sitting still.  So I knew I needed something totally mindless to knit, but also cheerful and fun.  This yarn was the answer to my prayers.  I also knew that I didn't want any shaping to disrupt the stripes, and that I'd need a contrasting color for the heels and toes.  There was no time to get anything before leaving home, so I counted on finding a yarn store somewhere near the meetings.  During the first day, a colleague recommended a little shop in Arlington, near where we were having dinner that night.  So off I popped, in my free hour between meetings and dinner, to check it out.  The shop was FibreSpace, which I cannot recommend more highly.  Not only is it a fantastic little shop with friendly folks and a great fiber selection, but check this out.  I had found a skein of something very yummy, and very expensive (especially given that it was technically just for the toes and heels - I was telling myself that I'd get another pair of socks out of it), when I went up to the counter to get an opinion on the color.  The nice young man behind the counter says to me, are you just getting this for heels and toes?  Yep, I say.  And he points to a little basket on the floor behind me and says, "That's what the Miss Babs mini-skeins are made for!"  And that is exactly what I ended up doing.  He could've failed to tell me that, and I would've spent the money.  But he didn't, and he saved me quite a lot, and I am telling you that I'm definitely going back when I'm out there for the next board meeting, and I want to recommend them to you, too.

I knit these top down, as a tube, and put in a strand of waste yarn where I wanted the heel to be.  Then I basically knit a toe as the afterthought heel. I was so enchanted by the stripes that I ended up knitting a very shallow toe, but they fit nicely.  I wore them all day yesterday, both in and out of shoes, and they're cozy and comfortable.  Now I need to get another skein of this yarn, because Rick wants a pair, too.

More related knitting to show tomorrow!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Day 84: The car is back!

I don't really know why, but I take great pleasure in the way that the guys at VW sort of marvel at my car.  (It's ridiculous, honestly, but there it is.)  Today, when I picked it up, the guy who brought it out said to me: 

Ma'am, I've spent ten years in the auto industry, and I have never
(I was waiting here for something about the transmission, but no...)
seen a car that was
(and he ticks these off on his fingers)
a stick-shift

There may have been head-shaking.

Honestly, it's entirely possible that these guys are just messing with me, or humoring my love of my little car.  But, as it keeps me entertained, I have no objections.  It's kind of fun driving a unicorn.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Day 83: Perfectionism

This project has given me an interesting lens through which to view whatever streaks of perfectionism I may have.  I say it that way because I don't tend to think of myself as a perfectionist, and, looking at how I manage these posts, I'm beginning to understand why.

So, first off, I was going to write and say that I've had to learn to, to at least some degree, shoot from the hip.  I write something and let it go, on a pretty quick turnaround.  I definitely reread and edit, but I don't spend hours on these posts (as if you couldn't tell).  So, in that sense, I've had to let go of any desire I might have to polish and re-polish. 

I have also posted a whole lot of really trivial stuff.  This is in keeping with my stated goal, and it has definitely loosened me up a lot.  Thinking about Disco's coat?  Write about it.  Noticing that I tend to trick myself into swimming laps in sets?  Write about it.  Feel stupid for posting something that seems stupid?  Post it anyway.

So, you could say that, in those ways, doing this has helped me to relax my grip on things a little bit, or maybe even a lot.  (Because dudes, there have been a lot of trivial posts over the past nearly three months.)

But, I realized as I went to write this post, to a very significant degree, those are places where I already had a fairly gentle grip on perfectionist tendencies.  Which is why I felt able to say that bit, up in the first paragraph, about not being much of a perfectionist.


Except then I thought about all of the posts I haven't written.  The posts that I think about for hours, sometimes, about the topics that are really capturing my heart and mind right now.  The posts that I really want to get perfect - to get right - before I put them out there.  The posts that I am so worried about getting perfect that I never even start to write them.

Oops.  And dammit.  And also, interesting.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Day 82: How does she know?

Our springs around here are usually rather grey and chilly (we don't talk about May Gray and June Gloom for nothing!), and with each passing month, things heat up until we get to October, which is usually our hottest month (and the month which - until climate change - had our highest fire danger)(note: that aside is not meant to suggest that our fire danger has eased up - on the contrary, first season now runs year-round).  While this year has been cooler than usual (for which I am grateful), it's hasn't exactly been chilly.

But, as she does every year around this time, Disco has started to grow in her winter coat.  It's got to be the light, right?  Because it's certainly not the temperature!  All I can say is thank goodness she's a thoroughbred, which means even her thickest winter coat really isn't.  (This pleases me, since I don't absolutely have to clip her, both because her coat isn't heavy and because she isn't in really heavy work.  I love her winter coat - it's like a lovely cozy reddish brown velvet.)

Are your various animals growing their winter coats yet? Or is this just some weird Disco thing?