How I’m Processing These Times

Many of my friends on social media  have said they were nauseous after the #RNCinCL ended. In spite of having  a two-day headache, I have been reading articles about the orange real estate tycoon, watching Bill Maher (whose opinions I don’t always agree with, especially his puerile views about religion), Steven Colbert, Jon Stewart, and other satirical videos, including this gem by Randy Rainbow, Ya got Trump Trouble!

In an effort to stop my incessant preoccupation with the rhetoric of hatred, I’m taking this online MOOC, Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster . The course is taught by University of Iowa professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill. We are reading Whitman’s war poems and some of his prose writing and responding with both discussion comments and original work.

I want to write about my father’s death, the loss that is so immediate to me,  but I need to connect his dying  to these times we are living in: mass shootings in night clubs, elementary schools, and movie theaters, terrorist attacks overseas, the brutality of police toward Black citizens, the deaths of Anton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner… (the list is too long), the ugly rhetoric of ignorant white supremacists, an arena full of people chanting for the imprisonment of the former Secretary of State.

Whitman wrote for everyone, for all of America. He recognized himself in the fallen soldier, the nurse, the mother saying goodbye to her son.

As a white woman in living the 21st century, how can I recognize myself in the bile coming from the mouths of Trump and his followers? Will I recognize myself in the bodies of Black men left to bleed on the street? To be truly honest with ourselves and to show true compassion, we have to know that we are all interconnected. There is no Us versus Them.

While it comes naturally to me to empathize with the plight of many Black people, I won’t be honest until I look deeply into the hatred coming from a fairly sizable chunk of the white population. Is there any way to transcend this hatred? Poetry and art might be the bridge.

 

#Don’tStopKissing

DontStopKissing

Poet and novelist Collin Kelley and the Georgia Center of the Book are hosting a memorial poetry reading Friday, June 24  for the victims of the massacre in Orlando. The event is called #Don’tStopKissing, and is meant to show solidarity, support, and love for the LGBTIQ community and the families of the victims.

The quotes in the poem  I wrote come from an article on NPR that shares some memories about each of the victims who lost their lives on June 12.  To read their stories is devastating. These young people could have been our sons, daughters, brothers, sister, nieces, nephews, friends.

The older brother of victim Amanda Alvear says about his sister, “She’d rather they spread more love, keep friends and family close, and have a good time doing it.”

As Anderson Cooper said in his CNN broadcast, his voice breaking with emotion, “They are more than a list of names. They were people who loved and were loved. ”

For the Victims Who Died on Latino Night At Pulse, 12 June 2016

I want to remember you

In some eternal before

Before a mother on the dance floor

Sees the gunman

Commands her son to get down on the floor, Isaiah

Covers him with her body

Before a mother in Sunday darkness cries

They’re killing our babies

I want to remember your fingertips

Brushing the pulse of night

I want to remember you swaying

Under laser lights

Face and arms glowing indigo, pink

I want to remember you salsa

Remember you cumbia

Remember you merengue

Remember you danzón

I want to remember you alegre

Remember you samba

Remember you bachata

Remember you reguetón.

I want to remember you selling perfume

Remember you drag queen

Remember you drag king

Remember you student

Remember you father

I want to remember you arm in arm with your sweetheart

Skin smooth as orchids

Remember you bougainvillea

Remember you gardenia

Remember you jacaranda

Remember you beautiful

They were so beautiful

Remember you

 

 

 

Yoga on the Porch

This past April, my father passed away after a six-month illness. It’s too soon for me to write about the experience we went through as a family, but I can talk about my own health.
I had been experiencing early morning anxiety since November, around the time my dad got sick, and then I started waking in the night with panic.

By the end of April my nerves were completely shot and my “fight or flight” response was firing 24/7.

I ended up finding a wonderful doctor whose integrative approach is helping me recover, and in the meantime, I’m spending my mornings practicing gentle yoga on my back porch. 

My backyard is completely wild and overgrown, a place that could definitely be tagged as a wildlife refuge in the middle of the suburbs. All I hear in the early morning is the wind in the trees and birdsong. 

May we all experience healing and wholeness, the feeling of wellbeing, of feeling safe and secure and at peace.

Review: Alice Teeter’s Elephant Girls 

At a recent gathering of the newly formed Atlanta Women’s Poetry  Collective, I had the pleasure of meeting Alice Teeter, an Atlanta poet I had known of for quite some time.

Teeter hosts a monthly poetry reading series, a salon that has a reputation for attracting some of the best poets who pass through or live in our city.

Elephant Girls (Aldrich Press, 2015), is Alice Teeter’s third collection of poetry. Didivded into three sections, Elephant Girls explores the myriad facets of the life of the mind and the body, with subjects such as love, desire, imagination, dreams, identity, history, and nature.

The speaker in the poems is fluid, changing from one poem to the next. In “The Sage,” the speaker explores meeting a woman at a conference and the feelings of lust this woman inspires. The speaker states,  “her hot hand grasps your thigh,” but later in the poem the woman disappears and the speaker is left with “the person you were born to desire most of all/ the one you have been looking for/spread your hand   she is always with you.” 

In other poems, such as “The cat didn’t know which she liked best,” the speaker is an animal. In this poem, the cat contemplates which creature pleases her most, the bear or the man.

In this poem and many others, Teeter enters the world of imagination, where possums and skunks enter her car through an open window, a dog paces, alone and afraid, on the Day of the Dead, and big fish “swim like shadows” in dark water.

Teeter delves into the world of carnal pleasure, taking sensual delight in glazed donuts that she compares to “sendal thighs,” thus rendering an indulgence of food into an indulgence of the sensual pleasures of the body.

The stuff of everyday life appears in this collection; even toilet paper makes an appearance.  In “Two-Ply,” three rhyming quartets

remember the speaker’s father and his “three-sheet rule.”

The poems in Elephant Girls range from playful to surreal and mythic. The wellspring of this book, full of free verse, sonnets, and other forms, is love-love of family, of the beloved, of lakes, vegetation, of all facets of life that emphasize the joy of being alive. 

After Yoga Writing Circle: Sankalpa

The writing that my fellow yogis produce after our Saturday yoga class with Sally continues to inspire me. 

For our last session, we wrote about our sankalpa, a Sanskrit word that means “resolve, intention.” Before meditation, the practitioner visualizes herself having, doing, or being the sankalpa.

Typically, this type of meditation is done before a yoga nidra practice, which involves lying down and mentally naming 54 body parts. 

With the body and mind in a state of deep relaxation, yet still awake and conscious, the practioner’s intentions penetrate the deeper layers of consciousness, creating a greater potential for the goals to be realized.

I wrote this intention about how I would like to wake in the morning. I wrote it in the present tense, as if this were my actual waking experience.

I wake in the morning with the first light of day and take a deep breath. My heartspace feels open and soft, and I’m at peace. 

Birds singing outside my window fill me with joy.

I sit up in bed and meditate for a short time before I let the dogs out into the backyard.

After a cup of chamomile, I roll out my yoga mat, full of energy and motivation to meet the day. 

I’m excited about life and the possibilities this new day will bring.

I suppose this is a kind of prayer I am asking of the cosmos, of God, and of my own inner self. It might sound like a sugarcoated version of reality, but as Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman has said, “To create something, you have to imagine it first.”

Why shouldn’t we desire the best for ourselves in terms of spiritual and psychic evolution? 

  

Camino On My Mind

A few weeks ago I watched an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine on Super Soul Sunday. Speaking about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, MacLaine said something to the effect that, “The pilgrimage doesn’t truly begin until you’ve come home.”

My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began in May, 2015. I left San Jean Pied-de-Port, France on May 26 and arrived in Santiago June 28. During those 34 days of walking I meditated, wrote poems, met friends, cried, laughed, sang, ate good food, hobbled with shin splints, slept amid snoring pilgrims, and threw away the remaining antidepressants I carried across Spain.

Eight months have passed since I came home to Georgia, and I have been off antidepressants this entire time. It has been hard.

Since November, I wake in the morning with the fiery pain of nerves in my solar plexus. It takes an hour of  mindful breathing to slowly make my way out of bed at 8:00 am. Once I’m up, the rhythms of the day take over. The sun warms my muscles, the others in my family wake up, and the pain under my sternum dissipates.

Buddhist teachers would tell me that my suffering comes from expecting only good feelings. The trick is to watch the feelings come and go without identifying with them. But the pain! It’s sometimes impossible not to lose myself in the misery.

Some might wonder why I don’t go back to my psychopharmacologist for a new prescription. If I were suicidal, I would seek treatment, but I am not. I go to a counselor who helps me with moving the energy in my body. She also gives me suggestions for healing old wounds. I know that everyone is different, and I don’t recommend that anyone ditch their meds because of my experiences. I took antidepressants for twenty years.

I live with the hope that by entering the suffering I will eventually pass through it. I also practice what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “watering the seeds of joy.”

One to two hours of vigorous exercise works to exorcise my inner demons. I take long walks. I swim one to two miles at a stretch. I practice yoga. I’m grateful for the circumstances in my life that allow me the time I need to take care of myself.

Now that spring is around the corner here in Georgia, my thoughts are on the Camino again. I long for six hours of walking a day, no cell phones, computers, chores, or familial drama. It’s the kind of retreat I crave.

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After Yoga Writing Circle

Writing after practicing yoga and meditation is one of the best ways to release creativity. With a relaxed body and mind, we can touch our inner feelings. Writing with a group where we feel safe and nourished, we can take small risks with our writing and reveal heartfelt truths.

For the past six months or so, a group of us have been meeting once a month after our wonderful yoga teacher’s Saturday class to generate new writing. I’ve been leading the writing circle because of my certification with Amherst Writers and Artists, a writing circle method devised by Pat Schneider.

For the warm-up prompt, I read these lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening the knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

I wrote these lines based on the prompt:

Overflow

My heart is a bowl
that, today at least,
brims with anger.
Rage spills over the rim,
pulses into my chest, my throat.

But rather than opening my mouth,
I take to the street
and walk with my anger.
Inhaling the fresh fall air,
I release my bitterness.

The last yellow and orange leaves
hanging on the lowest branches
of a cottonwood tree
glitter in the breeze
like Tibetan prayer flags.

TreeCampus

A Day In the Life, Thanksgiving 2015

Yesterday I woke at 7:00 and, once again, stayed in bed until the anxiety passed. I meditated for twenty minutes, focusing on the breath and relaxation.

I let the dogs out and made coffee. Coffee works its magic by returning my optimism to me, especially if I make it half decaffeinated. A little goes a long way.

But the sink full of last night’s dirty dishes soured my mood. I had asked for help, but the men in my family see no problem with leaving the countertops dirty for a day or two. Since I’m the one with the problem, I end up cleaning, and I’m left with resentment.

On top of the dirty dishes, I had to forgo working on my Camino travelogue so that I could drive my father to the hospital. He has a staph infection in one of his heart valves, but he refuses any more surgery.

His only other option is to go to the hospital every day for six weeks to receive an infusion of antibiotics that go directly to his heart. His insurance won’t pay for in-home care because he is “ambulatory,” but he’s too weak to drive. My siblings and I are sharing the daily driving with my father’s wife (my parents divorced years ago) so that she doesn’t have to do it all.

When my son Freeboarder saw my glum mood, he tried to lift my spirits. “I know you don’t want to sacrifice your day of work,” he said, “but think of the good karma you’re generating.”

I know Freeboarder’s right. I know I have to help my father, in spite of our fraught relationship over the years. I have to help him because he is a part of me, because he is at the end of his life, and because underneath his stoicism he couldn’t help but be afraid. This is one of those moments in life when to help might create momentary resentment that in the long run contributes to overall happiness.

So I brought Dad homemade tomato and roasted red pepper soup and made him a few grilled cheese sandwiches.

On the way into the center, while I was parking the car, Dad almost fell. He walks with a cane and has arthritis in his spine and neck, so he might have stumbled, or he might have felt faint from weakness. But a male nurse happened to be walking right next to him as Dad started to go down, and the nurse caught him.

After Dad and I left the cancer center where he’s receiving his treatments, the sun was still bluing the sky at 4:30, however faintly. We were both still alive. We marveled at the miracle of the nurse who caught his fall, a guardian angel who appeared at the right moment to spare Dad more pain.

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A Day In the Life November 20

The walk today was so refreshing. I find more and more that, through meditation and mindful walking,  I’m paying attention to the changing leaves, the quality of the air, the blue sky. 

I felt so grateful just to be alive and breathing. I thought about the recent victims of violence in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere, and how they are no longer able to walk the way I do, breathing the fresh air. Today I walked for them. 

  

A Day In the Life, November 13

I forgot that today was Friday the Thirteenth until I hit the retaining wall with the back of the car while pulling out of the driveway. I don’t believe that Friday the 13th is an inherently unlucky day, but of course there’s the power of suggestion at work on our susceptible unconscious minds.

The wood retaining wall is now askew until S.A. bangs at it a few times with a sledge hammer. That was our proposed solution after he came out to assess the damage this evening when I came home from teaching. Part of the reason why I hit it, I think, is because it hurts to turn my head very far to the right because of the surgery I had on Tuesday.

I snuck in a quick three-mile walk today before leaving the house to teach. The air was crisp, the sky blue, the leaves still yellow and red in places. I could feel the tugging of the stitches from the skin cancer surgery as my arms moved with my pace, so I slowed down a bit.

Walking across campus on the way to class I passed a beautiful young woman who was carrying a vase of yellow roses to her car.

A man wearing a suit stopped me and said, “Would you like a Bible to add to the glory of the day?” I’m now in possession of a green, pocket-sized Gideon Bible that contains psalms and proverbs.

I thought of Michelle Castleberry’s poem “The Gideons” from her book Dissecting the Angel, where she writes about wanting to pass out Bibles for the Gideons but not  being allowed since she was a girl.  I also thought about the Angry Preachers I would encounter at the university where I used to work. They would plant themselves in the middle of the quad and tell just about everyone they were going to hell. Those preachers were filled with anger and fear.  At least the man I met today was kind.

Because of the stitches, I skipped the swim I usually take after my Friday afternoon class. After teaching for almost three hours, swimming laps renews and relaxes me. Instead, tonight I’l do a lying down meditation, one of the guided meditations from Jack Kornfield’s audiobook,  Guided Meditations for Self Healing.

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Update: I couldn’t lie still for the mediation because I was just too anxious, so I took a very hot bath with sea salts and soaked for twenty minutes. I continued to focus on the breath, and eventually the salts and the hot water drew the nervous energy out of my body. This is a trick I learned from my therapist, and for me it works like a charm.