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.

A Day In the Life

I just read an article titled “So You Think You’re Happy” that suggests certain activities that might promote a sense of wellbeing or contentedness with one’s life. 

One of the suggestions is to write a “day in the life” blog post as a series, which strikes me as just the thing. My life is fairly ho hum, so I have plenty of material for slice of life posts. Maybe I’ll learn to appreciate my quiet existence if I write about my days.

Lately I’ve been staying in bed until around 8:30 or 9:00 am, long enough for mediation and breathing to ease the anxiety. I lie on my side and look out the window for a while, and then I sit up and meditate in bed. I feel grateful for working part-time, which gives me the flexibility to work on my mental health at my leisure. 

The next step is to let the dogs out into our wooded, fenced backyard. Today S.A. did that job, which was nice for a change. I made coffee, sat in a chair near the sunny living room window, and read news articles for an hour.

In the afternoon I took Red for a six-mile hike at a local park. It was fun at first, but he kept tugging on the leash and wanting to sniff every single dog we passed. 

I suppose it wouldn’t have been too draining except I just had minor surgery yesterday for a skin cancer lesion, and I was in some pain still from the incision. Next time I’ll probably leave Red at home and do my usual hike with trekking poles. Today when we were going down some rocks, he pulled on the leash and I landed on my rump. Plus, I scraped my hand.

S.A. has been making dinner every Wednesday night, which I so appreciate. Tonight it was cod with spinach and lemon sauce served with zucchini and tomatoes baked in the oven with avocado oil. It was doubly delicious because he made it AND cleaned up.

While he was cooking, I headed to my office and wrote 500 words of the travelogue I’m working on. Usually, I try to write more, but I was wiped out from the hike up the mountain, even after resting for a half an hour. 

So, those were the highlights of my day, besides the ever-enlightening conversations I had with my sons and the books I’ve been reading. My daily wish is to gain insights and to better understand the people I love.

   
 

Book Round Up

I’ve been spending more time reading than writing lately, so in an effort to keep up my presence on this blog, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve either listened to or actually read this past month. Almost all of them are self-help books related to Buddhism. I find it very relaxing to listen to audiobooks before falling asleep at night. I set the timer for an hour and listen until the words fade out of my consciousness.

Body and Mind Are One, a training in mindfulness, by Thich Naht Hanh. This book consists of a series of dharma talks Thich Naht Hanh has given at Plum Village, the monastery he founded in France. Thay, or teacher, as his students affectionately call him, has a gentle way of teaching mindfulness. He goes into detail about creating a sangha (community) where practitioners can communicate their hurts or delights with each other in a compassionate manner. I’d love to be a part of a sangha in the town where I live, but I don’t want to take the initiative to start one, at least not now when I’m in the middle of writing a travelogue of my pilgrimage. So I put Thay’s teachings into practice with my family and friends.

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield discusses his life experiences with Buddhist meditation, beginning with his life as a student of Asian studies at Dartmouth College and continuing as a novice monk in Thailand. He later explores the evolution of the dharma as it has manifested in the U.S., and includes a chapter about problems with sexual misconduct and abuse of power that has occurred in “almost all” Buddhist meditation centers in the U.S. I appreciate his honesty and his willingness to face the problems. Kornfield acknowledges the need to hold frank discussions about sex, alcohol abuse, hallucinogens, and anti-depressants and how they relate to practicing mindfulness mediation in the 21st century.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown. I first became aware of sociologist Brené Brown after listening to her interview with Krista Tippet on On Being, when she spoke about vulnerability and shame. Shame is such a strong force in our culture, and we are so willing to bend to its power. Who hasn’t made mistakes in her life? Who hasn’t wanted to cover her tracks when her cover is blown? In Rising Strong, Brene Brown bases much of her writing on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that she has taken into her heart:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Rising Strong teaches the reader to not make negative assumptions about another person’s reactions to us. Rather than judging others for what we perceive as negative qualities, she encourages the reader to instead assume that others are doing the best they can in a given situation.

Brown is very open and honest about her own failures, using them to illustrate how, when we find ourselves planted face down in the arena, we can find the courage to rise up. Brown’s book offers the reader a path toward learning from failure rather than retreating in shame or discouragement.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I found this book on a forum for women travel writers, where it was suggested as an alternative to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The discussion centered around an article titled “How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert,” and Boo’s work was offered as an alternative to Gilbert’s writing. Although I found the article about Gilbert to be mean spirited ( women writers don’t need to shame other women writers in order for their own voices to be heard and appreciated), I still appreciate learning about Katherine Boo’s writing from the discussion.

Boo’s book is  journalistic exploration of the slums located near the airport in Mumbai. I don’t consider books such as Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to be travel writing. They are memoirs whose stories are revealed while the women embark on a journey. Even though the  book I’m writing has more in common with Gilbert and Strayed’s concept of a travelogue/memoir, I was thoroughly impressed by Boo’s ability to get inside the minds of the children in the Annawadi slum.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. I’ve been a fan of Mary Karr’s memoirs ever since reading Liars Club. What makes her writing unique is her ability to recreate the voice of her child self while at the same time punching up her prose to meet the expectations of a literary reader. In the Art of Memoir, Karr advises the reader to develop her own voice, relating that she herself spent at least a year writing her story before she found the way to channel her East Texas vernacular. She also advises the emerging memoirist to immerse the writing in carnality, in other words, to engage the five senses and put the reader in a scene, fairly basic writing tenets.  What I most liked about the book was Karr’s discussion of memoirs she teaches as well as the list of recommended memoirs she includes at the end of the book.

What Living Out of a Backpack for 6 Weeks Has Taught Me

This past weekend S.A. and I drove to Florida to pack up his mother’s belongings and ship them to the assisted living apartment she moved to in Chicago.

She told us she wanted all of her clothes, but after stuffing a garment bag and five suitcases with all the items we could manage, many racks of evening gowns, dresses, skirts, blouses, wraps, bags, and shoes remained, so we made the decision to give her lifetime collection of finery to charity.

I hoisted her beautifully arranged outfits into industrial-sized garbage bags and with the help of one of my MIL’s neighbors,  drove them to a local thrift store that services the homeless and veterans. Other bags went to Goodwill, and others to Salvation Army.

I felt sad to see my MIL’s artfully selected skirts and blouses crammed into bags. Why didn’t she give some of this clothing away over the years? Now that she’s older, she stays  in her muumuu most of the day, and when she goes to the grocery she puts on the same sweater and frayed pants.

On the Camino, I had to pare down my belongings because of the weight. To keep my pack under 15 pounds, I had only one pair of spare shoes in addition to my boots, four shirts (two too many by the standards of micro-lightweight packers), one pair of thermal Smartwool leggings to wear as pajamas and as pants for the evening, three pairs of underwear, two sports bras, and four pairs of socks.

I will admit that when I walked around the streets of Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon in the evenings, cities that the Camino passes through, I felt somewhat oafish compared to the neatly dressed Spanish women out on the streets with their beaus or their families. But walking the Camino is a lesson in humility if nothing else. I had to let go of my vanity if I was going to make the distance to Santiago.

One of my Camino  friends, Carolina,  a lovely blonde  from Brazil, said that when she arrived in Santiago she would treat herself to a dress and some make up as a way to celebrate and restore her sense of beauty.

I ended up finding a nice summer dress on one of the main streets of the historic part of town  in Santiago, and it has become my main dress. I took it to the beach and to the mountains, I’ve worn it to almost every poetry reading I’ve attended this summer in Atlanta, and I might even bring it on my next pilgrimage–it’s lightweight,  dries quickly, and can be worn over my thermal leggings.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I'm wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I’m wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Before emptying out my MIL’s condo I had already begun the process of paring down my own belongings. I’ve had to face my proclivity to hoard books. I have them piled up next to my bed, stacked on shelves in every room, and even stored in boxes in the garage. I’ve donated many of them to Goodwill and other organizations, and I will bring others to the library.

But giving away or selling possessions is only a physical manifestation of other more important aspects of my life that I need to give away. Just as I let go of my vanity on the Camino, at least for the most part, now I’m working on letting go of fear and anxiety.

If I feel a vague twinge of negative energy, my tendency is to tell myself a story that gives me a concrete reason to worry. So these stories are what I’m going to let go. I’m letting go of fear. First I will give fear a gentle squeeze on the shoulder, then I will pat it on the back and wish it a safe journey. Goodbye, old friend, buen viaje.

With a lighter load, I go on my next walk.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.