Is a real life perfect? Is your life perfect? Is your life real?
There is no way to know where you will see the most beauty in your life, or have the most profound experience. Battlefields and graveyards are as full of enlightening and profound, happy and beautiful life experience as the playground or, for those of us who love equines, the paddock.
When we are looking around for a life to live we often look to books. When I was a child I read every biography of every famous person I could find. My school had a series of orange-bound books to inspire young readers. They told the lives of inventors, orators, presidents, nurses and many more. I learned so much and could see myself and feel the passion stirring in myself so clearly. I wanted greatness, I wanted to make a difference. And I wanted to be different. These books helped me choose how to be different and make a difference.
That was in grade school. In high school I learned to swallow my pride, to be ridiculed and sometimes to be seen. Being seen was the thing I most wanted and most feared. I wanted to pick and choose, to have total control over other’s opinions of me. It would take a while for me to see that no one had control over opinions of anyone, even the ones we carried inside. We were all reading a script of what was acceptable and what was not and our comfort in our lives reflected our ability to be ourself and what that meant in our wider world.
It amazes me to think of what I felt in second grade. How I saw my world and choices opening up. I felt there was so much room for me, so much passion and verve and I would be able to be so forceful in my life.
In third grade our teacher started to bring the world in which we lived into the classroom. The newspaper was brought in. We read about current events. We were never asked to think about them much. We were told about choices we might have and we were shown what was going on beyond our familiar walls and walkways.
I felt as if my brain were being recreated from a passionate idealist to a pragmatic realist who would be molding myself to the task at hand, not creating that task. It has been a big slow leap to embrace a life that has much promise and much pragmatism.
When making a change, the change has to fit in where we are. Going from nothing to something or something to nothing happens, but for most of us the path is slow and takes its time. Even when change looks fast, it is often because we haven’t been aware of the steps.
Change is recognized and happens first in one place: our mind. Our mind is the body’s expression of our experience. Habits and personality make up our experience. The story that we tell about ourselves creates our personality and is our main influence in how we live our life.
There is no such thing as “hard-wired” when we speak of the brain. Our brain is 75% water and the consistency, in most of its structures, of a soft-boiled egg. In this blubbery environment there are over 100 billion nerve cells, neurons, wonderfully arranged and suspended and ready to be at our beck and call.
It’s easy to change the brain, it changes all the time. Unless, of course, you do the same things all the time. Tell the same story. Sleep the same way at the same time, function hurriedly through your hour, day, month, year – your life. Without changing anything you will not change – unless the world changes you, which it is prone to do.
Then what do you do? A cry for help is a good start. Back to the books you read in second grade, good too. Get someone to help you stick to what you want to do for yourself or help you find the goals you want and the will to achieve them.
Your brain is capable of processing enormous quantities of data. You have more RAM sitting in your brain waiting for your use that in any computer you couldn’t possibly afford and isn’t made anyway. There is nothing so flexible as your lovely brain, so willing and able to do the work for you.
What does it take to turn it on? What does it take to change your life for the best? Keep the good and pare away the not-so-great parts? A few new habits acted on with the passion of a second grader. Every start is a new beginning, nothing can’t be made better. Every neuron in your brain is ready and waiting for new paths to open up. Give it something to do, start the next moment of your life.
As I sit in the midst of boxes for moving (not too far – 20 minutes south, to Kent) I receive a newsletter from my teacher Narayan with whom I have sat many a retreat.
She is somewhat younger but when I first met her fresh, always robed in white, aspect I realized she is peer to all. She spoke of staring at a candle in her bedroom when she was twelve – driving her parents mad. She spoke of what she saw in the world and what seemed, from my point of view, she knew without experience. Some are like that and the rest of us, more like me, paddle the streams of experience – whitewater rapids to backwater sloughs – with and without grace, but paddle firmly in hand.
I share this with you now and in my practice (life – whatever you call it – the living of life) there is a deepening, a tangy spritzy pungent scent to the life I’m living. I feel older and more permeable, more focused, enjoying the ride.
Practice Over Time
by Guiding Teacher Narayan Liebenson
The forms of practice sometimes need to shift over a lifetime, but the essence of practice can burn even brighter as we come fact to face with the fathomless treasures of old age, sickness, and impending death. These are the most human of experiences. As you lose everything without choosing to, and accept the natural limitations of this body-mind experience, it becomes ever more possible to live with greater love and wonder and with less clinging and attachment. This is the sign of a true contemplative, not just a person who can sit endlessly on a cushion.
It is easy to get lost in concepts of time and age, believing in conventional messages that encourage a reverence for youth and a fear of death. However, older people with a lifelong practice are the lights of a sangha. Some older yogis have been practicing for decades, giving them the chance to meet physical and mental limitations from a completely different perspective than the ordinary one.
A rich arena of investigation is to ask whether one’s practice has to weaken with age. In times of change, there is often a sense of loss as well. In opening and allowing the grief that accompanies loss, a deeper dignity can emerge. What are our ideas and concepts about what practice is and what it means? Is practice something separate from the rest of our lives? Is it possible to open our hearts to things as they are, whatever way they are?
There is experience, and there is, as well, one’s relationship to experience. The awareness of this relationship is what makes all the difference in the world. With an orientation of openness and acceptance, we are alive to life itself and come to see that it was never ours to control. In this way, we deepen our understanding of patience, surrender, and grace.
Older yogis with a lifelong practice have a wisdom that is hard won. They are the visible signs of the humanness of life as well as the possibility of transcendence. We practice for others as well as ourselves; older practitioners need more commitment and diligence than ever before as they age.
Whatever posture you now need to support your practice is the best posture. This is the time to adjust your practice in a way that works for you. I encourage you to practice with an open mind, free from expectations, and to embrace without compromise the aspiration to awaken.
In the garden the other evening I was watering our perennials and by my elbow these large bushes of tiny flowers seemed to look fuzzy. I thought (of course) immediately of Elvis’ song “Itching like a bear on a fuzzy tree,” which had bothered me for years as, until that moment, I thought I had never encountered a fuzzy tree – or bush. There before my eyes was a fuzzy bush!
I couldn’t really see what I was looking at so I got my trusty 100mm micro lens and when I looked through the viewfinder there was a world as close as could be and I had had no sense of its presence until I focused a ton of technology at it.
I have no idea what they were doing – they weren’t eating, I could tell that, and I didn’t drive to the nearest extension service and ask – although I did that once with slime mold and thus began a whole new chapter of my life.
So, I offer this to you, never ever ( I know you never do) assume “nothing” is there. Ever since the Big Bang there has been somethingness for us – before that nothingness ruled – there was even nothing nothingness – but that’s another story, after I tell you about slime mold. (which takes forever)
I love summer – it fairly whirrs with somethingness – be well and love insects.
As someone who spends a lot of time searching for words, I am always relieved to find engagement apart from the written or spoken word. Don’t get me wrong, I love words. I’m using them now to give voice to the transformative power of dance.
And theater. I love movement with supporting visual orientation and Paula Josa-Jones is a master of the theatrical move.
But, as important as that is, it’s not why I’m writing. I’m here to tell a story. It’s about passion and commitment and collaboration. I’ve been photographing Paula since early in 1985. When I saw her in front of my lens I knew I’d been waiting for this mixture of innovative movement, comfort with the camera and an eye for detail that allowed my wild eye to flourish.
Now, when I talk about passion and commitment, I am not talking about us, Paula and me. I’m talking about Paula reaching out, asking dancers, set designers, and all those connected to production to plunge into their most authentic selves and come together to make truth in the work.
It takes courage and steadfast wildness to come to this place. And that’s where my story begins.
A few years back Paula was searching. We had moved here to the NW corner of Connecticut. Dancers were in Boston. Horses on the Vineyard where we had spent twelve years and major production of RIDE, dance theater with horses.
Now that I’m writing this, it seems simple. If you’re alone, do solo work. Duh. But then it was a revelation. Like a sword finally untethered, sharp and ready to strike. So, use it, duh.
When she asked me, I said, do a solo, you’re really good at it. But something had been hiding, Paula was shy. Who knew? Her company of beautiful dancers acted as a shield and we had chosen to live in a new place without “protection.”
She started rehearsing. Building this new solo work, Little Fictions, Ragged Memoirs. This is a lengthy process and now – I’m not sure how many years later – performances, dance showcases, artistic residencies, 1000 hours of listening to music, collecting brilliant collaborators. looking at costumes and photographs – not all mine, check out her Pinterest site.
This is serious work. Important work. Evocative and smart work. She does her best, is doing her best. You too, please. Thank you.
Open the gate – you won’t be sorry!
My photo is just one of the many items named “The Messenger.” In my experience the concept of the messenger – as in don’t shoot – is the most consistently salient theme encountered. I was the messenger in my family – there were others before me – I don’t know if that’s why not many of them speak to me. I don’t know because they don’t say. There is no message.
Pema Chodron states that.. “feelings like disappointment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us whenever we are.”
Who do you listen to. What are you looking for? Do you see anything? Do you hear the messenger? Are you listening?
And, to make my point, this photo is the most consistently bought and used – program covers, magazines, set designs, in all sizes – that I have ever produced.
What we create with another Being is not ours to give away.
While looking at a photo of two people I know intimately, I was struck suddenly by what the photo did not show.
It did not, could not depict, their years together. How they met, what they feel like now – yes, what they really feel like – which may not be the smiles shown for the taker of the photo, who is also not in the photo but is very much there.
No children or other travels, houses, books, sex, honesty, lunches or breakfasts are depicted. No loving or nasty moments, no clutching or letting go.
We take them as they are this moment photographed by the person we don’t know, in their lives or not, past and future not here. Only the moment. This moment. This one important moment. And if this photo gets into an album and if the album is shared and seen by present company and future grandchildren and further on, they will think they got something. They will think they know something.
And they will. They will know this moment. And they will make of it what they will in their moment. And nothing will be given away, it will be taken.
Lately I’ve been going through boxes. It seems strange to me that in many places I’ve lived, those before me have left mementos. Sometimes special rocks, flowerpots, and more than once, a box of letters. One woman even had me photograph her entire family album and then never wanted it back. Go figure.
This time a letter from a concerned aunt or friend, I don’t think the writer is the parent. Why do I think that? Because the tone is restrained and equanimity is attempted – but then generations past have had more reserve than ours.
It starts, “My Dear One,” and tells current events, the weather, how the river flows as it passes the house and the state (not good) of a tree they must both have loved. Words of love and caring, times shared, but you can tell they are in the past. The writer is not giving her full feelings.
“I know this day marks the anniversary of your marriage. Even as you may experience joy, I feel restraint and I want courage to take the lead from sentiment and self-pity. Even so, the timing and manner of your leave-taking leaves an unbridgeable chasm in my heart. While sorry not to have enjoyed your company these last two years, I wish I thought we could be honest with each other. I question what we had. What I thought, who I thought I knew.”
There is a paragraph about how her choices have affected all family and friends, teachers and ministers and all those whose trust in themselves was shaken by her actions.
Letters are carriers of affect that those around the author do not guess. In a letter I found that my father wrote – and why it was on his desk I do not know, perhaps it was a draft or he never sent it, I will not know. He writes to a friend I never heard of how grateful he was for the presence of my mother. Something he never showed when I was around. He was very dependent on her in his blindness and not all that kind.
Funny what we put out. What we choose to say. What we choose to leave unsaid. What we choose to leave behind and the crap shoot of who will find it. It’s what I love about life – what do you love? What frustrates? What do you want? Do you ask for it? Did you? Did you?
I found a short poem by Raymond Carver who is always good to read if you’re feeling a little down and don’t mind staying that way. I love him and read most of what he wrote while he was alive – he died young in 1988 while I was trying to be a writer and looking for reasons to let it go.
I did let it go then, I just couldn’t be where he was, he was so there. When he died a note to himself was found in his shirt pocket – I paraphrase what it said, “just one more day, give me another poem to write.”
It may have been an old note, he may have written that poem, but I know he wanted more, nothing so simple as one more anything would have been enough.
Here’s the poem I found:
I find myself, at last, in perfect silence.
Knowing the little there is left.
Knowing I have to love it.
Wanting to love it. For both our sake.
I looked for something from Carver because I knew I would find a reflection to mirror the particular loss I feel at finding a note my daughter wrote to herself before she left. It expressed hope for love and success and happiness. It was totally the girl I knew. She happens to be the only person who’s loved listening to hits from the fifties with me. A dog or an occasional cat has – but no human in my midst. I say this because while we were listening to those songs, it was enough.
Not having her in my midst goes way beyond the songs, but it isn’t beyond Carver. Whether loss in love, death or trust, he has the phrases and stories that express even beyond my experience of grief. Writing can express a strength that’s there or inchoate, it can be a harbinger or a swamp. I practice writing a lot and I encourage my clients to do the same. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve written or said something out loud. Joan Didion was known to say she never understands how she feels about something until she’s written about it.
That is quite dramatic. Writers do that for us and to the extent that we feel moved, we can join in.
You can tell me that grieving takes its own sweet time. I’ll tell you its not necessarily sweet, although its not always sad and wrenching. And that it pulses. Sometimes I feel like my food processor – lots of stuff put in and I’m supposed to turn on and find what to do with it. Find the correct blade and carry on.
As I write this my dogs have set up a howl. And I have joined them. Writing can only get you so far. Howling will do the rest. The greyhounds have a keening sound, high and deep in the throat. They sound when I’m not joining up properly. Now, as I’m writing, and even though my door is open, they know my mind is elsewhere. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find their minds filled with Liam. Images of him are rampant. Not just because he was a favorite subject for me but he was in all our faces – literally. Jules could never even start to walk out the door without Liam attached to his face in some very noisy way. He is downstairs as I write moaning and whining. He will not come up the stairs. When I “bring” him up, he might stay a minute but, unless I close a door or gate, he runs down to his bed. He is a simple, complicated dog.
Liam was straightforward, upfront, in your face. He could be subtle, I loved his tame look when he was abashed and wanted to be with me but wasn’t sure he could go – mostly he could. And, unlike most JRTs he would do what I asked even if he didn’t want to. He had another look for that. In all he was a dog of many natures, many gifts. There wasn’t a person who didn’t want his/her hands on Liam. I have many photos like the one above with everyone reaching toward him as they interacted together. He was always within reach.
I wish he was still.
Jules just came in and lay down.