Friday, December 4, 2015

replenishing reflections

Today’s prompt comes from the writer Kathleen Jowitt, author of the forthcoming book, Speak its Name:

As the year ends, and we look back at the joys, achievements and disappointments of the past twelve months, it's worth taking some time to recognise what our efforts have demanded of us and where our resources have been depleted.

Whether you have spent 2015 bringing some long-cherished project to fruition or simply trying to keep your head above water, it's likely that this has come at some cost to you.

How can you replenish your (physical, mental, spiritual and/or emotional) resources? What do you need most of all at this moment?

“Replenishment” is a very timely topic for me, as it comes on the heels of a stomach bug that kept me in bed all of yesterday. Today I am parched and depleted.

Parched and depleted also seems like an apt description for how I have been feeling this fall, not only physically, but emotionally, intellectually, and creatively.

The last time I wrote, it was in response to the question, “What surprised you this year?” Before getting sidetracked by the latest mass shooting and the Trump campaign, I had intended to write about something more personal: being surprised by my own limitations. I have often felt, somewhat naively, I’m sure, that I have a good deal of control over how my body, soul, and psyche are functioning. If I start to feel depleted physically, I change my diet, or focus on sleep, or take some rest. If my emotions are aflutter, I decrease my caffeine (and/or alcohol) consumption, or take a yoga class, or write in my journal. In other words, when I feel depleted, my tendency is to respond with action rather than reflection. This type of response has both benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, it’s very empowering to feel as if we have this much agency over how we function in the world. On the other, this approach can lead us to have too much faith in our own abilities; consequently, we don’t allow ourselves to suffer without feeling as if it’s a sort of failure.

Last year, my good friend went through a difficult break-up with his girlfriend. Afterward, he wrote that he was taking some time to “honor” the difficult emotions this break-up had brought about. By doing this, he was able to validate these feelings and confront his suffering, which is another form of action. His email was a revelation. Honor was such an eloquent—and apt—term for what he was doing, what we need to do when we are hurting, even in small ways.

This past summer, I contracted Lyme disease. I was in the midst of a challenging mountain bike race when I sensed that something was amiss. Normally, in this type of race, I relish the hill climbs, and let them compensate for my lack of technical skill on the rocky terrain. But during this particular race, I found myself breathing heavily on the very first hill, and my legs ached from the first pedal stroke.

A week later, I received the Lyme diagnosis. My immediate reaction was, “How can I get through this quickly and without losing any of my fitness?” There had to be a natural remedy, a miracle diet, in addition to the antibiotics. Don’t get me wrong; I live in Connecticut, so I know all about the terrifying unknowns that are associated with this all-too-common disease. But still, I figured that the right course of action would combat the sometimes debilitating symptoms: achy joints, overwhelming fatigue, brain fog. I read about something called the “Buhner Protocol,” a naturopathic approach to healing Lyme, and bought all of the supplements.

But the symptoms persisted. In September, I went to see a naturopath. I was feeling increasingly anxious, mostly because the Vermont 50, my biggest race of the year, was approaching. The naturopath suggested that I direct my focus toward healing, rather than maintaining a fitness level that was clearly out of my reach at the moment. “Is it possible for you to lower your expectations for now?” she asked. I didn’t know. I followed her regimen of supplements and home remedies, but neglected to take her advice about slowing down. I completed the race, a gorgeous but grueling 50-mile mountain bike ride on dirt roads and singletrack trails, with almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain. But I did not enjoy it as I usually do. It felt, as everything else did, like a task.

Two and a half months later, as I sit reflecting on this autumn—on my teaching, my physical activity, my emotional state—I come back to the terms parched and depleted. Physically, I haven’t felt like myself since July. I continue to run and bike, but sometimes I find myself close to tears, frustrated because I can’t get back to that place of optimism and vigor and clarity. And this frustration has plagued me in my teaching this semester as well. Normally, at this point, I am thinking, “It’s the end of the semester already, and I still have so much to teach my students!” Now, I find myself wondering what I will do with them for the next week, until classes end. As if I needed further proof of my lack of energy and enthusiasm in my teaching this semester, I received my first-ever negative review on “Rate my Professor.” Maybe it’s time for a new career, I thought, ignoring all of the other positive reviews on the site. Clearly, I’ve lost my mojo.

So, how to replenish? I think back to my friend’s email, about “honoring” his emotions. This is what my naturopath was trying to tell me, too: you have to acknowledge your limitations, allow your body and brain and soul the rest and attention for which they are crying out.

Once upon a time, I wrote in a journal almost daily. I would come home from work, make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and spend a few minutes, or a couple of hours, writing. I needed this time and this space to process the day. At some point, without really thinking about it, I began to see this habit as juvenile and stopped doing it. But the journals were my way of doing exactly what my friend was doing—honoring, and thereby validating, his emotions. It’s what I try to teach my students: you need to confront difficulty, to understand why something is difficult, in order to move past it. This involves reflection (or what we call “metacognition” in the classroom).

Reverb allows me this reflection, to a certain extent. It’s why I look forward to this project every year. But as yet, I haven’t been able to carry this reflection through the other eleven months of the year (in fact, I remember writing one blog post a few years ago on how I planned to do more of “nothing” in the coming year. Did I? Don’t think so). So, in response to the question about what I need to do to replenish, I’m not really sure, but I’m guessing the answer will come only after I have taken the time to reflect on why I’m so parched and depleted. When I’m tired, I tend to make a pot of coffee rather than taking a nap. Keep the engine chugging. It’s a habit I hope to break this year, because it’s a caffeine-powered cycle that only leads to further depletion and parched-ness.

And I won’t be looking for a new job, or not just yet. This morning, I received an email inviting me to a workshop on “Reflecting on Your Teaching Practices,” which seems like a sign. As Mother Teresa said, “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Writing prompt, day 2: What surprised you this year?

This question comes up as a Reverb writing prompt every now and then, and usually I respond by writing about happy surprises, unexpected little bursts of joy or even contentment, such as when my normally couch potato-ish dog hiked to the top of Jay Peak, or when I finished my annual mountain bike race with my cleats clipped into my pedals, instead of with my foot hanging off the side. Small blessings.

But I’m writing from a different place today. Earlier, at the gym, as I was thinking about what to write in this post, I noticed that the Y employees had gathered in front of the TV. The sound was off, but I could read the ticker: another mass shooting. At first, I thought the headline was a reference to the Planned Parenthood shooting from a few days ago; maybe new information had been discovered. But, no. This one was in California, in a social services building. And instead of the gut-reaction sadness I usually experience upon seeing such reports, my first thought was, Are you fucking kidding me?

You’re probably thinking, this is what surprised you? How could you possibly be surprised by a mass shooting at this point? Don’t you pay attention to the news?

Or maybe you’re thinking this: Are you really surprised that there hasn’t been stronger gun control legislation? Don’t you know who runs this country? The president? I don’t think so, chica. It’s the NRA.

These events, while distressing, are, sadly, not surprising. In 2012, after the Sandy Hook shooting, I remember thinking that if nothing else, this horrific massacre had to bring about big changes in gun legislation. That seemed obvious. And there were some changes, even here in my own little state. But there was also stockpiling of guns, a knee-jerk response to the fear that the government would “get all Australia” on its citizens and impose limitations, or—gasp—background checks. And Wayne Lapierre, the executive VP of the NRA, labelled the “emotional” response by those who wanted to see tighter gun control laws enacted “the Connecticut effect.”

Okay, but what’s the surprise? This year, what has surprised me most has been Trump-mania. I’m surprised and disheartened and disappointed, and maybe even disgusted, too. Up until a few months ago, the whole Trump campaign (I almost put the word campaign in quotation marks, as I’m still in denial about this presidential bid) was, for me, like a pesky no-see-um, one of those tiny little flies that comes out in early summer. It gets right in front of your face, and you swat it, flick it, blow at it, but it’s still there, until finally you can’t ignore it. And then you start swearing at it.

Biking home from work in September, I saw a Trump sign on a neighbor’s lawn. That surprised me. It was the first time I realized, or acknowledged, that there are people—a lot of them, in fact—who are willing to put their faith in this vitriolic, divisive, racist, unqualified spotlight-lover whose slogan proclaims he will “make America great again.” When asked “why Trump?” the typical Trump supporter will respond, “Because he talks straight.” I know what they mean: we as Americans are all weary of the rhetorical BS that pervades the campaign trail. But I know, too, that some of these folks also mean that Trump is just the kind of “tough leader” who will make America “safe” by “bombing the hell out of Syria” and closing the borders.

I’m surprised that this show—the Trump Show—hasn’t been cancelled. It was mildly entertaining for a while, but it’s become offensive and perhaps even a little dangerous. Although my politics tend to lean toward the left, I’m generally open-minded and tolerant of other views, because at heart, I’m an optimist: I believe that most of us are motivated by love for the U.S., not hatred of other political persuasions. But I’m finding that to be less true these days.

My friend Chris Dawson, who also blogs, posted an essay the other day on this same topic (Trump). Truth be told, when it comes to politics, he’s much more informed and articulate than I am, which is probably why my blog posts usually (though not always) tend toward the personal rather than the political. So, I hope he will forgive me if I borrow a passage from the end of his post:

We need to keep the words of Molly Ivins in mind: "When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as 'enemies,' it's time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and it is also a good way to wreck a country." We will not let anyone like Donald Trump wreck this country. And to prove it, I hope he wins the Republican nomination so we can once and for all reject what he and his supporters stand for.

I agree with Chris (and Ivins) here. We have only to look at the polarized countries in the Middle East, and Africa, for examples of “wrecked” nations. This way lies greatness?

“Peace,” wrote Albert Camus, “is the only battle worth waging.” Naive and overly simplistic? Maybe. But is aligning yourself with a rhetoric of hate voiced by an unqualified (and unenlightened) narcissist any less na├»ve?

I do hope that the presidential path brings fewer such surprises. Onward.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

deliver me from distraction

It’s that time of year again: Reverb time. Every December for the past several years, I have participated in a blog project in which writers reflect on the past year, and “manifest our dreams for the new one about to begin.” The project was started in 2009 and is currently managed by blogger Kat McNally, who sends a writing prompt, via email, each day.

Today’s prompt:
In her seventh ever blog post, all the way back in March 2003, the inimitable Andrea Scher wrote: “Maybe lists are like prayers.”
What sorts of lists do you have on the go at the moment?
What do they suggest you are praying for?

When I opened my laptop and found this prompt, there was a list to my right, scribbled in pencil, in a sloppy shorthand no one but me could decode: Eye doc. Partyka. Lexi’s room.

This list is typical: a brief reminder of things I was supposed to have already done, scrawled at 11pm, when I remembered, once again, that I’d forgotten to do them. I was already in bed when I remembered. If I write them down now, I’d thought, reluctantly pushing off the bedcovers, I’ll remember to do them tomorrow. Call the eye doctor. Call the car dealership about that dull roar the car makes at high speeds. Clean out the dresser in Lexi’s room.

Next to my own dresser, in my bedroom, is a small meditation table. I like to spend a few minutes there at the end of the evening, giving thanks for the day, asking for guidance or peace for someone who needs it, and thinking about what I might do better tomorrow. Sometimes I need to put “meditate” on my to-do list, just to remind myself to pause.

And sometimes there’s a list on the table itself, or a slip of paper reminding me to keep a particular person in my thoughts. Last week, I hastily wrote this note during a “free-write” in the composition class I teach: “One word meditation. Focus.” I put that note in my pocket, and then, when I got home, I placed it on the meditation table so I wouldn’t forget. When I knelt down in my little breathing space later that night, I looked at the note and wondered what the hell it meant. The last word seemed like a sign. Focus. But it also baffled me: did it mean that “focus” should be my “one-word mediation?” Or that a “one-word meditation,” whatever that was, would help me focus?

Ah, yes, that last one. Keep the meditation simple. When I was a kid, I was a somewhat devout Catholic, and every night before I went to sleep I would say my prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, The Act of Contrition, The Apostle’s Creed, whatever other prayer I could think of. Then I would ask God to bless everyone I knew. The older I got, the longer the list went on. Instead of bringing peace, praying before bed was beginning to create anxiety. What if I left someone out? What if I forgot to pray? If I neglected to send prayers out to Aunt Sally, would she be struck with some ungodly disease? It was a lot of pressure.

Sometimes, a similar sense of anxiety plagues me when I come to the meditation space. So many folks needing peace and blessings: mass shooting victims (too many to count); the woman whose manuscript I’m editing who just lost her three-year old daughter to brain cancer; my mother, whose best friend is dying. What if I left someone out? And what if I neglected to be thankful for the many gifts the day had brought: a pink sunset at 4:00; a hug from one (or both) of my kids; health and warmth and food. So many things.

So, the note I had written to myself in composition class was a sort of revelation, or a reminder that a word—one word, as opposed to one hundred--can encompass a world of ideas, emotions, and even actions. And breathing one word, instead of uttering thirty seven scattered thoughts, might help me to truly embrace the task of meditation. Just saying the word "focus," for example, allows me to meditate on where I should direct that focus (parenting, friendships, civic duty, etc.).

This brings me back to my list. Or, to be more precise, my lists. They are on the fridge, in my email, on the calendar. All of these lists, with their reappearing items and reminders, seem to be a prayer for a virtue I have always struggled to attain: attentiveness. I have often (half) joked that I suffer from adult ADHD; if I’m going from the living room into the kitchen, two rooms away, to get a pair of scissors, I will get distracted by something else along the way, and forget about whatever it was I was planning to cut out--that is, until 11:00 that night, when I will add “cut out magazine article” to my list of things to do tomorrow.

Attentiveness. My list seems to be pleading for it:

Eye doc. Last Wednesday, I went to urgent care because my eye was swollen shut, and my eye doctor was off that day. The doctor who saw me prescribed antibiotic drops and told me to see my eye doctor ASAP for a follow-up visit. It’s almost a week later. I haven’t seen my eye doctor. But it’s been on my list every day.

Partyka. The Mazda dealership in Hamden. For over a month now, my car has been saying, “Hey, you, pay some attention to me.” This voice has been getting progressively louder.

Lexi’s room. Her drawers are overflowing with outgrown clothes and summer outfits. Clean clothes sit folded in a laundry basket, waiting for a home. Take us, the too-small sweatshirts plead, their limp arms draped over the sides of drawers that won’t close.

Attentiveness. When I sit at my meditation table now, I utter only one word each night, and reflect on its many possibilities, not only for myself but for my family, for people I know and for strangers in war-torn countries, for folks fighting less public but equally intense internal and external battles. Balance. Love. Awareness. Focus. Nurture.

Whether I’m able to apply this “focused simplicity” to all of my tasks remains to be seen, and if history is an indicator, it’s going to be a struggle. But hey, at least I’m aware. Or I'm reminding myself to be aware.