Mindful Mess

IMG_0022_3Last night I learned that all the people of the world were going to die soon. Shortly after, a small fluid-filled vesicle appeared on my knuckle, signifying my vulnerability. I knew, when I went to sleep that night, I would die. I told one person, and she frantically set about planning my escape from death in a subplot of my dream. So I did not tell anyone else–I lived a day with the secret of knowing it would be my last. I felt peaceful. Weird dream.

Last week we made our yearly trek with our three boys and grandma and grandpa to our favorite YMCA family camp. Year after year it’s worth every minute of backseat fighting, carseat wetting and marriage-questioning-packing-rage. The people, the wilderness, the sauna, the campfires, the togetherness; all quintessential “vacation.” I should mention they take the children off our hands for three hours a day and return them happy and instilled with self-confidence and values–how great is that?

IMG_5760We’ve never before gone this late in the summer, and the northwoods fauna was acting strangely. Twice, little red squirrels crossed my path closer than I have ever witnessed. A chipmunk squatted in a ring of children and stuffed his cheeks with seeds. Loons danced with each other in circles on the lake. Dragon flies sped into our faces like bugs to a windshield. Even the moss appeared psychedelically green. Like the subplot in my dream, all living things were frantically preparing their escapes from portending death. Before the doom of winter, they exhibited the fiery flush of survival. 

And one creature went first; a virile Maple sapling. Before the daytime temperatures dropped, the creek water dried, the Arctic winds blew, and the geese gathered in flocks, she turned red. I looked at her, alone in her Autumn, and wondered what made her different than the other trees. Was it bravery? Enthusiasm? Was she anxious, like the crazed animals, to prepare for months of dormancy? The only thing distinguishing her from the other trees was her particular microclimate; the angle of the sun, the exposure to air and her particular access to groundwater. IMG_0027_5

Sometimes we act on our own lives; enter, rodent swiftly gathering nuts. And sometimes, the forces acting on us demand adaptation. Red, rising in our veins. And fluid, shunting to our core. In my dream, I was not going to survive. No one was going to survive. But I didn’t wake up with my heart racing; I felt relief.

Because I cannot survive another season of gathering nuts. I have become squirrel-in-Autumn; rushing important perilous crossroads, ignoring children gathering curiously about me, biting blindly at threats to my existence, heart racing. Its time to let that life die and be the little red tree, whose supportive microclimate helps her survive the changing of seasons.

Blahdy blah blah blah. I love this idea. I also love the idea of my house being clean, my children being polite and my career path being linear. We are so often bombarded with beautiful, lofty ideals we fall short of achieving.

IMG_0008_6After vacation, we visited with the therapist who is helping us cope with my dad’s Alzheimer’s. He recommended that my mom take a “Mindfulness” class. She wrote in her planner; “Mindful Mess.” She told me her local library had a class on “Mindful Mess.” She suggested I also consider a “Mindful Mess” class. I corrected, and corrected, and corrected her, until we giggled. And only then did I understand her genius. Somewhere in her subconscious, my mom invented something we all can achieve: “Mindful Mess.”

Ice Cream 0006_9This I can do!! Doesn’t it just give you HOPE? Its all the mindfulness you can muster, with a hint of reality and a dash of forgiveness. Its understanding that I can’t always change my messy microclimate, but I can adapt to it. Its acknowledging that seasons affect us and consistency will be rare. “Mindful mess” is the sweet spot between frantic red squirrel and glorious red tree. We know this place deep in our roots; its all the fun of finger painting and none of the restraint of the canvas. Survival, after all, is a messy and artful thing.

A Poem for Gwen on Mother’s Day – 1981, by Doug Hedlund

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I.

“Next year will be better,” –it was that kind of year.

You took what we offered, and made do.

Not always with cheer–not that kind of year.

II.

You still look tallish, fresh and pretty

Not many women look good in “pretty” anymore–

but you do.

Like a blue and yellow flower. We need flowers this kind of year.

III.

You still sound good in the morning, telling me

not to be discouraged

(But that’s what mothers do for children!)

Oh well, it was that kind of year–mornings;

even evenings.

IV.

Next year will–is already–better.

Because we found out who we needed and

who disappoints us the most and that

they are the same person.

And that’s why now is better–we

are still here together, knowing things

like that.

V.

Mother’s Day always confused me

(even more than Father’s Day

embarrassed me)

But now I think I understand it better.

You’re my wife showing me how to

be strong, and caring for our children

No matter what kind of morning

evening

or

year.

best ma pa

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My friends call me Ellen…

maryshadowI cried off and on for 24 hours after I saw Saving Mr. Banks; a mix of happy and sad tears.  From the movie, Pamela Lyndon Travers appeared to rectify the ugliest parts of her childhood by crafting Mary Poppins and releasing her to Walt Disney. We saw her catharsis at the premiere. She wept. She smiled. She changed.

Its not a true story. She loathed the film; that’s why she cried. In 1995 she released the rights to Broadway only after they conceded to portray the darker stories written in her books. The darker stories were about her former self, Helen Lyndon Goff, who she left behind in Australia when she became an author and actress named P.L. Travers in her 20’s. In her books, a magical governess saves Mr. and Mrs. Banks  from their misery. Though you won’t find this in the film nor book, the truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Travers Goff (Pamela’s parents) needed saving from stress, addiction, suicide, and influenza.

In her story the children did not need to be saved. They were fine. Always fine. Tough. Impermeable. The children did not start out that way. They were fun-loving and enjoyed the story-telling and indulgent illusions of their father. But after his tragic death by alcoholism and influenza and their humiliated mother’s suicide attempt, they no longer relaxed into fantasies like frivolous love, dancing penguins or spun stories. Mary Poppin’s role was to prepare them for a harsh world where they would always be safe, sober and under control.

Ellen is my very own Pamela Travers; as tightly wound as Pam’s pin curls. Ellen has her other defenses too; self-deprication, perfectionism, fear, care-taking–all drives to distract from the toughest parts of my childhood. Ellen is a joke among my friends, as she should be. Our defenses aren’t who we are and I am all for poking fun at them, needling them, forcing them to dance with animated penguins. When my friends call me “Ellen,” its a reminder that the better parts of me deserve their fair shine. It doesn’t really matter they don’t know where Ellen came from; they know the real me. Ellen is at war with humor, softness, emotionality, spontaneity and lightness. Like Pamela, she wants to go to the bar and have friends. But if her guard goes down, the pain surfaces, and Pamela mustn’t allow that. I wish not to become Ellen the way Helen Lyndon transformed herself into Pamela. She left behind the little girl behind who laid eggs on the steps and road horses like the wind.

But that also successfully stamped out Mr. Banks, the alcoholic, and Mrs. Banks, his distraught wife. After the movie, I  thought perhaps crafting an adorable children’s story to repaint the harder years of my childhood would be therapeutic for me too. But here, again, is the truth of her story; Pamela was never super happy. Helen Lyndon surfaced enough for her to author whimsical children’s stories, study Zen Buddhism, fall in love with her flatmate, and live for a year with a Hopi tribe. But sadly, Pamela won. According to Emma Thompson and the New York Times, her grandchildren claim she died “loving no one and with no one loving her.”

And here is my truth: I value love and happiness.  My dad, who fought depression for decades of my life, is absolutely heroic for surviving and for helping others who hurt like him. My mother, who remains at his side, is absolutely My Hero.  Fiction couldn’t paint a better story. Given the tools they had, their dedication to parenting, their commitment to joy, and the effort it takes to parent at all, I am blown away by their ability to raise two happy, stable, thriving teenagers who felt loved and supported by their parents. My dad carried that burden, and as a psychiatrist he fervently and brilliantly served the needs of thousands of depressed and anxious people, and still managed to love his wife and his kids to pieces.

I am happy to say that Ellen is not always present in my life, especially when things are smooth, and definitely when things get busy. I love busy. I love exciting. I love stress. We all do, us adult-children-of-parents-with-miscellaneous-battles. When my guard falters; when I have pain, grief, disappointment or limbo, I am surprised by my resilience, but I am also surprised by my anxiety. I am surprised by Ellen’s attempts at toughness, control and safety. She fears friends knowing she has weaknesses. She’d rather appear angry than sad. She craves stability. She wants to throw a pillow over her head and unhear the arguments at night that plagued some yucky years of her life. She wants to run away. Ellen actually believes people are angry with her when she feels down and exposes wounds. Some of them might be, especially the ones with a little inner Pamela, but we all have our better sides.

So please, call me Ellen. I want to remember she is there. I want to remember to subdue her; to remind her that I am fine. I don’t need her help anymore. I want her to hear my friends laugh at her; the ones that call her out, and love the real me.

I am amazed by my mother’s levity during the hard times. Her sense of humor, overarching love, and willingness to talk made everything ok. I see everything that is wonderful in my dad, without hesitation, and find inspiration in his tenacity.  I hope they feel incredibly proud of the adversity they overcame and the life and love they gave me. I am delighted to say that I am not really Ellen or Pamela, though I cried buckets for them both. In the end of my story, I choose happiness and love. And on the very hardest of days, I sneak a spoonful of sugar or two. See my list.

Spoonfuls of Sugar:wtie
1) Hugs
2) Sunsets/sunrises/sun on snow/warm sun/all things sunshine
3) Snowfall in trees
4) Kids in ties at inappropriate times
5) Handfuls of 
chocolate chips
6) Kids outside with rosy cheekssunsetmpls
7) All songs, Paul Simon
8) Inexplicable things in nature
9) Poems by Mary Oliver
10) Puppies and babies
11) Brightly colored fabric
IMG_0001_312) Hats, all types
13) Singing
14) Swimming in lakes
15) Snow days that force people to help each other
16) YMCA camps
17) Young people listening to old people
18) The things kids say, e.g., “do you think I could be the next Michael Jackson?”
19) The OlympicsKidsbooks
20) Tea
21) NeighborlinessIMG_4126
22) Falling into deep snow
23) Whiskey with honey
24) Down comforters
25) Friends
26) Family
27) Reading 
28) Theater
29) Evergreens
30) Mary Poppins

What are your spoonfuls of sugar?  Please comment.

Does God Send Buffalo?

Week 2 & 3: Sit Spot Report

20131114-161354.jpgDay 8-9: I forgot the whole point is to listen for nothing. Autumn sun, beautiful, wagging dog friend here with me. Mutual grins. Hum when my mind gets going. Old trauma’s voices are the only ones that break through.

Day 10: Check in with the 5 senses, as per usual. Last night’s campfires, yellow leaves, cold air, woodpecker, armor. I actually say “armor” out loud. I have been identifying things like “chilly nose” for the sense feel, not “armor.” But today I went deep inside, inspired by my husband who is a little more “woo woo” than I. He did the Sit Spot and came back with reports on his Chakras, and I realized I had been glossing over this sense, with intention.

Day 11: I go back to last week’s coyote lesson and picture taking off my fear and my urgent unders. I attempt to lift the armor. Its heavy.

Day 12: I cuddle Gebo in the sun. Death is coming; the vet has confirmed it. It looks like a warm yellow light. I remove armor; put it on a dressing form nearby in case I need it.

Day 13-16: Its quiet. Armor is back on. Mind is busy. I feel like giving up. Gebo seems happy in the sun.

Day 17: I feel like prey.

Day 18: Gebo limps to our spot. Its easier to stop thinking with the sun glowing on my closed eyes.

Day 19: I carry all 55 pounds to the sun. Gratitude for Gebo overwhelms me. God gave me one of the great ones. Armor is off.

Day 20: The crying starts. We share some goodbyes and knowing looks. He wags for me.

Day 21: We spoon in a sleeping bag in the grass, shivering together. Head is a traffic jam of thoughts. I take a deep breath and try pouring love into Gebo.

Day 22: I am frustrated and doubtful and busy. I practically shout at God that I’m done figuring out a purpose in life, a career, that makes me feel fulfilled. I’m sick of myself. I find a plastic buffalo in the same spot where I saw the coyote. Weird.

Day 23: Just us. He wags every time a child walks by. He wags at the geese flying south.

After 23 days, I write a letter of gratitude to Michael Trotta, the Nature Coach at Sagefire Institute who suggested the Sit Spot to help me on my urgent quest to “find my purpose;”

20131114-161124.jpgDear Michael,

Thirty days now feels short to me too and as you said, hardly enough. Its day 23 and I can’t imagine living without this practice. It has already been so grounding just to remind myself, “did you sit in nature today?” With that said, I haven’t been sitting in nature everyday. My heroic dog that has joined me throughout this is dying. I have followed him out into the leaves and sun to our Sit Spot over the last few weeks and watched him like a mentor, absorbed in nature. Eventually I started carrying him. This week I started criticizing myself for skipping days. Today, with death more palpable, I reversed that self-criticism. What could be more natural than sitting with the dying? The days I haven’t been out there I have been on vigil, riding the ups and downs of the end with him since about Saturday. Sometimes it feels silly to put my life on hold for a pet. Most often I thank Gebo for putting my life on hold for me. My guard is down; everyone including my mailman has seen me crying. And I feel like I must be the most special person in the world right now to have been given the world’s best dog. I feel like Pete saying goodbye to his dragon.

If I hadn’t started sitting in the woods with him, I would have no idea how to process his exit. With this gift of 15 minutes of quiet in nature everyday, his passing has become a gift as well. I am grieving the young me that raised him, the stay-at-home-mom years we were together most everyday, the tiny boys that love him so growing up too fast, and the deaths that are to come among our eldest family members. You’ve given me a trail for this journey, and I am so grateful.

You are so right; it doesn’t always work to quiet my mind. I have not yet felt free of thoughts. But I can see the value in the attempt. “Its about dropping the stuff (armor) that stops you from being awesome and as deeply connected with your intuition for yourself (as you are for others).” Thanks for this. I can hardly lift the armor to put it on now. I even called my mom the other day just to tell her I hurt; she is one tough cookie. My weapy call absolutely brought out the best in her, and let me be ME instead of what I have always been to my family; the tough one, funny one, light one, the easy one…in the armor.

“…Its in our vulnerability that we find what we are seeking…the tension and emotions you are experiencing…I see you embracing them or at least, acknowledging them. Perhaps, this is your job right now? Perhaps your exploration of stillness is your job.” This has allowed me to wait for the next track to appear, and trust that it will, without so much demoralizing effort. It also made me realize my question isn’t so much “what is my purpose” as it is “who am I now?”

I don’t know if you can relate to how my dog’s death has been such a poignant part of my experience. But remember what I explained after my first week? The first week the universe sent a loud truck, then a bulldozer, a coyote, an empty gas tank, a fierce wind, and that was easy. Then it sent some terrifying quiet and stillness. That was hard. When I was about to give up, the universe sent death. As you suggested, Michael, I could no longer see past “what’s real, right here, right now,” as Gebo began to die. Gebo translates, “a gift from the universe; partnership, forgiveness.” Gift, I acknowledge. Partnership, we’ve done. Forgiveness feels like the last step. I don’t feel like I have to go searching for what or whom to forgive; I just finally feel done with my armor. After he’s gone, which I believe will be eerily close to day 30, I have a feeling the quiet and stillness will be a whole lot less terrifying.

As I was leaving the place where I saw the coyote, I found a tiny toy buffalo on the ground. According to Lakota Shamanic Tradition, the bison symbolizes manifestation, courage, formulating beneficial plans and abundance.

In gratitude,

Shawna

My Morning Tea

IMG_0468This morning I woke up attempting a very specific and arduous articulation of gratitude for my parents and whatever grace of fortune has brought wonderful people to my life.  I feel grateful that my parents taught me empathy, communication, forgiveness and persistence.  They taught me to give hugs, stand by, remain whole, and wait for the opportunity to be wronged and righted.  They taught me the strength to be vulnerable, the compassion to forgive and the ability to suspend judgment.  And for these reasons, I trust people.  I do not trust them because they will never be unkind or insensitive or angry or wrong; they will be.  I don’t ask them to trust me because I’m perfect; I’m not.  We are floundering through life together and it can get ugly.  I sometimes picture my life on an aerial speedcam and I laugh out loud as I watch the errors of my days as a voyeur;  Three kids, 8 mittens, 4 hats, 4 zippers to the car, forgot tea cup, got tea cup, forgot keys on counter, returned to counter, back to car, 3 car seats adjusted, car won’t start, mouthed the word “SHIT,” woops, thought she mouthed it but the oldest is now mouthing “SHIT what, mom?”

We get some things right with practice, but life is often a series of teachable, highly human moments and fledgling mistakes.  But yet, I have faith in the people that I have drawn to me, or the people to whom I have been drawn; be it through family, summer camp, proximity, books, or a first conversation when something clicked.  I have this faith because my parents told me I would be ok.  I have this faith because they taught me I didn’t have to be perfect to be loved by them or anyone else.  They taught me not to trust people based upon how often they are getting things right, but how hard they are trying to live right.  They taught me to love myself and respect myself and to have high expectations for how I am treated and in so doing, they taught me how to draw goodness to me.  They implanted in me at a very young age a clickometer that detects potential friendship and so far, it has been both open minded and accurate.  In fact, I have drawn love and goodness to my life like wake beckons dolphins.  Thank you Providence, or God, or Almighty Boat Wake, for drawing so many wonderful, loving, and fallible people to my life.  Thank you, mom and dad, for teaching me to trust and enjoy them.  After getting out of bed with these deep thoughts, the aerial speedcam caught me brushing teeth, making tea, sipping tea, reading my teabag and sitting down abruptly with my hand clasped over my mouth in awe.  It read, “be kind and compassionate and the whole world will be your friend.”  That sums it up nicely.