What do we do with our pain?

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When my grandmother was 74 years old, her leg was crushed under a golf cart, when the bridge she was passing over collapsed, launching her and her golf cart down into a small creek. Her friend, who she was out golfing with, escaped the fall with a few scrapes and bruises, but Maw-Maw, as I grew up calling her, had to have skin grafts and months of dressing changes following the incident, and her left calf was permanently scarred and dented.

In the days that followed the accident, personal injury lawyers kept calling her up and sending her gift baskets, trying to woo her. It would have been an easy case. Grandma falls when bridge collapses; a negligent golf course is to blame. Only, Maw-Maw wasn’t interested in a law suit.

In a society where you can sue for coffee being too hot, making the threat, empty or real of “I’m calling my lawyer,” is ubiquitous. Laws and courts exist for a good reason, but all good systems can be abused, and there is perhaps nothing we as a country have abused more than our legal system.

It is the place where we can turn with blame, rage, and anger that has no home—a place where we can demand that someone take responsibility for something senseless that has occurred. Only sometimes something is truly, totally senseless. Something bad happened, and there is genuinely nobody to specific to blame.

Most of us (myself included) are not very skillful at just sitting with the pain. It’s so uncomfortable we want to lash out at anyone or anything to try to escape, even just a little bit, from our discomfort. And we want to pin it on someone or something—as if finding the right target to blame will solve the actual problem.

If my family had a patron saint, Maw-Maw would certainly be ours. Several years after the golf cart incident, when she learned that she had an aggressive brain tumor, she turned to the assembled family members who’d accompanied her to the appointment, and said, “Let’s go get ice cream.” As a doctor, she had perhaps a better sense of the futility of treatment given her circumstance, and she chose, on the spot, the relish the time she had left—doing things she loved with the people she loved.

Maw-Maw’s internal compass was always oriented towards love. Even when she was in pain. Even when she was dying. And this doesn’t mean she was a doormat, letting people take advantage of her. Rather it means that she was ruled by her internal court instead of giving all her agency to wild furies that flew around her.

My grandmother has been gone for fifteen years now…a statistic that seems truly unfathomable. I didn’t know when I was sixteen, and she was dying, that I should ask her how she learned to sit with her pain. Perhaps it was such an innate quality in her that she couldn’t have explained how anyways.

It’s hard to know what is teachable and learnable in the span of a human lifetime. I could spend my next forty years trying to inch closer to Maw-Maw’s equanimity, and not budge from my starting block. But I do know, that her way of being in the world, was the best way I’ve ever seen.

There are times when people wrong us, and we have to stand up for ourselves—but there are other times when we'd do well to remember that some pain is just part of the human experience, and it’s blameless—and it belongs to everyone. This kind of pain does not require action. It requires stillness, and breathing into the moment, no matter how hard it might be.

Striving

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A friend recently sent me the link to the New Yorker article: “Improving Ourselves to Death.” It’s a witty critique of the onslaught of self-improvement regimens that is part of the air we breathe in today’s world. The author of the article writes:

In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. What they’re selling is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.

 

You have only to make a few clicks around my website to see that I have bought into this idea of self-improvement hook, line, and sinker. I’m more on the snake oil than the impressive academic pedigree’s side of the continuum, but regardless, I drank the Kool-aid of self-improvement years ago. When my life as I knew it started to unravel, and then fully spiraled into despair, there was nowhere to go but up. Self-help (and help from many others) was a survival necessity. But somewhere along the way, I regained my footing. I stopped spending days crying in bed, and rejoined the land of the living, and my life returned to some semblance of normalcy with life’s regular highs and lows.

But the self-improvement regimen did not abate with this return to normalcy. It’s such a part of my internal philosophy now that I no longer even think about it. Much of my personal quest has been about living an examined life...about truly understanding what Thoreau meant when he talked about “sucking the marrow out of life.”

Of course, I know Thoreau didn’t have a shelf of self-help books in mind when he talked about “living deep,” and he certainly would have abhorred the idea of a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, charting your every step…your every heartbeat. But the gadgets and promising titles gleaming on the bookshelf are tempting, and compelling, and sometimes, maybe, even helpful.

Only perhaps I’ve gone overboard on it. I was looking at my kindle library and saw that self-help books outnumber novels four to one. And this afternoon I quite literally dusted off my guitar to play a song. It’s been languishing in the corner of my living room for months. Meanwhile the keys of my computer are greasy with food residue, because I’m so busy getting things done that I rarely pause to eat a meal without my computer as a companion.

So, maybe it’s time to really practice the wisdom I’ve read time and time again in my many Buddhist based self-help books: to take the middle path. To find balance between the extremes. Perhaps it is time to take a break from my Fitbit and go back to my analog watch—to remember that my steps still count even if nobody’s watching, and to put down the self-help books and just read a novel.

The fear that lives behind these humble aspirations is this: If I stop striving, will I just let myself go? Is chucking the Fitbit a slippery slope to laziness? Will I get a taste of pleasure and then just wallow in it, letting all of my ambitions float away on the wind? And the answer, is no. I’m not going to do that. It’s not in my nature to do that. It’s in my nature to have a kind of puritanical drive to do more and be more. Softening that edge won’t make me soft; perhaps it will just make me more pleasant.

Normally when I dive into experiments I go all in. Why be a vegetarian when you could be a vegan? Why run a 5k, when you could run an ultra-marathon? Why go for a day hike, when you could spend a month living out in the mountains? So, in order to not feed this particular personal tendency, I’m not making any grand plans for how things are going to go tomorrow. But for today...for right now...I’m taking off my Fitbit, and I'm putting a novel on my nightstand.

Black Ice

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I can count on my fingers the number of times I have driven a car in the calendar year of 2017. This is not a remarkable statistic for me; I’ve always been a reluctant driver, looking for ways to avoid being behind the wheel. As a 16 year old, my parents had to demand I pursue a license—I had zero intrinsic motivation to avail myself of the responsibility of maneuvering a giant hunk of metal at high speeds. And those feelings haven’t dissipated in the last 16 years. I am not on the whole a fearful person. I will happily spend a month out in the wilderness or travel to rustic places solo. Scary neighborhoods don’t generally scare me. Nor does public speaking. Or being emotionally vulnerable. But if you ask me to merge or make a left turn, I start to sweat.

I’ve never been in a wreck. I’ve never even had a fender bender or a speeding ticket (if I ever get it a ticket it will be from going too slow). I’ve just lived a life primarily in residential schools where daily driving was never a necessity, and now I live in a city where a car would be a liability, and so I’ve never become immune to reality that driving is fundamentally dangerous. Far more so than climbing a mountain or being lonely in a new country. 

There are however occasions, when it is worth it to me to get behind the wheel. The pursuit of quality time with friends in hard to reach places is generally the only thing that compels me in this direction. So this New Year’s Eve, in my compact rental car, I set off to Asheville, NC to ring in the New Year with some of the people I love best. The weather was slated to be clear and cold, but when I was about twenty miles from my destination a light mist started to freeze on the windshield, and within minutes cars were sliding down the interstate on a sheet of black ice. Everything slowed to a crawl. My car started to slide at one point, and my normal driving sweat reached unprecedented levels. As I crept into town, I passed by dozens of wrecks, each involving multiple cars, trucks, and even semis. I did what many, self-purported agnostics do, when death feels imminent—I started to pray.

When I made it to my friend’s house. I turned off the car, and sat in the driver’s seat shaking. I was lucky. It was clearly not my driving prowess that saved the day—I so easily could have been among those cars scattered like spilled marbles across the interstate. Before the black ice, my thoughts during the drive were focused on my plans—the friends I would see, the events we would attend. During the black ice, my thoughts were focused on all I have that I could so easily lose. I was flooded with gratitude, sitting there in my friend’s driveway, that I was one of the lucky ones.

To my chagrin, just a few hours later when the event we were supposed to attend was canceled due to weather, I found annoyance creeping up. My very important plans were being thwarted. The irony wasn’t lost on me; the reality that my flood of gratitude dwindled so quickly is troubling. We grasp the preciousness of life when we imagine we are on the cusp of losing it or when we are in the company of a loved one who is dying. But day-in-day-out that preciousness is cast to the back burner; the plans we’ve made feel like our birthright. It is pomposity on the grandest scale.

My friend and I, along with her two other friends who were taking refuge at her house, unable to get to their respective homes for the evening, rang in 2018 together. In the alternate universe of our minds we were going to ring in the New Year surrounded by hundreds of people singing Kirtan. But in the real world, we rang it in a far quieter way: sitting in a small circle on the floor of her bedroom talking about what 2017 had held, and what we hoped for in 2018.  

I love believing that I am in control, but that, along with the myth of invincibility is just a story. Each year is full of lessons, and I’m grateful for the final lessons of 2017: that gratitude is a choice you have to consciously make (most of the time), that control is largely an illusion, and perhaps most importantly… that good friends are genuinely worth the drive.

Writings on Robin's Rules

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As we move closer to the holiday season, it is worth spending time thinking, or re-thinking, our relationship to our stuff. In this vein, my mom, Robin, a former professional organizer and a long time armchair philosopher on the intersection of material goods and contentment, has written a sequel to her first book, Robin's Rules of Order. I was honored to write the forward to the sequel, Writings on Robin's Rules. It follows here: 

As a child, I sometimes chaffed under the strictness of “Robin’s Rules of Order.” When toys mysteriously “disappeared” (usually to Goodwill) or my mom was particularly upset by a mess left in the living room, I would tell myself that I would never care so much about order when I was older. By the time I was in college, I was the apartment-mate picking up my peers’ belongings left in our living room, and leaving little piles of possessions inside their bedrooms. The first time I engaged in this ritual, I realized, much to my horror that at the ripe old age of 21, I had already become my mother. Part of the gift of getting older is realizing that those things I hated as a child, actually had great value, and are in fact life enhancing and worth embracing in my adult life.

My mom will freely admit, that “Robin’s Rules of Order” are her personal credo and that they work for her because they are shaped by and for exactly who she is as a person. She offers them to the world as a suggestion, not as dogma. She recommends that each of us find our own credo, because having some rules for living, paradoxically breathes freedom into the areas where it really matters.

My own credo is of course, very informed by my mother’s, given that I was one of her first students. My ability to pack light is directly attributable to my mom. And packing light has afforded me the opportunity to live out of a backpack for weeks on end in remote wilderness settings, to move abroad for three years (and return from abroad) with two suitcases, and to pick up and move my life when opportunities have called. Not having literal excessive baggage has given me access to people and places that are heartbreakingly beautiful and mind expanding. Not having excessive baggage has fundamentally shaped and altered the course of my life for the better.  

While my mom is quite right to note that her rules are not universally applicable or relevant, she is perhaps too quick to humble her perspective. She has spent a lifetime studying, practicing, cultivating, and living enough-ism. I’ve seen her contentment grow as she’s moved closer and closer to this guiding principle, and I’ve reaped the benefits early of knowing I never hope to own so much that it would hold me back from accepting an invitation to live my life in a more expansive way. If Robin’s Rules of Order provides the skeleton, Writings on Robin’s Rules provides the flesh—ripe with wisdom for those who are willing to listen.

The Wind

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I am not trying to
coerce the wind

Even if I could
the satisfaction
would be short lived

Holding a wild thing
hostage
always, ultimately,
breaks the jailer's heart

I am simply looking
for wind that is
blowing in my direction

Landing lightly in my hair,
washing over my skin...
freely, joyfully

moving towards me
and with me

Stardust and Special Snowflakes

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“How does spending your days deep in the pursuit of understanding dark matter impact your mundane life?” I asked the physicist sitting next to me at dinner.

“Mundane life?” his wife asked, “He doesn’t have that!” she jokingly insisted.

“Does dark matter change how you think about buying toilet paper?” I persisted.  

“It does make you understand, on a very literal level that we are stardust. And that we are infinitesimally small.” “There’s a Jewish tradition” he went on to say, “that encourages you to carry a different slip of paper in each of your pockets. One that says, ‘I am but dust and ashes’ and the other that says, ‘for my sake the world was created,’ and I like that tradition. Studying dark matter demands that you consider the former, but of course there are times in life when you need to consider the latter. The point of the tradition is that you should reach into the pocket and pull out the paper that will serve you in the moment.”

If someone were to ask me to explain the inner workings of a toaster oven, I would have very little to say. So the idea that a person could begin to conceptualize dark matter seems truly wild to me. There are, of course, many kinds of intelligence, and precious few of us can have them all. So while I won’t be embarking down the path of physics in any meaningful way in this lifetime, I do want to know what anyone who operates in different fields of intelligence from the ones I call home, has to say about the world.

When I was younger my dad encouraged me to learn a second language—not solely for the practical reason that it would broaden my ability to communicate, but for the more philosophical reason that it would give me a new way to think. “Language constrains our thoughts—learning new languages gives you new windows into the world,” he said.

There is, in my mind, a different language that you have to learn, to be able to conceive of things as abstract as dark matter. And the gift I got at this dinner, was to hear a translation of this language in terms I could grasp: “I am but dust and ashes.” But, equally important to this wisdom, is the other slip of paper: “For my sake the world was created.” Certainly, in the world of physics, I would imagine this second statement is beyond ridiculous, but in the scope of the human experience it is profound, because we are driven to make meaning out of our dust and ashes.

Some of the people I love best dwell primarily in the pocket of “I am but dust and ashes.” Humility is a very attractive quality. But I’ve seen the detrimental impact of dwelling there too long—of forgetting the human capacity to generate meaning and to stand in wonder of your own life. For those people, the second statement, “For my sake the world was created,” is not about arrogance. It’s about worth and worthiness and remembering that having needs doesn’t make you needy. It’s about opening up to receiving, instead of just giving. It’s about setting down shame, and observing what is unique and genuine about the way their dust and ashes are arranged and expressed, and claiming that specificity, as something to celebrate and cherish.

The larger point of the tradition is not about choosing one slip over the other—it’s about learning how to choose both concepts, at the same time. It’s ultimately a tradition to work with the struggle of getting comfortable with the contradictions and conflicting truths that are part of the human experience.

Being and Becoming

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This March I was in the audience for a conversation between my favorite Podcast host, Krista Tippett of On Being, and my favorite poet, David Whyte. Tippett was on tour for her new book, Becoming Wise, and Whyte was drawing her out on some of the themes of the book, as well as sharing his poetry. When it came time for the audience Q & A, I got in line to ask, what has become one of my seminal guiding questions. I prefaced my question by saying, that I’d recently turned 30, and that in looking back on myself at age 20, it was hard to imagine I was really the same person, but that when I flipped back through diaries I kept at age 13, I was shocked to realize, that perhaps I hadn’t really changed at all. So, I said, “Your program is called On Being, your book is called Becoming Wise…and I’m curious about the interplay of being and becoming.”

Tippett, is one of the thinkers I admirer most, and she’s spent years marinating in the wisdom of other great hearts and minds, so I had hope that her answer would be elucidating. It was. In essence she said, there is no soundbite reply to such a big question. She said, “The ‘becoming’ word is just as important as the ‘wise’ word (in relation to her book title Becoming Wise).” She went on to say, “and it’s [wisdom] not a destination. It’s a lifelong process and adventure….This phrase ‘old and wise’ fails us. There’s a wisdom that a four-year-old has, and there’s a wisdom that a 21-year-old has: this impatience and this ability to see the world as it should be, and this desire to throw oneself at it. That is a wisdom that the world needs, and that we need to accompany. So I think wisdom is something that is possible at every age, and that we cultivate, but it is absolutely a matter of becoming, not being.” For matters of wisdom, the idea that it is a process of becoming, resonates. But what about the interplay of being and becoming on the level of who a person really is?

When I created this website, I very intentionally chose human-becomings as the domain name. The capacity to become is one of the most hopeful, affirming possibilities in the world. It is what breathes life into my former profession of teaching, and the vocation I’m currently working towards of mental health counseling. That we can become kinder, wiser, more patient, more loving, or any other host of qualities provides a sense of agency and direction that can be life-saving. And this possibility, which has long been recognized by ancient traditions, is now being supported by the science of neuroplasticity that has shown that the human brain can grow and adapt throughout the life-span. An old dog, can in fact, learn new tricks.

If so much can change, the question then becomes, does anything stay the same? Is there any thread of constancy that binds together a human life, and substantiates the claim that we are human beings as well as human becomings? Invisibilia Podcast hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, examine this question in the episode “The Personality Myth.” They start the show outside of the Superior Court of Washington D.C. on a June day, talking to couples who have just tied the knot—committing to lifelong partnership. When asked about their new spouse’s personality, partners are quick to list off the immutable qualities that make their partner just right for them. The general sentiments of the happy newlyweds were perhaps summarized best by Unidentified Man # 5, “Your personality is your core…that’s who you are.”

The Podcast, of course, calls this notion of a core personality into question. The clips of the joyful newlyweds are counterbalanced by a clip of a joyful divorcee, exiting the same Courthouse, calling out “Free at last!” And then the story turns to a group of inmates, incarcerated for atrocious crimes, who put on a TEDx Event inside the prison that includes ballet, poetry, singing, and talks—graceful, touching, sentimental performances that seem incongruous with the notion of their criminality.

After anecdotally challenging the notion of a constant core personality, the Podcast turns to Walter Mischel, the psychologist who gave us the well-known “Marshmallow Experiment,” which looks at children’s capacity to delay gratification—to not gobble down a marshmallow that they’ve been given right away, but to be patient and to wait for the promise of a future reward of a second marshmallow on down the line. Spigel says, “Over the last two decades, the marshmallow test has become a kind of poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.” Only Walter Mischel, the psychologist who created and ran the experiment, says, this is a wild misinterpretation of the experiment. Contrary to popular interpretation, Mischel says, “your future is NOT in a marshmallow.”

The way the Marshmallow Experiment has been framed is in fact inimical to the real learning Mischel discovered from the process. “What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human being to not be the victims of their biographies—not their biological biographies, not their social biographies—and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.” He explains that the part of the Marshmallow Experiment that never airs, is the part where you tell the child who is tempted to eat the marshmallow right away, to simply imagine that the marshmallow isn’t really there, and this simple cognitive reframing, allows most children who wouldn’t have delayed gratification, to be able to do so. Mischel says that your mind is the gateway that allows you to mold the same basic raw material into different shapes and forms. The mind allows for ever expanding permutations and expressions of a basic personality, caught in a specific social construct.

For most people it is not too much of a leap to say that our “being” doesn’t live in our physical body. We know that our cells, our basic physical building blocks, are quite literally different every seven years. We see the ways our bodies grow and change and fall apart and morph in a very tangible way. Many would say, our seat of “being,” lives in our minds. That are minds represent the thread of constancy. Others would say that our seat of “being,” lives in our hearts…a core of emotional constancy. But emotions and thoughts, if examined even for just a short amount of time, are anything but constant. They are racing, rushing, changing entities.

I spent a month at a Sivananda Ashram this summer, and each morning and evening as part of Satsang (a Sanskrit word that means, “gathering together for the truth”), we would sing various mantras, songs, and chants. One chant, called the “Song of Will” answered the question of being and becoming from the yogic perspective. It starts out by listing all the things we are NOT, which per the Sivananda Yoga tradition includes: body, mind, intellect, emotion, energy, and ego. These things are not immutable; they shift and change. The core, per this tradition is: “satcitananda,” which is Sanskrit for “existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute.” Satchitananda transcends a limited human experience—it describes the divinity that is everything, when the limiting factors are stripped away.

Each tradition—be it religious or scientific or cultural—has its own answers for being and becoming. Outside of the philosophical realm, this question has plagued me on a far more granular level. As someone who feels at home in so many disparate contexts, I wonder if I am adaptable or just disingenuous. I wonder if I have honed my capacity to become, at the expense of my capacity to be. Each year, nominally for work, but mostly for my own sanity, I go into the mountains for a month. This extended time away from such a high velocity of inputs and pushes and pulls gives me the chance to just be. This summer, out in the most exquisite field of wildflowers I’ve ever seen, I made my peace with my understanding of being and becoming. It’s unsubstantiated by science, and unbacked by religion or philosophy, but it is shaped by all of these. For me, the highest truth has always lived in poetry, and so that’s where my answer to this question lives too: “A Chameleon with a Core.” My nod to the interplay between being and becoming--a dance made graceful by the interaction of the sweeping, beautiful movements and the quiet, stillness that punctuates them. 

Hope

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When I was living and working in Switzerland there was perhaps nothing that pushed my buttons more than hearing from people back home about how wonderful my life must be. As if the Alps and Swiss chocolate and delicious cheese were somehow an immutable barrier to suffering or unhappiness. This presumption that I was living the dream added an extra layer of guilt to what were, in fact, quite difficult years in my life. Difficult, because in some fundamental ways, my work in Switzerland was out of alignment with several of my core values, and staying put meant stifling parts of myself that I didn’t really want to stifle. But leaving was even more complicated than staying, and full of heartbreak too, so it took some time to get up the gumption to go.  

In response to these Pollyanna-ish remarks from well-meaning friends and family, I developed a distaste, and then a disdain, for people who seemed to solely focus on the positive. Their optimism didn’t feel joyful—it felt invalidating, myopic, and somewhat stupid. The optimistic mindset felt like it left out a huge swath of the human experience—grief, heartbreak, uncertainty, disillusionment. Optimism in some very important ways felt in conflict with reality.

But, cynicism, it turns out, seems to be in conflict with reality too. The notion that the future is grim, and all doom and gloom is just as myopic as dwelling in the land of optimism. Both presume constancy, which is out of touch with the reality of evolution and change.  

Part of this is a debate of semantics. My definitions of optimism and cynicism occupying the extremes of a spectrum do not align with how many people use these terms, but for my own internal lexicon, I’ve been wanting to land on a word that is large enough to hold both the dark and the light. Krista Tippett, in her book, Becoming Wise, offers the word “hope” as an antidote to these other more reductionist terms. She writes: “Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

This concept feels large enough and nuanced enough to invest in. David Foster Wallace, in his famous Commencement Speech, “This is Water” says this: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

Choosing your altar is critical and life defining. I don’t worship at a religious altar or at the altar of science. One seems too content to overlook and the other too impelled to overcome the fundamental irrationality and limited scope of the human mind. I want an altar that acknowledges that we cannot know the full story, that in life, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “everything [both good and bad] is waiting for you,” and that the redemptive thing we have as humans is the capacity to approach this wild world with a willingness to be surprised, and to be humbled and uplifted by that which we do not know. "Hope is a choice, that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory.” Hope has to be cultivated. It is an altar you build—not one that you can inherit or buy. I don’t want to spend any more time paying homage to the altars of optimism or cynicism—both feel flat. Hope, on the other hand feels like a choice worth making, again and again.  

The Boring Things

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“So I have to get better at the boring things?”

“Yes. You have to get better at the boring things: being on time, picking up your trash, and making sure all of your gear is inside the tent or your backpack before you go to sleep each night.”

So went my check-in with one of my students on the backpacking course I co-lead this summer out in Wyoming. He was a precocious 14-year-old—with a wry sense of humor. He was tall and strong and could run up a mountain with more ease and grace than I could. He had perfected back country baking (no easy task), and he was already adept at reading topographical maps. Additionally, he was a charismatic leader (if controversial at times). But he was categorically unskillful at the “boring things” (his label). Of course, being on time and picking up after yourself are rarely a teenager’s priorities. And objectively, they are fairly boring tasks—cleaning up spilled macaroni doesn’t really supply the adrenalin rush of summiting a peak. But these lessons…these unsexy, every day, boring lessons…were, in my mind, the most important lessons he, and all of the other students on the course, were getting to learn.

In our final week of our month-long backcountry trip, we were moving towards greater student independence. As such students were responsible for planning the next day’s route and navigating and traveling on their own through the mountain terrain. The evening prior to one such independent travel day, I reviewed the map with the student leaders, fielding their questions and making sure they picked a thoughtful route and next campsite. We were at one of those annoying junctures where our travel had us moving through the corners of four different maps. In order to more easily read the maps we had origami-ed them together, and laid them out on the ground in our "kitchen" area of camp. The map review went smoothly. The next morning however, after a night of hard rain, we woke up to find that the carefully connected map sets had not made it into a tent overnight, and were a pile of paper pulp.

In the backcountry, there is no quick fix for lost or damaged gear. Some fixes you can MacGyver with tools in your repair kit and some ingenuity, and other things (like pulpy maps) you can’t. And this reality, is actually a great lesson in the truth of the natural world. In privileged, modern day America bumping up against resource limits is a rarity. The closest most of us in this sector of society come to limits is an “out of stock” notice under an item we want on Amazon. But “out of stock” is just a temporary condition. There is no larger sense that someday in the not too distant future we are going to be “out of stock” of some of natural resources that really matter: like fossil fuels and fresh drinking water, for instance. And the party line is, “Don't worry, by that time we’ll have the technology to fix the problem,” but I think that’s a fairly risky and myopic insurance policy, and one that I personally have never had full faith in.

That morning of the wet and pulpy maps we didn’t end up leaving camp until 3pm. Students ended up sharing the one dry map set and traveling as one large group (which isn’t ideal for Leave No Trace wilderness ethics). The morning languished in camp was slow and tedious. A resource issue quickly evolved into interpersonal group issues—a common progression. And by the time the practical logistics had been sorted out, the group had descended into a funk the color of blame and frustration, which necessitated a group meeting. 

Blame is such a classic response to frustration. Blaming someone else, blaming yourself, blaming the world. And while blame might feel momentarily cathartic, it’s efficacy as a response is fairly short lived and unhelpful, because at the end of the blame game, you still have a soggy pile of maps to deal with.

A backpacking course is a fairly ideal research lab to really understand the value of the boring things. To realize that the small actions you do or don’t take can have large consequences, not just on your own life, but on the lives of everyone around you. So many of us are isolated from this reality in our daily lives because the consequences of our choices are veiled by distance and time.

I love standing with my students on the summit of a mountain, or watching them reel in their first brook trout, but the longer I work in the backcountry the more I love the mornings where it is rainy and messy and the oatmeal is burned and stuck to the bottom of the pot and the maps are a pile of pulp. Because these sticky moments are so ripe for learning. Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh famously says: “No mud, No lotus.” This wisdom is far more accessible when you are witnessing your students in their permutation of mud, knowing that a lotus awaits on the other side of their struggle. Keeping that faith when you are in your personal mud pit is of course harder.

My “mud” this summer was waiting for me on the backside of my wilderness course. More and more, coming in from the wild is far harder than staying out. But I’ve been out of the woods for a month now, and the mud is starting to clear, reminding me that good people and good work are not geographically bound…that a lotus flower I can’t yet imagine is emerging. In the thick of the mud it is hard to appreciate the boring, the hard, the sad, and the frustrating things. But eventually, sometimes years (or lifetimes) later, the fragments come together in a way that finally makes sense and is quite beautiful. 

Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect

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I’ve moved a lot. In fact, I’ve moved my possessions into storage and lived out of a bag for the summer all but one of the last 17 years. I’ve spent two full academic school years living out of a backpack, traveling through various countries, and I’ve spent over 400 days in the backcountry, setting up a new camp each day somewhere out in the mountains.

I am great at putting together boxes, packing them efficiently, and tetris-ing them into storage containers and U-hauls. I am also great at unpacking. I moved into my latest new apartment a week ago. Every box was unpacked within two days and every picture was hung on the wall within four. I know how to travel light, how to do laundry in the sink or the river, how to settle in, and how to pick up and go.

This willingness to undergo the hassles of constantly moving has afforded me incredible opportunities. Each place I’ve gone I’ve met wonderful people who have changed my life for the better. I’ve gotten to see landscapes so beautiful they make you cry. I’ve gotten to stretch and grow and push my own limits wider and wider.

And still, at the most fundamental level, I am terrible at transitions. The quick progress I can make in the physical world is not mirrored in my emotional world. I lived in my tent for 60 days this summer—one month at a yoga ashram, another month in the backcountry of Wyoming. When I packed up my apartment in May to head out west for the summer, my main emotion was one of longing to stay put. To stay in my cute apartment, with my incredible neighbor downstairs, and other dear friends throughout the city, and my lovely library down the street where my dog and I volunteered each week. But plans made in the dark days of February had to be kept, and so I went. And of course, once I was out there, living in my tent, first at the ashram and then in the mountains, I loved it.

I actually can’t imagine having spent my summer any other way. What I love most about how I spent my summer is that I was surrounded by other people who to greater or lesser degrees live on the fringe—with priorities and lifestyles that don’t reflect the expected norm. My life felt full and content out in the mountains. The life tick boxes I have yet to tick felt less pressing and less important.

This is not to say I wanted to stay out there in the mountains forever. I was more than ready on the final morning of my backpacking trip to come in and have a shower and reunite with my dog and with the many good people in my life who do not live in the fringe, but who are successful and content right in the center of things.

But now here I am back in an apartment, plugged into the world at large, physically settled in, and emotionally a wreck. The pieces missing in my life suddenly feel like gaping wounds—the many good things present in my life feel like afterthoughts. The perspective offered by the mountains feels like it was ground to dust immediately by the buzz and hum of the city. There is so much good in my world right now, and yet happiness feels currently inaccessible.

The Yoga Sutras, which I spent so much time studying this summer, teach that suffering comes from attaching to our thoughts and ideas. Swami Vishnu-Devananda writes in his commentary on the sutras, “It is the mind, and nothing else, that must be corralled and controlled in order to achieve the true peace of Union (or Yoga).” It is categorically easier to corral and control your mind in an ashram or out in the mountains—less external stimulation begets less internal stirring. But as much as I love that world I was living in this summer, I want to be content in this world where I am living now. But I think that will take time. It always takes time.

No matter how many transitions I’ve done, the culture shock, the change, the shifting—it all takes time to sink in. And I’m not a very patient person. I want it to all be okay now. I want to remember why I didn’t want to leave this city back in May. I want to feel at home. But for now, I’m adrift, mostly drowning in my own thoughts, waiting for this storm to pass.

Chameleon with a Core

I am a chameleon with a core
My shell shrinks and grows
Soft, then firm, then soft again

One Christmas I am taking bucket showers
At a humble home on
the banks of the Ganges

The next I am in an expensive gown

plucked and polished
Waltzing with my dad
Champagne corks punctuating
the rhythm of the music

The statements: 
Everywhere is home

and
Nowhere is home

are both true

I am like the wind
shifting to fit

whatever shape I find
Carrying whichever

fragrance I come across

And also, there is a
Core in me
Quite unlike the wind

Something solid

and lasting
and eternal
That moves with me
through each of these worlds

It is the pulse

in the hearts
of the harem
of women
I carry in me

A core radiating
love and connection

Sometimes it is a whisper
sometimes a roar

But even in the
fiercest wind storm
It is there
beating like a metronome

The one thread
of constancy

In an ever-changing
world

The Moose

There's fire in the mountains
Morning looked like one of those
Pixelated sunrises

over the Serengeti

Only instead of endless flat
It was a dusty orange orb
Rising over rocks and pines

Smoke and clouds
rolled into camp all day
Close enough to notice
Far enough away to be ignored

A day ticked by
spent in a field
never going further
than the nearby lake

And now night is
closing in
Faint lines of orange
mixing with smoke
on the horizon

And in the fading light
A giant moose dips her head
into the lake

Splashing...delighting
in the cool water on her legs
the skim of warmth
on the surface
that greets her velvet muzzle

On the bank her calf looks on
A young student
in the art of joy

The Meadow

I have never been so in love
with the texture of a place

The way the blue bells clump
along the stream
that trickles through the meadow

the splash of yellow buttercups
that rise and fall
over gentle mounds of grass

The proud bistort

lifting their white heads skyward
each in varying stages of ascent

And then a pop of purple
All set against massive grey canyon walls

Carved out by time and elements

The softness of this meadow
The magnificence of these peaks

This perfect early morning breeze

Making the flowers sway
Backlit by the coming of day
Each dancing to a slightly different tune


Years can pass without seeing
a beauty like this
But when you find it
You realize this what your soul
Was asking for

Karma Yoga

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We've been told that when people would arrive to the Sivananda Yoga Farm Ashram when it was first founded seeking wisdom and guidance from Swami Vishnu-Devananda he would send them to the garden to weed or to the kitchen to do some dishes. And maybe after a few months the teachings (in the permutation that the aspirants were initially seeking) would begin. In yoga you don't start with the heady philosophy or even with the asanas (the physical postures that we inaccurately call yoga). You start with the dishes, or the weeds, or the trash, or the dust. You start with Karma Yoga--the yoga of selfless service. You start here because through selfless service you begin to eradicate the ego and it's twin brother selfishness, which per the yoga teachings is crucial for reaching enlightenment.

Selfless service by definition demands that you put the needs of others first. By practicing selfless service you also learn the hard lesson of detachment. Your good actions might not yield the results you hoped for, but if you are truly engaged in Karma Yoga then your focus is on the "actions, not the fruits of the actions," as elucidated by Krishna in his teachings to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. 

So that's all very well and good. It's the Yoga parallel to the Golden Rule, found in various permutations in various religions and philosophies many times over. But what's different here at the Ashram, from so many other contexts where I spend time, is that people are truly training in this path--in the Karma Yoga path. The Ashram functions in a tangible way because there is a staff of Karma Yogis who work here without days off or a paycheck. The recompense (at least of the variety that most of us would recongnize) they get is a place to pitch a tent and two meals a day. The intangible recompense is of course the teachings, the community, the distance from the rest of the world. But in watching them and talking with them, it's clear that recompense is not their priority--that they are in fact seeking to diminish it as a priority to the point that recompense isn't even a thought in their heart or mind. They are, as you would imagine, remarkable, if unusual people. 

As part of my Advanced Yoga Teacher Training course I am engaged in what I'll call Karma Yoga lite. A fellow classmate and I sweep the Yoga Hall and set up meditation cushions for class and evening Satsang (Sanskrit for: "association with the wise") each day. Our assignment, objectively speaking, is one of the easier ones. On the first day of the course when we were assigned our duties a Swami cheerfully told one of my peers that he was going to be the "colon of the Ashram," in other words: the garbage man. In any case, we each have our duties that take about an hour to complete. The naysayer would look at this and call it extortion--we are after all paying customers here. The moralist would call it a sham--assigned (and required) selfless service is a bit of an oxymoron. But I think the truth is closer to this: we are being asked to stretch and strengthen the muscle of selflessness. A couch potato who is an aspiring runner doesn't start with a marathon; he/she starts with a couple of red faced, ugly, gaspy, sweaty miles. And then it builds. The service starts as a requirement and somewhere along the way you get glimmers of selflessness. My peer who I clean the Yoga Hall with is one of my favorite people at the Ashram--and if for no other reason than to ensure I don't leave her with more work, I do want to do my work well. And sometimes, I can expand the circle wider than just the two of us and include the Ashram as a whole. 

I have worked in two other contexts where the principle of Karma Yoga was in play under different labels. The Outdoor Academy, a semester school where I formerly taught, had a "work crew" that was a core part of the curriculum, right there alongside geometry and Spanish. Students and faculty alike were responsible for keeping campus facilities clean and functioning. Teaching my students how to scrub a toilet was as important as our classroom discussions on environmental ethics--more important perhaps. Because it was in this "in the dirt" learning that the ethical concepts, which we could read and discuss ad naseum, really came to life. You don't need to read Garrett Hardin's essay on Tragedy of the Commons when you have a peer who was lazy during his wood chopping work crew, and the fire boxes are empty, and the wood stoves are stone cold. That learning quite literally goes into your bones. 

NOLS, the outdoor leadership school I work for in the summers calls their version of Karma Yoga "Expedition Behavior." The premise is the same. Your expedition's needs come first. Notably, you have to take care of yourself in order to be able to care for your group. But in the students' (and leaders'!) minds this sometimes gets distorted into a justification for lavish self care. Suddenly, when there's a tent to take down and a pot with oatmeal residue to clean, a student might realize that they have to massage their foot before the hiking day begins. This is of course a perversion of self care--a crucial concept that has been crucified by marketing. If your self care regimen leaves you no time to care for others then it has crossed the bridge from self care to self indulgence. In the midst of a 30 day wilderness expedition where the relativity of what counts as an indulgence shifts so radically from the front country, it's easy to confuse the two concepts. But when we don't...when the group is really working in the mentality of Expedition Behavior...it's magic. And interestingly, there is more time for, and less need for, self care in this kind of group. 

Most of us intrinsically understand selfless service of the people we love best. We are less skillful at extending the mentality to those we don't love or don't know, and even less skillful at serving those we dislike, or even hate. Social scientist, Adam Grant, explores the idea of generosity in the workplace in his book  Give and Take. He posits that most of us adapt one of three attitudes towards generosity in the workplace: a taker, a matcher, or a giver. Through his studies he has found that givers in the work place are present at the extremes of the success (as defined in the business sense) continuum. Givers are among the most successful and the least successful with takers and matchers generally falling in the middle. If your hackles are rising, fine. I also know plenty of takers who seem to be having their cake, and eating mine and yours too. And Grant acknowledges that there are takers at the top, but what he says is that successful givers who rise to the top are less likely to crumble (because they have the authentic support from those they have helped along their way) and that a person with a giving orientation at the top acts in such a way that others benefit from their success and so the success multiplies and grows. Takers on the other hand can truly make a work place toxic, causing scarcity mentality and encouraging everyone to hoard resources, talent, contacts, and expertise. Of the unsuccessful givers, Grant says this: they have not learned to be discerning in their generosity, and so they are taken advantage of and they burn out. 

I was curious about this concept of discernment in the context of the Ashram and Karma Yoga, so I asked the Swamis how they react to laziness  (or malice) in other people. One said: You stay out of judgment, and you try to maintain the mentality that the person you perceive as lazy is acting to the best of their ability in the moment, and you keep giving them opportunities to serve." This suggestion is of course monumentally hard to follow. I can think of various distinct instances in my life where I was livid because I felt like I was picking up someone else's slack. Unsurprisingly, I can think of precious few where I was the cause for someone else's frustration. This is not because I am ready to be canonized as a saint--quite the opposite. Like most humans, I am better at remembering the times I was slighted than the times I was doing the slighting. Perhaps something to think about when I am diving headlong into judgment (one of my favorite swimming holes, as it turns out). In response to this same question a different Swami  said: "You have to see the other person as yourself (one of the key teachings of yoga is unity of all things), and from this perspective give compassionate feedback. And then let go of the hope that they will put that feedback into practice." In a later lecture this same Swami pointed out that you can't teach people who aren't already seeking out the teaching.

Only the truest aspirants would stick around the Ashram doing the dishes for months (or years), because they know that the dishes have lessons to teach, and maybe once they've learned the lessons from the dishes, they'll be ready to receive what the Swami has to say.  

While I am not staying at the Ashram to do more dishes after my course ends, I do know, on an intuitive level that the Karma Yoga teaching is right. That lessons of the soul start down in the dirt and muck before climbing higher. That those machines in the Skymall magazines of yesteryear that promised a suction cup powered by electricity would jiggle your belly fat away were an unadulterated crock of shit. There is no just add water recipe, no silver bullet. Just hard work, which is remarkably satisfying if you let it be.   

The Heart of Yoga

"Do you keep a vegetarian diet?" "No." "Do you drink?" "Yes." "What is your spiritual name?" "I don't have one." "What is your mantra?" "I don't remember." 

If there was a test to enter the Ashram, I failed. I arrived to my Advanced Yoga Teacher Training late, a bit hungover, with pepperoni pizza still in my colon--vestiges of a weekend spent with dear friends. I was quickly ushered into a room to have my personal interview with the assembled Swamis. They asked me the above listed questions, and I answered, honestly. And thankfully, they let me stay (though truth be told I was ready to bolt after my inquisition). 

I've been practicing yoga for sixteen years. I started going to class with my mom when I was fifteen--when the order of the day at her gym was Jane Fonda style step aerobics--and yoga was edgy (at least for the North Carolina country club crowd). Our teacher was remarkable, and decidedly not a gym rat. She introduced us to the truth that yoga is so much more than the postures on the mat. But despite having her sound guidance, yoga largely remained a physical practice for me.

I signed up to take my initial 200 hour Yoga Teacher's Training course in 2011. I picked a program based on timing. I was free in May and one of the Sivananda Ashrams was offering a course at that time. It is not an exaggeration to say, I truly had no idea what I'd signed up for. I had vague expectations of lots of spandex clad people doing down dogs and drinking kale juice, and I could not have been more wrong. When I arrived, I was issued my uniform: large, loose white cotton pants and a large yellow tee shirt, which we had to wear each day for a month. Our mornings began at 5:30 am and went until 10 pm. And of those hours, only two were spent doing asanas (physical postures) on the mat. The rest of the hours were devoted to the other aspects of Yoga. 

Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali, is: "restraining the activities of the mind" so that the perceiver can "rest in his/her own true nature," which yoga defines as "Brahman" or "sat-chit-ananda" (existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute). Achieving this, as it turns out, is infinitely harder than a headstand. The full practice of yoga includes four paths: Karma Yoga (the yoga of service), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), Raja Yoga (the yoga of concentration), and Jnana Yoga (the yoga of wisdom). While different temprements will naturally incline to one yoga path over another,  a complete yoga path will include all four.

Raja Yoga (the yoga of concentration), is sometimes called Ashtanga Yoga (ashtanga meaning eight limbs) because it can be subdivided into eight progressive steps. These are the: Yamas (abstentions), the Niyamas (observances), the Asanas (physical postures), Pranayama (regulation of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from sense objects), Dhyana (concentration), Dharana (meditation), and Samadhi (the superconscious state). So even with the most generous math, the Asanas (physical practice) are a mere 3% of yoga. 

Clearly, for most people in the United States (and I imagine many other countries), the physical practice is their practice. There is nothing wrong with strictly having an asana practice, it's just that it is inaccurate to call it a yoga practice. And while I am back at a Sivananda Ashram this month for another spin into the full spectrum of yoga, the reality is that outside of the Ashram, my yoga practice is heavily weighted towards an asana practice, and I like my spandex yoga pants and my kale juice (and my cocktails and my burgers too). And the parallel reality is that I really do like, and find so much value in, how I am spending my days at the Ashram right now, and I aspire to truly practice yoga (all paths) more authentically going forward. Both, and. So how to carry the inherent contradictions?

A mentor of mine once told me, "Half of life is figuring out which contradictions you are willing to live with." I know I am not going to move the Ashram full time, but I would certainly like to move towards a quieter mind. The moments of concentration, I've gotten during meditation practice after two weeks at the Ashram are all the proof I need to know that concentration (and perhaps some fine day meditation) is a worthy aspiration, that deserves dedication and practice. 

The Holy City--By Chelsey Stegmaier

Chelsey Stegmaier soon to be Mrs. Luvin is a preschool teacher and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She stays busy by planning her wedding in August, eating ice cream, Face-timing her ten month old nephew, and going on runs along Lake Michigan. She loves the walkability and opportunities available to her by walking a few blocks in any direction out her front door, and not having a need to own a car because of her new city life. However, she dearly misses walks on the beach at dusk, the smell of the marsh, and having to drive 15 minutes to the closest Chipotle. 


I moved to a tourist town five days after graduating college, and I knew everything. I knew there would always be money in my bank account because I had an adult job and a college degree, and everyone who has a college degree has money and doesn’t have problems paying rent. I also knew everyone with a college degree, found a husband, bought a large house in the suburbs and had 2.5 kids by the time they were 27. Because when you are 27 you are old and have your life figured out. Like I said, I knew everything.

This small town, chewed me up, swallowed me, and then spit me back out, and I enjoyed and am grateful for every moment of it. While living there I discovered myself, I found out what it was that I care most about in life- children, because let’s be honest, one day they will run the world. I learned what it was like to be single, so single you don’t take advantage of that plus one at your friend's wedding. So single you eat a pint of ice cream for dinner, stay at work late, go two days too long without showering, and go three weeks too long without changing the sheets on your bed. I learned what it’s like to work 80 hours a week and what it feels like to be burnt out, but seeing the largest paycheck or the largest wad of cash in your life keeps you coming back for more. 

I also learned what it feels like to be responsible for something other than yourself, and then have it taken from you and have to pick up the pieces and continue life, because time doesn’t stop for anyone.

In this town, we drank too much vodka sodas and champagne cocktails that we never had to pay for and we watched the tourist pass us snapping selfies on our palmetto tree lined, cobble-stoned streets. They saw us and envied us, but was it the other way around? We went out during the weekdays because no one had an 8-5 job in a town where tourism in one of the main industries. We turned our friendships into a family like bond, because no one’s family lived in Charleston.

I experienced lust too many times with men I should have never been with because they were married, going through a divorce, were only looking for an answer to a drunk text or were an intern. I woke up in bed where I turned on Google maps, laying next to a half naked man to find out where I was, and I learned quickly that the CVB garage charged a flat rate of $4 for overnight parking if you move your car by 8am the next morning.

I created relationships with affluent families on an island that I’ll never forget. I was a part of their family vacation traditions, and I looked forward to seeing them every year. I was invited into their million dollar vacation homes as a stranger, and left feeling like a family member--being offered the contents of their fridge and pantry because they didn’t want to travel home with the groceries the next day. I watched babies grow to kids, and kids grow into too cool teenagers. I was a part of their vacations, and I loved it.

I worked Easters, Thanksgivings and New Year's Eves and dreamt about the day where I would have a family of my own to celebrate these holidays with, not be working them. One Thanksgiving after I worked, I came home and had Velveeta Mac ‘n’ Cheese for dinner—a true low point.

I met someone who I lived with, that understood (and understands) me on a different level than anyone else I have ever met. We found a shanty of a house on Craigslist, with a sketchy landlord that allowed us to have two large dogs, who then kicked us out and took us to small claims court. He didn’t get any of our money (a perk of being a nanny for lawyer’s children).  Evans, my housemate, and I should have known the day we moved in together and found a stranger on the street to help us lift the heavy objects--who we then paid in pizza and a case of beer--that every day would be an adventure.

Evans and I would stay up late eating ice cream, and binge watching Friends, or the Holiday in the middle of July until we both fell asleep on the sofa. One time we rode our beach cruisers through the drive thru of Taco Bell, while blaring Taylor Swift. We ate our $30 of Taco Bell immediately in the parking lot because we were too hungry to bike the half-mile home before we indulged. We spotted guys from across the dog park or bar and claimed them as our future husbands, even though they didn’t know it yet, and then planned our make believe weddings with them at Lowndes Grove where we would be each other’s bridesmaids. And then in the morning, reality would set in as we woke up sharing the pillow with our dogs.

When Gertrude, my dog, went missing, Evans was the first person I called, she was there for me when I needed her the most and she held me in her arms as I had a panic attack in the middle of the street and couldn’t find the strength to pry myself off the pavement. We learned together that we have a lot of insecurities but knowing we are not alone in them makes everything okay.

I drove by the place I found my best, four legged friend around four times a day. If that doesn’t emotionally challenge you and transform you into a stronger person, I am not sure what will. But, it took a few weeks to realize I never wanted to do it again and I was done with this small, tourist town. I hit the restart button on my life and ran away.

I moved out of this town I owe so much too, but suddenly felt so much hostility towards with a weeks notice.  I sold and donated my furniture and packed up everything else I owned in a 15 foot U-Haul. I moved 900 miles North to Chicago, because this time I actually did find true love, because when you know, you know.

I drove out of that town with it in my rearview mirror and never looked back, I was getting the life I always envied from those tourists walking on the street. I was going to have a fiance, an eight to five job, plans with friends on a Saturday, and I could kiss this flying by the seat of my pants lifestyle away. Sure, I would come back and visit in a few years time and think about the memories, but I didn’t have to worry about that.

And then my parents moved to this tourist town four months after I moved away.

My parents, moved to this town, and built a$500,000 brand new, state of the art five bedroom house in a cookie cutter neighborhood so they could “experience everything this town has to offer.”

I avoided visiting them for 12 months, because I said the flights were too expensive, but in reality I never wanted to come back to this town, and if I did return I didn’t want it to be because I had to come home for the holidays but because it was on my own time. I buried my skeletons in this town and the thought of digging them up with your parent’s hanging over your shoulder isn’t exactly delightful. The memories I have of this town are so sacred because they molded me into who I have become, and the threat of them becoming tarnished by new ones makes me want to cry, sleep for hours on end, or just avoid it all.

Charleston, South Carolina has a small piece of my heart and to my own dismay I owe it everything. I found myself in this town, and because of it I’ll never take for granted the things I have in my life now. Like an 8-5 job working with children, clean bed sheets, always having a date to a friends wedding, my fiance, and the opportunity for new beginnings while never forgetting how you got there.  I’ll never take it for granted because I know the feeling of not having any of it.


This story is part of the Human Becomings Story Series. Please consider sharing your own story of becoming with the wider world. Submissions to this series will be posted as available. Visit "Your Story" for instructions and details.

Mother's Day- A Post Script

When my parents were young, Mother’s Day was marked by the color rose you wore pinned to your church outfit—a red rose meant your mother was living, white meant she was dead. My mom’s mom died when she was fourteen, and she hated the rose tradition. Not only did she lose her mom, but she also had to wear her private grief publically, pinned on the collar of her dress. I certainly understand her distaste for the antiquated tradition, and also, I wonder at the damage caused by not publically acknowledging that holidays, particularly perhaps Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, are devastatingly hard for many people for myriad reasons.

Charles Dicken’s oft quoted, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is perhaps the truest description of holidays for most of us. I was thinking yesterday about all the people I know who fall into the white rose category—either symbolically or specifically. Friends whose mothers died before they got to drop them off for their first day of kindergarten or who weren’t in the audience at high school or college graduation or who didn’t get to see them walk down the aisle or who will never meet the first grandchild, or the second. Friends whose mothers cannot be there for the less glamorous, but vitally important, day-in-day-out parts of life. I was also thinking about my friends whose moms are still alive, but who are unavailable because they are either too mentally or physically ill or too scared or too damaged by their own life to be fully present for their child’s life. And I was thinking about my friend’s who want to be moms and who aren’t because pregnancy has been complicated or the right partner hasn’t come along. I was also thinking about the moms, who have given everything to their children, and been snubbed or abandoned by them anyways. Or perhaps the most painful—the moms who have buried their children, at any age, under any circumstance.  

And when you start to think about all those people then you realize that right there pulsing beside the wonderful tradition of honoring and showing gratitude for the women who bring us into the world is a throbbing heartache. And that heartache doesn’t get acknowledged in the card shop or by the florists or by the restaurants offering bottomless mimosas alongside your Mother’s Day Brunch. And that oversight—that myopic focus and lack of nuance—is a kind of salt in the wounds.

I celebrated when I turned thirty, delighted to be turning the page after so much turmoil in my twenties. When I turned thirty-one this year, I felt, for the first time, that sense of urgency that if the stars don’t align sooner rather than later, I’ll miss out on being a mom altogether. And so while, I am lucky enough to be the daughter of an incredible woman, with every reason to celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s also become a day tinged with my own particular flavor of sadness. And I don’t need anyone to tell me to have faith or to trust in modern medicine—those aren’t the altars where I worship. I worship at a nexus of reality and hope. And the reality is this: I might not be a mom. And not all pregnancies are joyful. And moms who walk out, might never come back. And dead moms and dead babies are certainly not coming back from the grave.

Not all stories have happy endings. Some do, but they are not the only important and worthwhile ones.

I am not advocating for a return of the rose tradition on Mother’s Day. I don’t think the Hester Prynne model of wearing our shame or our fears or our sadness quite literally on our sleeve is the way forward because not everyone deserves to know our rawest, most vulnerable parts. But I feel certain that ignoring them altogether, and only paying attention to that which is good and happy, is a kind of sickness that we should strive to avoid.

Fierce Love

For my mom, on Mother's Day, who is the embodiment of Fierce Love: 

Fierce Love is a wiry old woman who knows that love isn’t just shaped like teddy bears and it doesn’t just taste like chocolate chip cookies—that love is also shaped like a character-building, hand knit wool sweater and also tastes like warm bowl of roasted root vegetables. Fierce Love raised chickens as a girl, and while her heart would often ache at the tired pecking of the chick emerging from the egg, she knew better than to interfere. And nobody’s heart was fuller than hers when the chick would emerge wet, tired, and victorious from its calcium cage.

Fierce Love lives in the city, in a small flat. She has the few things she needs, and nothing she doesn’t. Despite her Spartan aesthetic, when people come over, they always leave feeling full. Fierce Love spends a week each summer on the seashore, watching the grey ocean churn and spit. She walks the beach at sunrise collecting shells and sea-glass and pretty feathers shed by shorebirds. She takes these bits and pieces home and fashions them into the most thoughtful gifts, which she parcels up and ships around the world. They always arrive just at the right time. 

Fierce Love shows up when your tire is flat. When your heart is broken. When you need to hear what nobody else will say. When you need to be wrapped up into a fierce hug, and held tight.

The Farm

The farm is a giant mandala
Weeds you pluck today, are back tomorrow
A belly you filled then, is hungry now
The peas you picked have grown back

And you should rejoice
That the animals and peas are growing
That the soil, fertile for weeds, is fertile for crops

But instead you want to scream
STOP
For just one minute
STOP

And sometimes you do
When you’ve just laid down the fresh hay
And the calf has the indecency to soil it again
Before you even leave the stall
You pause and lean against the wood panels
Of the old barn

And then you feel a kinship with Sisyphus
Pushing a boulder
Going nowhere
But striving with all your might

And you consider Mary Poppins
Industrious and curiously cheerful
In the presence of a never ending mess

And for a brief moment
You understand why
The monks destroy
The mandalas
That take so long to build

And you realize that
The calf is your Tibetan master
Not your prison guard

You Can Always Come Home

What follows are the notes I prepared for a Moth StorySlam Event in Cambridge, MA with the theme of Refuge. Moth storytelling events are told in front of live audiences without notes, so what I said on the stage was not word for word what appears below. Thanks to my friends for sharing in my excitement, and for asking me to put this up on my blog. And moreover, thanks to my Dad, for being my refuge. 

We were walking through the pasture at the farm—a familiar backdrop for important conversations. I was in high school at the time. And my Dad turned to me and said, “Arrington, I don’t care if you become a crack whore—you can always, always, always come home. And if you get pregnant and decide you want to keep the baby—it will be great, and I’ll help you out in every way.” My mom’s version of “The Talk” was slightly different. But it was my dad’s that I took to heart. Now, to be clear, I was not on the path to becoming a homeless crack whore or a pregnant teen. I wanted to have sex (what teenager doesn’t), but my high school crush was unrequited. And my brief flirtation with drug use was years off—it came in the form of a pot brownie in Amsterdam in my early twenties. When the effects set in, I demanded to my boyfriend that we return to Easy Times Bakery so I could accost the barista about how long the high was going to last, and when I heard it could be several hours, I begged my boyfriend to take me to the hospital. He politely declined. In any case, I was more of a straight and narrow sort of person. Not that I was a stick in the mud, I just never really had a reason to rebel. When your dad’s going to meet your rebellion with love, not frustration, it’s sort of like, what’s the point?

You see my dad’s promise that I could always come home gave me a sense of unrestrained freedom to explore. Had we not been WASPs, with all the unearned privilege and protection that invites, no doubt the independence my parents gave me would have invited scrutiny from the authorities. In 1989, when I was three, I boarded a plane and flew by myself across the state to meet my grandparents. When I was six I started going to sleep away camp for weeks at a time. At age 14, I spent a month in Spain by myself. Always, before I would head off on these adventures, my dad would pull me in close and say, “If you ever want to come home, just say the word, and I’ll come get you.” Even when I was an adult, off living on my own, before I’d head out on adventures, I’d talk to my dad on the phone, and the refrain that closed our conversations was always the same—“If you ever want to come home, just say the word, and I’ll come get you.”

It wasn’t until the summer of 2012, when I was thirty days into a thirty-four day backpacking trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming that I realized that my dad could not actually keep his forever promise. We had already been through beastly terrain. Glaciers, scree fields, willow bushes that tear your legs to shreds, clouds of mosquitoes so thick your kill count is in the double digits when you make a lazy swat. But it was day 30 of this training trip that tipped me over the edge. I was hiking in a small group—me and three other instructors in training. They were the sort that craved the adrenalin rush. The sort that probably would have lounged in Vondel Park and truly enjoyed their pot brownie. And they were fast. Much faster hikers than I was. We each carried enormous packs—all well north of 50 pounds even at the end of a ration period. We only had to travel three miles that day, but the three miles were through a giant boulder field that spanned a mountain pass. Some of the boulders were the size of cabins, and I was sure that I would lose my balance on one of these shifting giants and be ingloriously crushed to death under its ancient weight. The three miles took us over ten hours to complete. All throughout that boulder field I pleaded silently with my dad to come get me. I finally, desperately, wanted to go home. After we arrived to camp, and the chores were complete, I walked away from the tents, and sat down on a friendly sized rock and bawled. It was the kind of crying where you think you might break your bones because you are shaking so hard. Of course I knew my dad couldn’t come save me out there in the boulder field. And it wasn’t the terror of that boulder field that I was crying about. I was crying because some day in my future my dad wouldn’t be there on the other end of the line promising me that I could always come home. And knowing that—really knowing that—made me feel like the loneliest girl in the whole damn world.

The thing is, I keep going back to those mountains, each summer. Now as an instructor. Out there, beyond reach, beyond help. And each year, I learn a little bit more about how to be alone, and how to be okay, and even happy, alone. I will never be ready for my dad to die. In fact, I don’t know how I’ll breathe when that day comes. But I imagine when it does those mountains are the first place I will go.