Breathe and Relax

runnerI’ve been reading a book called Chi Running by Danny Dryer and it’s changing the way I feel and move in my body. I’ve been practicing it every time I run, and I’m finding my runs are a whole new experience that is bleeding into the way I sit, stand and walk.

Chi running is all about using more of your energy and less of your muscle power to propel yourself. To do it is very simple: Align your body, focus and relax. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Alignment means retraining the way the body moves and rests. Focus is a challenge for me as my mind likes to bounce around, especially when I run. And then there’s relaxing. For me, this is the hardest part. In Chi Running you are actually supposed to relax your muscles while using them. It’s hard but it just takes practice. I find myself working on it all the time. Reminding my shoulders to relax as I type. Relaxing my legs when I drive or stand still. Relaxing my hands when I draw. It’s one of those things that doesn’t really get easier. It starts to become habitual, but I can always relax more.

It’s a little like stretching or yoga. The more you do it the further there is to go.

Chi Running is really cool. I’m not there yet, but the idea is that the better you get at staying aligned and relaxed as you run, the more effortless it is. People who do it say they can run longer and faster without trying harder. They promise “injury-free” running which I hope is possible. All I want is to be able to keep running in my old age, and they say that’s the whole point. Even though I am a real beginner, I have noticed that I’m not as tired after I run, my muscles aren’t as stiff and I have no soreness in my hips or knees, two places I was constantly having pain after working out.

Another important part is breathing. The book talks about exhaling fully so that your lungs can fill up with fresh air every time you inhale. When you’re running, that’s important. You have to get oxygen to your muscles. The first time I tried exhaling fully while I ran, I felt much better. Stronger. It was such a revelation. Not only did I feel like I had more stamina, I also felt I was getting rid of stale energy that had accumulated in my lungs.

Lungs are known reservoirs of sadness. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel sad it often catches up with us in our lungs. I am a case in point when I consider the years I suffered from chronic depression and bronchitis at the same time. Now I practice deep breathing on a regular basis, but I somehow managed to ignore my breath when I was running. Dryer advises breathing out for two steps and in for one which gives my run a waltzing tempo that is fun.

I’m definitely no pro at the whole Chi Running thing but I am pretty excited about how it has changed my life already. I am standing taller and checking in with myself much more frequently to remind myself to relax. It’s  amazing how simple it is to breathe and relax and yet how hard it is to change how I do it. But when I pay attention to both, it slows me down, grounds me, and allows me the space to remember how lucky I am, and how good it feels to move fast.

 

The Five Minute Garden

swing

The last week or two has been all about getting things done. It’s amazing how productive I can be when I’m not struggling to write a book.

And it’s interesting to think about the things I typically put off and the things I usually take care of right away. Until recently I had trouble prioritizing physical exercise, but now, if it’s a running day, the word “run” is literally at the top of my list. Writing is also a priority. I don’t actually “make time” to write anymore. It’s just what I do whenever I can so it happens, at least a little, every day. The tasks I avoid are usually things like switching insurance plans or organizing paperwork or getting things together for our taxes.  I loathe dealing with bureaucracy and paying bills does not excite me at all. And then there are the “Shoulds”: items that are perpetually transferred from one to do list to the next because I don’t really have to get them done (but I think I should). Organizing my pictures and putting together photo albums for instance. Taking the computer in to find out why it’s so slow or clearing the excess baggage off my phone.

My poor garden has been suffering from being on the back burner a long time. It’s that area of my life that I habitually complain about but don’t actually do much with. I complain we don’t spend enough time outside, that we don’t have the right furniture, that the landscaping needs an overhaul and that I don’t have a good place to grow vegetables. Clearly there are solutions to such first world problems, but I seem to prefer complaining over doing in this area of my life. Until now.

A few weeks ago I started meditating on my relationship to the back yard because I knew there was a reason I was struggling with it. I love being outside. I love working with plants, digging in the dirt and planting. But I also have resistance to it. Fears and feelings of inadequacy. Not dissimilar to the reasons I used to avoid exercise.

I realized I was ready to change and I made a list of everything I wanted to do. 1. Spend more time outside. 2. Grow more herbs and vegetables. 3. Plant two desert trees. 4. Make a birdbath. 5. Fill in some areas that look a little sparse. 6. Make more comfortable places to lounge and relax, including a spot just for the kids on top of our storage container. 7. Build a fire pit.

It seemed like a long list and I decided the best way to approach it was five minutes a day. If I could get out there daily, working incrementally, I would eventually get it all done. And the best part was, spending five minutes a day in the yard took care of the first item on my list.

Five minutes turned into hours pretty quickly. As soon as I started buying plants I got excited and realized I could plant a vegetable garden in containers that can be moved around instead of trying to figure out a spot that will get the most sun year round. I didn’t have an organized list of tasks, I just did what I felt like doing and pretty soon my backyard was transformed. The deck is filled with plants which make it much more inviting, there’s a new houseplant in the dining room, I have the two Palo Verde trees on the way and the new herb garden is planted. There are two places for the birds to get water and a sweet little birdhouse I acquired at a silent auction.

I am so pleased with my yard. I have spent more time out there over the past few weeks than I did all spring and I have enjoyed every minute. My kids are following me outside, wanting to do their part. Next on my list is their cool deck.

It’s not just what I have done that changed the backyard. It’s really my attitude that shifted. Instead of letting myself feel depressed by my back yard being somehow unsatisfactory, I am letting it inspire me to grow more. I think that’s really why we have “yards” in the first place. To have a little piece of nature to cultivate and enjoy and remind us what’s good every day. I’m really not sure why I would want that part of my life to be a drag on my energy instead of a boost, but for a long time that’s what I did. I know I grew up listening to my parents complain about yard work and of having “black thumbs”. I think a lot of people feel that way. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from gardening over the years, it’s that you have to start somewhere, it’s all trial and error, and plants, like everything else, die sometimes. But that should never stop us from planting new seeds.

 

 

 

Another Book

MSCover2

I’m having a very interesting week of contrasts. For the last few days I’ve been riding a wave of energy from the completion of my manuscript. It is now in the final (at least for now) stage of fixing typos and making minor adjustments here and there to characters and fixing little continuity issues. At this point it’s really a fun process because I’m so close to turning this story into a real book. The wave of excitement from finishing is making me highly productive. I’ve been taking care of everything, including changing my name back, fixing the car, putting time into the landscape around our house, applying to schools…the list of things I’ve been avoiding that I am now on top of goes on. I’ve been having wonderful conversations about my book with friends and family who are reading it and that too is giving me a tremendous boost.

My book is about a young girl whose mother has cancer. Even though it’s my story, I don’t have a lot of emotional investment in it anymore, I suspect because writing the book has forced me to revisit and examine those old feelings microscopically, and that has drained them of their power and immediacy. It’s not that I don’t care about the story. I care immensely and the more I talk about it the more important and relevant it seems. But as people who know me read it, and are moved by it, it’s as if they are absorbing the feelings I left in those pages. They don’t hit me anymore; as if they’re no longer mine.

This week I’ve also been a mess. I’ve had bad news about friends and family members diagnosed with rare conditions and common cancers. Articles in the news about cancer treatment and patients’ rights to choose death have been everywhere lately, especially since Brittany Maynard brought our collective focus to the idea of choosing to die. Today I stood weeping in my husband’s arms thinking of people who I know are suffering.

I was standing in the shower when it occurred to me that the worst thing about life is death.

We are all so afraid of it, not just our own demise but of losing our family members because we know how hard it is. We’re afraid of our own death because we’re frightened of anything unknown. Death is the ultimate unknowable, and yet it’s everywhere, it’s close, and it happens all the time. As I get older, and the people I’ve known all my life get older too, it’s obvious I’m going to have to get used to saying good-bye. Somehow I expect myself to be good at it by now, especially having written two books about dealing with death, but it really doesn’t get easier. It just gets more familiar.

I am so proud of the work I am doing. This past weekend my friend Lauren King and I led a grief-centered meditation group that was truly amazing. It was such an honor to create a space for people to come and talk about their experiences and to lead them to meditate on their grief. Allowing ourselves to become intimate with our feelings is the best way I know to gain a healthy distance from them. But even then, when death or the promise of it comes around, I am floored once again.

Name/Game Change

photo 1

 

I’ve been suffering from a split identity ever since I decided to complicate my name.

I was born Ann Badger Faison. That’s the name that is printed in gold on the bible I received at my naming ceremony when I was small. My Dad likes to add a IV at the end because technically I am the fourth person with that exact name in my lineage. Women don’t usually have the opportunity to add roman numerals to their names because–well it’s pretty obvious to me but I’ve had to explain this so many times I know it’s not something many people think about–we have traditionally given up our surnames when we marry. So to have the same first, middle and last name as another female in an American family, she has to be your aunt. Which means, a name like mine is pretty rare.

I was always proud of my name, including the roman numerals though they are not officially part of it. There were some years in childhood when I was a little embarrassed about my middle name but once I got past wanting something prettier like Madelaine or Christina, I decided Badger was kind of cool. No I’m not named for the animal though I hear they are ruthless when they get in a fight with a possum. It’s a family name and I’ve always liked the sound of it. And it starts with bad, which for me is good.

When I got married, late in the game, I made the very poor choice to hyphenate my last name. At the time it seemed logical: Keep the name everyone knows me by and add the name I will share with the rest of my family. An older cousin who had done it advised me,“You don’t want to have a different last name than your kids when they’re going through school.” I imagined my child, injured during the day and a faceless administrator not being able to identify me as the parent. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that most people would be able to manage the discrepancy perfectly well.

So after the ceremony I went to the trouble of legally changing my name to Ann Faison-Muller, dropping Badger which would have made it too long for any kind of bureaucratic form-filling. What a mistake.

I thought Faison was hard. It’s not as hard as my friend J whose last name is twelve letters and impossible to pronounce without a tutorial but when I say Faison over the phone no one knows how to spell it and when I spell it out, no one knows how to say it. Now add a hyphen and Muller at the end and it takes five minutes just to verbally answer the first question of the medical form, school application, bank loan, etc. I tired of those conversations early on and started to drop the Faison. I was slowly becoming Ann Muller. It was easier to say, easier to spell, easier to identify me as part of the family. We were all Mullers. Easy. But there were two problems with it. One, I’m Ann Faison-Muller on my ID and credit cards which means I have to bounce back and forth. And I was still using Ann Faison professionally, with my friends and in social media realms. That means that to the mechanic, I’m Ann Muller. At the hairdresser, it’s Ann Faison. Doctors know me as Ann Faison-Muller but the dentist has me as Ann Faison. Now imagine me, with my terrible memory, calling any of the above for an appointment and the time it takes for the receptionist to find me in the system because I can’t remember which of my three identities they have on file.

Honestly, it’s not just the inconvenience. It really is my identity at stake. Yes I am three things: Mother. Wife. Artist. But in truth I am one thing. I am Artist/Wife/Mother. Or Mother/Artist/Wife. It’s really all one thing.

I was starting to miss my old name. As I get older and my kids grow and I feel more and more secure in my marriage I realize I can be Ann Faison and still be their mother and his wife. I also miss using my middle name. My brother did not name his daughter after me so I am the last of the Ann Badger Faisons. This week I took the plunge. I filled out a form, perhaps the last as Ann Faison-Muller, to change my name back. I’m thinking this time, I’ll make the IV official.

 

Subtle Growth

bluefeather

I found this stunning turquoise feather on the trail this week and thought of my friend L. She had been very excited to find a lovely brown one of a similar size in my yard the day before. I snapped the above picture and put the feather in my pocket. When I got back to my car and texted the image to her she asked, “Did you pick it up?” “Heck yea!” I answered, which reminded me to pull it out of my pocket but it was already gone.

I wasn’t sad about losing the little gem. I had picked it up out of habit more than desire. I used to pick up feathers all the time, often thinking they were signs or gifts. Weightless indicators I was on the right path or doing something right. They probably were. But the little turquoise feather didn’t strike me that way at all. I saw it as a happy coincidence. Some pretty little bird dropped it and I happened to see it before it floated away.

I still pick up really special feathers. Just this summer I found a loon feather that thrilled me. Like eagle or hawk feathers, loon feathers are large and unusually patterned. They carry the majesty of the birds that shed them and I feel I’m bestowed some magic powers when one is laid across my path. But the sky is full of birds and the streets and roads are littered with their cast offs if you look carefully. I still get excited about a nice crow feather because of its deep black sheen and any feather with a pattern or bit of color is always nice to find. I use turkey feathers for smudging with sage and I have a few special feathers around the altar where I meditate, but I really don’t need any more feathers.

I’m guessing the little turquoise feather belonged to a parrot. Parrots don’t belong in southern California any more than I do, but like me they found their way here years ago and have chosen to stay. In my time I’ve learned that Los Angeles is not the promised land, but it is a damn good place to work on yourself. Today I had another incredible massage to help with the shoulder that is slowly, stubbornly coming out of its habitual lock up. As my friend worked on it, connecting the tight muscles to other tight muscles in my legs, hips, spine and jaw, I let myself imagine the tightness leaving. I’ve been going at it from all directions, using yoga, Pilates, my regular breathing meditation, something called TRE, and a lot of writing to help move it all through. And it’s happening. Slowly but surely, things are changing deep in my muscles and bones. Right now I’m still in it. In the change. In the work. In the process of letting it drop, like another feather from my wing.

 

True Grit

open mouth

Illustration by Oscar Romero

The older I get (now that I’m fifty I can say that) the more I realize I will probably never outrun or outgrow my “issues,” which is a very unsatisfactory word for personal problems that never seem to go away. What would a better word be? They’re not my demons or personality traits, although they are related to those. I’m talking about the gristle that all my struggles seem to boil down to. The tough tendon that I just can’t chew through and ends up on the side of the plate, staring back up at me, ugly and colorless.

One might think that after decades of working on them I would have made progress, beat them somehow or at least figured them out. I actually have made a lot of progress but sometimes, when a button gets pushed or something happens to highlight the fact that I’m still wrestling with the same ol’ sh*t, that’s hard to remember. It’s like being surprised by my period. By now I should know better and expect that certain people or situations trip me up, but no. My issues creep up like some cartoon spy in a black cape, familiar strangers who I have known since I can remember.

If you asked me to name it I’d say my biggest, most life-long die-hard issue is my need to speak up and be heard. Doesn’t sound that big, I know, but it can be. When I was a kid, I had trouble breaking into the conversation at the dinner table. I was the youngest and I would often raise my hand when no one seemed able to hear my verbal attempts to be noticed. Someone, usually Mom, would say, “Yes Annie?” and all eyes would fall on me and the important point I wanted to make would vanish like so much steam off my plate. My lower lip would tremble from the pressure of their stares, which had the unfortunate effect of making my siblings giggle and my parents try to stifle their own amusement. It’s hard not to laugh at your kids sometimes but when it was happening to me it made me furious! “I feel like a monkey!!” I yelled out of frustration on one occasion and boy, I never lived that one down.

So it’s always been there, this frustration around communication and speaking up. Even though it has always been there, it certainly hasn’t stopped me from making an effort to express myself. In fact it has been the motivating force behind most of my work. It has hampered me as much as it has been the guiding force, which is really pretty cool.

Once, a long time ago, I stood in the rain in some woods feeling sorry for myself and I actually complained to the trees that I hated my issues and wanted to trade them for something else. When I wiped my tears and looked up there was a deer just a few feet away staring right at me. I stared back at her for what seemed like a long time and in that space that deer pulled me out of the hole I was in. I realized my problems were not that bad.

Ever since then I’ve made an effort to make friends with my issues, whatever I perceive them to be. Sometimes it’s that I’m too uptight. Sometimes I think it’s an inferiority complex. Sometimes it’s that I have trouble telling the truth. But today, and most days, I’m convinced it’s this problem of feeling I need to speak up.

So whenever there is some kind of energetic shift, an increase in my self-awareness that makes me feel as if something in me has changed, this issue of speaking up usually lightens. I notice that I’m telling people what I really think and being listened to. It’s a great feeling to know I’m making progress and makes me feel that my life is not some meaningless moment in the grand scheme of things. If I’m changing that means we can all change, and that gives me hope.

Letter-Shoulder-Wings

We went to see an art exhibit in Tokyo that I didn’t actually like but it did get me going on a fast train to healing something that was long overdue.

In the show, the artist had constructed three small free standing rooms, each maybe six or seven feet square with three walls so that one side was completely open. They were elevated slightly so you had to step up to get inside and there was only room for one person. In each room the artist had provided a place to write, paper, pencil and envelopes. On the wall, next to the video of the artist talking about the piece and telling you what he thought it was about instead of letting you figure it out for yourself, there was a set of instructions, written out on a big board. It was long but the gist was we were supposed to enter one of his rooms and write a letter of apology or forgiveness to someone we love. As I read, the person to whom I owe an apology popped up, clear as a bell without even a moment of thinking about it or going through a list of names. There was just one name. One face.

I thought for a moment about doing it and I peered into the little space that was nearest to me but it was occupied. I wondered how long these letters usually took. The walls of each structure were lined, on the inside, with neat little transparent pockets in which you were meant to leave your letter for anyone to read. I liked the immediacy of getting something off my chest right there and of people, strangers, reading it. I glanced back at the instructions, which I hadn’t finished, and it said that if we had the person’s address, we should include it. The museum would mail all the letters at the end of the show. Immediately I knew I was not going to do the stupid project. Of course I had the address but I was not going to let them send my letter of apology when I wasn’t even sure my person deserved it. Not yet at least.

I woke up on the morning of our departure from Japan with a very stiff left shoulder. I could move it but not without pain, and the flight home only made it worse. The next day I went to see an old friend who is a wonderful massage therapist and told her what was going on.

“This shoulder has been giving me trouble for years,” I said, resigned. “I think it’s trying to get me to let something go.” I was thinking of that letter I was supposed to write. As she worked the muscles, I mean the knots between my shoulder blades, the word resentment came into my mind as I thought about the intended recipient of my letter and how long I’ve judged her for being resentful of me.

“What can you tell me about resentment?” I asked my friend as she worked.

“One of the first things they taught me in massage school was that it gets trapped right here,” she said poking the spot she’d been working on. I guess I’ve got resentment of my own then, I thought.

“Of course the remedy is forgiveness,” she piped which I knew and as I meditated on that and she kneaded my flesh I saw the big black wings that flew back to Malificent in the movie by that name, attaching themselves to her back in the same spot that was full of pain for me. I remembered how moved I was in the scenes when her beautiful wings are cut off and when they found her again.

Over the next couple of days I kept seeing wings everywhere. A friend who’s on tour was posting images of herself wearing a set of big white wings during her shows. Then my sister sent me a picture of someone with a big bird tattooed on her back, the wings outstretched from the center. The next day I was waiting in line behind another woman with wings tattooed on her back, right between the shoulder blades. The same day there was a Native American man giving a presentation who asked if anyone wanted to take a picture with him. I ran up and he spread the huge feathered wings he was wearing around me. I had to laugh at how hard I was being pushed to see.

The connection was made and I started to write. I began with a list of all the things I appreciate about this person and a list of all the things I don’t. I wrote her more than one letter in which I ranted, apologized, resurrected the old stories and described every wrong she ever inflicted on me. I worked on forgiveness and revisited the list I’d written. All the things I like about her are true, and all the things I could do without are really just criticisms I have of myself. In all my relationships, I know that when someone makes me mad or gets on my nerves, it’s really just an opportunity for me to look at my own issues. I know how pointless it is to get mad or hold grudges against people, but it was still hard to admit I’ve been holding on to old grudges I’ve been telling myself were past. My job now is honesty, the deep kind, with myself. My job is to work at forgiveness, until I have truly arrived. This week I managed to forgive her, but none of this is about her anymore. The person I really need to forgive is me.

Not one of the letters I wrote needs to be sent. But what I could do, and I just might, is write her to say thank you.

 

 

 

 

Fat Gold Watch

waterreflect

A combination of jet lag and catching up on life has kept me from writing here this week so I thought, instead of doing nothing I would post a favorite poem. I am reading Sylvia Plath’s Journals right now and they are astounding. They begin in 1950, just before she starts college and end several months before her death, thirteen years later. I find her writing to be exquisite and her journals are even better. In them she is truly free, not trying to impress or please, only making a window into her life for her own refection. She perfectly captures her experience of being a brilliant and talented young woman in the 1950s and her torment as such. I have always loved her writing but the journals are giving me a chance to appreciate her anew.
‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Tokyo Love

GoldenPavillion2

It’s hard to believe we are almost through our time here. It feels as though each day we are still just arriving, getting over our jet lag, lazily making our way through the streets to be greeted by the onslaught of beauty, order, cleanliness and calm that is Tokyo. I have never been in a city this packed with people that appears to remain so peaceful. There is a relaxed tone to everything, from the well trimmed shrubs and vibrant trees neatly encased in cement squares to the cashier who hands me my change and receipt with two hands, a smile and a bow. The rushing and stress that I associate with life on the streets of a large metropolis seems to be absent. Yes, at rush hour, one feels a definite press of commuters, but even then, most people are moving at a reasonable pace and the frenetic energy I associate with big cities and the resulting rudeness and gruffness is not to be found.

Yesterday we took a tour of Kyoto and hired a car and driver for the job. Mr. Araki, who had lived in San Diego for ten months, was a delightful wellspring of suggestions and animated discussion. “Japan people are rigid, not like Americans. Americans are so frexible!” I’m sure American flexibility is something I ought to appreciate more, but so far, Tokyo has given me a snug feeling of order that fits very well with my temperament.

Araki was right about Japanese rigidity, which may sometimes beget tension, like I saw in the face of a restaurant manager when a photographer, eager to get a picture, mistakenly stepped on some moss in the immense rock garden that ran along the outside of the dining room where we were eating. The manager seemed unable to get over the offense, even after the photographer apologized profusely, bowing a dozen times in deference, and the manager continually bent down over the trod upon spot to lovingly sooth the moss several times as we looked on, slurping up seafood entrails and strange fungi.

The devotion to order and cleanliness is impressive in action. I love the warm wet towels given before meals and the people who stand, often white gloved, at the entrance to a subway platform, a restroom, a department store or any number of places whose sole job seems to be to tell you where to go. They are like traffic cops for people, making sure to keep us flowing in the right direction. Since our arrival I’ve seen men feverishly scrubbing a bench on the subway platform, a woman removing fingerprints from the glass cases in a museum minutes after they were made, and a bathroom attendant, dressed like a french maid keeping the stalls pristine and the sinks furnished with warm towels.

Today was the Autumn Equinox which is a national holiday in Japan. The culture demands a reverence to nature that I wholly approve of and has its roots in the prevailing religion, Shintoism, which is often combined with Buddhism, and is largely based on honoring and praising Mother Nature above all. In Kyoto we visited a few temples and shrines and watched people perform various purification rituals – washing hands and mouths with water, and smudging with incense – in order to enter the places of worship. Like many Eastern religious practices, the rituals are practical measures taken to achieve a certain outcome with different statues and shrines devoted to specific goals like love, money, success or good health. But built into these themes is always the overarching idea of praising nature, the elements or sometimes certain animals in order to live well.

Above all, the thing the Japanese seem to to have mastered is the idea of balance. It takes precedence in everything, from the beautiful gardens to the striking architecture and design, to the way people dress and arrange flowers, to the precious boxes of colorful food arranged just so. We are staying in a very fancy area where the sight of an ill-conceived outfit is rare. The people on the street are not just dressed expensively, as they are on Madison Avenue or Beverly Hills, they manage to have individual style. But it’s not just a matter of being fashionable, though most people are, it is the balance and restraint and just plain good taste in almost everything that has impressed me the most.

Balance is enormously important in how the gardens and plants are tended to. When we visited the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto it was almost ridiculous how perfectly picturesque each view of it was. The greenery surrounding the structure, the pond and trees and mountains behind it, are all designed to frame it like a picture. You couldn’t take a bad photo of it if you tried. Here, nature is not wild and unpredictable as we thought. It is an expression, beautifully balanced and tended to with the utmost care and devotion.

Nothing is perfect and I’m sure there are steep prices paid for all the perfectly harmonious beauty I’ve perceived on this visit. But I will go home in a few days inspired to live my life, tend my garden and get dressed every morning with reverence for the Gods who rule the natural world, and I will strive for the balance and calm that I have witnessed here.

The Anxious Traveler

wormtracks

“I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a Taj Mahal in the future.”

-Sylvia Plath, from The Journals of Sylvia Plath

I love this line because it captures perfectly the trap I often fall into. I can worry with the best of them, to the point of making myself sick, and if I don’t keep the anxiety in check, the disease can spread. It’s a common affliction among depressives and this story illustrates the problem well.

I’ve talked about this before, but travel always makes me anxious. I’m excited to plan adventures, and I love getting there, but the lead up is always a major challenge for me.

This past weekend was devoted to getting ready for a trip to Tokyo with the girls, to meet Dave for his first show there, a trip we’ve all been excited about for months.

In an effort to keep myself focused I made long to do lists, which were supposed to help me avoid spinning out. But as I obsessively checked off each completed task I was adding more items to the bottom. I packed our bags early so we could spend the day before departure at the park, relaxing with friends in the shade at a birthday party, and avoiding the anxiety.

I don’t have any trouble repressing my stress and ignoring the lists as long as I’m away from them, and the house with its incessant piles of dishes, bills and laundry. But when we got home after the party, the girls and I, the anxiety resumed full force. My sense of humor and ease vanished as I glanced at the clock and counted the hours I had left. My kids are used to the way I am before a trip and were good about taking care of themselves as I ran next door to use my neighbor’s fax machine and struggled to check us in online. I reserved a taxi for the airport and gave the wrong departure time. I called back to fix it and got it wrong again. It took three calls for me to get the taxi reserved for the right time; an obvious indication I was losing my cool.

Our flight wasn’t leaving until the afternoon but I was determined to have everything done before I went to bed the night before. Bags packed except for toothbrushes. Travel documents printed and stapled. Bills paid. Notes to cat sitters written.

Still spinning like a top after the kids were in bed, I decided they needed little journals to write in for the trip. I grabbed paper, folded it in half and stared at the crease, trying to figure out how to bind it. It was midnight as I struggled, kneeling on the floor of the closet with a knitting needle, poking through the stack of paper and binding it with yarn.

In the morning, my twelve year old told me tearfully that she didn’t feel well. She was shivering under her blanket and turned out to have a fever. She was in tears, afraid the trip would have to be cancelled and I too had a moment where I thought the same thing.

Luckily everything was done and I could devote the morning to her. This is the upside of being fanatically organized. I called the on-call nurse associated with our health plan (which could be another post entirely-a saga right out of Blade Runner) and called my husband in Tokyo. We decided not to change our plans and just see what happened. If she was really sick and they wouldn’t let us fly, perhaps they would let us postpone the flight.

Then I did what I’d been planning to do all along which was to breathe. I didn’t blame myself entirely, but I felt there was a correlation between my stress and my daughter’s illness. Like me, she is sensitive and vulnerable, anxious in her own ways, and I knew that if I calmed down it would help her. “Breathe” was the final line on my to do list.

As soon as I lay down to do my breathing meditation I started to release all the struggle. I focused on the earth beneath me. As I began some sadness came out and the next thing I knew I was shaking out all the anxiety and stress, into the floor. I felt the carpet, the cement and the dirt under me like arms gently wrapped around me and I thanked the earth for absorbing my toxic energy. As I deepened into the gratitude I felt for the earth an enormous wave of energy pulsed up through me, like a burst of manna, and I let it rise up into my body and shake me loose, like rocks in a gravel pit. After a whole lot of shaking the energy calmed down and I breathed normally, lay still and listened. Jays were calling outside and the oak leaves were trembling, sharp and brittle in the dry wind.

My meditation practice never fails me. I got up feeling full of love and completely relaxed. I touched the four stones I have situated on our property to give thanks and praise to the elements and to ask for protection on our trip. As I touched the south-facing stone, I heard a scuffle of wings nearby and saw a beautiful band-tailed pigeon a few feet away. (This is a west-coast bird, similar to the rock pigeon that populates every city and town world wide, but different.) It was staring at me and I thought of the dove as a messenger of peace. I thanked him or her for the message and continued my rounds of the property. At the north stone, eyes closed, I felt the near silent cutting of air near my head and turned to see a crow had almost clipped me. A gaggle of them landed on the wires above me, raising their wings and griping at each other.

The earth with all of its expression in the plants and animals offers an instant renewal of faith that I’m safe, that life is good, that the earth that has always supported me will continue to do so as long as I appreciate, honor, and respect her. She responds quickly and forcefully to admiration and gratitude, awe and praise.

I like the word “praise,” and I use it as in “Praise God,” but I praise the earth-God. She is the most benevolent of them all. In Greek mythology the heroes must make offerings and give praise to appease their Gods, who are vain and angry most of the time. Earth is much more benevolent than Zeus or Poseidon ever were. She recycles my sadness (the root of my anxiety), letting me cry into the arms of a tree or on my meditation floor and always returning it with a sense of peace and wonder and love. Never ending love.

We are over the Pacific now and Grace sits beside me, peacefully watching a movie, her fever gone, her sense of excitement for this trip reborn.