End of Story
The time of my death, it was decided, is set for later this afternoon. An aerial view shows the leaden-blue expanse of the ocean that, encircled by about thirty ancient, three-masted sailing vessels, shows the area where I’ll be lowered into the deep, cold darkness of the water. It will be death by drowning. The time and location that will mark the end of my story were chosen by those who know about these things. There was no disagreement on my part. The details no longer matter. No further hearings or discussions will be held. The matter is closed.
I find myself in a large waiting room. A low humming sound accompanies the constant coming and going of people, human beings of all ages, genders and ethnicities. I don’t know any of them, and that’s ok. No need to make friends in this liminal space that’s neither good nor bad, where we all seem to know that things are past the point of turning back and low levels of anxious energy fill the air as if a snow globe’s heavy particles weigh down our collective breathing. It doesn’t matter because all of our breaths, felt individually and or as an accumulation of uncertainties, are numbered. Some part of me can’t wait to get out of this stuffy waiting room, to pour myself into the wide open space of the limitless body of water that will mean freedom of a whole different kind. Soon.
The sun peaks out from behind the curtains of her mood-filled clouds. A few of her rays melt onto the surface of the liquid arena that will be the stage of my impending departure. A glistening silvery disc of light forms a mirror on the water where gliding around in their ring-like formation, the ancient sailing ships keep a steady pace. From a distance, the scene looks like an oversized merry-go-round. I see warrior-like figures, men and women, moving large wooden chairs to designated viewing areas on the decks of each vessel.
One of the men in the waiting room points to the ships and says, ‘They still have tickets to watch the show. Only fourteen silver coins per person. Can’t beat that for a live event.’ Some of the people raise their eyebrows, others pull down the corners of their mouths and nod their heads in appreciation of this great deal. I watch them in silence, resigned to the fact that I only have a few hours left before it’s time to go to never-never land. What does it matter if they watch? I feel the water in the cells of my body reaching out to the waves of the ocean, longing, stretching, aching to be one with the open sea again. The reassuring draw to follow those who’ve gone before me is strong today.
There is the aerial view of the ocean again. Towered by billowing sails, the ancient vessels are floating across the glistening sea. An enormous, swirling vortex pushes the ships out and away from its center, slowly dispersing them into all directions of the wind.
I feel a stirring, a quiver somewhere near my stomach. It makes its way up to my chest, my heart and finally, it’s in my head and whispers, ‘Hey, are you alright in there? Anything you’d like to say before you go?’ I shake the head inside my head and think, ‘No. No, I’m good, I’m ready. It’s all good. There’s nothing left to say or do now.’
The quiver, this slight and trembling movement, it nods its head and curls its tiny fangs around the lower edges of my tongue. It almost makes me want to gag, but then it’s going for my lower lip. And, oh, it’s crawling up the back of my neck, a shudder rolls through my body before it finally exits my mouth as a whimper that finds its full expression in an all-out, mournful wail.
Startled by the long-drawn, howling sound of my voice I wake up, blink and turn my head to the side. My cat’s yellow-green eyes pour questions into mine. ‘What the hell just happened? Why are you howling like a banshee?’ I look to the other side, and my dog’s amber eyes seem to lick my face. ‘Are you ok?’
I shake my head and shoulders, and then my hips and legs as if an aftershock of the shudder I felt in my dream is traveling through my body. Now that was interesting. What was that all about?
I close my eyes again and try to feel my way back into the lower levels of my conscious mind. Ok, so I was going to die. And I was ok with that. There were people with me in the waiting room. I felt no connection to them. My death was going to be some sort of public event, a spectacle put on by the sea-faring warriors who sold tickets to those interested in live performances of this sort. And that was ok, too. And then, as the ships were leaving, something else started to rise inside of me. What was that? Why was I wailing? ‘Wait?’ I thought that everything was fine. What made me stop?
Ok, let’s see here. Let’s see what’s underneath all this. The answers are usually right beneath the surface of this transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, ‘hypnagogia’ I think is what it’s called. The mind remembers the darnedest things when it’s relaxed like this. Ok, let’s see here…
‘Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you.’
‘What I want? I don’t know. I thought I was done wanting things. I was ready to die.’
‘Why do you think you’re done wanting things?’
‘It’s easier that way. Just let it go. Don’t be attached. Don’t be a part of anything. Surrender. Isn’t that what being at peace is all about?’
‘I don’t know. Is it? What does peace have to do with not wanting anything?’
‘If I don’t want anything, and no one wants anything from me, then all is well, and…’
‘And I can leave.’
‘Why do you want to leave?’
‘Because there’s nothing left to do, and… no one wants me… or much of what I am about. So, that is that, it’s time to go.’
‘Oh, now we’re getting somewhere. No one wants you? What a fantastically absurd notion. And for how long have you carried that precious, little stinger with you?’
‘Hmm, you’re right, for quite a while. It’s old and tried, and probably, that much I give you, not altogether true. But somehow… there’s comfort in that old pain, especially now when so much is dissolving.’
‘Dissolving? Good one. As if there’s ever anything that’s permanent or solid in this place we’re calling space and time. But keep going. Nothing tragic here, in fact, it’s quite amusing really. Let’s see where this is going.’
‘People and animals I love are dying. Not long ago my mom, my dog, two horses I took care of. More recently my dad passed away, and my good friend, Pat. Gone all of them. Dissolving. Leaving. Leaving me behind.’
‘Ok, I see, and that’s a lot. These things take time to understand and tenderness to heal. Don’t rush yourself. Just keep on asking, seeking truths. Where else do you feel things are dissolving?’
‘Some of the people I love and think of as family are leaving our shared living space. My sense of safety and belonging is crumbling… once again. It feels like everything I trusted is spinning and spiraling away from me.’
‘I see. Trust. It’s not something stationary, you know?’
‘No. Trust is something that needs tending to. It’s a living thing. It breathes, and it needs room to move with all the changes and the curveballs life keeps throwing our way. Trust comes down to context… and the sense that we’re all vulnerable creatures who need others. It’s about accepting and embracing that we can’t do everything on our own, that sharing hardship and asking for help is a gift that can bring meaning to others. And that sharing joy, perspectives, knowledge and art brings as much pure light to the lives of those who give as it does to those who receive these gifts.’
‘Hmm. I feel the truth in what you’re saying for others. It’s harder to believe it for myself.’
‘See yourself. Hear yourself. Know yourself.’
‘It’s like I’m standing in a fog. Why did I cry out “Wait?”
‘I think you know.’
Pictures are drifting in and out of my sleepy wakefulness again. The aerial view of the circular plain on the ocean reappears. The ancient sailing vessels are gone, but a spiral of white foam still coils around the midpoint of the vortex. Except, something is different.
I feel the quivering coming back, a sense of longing, a taste of sadness, a reaching, a rush of things gone by and lost forever, and whispers of the things to come, budding blossoms, fruits still green, shivering and waiting for the sun’s loving gaze to warm them into ripening.
The swirling motion of the vortex has changed direction. It is circling clockwise now, drawing water from the surface into its funnel-shaped core. And there is that humming sound again, but I’m not in the waiting room anymore, so where is it coming from? In the distance, a large, luminescent, bluish-green cloud appears as the sun bows down to the darkening horizon. The plume’s outer form is shifting as it moves closer to the vortex on the water. Zooming in closer for a moment, the humming sound turns into a slow, trance-inducing drumbeat. The cloud, I can see it now, consists of millions and millions of dragonflies. Brilliant flashes of orange sunlight play catch with the iridescent blue-green tinges of their wings. Dragonflies. Symbols of change. I shouldn’t be surprised. Their aquatic larvae take up to five years to reach adulthood. Following the dare-devil, aerial acrobatics of these magnificent, powerful creatures with my eyes I can see it’s worth the wait.
The cloud is drifting and shifting until it forms the shape of a large drop right above the center of the vortex. Earth seems to be taking a deep breath in as the swirling motion of the large water-borne spiral stretches out its arms like tentacles, drawing tiny outlines of three-masted sailing vessels in from the distant, glittering edges of the sea. Lightning flashes. Thunder follows as the cloud pours her water-falling heart into the subaquatic tornado of the vortex. Earth’s thirst is being quenched. She drops her shoulders and exhales. A single, low-humming drum beat picks up a slow and steady rhythm again.
Waves lick my feet as they carry me along the sandy shoreline of the beach. Several large, three-masted sailing vessels are approaching the island. They are still too far away. I can’t make out individual people on board of each ship. But I can see them. I see them lowering smaller boats to the water from the sides of their ships as they are preparing to come ashore. And then I see us, human beings of all ages, genders and ethnicities, sitting around a large, roaring fire. We are talking, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, celebrating our togetherness as it’s been customary since the dawn of days.
We are bringing out our gifts — all manners of books, laptops and tablets, holographic imagery and fluorescent symbols floating inside prismatic glass containers, ornate treasure chests cradling rolled-up, painted canvasses, scripts and sheets of music, old-fashioned movie reels, a cloth-bound bundle holding sculptures — oh, and there’ll be more to come — such riches!
‘Tell us what you feel, and we will see you.’
‘I feel tender. I feel raw. I feel hopeful.’
‘Tell us what you know, and we will hear you.’
‘I’m not done yet. I have time.’
’Tell us what you want, and we will help you.’
‘I want to share what I’ve been given.’
‘Then this is your truth. Then this is your path.’
This story doesn’t end here. Let’s toast to new beginnings. Let’s gather some wood and build a fire. Some of us are here already, and more are on their way. What is your story? Come sit with us and share your treasures.
Above and Below
HOLE — Etymology: Old English hol (noun), holian (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hol (noun) ‘cave,’ (adjective) ‘hollow,’ and German hohl ‘hollow,’ from an Indo-European root meaning ‘cover, conceal.’
— Something light and wispy brushes your face. It feels like Spanish moss. It’s dark out here.
Dusk settles in the mountains as I walk across a large, open field, a dry pasture, right outside of my house. Surrounded by ancient oaks trees, this otherworldly hillside clearance is home to all manners of wildlife — deer, silver fox, squirrels, wild turkeys, hawks, and bees, the list goes on — and my beloved steed. I carry a shovel and an old metal bucket filled with gravel and rocks. Gravity pulls on my arms as if Earth wants to ground me for good.
— As you look up, the old oak tree opens her arms. Her milky-green shrouds sway silently as if to say ‘There, there, sweet child, you’re old and well now.’ No weight, no sound, an owl’s pale wings sweep moonlight’s empty spaces high in the balmy dark.
Every evening, as darkness blankets the hillside, I walk out into the pasture to fill legions of holes in the ground with gravel and stones. The holes vary in size. Some of them might accommodate a baseball, a grapefruit, some may even fit a football or a small, human skull. No matter how many holes I fill each evening, like clockwork, the next day there are many more. Every day Mother Earth seems to inhale copious amounts of soil and debris. A vast sea of tiny craters mirrors the surface of the moon.
— There it is again, the familiar gravitational pull that keeps you from floating up, up and away. The time is different. It’s late, quite late, at night. The moon holds on to your eyes. It has rained, but you’re not sure if the water has come from above or below. It doesn’t matter, it just wants to be noticed. Mud slithers into the cracked boots that have grown into your withered feet. Rootlike extensions curl into the spongy soil where your toenails used to hold you in place.
Another long day comes to an end. I’m tired, but the hungry maws in the pasture won’t let me rest. The thing is, a magic dragon lives with me, a horse so black and beautiful, he takes my breath away, even after all these years. We’ve come a long, rocky way together — stories for another time. Let me just say that magic happens when our energies blend. Riding this horse feels like dancing with something larger than life. Being carried by a creature so exuberant, so willful and strong gives me faith that life itself will never really drop me. Looking into the dark, wise eyes of this ancient spirit makes me forget all my doubts and all my troubles. And hearing this horse greet me with his low rumblings gives me trust, not just in my animal companions, but also in the goodness of people, in fate, and sometimes, surprisingly, in myself.
— The hollows in the ground have filled themselves with black-blue water. The wind has picked up his strings and plays with your silver-green hair. Your hands, you see as you look down, are wilted claws with sepia speckles, your fingers sprouting out like lizards from a beech tree’s branch. What are they doing? Where are they going? Oh, you know…
Perhaps I’m trying to rule what’s not my place to govern, but for my beloved horse, each little hole, each little crater, is like a landmine. A step into an empty space might trap his foot and delay his movement just long enough to snap the bones that make or break his living. We’ve come so far, it makes no sense to give up now, so I keep feeding more gravel to the hungry mouths in the ground. Maybe someday, they’ll leave me alone, or I’ll leave them, but today is not that day.
— The rusty bucket and the well-worn shovel have been your companions for so long now, you can’t remember when it all started. Your sandy lips feel papery. There’s a bit of water running down the side of your chin. It’s hard to say if it’s spittle or water from your eyes. You wipe your face. The wind tastes the involuntary twitchings in the corners of your mouth.
Oh, holy holes, I fill thy emptiness with judgment, with figments holier than thou. Another night, another voice in my head as I follow the call of the pasture. This one sounds familiar. It has been said that she, whose fate and health and age have had their merry ways with her, ought not to have a noble creature, so black and bold, depend on her. ’She needs this horse… like a hole in the head,’ they said. And maybe they’re not so wrong. Maybe I do need a hole in my head. A hole that takes away the judgments, the thoughts of crushing failure, of battered hopes and shameful faults. A hole that says ‘Begone, you devils, can’t you see? You can’t possess what can’t be owned, just loved and held and cherished. Go, throw your stones, your thorns, your nettles! Your see-through houses may be numb, but not immune, to fires wild and famished. Beware and know, you won’t be safe, or holier, the day love comes for you. Refuse? No chance in hell, you’ll burn and crash, like every star, like lava under water.’ Shoveling. Getting more gravel. Voices ebbing and flowing. Darkness settling. No moon tonight.
— A fossilized turtle face, strangely luminescent, looks back at you as you catch a glimpse of yourself in one of the water-filled crevices. Your eyelids feel like the gates of a drawbridge. You keep them open most of the time now, no need to blink that often anymore.
The holes are the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of industrious, little critters — ground squirrels, gophers and the likes — rodents, one might say, but really, there’s no need to be petty. We’re all God’s creatures, just following our callings, right? No need to go to extremes, the traps, the gas, the poisons. I’m asking, please, oh, pretty please? Can’t we be friends? There’s so much space? Live and let live? But, no, it’s not that easy.
My head plays slide-show now. Look here, my friend, remember these? Endless pictures of broken bones, torn ligaments, shredded tendons, X-rays, MRIs, a plethora of digital scans and live images flash across my mind’s eye, a holographic flip book presenting floods of game changers with devastating clarity. Maybe I’ve seen too many horses on their sides, necks shaved, jugular veins popping, needles going in, pink fluid making space for blood before it drains itself into the stream that takes away the pain before it takes away a life for good. The body shudders, eyes stare blankly as spirit leaves, and then it’s done. Merciful, true, but not inevitable, if holes are watched and filled with vigor. And yes, my obsession to outsmart fate’s playful ways may prove to be an exercise in futility. But I’ll be damned if I won’t try.
— Faded rags, like tattered sails, hang from the bony structure of your body. How light and free, how wonderful, to be so unencumbered. This aged, this ancient body, it feels like home now. You can’t remember what took you so long to grow into this comfortable receptacle. The childwoman in you always knew. She always felt as old as you have always been.
Another evening filled with holes and my ceaseless efforts to stuff them. I’ve been humming the word ‘Sisyphus’ to the melody of ‘Row, row, row the boat’ as my shovel hits the ground. ‘Sis-sy, Sisyphus, Sis-sy, Sisy-phus.’ Laughter escapes my mouth as I come to the ‘Merrily, merrily’ part that makes my tongue trip over the faster tempo. ‘Sisyphus, Sisyphus, Sisyphus, Sisyphus.’ A little girl is singing. ‘Life is like a dream.’ There goes what’s left of my sanity.
— So much of what is you is wanting to go back to where it came from. Earth to Earth. The wind picks up his strings again. Shiny ripples ride glassy surfaces on tiny seas. You hear the seagulls, the faint smell of drifting algae finds its way into your crusty nostrils. The ocean calls from far above and from deep below. You want to follow, oh, but you’re already there, right here, right now. Look up! You see?
Sisyphus won’t leave me alone. I look him up and find out that ‘In Greek mythology, Sisyphus (…) was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity.’ Hm, ok, so my rocks are a lot smaller, but there are similarities, and if life presents us with a continuous row of mirrors, showing us what we can’t see in our blind ways, then what am I to learn here? Where in my life am I self-aggrandizing? Where am I crafty and deceitful?
— High up, climbing across the mountain’s jagged crown, a horse-and-rider’s shadow figure slips in front of the moon and enters your vision. You hear a jingling sound keep rhythm with the horse’s hoof beat. You feel the wind play tangle with his mane and tail. You shiver with the chill that’s sending goosebumps down the rider’s spine. Your chest moves in and out as two breaths become one, or is it three? You taste the broken fragments of salt and air and sea. Earthen skeletons of creatures from below the ocean floor fall free as horse and rider, following the swirling bed of a river, find their way down dusky slopes and brine debris. Pulsating through the rider’s legs you feel the horse’s heartbeat, each step an embrace, a fierce togetherness, a tender union. To live in synchronicity. Such bliss.
Self-aggrandizing. This points to my ego. And hits a nerve. Who, me?! So humble, grounded, and, if nothing else, politely standing back when others take the spotlight? My precious ego-demon laughs, its many voices piercing layers of my not-so-conscious mind. What’s underneath that humble figure? Whose sharpened claws hold tremors of desire and hunger to be seen at bay? Whose earthbound hydra, whose specters of what-might-have-been are fluttering as if there’s hope? Who gives a damn about your thoughts, your dreams, your fears, your struggles? And underneath all that? The playing small, the ‘I need nothing! I need no one!’ — independence? Ha! What’s underneath all that if not the raspy growl of ego’s smallness trying to make someone — anyone! — notice… ME! And all the faded glory, and the talent, oh, and all the love that cannot find a place out there. Too risky, yes, too scary, and too tiresome to try again. You freak, you lazy creep, you! Go fill more holes! Feel independent all you want. There’s no one who will want to know. There’s no one who will want you! No one, you hear me! NO! ONE!
— Behind the horse, look down, hooked to your saddle, long chains are dragging on the rocky ground. And, tethered to their ends, neck shackles, blood-stained and empty now, add jingles to the rattling sounds. The rusty iron’s clanging cymbals leave trails of fading echos in all the blues of the purple air, like salty crystals dropped in water, their form will change, and yet their presence never will.
Another night of filling holes. This time my mind won’t settle for the usual ‘chop wood and carry water’ routine. I’m shoveling myself into a sweat, gravel is flying, I’m getting hot, my breath is brisk and shallow. I find myself swearing at the miserable, little rat bastards. Terrorists, really, when you think about it. Digging little death traps for my beautiful horse! An image of Elmer Fudd pops up in my head. And then, inevitably, I step into a hole myself. I trip, stumble and fall all over my own two stupid feet. The sudden flash of pain in my ankle collides with the spasms in my back and the heat in my head. DAMN!!! A flood of ugly words comes crashing out into the open, then turns and thrashes bleeding hearts. Water rises in my eyes, freeze-flowing down my cheeks. Gasping, grappling, holding on — to what?! And then, wait, stop! I find the brakes.
— Trailing jingling shadows down the mountain slope, your horse and you, as you come closer, stay translucent and true to your fata morgana ways. Hues of all colors flicker through your blacks on black. Some crusty reds, some bleeding browns are winding their ways around your neck, deep etchings on your skin, scar tissue’s still a long way coming. Off to the sides, your saddlebags are brimming with tied-up bunches of hair, all shades, all lengths, their ends adorned with rubies, or maybe blood clots, quietly dangling from their nooses, still humming songs of woulds and shoulds.
You’ll hold your tongue now, ego-demon! You’ve got to stop and hold your peace.
The truth, and yes, sometimes it’s dirty, is that there’s no one left to blame. Not me, not God, nor any others. We’re all just here to play the game. Of truths and wonders we will speak, of grace and mercy, and of love. And that, my friend, is how we’ll live, we’ll heal, and that is how we’ll mend.
Goodbye, farewell, you’re free to leave now. And yes, I know, you will be back. Next time, I’ll drive, and you will listen. Back to my holes now, I have been chosen, and I choose them, this too shall pass, but never end.
— As you make your way across the lower mountains’ crumbling bones, the river’s bedding stretches out and murmurs, ‘There, there, sweet child, you’re being carried. Trust.’ Chin low, gaze straight, you smile and know. There’s space ahead, and spaciousness, and places wide, and open. You go and fly at your own pace, towards plains, wild woods and oceans. They’re yours to ride, and yours to live, so get on up, follow your bliss, and don’t look back! The moon is coming closer.
[First published 12-03-2017]
Every day the four of us, two horses, my dog and I, walk through the magical surroundings here at the ranch, the sounds of our hooves and feet blending with all the other natural rhythms around us. I often think how every step each one of us makes is a short moment of flight followed by a short moment of touching down. Every time we touch down Earth absorbs these small, buzzy energy fields that our feet transmit. In my mind’s eye, they are little, concentric circles that vibrate from the inside out, little rhythm stamps that expand, touch, overlap, intermingle and celebrate when they meet before spreading out even further. How far no one can say. It doesn’t matter. The universe is big enough.
The interesting part is — and this may just be the ramblings of a woman whose many friends and family members are spread out all over the globe and who is spending a lot of time with the animals in the woods — the interesting part of this inner eye vision is that when you see how these little rhythm stamps are flying and touching down all over the surface of the Earth, you can not really, in all seriousness, uphold the veracity of the idea of non-belonging.
If you were to find yourself in outer space you could see these millions and billions of buzzy, little energy stamps wrapping the Earth in a pulsating net of iridescent dots, a planet covered by a sea of tiny, sparkling glow worms, each one forming its own little pool of radiance, adding luminescence to itself, its surroundings, to the planet, and beyond. It looks as if the image of the twinkling stars is being reflected by an orb-shaped mirror — a giant disco ball — all made up of little YOUs and MEs, all melting into one big, beautiful ONE.
No matter who, what and where we are, it’s always the same, we momentarily rise before we touch back down. We may be walking, skipping, running, swimming, dancing in silk sheets or dragging in rags, flying an airplane or riding a horse, we always engage in moments of flight followed by moments of touchdowns, creating our unique stamps of rhythm and adding light to the universal symphony that moves our lives.
We’re all always connected. There is no ‘all by myself.’ The idea of being different, separate, an outsider or not part of this world in some way is an illusion the egoic part of our mind creates to keep us from changing, from growing, from moving forward on the paths that are ours to follow. It’s just a matter of perspective, inner eye or outer space, but something in this vision tells me that we can’t ever not belong. Again, this may just be the rambling of a woman who spends too much time in the woods with the animals and in her head, but perhaps, just for a moment, consider the possibility, feel into yourself and see what’s true for you.
[First published 10-12-2017]
I rarely engage in politics on FB, but the events in Charlottesville are revealing with such brutal clarity how unfit and dangerous Donald Trump is as a president for this country. Today I can’t be quiet.
I was born in Germany and lived there for the first 26 years of my life. My family history, my cultural background and my own encounters with violence have taught me a lot about the horrors of Naziism and white supremacy. At school, when I was 14 years old, we were shown three hours of continuous documentary footage of what precisely (!) happened in German concentration camps. The pictures never left my mind. Or my heart.
My first reaction to the latest news about the terrors in Charlottesville I saw on various media outlets over the last few days was utter disbelief and shock. Donald Trump’s nightmarish news conference yesterday and his ongoing insistence on being supportive of growing racist and anti-semitic hate groups leaves my heart throbbing with ache. Three people are dead and many more injured. A group of people surrounding Jalane Schmidt, organizer with the local Black Lives Matter movement and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, had to stay in hiding inside of a church in order to keep themselves safe from white supremacist violence. Is this really happening? Does history really have to repeat itself? I know silence cannot be the answer. I have been battling with myself to post these thoughts, but I can’t stay quiet today. I am heartened to see that people from all walks of life are starting to speak up, that CEOs are leaving economic councils in the White House, and that Republicans are beginning to be more outspoken about the unspeakable behaviors displayed by the man who is supposed to lead this country.
But there is so much more that needs to happen, more words, more learning, more opening, more listening, more actions, more courage, and above all, more crumbling of the armors that hold those who hate in rigid cages.
Please, if there’s a god, please wake us up! Let us find where we are hurting so that we don’t have to hurt others anymore. Let us find compassion for ourselves so we can find compassion for our brothers and sisters. Let us heal ourselves so that humanity can heal. Let’s come together as brothers and sisters, not colors or belief systems. Let’s wake up before it is too late, again.
[First published 08-13-2017]
Living with Fibromyalgia
Lately, the subject matter of fibromyalgia has popped up in my life a lot. I have been living with this chronic pain condition for over 17 years, and over the last few weeks people in different situations, especially some of my coaching clients, have been asking me about it. I think more and more people, especially women, are starting to put the often puzzling symptoms together and are either being diagnosed or are starting to realize themselves that they may have fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is a serious condition, and its symptoms are often baffling, so I thought I’d put together a few things I’ve learned.
First, a general definition: ’Fibromyalgia syndrome affects the muscles and soft tissue. Symptoms include chronic muscle pain, fatigue, sleep problems, and painful tender points or trigger points, which can be relieved through medications, lifestyle changes and stress management.’ This definition is from http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/default.htm, a website I find helpful, but there are many others, and ultimately everyone who suspects that they have fibromyalgia or similar/related symptoms should, of course, see a physician (often rheumatologists are a good starting point) before going down the dark, gloomy spiral of self-diagnosis.
Another definition is this: ‘Fibromyalgia (FM) is a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure. Other symptoms include tiredness to a degree that normal activities are affected, sleep problems, and troubles with memory. Some people also report restless legs syndrome, bowel or bladder problems, numbness and tingling, and sensitivity to noise, lights or temperature. Fibromyalgia is frequently associated with depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Other types of chronic pain are also frequently present.‘ *
There is, of course, a flood of information to be found online, but here are some things I wished I had known when I first started to learn how to live with fibromyalgia:
The main symptoms, chronic pain in the soft tissue of various parts your body, and the ensuing depression (sadness, anxiety, frustration, self-loathing, fear, irritability, loss of sense of purpose, etc.) come and go in waves. A lot has to do with the levels of stress you’re experiencing at any given time in your life. Although it may seem that stress is unavoidable, a lot of it can be managed and changed. This may require updating and implementing new skills when it comes to practicing better self-care and setting healthy boundaries. It may require getting some help so you can monitor and manage the severity of the pain levels as you learn to minimize your experiences of stress. This was a game changer for me. It put me in charge, at least to some degree, and taught me how to manage the varying symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Physical pain causes mental pain. And mental pain causes physical pain. The cyclical nature of this condition was one of the concepts along which my initial therapy at a clinic that specializes in fibromyalgia in Germany unfolded. Once I realized that physical pain causes mental suffering, and vice versa, over time I was able to arrange my life in a way that would break the cycle at its strategic weak points.
Let’s have a look what stress means and what it does: ‘Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.” ’
So, living in a state of ongoing mild, moderate or severe stress is putting our minds and bodies into a state of constant hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. If you were an animal in this mode you’d be ready to run or fight at the slightest sound, like a branch cracking, because it may or may not represent a threat to your life. Hyper-vigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.
Stress leads to hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance leads to exhaustion. Exhaustion is another word for fatiguing our minds and bodies over long periods of time without sufficient, regular opportunities for deep rest, joyful mobility and mental replenishment. Exhaustion and ‘driving on empty’ over prolonged periods of time can lead to the physical and mental symptoms currently classified as fibromyalgia.
I find it important to mention that fibromyalgia is a classified illness. ‘The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) lists fibromyalgia as a diagnosable disease under “Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue,” under the code M79-7, and states that fibromyalgia syndrome should be classified as a functional somatic syndrome rather than a mental disorder.’ *
Another interesting fact: Fibromyalgia predominantly affects women — as many as 90 percents of cases are diagnosed in females, according to U.S. government statistics. Men get the disorder too, but they experience it very differently. Males tend to get fewer and milder symptoms than women.
Many people, including physicians and other healthcare professionals, have used fibromyalgia as a throw-away label for otherwise undiagnosable symptoms. As a result the term fibromyalgia has gained the dubious reputation that it is ‘all just in her/his head’ which, combined with the fact that its symptoms usually don’t show any visible manifestations, causes many fibromyalgia patients to feel isolated and unseen, or even worse, doubted or dismissed while struggling to manage their daily pain levels. The majority of people I met in the treatment center for fibromyalgia in Germany named their family’s and friend’s doubt or dismissal of their symptoms as one of the main reasons for their experienced stress and suffering which in turn exacerbated their mental and physical pain levels.
So what does the mind do in this situation? In order to cope with the mental and physical pain, our mind offers resistance to the suffering it is experiencing. The mind uses coping mechanisms that often manifest themselves as egoic expressions of our unhappy selves. The ego tries to make us feel like a victim (sadness, self-pity, hopelessness, etc.) or it tries to hijack us into a state of superiority (denial, anger, irritability, etc.), both of which I have experienced and continue to deal with in various ways. To me, the key to staying in charge of my mind’s undulations is to find and practice ways to break the pain cycle at strategic points.
In order to make the physical pain more tolerable, I have found ways to incorporate several practices into my daily and weekly life. Resting, napping, gentle or vigorous physical activities, joyful mobility, interacting with animals, spending time in nature and surrounding myself with positive people, energy work (Reiki), and being present with myself and those around me are some of the main factors to consider. It took time to cultivate these things to a point where I could sustain a somewhat ‘normal’ life, but the important thing is to get started with whatever seems doable and then expand from there.
In order to make the mental pain more tolerable I have tried and found the following measures useful at varying times and to varying degrees: Presence/awareness work, meditation, coaching, thought-dissolving practice, communing with nature and animals, conventional and unconventional forms of therapy, medication, and again finding a supportive group of friends and people whom I can trust to let me be who and how I am on any given day.
I made the graphic called the ‘Pain Cycle’ to illustrate what I’m talking about in this post. It may offer a different perspective on what you or a loved one may be going through. I always find it easier to navigate things when I have a way of orienting myself.
Seeing my active lifestyle, now and then people have asked me what my secret is when they find out that I have fibromyalgia. The answer is, there is no secret. There are many ways to get educated and options to choose from to help yourself. Let me reiterate some of the things we all know but can’t be reminded of too often:
• Watch how much stress you allow into your daily life. Reorganize, delegate, be vocal about things you need, enjoy and things that are too much. Become brave(r). Don’t be afraid to break conventions. It’s your life. You’re in charge of it. You deserve to be happy.
• Rest. Sleep. It is crucial for a healthy energy reservoir and well-running metabolism. Nap — yes, really — 15-30 minutes can do wonders. Take ‘slow time’ for yourself — and not just to recover but to sustain and have reserves for the things that are meaningful and joyous to you.
• Speak up. Don’t suffer silently. Let your loved-ones, friends and colleagues know in your own words what’s going on. Secrecy will worsen your symptoms. Speaking up in a clear, objective manner is a great way to deal with your own inner turmoil and a welcome piece of information for those who would like to know how to support you. Remember, you are in charge.
• Don’t isolate yourself. Take time out as you need it, but reach out and be part of a community in whatever ways feel good and right to you. To find local support groups click on this link: https://www.fmcpaware.org/support-groups/browse-support-groups.html?sid=54:Support-Groups. There are many ways to live your life to its fullest with fibromyalgia, and reaching out to communities of people who are on similar paths and who are educated and able to help you is the first step.
• Let go of as many thoughts and activities that have to do with notions of ‘I should’ or ‘I have to.’ Watch for egoic thought patterns that no longer serve you and increase your pain levels. If you don’t know how, find a coach or a therapist to guide you. Start new practices — meditations, walks, joyful mobility, yoga, tai chi — and again find guidance if you don’t know where to start.
• Spend time in nature, be present with plants, animals and Earth. This is where you came from. This is what you will always be part of. This is what will always allow you to find your way back to peace and compassion for yourself and others.
• Find ways to express yourself creatively. This can be anything that lights you up and lets you tap into your natural gifts. Develop and share your gifts. Sharing is a bit part of health and healing.
• Oh, and did I mention rest? I usually have a list of things I want to do this day/week/month, and after organizing it by priority I usually have to figure out how to do what I want to do by weighing how much can realistically be done given a finite amount of energy each day. Being by nature a workaholic this took some time to learn and still takes daily discipline to keep up. But. It. Can. Be. Done.
• A great book that helped me with all of this is ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. He speaks of the importance of separating yourself from the ‘pain-body’ which can otherwise turn into an overwhelming entity with paralyzing powers over a person who hasn’t learned to master this type of thinking, being and doing. Other works by Byron Katie, Don Miguel Ruiz and Thich Nhat Hanh have been essential to living in a more peaceful state of mind.
As I’m writing this post I realize how blessed I am to have found a way to write, ride, coach, teach and work with horses and people on a daily basis. I live a somewhat simple life, but it is perfect for me. It allows me to follow my calling and lets me live my life (for the most part) at peace and in balance. I’m hugely grateful to the animals and people who understand, support and accept me for who I am — passionate horse person, quirky coach, animal lover, hermit-like writer and person that can’t be hugged too tightly on certain days — what can I say, life is good.
Whether you are a person afflicted with fibromyalgia yourself or you know someone who is dealing with it, be mindful to acknowledge what is going on. Have a look, think what it really means and what you can do to make things better for yourself or a loved one.
Above all I encourage every brave soul to see what life has in store for you — not despite, but because of this condition that may, in fact, become a valuable measuring tool for how you want to create your most joyful and amazing life. Hooray for that! I cheer you on! Let’s live life to its fullest! 🙂
[First published 08-01-2017]
‘Hallo?’ his voice sounds muffled.
‘Hallo, lieber Papi, this is Katzi!’ I say. ‘How are you doing, my dear one?’
‘Shhh! I can’t talk right now.’ my father whispers. ‘They found me.’
‘I’m sorry?’ I say.
‘They got me now. They’re right outside.’ he says in a breathless voice.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Are you ok?’
‘I’m in great danger.’ my father says. ‘I can’t talk right now. ’ I can tell he means it.
‘Is there anything I can do?’ I ask.
‘No. That’s all I can say. I’ve got to go now.’ he says.
‘Ok, Papi.’ I say. ‘I hold you dear, Papi.’
‘Thank you for the flowers. Goodbye.’ he says and hangs up.
I sit in my chair, put down the phone and take a deep breath. My dad has Parkinson’s disease. As the illness progresses his delusions often take him into worlds filled with danger, corruption and people who mean him harm. He’s caught in places where bombs are just about to go off, collapsing buildings threaten his life and thugs with weapons hunt him down. It must be hellish to think you are in terrible danger, and everyone around you either tells you that you are imagining things or placates you to calm you down. I try not to talk him out of what he sees and feels. It doesn’t help and aggravates him more.
At least he knows I sent him flowers. Sometimes my dad tells me that he has an unknown beneficiary who keeps on sending him baked goods, chocolates, books, clothes and all sorts of useful things. I tell him I am glad.
The hallucinations aren’t always malevolent. Sometimes he tells me about a dog, a big salt-and-pepper stray, that comes to see him. And there are two cats that climb up on the outside of the building and sneak into his room through the window to visit him.
‘I never feed them.’ he says. ‘But they always come back.’
Sometimes the cats are there when I call him, and it’s in those moments when he lets me join his world. I’ll ask him where the cats are, and he’ll tell me they’re sleeping on his bed.
‘They’re very, very quiet.’ he’ll say. ‘You know, they don’t allow pets in this place here. But they are so quiet, and so smart!’ I can hear the smile in his voice. ‘No one ever notices them.’
I know that calling him back right now wouldn’t make things better. It’s evening in Germany, early morning here in California, and the spells that hi-jack him into a different dimension of reality usually get worse at night. Sometimes I can bring him back to the here and now, but there are places he goes where I can’t reach him. Today he’s there. I’ll call again tomorrow to see where he may be.
It’s time to turn out the horses. My dad’s words echo in my mind. I’ve been through this and worse with him before. My brother, a physician himself, oversees my dad’s medical treatments. Several specialists are doing every possible thing to help him, but the inevitable truth is that he’s not going to get better. The medication that treats the Parkinson’s disease increases his dopamine levels which in turn amps up the hallucinations.
I’m trying to get out of my head and check in with my senses. My right hand feels a slight tug backwards. It’s holding the lead rope that’s fastened to Tinker Bell’s dainty, red halter. Taking small, leisurely steps toward wherever we might be going this confident, bay Shetland pony is in no particular hurry. Chewing on some left-over hay in her mouth, batting her long eyelashes, she takes the occasional look to the left, and then to the right, as we are walking down the tree-lined dirt path. The tender morning light breaks the spell of the night.
The leash that keeps my charcoal-colored Border Collie, Bagheera, from running and barking at anything larger than herself, sends surges of energy through my right hand. She’s still a puppy, and all she wants to do is run and play. Sun rays dance as bird songs celebrate the brand-new day.
On my left side, Tux, my spirited, black, eighteen-hand Thoroughbred, towers over all of us. The lead rope dangles loosely between us as his long legs keep in perfect step with mine. A gentle breeze moves leafs and bees and other fairy creatures.
The four of us are walking down the long road from the barn toward the pastures where, speckled with wildflowers, precious green grass will keep the horses grazing and happy for the rest of the day. Calcified oyster shells and other fossilized sea creatures imprint the sandy ground beneath our feet. We’re walking on what used to be an ocean.
I look back at Tinker Bell. She makes me smile. Trailing behind, she owns her space and takes her time. When I was little my mom would read the story of Peter Pan to my brother and me. Tinker Bell, the little fairy who mended pots and kettles, was so tiny that she could only hold one feeling at the time. One moment she’d be terribly ill-tempered, jealous or spoiled, and then she’d be incredibly sweet and helpful to Peter. No warring emotions in that little elf. What you see is what you get — shapeshifting and all — but only one feeling at the time. Sort of awesome. Talk about being present!
As we walk past the riding arena, I look up at the pile of natural rocks underneath the old oak tree that spreads its arms as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’ Those rocks mark the spot where my Kelly, my sage and cherished Border Collie, found her final resting place last summer. Sometimes I feel her spirit linger where she used to sit and watch me ride. A soul wiser than many, her death, paired with my beloved mom’s passing last year, left tender markings on my heart. Waves of loss and sadness wash over me. I breathe and let them pass. There is a sweetness in this moment. I see Kelly rest in the sun by the oak tree. I see the wind blow my mom’s hair from her smiling face. There’s kindness in the past as well.
Bagheera, my ember-eyed familiar, tugs on my right hand now. She keeps my thoughts from drifting straight into never-never-land. Let’s go, who cares what might have been? Her movements free and weightless, she keeps my footprints moving, away from dark and gloomy moods.
One morning this spring, I woke up, and I knew it was time to find her. A specter of this dog that was going to come into my life had landed in my conscious mind. It had nothing to do with replacing Kelly or getting a ‘new dog.’ Kelly is irreplaceable. And the word ‘new’ in the context of connecting with someone— dogs, horses, humans or other animals — in meaningful ways often seems strange to me. The longer I live the more I trust the deeper knowing, that place of almost instant trust and recognition I feel when I meet a ‘new’ old friend… again.
I spent hours scanning animal rescue websites, dog profiles, stories and photos online. When I saw the picture of a black dog with yellow eyes behind a row of thick metal bars, I knew I had found ‘my dog.’ Bagheera was located at the police animal shelter in Hollister, a four-hour drive up north from where I live. The officers at the shelter were surprised that I was calling to adopt this dog without coming to see her first. They cautioned me that the fees for the adoption, spaying, vaccinations, micro-chipping and registration were non-refundable and to be paid upfront. It was fine, I said. And she is, they said, almost completely black. Black dogs were often passed over by adopters and last to find a home. I filled out forms, paid and waited for the process to unfold.
When it was time to bring Bagheera home, it felt, indeed, as if we’d both been lost and found. I cried, I couldn’t help myself, when this beautiful, black hurricane came flying toward me. ‘Bagh’ means tiger in Hindi. She resembles her namesake, the black panther in Rudyard Kipling’s popular story ‘The Jungle Book,’ in more ways than one. I guess it’s not surprising that people like to name animals after characters in fairy tales, stories involving fantastic forces and beings such as fairies, wizards, and goblins.
Bagheera turns her head. Her eyes touch mine. This energy, this easy love, the wild abandon in her play! She makes things brighter, lighter, leaving darker scenes behind. There’s magic in her stormy joy, her bold exuberance, and this sense of not a care in the world when, suddenly and with utter trust that all is well, she’ll fall asleep right by my feet.
What if this dazzling energy, this untamed, wolf-like creature, has come to be my wizard and my teacher? What if, in some strange way, she’ll wake me up to be this worry-free and young again? We play, we run, we roll around. She makes me laugh so loud, at first it seems to echo. In play, I find, there is no past and no tomorrow. And yet, there’s room for innocence and knowing, a slow and fast awakening to utter bliss right here and now.
My black horse stops. His head so high above us, his muscles taut as arrows, it seems absurd to think a few pieces of leather and rope could contain this unbridled power frozen in time. Absolute alertness, absolute stillness, absolute readiness to move, or not. We’ve all come to a halt with him. We melt into this stillness, all minds and bodies one. The quiet moment seems to stretch, for how long I don’t know. Then, out of nowhere, as it seems, three deer are climbing up the brushy hillside. Tux snorts and clears his palette. The moment passes. We breathe and walk again as one.
Tux. My beloved horse. He is presence. His given name is ‘Wunderkind’ (Wonder Child) which turned into ‘Tux’ (Tuxedo) as he grew older. Bold, black, with four white socks and a diamond-shaped, white mark on his nose, he is a vision to behold. His movements big and silken, he started out as one of those horses whose potential put a price tag on him that was well beyond my reach. His exuberant temperament, his dominant character and his unyielding intelligence paired with the early onset of arthritis in all four legs changed the course of his life, and mine, in strange and wonderful ways.
Tux and I, since we first met, have come a long and sometimes challenging way. We carry each other, often walking side by side. Unfazed by health and other matters, this horse with his larger-than-life presence and his incorrigible sense of joy has inspired people’s support and kindness over and over again: Tux’s breeder, her heart as big as the sea, decided to buy Tux back from the ‘wrong person’ so that he could stay in training with me. A kind surgeon at an acclaimed veterinary clinic, well aware of my inability to pay the twenty-thousand dollar fee for the service at the time, decided to go ahead with Tux’s colic surgery when he was young and subsequently refused to accept any of my attempts to pay my dues. A precious group of friends and mentors supported my emotionally charged decision to buy this horse (how can you buy a soul mate?!), and have stood by us when my own health issues and stubborn mind allow for nothing but a very simple life.
Three years ago, two of my most treasured friends invited me to move with my animals to their ranch because they ‘had always wanted a beautiful, black horse in the pasture’ that spreads out in front of their family home. Granted, that may not have been the only reason, but who’s to say what makes true magic really work?
Another morning dawns, and I try to reach my dad again. The ringtone sounds weary, monotonous and sterile. No answer. I’ll try again later and go to feed the horses. When I come back I see a text message from my brother on my phone.
‘Hello dear Katzi, Unfortunately Papi was so aggressive and combative with the caregivers at his facility yesterday that he had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. He has been taken to a very good, new clinic in Preetz. I will keep you posted.’
I sit and try to understand what all this really means. A row of inhospitable and down-right scary images flash in front of my mind’s eye. My dad is in a psychiatric hospital. How can this be? It doesn’t seem that long ago that this vibrant, funny, smart, kind man was, despite all of his troubles, still boisterous and for the most part at peace with his fate. And he’s only eighty-four! Isn’t that supposed to be ‘not that old’ these days? A bunch of feelings try to flood me. Breathe, I think, try to be present, think of Tinker Bell. One emotion at the time, please. After a while I find the place in my head where I can hope that my Papi may be able to get better care in a modern place that specializes in psychiatric disorders than in a regular senior home. My heart goes out to him. I hope they’ll help him not to live in fear. I hope he took his virtual pets, the dog and the two cats, with him. I read somewhere that people in the final stages of dementia often see furry creatures that come to soothe and comfort them. It makes complete sense to me. And who’s to say what’s real or not?
I humbly bow to all the animals — goblins, wizards, spellbinders — light bearers all of them. What better teachers could we ask for? What better soothers of our hearts? What kinder builders of our trust? I cannot think of any. Although the darkness claims its places and offers contrast to the light, our lives are rich and filled with magic. Let’s open our eyes and see each world for what it is, one miraculous moment at the time.
[First published 06-02-2017]
Last night I woke up with a startle. I thought I’d heard the ringtone on my phone that is assigned to my brother, Christian, who lives with his family in Germany. The weird thing is, this ringtone is muted. I couldn’t possibly have heard it.
A few months ago, late last summer, this ringtone had started to haunt my nights. Imagine a handful of tiny silver bells echoing as they hit the surface of a frozen lake. That’s what I used to think of when, mostly in the middle of the night, I’d wake up from this eery, tinny jingle. I sleep in my contact lenses, and once I wake up it takes a while for my vision to adjust. Blurry-eyed I’d grab my cell phone, trying to decipher the words on the luminous screen. I’d fumble in the dark to find my eye drops, usually without success. Waiting for my eyes to become more lubricated, I’d lie back down and close my eyes for a moment again.
A familiar picture would take shape in my mind. Surrounded by a huge body of black water, a very small, wooden house seems to shiver in the cold, blue night. Dark waves are lapping at its doorsteps. The house feels nauseous, its throat is tightening. Frozen fingers grip its heart.
During those summer weeks, Christian would text me updates on our mother’s disintegrating health status. He is a busy surgeon, and Germany is nine hours ahead of our time here in California. Waking up to the nightly sound of the silvery tinsel bells, usually announcing more bad news, turned into something I would learn to dread. Over the course of several weeks, my mom’s scheduled heart surgery turned into a nightmarish sequence of complications, strokes, heart failures, moments of hope and multiple surgical procedures that ultimately couldn’t save her. My mother passed away as I was on my way to Germany. I spent two weeks in my hometown to take care of the funeral arrangements and to help my father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, settle into his drastically changed life at an assisted living home.
Back in California, the chameleonic onslaught of grief caught me off guard. Mingling with the deeper layers of depression I became wary of its many shapes and moods. I yearned to connect with my brother, to talk, to write, to share — if not our feelings — then at least some moments of open awkwardness, of clumsy silences, of saying something unexpected, of strained laughter that might turn into tears, anything really. Anything but trying to bridge the gap between us via text or email and waiting for replies that never came. For reasons I haven’t completely unraveled yet, our modes of communication have rarely gone past the written, digital word since our mother passed away. Perhaps we are too busy. We both live active lives. Perhaps having to be the closest relative and contact person for our father weighs more on my brother than I know. Perhaps he wishes that I didn’t live in a far-away country, that I could be of more help. I wish I could do more.
Perhaps it’s just that each of us has to stay in our individual bubble of grief for a while longer. Perhaps talking to one another cannot mean, as it might for others, the finding of mutual comfort by sharing our feelings. Perhaps we are both afraid of touching each other’s raw spots. When I get lost in the maze of stories in my head, sooner or later I find my way back to what I know is true. I’ll always love my brother. The best way I know to love him is to let him be. And the best way I know to take care of my grieving self is to mute his ringtone.
Last night, when I woke up because I thought I’d heard the sound of the icy silver bells on my phone, I felt the familiar fear again. The fear of more bad news. The ringtone, real or imagined, revived the image of the little house, the surrounding dark water rising dangerously close to its entrance. My mom’s sweet face floated by. And then my dad’s, more serious and drawn. The disorienting, nightly darkness took a hold of me again as I fumbled for my phone only to realize that, even if I could have made out the words on its screen, there would be no message from my brother. It was just a dream. Fear gave way to sadness. I lay back down. My hand reached over to the far side of my bed and found the purring warmth of my cat, Cassidy. I don’t know who fell asleep first.
I wake up from the pulsating vibrations of my muted cell phone on my nightstand. Dawn fills my bedroom with its grey-blue light. I look at my cat as he yawns and stretches. I remember the weird dream of my brother’s ringtone last night. Cassidy gets up, walks across my stomach and settles down on my chest for his morning cuddle. I pet him, glad for the warm, rumbling weight on my body. His reverberating breath against my rib cage comforts me. For a moment I close my eyes again and drop back into last night’s dreamscape. The ringtone. Christian. The little house in the black water. Mom. Fear. Sadness. And then the fear again.
‘What is the fear about?’ I ask.
‘What do you think?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know.’ I say. ‘I’m anxious. And sad.’
‘What is the sadness about?’ It asks.
‘My mom passed away last summer. My dog died a week later. I wish I could do more for my dad. My friend Warren passed away a couple of weeks ago. I miss my brother. Last week Velvet, one of our horses, colicked and had to be put down.’ I say. ‘There’s been a lot of death and dying lately.’
‘What does that mean to you?’ It asks.
‘It means I’m losing loved ones.’ I say. ‘It means I miss them. It means things end.’
‘And what happens when things end?’ It says.
‘It hurts.’ I say.
‘Ok.’ It says. ‘I can see that.’
We breathe into the silence.
‘Can you surrender to the pain?’ It asks after a while.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘I mean, can you be ok with it? Can you accept it?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know…’ I say.
‘Can you see that the pain is not all of you? It’s there but it can not overtake your being unless you let it.’ It says.
‘Yes, I remember. Eckhart Tolle. The pain body.’ I say. ‘And what about the fear?’
‘What about it?’ It asks. ‘What does it mean to you?’
‘It’s fear of loss. Fear of darkness.’ I say. ‘Fear of being left alone.’
‘Can you surrender to that fear?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know. It seems so big and overwhelming.’ I say. ‘It’s like the black water that rises all the way up to my neck.’
‘And then what?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know. It feels like it’s going to swallow me.’ I say.
‘And then what happens?’ It asks.
‘I just want it to go away.’ I say.
‘And then what would happen?’ It asks.
‘I’d be without fear.’ I say. ‘Fearless.’
‘And how would that feel?’ It asks.
‘Wonderful.’ I say.
‘How about breaking it down into smaller steps?’ It asks. ‘Could you fear less?’
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘Fear less?’
‘Yes, rather than jumping into the deep end of the dark water, you could take it slow. Get your toes wet, then your feet, and so on. Give it time. See what happens until you know it well enough to fear it less. Eventually, you may go from fearing less to feeling fearless.’ It says.
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘It’s worth a try.’
‘Remember, surrender can mean coming to terms.’ It says. ‘Coming to terms with your fear will take you to accepting it. Acceptance will take you to healing.’
‘Hmm. I can see that.’ I say. A warmer, lighter feeling spreads through my being. ‘Thank you.’
I open my eyes and look into Cassidy’s face. We stare at each other for a while. I reach over to check my phone. I can see clearly now. There is a text message from Christian saying that our father has had a bad fall, that he has been taken to the hospital with a fractured femoral neck and that he is scheduled for surgery early the next morning. I take a deep breath. Fear less.
[First published 02-24-2017]
Power Tool: Peace
How creating peace on the inside can become your ultimate powerful tool to help you create change on the outside
Something is bothering you. It’s not just the varying sensations of disbelief, helplessness, fear and even anger at some of the more recent political events — globally as well as in your own backyard. It’s not just the occasional turmoil in your close relationships, at work or within your community of family and friends. And it’s not just the overall sense that things are less and less foreseeable, that even some of your best plans aren’t making you feel confident and calm anymore. It’s more than that. Let’s have a look…
Step 1: Take an honest inventory of your current situation
What I’m talking about is of a more subtle nature. At least at first. Something has been bothering you for a while. It may have started out as a lingering feeling of unrest, a steady note of discontent or unhappy undertones that have become familiar companions in your otherwise quite well-tempered life. As time passes you may notice how even little things are prone to raise your temper, tears come easily, and sudden sadness or a lack of energy are right there underneath the surface.
But you keep on going, doing all the things that are making up your daily routine, perhaps numbing yourself with an overly ambitious (yet quite doable!) workload. You find yourself spending your days and nights in a constant state of stress which, even at low levels, causes your mind and body to be in a continuous mode of fight or flight.
This is what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls habit energy. If you are resonating with what I’ve outlined above you are most likely living in a state of low-frequency or negatively tainted habit energy.
You may rightfully point out that there’s a lot going on in your life. Your thoughts may revolve around health concerns, aging, money, relationship issues, retirement, supporting yourself and others, caregiving for an elderly parent — you name it, the list goes on. And somewhere way down on that list there is a little place that says ‘And what about me?’ This is your essential Self talking, the part of you that knows that you are inherently precious and worthy of being heard and seen in this world.
You don’t like to look at that last point on your list very often because it immediately brings up feelings of guilt, maybe shame or even fear of wanting more for your Self. These thoughts and feelings are what your social Self has been taught from early childhood on. Familiar notions such as ‘you should be grateful for what you have’ and ‘lots of people have it way worse than you’ have trained your mind and turned it into an obedient, little monkey that will ignore the voice that whispers ‘what about me?’ and quickly go back into his little cage.
This negative habit energy — feeling worried, stagnant, anxious, sleepless, resigned, empty, tired, hopeless, frustrated, trapped and generally worn out— often has to do with a lack of perspective for your Self. In order to re-habituate your internal monkey mind it needs to learn to believe that other viable options are within reach. It needs to come out of his cage and have a good look around. Learning, in other words, broadening your self-perspective, is a big part of creating the change that will let you travel on a more meaningful, fulfilling life path.
And here is one crucially important thing to know about learning. A tense and tired mind will not let you absorb and process new information. If you want to learn how to create change you will need to learn how to create peace inside of your Self first. Sounds easy? A little rest, a little meditation, a little yoga, healthy food and reducing all stress factors in your life to a minimum, right? If it was this easy you probably wouldn’t still be reading this piece up to this point. Read on…
Step 2: Check your perspective
Imagine you are a bee that is caught indoors behind the clear glass of a big window pane. You can see quite clearly where you want to go: Out into the big, wide, open world where you are free to peruse the multitude of floral engagement invites, pursue your happiness and fulfill the purpose of your life. Except you just don’t seem to be able to get there. You expend enormous amounts of energy buzzing in front of the clear glass, flapping your wings with all the might you have, banging your head against an invisible wall — all this without getting any closer to your goal. It’s so frustrating! You can see the beautiful trees, the flowers and the blue sky. Everything is right there. All of these lovely treasures — and you just can not get there — no matter how hard you try!
Does this sound familiar? It’s a great metaphor for how many of us live our lives. We all have hopes and dreams and wishes. And we all have a right to go after them!
Let’s get back to the negatively charged habit energy I was talking about. The level of stress may vary, but never the less, it’s there almost all of the time. That means that we as an organism of considerable complexity never really get to be in a one hundred percent relaxed resting status. We don’t sleep well or long enough, and our days are filled with a continuous low-grade anxiety about one thing or another. Our minds and bodies are in a constant state of vigilance, sometimes hyper-vigilance. And because we’re so caught up in our go-go-go mode our ability to see what’s going on has turned into a very narrow perspective. Our monkey mind answers any question about change, any attempt to break a pattern, with the quick and witty auto-response ‘But I have to….!’ And it’s been saying it for so long you’re not even questioning it anymore.
But, and here is the big question: Is it true? Do you really have to…?
What if you were the bee (and yes, there is a tiny monkey in your head — bear with me) and you stopped for a moment, just long enough to gather your wits, maybe even take a little nap because, admit it, buzzing around and banging your head into an invisible wall doesn’t exactly lend itself to a particularly productive outcome when it comes to creating change. So you’re the bee — be the bee! — and you rest for a moment. You sit on the window sill and breathe. And suddenly your wings are starting to pick up the delicious sensation of a most tender touch. You are startled and turn around, but there’s no one there. Instead, you notice a gentle breeze that comes from the opposite side of the room. You see another big, square opening, a window, on the wall that was behind you — completely outside of your field of vision — just a moment ago. It’s glass doors are open and white gauze curtains are billowing in the breeze, opening their arms to invite you to come closer. You can see the sky and the trees and the flowers in all their glory again. All you have to do is spread your wings and fly!
And what pops up in your head is a familiar thought: ‘If I couldn’t make it happen before, why should it work this time?’ In the world of behavioral science, this is called ‘learned helplessness.’ You have conditioned your (social monkey) Self to believe that you are trapped and unable to (figuratively and literally) move forward — even if the window is wide open!
So you have tunnel vision and invisible breaks built into your modus operandi. Good to know. No reason to give up! Read on…
Step 3: Expose yourself to a conscious key experience
If you asked 20 people who have created enough change in their lives to live an awake, meaningful, balanced life how they got to where they are now I bet you they all have one thing in common. I bet you that each and every one of them experienced one or several events — I call them key experiences — that made them come to a screeching halt, stop flailing and catch their breath before becoming very still. And I mean completely still. A level of stillness that is almost scary because it has become so unfamiliar in our noisy lives. But it’s exactly this level of stillness that is needed to get to the next place and that is — you guessed it — peace.
Peace is the place where you can breathe without going directly into the next ‘doing’ part of your life. Peace is the place where you can practice your ‘being.’ And when you’re in the place of being at peace your field of vision starts to widen and your sense of awareness is starting to tingle with anticipation again. Parts of you that have felt numb or asleep are starting to wake up and dare to come out into the open. You can stretch and yawn and look around. And for this moment in time nothing needs to be done. See everything with brand-new eyes! And before you know it your peaceful mind is going into a state of expansion. Expanding on what feels good and on what you will want to invite into your life next. How delightful!
So what exactly is a key experience? It could be anything — a health crisis, a loved-one passing on, a divorce, an unexpected change of your professional path and/or financial status — something that causes you to stop and know that life from here on forward will be drastically different. Sometimes you can track back the steps that lead up to a particularly cataclysmic event, and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise. These are events that fall into the category of life lessons that happen to us. Everybody goes through them as part of their human experience.
And then there is the second category, something I like to think of as a conscious key experience. This, my friend, is where you take on the role of an active student of life. It means that you say to yourself: “I, (insert your name here), am in charge if my life!” You say it. You breathe. You mean it. This is where you are committing to being the captain of your universe —even if your voice is quivering just the tiniest little bit.
This is where you consciously choose to expose yourself to key experiences that will help you understand where you want to go from here. You may decide to do something that you have never done before. Take an art class, go to a concert all by yourself, go on a trip to a place where you don’t speak the native language, book a spot on a retreat that seems unusual and intriguing, volunteer at a place that may rock your world, go sky-diving… Anything that will take you out your comfort zone enough to make you stop and think ‘Wow! I never thought I’d do this!’ Because whenever you go out on a limb — even one of your own choosing — you’re going to break an old pattern. You’re going to have to catch your breath for a moment, enjoy the high of conquering the fear of the unknown, feel the joy, recover from the unusual disturbance of your equilibrium, and realize that you’re still in one piece. And that you have landed at a new place. You are at peace.
Step 4: Find new practices and create new habit energy
So that was fun! Let’s do it again, right? Key experiences — especially the conscious ones — have a tendency to make us feel exhilarated and delightfully free. Before we get to the place of peace and clarity, endorphins are in full swing, and what could be better than doing it again? And again. And then some more, right?
Do you notice something? You’re going right into the place of ‘doing’ again! This time it’s with a lot more joy and pleasure in the forecast, but if you’re not careful you can lose yourself in another phase of doing without being and without creating meaningful change.
In order to stay in charge of your own most beautiful, meaningful life you will need to practice a conscious version of restraint. Restrain your desire to go into full-throttle-overkill mode of what you think is the most amazingly fun and beautiful thing you’ve done in a long time. If you don’t you may drift off into a thrill-seeking fog, chasing one high after another. You will lose your clarity, your sense of distinction between the ordinary and the exquisite which is your brand-new power tool, your vision guide, as you move forward and make some leeway on your quest to grow your precious Self.
Resist the temptation of over-doing, search for teachers and teachings, find guides and guidance, and choose practices that will serve you to change your habit energy to a more purposeful, well-paced and fruitful frequency. As you surrender yourself to the process, peace will become your companion, practice will become your path, and fulfillment will become your journey.
A beautiful way of expressing this concept comes from the movie ‘Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon’ where Li Mu Bai says to one of his protagonists to whom he offers his teachings: “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.”
Remember: Be the bee.
[First published 01-11-2017]