Kindness

IMG_0604 2A friend emailed the poem Kindness just as the week began to go crazy, and it was only kindness that gave light and clarity to each situation that came my way. In that clear space of being rooted in its lucidity so too did its companions understanding and compassion help me break through my confusion and old patterns.

Wondering about what to write for the month of December with its roller-coaster energy of endings, celebration, and beginnings—along with the wildness and chaos of the past year on so many levels—a calm-voiced message came through: “Send this poem out.”

I am eternally grateful for Naomi Shihab Nye’s compassionate, wise words. This may be the fiftieth time I’ve read this poem—may it continue to carry us all toward kindness.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth. / What you held in your hand, / what you counted and carefully saved, / all this must go so you know / how desolate the landscape can be / between the regions of kindness. / How you ride and ride / thinking the bus will never stop, / the passengers eating maize and chicken / will stare out the window forever. / Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, / you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho / lies dead by the side of the road. / You must see how this could be you, / how he too was someone / who journeyed through the night with plans / and the simple breath that kept him alive. / Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. / You must wake up with sorrow. / You must speak to it till your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows / and you see the size of the cloth. / Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, / only kindness that ties your shoes / and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, / only kindness that raises its head / from the crowd of the world to say / it is I you have been looking for, / and then goes with you everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Found on www.poets.org, where this poem is reprinted with the permission of the author.

What Keeps Us Afloat

IMG_2060I call them mom-isms, my mother’s newly found perspectives that speak of Buddhist equanimity with a dash of slapstick humor. She offered up her latest this morning: “If something is bothering me, I look out the window at the mountains and just picture the worry floating away over the mountains like a feather…I don’t want to be one of those grumpy old women.”

She has Alzheimer’s now. She has been a Presbyterian, Catholic and Southern Baptist at different times in her life, and humor doesn’t figure highly in my own memories of her, so these bits of wisdom are a precious gift. In her very decline, we are both emerging anew.

Mom spoke of her ‘letting go’ practice after I read her this line from one of author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels: “He clung to the thought and found it floated.” This line speaks of things joyous, affirming, empowering, enlivening. There cannot be light without shadow, and so this line also speaks of difficulties and tragedies and unspeakable things that have somehow over time been transformed, and thus transformed us.

The last few weeks I’ve been acutely aware of the old feelings and snippets of stories that have taken up residence in my physical self, decades ago roosting like hungry baby birds within me, now like ancient mummies in tangled nests. I’m remembering our bodies are the last to let go of the musty remnants of our individual human experiences. Letting these remnants drift away like my mother’s worrisome feathers is a somatic, felt-in-my-body re-structuring. A relief that I don’t yet have the words to describe.

Hard emotions—anger and rage, mistrust and confusion, grief and despair to name only a few—are here to stay. So many of us learn to repress and suppress these emotions, to perpetuate an ‘I’m fine, thank you very much’ response to what my friend Vickie calls ”the Hallmark card” version of life. Yet suppression and repression turn emotions into stones, a heaviness that settles into our bodies, dragging us down, down, down. A heaviness that takes on many guises, and in its most heartbreaking results in personal decisions like Virginia Woolf filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the dark water of the Thames River, or social and cultural explosions like war and genocide.

It is in the expression of these thoughts and feelings—in the sharing of our deepest shames and wounding—that we stay afloat. A sharing done in the company of safe, trusted friends listening, often in silence—as we speak of unspeakable things birthed from difficult, sometimes impossible-to-fathom situations. We float just as buoyantly when we allow ourselves to speak of our exquisite joys—moments of silliness, beauty, discovery, and love—to those same staunch friends. Sometimes strangers hold the space for strangers speaking to other strangers thought to be enemies and the listening transforms everyone present.

What keeps us afloat is opening wide and riding the breeze, blossoming in light and the dark, letting the depth and breadth of our lives be both our foundation and the current we float upon toward the next moment.

The Question of Purpose

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Why am I here? What do I want? What will make me happy? This question of our individual purpose is a Big Question, a question we first hear within our own dreams and fantasies as children. Then the adults ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question that we hold within us throughout our lives, sometimes resulting in solid answers, often resulting in even more questions that can leave us frustrated or inspired, and always standing in the land of the unknown.

How do I fit more family time (or exercise, spirituality, classes, do-nothing time, find a new job, etc.) into this hamster wheel of a life? How did I end up here? What should I do next? Always the Big Question hovers.

For a short or lengthy period of time within a life, one’s purpose can consist of getting untangled from the wishes and shoulds of others—usually pertaining to work, earning money and/or fitting in with the flock—a net woven of other’s desires and needs that are in direct opposition to any innate spark or flame residing within us. Flinging off those constraints leaves us face to face with what will indeed fulfill us, make us happy, that certain something worth waking up to every day.

Oh, the pressure!

Know that within this volatile word purpose live the centuries-old meanings of intention, aim, and to put forth. Spirited meanings that contain the characteristics of inquiry, adaptability and creativity. To value, to stretch, with intensity and will. To move onward and further. And to do so continually.

‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain’s words are a challenging celebration of the true direction of your individual life. A direction that requires as much being as doing—a direction that touches so many others along the way. Like the joy I sensed in the young girl running toward a parade. She ran by, and turning quickly I took the photograph, hoping to capture her compelling run toward life, that stretching toward her own why.

Purpose is a loaded word, often pointing toward a radically different way of living—that like the best jazz musicians—riffs off our own decades of experience and ongoing expertise, our own dreams and the palpable, sometimes mysterious support around us.

I’ve found the why of my own life is elastic, expanding in its depth and breadth and forcing me to do the same. My why is always moving onward, and so my aim and adaptability require constant practice. Over the years a curiously brave curiosity that is stronger than fear and the fog bank of the unknown has attached itself like an invisible friend. Each step is a stretch toward answers—and yes—more questions that invigorate my days.

 

The Art of Choosing

IMG_1932When choosing becomes imminent—be it a seemingly large or small choice—quietly sitting for a while with all of the options allows the finer truth of things to come through. It is in this waiting, this stillness, that the artful nature of making choices appears.

Many years ago I read a true account* of a woman who could no longer function in her daily life because she could not make any choices. Leaving behind any option was unbearable for her, rendering even the tiniest decision impossible. One day, her doctor read her Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” She came out of her frozen frame of mind soon after hearing the poem, its last lines recognizable to most of us: “…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / — I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

Yet it is in the first stanza that Frost shares the art of choosing: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could…Then took the other…”

Long I stood. Only then did the choice come to him.

I came across this orange dragonfly in our pond the other day. It held on to a horsetail reed for the longest time, gracefully embodying stillness while the reed swayed in a strong breeze and the noonday heat.

Be the dragonfly. Know the right choice will make itself known as you listen to your own knowing, your own wisdom. Even as well-meaning advice and friendly confirmation sways your thoughts, ask: What is my heart urging me to hear? Am I honoring my intuition? Am I embracing the facts and connections my intellect is sharing with me? How and where in my body is my physical self giving me messages?  

The practice is in the stillness. The listening. The trusting.

 
* Dr. Jack Leedy, “Poetry Therapy: The Use of Poetry in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders” 1969.

 

 

The Practice of Unfolding

Unfolding

“I find my ideas and visions taking longer to bear fruit—a slowing down and [feeling like I'm] getting less ‘done’—[the] work now is to not interpret this negatively but rather contemplatively.”                                       -Victoria Seeley

My friend Victoria’s words are like soft rain after a long drought. The last eight months have been a time of rethinking, reimagining, rebuilding, and re-sensing how I want to breathe and walk through the days and months to come. I’ve found unexpected synchronicities, collaborations and abundant quiet time, albeit sometimes rather forced. Four months of flu and colds, an emergency appendectomy, and having both my personal and website emails hacked have contributed to this sense—and fact—of slowing down in order to listen to what I need to hear. Of contemplating instead of judging.

Every day I pass through my small walled garden on the way to my studio. Over the years I’ve learned to take notice of what is unfolding—the three Japanese iris that have bloomed overnight, the hens-and-chicks growing so fast they now need replanting, or the sudden surprise of leaf-eating ants beginning to devour the jasmine vine.

The plant that speaks to me most is the philodendron in its shady corner. Rooted deep into the soil with its aerial roots snaking along the wall, it has grown into a magnificent plant over the last five years. It has done this by slowly and steadily unfolding one leaf at a time. Today I noticed a new leaf in its initial unfurling. Over the next week it will unfold until it reaches two feet in length and almost the same dimension in width.

Each day as I walk past it, the philodendron reminds me to follow its rhythm—to steadily, slowly unfold in my own glorious way, continually growing into and adapting to my own corner of the world. And yes, many times life calls for a fast-paced blur of activity, jolting me out of this tried and true rhythm (my husband just turned on Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” at full volume…his timing both distracting and brilliant). That’s why unfolding is a practice, why I keep returning to the garden.

 

 

Into the Cave

IMG_0996 - Version 3It’s that “into the cave” time of year. I’m wearing sweaters and scarves, the mesquite leaves are turning silver, the holidays are here and another birthday is coming up. I wrote the following poem three years ago, and took a month off from blogs and social media, to re-emerge in January. I’m doing the same this year. Until then, wishing everyone a wondrous Winter Solstice and 2014!

Note to Self in Winter

To become bear-like / in these winter months / to slow down to a soft snore / to lumber willingly / into my cave / to embrace rest and darkness / so I may rejuvenate and emerge / ravenous / to begin again. -ngs

To Weave a Good Life

IMG_0851 - Version 2You have to weave the good things you want into your life       is the motto of weavers Viridiana and her husband Jesús, passed down by Viridiana’s ninety-year old great-grandmother who also wove rugs and clothing just as they do today. They live with their extended family in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, in a sprawling wood and adobe house.

Set into a hillside with views of the mountains across a wide green valley, their home and place of work embodies great-grandma’s wisdom. Bags of raw wool lean against the walls. Bunches of dried plants wait to be ground in a stone mortar and pestle called a molcajete. Elegantly simple hand-made looms sit under an outdoor covered porch, unfinished rugs and skeins of wool resting on the vertical ribbing of white threads waiting for the weavers’ hands. Piles of finished rugs are evidence that here, life is an everyday creative endeavor, asking only for full participation.

Everyone helps with the time-consuming processes that precede the actual weaving. High-quality wool must be cleaned, carded, and spun. Native plants, natural minerals, and the dried carcasses of the tiny insect called Cochineal are gathered for the dyes—some color formulas known for centuries, others newly created through experimentation. The spun wool is dyed in large pots over outdoor fires, dried in the sun, and hung like brilliant decorations in the family’s home.

I fell in love with a gray wool shawl the day we visited Viridiana and Jesús. Wearing it on cool nights keeps me deliciously warm, and its handmade artful spirit passed down through generations whispers great-grandmother’s wisdom—to weave a good life is a labor of patience and attention, time and ingenuity, collaboration and love.

During this holiday season, what family wisdom is speaking to you?

(With many thanks to Viridiana, Jesús, and Romina)

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nancygshapiro_bookShare a Bit of Calm this Holiday Season!

Make your gift-giving meaningful and easy this year!

Tilting Toward Chaos: Finding Calm in the Midst of Change 

is now available as both a Kindle Edition e-book (also downloadable on iPads) and a printed edition on Blurb.

•  Go to Amazon for the Kindle edition  •  Go to Blurb for the printed version  

 

Finding Calm in the Midst of Family

Today’s blog speaks to the upcoming holidays and a bit of perspective for finding calm in the midst of family (or at least a bit more than years past).

This waterfall of thoughts around family started over a week ago when I saw Michael Caine’s latest movie, Last Love. Without giving away the plot, just know it is about family and that heartbreaking stubbornness we humans carry around events and people dear to us.

From my own explorations and experiences, including what I’ve been honored to witness in my coaching practice, a good part of this stubborn behavior comes from how our brains create language and thus, our individual worldview.

In the book Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff coined the term “metaphorical concept” to explain a piece of this early language formation. “Metaphors are learned when two experiences occur at once.” When a child is hugged by a parent, neurons fire off in the brain because the child is experiencing something. Called “neuronal activation, this activity occurs simultaneously in two separate areas of the brain: areas devoted to emotion and areas devoted to warmth…creating the conceptual metaphor Affection is Warmth.”

Sadly, not everyone has this experience as children. These emotional/sensory combinations run the gamut from euphoric to horrific. And they become (necessarily though stubbornly) fixed in our brains. These bundles of connections can be activated by your father’s tone of voice, Aunt Lu’s retelling of an embarrassing family story, or the words of a song heard on the way to the family gathering.

Remember there are many different worldviews sitting around your holiday dinner table. Remember there are over 7 billion individual worldviews walking around on Mother Earth.

When I came across this information years ago, I began the slow and constant journey of imagining another’s worldview even as I experienced my own, and learning that however stubbornly fixed, my metaphorical view of things can be changed. It’s not easy—in fact sometimes it feels damn near impossible. It is however, what I consider to be some of the most valuable work we can do.

Some neural connection will most likely light up like a burst of fireworks somewhere between the appetizer course and dessert at one of the many gatherings most of us will attend between now and January. This is the season to be thankful and jolly. There may be times you feel neither among all those jostling viewpoints wanting to be heard. Take heart. As Thomas Moore sagely suggests, ““Slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.” 

Know that finding calm doesn’t mean being passive. It means speaking and acting and being present from a place of clarity (thus knowing how your brain contributes to your view of things and how entrenched that view can be), and having compassion for others and yourself (wow, it’s a lot of work to separate the past from the present). With clarity and compassion walking alongside, you can make a beneficial choice—discerning and sensing what “slight shift of imagination” will add connection and light to a situation (often it’s the small gestures: an acknowledgment, or offer to help).

Sometimes with hectic holiday schedules and the accompanying stresses, understanding you will be disappointing someone close to you is a choice—one that comes from being kind to yourself. It’s the kindness of not pushing yourself beyond what you are truly capable of in the moment. It is rarely, if ever possible to love and accommodate everyone every minute of every day; we can however practice an “attitude of goodwill,” what Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes as “wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.”

While sitting between your new sister-in-law and your cousin and across from your mother, your brother’s two-year old stuffing your shoe with crackers under the table, wish them all goodwill. Remember the truly funny things that have happened in your years together—the stories just might save you from indigestion. Be grateful that family exists; therefore you exist. Otherwise your unique worldview would not grace the table. And that would be a terrible missing.

If goodwill were a dessert, what would it taste like? 

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Share a Bit of Calm this Holiday Season!

nancygshapiro_bookMake your gift-giving meaningful and easy this year! Tilting Toward Chaos: Finding Calm in the Midst of Change is now available as both a Kindle Edition e-book (also downloadable on iPads) and as a printed edition on Blurb.

•  Go to Amazon for the Kindle edition  •  Go to Blurb for the printed version  

 

Calming the Anxious Brain

Commensals_cattle_egrets_flying_Costa_Rica_DP195Some days go wonky, no matter the plans or intentions, and wonkier still when our brain becomes anxious. On a recent trip to Oaxaca with friends, in search of a village that was on our “must see” list, there were no signs to point the way. After a few u-turns and grumblings from the back seat, some friendly pointing sent us in the right direction to the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. We spent two awe-filled hours exploring the renovated factory-turned-ecological art center.

On the road again, headed to Mexico City, the keys locked themselves in the car at a gas station (yes, the lockout was a mystery so the keys did it). An elderly couple offered a ride to the nearest “locksmith,” who showed up about twenty minutes later with two screwdrivers and a long metal rod bent at both ends. It wasn’t AAA, and we cringed every time the metal chipped paint or scratched the interior, yet oh, was it a good feeling to get in the car again.

Then, the clouds rolled in darkly. Followed by tons of water falling, so fast and hard driving was near impossible. Gas was running low and bladders were full. A quick restroom stop and some coffee for the driver and navigator got us back on the road.

Day was quickly turning the corner toward dusk. Anxiety about driving in the dark through the maze of Mexico City was palpable in the car. Slowly the rain lessened, and light seeped through the clouds. Staring out the window I saw a volcano, its barely visible top wreathed in wisps of clouds. Some egrets flew across the wet gray green of a field. Words starting whispering in my head. I opened the Notes app on my phone, and instead of whining, nagging or adding to the stress, I wrote a haiku:

White egrets fly through / rain—gray clouds drape over a / hidden volcano

The anxious, flight-or-fight-activated brain is calmed by short, rhythmic, resonant phrases. In other words, writing or reciting poetry and poetic phrases can keep a person calm during times of stress.

Try it, and let me know how your day became calmer.

 

Photograph ©Dan L. Perlman/EcoLibrary.org

Becoming Reacquainted with the Language of Love

dancing-feet…the way this bird swoops from an alcove out into the light, the way no one notices but a small child who stops and points—it all reminds me of the day we met. Something flew out of you and I was stunned that something in me flew out to meet it…” -Mark Nepo

These days I am falling in love over and over again by taking dance lessons with my husband. This has required that I allow him to be the ‘leader’ no matter what (!), that I wear high-heeled shoes when flip-flops and flat soles are my norm, and most of all, this constant letting go of a fearful “not knowing” as I’m led around the dance floor—oftentimes backwards and blindly. Trust is the word that swirls around my head during the ‘sore toe’ moments, aching joints, and near collisions.

On the other side of the challenges, we both revel in the feeling when we move together as one, when we bodily remember these new steps, this new language of music and physicality and rhythm. It is great exercise, loads of fun, and good for our brains as we stretch into something so unfamiliar.

Mostly it is romantic, a reminder of all that has been—and continues to be good in our relationship of twenty years. When I read Mark Nepo’s poem a few days ago, I smiled in recognition at his words – “something…flew out of you…and something in me flew out to meet it.” Dancing brings me to this place often now, a re-acquaintance with love’s capacity to grow above and beyond any first “stunned” meeting. It’s a place I am savoring, and craving, for all it’s worth.

What love are you dancing towards, however bruised and blind you may feel?

 

Photograph found on Discordia Zine