My Table In the Town Square: Why I’m OK with being a blogger now

The internet is, quite simply, the new town square. Nothing more and nothing less, and in that square, there are utter idiots yelling at the tops of their lungs about crap, but there are small tables surrounded by people having true, powerful discourse. There are people handing out pamphlets. People on soap boxes. And then there are people strolling through, feeling a bit more alive, a bit more connected just by observing.

BlissChick has unwittingly become my muse of late. The above is her comment on yesterday’s post about self promotion, the strange necessity that we creative types have to come to grips with if we want to be heard about the chattering crowd.

Photo by Nathan Berry
Prague Square by Nathan Berry

She paints such a brilliant picture – I can see myself in this square. I want to be one of those people sitting at one of those tables, engaged in the sorts of conversations that change lives. The talk would be so brilliant that my companions and I can tune out the blowhards and the fear mongers and the endless trails of paparazzi fueled gossip.

At the same time, I remember thinking that this is a great metaphor, but I’ve never been a part of a town square like that, at least not in this country. In Europe I think I have been one of those passersby, enlivened by watching the locals acting out their lives in one of those bustling public spaces. Here in the States, however, those town squares, if they exist at all, may fill up for the Fourth of July parade, but otherwise remain a little forlorn, no longer the heart of the community.

It seems like the Internet came in to fill a serious void that we may all have been experiencing for quite a while. How long has it been since we lived in lively villages where expression and relationship ruled the day?dsc008212 Part of me wonders if those places every really existed, until I recall our friends’ more than idyllic village, Dornburg in eastern Germany. There, it might have become a wee bit claustrophobic, but it was incredible to walk the narrow lanes and know that everyone knew everyone else’s name.

Somehow I think I had myself convinced that blogging and all this virtual communication was somehow suspect, that this new means of communication had somehow stamped out a more vivid personal set of interactions. I worried that it was a pale facsimile of something better and more pure that once existed before. In fact, the ways that people communicate has always been in flux and rather than being the destructive force, the Internet gives us new ways to talk to each other that never would have been possible in the confines of a tiny town square. (I never read this book, but the title comes to mind when I start dipping into the topic of isolation and disconnection in American society.)

I know that none of these are new revelations, but one of the main functions of this this blog is help me really understand what might have seemed so obvious but which needed closer examination so that I could truly know. After months of writing in this space it is probably strange that I am only coming to peace with this practice now, but I suppose everything has to blossom and take root in its own time.

What can we do to make the conversations that we have on these far-flung flickering screens come to life in our offline worlds? How can we breath life into all of the community spaces we inhabit?

Yoga as Metaphor, Suffering as Reality

It was one of those unexpectedly commitment-free rainy Saturdays, and I spent much of the day at the computer, mostly dodging work on my novel. Eventually I willed my way through one of Elsie’s yoga podcasts and though there were a couple of shining moments of bliss as I unfurled cramped muscles and remembered the strength of my shoulders, most of my practice was like wading through a personal hell. Marisa over at Creative Thursday talks about whether blogs are “too nicey nicey” and lacking in honesty. Here’s an honest confession: sometimes yoga is not a beautiful affirmation of what it is to be an aware being, sometimes it is just a miserable parade of all of the body’s limitations, the otherwise hidden aches of ligaments and sinews. Sometimes it is like lifting lead weights with nothing but balsa wood bones. Sometimes you cringe at unsightly flesh you never imagine bulged in hidden places and are haunted by memories while you lie prone in pigeon pose. Oh yes, sometimes yoga is transcendence, but how can I talk of it’s solace unless I admit to its torture?

Of course, countless teachers have talked about how yoga is mat-bound metaphor for the rest of life, so mine is not a fresh epiphany. Like so many of the realizations I record on these pages, however, this bit of wisdom didn’t become reality until I actually groaned my way through another miserable bid at a well formed chattaranga. If I am going to apply the lesson that the mat is a microcosm of existence beyond the relative safety of asana, then I must come to the recognition that, despite our noble dreams, sometimes life is truly suffering.

Perfectly illustrating this realizations of the life’s vicissitudes, I came across Bono’s speech to the California Women’s Conference in which he talked about his work with The ONE Campaign and their bid to eliminate global poverty, hunger, and disease. I found his entreaty that we not only care about what is happening to the people of Africa, but to actually do something to be deeply affecting. He closed with “America: We are asking you to help put humanity back on this Earth.”

My struggle on the yoga mat not only made me receptive to the devastating reality that half the world lives on $2.50 per day, but also reminded me how difficult it is to understand true, base need from the middle of a cozy weekend when I berate myself for too many trips to the fridge. To compare the crippling nature of my privilege or a lousy yoga session to the reality of starvation is irresponsible and detestable, and I do not dare to tread on such territory. I only remark on how it is challenging to understand the sheer scale of deprivation and decide how to react to it in a more active fashion than lending my name to another petition.

The revolution that we need will undoubtedly start from within.  Still, I must ask: when must your focus on the internal work expand beyond the borders of your own mind and daily experience to allow yourself to be so affected by the plight of others that it is no longer enough just to pray, but becomes necessary to act?

I think that’s a rhetorical question.

Wise Woman Working

When faced with the impossible problem of what I want to be when I grow up or who I want to be for the next twenty minutes I often panic at the multiplicity of options. Sometimes I am crushed when I realize that whatever path I choose will inevitably eliminate a host of other equally attractive, urgent possibilities. So often I become completely mired in all that I cannot do; I just freeze up and let the night dissolve into television for fear I might waste time chasing after the wrong star. I suppose this is one reason why many passionate people who really want to affect positive change end up being stymied by the weight of their own potential. The vastness of the universe, with all of its beauty and ugliness, is devastating in its scale and the abilities of one person seem laughably inconsequential.

Of all the causes that call to me but do not seem to fit into a single lifetime, I think I have finally distilled my raison d’être to one articulable goal: I want to be a wise, wise woman.

For some time I have been sitting behind my eyes, watching as I move through the world, keeping an inner score card. My awareness has been heightened and I surf from epiphany to epiphany, so often conscious of this phenomenal world with its limitless possibilities. But I constantly find myself forgetting all I know about the life of the soul and the love of the Divine and the power of healing. The epiphanies all turn to dust as I find it impossible to practice all that I know when I am confronted with another unenlightened day at work or a quiet night when I am too tired to think.

And so I am ready to introduce a second stage to all of this shouting about revelations: it is time for Wise Woman Working. The pursuit of wisdom seems a relentless one that takes dedication and conditioning. At the same time, I think there is a need to let the world pass through you and allow the knowledge to pool at your feet, but I think that certain groundwork must be laid first. All those books I have read, all the classes and seminars I have attended – their brilliance dulls and I just find myself becoming an enlightenment junkie dying for a new hit. Wise Woman Working is about practicing what I have heard preached and letting all those lessons marinate until they are not airy-fairy icing, but the real sustenance one can build a life upon. It is about living through these flashes of insight and distilling them to their essential stuff so that I can blossom into being that wise, wise woman who contributes something to this miraculous, fucked up world.

Because the Ego is a Fragile Thing I Have to Waste

I started blogging a year ago as a result of one of those allegedly profound conversations in which, yet again, I experienced the ultimate breakthrough and uncovered an enlightened new relationship with Self and the Divine, and pretty much the entire planet.

Wryly, I scoffed to my friend, “Listen to me! I’m the girl who cried epiphany! Why do you even listen to all this narcissistic drivel?” And so I started committing these thoughts to writing and explored a public voice.

Then I stopped posting because my obsession with whether anyone was reading seemed unhealthy, I started writing fiction again, and it didn’t seem that inspired spiritual progression should invite voyeurism. Now, six months later, I think I have found my way back to the original purpose of these pages – to name those little epiphanies, both pedestrian and profound, that inform and spice this business of living, and could, with a bit of attention and intention, lead to an expansion of consciousness.

This need to start writing here again came to me today while I sat through a conference of librarians. I had organized the event, yet sat at the periphery because I am not really one of them, but instead a creature who lacks the information science credentials, and, frankly, the interest to truly engage in the conversation. For two days, I had been trying to explain to the participants my role in the college library at which I work – I’m a professional with an assistant of my own and I do actual intellectual work when I am not worrying about caterers and janitors’ schedules, honest! When I took a moment to listen to myself I realized that the lady really did protest too much. I balked at the fragility of my ego, that I had to allude to the novel I am writing and my graduate work in Ireland and actually say “yeah, but I am not actually a secretary.” See, I even had to include my credentials here so that my readers will realize that I am not just some hack whining about her day job!

My difficulties with position and title have plagued me for years both in the professional and existential sense. I think I am finally in the place where I can admit the tyranny of this need to prove myself and the longing for a ready-made description of who I am. Of course, being able to recognize that this brittle shell of identity I feel compelled to defend and describe is light years from my true self is only the smallest of initial steps. Still, it was epiphany enough to stop and hear my story as it spiraled from my lips and realize that the tale I was telling had nothing to do with me.

After such silence, I certainly have not begun to fulfill the mission of what this blog was meant to do, but perhaps remembering the long, arduous process of self expression is revelation enough for one evening.

The Revolution of Compassion and Other Impossible Feats

Visiting my parents this weekend, I was greeted by a black lab who couldn’t contain her joy, Mom’s cooking, and a pile of junk mail from the various progressive organizations that will continue to have my childhood address on file until I retire. Eyes half open after the late night four hour drive from New York to the Cape, I flipped through the envelopes from NOW and Ms. Magazine and the Sierra Club. There was a small promotional booklet from The Sun, a magazine to which I had once subscribed with the best of intentions (I think there is a small unread stack in a closet somewhere).

The first thing I read was an excerpt of an interview with a fellow by the last name of Edwards in which he said:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people. […] Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”

As I said, I was exhausted and we had been listening to campaign coverage for most of the ride. I got into bed wondering why I never realized that John Edwards was such an amazing person, not just some guy who seemed to mention being the son of a mill worker more often than was necessarily interesting or sincere. The next morning, I was ready to read my mother this quote and tell her that we must have really missed something when it came to this man’s campaign. I was ready to bemoan the fact our country was just too taken with special interests and big money politics. I was ready to think that “Yes we can!” was an empty slogan compared to someone who talked about finding freedom through renouncing greed.

Before I started a rumor that virtue was still valued over power somewhere on the national scene, I realized this interview was with a guy named David Edwards. The passage was from a June 2000 interview with a British writer who had walked away from his corporate destiny and began to dedicate himself to “spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions.” Please do check out the piece – I think he just blew my mind a little, but it will take a a little time to let those ideas (all of which I had probably heard before) fall into the shape of an epiphany.

Am I suffering the pangs of cruel disillusionment when I realize that the words above really probably could not come from the mouth of an individual as firmly entrenched in the political machine as an American presidential candidate? Does it just figure that something I found so simple, true, and insightful comes from a man thought mad because he gave up so many of the accustomed Western privileges and luxuries? Am I saddened that countless people whom I love would shake their heads at my quaint, bleeding heart liberal, idealism should I bring one of his books along on vacation?

It is just becoming alarmingly clear that the sort of vision that appeals to me, that seems the only correct, possible way to be a human being in the 21st century is neither easy nor popular. It scares me to realize that I might be ready to accept that challenge. Almost as much as it scares me that I will not.

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

Journeying Under the Cloak of Epiphany

As one might expect, my blog has been coming up on a lot of people’s Google searches and the like since today is the Feast of the Epiphany. I hope that a few people were not disappointed to find that my sorts of epiphanies include Rumi and Irish poetry and talk of global warming and will venture back here even after January 6. Truth be told, my knowledge of this date on the Christian calendar is limited to my Nanna’s tradition of giving us a little gift and taking down the tree on this day.

I wished that this day upon which Christians celebrate the revelation of the one they considered to be infant savior to the Magi, Christ’s baptism, as well Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana seemed to offer more epiphanies to me. On this day at home we were taken with dogsitting for my folks’ wonderful fool of a black lab, Saoirse, and with discussing the shape of our lives in the year(s) to come. Undoubtedly we were planting seeds for eventual bursts of wisdom, but it seemed to simply be a day of snow melt and the sense of standing at the beginning – or perhaps the middle – of a great transitional state.

* * *

In the last moments of daylight I took the dog for a walk, the sense of feeling largely bereft of epiphanies heavy my mind. Instantly I was grateful for the excuse to walk the soft snow in the gloaming, the path glowing white through the gathering gloom. It was yet another moment of deep recollection, the glory there is to be found when disconnected from flickering screens and long lines of words, the uncharted space in my head beyond recorded language that longs to be explored. A body kept bound by obligation and injury and forbidding weather remembered what it was to move, to feel an expansion across her shoulders, an opening of her heart from an unexpected place in the middle of her back.

The sky was neither iron nor pewter – none of those usual winter words to describe these dense clouds that seemed to glow from a place deep within as the snow reflected back the last of the dying light. It was infinitely softer, a sweeter canopy over this temporary thaw. The first image that occurred to me was that the world was lying beneath a great wizard’s cloak – a magical garment made of sun and snow and atmosphere in silver and gray that hinted at blues and pinks and a place beyond color. Then I recalled that there are in fact three wizards abroad this day: the three magicians, the Wise Men of the east who were said to have followed a star that must have glinted like an even more mysterious prism than this northern evening ever could.

After toying with whispers of despair as I felt this day to be devoid of concrete promise, lacking the sort of thoughts and realizations worth committing to a page, it seemed that hope refused to be denied. A day about which I assumed I knew so little, whose name I have used so liberally revealed itself to me in a symbol that enveloped my entire world. I am left to understand the constant, universal journey toward Epiphany.

Believing, Questioning, Knowing

PEI goldI risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.

The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.

The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.

Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.

Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.

But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.

In the Pocket of a Seashell

Ruaidhri ArtOnly a Cape Cod girl like me could find great liberation in visualizing herself as a mollusk, but at yoga class this morning that image brought me pure bliss.

This week I have been trying to sort out the proper responses to the people and events in my life. The unexamined bits of myself that constitute the mask I so often show the world thrives upon reacting to everyone who looks at me cross eyed or treats me like a secretary. I feel entitled to my (un)righteous rage and revel in the version of me that is stereotypically fiery and red-haired and well-soaked in sarcasm. At the same time, I think of Stephen Cope‘s measured voice describing one of the basic tenants of yoga, letting experience roll through me like a wave, not reacting, but simply being present in the world. I return to the former set of responses again and again because I am afraid that embracing this nonreactive sense of self will obliterate the me that has taken 28 years to cultivate; my negativity may not be something I am proud of, but it is mine, and I will be damned if I am going to trade my identity to be some vessel through which life just passes.

Today, however, I realized that there really is nothing wrong with letting life flow through me, because that has nothing to do with life passing me by. In fact, it may be just the opposite since I can actually enjoy the world and see it fully instead of losing precious time composing scathing comebacks for the next time someone crosses me.

My teacher was describing ahimsa: living without harming or living the practice of universal love. I have always loved the music of the word and have invoked it often when I am trying to avoid cursing my body for its inability to conform to my will (or the confines of my jeans). Somehow the word had new resonance this morning and it conjured the ocean for me, Cope’s waves of experience rolling in and out, a constant opportunity for renewal.

My relationship to mussels and clams and conchs, those amazing, simple creatures who filter the waters of our shoreline and then litter the sand with their abandoned homes, has largely been quite the opposite of ahimsa. Making a meal of something or collecting its remains to adorn my windowsills may be an odd way to embody “selfless service.” This perspective changed when suddenly the absolute simplicity if their existence – pulling water through for nutrients it can provide, allowing the ocean to pass ever through them – was my moving metaphor as I gave myself over Close up of shell treeto my asana practice more fully than I have in some time. I just felt cleansed as I allowed the sea to flow through me, as I allowed my life to flow through me.

Somehow this image feels so renewable, something that I can recall and that can resonate at any moment of my life just as I can always carry a seashell in my pocket.

Discovering the Space Beyond the Silence

Long Beach treeMany months ago, before this whole unfurling of epiphanies began in earnest, I was rocked with uncertainties over something or other, or probably about everything, more likely. I read my tarot cards, I stared beseechingly up to the sky, I read a text about the Goddess that was full of footnotes. I just felt like I was trapped in the maelstrom of my own psychology.

There have been a few times in my life when a voice outside of all that I know has spoken to me. Once, it said “he’s not the one.” (I could regret not listening to that one, but the two years of kidding myself in the particular relationship that followed got me here, with someone who actually is “the one.”) This particular day in question, I heard as clear as the winter air outside my windowpane “Why don’t you ask the Goddess?” In my journal I simply wrote: SILENCE.

Ask the Goddess? I’m sorry, but I really wouldn’t want to trouble her, and there would be so many candles to light, and really, what is there to say that I have not already shouted a million times into the inside of my own skull? It was at that moment I realized the relative emptiness of the self-proscribed path I had chosen to study. And by “study” I do not mean in the way that one studies Talmud or even tea leaves, but in the way that one studies the periodic table or Shakespeare. I was reasonably certain there would be a test (not of the type that gets you through a set of heavenly gates or anything, more like the sort that proves you are intelligent and witty in a bar).

I want to wrap that lost version of myself in the enveloping soul I have discovered has always been here. I want to make sure that the me from last year understands that she can ask the Goddess whatever she needs to, and if she wants, she doesn’t even have to assign a gender to the divine.

Why do I write a post about something as intimate as the understanding that, when I address an entity outside myself, I feel like there is a sensitive power in the universe? This is not the sort of declaration I feel particularly comfortable with and I don’t think I am trying to vaunt my own spiritual development as another thing I have “achieved” (at least I hope I am a little better at transcending my ego). In part, it must be that this quiet realization that barely resides in the world of the explicable means that, when confronted with the chaos that is waking up in the morning, I find there is a force beyond the void of my own fear and questions. If I am to continue spiraling through epiphanies and trying to pin them to page, I must establish this new sense of something greater as my truth. The path I am beginning to travel now is still determined by instinct, and luck, and what I hope are occasional flashes of authentic vision, but that emptiness, that silence, is a memory as I begin to try to understand the hum that is the energy that binds us all.