Here on the U.S. West Coast, we’ve had a tough week. Fires raging, and the whole coast socked in smoke. With hazardous air quality outside, my life has gone from stay-at-home to stay-inside-the-home. Even some favorite strategies for de-stressing, like long walks in nature or exercising, have been put on the “hazardous” list.
Anyone for a rousing chorus of “Too Much?”
Times like this call for more resilience than ever, especially if we suffered loss, were already at the end of our ropes because of Covid, or felt our hearts break because of the suffering of others.
Times like this invite me to find an inner fire to help me counter what is burning outside.
Times like this persuade me to focus on what I’m passionate about, find some good music (see below), play with art, and love what I do.
All part of my spirit building program.
Beyond the “I don’t dos” and “I can’ts.”
You may remember reading that, until a few months ago, I lived life adamantly proclaiming, “I don’t do art.” (I should be more careful–I used to say, “I don’t garden.”)
I still don’t “do art” from the perspective of making “good” art, or “view-worthy” art or “she-knows-what-she’s-doing” art.
If art is only what is art in someone else’s eyes, I’ll dial myself out.
But if it’s about exploring and observing, and playing with colors, textures, lines, and papers, I’m in.
In teaching her approach to awakening consciousness through art, Dana has worked with hundreds of people who have some version of my “I can’t do” story. The reasons vary. Perhaps someone’s drawing was laughed at (“What is that???”) disparaged, criticized or mocked. Maybe they were told they would never be “good enough.” Or were “not talented.” Perhaps they felt compared to others, badly.
They may even have gone to art school, only to have the native joy in what they were creating knocked out of them.
Unfortunately, the same happens with music, where children believe “I can’t carry a tune,” and know they can’t dance because they believe “I’m a clutz.”
We’re not all designed to earn a living making art professionally. I’m not concerned with that.
When we focus on the process of expression rather than impression, we’re all qualified to be artists.
If you can speak, your words already carry song. If you can move, you can dance. And if you can wiggle your fingers across a page, as I once did fingerpainting, you can make art.
Following our passion to create opens the door to more awareness, more consciousness, and wider eyes to possibilities, whether we’re making art. repairing cars, playing music, or organizing in our communities.
We’re about transforming, not performing
I interviewed Dana for a podcast in December and was so impressed that I decided, gulp, to take a course with her. She usually teaches in Assisi, Italy, but because of the pandemic, she now also teaches online. I was able to experience the magic of her method from my dining room table-turned art studio.
For some, creativity, including the arts and more, is considered frivolous, or an accessory to the real stuff we do.
For Dana, art and expressing ourselves creatively is about inventing the future and healing the world.
“In perilous times we need precisely what the arts have to give; the capacity for profound insight, generative creative possibility, expanded vision, epiphany, and revelation. We need our prophets and visionaries, our artists and troubadours, seers and mystics. We can no longer afford a shallow and superficial kind of art. For decades the Arts have pursued the ‘cutting edge’, a mercurial periphery of fashion and fad. The arts, hijacked by materialism and nihilism, must rise from these ashes to re-inhabit the spaciousness of the soul – a territory alone sufficient to meet the pressing needs of our time.”
Breaking the habit
I’m still challenged to break my mental habit of thinking that there’s a right way to do things or that I should know what I am doing in order to make art.
Fortunately, when I take Dana’s classes on Zoom, I can’t cheat and see what the people around me are doing. All I can do is allow myself to move (we start with movement and meditation) and keep feeling where my inner impulse wants to take me.
I might make “a mess.” But in doing so, I will have surrendered to the process of exploring. I will have followed my passion. I will have nurtured the fire within.
Letting (healthy) passions feed us in difficult times.
I don’t really need to tell you what a challenging year this has been. More and more, I’m left with the question, what will feed me even in the most difficult times?
How can I let my creative spirit grow even when it’s burning out there?
I’ve been in rich conversations recently about how life has been changed by the pandemic. The question, “How am I doing?” is almost impossible to answer.
Much of the time, I feel so radically alive, and creative, gobsmacked by wonder walking around the farm and watching the winged whirlygig seeds on a Japanese maple preparing to take off.
At the same time, I sometimes feel a bleakness, a profound worry, as I think about how to stop the tide of evil showing up in the world. Some days, I feel like I’m watching a movie where the bad guys have the upper hand and are out to destroy everything.
The strange thing is that I can go from feeling a spiritual opening/creative aliveness to bleak despair within a period of a few hours!
One of my colleagues offered me the image of feeling like Tinker Bell, the feisty faerie from Peter Pan, whose light keptgetting dimmer and dimmer.
In the musical, Peter, panicking, knows that the only thing that can save Tinkier Bell is the children of the world letting her know that they believe in faeries.
Peter turns to the audience and pleads, “Do you believe?”
In a famous line near the end of Peter Pan, Peter begs the audience, “Clap, if you believe in faeries. Clap and she’ll hear you. Don’t let Tink die!”
Of course, you know what happens. Tinker Bell hears the clapping and the light fills up the little faerie.
I feel that way with my friends. When one of our lights dims, its like a cry, “Help me believe that the good will prevail. Help me believe that there’s hope.”
Sometimes it takes others to help us remember that despite the darkness in the world, there is plenty of light.
We do that for each other.
We need to be clapping
Faeries are probably doing fine these days despite the pandemic–I’ve heard of no reported cases of faeries with Covid-19–but I’m worried for us humans. When do we step out from behind the masks of our self-absorption and reveal more of the good within our nature?
Let’s start clapping loudly for the good, kind, selfless, and noble. For compassion. For a commitment to truth. For bravery to speak up when another is at risk. For anything that uplifts and makes us proud to be human.
I’ve found myself crying at small signs of goodness, (It’s one way I clap.)
I cry when I watch a film showing Michelle Obama sharing wisdom with a group of inner-city children. I cry when I watch a video of John Lewis walking with President Obama, crossing the bridge where Lewis was beaten in Selma, Alabama, and hearing his words.
I cry when I hear a child with a stutter talk about how Joe Biden stopped to talk with him and gave him hope. I cry reading Fr. Gregory Boyle, of Homeboy Industries, describe working with gang members. I cry when I hear about people who’ve faced adversity and turned their lives around, or an ALS patient dedicates himself to helping others dying with ALS.
It seems strange that the smallest good deed sparks my tears. But I’m so hungry. Hungry to remember that which is good in others (and in faeries). Hungry to believe.
The dimming light today isn’t about Tinker Bell or faeries. The future is in peril, the US elections at risk, the environment hanging in the balance.
I know the embers of good, truth, and love are out there. I want to fan them into flames (no wildfires!) by giving them my attention. I want to be in the world looking for where I can clap.
I clap for stories that bring hope. I cry for moments when good breaks through darkness.
I’ll clap for my friends if their light starts to dim.
Clap if you believe
Peter asked us to believe.
Our inner light is precious. We can’t let it dim.
What gives you hope? What feeds your light? I’ll clap for that.
Maybe Peter Pan could offer us a new challenge:
“Do you believe in what is good, precious, and true in people and in life? Clap if you do.”
Then sit still for a moment and listen to the echoes coming back to you.
We’ve been through a lot recently–no need to remind you of that. You deserve to take a deep pause to breathe and a second one to just enjoy. You might take in a whiff of spring, so alive right now in my garden. If you missed recent posts, I’ll share references below.
But first, something so amazingly cool you don’t want to miss it, a chamber music concert in the Barcelona Opera House for two thousand plus plants, As reported in this Huff Post article:
“Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu opened to a full house on Monday for its first concert since it closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet not a single person had tickets — and that’s because each one of the hall’s 2,292 seats was occupied by a houseplant. The event was the work of conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia.”
I watched a charming video this week, one of those lift-you-up-in-the-storm pieces, about a man, Stjepan Vokic, in Croatia, who has spent the past two decades taking care of a wounded stork. He fishes for her, builds nests, and cheers when her long time mate returns each year from the south, having eluded the poachers. By now, Vokic and the bird have celebrity status; their story has helped build the case against stork poaching. But it didn’t start out that way. Vokic was just a guy who became devoted to a stork in need.
Devotion, for me, is a magic word. Yes, there are people who would question why anyone would commit that much time and resources to a stork. But there are also plenty of us crazy animal lovers who can easily understand.
Devotion changes the world. And, as I discovered this week, the object of your devotion doesn’t even have to be alive or animate.
Rekindling an old friendship
The piano played a big part in my life for twelve years when I was growing up. Despite some ups and downs and other activities, I was pretty faithful to my upright instrument. But, as in all relationships, stuff happens. In my case I went to a liberal arts college with a great conservatory of music. I had to audition to be able to take lessons in the official program, and, not surprisingly, I didn’t meet the grade. I was devastated. Disheartened, I tried playing for a bit, then stopped.
It was only when I settled in Seattle fifteen years later that I realized how, for me, a home wasn’t really a home without a piano, and I bought one. When my career began to take off and I started a doctoral program, my piano had to wait on the sidelines. Soon it was spending most of its time alone.
The piano went from being a living piece of my life to an object, from a friend to a piece of furniture. We became like those buddies whom you only hear from at Christmas. (I played carols once a year.)
Fast forward thirty years. The piano sat unappreciated and often dusty as bits of country dirt flew in through our windows and coated the keys. Last year, my husband and I had it tuned. Then, once again, it sat unplayed.
A hidden gift from the pandemic
Enter the shelter-in-place pandemic that has felt to me like a global tragedy, a national disgrace, and a stay-cation.
The piano started calling me. Truth is, I have to credit my friend Sara who captivated me with her tale of learning to play the cello in her 60’s. Hearing her talk about her love of music and her beautiful instrument made me swoon and regret that I had abandoned my keyboard.
One afternoon, when my husband was away, I inched my way to the keyboard. “I’ll only play five minutes,” I told myself, knowing how quickly my back could object to being asked to sit up straight. I picked up the book of Hanon finger exercises I had used as a seven-year-old and started playing, my fingers stiff with disuse. Then I attempted to read a simple song.
My husband, after hearing about my adventure, assured me that he likes to hear me play (gulp) and there was no need to sneak. The door to playing again was opened wide. Fortunately, the piano welcomed me back. Now it talks to me when I walk around the house, inviting me to come over for a brief visit even when I’m getting ready for bed.
It’s humbling to start over and feel like I’m at the beginning of my piano studies again. Still, even the simplest Chopin can make my heart melt.
My devotion has returned. And here’s where I’ll dare to sound strange.
The piano is no longer an inanimate object to me, an “it.” Now that we’re back in relationship, I sense that it’s alive, with its own energetic qualities. I tell it “hello” and “thank you,” as I might a partner, knowing that the piano is already changing my life.
I still have healing to do. Old patterns of tension are set pretty deeply into my body, and I tend to wince after every mistake.
But in a long-term relationship to which you are devoted, healing can happen and so can wonder. I’m giddy to have music back in my life in this way.
What we are devoted to changes us. I’m sure that Stjepan Vokic would tell you that his stork, Malena, changed his life.
This week, the cherry tree began its two week run of glory, set against a backdrop of near perfect Seattle weather. The peony stalks started shooting towards the sky, in anticipation of their upcoming starring role in May’s garden.
This week, I was shaken by bad news about a close friend’s cancer. And the pandemic continues to leave tragedies in its wake.
Ecstasy and agony come bundled together. My heart needs to expand to hold it all. It’s a good time for a pause.
In case you missed the last posts, tailored to these times:
In Finding the art of the “new normal,” I wrote about how we sometimes need to retreat to take care of ourselves, and how we can enhance life by looking for the art and beauty in the ordinary that surrounds us.
Anxiety is hovering in the air, like a cloud that might let loose with a storm of bad news at any moment. How can you protect yourself if a torrent of anxiety threatens to fall? I experienced one last week, and I used some very simple steps described below to calm and ground myself.
When my anxiety heightens, I may look the same to others (you can hide a lot on Zoom), but I know that I’m fuzzy-brained, can’t concentrate, and my innards are all stirred up. I feel weighed down and have trouble doing anything useful.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with such feelings these days.
If this hasn’t happened to you, feel blessed, but someday you may need to help someone climb down from a tree of panic. We all need to stay grounded during an emergency.
Greg Crosby, a health behaviorist currently consulting to governments around the world on behavioral responses to COVID-19, shared the simple research-based protocol (below) for grounding if high anxiety or trauma has been triggered.
Help when I needed it
After college, I spent 18 months in Ecuador and loved the country. I still do, even noisy, tropical, hot, congested Guayaquil, where I lived. Recently, when my husband asked, “Have you heard what’s happening in Ecuador?” I was worried.
Rightly so. A Washington Post article described Guayaquil as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Latin America, where life is like a dystopian horror show. Their struggling public health care system has reached its limit. The city can’t deal with the corpses. Can you imagine having to stay inside a 90-degree apartment with a corpse in the room? People are dragging bodies into the streets, where they may lay, rotting, for days.
OMG, I thought, as prepared for bed. Is this what’s ahead for other developing countries? Good-bye, quiet snooze. I slept fitfully that night, waking multiple times. The next morning, my anxiety heightened, I road-tested the following grounding exercises.
Grounding: A way to begin
When I want to calm in meditation I focus on three elements:1) Ground, (feeling my weight in a chair or on the floor); 2) Sound (becoming aware of the sounds in my environment): and 3) Breath. (Deep breathing). Listening for sounds is especially helpful when my mind is on over-drive.
However, meditation isn’t recommended, at least at first, if someone is severely anxious, panicked, or re-traumatized. Neither is trying to reason with them. Once the brain’s amygdala is on fire, it’s too late for a reasonable conversation. The first step needed is to help the mind “constructively-detach” from the panic-provoking situation.
First, do deep belly breathing. Then follow this sequence to offer your worried mind something to focus on other than what has it concerned. You’ll start with the mind, then the body, and then feelings. The order is essential.
In a pinch, you can do all of this in less than five minutes, which makes the technique helpful in an emergency.
Mental Grounding exercises.
Notice a color in the environment: for example, how many instances of blue can you find?
Count books, windows, chairs, curtains, or books in a room.
Make a list of all the songs, cities, animals, or TV shows you can think of.
Do some simple math like 50 minus 2. Take your answer and subtract 2 again. Keep going. It is okay to get it wrong.
Say each letter in a sentence. Read the sentence backward letter by letter.
Describe in detail an everyday activity such as a meal you cooked. Explain the sequence: take out ingredients, boil water, chop food, start to fry, etc.
Wiggle your toes
Run cool or warm water on your hands.
Touch objects and notice if they are rough, smooth, warm, or cold. Compare two objects, such as a glass and a fork.
Dig your heels into the floor.
Breathe from your belly.
Touch a pet or stuffed animal.
Soothing grounding. Calm and soothe your feelings by evoking pleasant memories, sensations, and imagery.
For example, think of a:
Soothing time of day
Soothing season of the year
After grounding, notice how you feel so that you can return to that sense if a bolt of anxiety hits again.
The grounding system was designed for acute situations. I hope you never panic or need it. But it’s good to be prepared and you might be able to help someone else.
Think of it as a “Behavioral Emergency Kit,” to have just in case.
Beyond that, there are many ways to support ourselves to stay positive as we shelter at home. Click here or here.
Here’s one more. I’m enjoying the “good news” Youtube channel created by John Krasinski of The Office fame. In response to a little girl who was upset that she’d be missing seeing Hamilton, he called upon his buddy Lin-Manuel Miranda. In an act of amazing generosity, Miranda reassembled the cast of the original Hamilton to sing the “Hamilton” song from their homes. Talk about a treat! The look on the girl’s face says it all. The song plays about two-thirds of the way in.